Citation in the #MeToo Era
When revelations about the sexual misconduct of prominent actors, producers, and other media figures burst the dam last fall, the public began to ask, What do we do with the work of these people? Do we continue to consume it? Do we do so only selectively? Or do we throw it all on the cultural pyre and set it alight?
But what happens when we are not only consumers but also scholars? Do we continue to cite, review, analyze, teach, or otherwise engage with the work of accused abusers? If so, how? As an environmental humanist focused on gender and sexuality, I am particularly invested in these questions.1 Lately they’ve become even more pressing, as several renowned writers and scholars whose works have lent themselves to environmental readings—including Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene), Junot Díaz, David Foster Wallace, and Franco Moretti—have been accused. In fact, when the allegations of Alexie’s misconduct toward young female writers went viral via “Native Twitter” this spring, I was awaiting copy edits for my new book—which features extensive ecocritical readings of his poetry.
Do we continue to cite, review, analyze, and teach the work of accused abusers?
I thought I was prepared, theoretically, for this moment. When a colleague raised these questions on social media a few months ago, I felt I had all the answers: stop engaging with the work of accused abusers; include a caveat if you must engage with them (“as accused rapist Franco Moretti argues” has a certain…ring to it); or cite others instead, especially underrepresented folks. Seems simple enough, right?
I just never anticipated a scenario in which revelations come in at the eleventh hour, at which time entire sections of a book simply can’t be excised or even rewritten. So when I saw the news about Alexie, I was both horrified about his behavior and, selfishly, horrified that future readers of my book would think I didn’t care about it. And the kicker: this isn’t the first time this has happened with the very same project. Just a month earlier, I was wringing my hands over the Aziz Ansari allegations—which make my use of his comedy as a framework to analyze environmental activism look a little less whimsical than it did before. (And let’s not even get started on the fact that several of the prominent queer and feminist scholars I cite in the book recently defended an academic suspended for sexual harassment, on the basis of her “international standing and reputation.”) As one colleague grimly joked, by the time my book is published in October, perhaps all the prominent people I mention will have been disgraced. I joked in return that perhaps my publisher should include a sheet of #MeToo stickers with the book, so that readers can cover up the names of people who are later accused of misconduct. My book is titled Bad Environmentalism; I’ve started to feel like it should be called Bad Timing.
To be clear, this particular experience is nothing compared to the abuse and exploitation that survivors are reporting under the mantle of #MeToo. I should also note that at least two of Alexie’s accusers, writers Elissa Washuta (Cowlitz) and Erika Wurth (Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee), are Native; as writer and activist Jaqueline Keeler (Diné/Ihanktonwan Dakota) points out, this scenario fits all too well with a larger pattern in which “Native women face rates of violence and rape at levels that are two and [a] half times that of other American women.” Similar patterns are evident in Canada and elsewhere. This widespread crisis has prompted the creation of the acronym MMIWG2S, to refer to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people, and the hashtag #NotInvisible.
My experience is also nothing compared to the residual harm that figures like Alexie have managed to wreak on up-and-coming creative writers—though, of course, I empathize with the feeling of being tainted by association. Consider, for example, the case of Terese Marie Mailhot (Seabird Island Band), whose well-received 2018 memoir Heart Berries features an introduction from none other than her mentor Alexie. As she told the Los Angeles Times, she felt “broken and betrayed” once news reports about his misconduct surfaced. The toxicity of abuse often spreads far beyond the initial target, and disproportionately affects the underrepresented and vulnerable.
So, what’s a scholar to do? First, we should consider Indigenous studies scholar Eve Tuck’s (Unangax) insight on Twitter: “Can we admit now that one of the major ways that straight cis men *become* powerful authors, producers, professors is by harassing, silencing and threatening women and nonbinary people?”—and, I would add, other men and boys, as actors Terry Crews, Brendan Fraser, and Anthony Rapp have bravely shown us with their testimony of abuse by powerful men in the entertainment industry. What does this mean? It means, first, that we must recognize the cunning ways in which abusers dictate their own success through their abuse. For example, Keeler reports that, beyond specific cases of sexual misconduct, and beyond a chosen few mentees such as Mailhot, Sherman Alexie actively discouraged up-and-coming writers he perceived as rivals. As Keeler asks, “What books have we been denied over the past 25 years? What would the Native American literary landscape look like today if [Alexie] had given that ‘yes’ permission to more writers?”
Tuck’s insight also suggests that we should have a healthy suspicion of figures who dominate the conversation. While certainly not all—and maybe not even most—prominent writers and scholars are abusers, their prominence often occludes junior, precarious, non-Western, nonwhite, female, and otherwise underrepresented or vulnerable writers and scholars. (Perhaps this is why some of the fiercest critics of the academic apologists mentioned above have been younger scholars—Great Recession Ph.D.s, if you will—and scholars of color.) I have witnessed this phenomenon in my own subfield of queer ecology, wherein a single article by a prominent male scholar is frequently cited instead of the work of the female scholars who established this subfield. I’m reminded here of Tuck, K. Wayne Yang, and Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández’s statement in their “Citation Practices Challenge,” issued by the journal Critical Ethnic Studies: “We often cite those who are more famous, even if their contributions appropriate subaltern ways of knowing.” Citing underrepresented writers and scholars is simply ethical practice; if it also entails obviating abusers, all the better.
Relatedly, in this moment, we as scholars have to ask ourselves what role we play in allowing certain primary texts to dominate—especially if we’re white, as I am. Why is Alexie far and beyond the most widely cited and taught Native writer? Why is Alexie’s humor work more known than that of the other Indigenous writers, activists, and performers I discuss in my book alongside him, from Vine Deloria (Standing Rock Sioux) to the comedy troupe the 1491s? How has the tokenization of Alexie by white scholars and teachers—problematic in and of itself—enabled other wrongs? Putting the onus more squarely on myself: Why did I give Alexie more space than the 1491s? Why did I discuss Alexie and not, say, Blake Hausman (Cherokee) or Tommy Pico (Kumeyaay), whose book-length Nature Poem is a perfect example of the sardonic semi-disavowal of nature writing that I trace throughout Bad Environmentalism?
Sometimes the answers to these questions are quite simple. For example, Pico’s Nature Poem was published in May 2017, when I’d already submitted the final manuscript of my book. But usually the answers are much more complicated. For one thing, academia generally does not reward citation of the obscure or the non-canonical. As a female scholar who was junior faculty for 10 years after receiving my Ph.D. (as of this writing, I am newly tenured), and who specializes in the relatively niche area of queer ecology, I have long known that I need to cite some big names and analyze some canonical texts to get people to pay attention to my work. Thus, while we as individual scholars need to shoulder blame for “over-citation,” we also need to recognize the larger structures that prompt it.
Citing underrepresented writers is simply ethical practice; if it also entails obviating abusers, all the better.
But, again, we cannot conflate the categories of over-citation and abuse. Plenty of scholars and writers who are over-cited—like the prominent male figure in my subfield alluded to above—are not, to my knowledge, abusers. And plenty of abusers are not over-cited. And in any case, I am wary of shifting the blame for abuse too far from the abuser, as if the hordes of us who work on Alexie are somehow equally as culpable as he. I had to remind myself of this point just a few weeks ago, at the International Conference on the Environmental Humanities at the University of Alcalá in Spain. After a Brazilian graduate student presented work that relies heavily on Moretti’s scholarship to discuss representations of the Amazon in literature, I suppressed the urge to ask him to reflect on the fact that three women have accused Moretti of serious crimes against them when they were graduate students. To do so would sound like a call-out, as if this male graduate student, not (just) Moretti, had done something wrong.
Moreover, one could argue that plenty of female and other socially non-dominant scholars are over-cited within academia, at least compared to their more junior, precarious, non-Western, etc. counterparts. The Donna Haraways of the world, for example, have made invaluable contributions to the environmental humanities, but what about the Heather Davises? Davis is doing brilliant, original work on plastic pollution and queerness as a visiting scholar, yet I’ve rarely seen or heard her cited by environmental humanists. Whose voices are we not listening to—and therefore not name-checking—because they don’t come attached to tenured seniority or elite academic positions?
Yes, this intellectual and artistic landscape sounds bleak, what with abusers and an elite few dominating the conversation. But there’s good news on multiple fronts. First, when it comes to North American Native and Indigenous literature, a new generation of writers—Mailhot, Pico, Gwen Benaway (Anishinaabe/Métis), Tommy Orange (Cheyenne/Arapaho), Joshua Whitehead (Oji-Cree), and many more—are producing sensational work and earning glowing notices for it. Perhaps Sherman Alexie’s fall from grace will make even more room for them. It’s thus both right, and deeply symbolic, that new editions of Mailhot’s Heart Berries will excise his introduction and allow her writing to stand on its own. (In my own smaller-scale version of rectification, I managed to sneak in an eleventh-hour footnote in my book acknowledging the allegations against Alexie and Ansari.)
Meanwhile, in the spirit of the Citation Practices Challenge, scholars and activists have been organizing other initiatives such as the hashtag #citeblackwomen, the Women Also Know History database, People of Color Also Know Stuff (the latter two inspired by the political science-oriented project, Women Also Know Stuff), and the Syllabus Project.
Whose work will you engage with next?
Whose work will you engage with next?
Such initiatives can help the environmental humanities progress and evolve. For example, the Women Also Know History database currently lists 165 female environmental historians that users can cite, invite to a panel, or call for an interview. And the Syllabus Project, a collaborative website organized by environmental historians Nancy Langston, David Fouser, Anna Zeide, and many others, enables instructors to diversify their syllabi, using submitted samples as inspiration. This kind of work is important everywhere, but especially in environmental fields. For one thing, as those who put together the Syllabus Project point out, “far too many [environmental history] syllabi contain only works by white men—even though scholars of color and women have been writing extraordinary environmental histories.” More broadly, environmental scholars, along with mainstream environmentalists, have historically had a reputation for trying to separate the social from the environmental—thus further marginalizing the underrepresented and vulnerable. For example, Indigenous practices have often been framed as anti-conservationist, while those calling for plastic straw bans have ignored the perspectives of people with disabilities.
I’m excited to help shift that reputation. So, as I wait for Bad Environmentalism to come out this fall, I’ll be working on two new projects: thinking through the food politics in Tommy Pico’s latest book of poems, Junk, and working with my colleague Salma Monani on Wendy Red Star’s (Apsáalooke) funny, feminist environmental artwork. Whose work will you engage with next? What will you cite?
Featured image: A collage of book covers, featuring Nicole Seymour’s Bad Environmentalism and a number of works to read and cite in the #MeToo era.
Nicole Seymour is Associate Professor of English and affiliated faculty in Environmental Studies and Queer Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Her second monograph, Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age, will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in October. She thanks Darin DeWitt, Katherine Fusco, and Anelise Hanson Shrout for conversation on this topic, and Addie Hopes for editorial guidance. Website. Twitter. Contact.
In this essay, I am not interested in adjudicating the guilt or innocence of the accused, but rather in pursing a line of thought prompted by the accusations against Alexie: considering whose voices are amplified and whose are marginalized, and how citation enacts those power differentials. That said, I personally believe the accusers in these cases. Moreover, considering that even those who admit to sexual misconduct can—in what might now be more properly titled the #MeToo backlash era—be welcomed back with open arms, it is clear that the cards are still overwhelmingly stacked against accusers. ↩