Mimi Thi Nguyen is an Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign as a Conrad Humanities Scholar. She is the author of The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages. Nguyen has also been involved in punk and zine communities since the early 1990s. She is responsible for organizing and distributing the compilation zine Race Riot in the late 90s, and is a collaborator in the POC Zine Project.
Interview by Sophia Seawell, Ann Kremen and Chanelle Adams.
Sophia Seawell: How do you inhabit both the spaces of the academy and activism, and in particular, an activism grounded in the politics of punk, given that these are often constructed as dichotomous and antagonistic?
Mimi Nguyen: The work that I do in the academy on war and empire first developed out of my politicization in punk. My exposure to the idea of the United States as a liberal empire – though not then described in those words – happened when I encountered the longest running punk magazine Maximum Rockandroll in the 1990s and learned about the Ronald Reagan administration’s covert military operations in Central America, waged in the name of freedom. I hadn’t put that together with being a refugee from the US war in Viet Nam until I encountered punk and radical politics, which then informed my academic work. At the same time, my academic work has also shaped my zines, my punk writing. I was a Gender and Women’s Studies major as an undergraduate, and what I learned in the classroom definitely informed my zines. So I’ve always understood my intellectual work in punk and the academy as not necessarily distinct.
The disjuncture then comes when I consider how we are encouraged to carry ourselves in the academy. I feel a lot of pressure to professionalize, and the prescriptions for professionalization often run counter to my way of being in the world. I also struggle with the directive that I am supposed to professionalize my students. I don’t hold with the idea that I should train students to be better workers, because the content of “better” — more obedient, more efficient, whatever — runs counter to what I want to teach. In my feminist theories courses, I say, “Yeah, I just gave you assignments with deadlines! But I also want to say to you, what’s so great about work? Why do we believe work is supposed to be edifying? Should we always have to be productive? Why do we imagine work as something that gives us dignity? What if it’s just wearing us down?” My history in punk totally informs these attempts to practice other ways of being in a classroom, and other ways of being a professor.
SS: Are there frameworks or approaches you got from punk that you’ve brought with you to other spaces?
MN: What I got out of punk is an unwillingness to accept what I am told is “good” as true or obvious. Punk gave me words and gestures for once inchoate feelings about the cluster of promises that comprise what Lauren Berlant calls a cruel optimism — the state and capital are on your side! The ring on your finger is a sign of love and protection! So if I am told, “this is what you should be doing, it’s for your own good,” my first impulse is usually — on the inside these days — “Fuck you!” And then “Why?”
When I was thinking about the so-called gift of freedom – this notion that the United States is invested in granting to others who don’t have it the gift of freedom — I want to know: How is this thing, that so often arrives in the form of waging war, a gift? Why is this the shape that freedom should necessarily take? This skepticism definitely informs my feminist and queer politics as well. Why should anti-violence campaigns rely on the police or the prison to protect us? Why is the present ceiling of LGBT politics marriage rights? Why are these things given to us as necessary social goods? And, what are they doing beyond what they claim to do?
Chanelle Adams: Your zine Race Riot came at a time when there were not race discussions happening in the punk scene. How did you go about organizing support and a network for that? Did that network already exist? Did you meet resistance initially?
MN: In the late 1980s and 1990s, there was a semi-silence about race and racisms in punk and punk-adjacent scenes. What anti-racist discourses or practices circulated within punk tended to boil down to “Fuck Nazis,” which was a real problem in punk scenes at the time. I know plenty of older punks who rumbled with Nazi skinheads, and much respect to them — but I wanted more. While neo-Nazi skins were absolutely present as threats, what other conversations could we have about say, swastikas as ironic racism or racist cool? Or, about people of color or non-Western peoples in histories of punk sounds, aesthetics, politics?
The impetus for Race Riot came when a columnist at Maximum Rockandroll wrote about his Asian fetish, suggesting that Asian women’s eyelids look like vulva, and that their vulva might be also horizontal. It is an old imperial joke — there are all kinds of imperial jokes about how racial, colonial women’s bodies are so inhuman that their genitalia might reflect this alien state. I wrote a letter to Maximum, cussing and citing postcolonial feminist theory. He then wrote a lengthy column in response about how though I’m Asian, because I’m an ugly feminist, he wouldn’t want to fuck me anyway. There was a discussion at the magazine about whether or not to publish this column because the magazine had a policy — no racism, no sexism, no homophobia. But the coordinator and founder of the magazine decided that this column qualified as satire, and so it was acceptable.
It was really infuriating for me to be 19 years old, totally invested in punk and politics, to be attacked under the guise of racist cool in the punk magazine. I was like, “Fuck it, I’m quitting punk.” But I figured I should do something, to leave something behind as a practice and as a document, to reach other punks of color who might feel as isolated as I did in the aftermath. There wasn’t yet a broader discussion about race or about people of color in punk, and we didn’t have the Internet at the time in the way that we do now! I sent postcards out to other punks, to the few people of color I knew in punk, to hand out at shows. It was all word of mouth, plus a massive physical flyer campaign. The relative ease with which punks — and especially queer punks, punks of color, feminist punks — can find each other online, and share histories, photographs, music, and more, was just not possible when I made the first Race Riot.
CA: Since you’ve been active in the POC zine community for years, how do you think about the transformation from material forms like zines to digital ones like blogs and Twitter? How do you respond to pressure to immediately respond through social media platforms? Do you find it hard to take the time to have a contemplative feminism?
MN: While these concerns are not part of my scholarship, I have thought about these questions a lot. New technologies have produced expectations that we now have more democratic access to more knowledge, and that we must accommodate ourselves to an accelerated sense of time. But I am wary of this internalization of capital’s rhythms for continuous consumption and open-ended production. I hate feeling obliged to produce a post or tweet on a timetable. It makes me anxious. There is value in being about to respond quickly to an object or event, of course, but I also want to hold out for other forms of temporal consciousness, including untimeliness and contemplation of deep structures, sitting with an object over time to consider how it changes you, how the encounter with it changes the nature of your inquiry.
SS: The digital is such a generative space for building connections and communities, yet, at the same time, it is characterized by its speed and ephemerality, and it can often be unsafe. In what ways do you see the logics of digital media and the Internet affecting the way that communities organized around social justice form online?
MN: We live in a moment during which we have internalized surveillance and security cultures to such a degree that perhaps we also assume others can be rendered into their avatars, their tweets or their posts. But I would want to push against the premise that a stranger is knowable from their observable data. How do we recognize evidence of being a person under neoliberal capital? Do you exist in the absence of a selfie, or a tweet? What about all the commitments and histories you can’t account for solely through the digitized self? I am not at all saying selfies and tweets are bad, but I am saying that these are the conditions under which we fund ourselves complicit — and even locate pleasure — in our surveillance, and in surveying others, and upon which access to capital, love and other forms of sociality increasingly depend.
Our surveillance apparatus and the security state also depend on our becoming trackable entities. This runs deep, so that even on social justice Tumblr or Twitter — which are often platforms through which marginalized persons might articulate a desire for freedom — recognition and validation comes in the quantifiable, trackable form of likes, favorites, reblogs, and retweets. The more we produce, the more we circulate, the more recognition we receive, the more that recognition becomes translated as approximating justice. It is impact, absolutely. But what does it mean to measure impact and influence through these viral measures, which collapse quantifiable recognition with evidence of political movement? Is community the consequence of success on the market?
Ann Kremen: You mentioned forms of recognition coming as retweets, reblogs, or likes. How do these ways of measuring impact change the way that organizing is conceptualized? What changes do you see in the language being used, even within social justice movements, to describe processes and successes?
MN: Corporate and creative-speak now converge through a language about originality and intellectual property: each individual’s capacity for creativity can and should be encouraged in order to create intellectual properties for a corporation or institutional entity. Our claims to originality and intellectual property are commodified as forms of labor that we voluntarily donate and circulate as “user-generated” content for multibillion-dollar corporate platforms such as Twitter, which are meanwhile accumulating and privatizing massive political and financial capital. Consider Twitter or Google in San Francisco, and the acceleration of evictions displacing the racialized poor and the evisceration of social services in the city as a direct consequence of its powers.
Can we or should we separate Twitter’s emergence through these structures of global capital and racial violence from the platform’s claims to facilitate a true public sphere, to embed democratic principles of inclusion, participation, and identification into its code — which frankly is a decades-old claim for digital media! — and then again from our usages of that platform? What happens to the even more marginal, the obscure, the slow, the incommunicable, and the unproductive under such metrics of relevance?
CA: What are ways that we can continue to exist within the system but also subvert it in a way that is useful to ourselves, sustaining ourselves and providing self-care?
MN: In considering self-care, I would challenge the ideas that work is good for us, that we be productive or measure other persons and things by their usefulness to us, and that we engage in constant calculation about value. What might constitute radical self-care under conditions of neoliberal capital? — which is a very predatory capital that, as Lauren Berlant puts it so well, aims to wear our bodies out and commit us (differentially, of course) to slow death. Maybe it means refusing to be productive, useful, transparent, accountable in computational or compensatory forms, or even valuable according to prevailing measures. Such refusals could inform self-care — like maybe I just want to sit by this beach, and it doesn’t have to be made meaningful as a revolutionary act! — but also a more unpredictable, imperfect politics under contemporary conditions of power and knowledge that aim to render each of us as knowable bits of data.
That’s why I am making zines again, because these shape a different relationship for me to creative and intellectual labor. I am not compensated for my labor-time, I don’t receive quantifiable forms of recognition in terms of numbers in circulation or for professional promotion. That’s why the Race Riot zines are still the best things I’ve ever made. No matter how numerous the copies or readers are, its impact is unquantifiable, discontinuous, and untrackable.