REVIEW: The Racial Genealogy of Excellence: “Excellence Is The Watchword”

The Racial Genealogy of Excellence:
“Excellence Is The Watchword

New York University, 14 September 2011

Roderick A. Ferguson kicked off the fall CSGS calendar of events with a chapter from his provocatively titled forthcoming volume, The Reorder Of Things: On The Institutionalization of Difference. Professor Ferguson contextualized this project in relation to his previous work,the influential Aberrations in Black, which he called a book he wrote because “[he] wanted to write a book [he] wanted to read.” Following that trend, he began The Reorder of Things in 2009,when he became chair of the American Studies Department at University of Minnesota, and wanted to write a book to “make sense of [his] own life,” as well as “the life we all inherited.”

He described the project as his attempt to answer the question: “how did we get here?” by examining the institutionalization of interdisciplinarity and “rethink[ing] some shibboleths about the contemporary university” as strictly a corporate setting. Instead, he asked: how do we inhabit and exceed corporatization, and what might be in excess of corporate culture? His talk resonated with the roundtable discussions on negotiating institutionalization from last spring’s New Majorities II conference, as he thoughtfully considered “how we might be in the university but not necessarily of it,” using both historical context and examples from his own experience at the University of Minnesota.

The chapter he presented, “The Racial Genealogy of Excellence,” focused on the discourse of excellence in relation to what he called the “undertheorized” open admissions movement at New York’s City College—particularly as articulated in June Jordan’s essay “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person”—in order to track the contradictory impulses that shape our contemporary experience of institutionalization. While excellence was circulated as a discourse that promised a future of anti-racist liberal democracy, Jordan described excellence as “fundamentally antagoniz[ing] democratic understandings of the people, constructing them as the antithesis of that category’s principles.” This “critical suspicion of excellence” prompted Ferguson to consider the exclusivity of the category of excellence, and its intimate ties to racial and economic projects.

In 1969, when Jordan was on faculty at City College, 200 students shut down campus for two weeks before the college agreed to the students’ demands for the admission of more minority students. In his close readings, Ferguson described Jordan’s essay, which elaborates the demands made by student activists, as a prompt that “begs us to interrogate the histories of racial domination that make up the underside of excellence,” pointing to the ways standards of excellence are part of racialized genealogies of slavery, racism and neo-colonialism. He argued that the discourse of excellence– and the activist responses to its effects– are crucial in comprehending contemporary social relations. The category of excellence in the 60s “shaped social relations nationally and globally,” with real effects on ideological and economic spheres through the dynamic relationship between governments and universities. College campuses, which were more and more coming to be funded by the state, were considered a way to “restage the degradations of slavery” because excellence theoretically allowed minoritized subjects to “break free from days of debasement,” signaling instead “that long-awaited morning” when the “past could finally be sloughed off and the day could begin anew.” Yet the tension between getting as many people into classrooms as possible and maintaining high standards of admission demonstrated the difficulty of preserving an ideal of excellence while striving for the creation of an egalitarian society—a still-relevant dilemma.

The demands from City College activists in the face of the discourse on excellence demonstrate the contradiction that shapes our contemporary moment, as their demands included what Ferguson described as both a desire for the “dynamism of community,” and a “desire for institutional forms that would ultimately restrict that dynamism.” Now, interdisciplinary fields are “inheritors and negotiators of this living contradiction,” between the seductive and restrictive potential of institutionalization.

Having thus answered his initial query—“how did we get here?”—Ferguson followed up in the Q&A with a volley of responses to the implicit next question: what do we do now? Calling on James Baldwin’s desire to educate students in ways the academy never intended, Ferguson insisted that the work of scholarship must be tied to institutional transformation and “change we can see,” for both scholars and students. “We have to assume power over this stuff,” he said; and sometimes that means recognizing funding as a technology of interpellation in the university, and paying for our own lunch.

–Julia DeLeon

Julia DeLeon is a PhD student in Performance Studies at NYU.