On Okihiro’s TWS

Blog Home    |     04.20.2017 by     |    


Quite directly Gary Y. Okihiro’ piece touches on Ferguson’s discussion on incorporation and the archive, as an institutional mechanism for exercising power. Okihiro offers thus an explicit example of a power dynamic in which liberation is substituted for a mainstream and celebratory notion of freedom, a concept that is rife in contradictions but that somehow is seldom discussed as such. With the intent to further understand the complexity of those concepts and the contradictions embedded in institutionalized notions of diversity, ethnicity and freedom, and as a way of reflecting on Okihiro’s piece, I present the following anecdote, which perhaps will illustrate how those contradictions are at play, even when one is merely considering public scholarship.

For the past few weeks, I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation with a friend, who happens to teach ethnic studies at a high school in the Los Angeles area. Our conversation has been a combination of his excitement for the emerging field and my pessimistic critique based on a lack of in-depth understanding of what ‘ethnic studies’ is and what it can actually accomplish for high school students. Initially, when my friend first mentioned ethnic studies, I asked: how could ethnic studies be different from… say, Chicano Studies, which is also part of his teaching load?

In part, my question was guided by a desire to know how ethnic studies would challenge identity-specific fields and thus be more receptive, methodologically and structurally, to other forms of insight and to the interests of other groups for whom American academia, and educational system in general, has not yet established a field of study. Implicitly, though, my question was a way of pondering on how ethnic studies can introduce an oppositional element into institutionalized fields and thus push against the celebration of diversity and ethnicity that predominates and becomes particularly useful when requesting grants and fellowships. I was hoping too that ethnic studies could offer a possibility to go beyond structuring education around the desire for symbolic recognition that identity politics offers.

In other words, much like my friend, the idea of ethnic studies lead me think of the possibility of there finally having a proper methodology to teach, learn and work against the glossing over of questions of race, class, and gender that identity politics disregards as persisting realities, even within the social groups benefitting from symbolic public recognition. When reading Gary Y. Okihiro’s piece, then, I realized my hopefulness towards ethnic studies was too unaware and complacent with the institutionalized remnants of “Third World Studies”, and that my initial pessimism was trying to trace the contentious nature of the pluralism that “Third World Liberation movements” proposed. As Okihiro argues, TWS curriculum was envisioned as counter-method to dominant pedagogy, and had as objectives: self-determination and liberation, yet as an attempt, it was quickly swept into the predominant study/celebration of culture, which is often linked to an ideal of peaceful national integration and recognition. Therefore, through Okihiro’s argument, I can certainly draw a connection to Ferguson’s discussion on the principle of incorporation that resides in American institutions, in which there seems to be room for opposing alternatives as a way of placing political and pedagogical projects under the regulatory rubric of institutions such the University.

In making the connection between Okihiro, Furguson and my anecdote, what I am trying to highlight is a yet one more contradiction that is suggested in many of the readings. But to be more specific, I would say that the basic form of that contradiction is the binary: self-determination/institutional-regulation, or the impossibility of holding on to autonomy, while doing ‘public work’ from a university. It seems that ‘public scholarship’ is caught up in that contradiction in the sense that its need and desire to be socially engaged springs from a quest to create the possibility of sociopolitical liberation, yet ‘public scholarship’ for being linked to the regulatory processes of institutions can never entirely deliver on its inherent desire because it lacks the principle of self-determination; its must run its objectives against institutional criteria.

Now, back to my anecdote and Okihiro; in the impossibility of being self-determined, what I perceive as the problem Okihiro discusses in relation to ethnic studies, is that ‘ethnic studies’ stands as a term implying a cluster of self-determined fields, yet since it is an institutional paradigm, what it best accomplishes is an empty notion of unity and it cancels out the possibility of there being a contrastive analysis and forms of critiques across the fields. My basic point here is then to underscore that the Third World Liberation movements proposed a unity, self-determination and liberation, whereas the version of ‘ethic studies’ discussed by Okihiro, and implied in my anecdote, does not seem compatible with those notions, but instead is structured to impede unity as political ideal and working concept.