More Misses than Hits: “The Chair” on Cancel Culture

“The show attacks a bunch of little-over-teenage youths who really are the least of cancel culture’s problems, but are the most fashionable to attack.”

There was something very Enid Blyton meets, well, Amanda Peet about Amanda Peet’s 2021 Netflix show, The Chair. An academic dramedy set in the rickety halls of a fictionalised two-tier Ivy School that places front and centre the challenges of “diversity” discourse within social science departments, The Chair is a response to the multiple trends of political dialogues that have taken over University campuses in the last less-than-a-decade or so. While the Literature school at Peet’s Pembroke appoints its first Chair-of-colour, the very walls of her department seem to be falling in on her as she takes over. In a narrative weaving the continuities and changes in the challenges faced by the Chair in general, and one easy to undermine in particular, Sandra Oh’s Ji-Yoon chicken-dances awkwardly through the pressures of academic obsolescence, depleting coffers and very delicate solidarities in a department that has a serious case of the ideological termites. What is eating Pembroke’s Literature Department goes further than perhaps the show’s own political engagement—it is the dishonesty and philosophical estrangement of neoliberalism (the n word that all mainstream American shows are actually concerned about). 

Mid-way through what is undoubtedly one of the tightest three-hour television shows OTT platforms have released in a while, the show descends into the politics of hysteria. Choreographed for an almost perfectly synchronised sport of depicting reactionary politics in the language of student politics, Peet’s The Chair takes a definitive stance on the complexity of “cancel culture”—  that it stops making sense after a point. The jury is out on the appropriateness of the show’s sardonic eye-rolling to the cancellation of a professor over what could truly at its worst or best be a difference of expression on what is or isn’t to be found funny but a deeper discussion on the themes of the show is perhaps an imperative. The question however remains: what does a show like The Chair do for the discourse around the materially alienated politics of academic spaces? If you ask me: very little good. 

You Speak Now in Blank Verse

A real Masterclass in Academia and the Art of Saying Nothing. Having spent most of my adult life confined to social science classrooms, I appoint myself, as most of us who spend time in classrooms are wont to, the expert on the politics of The Classroom. I hereby coin it the Jargon-the-Buck Syndrome. It is a condition in which we in the social sciences sit around and jargon ourselves out of any direct responsibility or onus to radicalise conversations by acknowledging our role in perpetuating collective and systemic inequalities. Our tutorials are exercises in head-nods about social exclusions and our methodology classes are mostly just squirms in our chairs as we go through theory after theory without having to acknowledge the relative location of the theoretician and their work and our email threads are plain denials of why complex discussions on departmental abuses of power have no place in the shaping of our syllabi and the making of our scholars. We in academia are smart, intelligent, promising episteme-makers with a curious web of ground-breaking academic questions but it is agreed upon with unnatural uniformity that our minds shall not be able to withstand even a single thought about the role we play by the exercise of our epistemology in feeding the very oppressions we wax jargon about. 

This is not to say that reflexive academic work does not exist, but it is safe to assert that academia is due for a reckoning of radical proportions—one in which our knowledge producing spaces are able to participate in discussions that go beyond the binaries of free-speech and the policing of ideas to build a cohesive self consciousness. The labour to build into our disciplines a historical awareness that makes us both uncomfortable and hopeful about our exercise of scholarship is tenuous. For most of us who are fond of western modernity’s linear narratives, it is icky even. But inability to be faced with the failings of one’s own institutions leaves us in a Kafila Feminist lurch that most of us should perhaps be more keen to avoid. 

Symbols of liberal identity politics have significantly sanitised the language of resistance within the left, and especially within student bodies, over the past few decades. What The Chair overlooks is that the campus politics frenzy it chooses to satirise is not an ahistorical result of “cancel culture” but perhaps the product of a political economy designed by neoliberal epistemology that alienates young people, students and scholars from a legacy of solidarity, of debate and of building partnerships that are more meaningful that their rejection of a professor’s joke on fascism. There has been a quiet and systematic death of The Cause and the shallow roots of our ideology is Don Quixote-ing an enemy mirage that protects the real enemy—a back-breaking, soul crushing capitalist economy set to the grotesque background of the American Dream and its many imports.

The World Forgetting, One Much Rather Not

Remembrance has been seen as a curse in so much of literature for so long. Perhaps as a statement about the human condition, poets and thinkers have for centuries noted that forgetting is a freedom from the pains of a world dispossessed. A number of proponents of the psychology of cancel culture offer cognitive dissonance as a possible explanation for cancellation. Our fallen heroes must be uncritically discarded, lest they or their behaviours reveal truths about us or the social contracts we uphold. Historiographical engagement reveals, now more than ever before, that history is a performed narrative that picks from memory cherries for the historian’s questions—sometimes supple, red, fresh, other times synthetic, pale, too sweet to be real. The conduit between historical remembrance and memory-making is mediated by power, by whose story gets written and who writes these stories. While the validity of memory and history shall forever be put through credibility tests as they should, it is worthwhile to examine cancel culture with this framework. 

There is an argument to be made for cancel culture in its current form to be seen in alignment with the modern nation-state’s theorisation of criminality. Maybe, just maybe, there is a problem with cancel culture that can be identified without lending sympathies to alarmists whose apocalypse signalling deviates from holding the rich and powerful duly accountable. The suggestion here is to develop a methodology that is both able to cut off abusive power-holders from their sources of social and material capital while also acknowledging that the conversation could not possibly end there. Criminal behaviour, now almost dangerously sucking into its definition any behaviour that may be considered problematic through consensus, has been pathologized and demonised for the convenience of a community incapable of accepting the failings of its institutions. Those who reject cancel culture to protect their own and to defend the institutions of  “due process” that reflect a morality of a certain time, may then want to consider how much of what they call “witch hunting” now could have been different, tectonic and compassionate, had they engaged meaningfully with questions of responsibility in crime, society and polity. The descent of political discourse into a swamp of pigtail-pulling may still be recovered if we only commit to remembering, to restructuring, to centring those whose stories deserve a place in memory and through a system of radical reflection in which accepting the demons in our collectivity does not challenge us more than it inspires us. 

Is that really so hard?

The Chair may as well deal with the absurdity of identity politics but it picks as its “victim” the powerful white man whose absolution arc has been repeated in popular culture imaginaries to a point where it has become a cultural instinct. Perhaps the show wants us to know that even the white men are paranoid now and for good reason. But it feels like a missed opportunity in the face of multiple institutional cancellations that happen in academia when scholars and researchers find themselves on the wrong side of state-sponsored politics. The show wastes its platform, its cast and its opportunity to tell this story right. It feeds into the very ideological pattern of convenience that it claims to send ripples through. The Chair is attacking with provocation essentially a bunch of little-over-teenage youths who really are the least of cancel culture’s problems but the most fashionable to attack—it is easy and in that, it is lazy. What is horrifying for those following the debate around cancel culture is that the fates of those like Steven Salaita are hardly ever mentioned. That the methodical hounding of a Palestinian academic for standing up to imperialist oppression has been erased from the history of the consequences of legitimised institutional prejudice and censorship may prove useful to know for those who pontificate about how “the young have gone too far in asking for change”. 

From Hour to Hour, We Rot and Rot

Charting the history of political upheaval is daunting and not one that this piece is equipped for. But what it hopes to introduce is a recognition that cancel culture is not a break from the past but, quite to the contrary, a result of it. The self-awareness and reflexivity that informs questions of morality and value systems have in many ways swiftly eroded. As have the roots of solidarites based on labour and materiality within campus spaces. . It is this unfortunate and fatal loss that has led us here. We cannot persistently encourage an identity politics based on pitting groups against each other while removing them from their historical connections with land, capital and ownership of what is rightfully theirs and expect the order of things to remain acceptable, rational, unperturbed. It is not absurd for students within liberal, predominantly privileged campuses to want to live for more, ask for more: even if their demands are packaged in reaction and not responsiveness. This is not a socio-political aberration, this is our moment to take stock and to accept more than ever before that our departments, our knowledge production and our politics needs integrity, roots and collaborations. 

Perhaps it is time for an irreverent rejection of the accepted order of things and ask for more than tokenism. While the powerful must stop profiting from a social and economic contract that feeds the abuse they practice, it is time for student bodies and faculty within academia to perhaps ask more questions, to demand more from conversations inside classrooms, from syllabus prescribed and most of all—from the codification of memory. 

Sneha Roychoudhury
Sneha is a historian in the making. She takes a specific interest in sacrality as a process of nation-making in the Himalayan borderlands. She has degrees from Lady Shri Ram College and Ambedkar University, and has worked for a number of years in policy research.