Five Questions With Cohen And Frazier

This week we continue our conversations with Framing the Global Fellows with not one, but two fellows.

Deborah Cohen is an associate professor in the University of Missouri at St. Louis‘s Department of History and Lessie Jo Frazier is an associate professor in Indiana University-Bloomington‘s Department of Gender Studies.

Both Cohen and Frazier have conducted research on issues and phenomena in the Americas — for their Framing the Global project they focus on the “global ’68.”

Cohen and Frazier explained to Rosemary Pennington how they use the concept of scale to enter their exploration of ’68.

Rosemary Pennington: What drew you to Framing the Global?

Deborah Cohen and Lessie Jo Frazier: We have been exploring the intersections of gender, sexuality, class, and political cultures in a long-term, ongoing collaborative research project on Mexico and the Sixties, more broadly, a project begun in 1989 and involving our oral histories with activists taken over the course of the subsequent twenty plus years.

Having edited a comparative volume on gender and sexuality in 1968, we were drawn to this opportunity, Framing the Global, to craft our own broader understanding of how gender and sexuality could unlock the significance and impact of ’68.

We contend that the impact of student movements must be sought beyond the realm of formal politics, in the changing practices of gender and sexuality, which began even before the movement emerged and made possible the involvement of a host of new political actors in this key moment of student activism.


Image via mallol (Flickr)

A focus on the formal political realm not only obscures the seismic transformations that ’68 brought to the fore. It also belies the many (counter)cultural challenges that the movement posed to established politics, challenges which the movement defined as intrinsic to political contestation itself.

By using gender, sex, and sexuality as analytic lenses, we question the divide between formal and (counter)cultural arenas, even as we reveal the intrinsic and intimate connections between them. These lenses bridge the personal and the political to offer a window onto the deep changes that the long sixties had on agency and on the reconfiguration of political culture and participation.

RP: What is your entry point and why did you choose it?

C&F: We’ve been very interested in the Politics of Scale, in particular in relation to the emerging academic field of Big History, a field that takes as its scope a cosmic-scale trajectory from the Big Bang to the present day.

Practitioners of this subfield look for broad historical patterns in human development; they have their own newly-formed international organization, newsletter, journal, and even panels at the American Historical Association conference. Of particular importance is the impact on university curricula.

By emphasizing the need to analyze big historical patterns of societal development, Big History practitioners are resituating “the West” as the model of such development, shifting the focus of university courses away from the experiences of those who do not neatly match the model of “western” development—societies and nations of the global south, colonized peoples within the global north—and onto those who best represent it—the white and wealthy within the global north.

The use of macro-scalular analysis and scientistic discourse to undercut non-elite claims to epistemological recognition resonates with the rightwing backlash against anti-racist and radical scholars and artists of the post-war period with the privileging of scientistic/empiricist scholars and the silencing of humanist scholars (for example, in Anthropology).

What makes this field so problematic, we suggest, is its potential to close off a democratizing trend since the “history-from-below” of the 1960-70s, which has included as critical historical subjects non-elite and non-white actors and societies; it is in line with the growing attack on ethnic studies as divisive and class warfare. Indeed, our research links Big History to the 1980s backlash of the 1960s and 1970s, including strange resonances with 1980s creationist counter-history.

Moreover, because many scholars who study these previously excluded social actors were/are themselves non-elites and non-whites, the success of Big History will likely translate into a reconfiguration of scholars themselves, in part, through the distribution of scarce research monies and faculty lines.


Image via Kevin Harber (Flickr)

We also examine Big History’s support of the conservative movement outside the academy—i.e., the Tea Party—and to attacks on public education: on multiculturalism in Arizona’s Mexican American Studies classes; by the (proposed) requirement (Kansas and Indiana) requiring teachers to discuss Creationism alongside Evolution; and through a law that allows parents to opt their children out of exposure to objectionable material.

That is, Big History will possibly lead to the re-canonizing of certain scholarly and public traditions, ideas, and practitioners themselves.

In contrast, we foreground the ways in which a different intellectual lineage from the annals school of the sixties to anti-imperialist dependency scholarship to postcolonial to transnational to global studies has deployed questions of scale to make claim of wide-ranging import while defending the importance of anti-universalist epistemologies privileging the non-particularity of the particular.

RP: What challenges have you faced as you’ve navigated the global this way?

C&F: In our case, the “global ’68,” we locate our global in the international dominance of modernization’s developmentalist doctrine and the global circulation of media images.

We are considering tracing the flow of events and traveling images of those events rather than organizing the book around place, per se, while taking care not to inadvertently focus only on the most iconic ones (i.e. May Paris). In thinking though both scale for this chapter and in terms of our book project, we’ve moved from seeing global as a category of place to seeing it as a spatial category.

RP: In her introduction to the upcoming book, Dr. Hilary Kahn writes that one of the questions scholars of the global are faced with is “How do we know its global?” How do you answer that question in your work?

C&F: We are in the interesting position of having a topic the global-ness of which has already been claimed by both scholars and non-academic sources. Indeed ’68 has been framed as a global moment already. Thus, we ask, “Ok ‘global ’68.’ If so then how, to what extent, why, with what kinds of limits?”

We ask, specifically, how historical contexts and affective forces beyond and within the nation, ones sweeping the globe at that historical moment, contributed to and shaped the movements of the sixties.

Indeed, from philosophers such as Alain Badiou to journalists such as Tariq Ali, George Katsiaficas, and Mark Kurlansky, ’68 has been seen as the quintessential global event, and thus provides an ideal venue for advancing theoretical and methodological understandings of the global.

What these perspectives lack is a theoretically rich and methodologically-rigorous assessment of the role of affective drives, emotional mobilizations, and sexual revolutions in making possible a global ’68.

RP: How have your discussions on the space of global studies within the Framing the Global interdisciplinary group affected your view of your home discipline?

C&F: We are both interdisicplinary scholars whose research bridges the humanities and social sciences. We both have expertise in history and gender. Deborah brings particular skills at looking at transnational political economies while Lessie brings an anthropological/cultural studies emphasis.

 You can follow us on Twitter: @FramingGlobal.