The Modern Language Association cannot shy away from controversy, it can only legislate away politics.
In January, the MLA will consider how to “deal with controversial issues.” That such a discussion is even taking place is an effect of post-politics – the fantasy that public institutions can rise ‘above the fray’ to maintain a universal consensus.
Sidelining ‘controversy’ is part of the post-political agenda. It draws a public/private distinction through a limited vision of professional life. Public culture is reduced to career advancement, while issues of social inequality are considered matters of private concern.
Make no mistake. This is the logic of whiteness. It signals a refusal to acknowledge, let alone contest, a system of unequal racialized power. Post-politics instead promises to bring race to the table only when it benefits everyone (and especially whites). Blackness is coded as divisive, political, and partisan. As such, anti-racist institutional practices are treated as a disruption to an otherwise cooperative organization focused on limited professional interests.
If ‘history is what hurts,’ then the false neutrality of post-politics is a sentimental education in willful negligence. In 1981, the MLA’s general membership passed a strongly worded resolution condemning racist violence. Ratifying each part individually, the MLA urged its members to “(1) Take open stands against racist violence; (2) Reaffirm their support of the admission and retention of large numbers of minority students, and the vigorous hiring and promotion of minority professors; and (3) Include minority authors in literature surveys where appropriate.”
In this light, the American Studies Association’s 2014 decision to support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) of Israel was not monumental, it was spectacular. Spectacular in that its opponents marked it as a radically new low for professionalism. Yet the truth couldn’t be more self-evident: the professional is the political.
The MLA has a choice. It can re-affirm its history – its commitment to openly stand against racist violence. Or it can create a new future where “freedom” means ignorance, “equality” means indeterminacy, and “professional activity” means career advancement.