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When the Center Is on Fire

When the Center Is on Fire
Passionate Social Theory for Our Times

A provocative reappraisal of how classic social thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—W. E. B. Du Bois, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Émile Durkheim—can help us understand the social traumas of the twenty-first century, including 9/11.

June 2008
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272 pages | 6 x 9 | 4 b&w illus. |

In this lively and provocative book, two feminist public sociologists turn to classical social thinkers—W. E. B. Du Bois, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Émile Durkheim—to understand a series of twenty-first century social traumas, including the massacre at Columbine High School, the 9/11 attacks, the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, and Hurricane Katrina. Each event was overwhelming in its own right, while the relentless pace at which they occurred made it nearly impossible to absorb and interpret them in any but the most superficial ways. Yet, each uncovered social problems that cry out for our understanding and remediation.

In When the Center Is on Fire, Becky Thompson and Diane Harriford assert that classical social theorists grappled with the human condition in ways that remain profoundly relevant. They show, for example, that the loss of "double consciousness" that Du Bois identified in African Americans enabled political elites to turn a blind eye to the poverty and vulnerability of many of New Orleans's citizens. The authors' compelling, sometimes irreverent, often searing interpretations make this book essential reading for students, activists, generations X, Y, and Z, and everybody bored by the 6 o'clock news.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: An Offering ... Can We Talk?
  • Part One. Consciousness: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina
    • Chapter One. Condoleezza Rice, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Double Consciousness
    • Chapter Two. Hurricane Katrina and Historical Memory
  • Part Two. Spirit: The 9/11 Attacks
    • Chapter Three. The 9/11 Attacks and Max Weber
    • Chapter Four. Moments of Grace/Grace Undermined
  • Part Three. Labor: The Abu Ghraib Prison Abuses
    • Chapter Five. Karl Marx and Alienation
    • Chapter Six. Looking for Species Being: Trauma and Its Consequences
  • Part Four. Body: The Columbine School Shootings
    • Chapter Seven. Émile Durkheim and Embodiment in the Age of the Internet
  • Conclusion: Regeneration
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Diane Harriford is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Women's Studies at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Becky Thompson is Professor of Sociology at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts.


A few months after 9/11, one of our friends began to speak about his memories of living in New York City during the attacks on the World Trade Center. As he continued to talk about the tragedy, we began to see how profoundly he wanted to understand the assault and how few words he had to do so. He talked about the event as if it were a natural disaster or some cataclysmic event brought on by God that happened completely out of context. At the time, we noted that both the tragedy itself and the man's reaction to it were revealing; he was mirroring a reaction we were seeing all around us. Typically, the American way of dealing with socially induced trauma has been to quickly move forward with hopes that time will wash it away. Immediately following 9/11, there was a momentary opening of political commentary across the country—meetings in faith communities, schools, and local organizations attempting to make sense of the atrocity. Within weeks, however, we began to witness a kind of closing down, a pulling up of the drawbridge, a reduction of public conversation. Given the enormity of the event, it has been striking how very little coming together there has been of leading intellectuals, social activists, and religious leaders to talk collectively about the meaning of 9/11.

As sociologists, we found ourselves wanting to understand why the most visible national response to 9/11 was to send troops to Afghanistan and then to Iraq to fight wars many people didn't support or understand, leaving fundamental questions about the causes and consequences of the attacks unanswered. We wanted to know why a group of suicide bombers were willing to give up their lives, leaving their friends and loved ones, including their children, behind. We needed to know the costs and consequences of the terror of 9/11 on the families of those who died. We needed to know what spiritual, artistic, and intellectual contributions could serve as a salve and antidote to such pain.

The atrocity also required us to look anew at the consequences of exporting and enforcing a particular economic, political, and religious system throughout many regions of the world. The terrorism was, in part, a conflict between militant Islam and US imperialism. It was also a challenge to continued white domination, since the United States, currently the sole superpower in the world, is also the most powerful white-controlled country. The attacks on 9/11 signaled a wobbling of white supremacy, a sign that an increasing number of mostly young, well-educated people of Arab descent were willing to take their own lives, to martyr themselves, if necessary, before they were willing to accept domination by the United States. As public sociologists—those who seek to make links between the academy and social justice issues—we found ourselves particularly interested in how social theory might help us grapple with the factors leading to the terrorism and the silences following it.

We come to this volume deeply troubled about contemporary US society and its relationship to the world community. We have seen people so frightened that they have allowed fundamentals of US democracy—the Bill of Rights and the First and Fourteenth Amendments—to be compromised, if not demolished, under the Patriot Act. People seem willing to have their bags searched before getting on a subway in New York City without questioning how the violation of privacy in that context undermines civil liberties. Are we safe when we can't be sure that a record of the books we check out of a public library won't be scrutinized and when our e-mail can be searched with no warning or reason? Are we safe when people in our communities can be picked up and detained without any semblance of due process? One promise of social theory is to look beneath surface understandings of "safety" and other words that are used as codes to obscure power inequalities.

This book is our attempt to offer a sophisticated yet accessible analysis of several of the most troubling and transformative social upheavals in recent US history, using social theory to help us. We want to offset superficial interpretations of these events that have fueled fear, rage, and confusion. The unrelenting pace of these upheavals has left little room to understand their importance and the links between them. With the explosion of the information age, people are constantly bombarded with images of war, inequalities, violence, and disease, so much so that it is easy, and in some ways understandable, to tune out and become numb to the media barrage. And yet, the most egregious, complicated, and important social upheavals stay with us, haunting our collective unconscious. These upheavals insist upon discussion—to be understood and engaged with in a deep way.

The upheavals and traumas that we examine—the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, the 2001 terrorist attacks, the 2003 Abu Ghraib prison abuses, and the 1999 Columbine murders/suicides—have in common a destabilizing effect on people's sense of belonging to a society they can understand and rely upon. Each of these upheavals has forced people to see inequalities most people do not want to see—to confront collective denial about racism, imperialism, patriarchy, and other oppressions. White middle-class teenagers indiscriminately shooting their classmates and themselves; thousands of people in New Orleans on rooftops for days after Katrina, waiting for rescues that never came; elderly and sick people left on baggage carousels in the aftermath of the hurricane; a young female soldier deliberately humiliating Iraqi detainees while willingly being photographed doing so—all are examples of a deeply troubled society. In the face of the collective disorientation that has ensued as a consequence of these and other events, we need to see conceptual connections between these seemingly individual catastrophes and find strategies for repairing the torn social fabric.

The book's method reflects our belief in linking current catastrophes to history. Reaching back to social theory in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries recovers the past in a way that makes it usable to us now. Sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois's brilliant writing on the souls of black people underscores why the Katrina disaster not only exposed two, unequal Americas but also dredged up deep historical memories about the Middle Passage, slavery, and lynching. Calling upon economist and sociologist Karl Marx's concept of alienation provides an essential, irreplaceable explanation of why the Abu Ghraib prison photographs were taken and what these photos reveal about labor in a postindustrial, militarized society.

The German sociologist Max Weber shows us that when people cannot find rational explanations for unanticipated events, they fall back on irrational thought—hence our friend and many others who see 9/11 as an act of God. Weber's work opens a way to see why intellectually grounded and politically engaged knowledge of world politics is essential to dealing with terrorism. Drawing upon the questions that troubled French sociologist Émile Durkheim about factors that undermined a sense of collectivity and belonging in the nineteenth century enables us to see the Columbine murders/suicides as a cry for help in an increasingly atomized society. We believe that classical social theory can help us recover a humane, life-giving, and connective social ethic that can fruitfully counteract the dehumanization and emptiness that each of these recent events has uncovered.

Each chapter calls attention to the continued relevance of classical theorists and also augments their work with analyses provided by contemporary social thinkers. Du Bois's limited gender analysis and his biracial (black/white) focus led us to call upon the work of contemporary historian Darlene Clark Hine and cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa for an expanded understanding of consciousness that is both multiracial and transnational. The limits of Marx's work in terms of the psychological impact of alienation led us to contemporary trauma theory—a connection that allows us to show the need to understand the Abu Ghraib torture from economic and psychological perspectives simultaneously. The limits of Weber's work, in terms of not anticipating a reemergence of religious fundamentalism, led us to consider calls for the sacred across the globe. Durkheim's limited attention to the means of countering violence and suicide in a postindustrial society led us to the work of Audre Lorde and others who believe that embracing racial, sexual, and religious diversity is key to being human.

Our book makes a plea to find a narrative that sees human beings as inevitably linked to a larger social community. In this way, it challenges a certain trend in postmodernist theory in the 1980s and 1990s that assumes that power is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. As an intellectual movement begun in France and then incorporated into much scholarship in the academy in the US, "postmodernism" has been used to describe such a wide range of theoretical innovations that any brief critique would, by definition, be reductionist. Our worry, however, has been the tendency within some postmodernist theory to reject the possibility of core social, political, and cultural truths. When theorists assume that class, power, and race are essentially empty of meaning—that they have no historical significance beyond what individuals give them—it becomes increasingly difficult to identify who benefits from and who is injured by inequalities. When power can't ultimately be held accountable or resisted, then all points of view are equally valuable.

An example of this relativism occurred in one of Diane's college courses, Black Intellectual Thought, when one of the students complained about an assumption in the class that slavery is wrong. He argued that the professor could not start with that assumption since the class needed to take the point of view of both the slave master and the slave. His comment made Diane realize that the notion of social justice had slipped from view, lost to endless relativism. His argument was devoid of a moral center and ran the risk of devolving into a destructive individualism.

This relativism, of course, is not the promise of public sociology. With its roots in the work of Karl Marx, W. E. B. Du Bois, the Chicago School of Sociology, and other scholars committed to social activism, public sociology has always had a social justice mission to name and subvert specific oppressions. Although postmodernism continued to curry favor within academic settings in the 1990s, public sociologists and other social theorists remained determined to make links between studied reflection and social change. As drastic shifts in political power in the 1980s and 1990s undermined democracy in frightening ways, public sociologists continued to identify and stand against the state's increasing misuse of power.

In response to a period that is replete with analyses that consider only the individual, the local, and the present, our book makes a plea to embrace a narrative that sees human beings as historically and politically linked. Over the last decade, the obvious distress of many communities as a result of escalating poverty and discrimination and the eventual dissatisfaction with postmodernism as an intellectual framework have ushered in a renewed interest in an activist-based, public sociology. Many people are finding ways to understand and relieve the stresses they feel in their own lives and communities. To us it is clear that while we can't risk buying into a relativism that ultimately sees people as disconnected and fragmented, a rigid grand narrative, such as that offered by fundamentalist religion, risks another extreme by cementing people into narrow roles and behaviors. By highlighting the work of leading social thinkers, we seek to offer inclusive, hopeful, and spiritually inspired narratives of belonging. We seek a vision beyond the relativity of postmodernism and the rigidity of fundamentalist religion that recognizes social justice as key to what makes us human.

First Loves

While unresolved recent catastrophes were our initial reason for writing this book, ultimately it was our seemingly benign decision to attend a panel on the work of W. E. B. Du Bois that finally pushed us to apply our long-standing interest in social theory to examine these upheavals. In the summer of 2004, we attended the American Sociological Association meetings in San Francisco together, wanting to enjoy a few days in that glorious city and wiggle our toes before the rush and pressure of another school year. While there, we attended a well-publicized and long-awaited plenary on the legacy of Du Bois, a political activist, an essayist, a poet, a founder of the NAACP and the Pan African Movement, and a scholar considered one of the founding figures in sociology. We came to the plenary early, to make sure we got good seats, both lamenting about how what promised to be the most important session of the conference was taking place in a space entirely too small for the most integrated crowd of this year's conference. We listened as one speaker after another repeated what had already been said and written about Du Bois, his life, and his scholarship. We rolled our eyes and passed notes about longing to eat dinner. We commented about how sociology seemed to be going nowhere fast, honoring a man whose work we so admired while bringing almost nothing new to the conversation. The crowd was polite but restless, perhaps as eager as we were for a more thoughtful and original presentation.

Then, plenary panelist Patricia Hill Collins, a leading black intellectual and a sociologist, began her talk, speaking with an intensity that made the crowd, for the first time, sit up in their seats. She refocused the discussion from suggesting that Du Bois had heirs in other well-known black intellectuals (Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Manning Marable, Charles Ogletree) to underscoring the uniqueness of Du Bois's position. Unlike his contemporaries, Du Bois spent most of his career outside of the academy. He was a lone voice, did not have the patrons others have had, and stayed close to the black community. Collins asked sociologists to look at who currently truly embodies his legacy. Who are those who are still marginalized, have an unbending integrity, and consider the lives of black people important? Collins also cautioned against romanticizing Du Bois, reminding the audience that, when it came to gender, Du Bois had much to learn. He was unwilling to see anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells and educator Anna Julia Cooper as his peers and was unable to consider gender as a category on a par with race and class.

We left the plenary pleased that Collins had, rightfully, gotten a standing ovation, while still frustrated that, again, she had been the only woman on the panel. We left asking ourselves why, with all of these contradictions, we were still sociologists, choosing to spend some of our last summer days at a sociology conference? Were we mad, sad, tired, or just crazy to still be teaching classical and contemporary sociology? Why, after we had held appointments in African American studies and women's studies at various universities across the country over a twenty-year span, did we now find ourselves with appointments in sociology departments, teaching sociology? Why that commitment, when Patricia Hill Collins was having to explain, yet another time, what the now classic text All the Men Are Black, All the Women Are White, but Some of Us Are Brave identified almost twenty-five years ago?

We began walking in search of a healthy dinner that we would, no doubt, follow with an outrageously rich dessert. A block from Glide Memorial, a church with a long-standing mission to advance urban justice and gay and lesbian communities, we watched as a long line of people snaked around the building and then around the block, waiting for dinner. We both looked at each other, plaintively acknowledging that in all our years of living in or visiting San Francisco, we had never seen so many homeless people—young, pierced women; too-thin gay men; mothers with two children holding on tightly; men with children; young men in work clothes, with bottles, with beards or shaven heads. Everyone was there, in line, waiting. How could sociology possibly be an antidote to that poverty, to that injustice, to such despair, when we were so far from Du Bois's solutions, from his vision?

After Collins's talk, we had to acknowledge that, in our teaching, we still looked to social theory to address poverty and other social injustices. We were still invested in sociology, still trying to pass on some torch that, on some level, we thought worth passing. Even though much of our intellectual energy had focused on women's studies (for Diane) and African American studies (for Becky) over the last two decades, we had also continued to teach sociology, suggesting that there might be something to the old saying, "You never forget a first love." It was to sociologists that academics across many disciplines turned when they wanted to study social problems, cataclysmic historical changes, and what gave people meaning in the midst of economic, political, and social change.

We had to admit that some of the ideas that first thrilled us about sociology still did—and they still do. Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto was, arguably, the most influential political pamphlet in the nineteenth century, explicating the economic world for people leaving peasant labor in the fields to become wage workers in cities. Marx rightfully predicted that late capitalism would depend upon unemployment, hence lines of homeless people in San Francisco and other cities all over the world whose joblessness guarantees low wages among those who can find work. German social theorist Max Weber's concept of the "iron cage" still provides a graphic metaphor for the perils of bureaucracy, the impersonal occupations that lock people into soulless and passionless work. The idea of the iron cage anticipated the Holocaust and other bureaucratically justified acts against humanity—including the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison—by predicting the danger of positions robbed of a moral sensibility, positions in which people are asked to follow their superiors no matter the ethical consequences.

In the twentieth century, the list of sociologists whose work has forever changed how people understand themselves and their world is long and colorful. Sociologists have always been players in identifying the roots of social injustice and steps for social change, although they have not necessarily garnered the attention needed to have substantial public impact. While the history of public sociologists is a proud one, the two twentieth-century texts that may be most representative of this tradition are Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, and C. W. Mills's 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination. Public sociology circles back, again and again, to these two texts, which distinguish themselves because of their ability to speak to people in and outside of the academy. As a pair, The Souls of Black Folk and The Sociological Imagination give us examples of an impassioned, activist-based, interdisciplinary field of study where people's subject positions—their race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and politics—are not only relevant but also crucial to their arguments.

The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois's most famous book, was published during the nadir of race relations in US history. Mills's most influential book, The Sociological Imagination, was able to ride the wave of the civil rights and women's movements in the United States in the 1960s. Academic sociology made room for Mills, a white man, in a way it never did for Du Bois. Du Bois left academia disillusioned about the academy as a location for substantial social change, aware that the white academy had yet to authorize studies that were vital for supporting racial justice. Mills, on the other hand, remained in the academy, as a tenured professor at Columbia University, spending his short but prolific life attempting to upend sociological doctrine bent on celebrating the status quo.

Du Bois knew that it was impossible to understand the struggles of African Americans in the United States without confronting the roots of imperialism and slavery. He traveled all over the world, making alliances with people in the Soviet Union, China, and many countries in Africa and South America. Mills also had an international perspective, writing about Cuba, Russia, and the United States, considering in particular their position in the world community. Among other contributions of the civil rights and black power movements was a message to sociology that it had to look outside the United States to understand what was going on internally. Not surprisingly, as anthropology in the 1980s and 1990s began to look inward, accepting some of the damage caused by exoticizing the "other" internationally, sociology had to face the damage caused by a routinely internal gaze that did not account for the slave trade and the history of colonialism.

In many ways, Du Bois's work imagined the twentieth-century movements for social justice into existence. Some have wondered if Du Bois's death in Ghana on the eve of the 1963 march on Washington could be understood as anything less than an act of providence. His work leading up to the march spanned several decades. C. W. Mills also captured the beat of a people—in his case, the millions of people who, increasingly, were seeing their personal lives as deeply affected by social forces, often unfair ones at that. The term he coined, "the sociological imagination," describes a self-consciousness that enables people to see their deep connection to a larger community. In Mills's words, it is "a quality of mind that seems most dramatically to promise an understanding of the intimate realities of our selves in connection with larger social reality."

The sociological imagination awakens people to the knowledge that their ostensibly private orbit is actually part of an entire world turning. This imagination offers a dynamic and socially engaged methodology that takes seriously the link between what is often deemed a private trouble and its connection to structural inequalities. The seemingly private trouble of Rosa Parks not wanting to sit at the back of the bus was actually a profoundly public issue of an entire people who were being publicly and privately disrespected. Rosa Parks was hardly one individual tired woman who just had to sit down. She was a trained activist, a preplanned provocateur who became a symbol of a people who refused to accept injustice. Our friend's seeming private misery surrounding 9/11 is also a deeply public concern. The events surrounding 9/11 cannot solely be attended to through individual solutions of therapy and grief work. It also requires leadership from all realms that refuses to scapegoat South Asians, Arabs, and Muslims and takes seriously the deep-seated conflict between Western values of consumerism and individualism on the one hand and fundamentalist Islamic understandings of life on the other.

While Du Bois and Mills imagined many of the problems we now face in the twenty-first century, they both owe a debt to the classical traditions that they simultaneously embraced and critiqued. It is hard to think of any theorist in the nineteenth or twentieth century who was more committed to social change than Karl Marx, a man who many activists believe was the most influential thinker on world politics in the twentieth century. His vision, which many would call utopian, contains an optimism that has given hope and strength to millions of people mired in poverty. Émile Durkheim's desire to locate a moral compass for societies that he believed needed a collective sense of belonging remains a powerful antidote to the cult of individualism that plagues much of the modern world. Max Weber was a scholar of dazzling erudition who, at the same time, understood the emotional components of human existence. Weber knew that people are both body and mind, emotion and intellect, and that the modern world would put these in conflict.

With that said, our interest is not in considering the entire life works of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, or Du Bois. Rather we zero in on those specific classical sociological concepts that help us explain current catastrophes. While we ground the concepts we use in the historical contexts in which the theorists wrote, we also believe that these insights have transhistorical relevance. For example, while aspects of both Weber's and Durkheim's work have rightfully been criticized as maintaining the status quo in nineteenth-century European society (including deeply embedded social hierarchies), that criticism does not mean that all of their work needs to be discarded. Weber's focus on characteristics of Protestantism obscures white theft of native land and slavery in the United States (since Weber did not focus on either), but his identification of the Protestant ethic in relation to capitalist accumulation remains relevant to understanding 9/11. In fact, we believe that Weber's work makes possible a rich and innovative interpretation of 9/11 and its aftermath as illustrating a transnational hunger for the sacred in an increasingly secular world. While Durkheim did not concern himself with imperialism or patriarchy, he did offer keen insight into the rootlessness experienced by many people in postindustrial society, including the two young people who killed their classmates and then themselves on a 1999 spring day in Colorado.

This book, then, is an invitation to social theory that draws on the specific theoretical tools from sociology that continue to inspire us and concepts from other disciplines that we can't help but claim for sociology. The book comes from the tradition of public sociologists who have always applied an interdisciplinary gaze to their work and a questioning spirit to their theoretical scope. Our willingness, perhaps even compulsion, to both engage with and extend beyond sociology—and our hunger for a multiracial, interdisciplinary focus—is what we believe ultimately allows us to offer new theoretical formulations.

Our grounding in black studies, in the history of the African American experience in particular, nurtures new theoretical formulation on historical memory dredged up during and since Hurricane Katrina. In the section of the book on the 9/11 attacks, our interest in religion and spirituality allows us to move beyond US ethnocentrism to identify a search for the sacred as a transnational need. For our analysis on Abu Ghraib, drawing upon both trauma theory that is grounded in psychoanalytic study and Marx's scholarly work on alienation enables us to show how the psychology of witnessing torture has a materialist base. The link between trauma theory and Marxism makes the work relevant to people interested in psychology and mental health. Our grounding in feminist theory, which insists on placing concerns about the body on a par with attention to the mind, enables us to move conceptually from a discussion of the Columbine massacre in particular to an analysis of body consciousness as a necessary antidote in this information age. As a book that looks deeply at media and imagery, culture and consciousness, while maintaining a commitment to data as a source of theory production, we see this volume as a bridge between sociology and cultural studies. It is also our attempt to reanimate public sociology by attending to upheavals at the forefront of people's worries.

Our book also reflects a momentum that has been building over the last thirty years, fueled by an increasing number of intellectuals who see the limitations imposed by disciplines that maintain an exclusionary canon (focused primarily on the work of white US- or European-born men). With the multiracial selection of authors whose work this book draws upon—including critical race theorist and the Nation columnist Patricia Williams, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, activist and poet Audre Lorde, cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa, historian Darlene Clark Hine, and others—we are cracking the canon wide open. This book demonstrates why we keep turning to sociology as a means of both explaining and ending social inequalities that are at the root of many recent social upheavals.

Connecting the Dots: An Overview of Our Idiosyncratic Plea

This book is written from the perspective of two skeptical, race- and gender-attentive women who are unsatisfied with any telling of a discipline's history that serves as a cheerleader for that field of study. While work by US sociologists in the 1920s and 1930s allowed many working-class voices to be heard (with particular focus on immigrant communities in Chicago), by the 1940s and 1950s much of sociology had been hijacked by a focus on abstract empiricism—a scientific method that leaves little room for human agency. By the end of World War II, sociology had surrendered much of its critical edge. It is shocking, but not uncharacteristic, that it wasn't until 1940, years after the buildup of the Nazi regime, that the leading US sociology journal published its first article on the Nazi Party. As the United States became a world power, exerting its economic and military might across the globe, sociology increasingly became a publicist for US domination. Mainstream sociologists joined in the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s, causing the discipline to lose much of its commitment to subverting injustice. During this period, sociology also increasingly depended upon the government for funding, again watering down its independence.

To this day, many sociologists are still taught that they should deliver conference papers about poverty, human rights violations, the AIDS epidemic, and institutional racism with the same measured and distant tone one might use to report on fluctuations in marketing patterns in advertising or changes in the weather. In his contemporary social theory text, sociologist Steven Seidman writes of the pain and outrage he felt, as a gay man, when he arrived at a national sociology conference in 1989 held in San Francisco, only to learn that not one social theory panel at the entire conference included a talk on the AIDS crisis. By 1989, the AIDS crisis was devastating gay and straight communities all over the country. AIDS organizers were already aware that the epidemic was, with lightning speed, becoming a pandemic. An emphasis on dispassionate, distanced scholarship comes from what sociologist Alvin Gouldner refers to as "the myth of a value-free sociology," a myth that he identifies as "a conquering one."

This training to be an objective social scientist is an example of what Patricia Williams refers to as the practice of "spirit murder"—a "disregard for others whose lives qualitatively depend on our regard." Asking people to testify against themselves and their communities in order to succeed in the law, in the academy, and in other occupations requires them to murder their own and others' spirits in order to advance professionally. The quest for objectivity and distance has also contributed to a long history in sociology of avoiding many compelling and influential social issues, just when society needs deeply considered and rigorous analyses.

We start from the premise that people's social locations—their race, class, gender, ethnicity, nationality, linguistic background—profoundly shape their work and outlooks on the world. This is as true for social theorists as for the rest of us. This is what Patricia Hill Collins refers to as "standpoint theory"—where one stands in society frames how she or he interprets the world; what poet and theorist Adrienne Rich refers to as the "politics of location"; and what Patricia Williams refers to as "subject position." As teachers for the last twenty years, we have found that teaching about the lives of the theorists we study—their childhoods, their struggles to find a place in the world, their passions, their health, their intellectual journeys—is a way to bring those theorists alive. We are interested in showing how theorists' struggles, worries, activism, and heartbreaks have informed their scholarship. This is why, in each chapter of the book, we weave biographical information about the theorists into our analysis as a way to show the dialectical relationship between personal lives and the theory scholars create. To make the theory come alive on the page, we tried to keep their biographies central—an approach that moves us beyond the quest for "objectivity" and distance that has long plagued the social sciences.

This book, we warn you, is anything but dispassionate and distant. It is a selective perspective from the point of view of two feminists dedicated to racial justice who are not willing to give up on social theory, who will not concede it to corporate hands, and who will not let it be denuded of its activism. In our own way, we are taking possession of sociology, beginning from the stance that activism is the measuring stick needed to judge the worth and longevity of any sociologist and his or her work.

Part One, "Consciousness: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina," addresses a change in political consciousness in the United States during the last thirty years that has made it possible for many people to be surprised when Katrina's destruction uncovered poor black communities. Many of the residents of New Orleans could not leave and were abandoned to fend for themselves. To answer the question of why this erasure occurred, we examine the rise of the color-blind ideology in the last thirty years that has been orchestrated by a substantial solidification of white conservative forces. These forces have, among other priorities, helped to advance a rising number of black conservatives. Du Bois's theory of "double consciousness" illuminates the consequences when conservative black people are implicated in attempting to erase the realities of race and class inequities. Du Bois's concept speaks to a dual psychic space as well as to the reality of only partial citizenship, a status that has required black people to choose between being American and being black in one way or another for centuries.

We then provide a profile of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who represents black people who have become American to such a degree that they don't seem to be part of a despised group any longer. We ask if they are seen as individuals in ways that Du Bois could hope for but never imagined. And we grapple with the fallout when double consciousness seems to no longer apply to black conservatives. Our questions are answered as we look carefully at the reporting of the Katrina disaster and find that even though black conservatives have rejected double consciousness, it still resides among many African Americans who were profoundly disturbed when they witnessed Katrina or survived it themselves. Katrina linked people back to historical memory that ties them to each other and to past struggles. Drawing upon the work of historian Darlene Clark Hine and cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa, we conclude the section by acknowledging that we continue to need not merely double consciousness but a consciousness that has expanded to include many other identities. We are hopeful that out of the destruction of Katrina will come a reinvigoration of New Orleans's long struggle for cultural and political wholeness.

Part Two, "Spirit: The 9/11 Attacks," begins with an acknowledgment of the effect of 9/11 on New Yorkers and others around the world. We trace how the goodwill and compassion immediately following the attacks were replaced by business as usual when the politics of retaliation became the rational response to the irrationality of 9/1l. These politics made it possible for the United States to invade Afghanistan and later to occupy Iraq, as well as to intensify fear of the Arab "other." We look to Max Weber and his work on modernity and rationality to see how the politics of compassion became the politics of retaliation. We are also able to see that both those responsible for 9/11 and those mourning the attacks may have a similar hunger for the mystical, which can provide a sense of joy, communion, and meaning that is often absent in contemporary society.

Part Three, "Labor: The Abu Ghraib Prison Abuses," begins with a question we have found ourselves asking, in despair—why are so many people in the United States perennially angry? Why the hostility, aggressiveness, and over-the-top xenophobia? When, like millions of other people throughout the world, we saw photographs of the US military humiliating detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, we were horrified by what, to us, looked like acts of great anger, anger writ large on a big screen that is reflected in many American acts around the globe.

To address this question, we reach to the work of Karl Marx, in particular his examination of the multiple consequences of alienated labor. His insights help us understand what happens to people who spend their time doing work that has no creative or productive meaning. The photos can be considered a depraved attempt on the part of the military to create a product that would help the military overcome their alienation. Instead, as a result of digital camera technology, their photos were disseminated around the world, making the audience a witness to the abuse of the prisoners, giving the guards' alienated labor worldwide exposure. This exposure does not ignoble, as Marx hoped. By showing us the debased prisoners and the process of abuse, the photos implicated all of us who viewed them. We present parallels between Marx's analysis of people's separation from the process of production, on one hand, and psychoanalytical work on dissociation—sociological and psychological processes in response to social trauma—on the other.

While Marx remains helpful in predicting the problems of labor in a postindustrial, hypercapitalist society, the dead end for Marx is his inability to find solutions to these problems (short of the overthrow of capitalism). In search of solutions we turn to María Lugones, Dori Laub, Marilyn Buck, and Frantz Fanon, all of whom provide critical insights about alienation, twenty-first century style. We conclude the section with profiles of grassroots social justice organizations that are committed to the process of what Frantz Fanon refers to as "decolonizing" people's minds. These organizations are offering solutions Marx might well have endorsed but probably could not have imagined.

Part Four, "Body: The Columbine School Shooting," hinges on the question of whether, in this information age of seemingly endless possibilities, there is a moral compass that can be a guide for people's need for connection and community? Our focus on the 1999 Columbine High School murders/suicides in Colorado reflects our interest in moving the national discussion from attention on two disturbed young men to the reasons why white adolescent boys in our society would feel so disconnected from others that they would shoot their classmates and then themselves. To grapple with this question, we look to the scholarship of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim. In particular we ask whether his analysis of community, morality, and individualism as it relates to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be applied to twenty-first-century social problems.

Through his careful empirical and theoretical work Durkheim showed that while religion held people together in preindustrial societies, occupational groups, education, and government would bind individuals to each other in industrial society. Our question pivots on what will bind people to each other in the twenty-first century, when both religion and government are insufficient to the task? We ask in particular: How far can Durkheim's work take us in understanding why two teenagers—with race, class, and gender privilege, with seemingly the world and their lives in front of them—would premeditate the deadliest school murders in US history? Durkheim's work shows that community and connection—which are manifest in belonging to one's body and the body politic—are transhistorical necessities. His work suggests that a postindustrial, highly technological, and militarized society may make it impossible for people to live comfortably in either of these bodies. Durkheim underscores why the question of what provides people with a sense of social cohesion and connection remains paramount.

This reality has encouraged us to look to contemporary theorists for help in understanding ways of approaching current despairs. We look to Audre Lorde's work on the "erotic as power" as a way to connect us to others as well as to gain the wholeness that Durkheim recognized is necessary for people to experience joy in life. We ask what antidotes are necessary to protect against the disembodiment and fragmentation that are part of Internet culture. We propose that body consciousness be recognized as a key resource of power to keep people grounded in their bodies and with each other in the face of cyberspace realities.

In the concluding chapter, we revisit key themes in the book through a dialogue between the two of us, based on a series of questions we ask each other. Throughout the book, we have asked for dialogue, so we thought it only proper to end with a conversation ourselves. After several substantive chapters focusing on classical theorists' lives and contributions, this last chapter takes the reader backstage, to our process, emotions, and personalities, and to the challenges in writing the book. We ask whether our initial admiration for classical theory remained by the end of the project—whether continuing to read and teach these theorists makes sense. We talk about inequalities that are still most troubling to us and whose activist work continues to inspire us.

Writing on the Run

In the time we have spent writing this book, we have often grappled with how our social locations have shaped our arguments and intellectual collaboration. Sociologists rarely talk about the actual work of writing, whether individually or collaboratively. While poets and novelists attend to the lived practice of being writers, sociologists and other academics tend to treat this work as a privatized space, a silence that does little to open up the process for people to learn from. We have done much of the initial writing together, in the same room, slogging our ideas out in quick and slow snatches. When we haven't been able to be together (since we live in different states), we have written over the phone, the handset cradled in between Becky's neck and shoulder as she tried to type fast enough to keep up with Diane's lightning-speed ideas. The closest we can come to describing writing together is that it is like being in a cantankerous trance. While we are in this state, it feels like we are twisting our way through to more nuanced analyses by pushing against each other, our long-standing friendship the touchstone that lets us get cranky and argumentative. After this initial writing, we go back and refine our work, doing more background research and footnoting.

On the face of it, our identities—in terms of race, age, and, to some extent, sexuality and class—differentially influence the arguments we have made in the process of writing collaboratively. And yet, over the years, we have seen how deeply intertwined our histories and perspectives are, particularly as people growing up in the United States. For Diane, as a black person whose ancestors were dragged to this country more than three centuries ago and were responsible for creating most of the wealth of the country, it is hard to see oneself as anything but American, while still aware of an African past. Becky's Mormon background also gives her a uniquely American identity. This identity was born in upstate New York in the late 1820s among poor white people determined to find a way to distinguish themselves from black people and thereby to ensure success in US society. Trying to outdo the WASPs, in response to the threat of being seen as not quite white enough, members of the Mormon faith developed an intense Protestant ethic. Prohibiting alcohol, tobacco, and premarital sex was a way to prove their whiteness (their not-blackness)—a real challenge given that, structurally, they occupied a similar location to that of free black people. Both groups needed to sell their labor, did not own property, and did not have access to higher education. Mormons kept black people out of their church to distinguish themselves from blacks. After the Civil War, Mormons certainly did not want to be confused with the newly freed slaves—another trick, considering they had worked and lived beside each other for decades.

As a new religion, Mormonism was negatively tied to blackness, and in that way it is American to its core. This echoes Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, who often said that white Americans are blacker than they know. Psychic ties between Mormons and African Americans have been largely unexplored. Meanwhile, in the last several years, we have seen Mormonism growing all over Africa and across US cities, including Harlem. It may be that Mormons had to leave black people to create an identity before they could embrace black people, with whom they have much in common. These shared values include Protestantism with a cultural twist; a primary identification with being American; an intense focus on family; a belief in circling the wagons while watching after your own, often with great protectiveness and judgment; and shared conservative beliefs about reproductive rights, monogamy, and heterosexuality.

In this context, we also both represent groups who, historically, have been running away from something, a running that, in a bizarre way, connects us. We both came from regions of the country that are running places. Historically, Mormons were running fast, from poverty, from strictures against polygamy, from anti-Mormon violence. In keeping with this tradition, Becky has certainly spent most of her life a far distance from a Mormon upbringing, a rebellion begun by her mother. The black people living in Sioux City, Iowa, where Diane was raised, all came running from somewhere else—from the South, many straight up from Arkansas and Alabama. With this running, they were desperately trying to situate themselves, first and foremost, as "Americans." Having grown up in this ideological context, the notion of an ethnic enclave was a foreign concept to Diane until she moved to New York City. There she saw Italian, Irish, and German communities—Little Italy, Hell's Kitchen, and Yorkville—where immigrants maintained a good deal of their cultural heritages from the old countries. By contrast, people living in the West and Midwest went there to make themselves Americans—in many ways devoid of their ethnic backgrounds.

The family Diane came from was full of runaway slaves, running from slavery and running toward patriarchy, a move to distinguish themselves from the myth of black matriarchal households. Diane was drawn to women's studies as a response to the extraordinarily patriarchal black community where she was raised. Becky was drawn to African American studies because she felt at home there intellectually and politically in a way she had not felt elsewhere. At seven years old, Becky saw a photograph of a slave ship with Africans tied down in rows, a reality that spoke to her unconsciously due to early childhood trauma. Akasha Gloria Hull's extraordinary book, Soul Talk: The New African American Women's Spirituality, offers deep reflection on the ways that women heal from historical, sexual, and physical trauma—trauma that is both consciously named and unconsciously encoded in the flesh. The depth of African American studies, as a discipline, is nourished by its ability to recognize connections between the past and the present, its willingness to privilege memory and honor the flesh.

Due to these overlapping histories, in many ways Diane and Becky have always been recognizable to each other. We don't want to say that our racial backgrounds make no difference in our lives and perspectives, but that difference is not what typically drives our dialogues. More relevant to us, in addition to our relation to Americanness, is our shared history of growing up in mixed-up families—which makes people ambitious in some key ways, prone to living in our heads, and watchful, a reality that drew both of us to sociology. Growing up fast also led us to think that change is our responsibility. There is a restlessness in that mission. Diane can remember, from when she was very young, talking about how she was going to go somewhere, learn something new, leave where she was in order to find a new place. As a child, when people would ask her where she was going, she couldn't answer. It was more about always pushing forward.

Like many people, we witnessed pain as children, a reality that, we believe, helped prepare us for the work, the almost obsessive need to spend weeks researching the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, the psychic worlds of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris in Colorado, and the other devastating issues we examine in this book. We, unfortunately or not, depending upon your perspective, have the stomach for facing that pain. Seeing pain early can give people a kind of empathy that can stay with us all of our lives. At the same time, that pain is seared into consciousness in a way that won't let people forget certain things, that compels us to call for a witness. This vision can, in some moments, take us to a place of grace. These are gifts we both received as children.

We also share a deep and abiding belief that an American identity carries a commitment to responsible dissent—to name and lessen the distance between US ideals and realities. Audre Lorde once said that the United States has been on the wrong side of every liberation struggle in recent history. US intervention in Chile, Cuba, and Grenada and the US government's support of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban prior to 9/11 are just a few examples that speak to Lorde's claim. Our belief is that it is our civic responsibility to see how what is done both domestically and internationally in the name of nation, the US nation, puts people at risk both inside and outside US borders—hence, the title of this book. "When the center is on fire" is a metaphor for a nation whose unbounded military and economic expansion has created the conditions for its own destruction. At the same time, on some level we must believe that there is still time to put the fire out. A global perspective is one that enables us to see that social movements both outside and inside the United States are working to put the fire out. In this way, while our heritage was born from US soil, our sense of ourselves is bigger than that as we attempt to hold ourselves accountable to a citizenship beyond national divides. Similarly, while the social upheavals we focus on in the book have particular significance for US readers, how people handle these upheavals will have transnational implications far into the future.

Through our collaborative process it has been impossible to imagine trying to grapple with the enormity and complications of the social problems we address in this book without having each other. We have cried, laughed, screamed, argued, pouted, and reasoned our way through this process together. "Ain't no mountain high enough" and "The last nerve is never really the last nerve" are how we feel about working together. May this process present itself in the following pages and invite the reader into the process as well.


When the Center Is on Fire is a much-needed contribution to sociological understandings of contemporary U.S. society as shaped by global capital and imperialism. The authors reanimate social theory and put it to the test in imaginative and innovative ways. . . . Their readings of classical social theory help us recover a humane, life-giving, and connective social ethic that can fruitfully counteract the dehumanization, atomization, and emptiness uncovered by events that have shaken the United States in the new millennium.”
Monisha Das Gupta, University of Hawai'i, author of Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States


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