About Michael Lechuga, Ph.D.: Michael Lechuga is Assistant Professor at The University of New Mexico where he researches and teaches courses in Xicano/a/x Media Studies, settler colonialism studies, migration, rhetorical criticism, and affect studies. Dr. Lechuga’s recent work has been published in some of the leading critic journals of the field, including his recent piece in Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies, “An AntiColonial Future: Reassembling the Way We Do Rhetoric,” and “A Minuteman in the White House: Performing Spectacle, Mobilizing Political Affect, and Gendering Vulnerability in the United States” in Women’s Studies in Communication.
Dr. Lechuga is co-author of the textbook Cine-Mexicans: An Introduction to Chicano Cinema. His newest book, Visions of Invasion, which explores the material and affective rhetorical strategies of settler colonialism, is forthcoming. He is also Founder and Director of the MUVE Lab – the Multiuser Virtual Environment Lab – at The University of New Mexico, which draws on feminist and Indigenous ways of thinking to simulate interactive environments designed to foster social connection stewardship for the earth. Dr. Lechuga holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Denver, an M.A. from The University of Texas at El Paso, and a B.A. in English from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have an overview of your professional and academic background? How did you first become interested in rhetoric and begin to study its relationship to borders, migration and colonialism?
[Dr. Lechuga] I actually started out with an English degree. I tell people I was into Kenneth Burke before a lot of folks were into Kenneth Burke, because I took an English literary criticism class where we studied dramatism, so it was something I was exposed to in my undergraduate degree. I wanted to get a degree in communication media, actually, because I was particularly interested in film. I thought it seemed pretty easy to transition from screenplays and literary forms to film forms, without realizing it takes a whole other step of film production. But I was pretty aspirational at the time, so I thought I could study film and make film as a communication person.
Then, leaning heavily into my rhetoric background, I became interested in studying media, through rhetorical criticism, particularly with a focus on migrant media, or media that focuses on migration and borders. Although, I took a weird turn in my PhD program. I was really interested in hip hop music and I did my master’s thesis as a discursive analysis of the top forty hip hop albums from two different periods of time: the height of West Coast gang rap and the newer, post-2000, whatever you would call that form, a lot of Sean Puffy Combs and the elevation of the hyper-materialist and the hyper-misogynistic. That’s where I got into media analysis.
Once I was in my PhD program, I took a class on affect studies and I found it particularly useful to not only theorize discursive formations of citizenship and migration, but to also take a deep dive into the affective structuring of the other. Particularly with migration, it seemed to click that the ways we talk about migrants have so much to do with the way we feel about migrants and the ways we feel about migrants is not a passive understanding of their subjectivity but it really is materially and rhetorically produced for us to engage with. I think that’s where I am at now.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have more information on your areas of research expertise? For students just learning about these disciplines and subdisciplines, how would you describe the relationship between the study of rhetoric, Latino/a/x studies, affect studies, and settler colonialism studies? How would you recommend they explore these areas of scholarship and how they intersect with other areas of research in and beyond communication studies?
[Dr. Lechuga] It’s funny, each of these things – whether it’s rhetoric, settler colonialism, Latinx studies – I find myself recently critiquing all of them and questioning why we accept some of the modes that are underlined within them. With rhetoric, in particular, it seems to me that we’ve reached a point where we try to rhetorically analyze everything. And that’s good. I recently heard someone say they were trying to understand a complex political issue like drone warfare but they couldn’t really make sense of the issue until they adopted a rhetorical perspective, which helped them see it. I thought, “Yeah, maybe, but in so many ways, especially for folks in precarious positions, rhetoric has been used as a means to create the problems and mask what’s happening.”
For someone who is interested in Latinx studies, the term itself serves as sort of an ideograph: this fillable container for whatever it is that the dominant group is not, with regard to excess, with regard to Brownness, with regard to fungibility and marginalizability. It all happens with the simple subjectification of that group, who are completely detached from that signifying word. Latinx, for me, is this fabrication of this future identity of brown people who are void of any indigeneity, and I’m pretty critical of this conception of Latinx, mostly because it’s become a way for folks to subjugate (and I’m not sure if you’re familiar, but I am thinking of this through [Sara] Ahmed’s “Cultural Politics of Emotion”) an entire group of mostly different people into one group who are politically orientated with relation to how they feel about and are felt by white people. That, for me, is underlying a lot of what I’m doing now, critiquing this flattening of cultural identity into a single subjugation.
With regard to settler colonial studies, my main interest in settler colonial studies right now is to link this idea of subjection to how narrative production within settler colonialism is responsible for the circulation and distribution of subjectivities within the settler colony. I actually just sent the final edits of my book manuscript to my publisher. It’s called Visions of Invasion and I look at the way we produce alien affects intentionally within our settler society to manifest this age old narrative that the settler has built within their logic that invasion is imminent, that destruction of their way of life is on the horizon. The only way to prevent that, of course, is to hunker down on the land that has been stolen and to defend it as if it were your own and to create this relationship to the land and this persona of settlerhood that is always ready to combat the alien invasion, which is the threat to settler sovereignty.
I say this because it seems like we’re at this moment where the production of even those subjectivities to which we ascribe — protesters, antifa, or Latinx, whatever it is that attempts to be inclusive — are in many ways reifying these settler narratives and the settler subjectivities within those narratives to keep the spirit of disavowal alive.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Is there a way in your work that you explore alternative forms of rhetoric to these settler colonial forms or ways of thinking outside these reified spaces or logics?
[Dr. Lechuga] I don’t know if I would say inside or outside as a way to think about it but there are definitely articulations that don’t go with the flow. I always have to explain why I’m such a Deleuzian to folks when they think, “You do settler colonial studies and you do [Gilles] Deleuze at the same time.” My response is, “Well, they’re not incompatible. In fact, if you look at where Deleuze and [Felix] Guattari’s collaboration started, it was in the 1960s protests against US Imperialism by French students.” If anything, you can see how much of US settler society is inspired by European structuralism and, of course, how so much of the resistance against structuralism comes from these folks. Anyway, they’re compatible.
I see assemblage as being a mechanism to think about subjectivities and personhood in these settler states. I think assemblage is particularly useful for the idea of personae: how, when people are scripted to be a certain kind of individual, there’s a regime of emotions, technologies, and other things that are circulated to keep up that personae. I also think that when we think through the particulars of citizenship within our society, a lot of the time folks in our field get caught in trying to understand the discursive practices and discursive mechanisms because those are the things that are valued by the field.
Reaching to things like assemblage theory can explain the material. I think in the field of rhetoric we see this push toward materiality or new materialisms as this way to explain the phenomena of the world. What lacks there is a real engagement with the fact that discursivity is materiality. They’re not distinct from each other. I think it’s in Deleuze’s book on [Michel] Foucault where he describes how power really is the integration of the seeable and the sayable and the manipulation of the both of them.
Where I get caught up — and I would really urge folks who study materiality and discursivity and this relationship to attend to this — is that, just as much as we would argue that the discursive is highly manipulated for a particular type of persuasion mode, so is the material, so is the affective. There are ways we can modulate how people feel, who is allowed to feel what, what sort of structures of feeling are available to folks. That, in so many ways, also creates a subject that then is also coded discursively, and it’s within those dynamics of power that we see how materiality and discursivity get attached to bodies.
That’s what I engage with in my work. I would hope that what folks can take away from some of my research is an understanding of the relationship between the affective and the discursive, or the material and the discursive, as both constantly interplaying with each other and both capable of being manipulated for particular persuasive purposes.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Is this something you would say you’ve arrived at as a researcher? Are there ways that your research has changed along the way that has brought you to this particular place?
[Dr. Lechuga] I’d say one of the major changes in my research is understanding this relationship between the material and the discursive. There are these really fascinating moments of feeling that are attached to experience and memory that are unspeakable, that don’t have this discursive potential. I don’t know how to say this without outing myself as a hippie but having psychedelic experiences, or being around animals, or having psychedelic experiences around animals, for example, shows you that you can’t say some of the things that are creating your worlds of meaning.
But more seriously, there’s so much literature in Indigenous cultural studies and Indigenous Feminist studies right now that talks specifically about how we produce societies that are mediated through the natural world. This body of work shows us that we’re built as creatures to form social relationships that are mediated through the environment in which we move. Synthetic mediation that happens in places like Zoom or happens in places like political forums or the public sphere — these abstract environments that are produced in our current political reality — in many ways serve as an inauthentic mediator for our social relationships. A key takeaway from this is that we can’t have an understanding of our culture, society, or even our social interactions without a really base understanding of our connection to the environment.
I was thinking of a very practical change that I’ve included in my research recently, which is settler colonialism studies as a mechanism to explain cultural phenomena. I think folks in the field of rhetoric are catching up with Black studies and are catching up with Latinx rhetoric. Folks like Lisa Flores and Karma Chávez, for example, set a pretty important precedent for us in the field. But, again, I’m resistant to buy into Latinx rhetoric for its all-encompassing effects for people of color who maybe don’t identify as Latinx but have what I would consider an Indigenous, cultural Mestiza identity that is not explainable by that single term.
I say that to say, my approach to migrant studies was first from the Latinx perspective: from understanding citizenship in a rights-based formulation of who gets to count and who doesn’t get to count under a pretty ambivalent understanding of citizenship. But once I began to question the ambivalence towards citizenship and really question how citizenship as productive of settler colonialism is, in fact, a mechanism of control, I realized that there’s a way to understand cultures and borders and citizenship and difference from a way that breaks from what I think that Chávez and Flores and [Darrel] Wanzer-Serrano and others are doing. I guess I frame it in a way that’s more akin to what I described earlier: this understanding that the subjectivity or the figure of the alien has been simultaneously produced discursively and affectively and that the way we engage with that figure really frames how we understand citizenship in America today.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In one of your most recent publications, “Intimate Borders and the Sense of Never-Quite-Being: A Dystopic (Non-)Fiction,” you discuss the ways in which the contemporary academy is dystopian and how it produces in scholars of color and international scholars (which you term “border-bodies”) a sense of “never-quite-being.” Are there ways in which you see this same dynamic at work in other areas of contemporary culture?
[Dr. Lechuga] A little bit of background about the piece. I was invited to do a special issue on Deleuze and intimacy. For me, when I heard the term intimacy, it wasn’t necessarily the connotation that maybe most folks have about intimacy or being intimate; it was actually about the sort of dangerous proximity that intimacy can afford.
Of course, as every good Xicano does, I turned to Gloria Anzaldúa. There’s really one term she uses, intimate borders, and actually it only appears as a subheading in one of her chapters somewhere. The whole description of what she calls intimate borders is this process of terrorizing the other in very close proximity, in micro-doses, to the point where they themselves are not quite sure if they’re being terrorized. It’s what we would probably call today microaggressions.
I put this idea of intimate borders in conversation with Deleuze and the folks who were writing for the special issue. I thought this would be a good opportunity to critique something that I see happening throughout cultural studies when it comes to this very specific term, and that term is “becoming.” This idea of becoming has become this sort of ontological rallying cry for those that want to ditch Descartes but aren’t really quite ready to embrace a completely anti-anti-Black, anti-anti-Queer and anti-anti-Indigenous future. Becoming is this really ambivalent way in which we say, “Oh, we’re not really anything, we’re always constantly becoming something as we move toward becoming the potentialities that we’re afforded to become. We just need to go out there and get them.”
The critique is that, while maybe for some people the potentialities out there are limitless, for others, power and intimate bordering — particularly, the micromanagement of one’s potentials to become something more than they are — seem to be a product of the contemporary institution and the contemporary academy. In particular, in moments that are often celebrated as having the potential for you to be something more than you are, let’s say a scholar who is on the tenure track or a graduate student who is really trying to advance their career, we buy into this idea that your precarities and your experience and your life stories are somehow offering you the availability to grow into this profession, where in fact those are not the opportunities. As we go further and further into this profession, we see that senior scholars and administration, who don’t have the same levels of personal identity and precarity, aren’t ever having to deal with those barriers.
Just being very honest, it’s a personal narrative. It’s a narrative that I feel like was at the center of my experience in my own first tenure track job and leading up to my first tenure track job. And really that’s what it felt like every time I was being gaslighted to believe that I had the potential to be something more than I was, there was this series of intimate borders that were constructed that were limiting my advancement through my career.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What are the risks and challenges of writing and publishing a piece like “Intimate Borders and the Sense of Never-Quite-Being: A Dystopic (Non-)Fiction” that critiques the academy, especially in the context of “not-quite-being” that you describe? Is there any advice you would give to critical scholars following your publication of this article?
[Dr. Lechuga] Well, as you can tell, I used a lot of pseudonyms. I didn’t actually make it a story about anybody, but about many people. And writing it as a dystopian narrative and setting it in the future means nobody could say, wow that’s got to be about me. Because it’s not about you, it’s in the future! At the same time, if the folks, who these characters were “loosely” based off were to have read these stories, I’m sure they would have known who I was talking about.
If this were a New York Times editorial, sure, I would be a little worried. It’s an article in a cultural studies journal and, let’s be honest, the people who are reading me aren’t necessarily those people in positions of power who “wanted” to see me kind of advance but not really. The people who are reading this are folks who are getting assigned my work or picking up my work because they genuinely have a desire to learn about these issues–usually it’s graduate students and younger folks.
I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m not too worried. Sure, I’m an assistant professor. At the same time, the critique I make of the academy is a true one. It’s one I don’t think anyone will disagree with. Even some of those people in those positions of gatekeeping are, or at least were at one time, critical of the academy and feel like they’re pretty woke. So, who knows? I don’t think it’s as risky as people might think.
I would really encourage folks to start speaking up in this manner, to start turning the mirror back onto the academy. As a person who — and I say this because I’m assuming you’re a graduate student — is probably in a position of precarity where your labor is literally exploited, where your job is not necessarily guaranteed, and where the level of competition is actually health-affecting, who better to speak about the ways the system is broken than people who are really being smudged by it? That’s what I would say.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In another recent article, “An Anticolonial Future: Reassembling the Way We Do Rhetoric” you propose treating social movements as theorists. Can you discuss the relationship between your academic research and your engagements with activism within and outside of the academy? How do you view the significance of academic research in struggles for social justice? What are some of the important ways that your research has influenced your perspective on activism, or your experiences with social movements have influenced your research?
[Dr. Lechuga] I’ll say two things. First, I hear activism, and I always think fast: something happening fast, or something happening in reaction to something else. But the way I feel about my activism right now in the community is really based in land-based theorization. I have a colleague, her name is Jaelyn deMaría, and she is an activist scholar and journalist from this area. Really early on, she invited me to Sanchez Farm, which is an open-space community farm just south of here. I started as a volunteer – I would go and just dig in the dirt, and slowly and surely we started building a community of different folks.
Now, we’re starting to integrate some lessons about communication with the land. How is it we can build a theorization of communication that incorporates land into our model? What would that look like? There are scholars like Erick Torrico who talk about this responsibility communication scholars have to think about how communication is responsible for rendering folks incommunicable, whether it’s through the colonization of peoples and the disavowal of their intelligence, the disavowal of their spirituality, or because they couldn’t speak colonial languages. There’s also the disavowal of this connection to land. Rendering land incommunicable is really what started the global climate crisis we’re facing today. This inability to maintain a symbiosis with the land that was here, established with native peoples. And really, let’s be honest, it was what started the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression.
For every land grant institution that was built in the United States–it was built out of the desperation to save the settlers from starvation due to their inability to live in relationship to the land. The modern university is implicated, for sure, in this understanding–the rendering of land incommunicable. I think that’s one way in which my activism with land protectors and those who are interested in land comes into conversation with my own research on land grants.
The second way is through direct engagement with these activist scholars from indigenous communities who are themselves literally theorizing on how to become more connected. For example, one of the theories I already spoke about, in Spanish it’s called vincularidad. Vincularidad is translated by Nina Pacari, who is a Quechuan scholar and activist, as interconnectedness. The idea that we are only connected socially through a mediator of the shared land or shared natural world which we move through. And another scholar, Isabel Altamirano-Jiménez, is also talking about this resistance to extractive economies in Oaxaca and building feminist coalitions through this resistance to extractive economies. So, again, getting back to the idea that those who are on the ground building theories of interconnectedness and social theories can become part of what we’re doing in our own research.
I’ve basically taken Pacari and Isabel Altamirano-Jiménez’s work and translated it into the foundation for a virtual reality lab that I just recently founded here at UNM. It’s called the MUVE Lab – the Multiuser Virtual Environment Lab. Basically, the mission of the lab is to create virtual reality environments where many users will enter into an environment and through a series of benevolent decisions, they make with the environment they can perhaps find social connection with each other. Basically, the reward for doing good for the environment is finding each other. And, really, if we can test these approaches and whether they’ll have long-term effects for the environment, we can materialize these theories and these theorists into practical research studies that can not only implicate new media as a tool for developing social awareness, but also maybe change people’s attitudes toward the environment.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have any advice or recommendations for students interested in research in critical rhetoric, the study of migration, borders and colonialism, or in Latino/a/x Studies, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Lechuga] Stories matter for a lot of reasons. And for me I’ve learned that communication studies matters because stories matter – people’s stories but also these grand narratives of these societies. I come from an English background and so I used to read this idea of the master narrative–which is, of course, racially problematic. But the fact is there are these relationships we have to stories. There’s even research that talks about how our brain is a story-shaped brain. That we learn from stories is that our connection to others is through stories. Rhetoric has gotten away from that.
Rhetoric has gotten into the programmatic, the formulaic. Even this in situ movement, which I agree is valuable — how is that any different than storytelling from a certain place? Because that’s really what we’re talking about, how a story changes when it’s told from a different perspective, from a different person, when it’s told on a different land.
If that’s the case, we could really benefit from scholars who recognize the importance of story, and who recognize how story isn’t just what we do when we’re sitting around the campfire, but story is everywhere. Story is in our essays. I’ve been told so many times in my research materials, “write a story about myself,” “write a story in your grant application.” It’s because with story you have the freedom to set the subjectivity. Story is important to me because it communicates subjectivities, and I think if we, as folks in cultural studies, do anything, it’s study subjectivities. We study how we subject ourself, how people subject us, how we share stories and experiences of our subjectivities.
I really think that in any subdiscipline right now you can find people who are invested in storytelling and story making and finding ways to bridge that as the theme of what our communication discipline is about. The critique of the discipline is that it’s so vapid and doesn’t have a core to it. I don’t think that’s true. I think we just don’t want to admit that we’re contemporary storyteller scholars. But it’s exciting for people to understand the multiple modes of media that allow us to tell the vastness of the stories that comprise who we are. That’s exciting for me. I want to join that, and I really would love to see more folks jump on that.
Thank you, Dr. Lechuga, for your excellent insight into critical rhetoric and its connection to racial marginalization, social justice advocacy, and the concept of settler colonialism!