Review: The Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference

The Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Roderick A. Ferguson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Pp. ix+ 255.

Roderick Ferguson’s The Reorder of Things begins not in the halls of academia, but among the rubble of a plane wreck. Ferguson starts his lengthy introduction with African-American artist Adrian Piper’s collage, Self-Portrait 2000. In this piece, Piper expresses her frustration with Wellesley College for using her mainly to enhance their multicultural image. Grounding the piece is the image of “a downed plane,” which Ferguson is quick to point out has not only personal connections to the artist but also a larger relation to the nation since the plane depicted is the one in which John F. Kennedy Jr. died (3). Via this piece, Ferguson opens up his discussion of the interplay between the university as a national institution and minority populations. Throughout the book, Ferguson uses a mixed archive of fliers, literary works, and art pieces to emphasize the intersectional dynamics between the academy and minority subjects.

For Ferguson, the relationship between these two entities is one that is fraught with issues of power. Playing off Michel Foucault’s notion of power as “strategic but non-individualized,” Ferguson establishes the university as a site of power in which a “plurality of relations” recognizes, addresses, and ultimately regulates minority difference (6, 7). Building on this view, Ferguson ties higher education to the larger realm of national politics. Through a discussion of Immanuel Kant’s The Conflict of the Faculties, Ferguson argues against the belief that the university is subject to the power of the state. Rather, Ferguson believes that Kant was correct in theorizing the reverse direction of influence. As he writes, “Kant suggests … that the academy – as the laboratory that produces truth and political economy’s relation to it – is a primary articulator of state and civil society” (11). This perspective on the academy as a primary factor in creating the state grounds Ferguson’s observations on how higher education functions as the micro testing ground for regulating minority difference.

This ability of universities to recognize minority subjects mimics the “archival” approach of the nation toward difference, particularly racial difference. Ferguson explains that, according to Derrida, the archive was “the house where official documents—no matter their heterogeneity—were filed and entrusted to speak and impose the law” (19). Ferguson builds off this definition to argue that the United States is the “archival nation par excellence” in its official approach to managing difference, particularly racial difference (19). Ferguson opens his first chapter by arguing that “As an archival entity, the United States is simultaneously the fabled home that promises to put different people in their rightful places and the infamous regime that disciplines in the name of freedom” (19). Ferguson explores America’s history of colonialism as a former colony, as a neocolonial force in the global arena, and as a modern “progressive” nation via the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.

For Ferguson, the university sets the tone for the nation not just in recognizing but also incorporating and neutralizing minority difference. As he wrote, “Power would attempt to invest the radical aims of antiracist and feminist movements of the sixties and seventies with another logic…cataloging them in the very institution that those movements were contesting” (28). These movements attempted to shift academic focus from hegemonic narratives to those of traditionally disenfranchised voices. This attempt led to the creation of interdisciplinary fields, which Ferguson believes not only stood for a “radical assertion of the importance of minority culture” but also reified the archival power of the university and of the nation (33).

Chapter Two expands on the university’s simultaneous affirmation and neutralization of minority subjects by looking at the Lumumba-Zapata student movement at the University of California. This 1969 collaboration between African-American and Latino students led to the proposed college named Lumumba-Zapata in honor of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba and Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (43). Ferguson recognizes the Lumumba-Zapata movement as an attempt to establish an “alternative conception of institutionality” that would counter the hegemonic power of the university (51). But he also points out that although the Lumumba-Zapata movement’s proposal was approved as Third College, this site originally intended for minority students was “sixty percent white by 1976” (74). Thus, for Ferguson, the student movements of the 196os helped further establish the power of the academy to regulate minority difference “without absolute suppression but through selective revision and deployment” (75).

The selectively exclusive nature of the academy is further explored in Chapter Three, “The Racial Genealogy of Excellence.” Here, Ferguson examines the open admission policy established by City College of New York in response to protests by minority students. Located in Harlem, City College was a largely white institution in a historically diverse neighborhood. Ferguson points out that the whiteness of the college prompted “African-American and Puerto Rican students to … demand that the student body reflect the black and brown makeup of Harlem” (78). This demand was met with resistance over fears of damaging the academic “excellence” of the institution. Ferguson connects the academic concept of “excellence” to the federal government, where this criterion is imagined in terms of productivity, competition, and administration. For Ferguson, these values are exemplified in the book Excellence (1961) by John W. Gardner, a former academic and public servant, who conceived of excellence as “not just a diversity of abilities but an inequality of abilities” (82). For Ferguson, this convergence between nation and higher education on distinction reduced the dynamism of minority difference and contributed to the continued exclusion of marginalized populations.

Chapter Four examines the result of open-admissions policies and student movements: the creation of interdisciplinary departments such as African-American studies. Ferguson focuses on how these departments influenced the community, creating a “time of unprecedented and often unconscious intimacies” (114). Ferguson shows this influence via his analysis of African-American writer Toni Cade Bambara’s 1971 story, “My Man Bovanne.” For Ferguson, this story about Miss Hazel and her preoccupation with “grass roots” culture symbolizes how Black Nationalism, African-American studies, and the Black community became enmeshed in the name of “responsibility.” For Ferguson, however, while this process of minority identification represented an affirmation of African-American culture by the nation and academy, it still stultified, regulated, and excluded minorities such as women, homosexuals, and the physically disabled within these communities.

Ferguson then widens his discussion of higher education to include communities of foreign nationals such as immigrants in Chapter Five. Ferguson states, “Similar to the ways in which domestic minorities were being enfolded into new regimes of affirmation, a strategic situation was developing by making foreign subjects recognizable through their regulation” (147). Ferguson connects the entrance of elite international students into the American academy after the Cold War with the nation’s larger democratic and capitalist aims. Through his examination of Susan Choi’s 1999 novel The Foreign Student and Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel The Namesake, Ferguson demonstrates how the institution both affirmed the immigrant student and offered “political emancipation” while at the same time archiving and regulating diversity (171). In both novels, the protagonists undergo moments that challenge this archival impulse via an affinity with their respective minority cultures. Ferguson believes these novels give valuable insight into the process of resistance to “hegemonic absorption” on the part of the institution (179).

Ferguson’s examination of the “The Golden Era of the Instructed Minority” in Chapter Six weaves together the various ways the academy and the nation engaged politically and economically to integrate minority subjects. Through his examination of John Stuart Mill’s 1861 text Considerations of Representative Government, Ferguson explores the “ethical development of minority communities” and its connection with aesthetic theory. For Ferguson, aesthetic theory allowed the assimilation of elite minority students into the academy as “objects of development and incorporation” (185). However, this pedagogical project at the same time reified hegemonic power via regulation and exclusion. Ferguson notes that the entrance of minority students into the academy allowed for the “reconstitution of racial domination… through an ostensibly reformed mode of whiteness invested in its own centrality” (195). Not only did the incorporation of marginalized subjects result in this “reconsolidation of white hegemony,” but it also divided minority communities from within through exclusion.

Ferguson argues that that the academic integration and exclusion of minorities based on “evaluative ideas like ‘qualifications’ and ‘merit’ bridged the racial state organized around segregation to a racial state organized around racial reform” (198). This double-move of integration and exclusion is not limited to racial groups but also extends to the queer community as well. In Chapter Seven, Ferguson ends his discussion of the “re-ordering” of the academy via the exclusion of sexual minorities. Here, Ferguson describes the incorporation of queer subjects as “archival power’s latest affair with minority culture and difference” (209). As with the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Ferguson views this integration as yet another instance of the hegemonic neutralization of minority difference. LGBT minority difference, according to Ferguson, “became absorbed within an administrative ethos that recast those differences as testaments to the progress of the university and the resuscitation of a common national culture” (214). This absorption forms part of what Ferguson calls “casualties of affirmation,” prompting him to question the “will to institutionality” of minority communities seeking recognition in higher education (221, 223).

In his conclusion, Ferguson makes a passionate call to minority subjects, asking them to work towards revitalizing the “dynamism around the meanings of minority culture and difference” (232). Ultimately, Ferguson’s examination of the integration of minority difference into the academy serves as a powerful critique of the regulatory and archival powers of the academy and state with regards to minority bodies.

Victoria Ruiz Hernández