“We are seeing the reemergence of a white supremacist engagement with science that has always existed, but is finding more traction within the public sphere and media.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Britt Rusert.Rusert is Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. Her book is Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture.
How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Fugitive Science chronicles a vibrant genealogy of black activist and intellectual labor that struggled against the ascendency of scientific racism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but in tracing that story, it also engages with a long history of what I’ve been thinking about as white supremacist science. From the production of racial theories intent on suppressing and negating black freedom before the Civil War to the ascendency of popular and then state-based eugenics later in the century, todaywe are seeing the reemergence of a white supremacist engagement with science that has always existed, but is finding more traction within the public sphere and media. As in the antebellum period, I think we are experiencing a profound paradigm shift around the politics of knowledge (this is, perhaps above all else, what Trump signifies for me), and I hope that Fugitive Sciencemakes it clear that we need to engage with the forms of knowledge production and thinking that people are doing, even when they appear to be “uninformed” or “uneducated.” In other words, from the vantage point of our own moment, it’s easy to dismiss nineteenth-century racial science as ridiculous and groundless “pseudoscience,” but we cannot do so because scientific racism, and the biopolitical sorting of human populations into regimes of disposability through racialization to which it is deeply connected, persists unabated today.
“These kinds of theories feed into forms of disaster capitalism being set into motion by and under the name of our disaster president.”
In this way, Fugitive Science offers insight into the deep and ongoing imbrication among scientific projects, racialized (and always racializing) regimes of dispossession and settler colonialism itself. But it also suggests that the work of a kind of scientific imperialism can be reproduced by people who imagine themselves to be, and in some cases, actually are, at the margins of power. Interestingly, many of the practitioners of antebellum racial science, the so-called American school of ethnology, imagined themselves to be dispossessed, scientific renegades who disidentified from the nation as well as the elitism of academic science. But their writing and broader work still supported and reproduced harmful projects of the racial state. Similarly, today, we might think about how climate change denial, the resurging support for Charles Murray’s racist and classist IQ theories and similar ideas seem to be part of a fringe movement, but are actually being given voice and space on a national level, as a way to give lip service to a particular voter base, but also to legitimate forms of state violence and capitalist exploitation under Trump. And I’m increasingly interested in how these kinds of theories feed into forms of disaster capitalism being set into motion by and under the name of our disaster president (I’m thinking here, for example, about the bald theories of race and racism that buttress a range of late capitalist dispossessions, from the forms of profit-driven policing and debt that Jackie Wang discusses in Carceral Capitalism to the last frontiers of environmental enclosure/segregation and ransacking of resources on indigenous lands).
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I really think of the book as a usable history for forms of study and organizing today and readers will find that I take an eclectic, if occasionally eccentric, approach to historical and literary archives of the past in order to foreground present and sometimes even presentist concerns. The project emerged out of a sense that the sheer brutality behind the history of scientific exploitation in the United States had actually obscured a crucial history of resistance and struggle.
I don’t worry too much about what counts or does not count as science and my hope is that activists and community organizers might be inspired by the flexible and capacious understanding of science that was held by scientists and non-scientists alike in the early to mid-nineteenth century. I talk about science in the broadest way possible (returning to science as method and practice; thinking about the politics of knowledge more generally), precisely because I want to think about a politics and a movement or a set of movements that might use science—boldly and imaginatively—as a tool for struggle today.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I hope to dislodge certain notions about who gets to define, practice, and critique science itself. Relatedly, I refuse the idea that science is any more ideologically entrenched than any other site or space of (knowledge) production. This is not to say that science is not a central arm of capitalist exploitation, global militarism, and imperialism (it certainly is), but it is to suggest that scholars, activists, and other actors should not cede scientific practice and knowledge to the academy, to the pharmaceutical industry, to the military, or to techno-scientific bureaucrats and “experts.” Scholars and activists working on and in black freedom struggles have particularly important tools for understanding and speaking back to science today, including forms of science that do not appear to be racialized (but of course, always are). I am especially inspired by the long-standing organizing and recent protests that led to the removal of the J. Marion Syms’ sculpture in Central Park this past April. I see this action—and the many calls across the South to topple white supremacist sculptures that celebrate and memorialize not only anti-black racism but also racist theories of human difference—as forms of fugitive science.
“The technologies of mass surveillance, military suppression, and migration control employed by the Israeli state are closely linked to Western science.”
I also want to sound a warning about the Trump-era celebrations of science that have emerged as a response to threats and structures of defunding and de-legitimation. While black activists in the nineteenth century (and beyond) used science in creative and expansive ways, Fugitive Science also tells a story about how white abolitionists turned to science to reaffirm quite narrow and liberal ideas about black humanity. Similarly, today, I’m wary not just of “alt-right science” but also liberal “defenses” of science (with all of the militaristic echoes that word conjures). For example: how does marching for science appropriate the tools and strategies of social movements while simultaneously obscuring the ways that science abets structural inequalities and participates in racial-imperial projects today? I further wonder about how the March for Science and similar calls for “Science not Silence,” obscure the embeddedness of U.S. science in circuits of financial/speculative capital and its ongoing contribution to the technological and militaristic infrastructures upon which settler colonialism rests. For example, in a recent essay titled “BDS: Boycotts, Divestments, and Science,” Santiago Sanchez reminds us, “The technologies of mass surveillance, military suppression, and migration control employed by the Israeli state are closely linked to Western science. The massive profits which fuel the ceaseless settler-colonial project in the occupied territories are dependent on the products of the Israeli academy and industry.” When liberals march on behalf of science in the United States, then, I wonder to what extent they obscure the centrality of bioscientific, medical, and technological development (and a broader, commodifiable rhetoric of scientific “innovation”) to U.S. imperialism both domestically and abroad. And to what extent do they reproduce an image of U.S. academic institutions as spaces of unequivocal good, rather than as engines of profit, inequality, and immiseration? Following the Afropessimists, a march forscience (rather than forthe people) does not speak to or rectify the profound anti-blackness of science itself. Nor does it address how non-white national and global populations continue to serve as a reserve army for clinical trials and pharmaceutical development.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
There are many names to name here, but I really like how the more mundane and vernacular strains of fugitive science push us to think about forms of thought that challenge the intellectual hero model altogether. The longer I worked on this book, the more I came to respect and learn from figures who remain little known largely because their work was embedded within a deeply collaborative network of intellectual activity. At the same time, I’m interested in those forms of auto-didacticism that necessarily open up beyond the education and edification of the individual--those forms of self-study that trace a line of flight/escape to other actors, agents, and collectives. Like when James Pennington’s escape North inspires him to study astronomy once he is settled in New England, where he also writes an anti-racist scientific textbook for members of his community. Or when Sarah Mapps Douglass seeks medical training in Philadelphia so that she can share crucial knowledge about science and health with girls and young women in her neighborhood. I have learned a lot from Douglass in particular about how fugitive science demands a kind of radical modesty and even humilitysince it is invested in experiments and forms of knowledge-making that can only happen with the observations, experiments, and help of others. This has been profoundly influential for me in terms of the kinds of collaborations and forms of study I undertake and want to continue to undertake in the future.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Insofar as Fugitive Scienceasks readers to consider early genealogies of Afrofuturism, the entire book is invested in imagining new worlds. More specifically, it illuminates some of the worlds that were improvised by black activists and cultural producers through imaginative experiments with science and an interest in the politicization of scientific revolution itself. The project also uses the concept of fugitivity, drawn from interventions in Black Studies, to think about forms of world-making that take shape through the process of escape itself (in whatever physical and/or psychological form that process may take under varying conditions of unfreedom). But increasingly, I want to think about less lonely forms of fugitivity, and how models of single and singular escape might be recalibrated through forms of experimentalism and movement that always require a multitude of actors, knowledges, and forms of collectivity, even when one person appears to be moving and or otherwise searching on their own (for this is perhaps what empiricism always is). Here I’m thinking about and am inspired by Wahneema Lubiano’s recent remarks at the “Black Women, Black Studies, Knowledge Production” symposium at Duke University, in which she noted that the productionof knowledge production should remind us that knowledge is always made in concert, always constructed in common, even when and perhaps because of how it is riven by difference itself.
Finally, returning to the question of the politics of knowledge, I think it’s important to articulate that the right traffics in an affect of cynicism that is destructive to actual forms of knowledge production (knowledge made together) as well as to the conditions of life and livability on a planetary scale. And while I remain excited by both the insights and the militancy of Afropessimism, I’m utopian enough to believe that pessimism need not, and actually cannot, fall into cynicism. And this is where the imagination of new and other worlds remains not just desirable, but absolutely crucial to both thought and struggle today.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: The Fake News of U.S. Empire.