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“Neither Arabic nor Persian literature has an originative poetics per se.”

August 3, 2020 - 19:49
Tags:  comparative Poetics, meaning, arabic

This short note first appeared on the UC Press Blog in November 2018.

“Neither Arabic nor Persian literature has an originative poetics per se.” With that 1990 footnote, repeated by its author Earl Miner in 2000, and then again by Jonathan Culler in the opening paragraph of his 2015 Theory of the Lyric,[1] any claim of Arabic or Persian poetics on our attention is rendered null ab initio. 

One is left with a choice: to carp about the blind spots of one’s fellow comparativists, or to attempt to rebuild the originative Arabic material in English and thereby make clear that Arabic – and then Persian – have poetics worthy of our attention.

Language Between God and the Poets starts that process with a book-length study of two important words: ma'na (roughly equivalent to “meaning”) and haqiqa (roughly equivalent to “correct”). It winds back through linguistic and scholarly precedent in Arabic from the eleventh century to the seventh, and it shows how one great moment in Arabic poetics (the literary theory of 'Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani) was built on work that was being done in lexicography, theology, and logic – all in Classical Arabic. All the scholars in Language Between God and the Poets wrote in Arabic, and they all spoke Persian at home. They lived in what is now Iran, right at the moment when New Persian literature was developing in symbiosis with New Persian criticism.

There are many things here that are foreign to Anglophone poetics. First among them is the outside presence of the lexicon, the dictionary. The lexicon was a warranty for meaning, a knowledge-backstop, existing in the physical form of vast complex dictionaries, with its development iteratively managed by the discourse and discipline of lexicographers. The guarantee that the lexicon gave to theory shaped Islamic theology, and the questions raised in theology about language bled into the great reworking of Aristotelian philosophy by Ibn Sina (Avicenna).

To make this argument, one must translate. It was the absence of translated Arabic or Persian literary theory, alongside the presence of translated Arabic and Persian lyric in English, which led Miner to make his original slip. But translation of theory comes with its own problems, distinct from the dynamics of the translation of literature. Language Between God and the Poets argues that all translation must, always and already, contain a theory of language – a philosophical set of commitments to how language works that are almost always left unsaid. The commitments that inform my translations of Classical Arabic come from a mixture of Wittgenstein and Kuhn: Wittgenstein helps establish a methodology in which we track usage instead of mapping reference, and Kuhn helps explain how hard it is to translate theoretical vocabulary. For ma'na is not the same as “meaning” at all; it is its own story.


[1] Earl Miner, Comparative Poetics: An Intercultural Essay on Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 82 n.1; Jonathan D. Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 1.





“Neither Arabic nor Persian literature has an originative poetics per se.”

July 8, 2020 - 21:49
Tags:  culler, poetics, comparative Poetics

This short note first appeared on the UC Press Blog in November 2018.

“Neither Arabic nor Persian literature has an originative poetics per se.” With that 1990 footnote, repeated by its author Earl Miner in 2000, and then again by Jonathan Culler in the opening paragraph of his 2015 Theory of the Lyric,[1] any claim of Arabic or Persian poetics on our attention is rendered null ab initio. 

One is left with a choice: to carp about the blind spots of one’s fellow comparativists, or to attempt to rebuild the originative Arabic material in English and thereby make clear that Arabic – and then Persian – have poetics worthy of our attention.

Language Between God and the Poets starts that process with a book-length study of two important words: ma'na (roughly equivalent to “meaning”) and haqiqa (roughly equivalent to “correct”). It winds back through linguistic and scholarly precedent in Arabic from the eleventh century to the seventh, and it shows how one great moment in Arabic poetics (the literary theory of 'Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani) was built on work that was being done in lexicography, theology, and logic – all in Classical Arabic. All the scholars in Language Between God and the Poets wrote in Arabic, and they all spoke Persian at home. They lived in what is now Iran, right at the moment when New Persian literature was developing in symbiosis with New Persian criticism.

There are many things here that are foreign to Anglophone poetics. First among them is the outside presence of the lexicon, the dictionary. The lexicon was a warranty for meaning, a knowledge-backstop, existing in the physical form of vast complex dictionaries, with its development iteratively managed by the discourse and discipline of lexicographers. The guarantee that the lexicon gave to theory shaped Islamic theology, and the questions raised in theology about language bled into the great reworking of Aristotelian philosophy by Ibn Sina (Avicenna).

To make this argument, one must translate. It was the absence of translated Arabic or Persian literary theory, alongside the presence of translated Arabic and Persian lyric in English, which led Miner to make his original slip. But translation of theory comes with its own problems, distinct from the dynamics of the translation of literature. Language Between God and the Poets argues that all translation must, always and already, contain a theory of language – a philosophical set of commitments to how language works that are almost always left unsaid. The commitments that inform my translations of Classical Arabic come from a mixture of Wittgenstein and Kuhn: Wittgenstein helps establish a methodology in which we track usage instead of mapping reference, and Kuhn helps explain how hard it is to translate theoretical vocabulary. For ma'na is not the same as “meaning” at all; it is its own story.


[1] Earl Roy Miner, Comparative Poetics: 82 n.1; Jonathan D. Culler, Theory of the Lyric: 1.





Poetry for a Time of Plague

July 6, 2020 - 14:37
Tags:  coronavirus, pandemic, Thomas Nashe

Shakespeare may well have written King Lear in quarantine during one of early modern London’s periodic bouts with plague, but the most powerful depiction of illness written in Elizabethan London was a lyric poem by the urban pamphleteer and stylistic experimentalist Thomas Nashe. Nashe’s poem voices the perspective of a suffering body in the grip of illness. Watching Covid-19’s numbers rise in America and the world today, it’s hard not to think that we would rather avert our eyes to the stark view that Nashe provides. He presents neither a magical-seeming vaccine nor a tale of heroic caregivers saving lives. Instead, his verse describes how it feels to live inside an infected body, speaking the voice of illness, echoing with proximity to death. The results are haunting and beautiful, though their sing-song rhythm also appears deeply conventional:

Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss;

This world uncertain is,

Fond are life’s lustful joys,

Death proves them all but toys,

None from his darts can fly;

I am sick, I must die.

Lord, have mercy on us!

Nashe’s rhyming stanzas interrogate our daily experience of fear and uncertainty – the moments when we listen to our own coughs or consider our slight chills, and wonder what’s happening inside our bodies. His literary tactics do not include the close physical descriptions of plague sores or fever dreams we find in Camus or Defoe or even Boccaccio. Instead, Nashe fits the symptoms of sickness into verses comprised of three six-syllable mostly iambic couplets, with the last rhymed line of each stanza admitting to sickness and ensuing death in anapestic dimeter. A final unrhymed line seeks heavenly mercy. We do not want to hear that voice, we are doing all we can to avoid letting that infectious point of view into our homes -- but it’s the most urgent voice we can imagine right now. “I am sick,” says the sick body. “I must die,” admits the sickened soul.

The half-dozen stanzas of this poem, usually anthologized as "A Litany in a Time of Plague," were written as part of Nashe's only single-authored play, Summer's Last Will and Testament. This work was performed privately around the summer of 1592, when plague closed London's public theaters. The play itself combines complex allegorical figurations with topical references, but the poem focuses directly on the sick and dying in an infectious time. Over his career, Nashe had a habit of taking up only to break and re-imagine many standard literary forms. In this poem he strains the conventions of Elizabethan verse in order to reveal human suffering.

The poem’s third stanza juxtaposes invisible airborne death with the face of the most beautiful woman in history. It provides the poem’s signature moment and its most overt departure from conventional imagery:

Beauty is but a flower

Which wrinkles will devour;

Brightness falls from the air;

Queens have died young and fair;

Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.

I am sick, I must die.

Lord, have mercy on us!

What does it mean for “brightness” to “fall,” in Nashe’s most famous line? The imprecise image exposes the constriction of sense that defines mortal illness. When brightness falls, details get submerged. The sick person, losing brightness, loses perspective and perception. Inside a sick body, it’s hard to see or make sense of the world around us. The usual features of urban life, including the inns and taverns about which Nashe writes elsewhere with verve and invention, fade. With falling brightness the visible world vanishes from sick senses.

The rest of the stanza returns to conventional lament, although the pathos of beautiful young dead Queens might carry some forbidden charge in the 1590s, with Queen Elizabeth pushing into her sixties. The blinding of Helen’s godlike eye, which like brightness falling presents an image of failed sight, rolls into the stanza’s quadruple-rhymed close, eye / I / I / die. The closing anapests narrow the reader’s perspective, until we too can see nothing beyond the coming loss, and a need for mercy.

The poem’s half-dozen stanzas display Nashe’s typical practice of inhabiting while also exploding the literary forms of his age. His picaresque narrative, The Unfortunate Traveler, breaks the mode of aristocratic romance by featuring a “courtesan” as heroine and eventual wife of his wayward page-hero. His quasi-ethnography of poor writers in London, Pierce Pennilesse, features the Devil in a walk-on part. His Chaucerian narrative poem, "The Choice of Valentines," descends into the pornographic free-for-all of its alternate title, "Nashe's Dildo." Few Elizabethan writers turned to so many different genres and forms, and none was as radically experimental in the ways that he transformed the conventions he employed.

Tom Nashe’s restless literary innovation, visible even in the largely conventional Litany, captures the broken sensations of plague times. When the virus of “brightness” falls from so many human bodies, infection overshadows the metaphors of the stage. Nashe’s final stanza returns to familiar dramatic ideas as the poet strains toward heaven. Taking one last dig at the public stage that mostly scorned him, the poet rejects fables of drama for the hard clarity of mortal suffering:

Earth [is] but a player’s stage,

Mount we unto the sky.

I am sick, I must die.

Lord, have mercy on us!

In turning away from Earth and from the “world’s a stage” metaphor, Nashe faces upward away from humanity. The action required of the dying voice, to “mount…unto the sky,” participates in the familiar motion of heavenly ascent while also turning the poem’s back on the antics of earth and stage.

Nashe will never displace Shakespeare at the center of English literary history, though I hope he may yet edge his way onto the near sidelines to join his collaborators Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. But the “Litany in the Time of Plague” speaks more directly to our Covid present than flashier tragedies of young love, like Romeo and Juliet, or addled authority, such as King Lear. Nashe, more than Shakespeare, puts his pen exactly on the painful place of sickness. His poem presents the thing itself, what the sick person feels in the moment of mortal illness, the terror and realization that we all fear, and that we hope desperately not to face.

Over one hundred thirty thousand Americans, as of July 6, have seen brightness fall. Nashe himself, broke and with all his published works banned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, died, probably of plague, sometime around 1600. 

Our national community, leaderless and frightened, has not yet found a shared song to mourn our building losses. We might do worse than recall the cadences of Nashe’s Litany. Lord, have mercy on us!

Graphic by Michelle Jia; photo by Tati Tata; public domain image of Nashe from Richard Lichfield.

Online Learning in the Time of Corona

July 6, 2020 - 09:30
Tags:  coronavirus, pandemic, online education, Egypt

I grew up in the aftermath of Nasser’s Egypt, where public education was made free for all. For me, learning has always been remote… It began with walks to the public libraries, and random flaneur strollings in Old Cairo’s Sur al-Azbakiyya, a treasure hunt for books, old and new, in a modest constellation of open-air sidewalk bookstores: a crumpled and wrinkled King Lear, an overused Jane Eyre, a heavily marked Emma with blue ink notes on the marginalia, a Mother Courage missing its last scene, a torn-apart copy of al-Jurjani’s Dala’il al-I ‘jaz, or a pristine Tree of Being that Ibn ‘Arabi probably knew was meant to be yours. It was like stepping through a portal into a different world: a street library full of books you can take home at an affordable price. With more than 100 booksellers, nothing was particularly elegant, organized or catalogued as you would see in a library or a fancy bookstore. There were always more books than the small shelves could contain- an abundance of books laid in rows on the street curb, piled up on corners, or ornamenting the long sur (fence). You can sit down and read as much as you need. Most of the sellers were men of modest incomes but rich in knowledge. They knew the rich did not shop here and this is a place where the poor can be enriched. Not all the booksellers read or spoke English and you would have lucked out to find your Shakespeare in a heap of books on cooking, gardening, engineering or medicine. We knew the sellers and they knew us by name. Some of them would have piles of English books they think I would like  prepared for my next visit. A rendezvous of bibliophilia that I failed to find a substitute for in the US, even when I nostalgically frequented used and half-priced bookstores in my grad school years in Wisconsin. 

It has been natural to fit in and teach at a traditional university that has a library with walk-in stacks. When my school replaced the stacks with an electronic arm, I felt that my accidental learning would come to a stop and I would no longer be able to find the books that wanted me to find them, not the books that I was looking for. I do not suppose the world of Zoom and google- meets would enrich me the same way my traditional walking and peripatetic learning has done. While nothing would feel the same, nothing remains the same either, a fact of life we must all embrace.

Still, I have been teaching online for years. For those like me, it hurts to see that some colleagues view online teaching as a hurriedly arranged solution, or a quick fix to an uncontrollable pandemic. In this case, it certainly is and I share the pain. Although it was the only practical way to save the day, the shift was in many ways cruel, hastily imposed like a sentence without a fair trial. Online learning is a process that takes months and years to prepare for and to master. The stress on instructors, especially senior faculty, adapting courses to online formats “overnight” is unbearable, a sweet dream in the field of daffodils changing suddenly into a nightmare of zombie chase. The grief and the panic are real for our poor students, whose lives have been summarily disrupted overnight, who lost their jobs and have to struggle to find laptops or afford plans to stay online.

Neither will online teaching save the university nor can technology save the world. But good teachers and good educators always do. The worst mistake a university could commit in these challenging times is to get rid of teachers, especially non tenured faculty who in the good times have carried all the weight of teachings on their shoulders. Novel Coronavirus is a crisis, no doubt, but every crisis brings forth an opportunity. The opportunity is to invest in more outreach to students who could not come to the university, reduce tuitions and equip faculty with online teaching training to continue their mission in the new medium. For now, teaching online gives us a breather until the virus threat is eliminated, or at best mitigated until another disaster forces us to think creatively. Until then, we must prepare ourselves to offer our classes and our degrees online. 

 Many of us will surely miss face to face communications with students, our traditional office hours, classrooms and professorial habits. When it comes to learning and teaching, I am half a traditionalist. Part of me wants to defend my way of life and fight tooth and nail every assault on my freedom to teach the way I was trained to teach. I would want to protest remote teaching and sign petitions to discredit it. That’s what traditionalists should do and without these protestations we wouldn’t call modernity what it is now. However, I also tend to forget that electric fireplaces, cars, pens, boards, smartrooms, notebooks, and work offices are part of this technology. Even without COVID-19, we were destined to go online eventually, perhaps not pushed into it so forcefully and so abruptly as we are now, but many credible universities have already begun to offer undergraduate and graduate degrees online. I was not yet alive to witness the days when horses lost jobs to fast cars, so I could only imagine the shattering, but I certainly have seen typewriters give in to computers. If COVID-19 is pushing humanity to deliver a premature homo electronico, so be it. I would welcome this birth knowing that babies born too early would need neo-natal intensive and around the clock care and support before they can fully recover. Only then will good teachers be able continue to teach in/with the new medium. Many of us will miss traditional teaching, and I deeply hope it comes back. But until then, some of us won’t miss the maddening probability of getting into a car accident en route to work, the ceaseless consumption of gas, or the lethal pollution that has been killing our planet for decades. Some won’t miss the long commute to work, the slow shuttle lines or crammed elevators. 

 So to friends of the humanities in the time of corona, to teachers of languages and cultures, could things of the heart be conveyed in Zoom? Must the humanities be taught only in a physical space, a classroom full of bodies and seats? Or could online learning show us that just as the first steam locomotive broke the silence of rural South Wales and the Wright Flyer cut through the skies of North Carolina, the humanities too will continue to thrive digitally and find a way to calm the cares and elevate the thoughts of humankind?


Graphic by Michelle Jia; photo by Apple Dave.

Vernacular Comparisons beyond the Europhone

June 29, 2020 - 01:25
Tags:  ACLA, Annette Damayanti, Comparative Literature


In June 2018, Comparative Literature (70:2) published an ACLA Forum,  “Vernacular Comparisons beyond the Europhone,” edited by Annette Damayanti Lienau.

The Table of Contents is as follows:

Damayanti Lienau “Introduction” 105

Shaden M. Tageldin “Beyond Latinity, Can the Vernacular Speak?” 114

Geeta Patel “Vernacular Missing: Miraji on Sappho, Gender, and Governance” 132

Madhumita Lahiri “Print for the People: Tagore, China, and the Begali Vernacular” 145

Stefanos Geroulanos (Review Essay) “Rhythm is a Dancer: Haun Saussy's Epistemological History of Oral Tradition” 235



The Future is Female: Griselda, Top Girls, and Rethinking Feminist Subjectivity

October 22, 2019 - 23:10

Lately I’ve been rereading Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1982) because I’ve recently finished a book, The Matter of Virtue: Women’s Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare.[1] In flipping back through my argument, the figure of “patient Griselda” remains something of an enigma. Throughout much of my academic life as a feminist medievalist, I regarded Griselda, as I briefly characterized Churchill’s representation, as “patriarchal history’s doormat.”[2] When Marlene convenes a dinner-party populated by remarkable women from history, including Isabella Bird, the Lady Nijo, Pope Joan and Dull Gret from the painting Dulle Griet (Peter Breughel the Elder, 1563),[3] Griselda seems distant, possibly aloof, and certainly outside this circle of women who gather to celebrate Marlene’s promotion as Director of “Top Girls Employment Agency.” Griselda’s arrival is something of a party-killer: although she claims “Griselda’s life is like a fairy-story, except it starts with marrying the prince” (I, 85), Marlene ultimately cannot abide the details of Griselda’s narrative.[4] When Griselda explains that the Marquis was pressured to marry in order to secure an heir, Marlene interrupts, “I don’t think Walter wanted to get married” (I, 85). When Griselda recalls Walter’s infamous demand for absolute obedience, Marlene interjects, “That’s when you should have suspected” (I, 86). To Griselda’s claim that Walter “was normal, he was very kind” (I, 86), Marlene counters, “But Griselda, come on, he took your baby” (I, 86), then concludes, “I don’t think Walter likes women” (I, 87). And finally, when Griselda avers, “It was Walter’s child to do what he liked with,” Marlene declares, “Walter was bonkers” before she loses all patience, “I can’t stand this. I’m going for a pee” (I, 87).

Throughout this exchange, Churchill captures the disquiet that Griselda’s placid obedience evokes. Why doesn’t she protest, or at least register, the oppression that Walter inflicts? If she loves her children, as she maintains, how could she allow them to be sacrificed on account of a promise she made to Walter? Her justification, “It was always easy because I always knew I would do what he said,” paired with her defenses of her husband, “It was hard for him too” (I, 87), and “He suffered so much all those years” (I,90), identifies her as a woman who internalized the patriarchal abuses that men use to perpetuate their dominance over women. When Marlene demands, “Weren’t you angry? What did you do?” (I, 90), she voices a common frustration with Griselda’s patience. Tellingly, the other women’s reactions show how upsetting her story is: Lady Nijo weeps, Joan babbles in Latin, Isabella recounts her rejection of traditional femininity, and Gret details the surreal assault on hell that she leads in Dulle Griet. When Marlene remarks, “You really are exceptional, Griselda,” it is because her patience affronts all notions of how women gain, maintain, or navigate power in a man’s world.

It is also because her story lays bare women’s fundamental and continuing dispossession within a patriarchal tradition, never mind the extremes they are willing to endure in order to survive or thrive in a world made by and for men. To be sure, modern readers of Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale still object to Griselda’s vow of submission, her sacrifice of her children, and her reconciliation with Walter.[5] Her actions arise not, or not simply, because she is a moral monster, as some readers would have it. Rather, and as I argue elsewhere, her actions follow because Chaucer reworks Petrarch’s humanist fable to challenge our ideas of the human itself.[6] Griselda’s relentless submission, rather than specifying one woman’s individual ethical limitations, shows how inhospitable modern notions of subjectivity remain towards a version of humanity that is vulnerable, open, and responsive to others.

We don’t like the unglorified version of subjectivity that Griselda models—in Churchill or in Chaucer. But that’s because we’ve forgotten the Griseldas that came between medieval and postmodern renderings of her character. My new book, The Matter of Virtue (2019), examines a number of early modern Griselda narratives, which, despite their variety, show the dignity, strength, and virtue of Griselda’s endurance.[7] Similar to the representations in these early dramas, Churchill’s Griselda is deeply disturbing. Furthermore, and in ways that early modern Griseldas equally demonstrate, Churchill’s play reveals what women are expected to sacrifice for men. Marlene seeks to get ahead in a man’s world, yet her individuality, her aggression, and her centeredness are all derived, in ways that she adopts quite self-consciously, from what she perceives as men’s strategies for professional success. Three decades before Sheryl Sandberg advised ambitious women to Lean In (2013), Churchill dramatizes the high price women pay to succeed in a patriarchal domain.[8]

What early and recent renderings of Griselda show most pointedly, though, is that the very selfhood we continue to prize is a model of privileged masculinity. Our notions of subjectivity—how selves are and should be constituted in society—are designed to empower men. When Marlene seeks to fashion herself as a thriving professional, the selfhood she seeks to take up is one that men have successfully occupied at least since Chaucer’s day. Now of course, one point of Churchill’s play is to illustrate how problematic it is that women have not been able to occupy the same cultural space as men—in contrast to figures like Griselda, and the Lady Nijo, there is every reason to wish that Gret might be successful in her campaign to storm Breughel’s rendering of hell. Yet, arising as it does in the context of a Thatcherite UK, in which the “Iron Lady” claimed in 1982, “The battle for women's rights has been largely won,” Churchill’s Top Girls reveals the need for a broader structural remaking.[9] As I believe the Griselda narrative demonstrates—particularly in its earlier English renderings—the structure that is most in need of remaking is subjectivity itself.

Churchill is interested in class as much as gender, and, in the later—oft overlooked—two acts of her play, it becomes clear that Marlene’s striver identity is forged at the expense of all bonds, familial but also communal. In this way, I maintain, she is not so different from Griselda: both abandon maternal ties in some sense. Marlene pretended to be the girl’s aunt, and abandoned all maternal ties in an effort to maximize her personal desires and actualize her personal goals.[10] If Marlene’s choice sounds monstrous, it is not too far removed from Griselda’s willingness to abandon her children, which, as political theorist Bonnie Honig notes, closely parallels men’s willingness in heroic tales to abandon all personal connections—including those to children.[11] Churchill’s play defies any impulse to shackle women to motherhood, refusing to blame Marlene for seeking her own happiness above that of her daughter. In the structure as it stands, there’s no way that Marlene could succeed otherwise.

Yet Angie is definitely a pitiable character, and Joyce certainly blames Marlene for her decisions: “I don’t know how you could leave your own child” (III,149). Joyce is the girl’s aunt, and she has taken on motherhood simply because, as she puts it “she’s my child” (III, 151). Joyce makes visible the tangible, continual labor involved in caring for family, and she presents Marlene’s career orientation as a class betrayal: “Look, you’ve left, you’ve gone away, / we can do without you” (III, 148); and then, later: “Jealous of what you’ve done, you’re ashamed of me if I came to your office, your smart friends, wouldn’t you, I’m ashamed of you, think of nothing but yourself, you’ve got on, nothing’s changed for most people / has it?” (III, 156). With Joyce’s trenchant critique of Marlene, it becomes clear that it is not just problematic for women to seek to succeed within patriarchy; the model of selfhood that patriarchy promotes—one in which subservient others are asked and/or forced to perform the daily labors of emotional and physical care—is itself problematic. Joyce’s selfhood is in keeping with that outlined for women within patriarchy. As feminist philosopher Kate Manne details, she is expected to expend “attention, care, sympathy, respect, admiration, and nurturing.”[12] Yet the problem with her subjectivity is not these qualities in themselves; it is, as her weary disgust indicates, that such qualities have been forced upon her in service to another, more enabled ideal of selfhood. Joyce affirms that she is otherwise content with her decisions. It is Marlene’s presumptive exploitation that fills her with anger, contempt, and derision.

Joyce’s critique, then, is both the most forward- and backward-looking aspect of Churchill’s brilliant play. Her indictment of Marlene’s willingness to abandon her and Angie resonates with more recent interventions in the feminist politics of care: as scholars from Joan Tronto to María Puig de la Bellacasa have shown, the work of care is frequently shouldered by women, and it is even more frequently rendered invisible in a culture that values modes of productivity traditionally associated with men.[13] Joyce stands up for the labor that she has taken on, but she does not do so in a way that sentimentalizes women’s association with motherhood, or with care work more generally: “Listen when Angie was six months I did get pregnant and I lost it because I was so tired looking after your fucking baby / because she cried so much…” (III, 151). The work she has done has been work—difficult, demanding, and frequently ungratifying. There is no triumphant promise at the end of her labors, either. Joyce will reap no accolades for Angie’s unexceptional upbringing. She simply shows up and does the work—work that is necessary for the everyday functioning of today’s success-obsessed society.

Not only does Churchill suggest the need for society’s renovation—for a restructuring that would recognize and rebalance the labors that Joyce assumes—she does so in a way that recalls Griselda’s disturbing figure. Joyce knows that Thatcher’s individualist society needs her labor to function, and she knows that as long as a selfhood defined by dominance and governance is equated with success, her way of life will never be recognized as valuable. Her acceptance recalls that of Griselda, who warns Walter not to treat his new bride in the way that he has “tested” her: “O thing biseke I how, and warne also / That ye ne prikke with no tormentynge / This tendre mayden, as ye han doon mo.”[14] Griselda knows she’s been made into patriarchal history’s doormat, and early modern Griselda stories are far better about showing her sophistication and sacrifice in the face of Walter’s tyranny.[15] Even in Chaucer, however, the problematic nature of her subjectivity becomes clear.

The difference Griselda’s model of selfhood makes, Chaucer shows, is that it uncovers the abuse inherent to a model of subjectivity designed to privilege elite men.[16] In the face of Griselda’s unwavering submission, Walter’s aggression looks cruel, even monstrous. Similarly, in the face of Joyce’s trenchant care, we see how abusive Marlene has been to all others, maybe including herself. When she avers, “I believe in the individual” (III, 155), it is a sorry triumph. By giving space to Joyce’s rival organization of selfhood, Churchill’s play makes room for a new version of subjectivity, one based on women’s vulnerability rather than men’s empowerment. Rather than framing qualities of attention or nurturing as those she has been forced to take on, Joyce embraces care as a way of defining herself and remaking her world.

Yet, and in ways that the recent revival of Top Girls at the National Theater makes evident, it is easy to ignore this alternative subjectivity.[17] Even though Joyce has more ethical heft, the play’s staging focuses on Marlene’s response to her sister’s rejection. Similarly, Chaucer critics remain concerned with Walter’s reform, with whether Griselda’s patience brings him to see her or himself differently. It is only with early modern representations, as I argue in The Matter of Virtue, that Griselda takes center stage. Rather than focusing on whether Marlene might be “softened” by Joyce’s critique, and whether her encounter with Angie at the play’s close might usher in a new or different way of viewing the young woman, I believe Churchill directs attention to the uncompromising critique of Joyce’s exit. In so doing, Churchill uncovers the radical potential of the Griselda story, and confronts us with our continued fascination with a model of selfhood that, as Marlene describes it, “For me / I think I’m going up up up” (III, 154).



[1] Holly A. Crocker, The Matter of Virtue: Women’s Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019):

[2] Ibid., 302, n. 141.


[4] All quotations, hereafter cited parenthetically with reference to Act and page number, are taken from Caryl Churchill, Top Girls, ed. Sophie Bush (London: Bloomsbury, 1991).

[5]Kate Koppelman, “Motherhood Interrupted: Borders, Bodies, and Chaucer’s Griselda,” insightfully connects these objections to the recent child-separation crisis at the U.S. border:

[6] “Griselda and the Problem of the Human,” Cambridge Companion to Chaucer. Ed. Frank Grady, Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.

[7] Matter of Virtue, 200-221.

[8] Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Knopf, 2013).

[9] Margaret Thatcher, Interview, 1982: Joyce’s reaction to Marlene’s avowed support for Thatcher is telling: “What good’s first woman if it’s her? I suppose you’d have liked Hitler if he was a woman. Ms Hitler. Got a lot done, Hitlerina. / Great adventures” (III, 155).

[10] At present, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Vicky Jones are collaborating on the new series, Run, recently greenlighted by HBO, which, “is about a young mum who, ‘tired and uninspired by her life,’ walks away from her kids”:

[11] Bonnie Honig, Antigone, Interrupted (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 17.

[12] Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 22.

[13] Joan Tronto, Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care (New York: Routledge, 1993); María Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 2017.

[14] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Benson, 2nd. Ed. (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987), IV.1037-39.

[15] As I argue, this willingness to highlight Griselda’s sacrifice and sophistication is not universal. For instance, the late sixteenth-century play, The Pleasant Comodie of Patient Grissil (ca.1599), by Thomas Dekker, Henry Chettle, and William Haughton (which was in direct competition with Taming of the Shrew), seeks to contain Griselda’s ethical powers.

[16] I am currently developing a book project, provisionally titled Feminism Without Gender in Late Medieval Literature, which considers Chaucer’s Griselda as it relates to other experiments in “feminist subjectivity” in Chaucer, Hoccleve, Kempe, Langland, and the Pearl-poet.

[17] This revival ran at the National Theatre in London from March 26-July 20, 2019: For a representative review, see:

Graphics by Michelle Jia: Image Flickr ( I ) 

When the Imperial Baroque State Is Not Sufficiently Baroque

September 30, 2019 - 04:45
Tags:  pearls, Oceans, early modern history, Baroque, Latin America

In 1550, there was a mountain as big and as rich as Potosi in the Caribbean. It was a mountain made of pearls and discarded oyster shells. In a beautifully crafted book, Molly Warsh describes the spectacular production of pearls in three regions of Venezuela: Cubagua, Margarita and the Pearl Coast. [1]

Every year throughout the sixteenth century, the Spanish crown received an average of 1,000 pounds of pearls as tax, corresponding to the monarch’s quinto, a fifth of all production (90). Yet crown accountants never registered 80% of the pearls actually produced (53). Smugglers transported them in the seams of sleeves and coats, or swallowed them. The tiny islands off the coast of Venezuela could have just as well been silver mountains, like Potosi. The oyster reefs of Cubagua and Margarita produced 25 tons of pearls a year.

Drawing heavily on the monumental scholarship of Enrique Otte (who reconstructed every detail of this pearl economy) and using pearls as both case study and metaphor, Warsh explores the very nature of the early-modern imperial state.[2] Her argument: the monarchy helplessly sought to regulate production, value, and circulation of pearls, but slaves, towns, merchants, pirates, and its own bureaucracies outmaneuvered the crown at every turn.

Like Potosi, Cubagua and Margarita quickly became violently cosmopolitan. By the time a tsunami wiped out the island in 1541, Cubagua had thousands of Amerindian slaves from every region of the Indies working as divers and servants of pearl crews; there were also hundreds of Africans, moriscos, and Greek slaves (47).

Black slaves without overseers, 1586, Drake MS. Morgan Library.

The traffic of Amerindian slaves in the early Caribbean provided labor for gold mines and sugar plantations; it also fed the growing demand for pearl divers. The Bahamas was not only hit by hurricanes: 30,000 sixteenth-century Lucayos were captured on the island and moved to places like the Pearl Coast (39).

Battle in insulae cannibal, In Caspar Plautius, Nova Typis / Transacta Navigatio, Novi Orbis Indiæ Occidentalis, Linz, 1621.

Yet these slaves were not helpless. Many swallowed the pearls and freed themselves through self-purchase after recovering pearls in their own shit. Spanish grandees in European courts trafficked pearls that were worth each 30 ducados (12,000 maravedis) (120), a fortune about the value of one enslaved African woman and her son (49). The most valuable pearls received the name of caconas, a name whose significance entirely escapes Warsh. The best pearls came from the shit (caca) of slaves.

To standardize value on mountains of pearls was simply impossible, for pearls were not stamped by machines but were the product of living organism, each idiosyncratic, each unique. Warsh describes crown efforts to standardize pearl types to regulate the quinto, assigning fixed value through taxonomy and nomenclature. There were pearls that fit a type and could be gathered in groups of standardized valuation (elencos) and those that could not (berruecas) (129).

Berrueca pearl, Perla de Guatemala, AGI, MP, Ingenios y muestras, 139.

Warsh draws on the names of the latter to define the early-modern state as a baroque mismatch of failed top-down efforts to regulate bottom-up individual initiatives. The state sought to transform individuals into elencos; yet individuals remained stubbornly berruecos. Pirates, smugglers, and slaves took pearls to gain upward mobility. Elite courtiers themselves trafficked pearls outside the supervision of crown bureaucracies.

Warsh argues that the tension between top-down rules and bottom-up vernacular actions manifested repeatedly in debates over ecological exhaustion of oysters beds in Cubagua and Margarita. The crown sought larger loads of pearl collection (and thus revenue) by favoring European entrepreneurs who patented dredges (66).

Pedro Ledesma, Pesca de Perlas y busqueda de galeones, 1623, folio 13 N. 146, Museo Naval.

Dredges, in particular, promised large pearl harvests, but also the possible destruction of oceanic ecosystems. Warsh maintains that locals resisted the European entrepreneurs because the former understood that the over-harvesting of oyster reefs would destroy oyster fisheries. Local towns aggressively lobbied to block crown initiatives to introduce new European technologies. Communities of slave crews and their overseers espoused greater ecological sensibilities than absentee monarchs and foreign imperial entrepreneurs.

For all the brilliance in the writing and analysis, Warsh’s model of top-down imperial imposition and bottom-up vernacular resistance has deep flaws. She herself admits that the crown favored the patenting of dredges to harvest pearls because friars like Bartolomé de las Casas restlessly petitioned to mitigate the violence against indigenous slaves. Dredges would eliminate the need for enslaved divers. The crown responded to these petitions by approving the patents and introducing dozens of new laws. Yet the crown also responded to the petitions of locals. The vernacular vs imperial split is a fiction. The so-called vernacular cabildos of Cubagua and Margarita were as well-healed as Charles V’s Italian pals. Locals pursued new legislation through petitioning with as much success as did the Fugger and the Welser. 

The push and pull of petitioning created new laws. Warsh uses Otte’s cedularios throughout as she identifies the changing legislation. After a lifetime of research in archives in Spain, the Venezuelan scholar compiled hundreds if not thousands of pearl-fishery related royal decrees.[3] Why are there so many decrees, enough to occupy two thick volumes for Cubagua and another for Margarita, for two tiny islands?

Take for example the case of Margarita’s coat of arms: It has three Afro-Indian divers paddling on a canoe flanked by two saints; a queen;s crown stands on top with a hanging pearl (sicut Margarita preciosa: precious like Margarita, a reference to the Virgin Mary). Warsh argues that the design of the coat of arms is not Margarita’s. The crown issued it, top-down. It reflected a monarchy’s desire to hover over the divers to oversee pearl production (102).

Escudo de Armas de Margarita.

Yet this is misleading. Every coat-of-arms was designed by the petitioner, not the crown. There are hundreds of these petitions and private designs at the archive of the Duque de Alva in Madrid. María Castañeda de la Paz and Hans Ronskamp have studied dozens of these petitions by sixteenth-century Nahua and Tarascan indigenous elites, comparing them to the final royal decrees housed in a different archive.[4] Their findings are striking. The crown only slightly modified two. The rest are simply exact copies of those in petitions. The so-called imperial edicts thus reflect local vernacular voices. The state was indeed baroque, but largely because each edict was unique and unclassifiable. The law was the result of idiosyncratic pleading and lobbying, a negotiation of sorts and as productive as Otte’s cedularios.

[1] Molly A.Warsh. American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492–1700. (Williamsburg, Va.: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Pp. xviii, 275. Cloth $39.95.

[2] Enrique Otte. Las Perlas del Caribe: Nueva Cadiz de Cubagua (Caracas: Fundacion John Boulton. 1977).

[3] Cedulario de la monarquía española relativo a la Isla de Cubagua (1523–1550), 2 v (Caracas, 1961); Cedularios de la monarquía española de Margarita, Nueva Andalucía y y Caracas, 1553–1604, 2 v (Caracas, 1967).

[4] María Castañeda de la Paz y Hans Roskamp (eds.) Los escudos de armas indígenas: de la Colonia al México Independiente (Coedición: Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México/El Colegio de Michoacán: 2013).

Graphics by Michelle Jia: Image Wikimedia ( I

Searching for Cavafy's House in Istanbul

September 21, 2019 - 08:20
Tags:  Cavafy, Istanbul, Bosphorus, Yeniköy, Neochori

I arrived in Istanbul with the hope of solving a literary mystery. Like many readers before me I wanted to locate the house where the Greek-Egyptian poet, C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) had lived between 1882 and 1885.

The young Cavafy had landed in Istanbul with his mother and brothers to escape the British bombardment of Alexandria. In order to suppress the nationalist rebellion led by Colonel Ahmed Arabi, the British navy had fired onto the city from the port, destroying a large portion of the famed city center, including the Cavafy ancestral home.

In his account of their stay in Istanbul, Cavafy wrote that the family first spent a few happy days in a hotel in Therapeia (now Tarabya) and then they went to the opposite shore of the Bosporus in Kadiköy because his maternal grandfather (George Photiadis) had rented the family estate in Yeniköy (Neochori in Greek) to the Persian ambassador. When the lease expired, they took up residence in the grandfather’s yali which means waterside home in Turkish. But where was this yali? No records remain and no one has been able to find it. Cavafy never mentioned its exact location.

When I worked in the Cavafy archives in Athens the previous year I could not determine the address in any of the existing correspondence. No envelopes had survived.

With no leads of my own I wrote to various people for help before my trip. A renowned Turkish critic suggested that I seek the advice of Cavafy’s Turkish translator. But he had no clues.

My friend, Victoria, a long-time resident of the Bosphorus, promised to ask her master carpenter. Descending from a long tradition of family carpentry along the Bosporus, he would know something she thought. The Photiadis family must have been prosperous, Victoria added, to have a yali in Yeniköy for this was where diplomats and Ottoman officials lived. Sadly, her carpenter also knew nothing. As a last resort she suggested that I go to Yeniköy and ask long-time residents, like butchers or fish vendors, to see if they had any family memories about the village.

So, it was with little hope that I landed in Istanbul in May of 2019. My friend Nejat picked me up in the new airport and we drove to Yeniköy, a place that by now had for me a mystical status. After parking the car we walked up the stone path to the Church of Koumariotissa which Cavafy mentions and which served as the main place of worship for the many Greeks over the centuries.

From the top of the steps I saw two men having coffee in the courtyard and I approached them with some trepidation, identifying myself as a Greek professor from the US who was going to give a talk on Cavafy in Istanbul. One of them, Sotiri, the groundskeeper offered to open the church for us to tour.

As I entered the church, my eyes focused on the icons along the walls, I sensed that the floor was strewn with bay leaves from the Easter Service two days earlier. I stooped down to pick up a leaf and held it to my nose, imagining the young Cavafy doing the same more than 130 years earlier.

While still in the church, I asked Sotiri if he knew the location of the yali. No, he did not, but the president of the community might. He, however, was away on business in Cracow. “Oh no,” I exclaimed. “How could that be?” But thank heavens for WhatsApp. We stepped into the Church office as Sotiri phoned Mr. Viga and I, staying close to the modem to get a good reception, tried to get some information from him. Sadly he didn’t know where it was located but he was certain that Mr. Ilias had information.

Mr. Ilias now in his 80’s had been born in Yeniköy and moved to Athens in 1966 but had returned and was currently living nearby. He suggested that I approach him. But, Mr. Vigas cautioned that the house might not have been a yali at all, that is, built on the waterfront but a manor house with extensive gardens.

So Nejat, Sotiri, and I climbed up the stone path and knocked on the door of a house that stood opposite the church, with me anxiously awaiting the figure inside, my last hope of finding the house.

In a few seconds Mr. Ilias appeared. A soft-spoken man in his 80’s, he was pleased to answer my questions. He told me that his family had left Turkey in the 1960’s following the tragic events of 1955, when anti-Greek riots led to the dissolution of the Greek community of Istanbul. But he wanted to return to his “birthplace,” the town in which he felt at home. So, in the last years he was spending most of his time in Yeniköy rather than Athens.

Mr. Ilias, “you are my salvation, my only hope to resolve this mystery,” I told him. Quietly Mr. Ilias explained that the Photiadis house existed up until the 1950’s; he remembered walking past it frequently. “And today?” I asked. “Well, it’s gone;” he said, “torn down in the 1950’s to expand the road. But I can lead you where it was.”

His words came very heavy in my ears. It was a bright morning of May 1, a public holiday. As Mr. Ilias’ continued, I turned for a second to the cascading wisteria in the Church’s courtyard, finding solace in its bluish clusters. Though I had hoped for a better outcome, I had an answer at least, like a diagnosis to an illness.

I still wanted to see the place, however. So, Mr. Ilias, Nejat and I shuffled down the stone path, crossed the iron gates, turned slightly left as he pointed to the empty space where the house once stood. “It was there,” he remarked dispassionately, “until it was torn down about 80 years ago.” So, my journey ended with an absence or, rather, with a confirmation of a presence that had stood here for decades and which had been formative to the young Cavafy. For it was here that he felt the first link to the family’s Byzantine and Ottoman past and where he wrote his first poetry and works of criticism.

I let my mind roam again and tried to imagine Cavafy and his family on a broad verandah of their house, looking out to the pink blossoms of the Judas tree that decorated the Bosphorus in May. They would be eating “anginares a la polita” (artichokes Constantinopolitan style), I thought, my favorite spring specialty of the eastern Mediterranean (artichokes with peas, carrots, and potatoes cooked in a olive oil and lemon sauce).

“You can visit the family grave,” Mr. Ilias said, interrupting my culinary musings. After thanking him and exchanging email addresses, Nejat and I drove up the ridge of the Bosphorus to the Greek Orthodox cemetery of Yeniköy. It was a small place, beautifully tended and shaded by Judas trees and wisteria vines along the wall.

The kind Turkish gardener let us in and I spotted the column close to the entrance that marked the tomb of the Photiadis family, so long distinguished in Istanbul, wealthy enough to own much land and a large estate in Yeniköy. The cemetery must have always looked like this, especially in the spring sun,” I said to Nejat, who remained silent. I had come to the end of my journey in the cemetery but did not know what to do next.

“Let’s go to Katiköy on the Asian side,” Nejat suggested. “I know the best Ottoman-style restaurant in Istanbul. I’m sure you’ll get anginares there.”

So, we crossed the bridge from Europe to Asia and rambled around Kadiköy, the place where Cavafy stayed until the Persian ambassador had left his grandfather’s estate. Standing along the shore of the Bosphorus the young poet would have had uninterrupted views of one of the great panoramas of the world — the ancient city of Constantinople, beginning with the Topcapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the undulating hills further on; and the slightly to his right he would have made out the waters of the Golden Horn, focusing finally on Beyoglu, what the Greeks called Pera — “beyond.”

“This vista has not changed much since the 1880’s, don’t you think?” I asked Nejat.

“When I was younger both sides of the Bosphorus were lined with the pink flowers of the Judas tree” he said. “But they too are gone with all the building up of the city.”

"At least Cavafy wrote his poetry here," I said. This has remained.

Graphics by Michelle Jia 

Reflections from Trans;form

August 1, 2019 - 04:19
Tags:  translation, Public humanities

On November 29-30, 2018, something small but magical happened at Stanford’s Humanities Center. Trans;form was a two-day symposium featuring keynote speaker Emily Apter that sought to answer the following question: “How is Comparative Literature shaped by consideration of Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, or Urdu?”

As a field that was born in Europe and largely shaped by European, and particularly French and German thinkers, Comparative Literature has long been held down by the shackles of Eurocentrism. This symposium had the purpose of bringing together scholars of literatures largely marginalized from the study of Comparative Literature to discuss how consideration of these languages, cultures and theoretical traditions might transform comparative studies. The conference was divided into four different sessions across the two days. The first session focused on the translation of theory and the consequences of moving epistemological and ontological priorities within the field. The second session bore the title Trans-poetics and explored the ramifications of transgender studies founded on experiences and epistemologies from Urdu and Arabic. This panel also asked whether play with grammatical gender and pronouns via translation can shed light on how language works. The third session mainly dealt with the challenges of translating literary form and genre; it asked how the epistemologies of these various languages offer conceptions of form that depart from traditional European notions. The last session of the symposium was a workshop where participants split into groups and experimented with translating two entries from the Dictionary of the Untranslatables, “Poetry” and “Politics,” into their languages.

One moment in our discussion during the second panel perfectly encapsulated the essence of this conference for me. At the time, we were seeking potential solutions in our highly gendered languages to the problem of inclusion of gender-nonconforming speakers. As a second-year doctoral student still learning the ropes of conference etiquette, I let my emotions take hold of me during the second panel and made a comment that immediately struck me as naive and “unintellectual.” I asked everyone to stop and think about how incredible it was to have Arab scholars sitting beside their Israeli colleagues in conversation with Pakistani, Turkish, British, American, Brazilian, and Chinese interlocutors. I asked whether it would be possible, given the linguistic similarities between Arabic and Hebrew, to encourage collaboration between Arab and Israeli communities and between scholars of Semitic languages to devise a set of pronouns and verb conjugations suitable for gender non-conforming speakers. The room grew palpably quiet after my comments, and I was beginning to feel uncomfortable when, to my surprise, the discussion resumed with participants commenting that it was nice to see “utopianism” still well and alive in academia. 

While it was exciting to see my proposal gain currency within our discussions, part of me wonders: is such a collaboration really “utopian”? An inaccessible “no-place” only to dream about and never to be visited? Isn’t this very conference a first step towards a brand of collaboration that transcends geographical, political, and linguistic boundaries and that seeks to deconstruct preexisting notions of comparative literature? Aren’t we, the participants of the symposium, and our animated discussions living proof that the privileging of universal humanity in our intellectual discussions is not only desirable but feasible?

The proposal I have made may indeed be “utopian” if we consider academic and intellectual discussions apart from reality. If the kind of peaceful, constructive and fruitful cooperation can happen on an academic and intellectual level, then we owe it to ourselves to remain hopeful that it could happen on different scales in local communities. Academic conferences and academia in general may be bubble-like and ivory tower-esque, but they by no means have to be. These environments should not be treated as experimental vacuums where what happens “doesn’t count.” It does count, and what goes on behind closed doors at universities does matter. The question then becomes one of bridging the gap between academic discourse and wider social discourse. How do we speak and write in a way that is concise and accessible to a wider audience and that can make an impact on social movements and on life in society? How do we change academic culture from one where public readership is mostly an afterthought to one where communication and understanding are main goals?

 Trans;form may be a small start in this “utopian” project, but it’s a start nonetheless.

Trans;form Response: Saqer Almarri’s “Identities of a Single Root: The Triad of the Khuntha, Mukhannath, and Khanith”

August 1, 2019 - 03:40
Tags:  gender, Transgender Studies, translation

Saqer Almarri’s paper “Identities of a Single Root: The Triad of the Khuntha, Mukhannath, and Khanith” analyzes the etymology and use of three Arabic words designating bodies and existences “in the in-betweens and margins of gender, sex, and sexuality, in ways that may be understood at times as non-heteronormative and at other times as non-cisnormative” (99). At the same time, through the genre of autoethnography, Almarri conveys his lived experience with the terms in question. What emerges is a textured, nuanced, and edifying explanation of those social and gender systems at the confluence of which emerge the distinct yet linguistically related categories of khuntha, mukhannath, and khanith.[1] Their morphological root, khaʾ-nun-thaʾ, signals an intermixture of forms that, while encoded in those very three words, also structures the paper itself. These three categories provided an enriching, alternative vantage point within the Trans;form symposium. Amidst conversations on transformations, translations, and resistance, Almarri showcases lexemes and identities perhaps more emblematic of “interformations,” i.e., internal hybridities, juxtapositions, and mutations. As Trans;form interrogates how incorporating Arabic contexts further shapes comparative literature, “Identities” accentuates the importance of tending to intra-systemic fluctuations before attempting to extrapolate them onto exogenous fields.

As mentioned above, mixed forms are crucial not only to the understanding of khuntha, mukhannath, and khanith communities, but also to the very scaffolding of Almarri’s paper. Almarri alternates between the register of autoethnography and lived experiences, on the one hand, and that of rigorous academic analysis, on the other. This alternation reminds us of the paper’s opening anecdote – a wedding where Almarri “slip[s] back and forth between the women’s […] celebration and the men’s […] celebration” (97) – and the English-language high-school where, as an Emirati teenager, he would switch “between the languages [he] spoke” (98). Almarri thus navigates between forms in a text devoted to words that, precisely, designate mixed forms. Such shifts enact the porousness and permeability largely associated with queer identities existing outside strict cis- and hetero-normative frameworks. At the risk of relying on a (hackneyed) binary, I could say that here lies a beautiful instance of form mirroring – if not determining – content. It bears mentioning that the majority of the autoethnography is placed towards the beginning of the text; further incorporations of it in subsequent sections would only underscore the notion of variability which the paper already foregrounds.

Almarri states that as a genre, autoethnography represents “an engagement with, a reflection on, and a critique of representations others have made of their community”; as such, he uses “Identities” to address scholars and the queer community (or, in his words, the Mujtamaʿ al-Mim) alike (99). Discussions of epistemic violence inflicted by 1) Eurocentric terminology and knowledge systems that are transposed onto the Gulf Region (Almarri’s geographical focus) and by 2) methodologically lax scholarship implicitly target academics and demonstrate to them how to avoid false equivalents. Almarri is certainly rigorous in his discussion of khuntha, mukhannath, and khanith identities; as he develops his paper, I would be curious to see where he is addressing the Mujtamaʿ al-Mim. What does he want its members to take away from his writing? What pitfalls, problems, and shortcoming exist in the Mujtamaʿ al-Mim, and how can the community remedy them? Expanding upon the prevalence and functionality of autoethnography in the text could possibly mean the incorporation of perspectives shedding light on those questions as well.

Regarding the actual content of the paper, “Identities” focuses on loci, texts, and experiences originating in the Gulf Region, yet discussions about physical spaces lead to others about an equally fecund venue for knowledge-production and identity-formation: the Internet. Although the cyberworld runs parallel to physical, “actual” sites policing and imperiling those who, like Almarri, actively participated in online chatrooms for makhanith (i.e., the plural of khanith), its generative qualities guarantee its centrality in the paper. It is entirely possible to inscribe “Identities” within the growing volume of scholarship devoted to queer digital/Internet studies. While the Internet provided a refuge for Almarri to explore questions of identity and community, further discussions of the vulnerability of the Internet, e.g., incursions of hate speech into tacitly-designated safe venues, would provide an edifying counterpoint to the paper’s depictions of the Internet as a space fostering belonging.

Incongruence, on the levels of grammatical and legal/social conventions alike, is a theme that resounds in certain moments in “Identities.”[2] A similar clash emerges as individuals come and go between the Internet – with its potential for forming shared experiences and collective identities – and the splintered, splintering realities of life outside the digital sphere. Perhaps such movement(s) back and forth can be conceptualized as another translation practice alongside others featured in Trans;form, e.g., lexical, semantic, aesthetic, and ideological translation.

On the subject of the Internet, Almarri mentions how one of the chatrooms he frequented as a teenager was called #makhanith, its name written in Arabic script (98). While Almarri mentions that the conversations held there transpired “exclusively in Arabic” (98), I was left wondering about the nature of the Arabic used within the chatroom. Namely, like the chatroom’s name, was it reproduced in Arabic script, or instead, was it transliterated? Transliteration did not explicitly figure within the parameters of Trans;form, yet I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the implications of transliterated discourse. It is not infrequently that one can see transliterated comments on online forums. Some users may opt to transliterate in order to avoid constantly switching alphabets while using a computer, and perhaps others located in the diaspora may not feel comfortable writing with a specific set of letters. As such, if it did occur in #makhanith and/or if it does occur in similar virtual spaces, does transliteration facilitate communication, or does it represent outside interference on an otherwise self-contained, self-sufficient, organic system of knowledge and culture? Are the two even mutually exclusive? For me, one of the most salient takeaways from Trans;form – and something that Almarri underscores in his paper – was the call for attentiveness as one translates not only between semantics, but also between socio-historical phenomena spanning different cultures. The edifying or noxious role that transliteration plays in that process – as it both exposes phonetic underpinnings and imposes alien writing systems – could very well provide additional texture to conversations surrounding movements between forms, meanings, poetics, and literatures.

Even with the Internet as a crucial focal point, the Gulf’s importance in “Identities” still cannot be understated. Discussions of changes to the Emirati educational system that helped “transculturate Western social attitudes” (102) provide glimpses into contemporary socio-historical factors framing lived experience in the region; although falling outside the scope of sexuality and identity, their impact is undeniable. Additional factors may merit mentioning in “Identities.” For instance, has the influx of labor workers from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines (among other locales) impacted all who can consider themselves khunatha, mukhannathun, and/or makhanith (i.e., the plurals of khuntha, mukhannath, and khanith, respectively)? Are those terms and their affiliated spaces malleable enough to incorporate cosmopolitan, non-native elements (physically and digitally), or are they premised on ethnic homogeneity? Do non-Arab queer people in the Gulf even desire to apply those terms to themselves? The possible presence and persistence of Southeast Asian identity markers such as hijra in the Gulf could serve as a possible departure point for further investigation. Similarly, if “Identities” were to expand its region of focus, as someone who is not an Arabist, I would be curious to see if and how the terms khuntha, mukhannath, and khanith are used outside the Gulf, i.e., in the Levant, Maghreb, and/or diaspora communities. Is there any sense of continuity between the terms’ use in the Gulf and in other locales, and/or are there localized variations? Are there moments of collision and/or concordance between Gulf-based queer signifiers and foreign ones? Once again, even in a text built upon mixed forms, one can extricate future dialogue highlighting shifts between forms (i.e., regionally-marked terms identifying queerness) and between physical spaces alike.

There are additional ways to further nuance queerness in “Identities” beyond the geographical. The three terms under discussion seem to emphasize the masculine, be it male bodies, sexuality, and/or femininity. While reading “Identities,” I was wondering how the Gulf treats female bodies, sexuality, and/or masculinity in queer contexts. For instance, is there an antonym for mukhannath which would help to discursively center them? Almarri states that makhanith are able to fluidly move between exclusively female and male spaces while ultimately reemerging as male elders in the greater community at large (102); his thorough analysis could very well gain in complexity by investigating how female lives and bodies exist in parallel frameworks, as well as move between and amongst those circumscribed by khuntha, mukhannath, and khanith.

A great deal of the paper’s meticulousness resides in Almarri’s attention to the discursive genealogy of each of the three words in question. The section devoted to khuntha abounds in detailed analyses of legal and judicial sources, and his description of mukhannath includes references to nineteenth-century Iranian culture, lexicography, and Islamic scholarship. Of particular note was how the term mukhannath “erased distinctions that Arab-Islamic culture made for the various behaviors associated with homosexuality…mark[ing] the differences between insertive/active and receptive/partners in anal sex, and distinctions between infatuation and sexual lust” (104). While it may be elementary for scholars of Arab and Islamic cultures – and while it may fall outside the parameters of “Identities” – a reader may be curious to learn about the individuals and institutions that originally coined such terms. What prompted them to create words with such designations? Are they still in circulation today? And if so, how do they engage with the other three terms which Almarri discusses?

To make an analogous point about terminology, after reading the paper, I was left wanting to learn even more about the term khanith. The paper cites Wikan’s use of the term in anthropological scholarship (addressing a presumably non-Gulf readership), yet – again, with the caveat that I am not an Arabist – I was curious about its first emergence in the Gulf and in the greater Arabic-speaking world. “Identities” also mentions the term’s pejorative denotations and connotations. Nonetheless, does the term have traction in (popular, religious) culture outside the Internet? Which texts and artifacts use the term, and what is the mindset of the speakers who use it: do they identify with it, sympathize with it, or view it as taboo? Similarly, what role do euphemisms play? Attention to such questions could accentuate the dialogic component surrounding general language practices and specific lexeme uses alike.

Finally, to return to some of the earlier points about autoethnography, Almarri argues – and fully demonstrates – that treating the khaʾ-nun-thaʾ triad in concert, rather than by its components, facilitates a broader, more holistic understanding thereof. The paper’s emphasis on the three terms’ etymologies and diachronic uses shows how they engage with each other; I was curious to see how, in addition, actual communities engage with each other. Except for a tale about mistaken mukhannath identity (104), it was difficult for me to gauge how individuals inhabiting specific, discrete identities form (or don’t form?) a cohesive whole with others inhabiting different yet morphologically-linked identities. Are there tensions between makhanith and mukhannathun? Is a khuntha more inclined to identify as khanith or mukhannath outside the legal sphere? Is it possible for someone to belong to all those communities simultaneously, or even pass from one to another during the course of a lifetime? Expanded (auto)ethnographic material taken from personal testimonies, online chatrooms, and other fora – material showcasing moments of unity and/or discord among the three identities – could help resolve those questions, as well as accentuate the links between language, community, and lived experience.

In conclusion, “Identities” does a remarkable job of tracing the origins and discursive trajectory of the three labels khuntha, mukhannath, and khanith. In positing that translating those terms into Western categories would, in the words of J.N.C. Garcia (Philippine gay culture: The last thirty years: Binabae to bakla, 1996, p. 51) expose areas of “ambivalence, contradiction, exclusion, overlapping, and equivalency” (106), Almarri interrogates the role of the translator. He forces readers to ask how translators – sensu stricto and more abstractly speaking – are to approach lacunae inherent to their craft. What do the aforementioned moments of ambivalence, contradiction, and exclusion entail? Do they problematize comparative approaches, and if so, is there a hint of a resolution anywhere? During the last day of Trans;form, collective attempts to translate the Dictionary of Untranslatables’ entries for “poetry” and “politics” into participants’ target languages and cultures underscored moments of resistance and opacity inherent to translation; even more to the point, in his discussion of khwaja sira in Pakistan, Faris A. Khan brought to everyone’s attention instances of deliberate resistance, specifically from queer communities thwarting efforts from the outside world to grasp and, resultantly, reductively essentialize them. For the khwaja sira, rhetoric becomes a means for enchantment and befuddlement, an instrument of sophistry and étourdissement. Here, symposium participants were correct to note traces of Jack/Judith Halberstam’s “queer failure,” i.e., (intentional) failure to become encapsulated into mediated norms. Furthermore, at one point, Emily Apter asked participants to look into the “trans-role” in language: how is it captured, especially when a referent may have non-binary attributes? In asking her question in such a manner, she casts gender and sex as questions of/for translation. In the end, the symposium, via Almarri’s intervention and those of others, asked attendees to grapple with the following: can the queer be translated, and, perhaps more fundamentally, should it be translated?


[1] For definitions of those terms, please consult Almarri’s paper. [Editorial note: version with diacritics available upon request.]

[2] The word khuntha ends with an alif maqsurah, a morphological feature indicating a feminine noun. However, the word necessitates masculine pronouns, adjectives, and verbs, even in those instances when a court deems that a khuntha’s body is female. 


Earliest Gestures

June 3, 2019 - 20:21
Tags:  gesture, childhood, memory, psychology, psychoanalysis

for Frankie

“…a primary experience of being overwhelmed…”

Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself


“…the continuous music of being alive…”

Daniel N. Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant

I can never go back and know what, as an infant, I first felt, what my original sensations were, nor can I recapture the initial experience of moving, of being touched, that might have awakened my self-consciousness and cognitive powers. I can theorize but not really know what that primary feeling had to do with the development of my mature possibilities as a self. What was the world like that first day? Impossibly clangy, bright, chilly, filled with new smells? Is it possible that these sensory experiences are still available to me in some form? If not, have they renounced any role whatsoever in who I am now, in how I move, in what I can become?

If, as Judith Butler puts it, we begin by “being overwhelmed,” how—I want to know—did I respond to this “primary experience”? What were my earliest gestures and where, in me, are they now? Did I gasp for breath, my lungs heaving inside my fragile ribs? Did my arms and legs flail, seeking the comfort of elastic walls but extending way too far out from my trunk into a much broader range than expected, into some element I now call “space”? And when did these largely reflexive movements, repeated in close approximation by all my baby brethren, become something intentional, become mine, become something like a response that I made to a specific call?

The child psychologist, Daniel Stern, has traced the origin of our embodied self not to a primary experience of being overwhelmed, a kind of deer-in-the-headlights passivity, but rather to a “kinesthetic background,” or a positive sense of one’s own actions, one’s own movements. He likens this underlying sense—which never leaves us—to a kind of “continuous music” that is playing, whether we are aware of it or not. In his ground-breaking study of the gestural behavior of infants, Daniel Stern speculates that the mature “self”—that is, the collection of sensations, perceptions, feelings, memories, and thoughts that I call “mine”—is actually composed of four distinct but interpenetrating layers. First, there is the “emergent self” that forms during the first two months of our life, building on our innate motor capacities. Then there is the “core self,” which allows us to distinguish between our own moving body and the motile presence of another human being. Relying on these first two experiences of selfhood there then emerges a more solidly defined “subjective self,” that is, a self that enters into relations of a more conscious, intentional nature with others. Finally, there is the “verbal self,” the one who can give an account of herself.

What is most compelling to me personally is his claim that these states do not supplant one another but instead co-exist; they function simultaneously throughout one’s lifetime. Stern argues that we can shift intermittently from one state to another under a variety of conditions and activities, such as love-making (in which we harness our earliest power to blend and harmonize our movements with those of an other) and the experience of stress or pain (which can undermine the “higher” levels of self-consciousness and drive us deep down into our tissues, ligaments, and bones). In particular, Stern identifies our enacted corporeality—the gestures we make and can feel ourselves making—as that which allows us access to earlier orders of experience. That is, because gesturing offers an experience of kinetic (and, often, tactile) sensation, it can call up an earlier motor memory, or more accurately, our underlying capacity for making motor memories. In infancy, we move from sensing the self as blood flowing, heart beating, limbs flailing or hands gripping, to the sensation of an emergently voluntary—but still partially random—kick. Between the random and the voluntary, the imposed reaction and the volitional response, is a space that eludes theorization.

Judith Butler has nonetheless tried to explore the space between the reflexive and the voluntary movement, but she has done so as a philosopher, not as a clinical psychologist. She speculates that before we execute our earliest gestures we enter an initial phase of radical passivity, a “primary experience of being overwhelmed.” Citing Jean Laplanche, a psychoanalyst in the Lacanian vein, Butler depicts the infant as profoundly “clueless.” This initial phase is associated—by her, but also by a long tradition of philosophers—with the experience of being touched, and, more precisely, with being brought into self-awareness by that touch. (Imagine the hands of the midwife or the steel of the forceps that touch us in ways we can neither invite nor prevent.) Her point in Giving An Account of Oneself—prefigured in an essay published that same year (2005), “Merleau-Ponty and the Touch of Malebranche”—is that prior to anything we can initiate, we are already constituted by something outside of ourselves. Animation, for Butler, is a matter of being addressed, either by touch or, in what is to me a less persuasive account, by language. Butler contends that this non-narratable phrase of our existence, this state prior to the emergence of an individuated subjectivity, is also prior to an ability to initiate a movement, to respond with what I am calling a “gesture” (a movement oriented by a relation). In other words, by the time we can gesture, we must already gesture in a certain (culturally overdetermined) way; we are already conditioned by the touch that has awakened our subjectivity. In contrast, for Edmund Husserl (an important influence on Merleau-Ponty and, more covertly, Butler), touch implies—and cannot happen without—an awakening to kinetic possibilities. For him, there is something active and agentic simply in being-in-the-world, in being available to be touched, to be awakened, to be interpellated, to be conditioned. If that were not the case, if being did not imply an active state, we would just remain passive objects of the other’s touch. There would be nothing we could do, no mirroring or “pairing” (Husserl’s term) of the other’s conduct, no entering into relation that would allow us to respond.

Are these two accounts, Butler’s and Stern’s (roughly, the psychoanalytic and the phenomenological) fundamentally irreconcilable? Stern’s clinical experience suggests to him that from the get-go the infant is a capable and agentic being. She is not a helpless flailing baby, but rather someone assertively delivering forceful, if partially random, kicks. Stern works from a solid base of clinical evidence to show that Jacques Lacan’s pre-mirror stage is merely a figment of the psychoanalytic imagination. Sensory organs in the womb are already busily constructing the neural networks necessary to the future development of Stern’s four layers of selfhood. In other words, because of the lengthy period of gestation, the experience of being touched (even if only by soft tissue) entails the development of a capacity to push back.

Yet satisfying as Stern’s account may be, it does not explain entirely the nature, texture, and meaning of that period during which we travel from being primarily a bundle of reflexes and dispositions to being more active, expressive, intentional subjects. “Being overwhelmed,” as well as close cognates, such as “panic” and “bewilderment,” strike me as viable ways to describe the dissonance we sometimes feel between ourselves and our world. We might periodically sense this bewilderment despite our neurological preparation, our marvelous panoply of genetic dispositions and their elegant epigenetic elaborations. I can’t help wondering, then, whether something of this dissonance, this static, doesn’t accompany “the continuous music of being alive.” Could it be that “being overwhelmed,” rather than being a “primary experience,” is instead a secondary reaction to new conditions our capacities cannot yet encompass?

Let me try to put this differently. It is, for me, an undeniable autobiographical reality that I still frequently find myself “being overwhelmed.” Every day, even several times a day, I seem to live through situations in which I feel helpless: all the things I know how to do, all the gestures I know how to make, suddenly seem woefully inadequate. They do not answer to the complexities of the moment. When confronted with what I will optimistically call “the challenges of life,” I find that my repertory of “I can”s offers several mechanical movements of self-defense but lamentably few authentic gestures. I fail to respond in a way that harmonizes with the circumstances and simultaneously harmonizes with myself.

But what do I mean by “authentic” gesture? Curiously, what first comes to mind when I think of the “authentic” versus the “inadequate” is the act of saying “no.” That is, I immediately associate my authenticity, my closeness to my own life, with the physical act of pushing something/someone away. Many of us sense acutely the negativity involved in self-discovery. I would wager that at times the nature of the emergent self is negative, its texture uneven, its meaning the very origin of critique. Alternatively, though, I would also associate the authentic gesture with synchronization, not mirroring the other but accommodating the other or relinquishing some (social) boundary normally maintained. For instance, I feel authentic when I am embracing someone I love and when I remain in that embrace for a long time. Remaining for a long time can sometimes feel awkward (depending on the social context), but at other times physical intimacy feels so right that ending that embrace is like falling from a dimension of tactile plenitude back into what analytic philosophers mistakenly call a “higher” order of the self. This “higher” order (from “Higher Order Thought” theory, or “HOT”) is comparable to Stern’s “subjective self.” The “subjective self” knows itself to be distinctive, different from the other. It is the self that has become self-conscious about its relation to other selves, a social and socialized self, a stage of differentiation (and thus emancipation) but also of potential isolation (and thus imprisonment) for which we developmentally strive.

To give a less dramatic example… I often feel like I am making an authentic gesture when I scratch the throat of my cat. Here is a case in which being absorbed in an act of affection mutes my self-consciousness (insofar as I am indeed absorbed). I am in a state of being focused on the other, yet I am not fused with my cat in some self-destructive way. Yet another instance comes to mind, this one having less to do with relating to another living being than relating to another living element: floating on the surface of a calm ocean. Here, floating is not stillness (nor is it posture). Floating on the surface of moving water is highly active, for it requires a set of constantly unfolding micro-gestural adjustments and renewed synchronizations. I enter into an intersubjective dialogue with the ripples, which in turn are modified as they respond to my weight.

In those moments of tenderness or dialogue, absorbed in the action of micro-adjusting, I am, precisely, not overwhelmed. The water isn’t trying to drag me under; instead, the water is giving me continual nods and nudges to which I thoughtfully adjust. A liquid tongue is licking my entire “back body” (as we say in Iyengar Yoga), and that tongue is requiring of me that I gesturally respond. Is this gestural response something like my earliest gestures? Is floating on the sea like floating in the womb? Who knows? I can only say that, developmentally speaking, the two experiences cannot be identical. Something else is happening when I float on the surface of the sea. The touch of the water on my skin activates a cognitively informed motor intentionality. I know that if I don’t keep moving, I will sink. An unborn child cannot know this, nor can she know how to respond effectively, appropriately, to all the other interpellations—human and atmospheric—that she will soon receive. To be sure, floating may be an experience of motor attunement that draws from (and echoes) earlier gestures associated with floating. It may, more to the point, draw from an innate motor capacity that allows me to make such gestural re-alignments. Perhaps ultimately it is this innate motor capacity to align—or attempt to align—that characterized my earliest gestures in response to the experience (which I now consider “secondary”) of being overwhelmed.

If there is one thing I know for sure, it is that I will continue to have experiences of being overwhelmed. As long as I am alive, I will confront situations, or have memories, that make me feel as though the breath were being pressed out of my body, the thoughts sucked out of my mind. I will also find within me multiple possibilities of response to the moments of involuntary vulnerability that life inevitably presents. Whatever is “primary” seems to stick around. That is why I’ve been attracted to the practice of shamanism. Shamanism—at least the variety to which I have been exposed—teaches that within the self we hold an incredible wealth of sensory memories, sedimentations of the scents we have smelled, the things we have seen. The shamanic journey we go on with closed eyes is landscaped, perfumed, and scored with these traces of previous sensations. In an ideal world, I would spend a part of each day living with what I’ve already lived, cultivating the capacity to observe what’s already inside—not to create a role, like a Method actor, but just to find out who, corporeally, I am. I remember once going on a shamanic journey in which I touched the coat of a black bear. I actually sensed the coat as damp, warm, and soft, felt the clumps of slightly burnt-smelling hair brush my cheek. I have of course never enjoyed that degree of proximity to a bear; but my imagination was extrapolating from traces of sense experiences I have had. It was building out of scraps of my past a story I could relive and share. Thus I believe that my earliest experiences still live somewhere in my body and that, however gently, they orient the thoughts I entertain and the behaviors I exhibit. I repeat my earliest gestures a million times a day—as I draw breath in and out, as I close and open my eyes, as I confront with tools from the past a whole new world.

This essay first appeared in issue 17 of Mantisa journal of poetry, translation and criticism housed at Stanford University

The Pirate as Conquistador: Plunder and Politics in the Making of the British Empire

May 6, 2019 - 04:48
Tags:  Oceans, empire, Colonial Period, Privateering, Pirate

Mark Hanna’s Pirate Nests forces us to rethink Atlantic piracy from the ground up. Hanna shows that since the 1500s piracy flourished in the British Empire in regions with strong autonomous regional elites loosely connected to a crown claiming a centralizing authority it actually lacked. The book begins with an analysis of coastal communities in Devon, Cornwell, and Munster that recycled the goods obtained by their “commissioned” sailor-entrepreneurs in raids against Dutch, French, and particularly Spanish shipping.

For all the benefits accrued by Drake and Hawking on Protestant England in the geopolitical battle against Spain, the Tudors could not bring the coastal communities of Devon and Cornwell under the rule of civil law and Admiralty courts. Sea robbers were systematically set free in common law trials by local juries. Piracy was as much the business of seafaring crews as of urban coastal communities.

Francis Drake by Joducus Hondius. 1583. National Portrait Gallery. 

Hanna shows that privateering became “piracy” the moment these communities got a better deal from “empire.” The coastal communities of Devon and Cornwell turned against pirates in local jury trials when the North Atlantic fisheries began to bring these communities new wealth. Privateering became piracy as local communities began to define sea raiding as a criminal offense.

The story of Devon and Cornwell was also the story of seventeenth- and early- seventeenth-century Jamaica, Bahamas, Providence Island, and the private and proprietary colonies in the America mainland (South Carolina-Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, New England).

Hanna first focuses on Jamaica after Cromwell’s 1655 Western Design took the island away from Spain. Afterward, Jamaica lived off recycling plunder from Spanish shipping and coastal communities in the Caribbean and the South Seas. Not only did Henry Morgan raid the Spanish silver fleet in Darien, but he also systematically attacked and burnt Spanish ports like Portobello and Panama.

Morgan’s raid of Panama City. Alexander Esquemelin. Piratas de la America (Cologne, 1681).

Morgan twice became governor of Jamaica with the support of thousands of local sailors and merchants in Port Royal. Jamaica recycled immense amounts of Spanish silver currency as well as slaves. One raid in Veracruz once netted over 120 slaves. Jamaica’s golden age of piracy by locally commissioned privateers slowly began to lose appeal the moment Jamaica became part of transatlantic commercial circuits in London as an exporter of sugar. The expansion of the integrated sugar plantation built on racialized slavery in Jamaica made it possible for public opinion to turn gradually against sea robbers. Privateers became pirates.

The cycle of privateering-becoming-piracy in the mainland American colonies partially resembled Jamaica’s. The difference between Jamaica and, say, Calvinist Massachusetts and Quaker Pennsylvania was the global stage of the latter two. Philadelphia’s and Boston’s “privateering” crews plundered all over the Red Sea, Mediterranean North Africa, and the Indian Ocean, as well as the Caribbean and the South Sea. Their targets were Muslims as well as Spaniards. In one of the most eye-opening sections of the book, Hanna shows how anti-Muslim sentiment was constitutive of continental colonial British America.

Stuart charters to the Royal African Company and the East Indies Companies sanctioned commercial monopolies over slaves in Africa and calicos and spices in India. Coastal communities in private and proprietary American colonies rejected these monopolies and attacked shipping in areas controlled by the EIC particularly. These interlopers plundered Mughal fleets in hajj to Mecca, netting immense profits, into the billions of dollars in today’s currency. The Glorious Revolution changed all this as Parliament broke these Stuart monopolies and allowed for the incorporation of a much larger base of shareholders into the EIC.

The incorporation into legal trade on slaves and calicos via the weakening of commercial monopolies and the development of tighter commercial connections between London and plantation economies in the British Atlantic allowed for the spread of imperial British civil law in the North American colonies. The Navigation Act was reformed and Admiralty judges gradually came to replace common law and jury trials in local communities. Print culture reinforced these changes and newfound cultural sensibilities. A new market for novels and literature portraying the pathologies of piracy flourished in tandem with these commercial and political developments.

Both empire and local British American communities came together under metropolitan rule into a military commercial alliance that benefited both. After the peace of Utrecht, the South Sea Company took over the Spanish asiento with the military support of both privateers from the British colonies and the British navy in order to enforce the distribution of slave and commodities in Spanish American markets in Tierra Firme. The Jenkin’s Ear War and the siege of Cartagena were as much a war waged from Boston as it was from London. Imperial reforms in the wake of the Seven Year War reintroduced many of the tensions between colonies and London that had characterized the age of piracy. All continental colonies once again reorganized privateering, this time to defeat the English.

This remarkable book forces us to rethink the constitution of the British Atlantic Empire. For Iberianists like myself, this book prompts many questions: Why did conquistador-entrepreneurs and their raiding share-holding companies surrender so quickly to imperial rule? Already by the 1550s, Spanish conquistadors were firmly integrated into transatlantic law and commercial networks. Why did piracy not flourish in coastal Spanish communities marginalized by official fleet routes? Smuggling, not piracy, was the preferred choice in the Iberian colonies.

Clearly, colonial America was anti-Muslim. Boston’s privateers bombarded Tripoli and Algiers already by the 1680s. Yet the ideological heart was anti-Spanish, paradoxically built on the same Spanish conquistador culture of plunder. In Spanish America, this culture came much earlier under imperial rule. The same Anglo-Americans who as privateers raided Spanish indigenous communities in Campeche or Panama for plunder became militias in Boston who killed Algonquians in King’s Philip War. Like the original Spanish conquistadors of Panama, Anglo American privateers would raise dogs to kill off Indians in the swamps of both Massachusetts and Honduras.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I )

New Zealand Attack: On Bridges and Walls

April 22, 2019 - 22:32
Tags:  Christchurch, New Zealand, Islam, Muslim, terrorism, immigration, Refugees, gun laws, alt right, fanatics, reform, Kiwis, Human Rights

Less than four years ago, at the age of 46, I became an agnostic. It took me long years of relentless research to finally let go of Islam, the faith of my ancestors, and of organized religion altogether. My decision wouldn’t have been possible without reading numerous books on different faiths and spending endless hours of meditation in Buddhist temples, Christian cathedrals and mosques, trying to find meaning in what happened in Iraq, my country of origin, and seeking answers to my many existential questions.

 When I heard of the terrorist attack at the mosques in Christchurch, my first thought was: I could have been one of the victims! Amongst the fifty murdered parishioners, someone might well have been on a quest for truth, but the assailant—whose name I choose not to mention—denied them the right to draw their own conclusions. He cold-bloodedly confiscated their journey.

The attack startled the entire world. No one could have imagined something as horrendous happening in New Zealand. Despite everyone’s shock, Kiwis gathered for vigils across the country to express their grief and condolences to the bereaved families. It was quite important to remind ourselves that just as the Islamist attacks in several western cities didn’t represent the majority of the Muslims; this carnage too by no means represents New Zealand or Australia, or any specific race or religion for that matter. Rather it represents its executor and his accomplices.

Yes, the terrorist was not alone when he entered the two mosques and started shooting randomly at the people inside. Among his ghost associates are consecutive governments that failed to see the threat imposed by loose gun laws and the urgent need to change them, and politicians who have been using the plight of refugees for their own purposes over the past decade or so, either by warning the voters against taking on more of them, or at best making it sound like an act of mere philanthropy, when in fact it is not.

If one walked into any given hospital in New Zealand, one is likely to be greeted by Muslim doctors, nurses, technicians or other staff members. Many of them were refugees before they became naturalized citizens, and they are working very hard to help their fellow Kiwis. But healthcare is not the sole sector that’s reliant on immigrants. Education, transportation, construction, security, agriculture, to name a few; are all services being provided by different generations of refugees and immigrants. Their departure will result in an absolute disaster.

 Immigrants are an asset to New Zealand’s culture and economy. They are not a burden and certainly not a threat, unless we decided otherwise. The notion of migration is as ancient and natural as life itself. 

It’s also hard not to point an accusing finger at the mass media for telling single stories and circulating stereotypes, and at social media for encouraging users to publicize themselves at any cost. But the terrorist attack wouldn’t have happened without the influence of a disturbed mentality that’s not only against allowing Muslim migrants and refugees to settle in the West, it also and most dangerously fights the transfer of thought and is obsessed with building barriers instead of extending bridges.

It’s obvious that the only ones who benefit from the terrorist attacks—Islamist or anti—are the extremists at either end of the spectrum. They swiftly move to exploit the blood of the innocent to gain momentum and attract new followers from the people around them.

In grim and highly sensitive times like these, the voices calling for Islamic reform and advocating respect for human rights within Muslim communities will be silenced regardless of their valid and legitimate cause. And in the absence of a transparent and constructive dialogue, there is a grave danger that some moderate Muslims would emotionally react to the attack by shifting toward fanaticism, as could some of the now reasonably conservatives turn to the alt-right.

Our biggest challenge today is to make sure that there will not come a time when no one and nothing is left in the middle. Only walls.


Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I )

Tenochtitlan Becomes Mexico: Rulers, Commoners, and the Petitioning State

April 9, 2019 - 20:37
Tags:  Mexico, Colonialism, Colonial Period, Latin America, history

Barbara Mundy’s The Death of the Aztec Tenochtitlan/The Life of Mexico City (U of Texas P, 2015) seeks to first demonstrate the role of Aztec tlatoani (rulers) in the technological invention of a city never meant to exist.











The book’s second goal is to show how, after the war of conquest that nearly obliterated Tenochtitlan, Mexico remained a predominantly indigenous town still managed by Aztec elites. Mundy offers a striking account of the remarkable feat of hydraulic engineering involved in transforming a rocky outcrop in the middle of a salty lake (Lake Texcoco) into one of the most productive lacustrine environments for floriculture, pisciculture, and aviculture the world had ever seen.

Map of Santa Cruz ca 1537–1555. Uppsala University

The key to the slow yet miraculous transformation was a series of parallel dikes separating first Lake Xochimilco (naturally desalinated) from Lake Texcoco and then different sections of Lake Texcoco from each other, thus creating gradients of desalination that rendered half of the water of Lake Texcoco useful for irrigation and agriculture. Through systematic land reclamation achieved through dikes, aqueducts, and causeways, a small, barren, swampy atoll became an island crisscrossed by canals, elongated land plots (chinampas) capable of growing staples to feed one of the largest urban markets on earth.

Using archeological objects recently excavated in the templo mayor and extant stelae of Montezuma in Chapultepec, Mundy offers a dazzling account of the religious world of the Aztecs as a metaphor of the masculine battle of rulers over female water deities. The history of Aztec ruling lineages in Tenochtitlan not only kept annals of tributary conquests but also registered the triumphs and defeats of tlatoani over land and water, the very definition of altepetl.

Her study deliberately leaves out Tlatelolco, the second city-state with which Tenochtitlan had long shared the island. Mundy shows how the Tenochtla tlatoani survived in the new-old Mexico. The Spanish conquistadors and their mestizo children took only the old templo mayor complex, which came to be called the Spanish traza. The rest of the city remained Indian. Mundy scours the archive to reconstruct tlatoani rule in the old four Tenochtla altepeme (quarters): Moyotlan, Teopan, Atzacoalco, and Cuepopan. She also finds the persistence of dozens of taxilacalli (subsections) of each altepetl. Mundy demonstrates that indigenous cadastral documents kept on using the same old names for taxilacalli, even the same logographic conventions.

Codex Genaro Garcia 30. 1554. Benson Library. UT Austin. Names of taxilacalli-barrios in logograms and the unpaid debts by the indian city governor.

Not much changed except the names: altepeme became parishes and the taxilacalli barrios. Mundy shows that parishes and barrios acquired also the names of Catholic saints. Franciscans superimposed the names of the four largest Roman basilicas onto the Tenochtla altepeme (San Peter-Paul Teopan, San Juan Moyotlan, San Sebastian Atzacoalco, and Santa Maria Cuepopan) in the hope of creating new Christian cities-palaces of memory in the unconscious indigenous mnemonics of urban lived practice.

Mundy demonstrates that tlatoani allied themselves with Franciscans to rule Tenochtla Mexico from a tianguez (market) and a tecpan (administrative palace), both located in the same plaza where the Franciscans had built their southern city convent (San José de los Naturales).

Codex Osuna. 1565. Biblioteca Nacional. Spain. Four Mexica Tenochtla altepeme and tecpan-palace in San Juan de Moyotlan. Tlatoani Esteban de Guzman demands Viceroy Luis de Velasco restitution for sweepers and cooks taken away from his palace.

This complex of tianguez-tecpan-convent was in the southwestern quarter of the city, namely, the parish of San Juan Moyotlan. There was a northern Franciscan convent also located in a plaza along with tianguez-palace of the ruling elites of Tlatelolco. Straight roads and calendrical visual axes of solstices-equinoxes, which had organized the Aztec city in the past, connected northern and southern plazas in Catholic indigenous processions.

Mundy identifies a succession of indigenous governors, some the descendants of the last Aztec independent tlatoani but also some imposed outsiders. Mundy shows the tlatoani kept meting out justice within altepeme and taxilacalli while seeking to enhance the reputation of the city by properly administering the markets from the tecpan of Moyotlan.

The tlatoani witnessed the collapse of the desalinization system as Spaniards destroyed the old dikes, and water in the western section of Lake Texcoco became salty and useless again. Mundy argues that viceroys sought the advice and expertise of tlatoani to address the slow-motion degradation of the lacustrine habitat. The solution, however, was not to reconstruct Aztec ecological technologies but to bring water for the irrigation of chinampas via larger aqueducts. Here the learned tlatoani-governor Antonio Valeriano (r. 1573–1599) succeeded where the new Spanish-mestizo city council and its Flemish engineers had twice failed. Valeriano, the polyglot Franciscan-trained-Ciceronian-humanist and factotum, built a completely new aqueduct to Moyotlan from Chapultepec to maintain the productivity of the southern and western Indian chinampas. To pull this off, Valeriano counted only with the reluctant and partial help of the Spanish city council, forced by the viceroy to provide scarce lime for cement. In some of his religious functions as a trainer of the water deities, the Christian Valeriano became the reincarnation of his powerful ancestor Moctezuma.

Yet the Indian city was more than Franciscans and tlatoani. There were “Spanish” encomenderos and macehuales (commoners) too. In one of the most interesting yet not fully developed sections of the book, Mundy explores the brewing dissatisfaction of commoners with tlatoani displays of power, including the monopoly over feather dresses for mitotes (dances) in religious Catholic processions. Commoners used new institutions created by the colonial government, including the residencia to articulate their demands. Using this required investigation of departing authorities, commoners placed anonymous complaints. They also introduced evidence of malfeasance and corruption by the tlatoani. Commoners and artisans kept details accounts of unpaid services, expecting redress (e.g., Codex Genaro García 30).

Codice Genaro Garcia 30. Benson Library. UT Austin. Female weavers’ account of debts by Indian governor.

In 1564, the tlatoani governor Luis de Sancta Maria Cipactzin carelessly announced to the masses outside the tecpan new levies while his daughter got married in an exclusive tlatoani party with dozens of indigenous brass players. Commoners rioted, attacked the wedding, and stoned the palace. The fate of tlatoani was determined by the tribute demands of encomenderos and friars. In the same way that native commoners kept detailed records of the abuses of their own governors, the tlatoani kept detailed “written” accounts of excessive demands by encomenderos and authorities in republic-of-Spaniards residencias (e.g., Codex Osuna).

Codex Osuna 1565. BN Spain. Tlatoani Estevan de Guzman presents an account of unpaid services by Viceroy Luis de Velasco

This incredibly rich book merits every award it has received. Yet it has blind spots. The most significant one is that Mundy does not consider the radical change introduced by the Spanish petitioning state in the very fabric of Tenochtitlan. The Aztec state related to neighboring altepetls as tributary city-states. Differences were settled by either embassies or war. After the conquest, however, Mexico became the capital of a viceroyalty of petitioners, from Zacatecas to Colima to Oaxaca to Veracruz to Manila and beyond. Mexico permanently became a place of pilgrimage, both for petitioning legislation to viceroys and bishops and for litigating before audiencias and ecclesiastical courts. Mexico no longer was just the capital of tlatoani and macehuales; it was also the temporary abode of litigating Chichimec, Purepecha, Otomi, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Filipino, to name just a few. Where did these thousands of foreigners reside? How do they change the city?

Unwittingly, Mundy offers an answer herself. On August 1569, natives from the parish of San Juan de Moyotlan attacked those of Santa Maria de Cuepopan. Mundy describes Cuepopan as the place of residence of Zapotec and Otomies. She, however, blames the attack on the shenanigans of the bishop of Mexico, Alonso de Montufar, then busy transferring parishes held by mendicants into the hands of the secular church. The revolt of Moyotlan was a revolt promoted by Franciscans and tlatoani against the bishop’s deliberate attack on mendicant corporate jurisdiction. Yet the riot signifies something even more profound. It was emblematic of the very transformation of the city into a cosmopolitan urban space attracting thousands of outsiders into the petitioning state. The old Tenochtla, both tlatoani and macehuales, turned against the newly arrived

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Returning to Order through Realism

April 3, 2019 - 03:51

A “call to order” is taking place in political and intellectual life in Europe and abroad. This “rappel à l’ordre” has sounded before, in France after World War I, when it was directed at avant-garde artists, demanding that they put aside their experiments and create reassuring representations for those whose worlds had been torn apart by the war. But now it is directed toward those intellectuals, politicians, and citizens who still cling to the supposedly politically correct culture of postmodernism.

This culture, according to the forces who claim to represent order, has corrupted facts, truth, and information, giving rise to “alternative facts,” “post-truth,” and “fake news” even though, as Stanley Fish points out, “postmodernism sets itself against the notion of facts just lying there discrete and independent, and waiting to be described. Instead it argues that fact is the achievement of argument and debate, not a pre-existing entity by whose measure argument can be assessed.” The point is that postmodernity has become a pretext for the return to order we are witnessing now in the rhetoric of right-wing populist politicians. This order reveals itself everyday as more authoritarian because it holds itself to be in possession of the essence of reality, defining truth for all human beings.

This return of realism is evinced by the public careers of some contemporary intellectuals, also referred to as “realists” or members of the “intellectual dark web,” such as the psychologist Jordan Peterson, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, and philosophers like Christina Hoff Sommers, among others. Although some of these thinkers would object to being categorized as new realist or politically conservative, they all seem to oppose postmodernism’s neo-Marxist linguistic turn and its conflict of interpretations, which holds that everything that exists is only the correlate of a subject that conceives it. The problem with this postmodern stance, they claim, is that it has denied thought any rational access to things in themselves, allowing apparently unfounded discourses on scientific objectivity, traditional values, and gendered essences.

But these thinkers, as Bari Weiss points out, are determined to emphasize the “biological differences between men and women” and to demonstrate that “identity politics” is a threat to our social fabric. This is why Sommers, for example, opposes those feminists who still “be­lieve that our society is best described as a patriarchy, a ‘male hegemony,’ a ‘sex/gender system,’” with her “factual feminism,” which is based on a data-driven approach. These data, interpreted by the American scholar, indicate that most feminists exaggerate the plight of women while ignoring that of men.

But critics of this return to realism—from Simon Critchley to Slavoj Žižek and Gianni Vattimo—are consistent in reminding us that this realist philosophical approach has long been surpassed and superceded and that the need for realism appears to be a “closure that reassures and stifles at the same time.” Vattimo believes its roots can be found “in a psychological discomfort rather than in a strictly conscious demand.” The “need for reality is neurotic,” ultimately an “effect of ressentiment,” of the “tedious qualities of old dogs and men who have long been kept on the leash.” The problem with this stance is that whoever does not submit to the asserted reality is automatically incorrect, on the wrong side of reality, and perhaps even on the wrong side of the border.

In order to resist this political and cultural movement it is important to remember that when Kellyanne Conway, counselor to U.S. president Donald Trump, used the phrase “alternative facts” to defend a false statement we were not entering a new age of alternative facts but rather another age of alternative facts. These successive ages of alternative facts arise from our naïve enthusiasm for objectivity, transparency, and free speech. This naïveté today belongs to those “rational” people, as Bruno Latour says, who still continue to believe “that facts stand up all by themselves, without a shared world, without institutions, without a public life, and that it would suffice to put the ignorant folk back in an old-style classroom with a blackboard and in-class exercises, for reason to triumph at last.”

But as scientists and linguists explain there is no “neutral observation language” that can erase human differences. These differences are not the source of our problems but rather the only possible route to their provisional solution. Facts, information, and data by themselves do nothing. “Facts remain robust,” Latour continuous, “only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media.” In the age of alternative facts, facts have been framed, that is, stripped of all the interpretative, institutional, and social support they once could count on.

As we can see, alternative facts or “fake news” are a consequence not of postmodern philosophers’ claiming the indispensable role of interpretation in comprehending the world but rather of the return to order that thinkers of the intellectual dark web are helping impose. The problem of identifying thought as a mirror of reality is that freedom is also framed. This is why Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border, ban on Muslims, and hostility toward the facts of climate change are not meant to create a “state of emergency” but a condition without emergencies—where nothing can emerge from the overwhelming order. Difference, change, and cultural others must be avoided as disruptions of the safety that order is supposed to represent.

In order to preserve freedom from external impositions it is necessary to denounce the alliance between these thinkers and right-wing populist politicians. This alliance is at the origin of a patriarchal obsession with the so-called natural order and the politics of hate that now also drives a growing anti-feminist and anti-queer campaign. While gender theory, as Judith Butler recently reminded us, “simply seeks a form of political freedom to live in a more equitable and livable world,” its opponents instead demand that we all be “kept on the leash” so that freedom does not disrupt the ongoing return to order. The “biological differences between men and women” that Jair Bolsonaro, Matteo Salvini, and Viktor Orbán praise is founded on this order, and appeals to it exploit rather than confront ongoing social resentment.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

The Problem of Sancho's Shit

March 25, 2019 - 12:07
Tags:  Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, realism, early modern literature, fiction, narrative theory

Readers will remember that in chapter 20 of Part I of Don Quixote Sancho relieves himself while in close proximity to his master during the long night of fear and storytelling that he and Don Quixote pass after hearing a mysterious and frightening noise off in the distance. Come daybreak, they discover that the noise is not the sign of some heroic adventure, but the racket of a fulling mill, which has been operating through the night. Don Quixote is chagrined, and Sancho Panza cannot help but laugh. The episode calls to mind the scatological humor typical of Rabelais, and has prompted some critics to read it along the lines suggested by Bakhtin's book on the French Renaissance author.  Sancho's shit provides an instance of carnivalesque inversion. The squire subverts the rule of his master, even if only temporarily, providing a necessary reprieve from the trials of his subaltern position. Others have shied away from this interpretation, noting that Cervantes's characters are too well-rounded, too human, for this instance of scatological humor to look anything like what we see in Gargantua and Pantagruel

It occurs to me that perhaps it would be best to abandon the Rabalaisian/Bakhtinian approach altogether, and take a cue about the episode's meaning from something else that happens in the chapter, Sancho's shaggy-dog tale of the goatherd Lope Ruíz. In order to pass the time, Sancho tells his master the tale of Ruíz's flight from amorous misfortune in the company of his herd of goats. The road to Portugal takes him to the Guadiana River, which is flooding, and the only boat available is a tiny fishing vessel that can only accommodate the goatherd and a single animal. Lope Ruíz has no choice but to take the goats across one by one. Sancho, a storyteller of questionable skill, insists that he must narrate the crossing of each and every goat, and that Don Quixote must keep count until he has mentioned all three hundred goats. Don Quixote can't believe it, and tells Sancho "Just say he ferried them all … If you keep going back and forth like that, it will take you a year to get them across." This throws Sancho off, and he asks his master, "How many have gone across so far?" Don Quixote answers in frustration, "How the devil should I know?" And with that, the story ends. Sancho loses his place, and we never know what happens.1

The incident clearly belongs among the many scenes in Cervantes's novel that invite reflection upon the nature of narrative and the conventions of narration. It finds a direct counterpart in the next chapter, when Don Quixote tells a chivalric tale, in order to help his illiterate squire imagine their shared future. The knight errant of Don Quixote's story first acquires fame, then goes to serve a powerful king. He falls in love with the king's daughter, but must bid her farewell to go fight in her father's wars. He then "does battle in the war, conquers the king's enemy, takes many cities, emerges victorious from many combats, returns to court," to marry the princess and eventually assume the throne.2 In this line of his story, Don Quixote does precisely what Sancho Panza refused to do in telling his own tale. He summarizes a long and repetitive sequence of events for the sake of narrative economy, and greater aesthetic effect. He proves himself to be a good storyteller, capable of elaborating and abbreviating as necessary. Sancho, in turn, stands out as a bad storyteller, because he cannot or will not make those choices. He wants to include every goat, even if they are all alike.

Yet the question of what can or should be left out of a story is not exhausted by remarking on the two tales told by the two main characters. There is also the problem of Sancho's shit. Shit has no place in chivalric romance, in which characters rarely if ever attend to bodily needs, and certainly not to the basest of them all. Hence the hilarity of the episode. Sancho's rebellion against his master's authority, which begins with hobbling Rocinante so that Don Quixote cannot go charging toward the mysterious noise, leaving his squire alone in the dark, culminates in his surreptitious midnight defecation. When the fumes rise to Don Quixote's nostrils, and the knight-errant becomes aware of what his squire has done, the inversion of power between knight and squire reaches its grotesquely hilarious climax. The knight has been dragged down into the shit. Hence the argument for carnivalesque inversion. What matters most here, however, is Don Quixote's response. When Sancho asks Don Quixote if he, Sancho, has done something he shouldn't, Don Quixote responds, "The less said the better, Sancho my friend."3 It is not just the goats that are at issue here. It is also the shit.

The narrator would seem to agree. At no point does he speak plainly and directly about Sancho's actions. Instead, he resorts to euphemism. We find out that the urge has come upon Sancho when the narrator states that "he felt the urge and desire to do what no one else could do for him."4 We find out the squire has farted when the narrator tells us that "he finally made a little noise quite different from the one that had caused him so much fear."5 We find out that he has finished the job when "he found himself rid of the burden that caused him so much grief."6 The less said, the better, and for a variety of reasons. The recourse to euphemism is one of the things that makes the episode so funny. Perhaps it also marks the limits of Cervantes's willingness to violate prevailing notions of decorum. Yet it also has the effect of tying the scatological episode to the story of the goats. The story of Sancho's shit becomes, like the story of the goats and its companion, the chivalric tale, a reflection on what can and should be left out of a story properly told. Shit has no place in chivalric romance, yet it also has no place in Cervantes's narrative. It can be heard and smelt, but never seen. The act of producing it can only be alluded to, never described. Sancho's shit becomes that earthy, bodily, all-too-human reality that must be left out of the story, any story.

1. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote. Translated by Edith Grossman. New York: Ecco, 2003. p. 146
2. ibid., p. 160.
3. ibid., p. 148
4. ibid., p. 147
5. ibid., p. 148
6. ibid., p. 148


Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Against Hate: "Hello, Brother" (V)

March 16, 2019 - 10:00
Tags:  Islamophobia, New Zealand, white supremacy, terrorism

“Hello, brother,” said the man at the door to the white supremacist who shot him on the spot and shot him again at point-blank when he tried to crawl away. In less than 30 minutes, 28-year old Brenton Harrison Tarrant of Australia took the lives of 50 Muslims and left 49 more in critical condition before the police arrested him. “Just a [sic] ordinary white man” from “a working class, low income family,” Tarrant writes in his manifesto. Outside this gruesome context, Tarrant’s opening lines would be a great introduction to a successful man who overcame adversities in order to succeed in life. Except that Tarrant has transformed into a mass shooter and an Islamophobe of the worst kind. Tarrant had no interest in learning, little interest in education, “barely achieving a passing grade,” he writes, “I did not attend University as I had no great interest in anything offered in the Universities to study.” This negative attitude towards learning may have been the dark torch that ushered him down such a despicable course of destruction. Uneducated, gullible, sub-ordinary, and jobless. Tarrant must have fit the radicalization ticket, an easy prey for a monstrous machine of White Supremacy. To be sure, Tarrant is guilty of a premeditated massacre executed in cold blood, guilty of succumbing to a vile ideology of racial superiority, but it must not escape our eyes that he is also a symptom, a pawn, a pharmakon of the cancerous growth of White Supremacy.

Tarrant’s naiveté is pathetic. “If I don't survive the attack, goodbye, godbless [sic] and I will see you all in Valhalla!” What God will bless these killings? Did he actually believe there is a God for white people, an Anti-Islam deity waiting to reward him on the other side? And what do we make of “Valhalla”? This is not a sequel for Mad Max, rather a manifestation of maximum madness and insanity. Tarrant did not receive any education, and someone forgot to tell him that Valhalla is not heaven, but a hall of the fallen in Old Norse poetry — it doesn’t exist outside that poetry. It is the hall where a god named Odin collects the dead whom he merits worthy of staying with him. He feeds them well in order to corral them against the wolf Fenrir during the battle of Ragnork, in which Odin and his collection of “worthy” men perish. Clearly Tarrant had no idea that he cannot be a Christian and an Old Nordic pagan at the same time.

This awkward paradox speaks volumes of the ignorance of white supremacists. It does not just end with pawns and executors like Tarrant, Alexandre Bissonnette, Robert Bowers, or Dylann Roof. It begins at the top and we see it in the hate propagandas of politicians. “The truth is that Islam is not like any other faith. It is the religious equivalent of fascism,” writes Australian Senator Fraser Anning in the immediate aftermath of the New Zealand massacre. This odious polemic is the last thing one would expect from an elected government official whose fellow citizen had just perpetrated the darkest and deadliest crime in New Zealand’s history. Instead of showing sympathy for the 50 lives taken violently at the hand of a terrorist, as any human being with an iota of decency would do, Anning goes on to blame Muslim immigrants for being the “cause of bloodshed.” The flagrant politicization of the massacre appears strikingly clear in Anning’s ugly manipulation of the Scriptures: “As we read in Matthew 26:52, ‘all they that take the sword shall perish by the sword’ and those who follow a violent religion that calls on them to murder us, cannot be too surprised when someone takes them at their word and responds in kind.” It is important that the emphasis upon Europe and Christianity and the subsequent “reaction” of an “a ordinary white man” like Tarrant be brought into clear antagonism with the so-called “invading” Muslims. Behind the bizarre marriage of such polar opposites looms the apparatus of a carefully crafted doctrine of White Supremacy, one in which politics, ideology, and the manipulation of religion are shamelessly militarized for the service of white nationalism.

White supremacy is a cowardly doctrine. Cowardly because it can be confronted with learning and education, with what the likes of Tarrant clearly lack. It recruits the simple-minded, the uneducated, and the idiot. It convinces them that attacking houses of worship will send them to heaven. It feeds on the naiveté of its recruits and the utter exposure and helplessness of innocent victims. White supremacists gunned down innocent humans in deep meditation, in a vulnerable, soul-searching condition, praying in piety and humility, amassed together for the praise of God.  A cowardly bullet from the gun of cowardly terrorist is doomed to hit a worshipper even if the shooter did not have a perfect range. But as Jewish communities did not refrain from Shabbat synagogue services after the Pittsburgh massacre and as black Christians did not abandon going to Church after Charlottesville, Muslims likewise won’t stop attending Friday congregational prayers after Christchurch, after London, or after Québec City. We must come together to confront White Supremacy, to point monstrosity in the face and expose its ugly realties to the world.

The Qur’an says in Q.2:213: “Humankind was one sole nation then God sent prophets to bring forth good tidings and to caution them, and He revealed to them the Scripture in truth to decree among humankind in what they differed on.” And in Q. 30:22 “And among His signs are the creation of the heavens and the earth and the difference of your tongues and your colors. Verily, in that are signs for the knowledgeable ones.” These two verses have two themes in common: difference and learning. The address is to all humankind, who have different views on life, speak different languages, and come in different skin colors. Now this difference is not just a coexist sticker. The very meaning and continuity of existence is predicated on difference, which is the formative thread of our existence on earth. This difference, this existence of the other who does not resemble me, is not an obstacle or a challenge that needs to be tolerated or transcended with civility as the fortunate among us have learnt at school or have been taught by their humane parents, but it is the essence of life that we must all embrace and celebrate. This difference could only be appreciated when we learn to learn from one another, when we learn that we are one world and one community, that beneath our forms and dispositions, our creeds and beliefs, our languages and colors, lies the unaccommodated human that is all of us.

Some may have inherited the world from their racist ancestors, but we are all now borrowing it from our children and we have a responsibility to leave it a better and more humane place for them. As we mourn the death of 50 innocent Muslims and the shattering of hundred of families at the hands of a hateful, ignorant terrorist, we have no choice but to come together to learn, to gain knowledge and to seek knowledge of and from one another. No learning is achievable without learning of the other, without empathy or charity, and without being responsible for the wellbeing of the other. The Qur’an says in Q.5:32: “Whoever kills an innocent life, it is as though he has killed all humanity, and whoever saves a life, it is a though he has saved all humanity.” Our responsibility for the wellbeing and for the life of others, the utterly others, precisely because of their difference, is what makes us worthy of the gift of life.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I )

Iberia and the American Colonial State: Paperwork, Archives, and Fictional Claims

March 11, 2019 - 23:23
Tags:  Colonial Period, Americas, Iberian Peninsula, Spain, Portugal

The essay uses Herzog’s Frontiers of Possession as a provocation to elucidate the role of archives in the creation of bordered-lands.

Where is the state? Are two foes who communicate in writing with a distant mediator enough to form a state? In Frontiers of Possession (2015), Herzog seeks to explain how early modern Iberian and American borders were created. There is perhaps no better entry into the thicket of early-modern state formation than exploring the making of “frontiers”. How did towns near one another, competing over access to the shared commons, become either Portuguese or Spanish?

Herzog focuses on cases of contested jurisdictions over commons in Iberia. All her Iberian examples are of towns competing over shared commons (a piece of land, an island, a mountain). As these conflicts persisted over centuries, the litigating actors changed and so too did their claims. Herzog’s stories are the well-known cases of Iberian corporate bodies fighting over overlapping jurisdictions: religious orders, bishops, military orders, grandees, towns, vecinos. She studies four cases in detail as the parties and claims changed over time.

Herzog never makes clear what came first: did cross-jurisdictional conflict lead to borders or vice versa? The story of conflict itself means little. Corporate groups, in and between municipalities, repeatedly fought over their right to access wood, fish, wildfowl, or grass addressing rival courts and magistrates with overlapping jurisdictions, secular and lay. Although many of these legal brawls erupted in violence, the conflicts did not lead to the creation of separate states. The Spanish monarchy would have otherwise become a mosaic of tens of thousands of corporate mini-states. It is clear that bottom-up litigiousness was not the cause of war. Wars, however, did create states.

Herzog explores corporate rivalries that sought a resolution to conflict after the creation of two separate states through war. Along “borders,” litigating corporate bodies within and without towns demanded access to the resources of commons. Corporate rivals had two choices. They could either confront each other using the courts and magistrates of the same sovereign or confront rivals who acknowledged other sovereigns. If one party chose the latter, then the aggrieved corporate bodies had to wait for diplomacy to achieve resolution. Diplomacy created agreements over the use of commons that eased everyday violence. Yet these agreements were breached as new town corporate bodies and new claims over commons surfaced.

Herzog shows that routine practice of mediation via diplomacy reinforced identities and deepened commitments to rival sovereigns. The “Portuguese” of Valença became Portuguese as they used the court of Viana or the monarch in Lisbon to lay claim over the commons of the island of Verdoejo, located in the middle of the Minho River. The "Galicians" of the town of Tuy, on the other hand, became Galician by requesting mediation from the high court of Compostela or the king in Madrid. The towns and Valença and Tuy, and their many groups within, would battle for centuries over access to the island’s shared commons.

Herzog demonstrates that the early modern state in diplomacy did nothing but to convey local demands, seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict. It was not until the mid-eighteenth century that the state (magistrates, courts, monarchs) developed agendas of their own, ceasing to be mouthpieces of the corporate lay and ecclesiastical bodies they represented. Magistrates, for example, began to draw lines across commons using reason or nature, not bottom-up claims. The emergence of these new activist states created for the first time firm lines on borders that had for centuries remained contested. This also coincided with the privatization of commons. The appearance of an activist state led to the privatization of commons and crossover litigiousness ceased by the late 19th century.

This exploration of cross-border litigiousness sheds light on processes of territorialization. Herzog demonstrates that the border moved municipalities into separate territories with contested commons, namely islands, mountains and grasslands that belonged to no one: bounded spaces with no sovereigns. Yet conflict did not always lead to this type of territorialization. The towns of Rubiás, Meaus, and Santiago between Galicia and Portugal, for example, belonged to no one. Each household in these three towns was either Portuguese or Spanish. Next doors neighbors paid tithes to different bishops and petitioned to different magistrates, monarchs, and courts. Each town was a territorial archipelago known as mistosmixtos, and místicos municipalities. State formation did not necessarily lead to clear-cut territorialization.

State formation through local cross-border litigiousness also led to the reification of the archive. Herzog shows that parties could bring to the magistrates who spoke on their behalf only paperwork asserting claims, not proof of claims. The latter simply did not exist as claims and litigants constantly changed. Diplomatic agreements between states over the use of local commons and tithes drew on these useless archives for rhetorical support and effect, not substance. The reified power of the archive, nevertheless, grew. Rival towns and rival corporate bodies within these towns sought to destroy and burn each other’s archives when violence erupted. The Portuguese crown encouraged towns to keep written records describing boundaries and resources. These records were called tombos. The crown eventually centralized these tombos into a single archive, thus the name of the Portuguese national archive: Torre do Tombo.

Herzog does not pay attention to a similar process of territorialization and archive formation in America. One could have described how municipalities and corporate bodies within municipalities carved out separate and overlapping ecclesiastical and lay jurisdictions through conflict in the colonial and national periods. She does not.

Herzog’s preoccupation is rather to explain how the boundaries separating Spanish and Portuguese Americas in the late 18th century (as manifested in the treaties of Madrid and San Ildefonso) had absolutely nothing to do with the original abstract vertical lines in the ocean mandated by late 15th-century papal bulls and the treaty of Tordesillas. From a little sliver on the eastern coast of the continent, Brazil evolved into a quasi-continental expanse. How? By the mid-18th century, Tordesillas had become a sinuous line across the pampas, Mato Grosso and the Amazon. This line was a fiction supported by an archive of written reports that justified territorial possession.

Unwittingly, Herzog shows how fictions of possession became reified boundaries through the power of the archive and in the process demonstrates precisely the opposite of what she claims: treaties did matter. Portuguese and Spanish America created their boundaries through paper claims of possession by travelers, missionaries, smugglers, raiders, and merchants, not actual occupation. It was in the signing of treaties in mid-eighteenth century Madrid and San Ildefonso when experts, scientists, cartographers, and magistrates transmogrified the archive of these claims into fictional lines on the ground.

But how did roaming missionaries and travelers transform paper-work into claims? Herzog explores the meandering ideology of possession through the changing fiction of Roman law. Herzog shows that early-modern Europeans in America collapsed into one both private and public property that Roman law had long kept separate. Until the 1400s, commons could not belong to individuals and public property was considered unalienable. Not even monarchs could lay claim to commons. To lay claim to America, however, this distinction was erased. Thereafter possession became the business of claiming first on paper the reconnoitering of new lands. In Roman law, responding to these claims in silence implied consent. Thus for every claim by a “Portuguese” raider, missionary, smuggler, and merchant there had to be a countering Spanish written account. Looking at the evolution of the map from Tordesillas to the treaty of San Ildefonso, clearly, the Portuguese were far more prolific than the Spaniards as chroniclers of possession.

Herzog nuances this story of Roman law as possession by observing that for an entire century (1580–1680) Portugal and Spain belonged in a unified monarchy. It was not until 1680 that Portugal was recognized by both Rome and Spain as an independent kingdom. For an entire century, legal unity confused all paper claims of possession, for claimants had to clearly identify themselves as a subject of one state.

For over a century, none of the descriptions of possession penned by missionaries, travelers, raiders, and smugglers conferred clear claims to either crown. Herzog demonstrates, for example, that seventeenth-century Paulistas and bandeirantes were not considered Portuguese subjects but Spanish agents. Yet by the eighteenth century, the Portuguese crown had already firmly established the bandeirantes and their descriptions of deep inroads over all the Mato Grosso and the Amazon as “Portuguese.”

It took committees of mid-eighteenth-century scientist and experts gathered in Madrid and San Ildefonso to sort out the nationality of the subjects. Again, Herzog unwittingly demonstrates the opposite of what she argues: treaties did count in the creation of American borders.

Frontiers of Possession describes two very different ways of state formation. It reads like two separate books. What brings them together, however, is that the archive played both in Iberia and America a central role in the creation of borders. Through the alchemy of litigation and treaty mediation, the paperwork of fictional claims was transformed into lines on the ground.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( III )

Texting Under Drone-Crossed Skies

March 5, 2019 - 04:07
Tags:  digital age, war, terrorism, Refugees, digital culture, contemporary fiction, Contemporary literature & media

The war in Afghanistan is now in its seventeenth year and, despite recent attempts to broker a lasting peace, the fight against the Taliban keeps dragging on. Instead of a direct confrontation between national militaries, “slow” wars like the one in Afghanistan depend on the long-term occupation of territory as a first step toward rebuilding the semblance of a central state. By comparison, epic conflagrations such as the First and Second World Wars lasted just four and six years respectively until the definitive conclusion of hostilities. One wonders how the never-ending cycle of campaign and counter-campaign in slow wars has altered the way contemporary fiction inspired by them is composed. How are we to write the war that seems interminable, that is always not yet over?

Written with the tragedy of Syria’s civil war in mind, Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017) is an inventive account of contemporary refugee migration. The novel opens in an unnamed Muslim country crumbling slowly as government forces and religious radicals fight for territory. Daily bombings subject civilians to rations, electricity cuts and violence. Hoping to find a new life in the developed world, refugees begin streaming out of the country. They flee through mysterious black doors that transport them instantly to London, Dubai, California or Greece. The narrative is focalized through two young people, Saeed and Nadia, who become romantically intertwined at the conflict’s beginning and who escape together first to Mykonos, then on to London and California.

The black doors quickly become contested sites, guarded by militants and smugglers, and London is soon divided between the newcomers and the so-called ‘native’ population, itself a commentary on the fraught politics of asylum seekers in the US and Europe. The doors also allow Hamid to jump from the primary drama of Saeed and Nadia to smaller, self-contained vignettes of other refugees’ experiences as they pass through different portals. The ease with which the refugees are able to reach their destinations also bespeaks the core irony in Mohsin’s fairytale: whereas in reality migration is a physically arduous, often deadly, passage through mountains, over the seas and across barbed wire fences, the refugees in Exit West are able to transport themselves as quickly as the social media messages they send to friends and family: “In their phones were antennas, and these antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them to places distant and near, and to places that had never been and would never be.” These fast portals recall Sense8, the recent science fiction television series for Netflix, created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski, which follows the simultaneous storylines of eight psychically interconnected individuals in eight different countries, speaking in just as many languages. The availability of instantaneous technology creates a kind of globalized, neural pathway between family members, loved ones and clans.

Hamid embraces instantaneity, both technological and physical, as a stylistic device. The text jumps not only from Saeed’s story to that of the other refugees, but also from country to country: “As Saeed’s email was being downloaded from a server and read by his client, far away in Australia a pale-skinned woman was sleeping alone in the Sydney neighborhood of Surry Hills.” There is no connection between these two sequences besides their unrolling at the same time. Although as readers we are told exactly what activity Saeed is engaging in, that of downloading an email, we are still not privy to where he is. Similarly, the precision of the Australian’s location in Surry Hills is offset by the erasure of her identity. She has no name or background story, only surgical GPS coordinates. The novel continuously switches between these modes of precision and narratorial fuzziness, problematizing our capacity to achieve familiarity with strangers across the massive distances that divide us, and despite the astonishing speed of electronic communication.

What is the purpose of this experimental impulse, which we could call a text message aesthetic? Can such radical simultaneity evoke an empathetic response? In her poem entitled “December 2, 2002,” Juliana Spahr’s awareness of the simultaneous suffering of others becomes an intense source of discomfort and guilt:

As it happens every night, beloveds, while we turned in the night

sleeping uneasily the world went on without us.


We live in our own time zone and there are only a small million of

us in this time zone and the world as a result has a tendency to

begin and end without us.


While we turned sleeping uneasily at least ten were injured in a

bomb blast in Bombay and four killed in Palestine.

Hamid similarly confronts us with the suffering of others in distant places but does so with irony and detachment, with a lightness reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera. Nadia confidently zooms through the city on top of a motorbike in her hijab; Saeed and Nadia share a joint to forget the sound of firing helicopters two blocks over. That light touch spills over into the narrator’s detached voice as well: “The militants had their own pirate radio station, featuring a smooth-voiced announcer with a deep and unnervingly sexy voice, who spoke slowly and deliberately, and claimed in a decelerated but almost rap-like cadence that the fall of the city was imminent.” By offering us momentary comic relief, Hamid eschews pity, and the emotional distance it creates.

Intensely loyal, though not always in love, Saeed and Nadia survive the war and manage to build the identities delayed by the outbreak of violence in their home country. Afforded the chance to couple outside the shadow of the conflict, they ultimately go their separate ways: Saeed falls in love with the daughter of an African-American imam, while Nadia belatedly embraces her sexuality, moving in with a woman she meets at cooperative in Marin, California. Hamid smartly lets his characters’ stories continue to develop on their own, refusing to let them be defined solely by the traumatic circumstances of their forced migration.

Born and raised in Lahore, but educated at Princeton, Hamid writes in English for a globalized readership. Straddling the line between the Muslim world and the West, between the drone strikes in Pakistan’s northwestern territories and the tranquil American suburb, he is well suited to speak to a range of contemporary anxieties. Yet, the conclusion of Exit West has a certain tidiness to it, one befitting its status as a post-modern fairy tale. One cannot help but read the ending with some level of dissatisfaction, given the harsh realities that Syrian and other refugees continue to confront.

This is not to say that Exit West shies away from depictions of violence, of bullets grazing heads; however, the conflict is most acutely felt through disruptions of technological connectivity. Saeed and Nadia’s early courtship advances through the smartphone: “Yet even this pared-back phone, this phone stripped of so much of its potential, allowed him to access Nadia’s separate existence, at first hesitantly, and then more frequently, at any time of day or night, allowed him to start to enter into her thoughts, as she toweled herself after a shower, as she ate a light dinner alone, as she sat at her desk hard at work, as she reclined on her toilet after emptying her bladder.” These otherwise confident protagonists crumble when they can no longer text or call each other, send an email or surf the web for news.

Yet, technology is not always a force for good. Once established in London, the couple still lives “under the drone-crossed sky and in the invisible network of surveillance that radiated out from their phones, recording and capturing and logging everything.” No longer strictly weapons of war, the drones begin to function as a means of control over the deluge of incoming refugees. The protagonists try to learn how to live with them, devising methods of evasion at the same time. And in the process, the flying machines come to take on anthropomorphic dimensions. After a drone falls on their shanty town, Saeed and Nadia decide to hold a funeral: “Saeed gathered its motionless iridescent body and showed it to Nadia, and she smiled and said they ought to give it a burial, and they dug a small hole right there, in the hilly soil where it had fallen.” The broken drone, reminiscent of a hummingbird, becomes a dead body and Nadia and Saeed joke about whether they should say a prayer for the “departed automaton.”

One moral implication of living under the “drone-crossed” skies is the shortening of the lag between a historical event and the communal retrospection that often follows it. As the volume and instantaneity of available information increases, we are forced to react to events ever more hurriedly and within smaller time frames. In one of the most remarkable passages in the novel, Nadia walks to a section of the refugee area of London where there is better cell coverage. As she scrolls through news on her phone, she mistakes a photograph of a woman in a hijab for herself:

[O]nce as Nadia sat on the steps of a building reading the news on her phone across the street from a detachment of troops and a tank she thought she saw online a photograph of herself sitting on the steps of a building reading the news on her phone across the street from a detachment of troops and a tank, and she was startled, and wondered how this could be, how she could both read this news and be this news, and how the newspaper could have published this image of her instantaneously, and she looked about for a photographer, and she had the bizarre feeling of time bending all around her, as though she was from the past reading about the future, or from the future reading about the past.

Reading this passage, one is reminded of Bana al-Abed, the young girl who live tweeted the siege of Aleppo: “My name is Bana, I’m 7 years old,” she wrote, “I am talking to the world now live from East #Aleppo. This is my last moment to either live or die.” Nadia’s panic comes first from the hall of mirrors-like confusion of being the news she is trying to read but also perhaps from the fear that, if she is indeed the figure in the picture, some new calamity is on the horizon. Capturing the phenomenon of being both the subject and consumer of global news coverage, of texting under the drone-crossed skies, is Hamid's aim in Exit West and poignantly captures the psychological complexity of being a twenty-first century refugee.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( III )

On Early Modern European Political Theory and African Slavery

February 7, 2019 - 16:17
Tags:  early modern history, slavery, empire, Colonialism, Colonial Period, liberalism


A Review of Herman Bennett’s African Kings and Black Slaves: Sovereignty and Dispossession in the Early Modern Atlantic (University of Pennsylvania, 2018)

Bennett’s African Kings and Black Slaves is a teaser, an invitation to think through the historiography on Atlantic slavery as a liberal metanarrative, one that has separated the oikos (economics) from the polis. Liberalism has considered slavery as a regime of property and labor, the very antithesis of liberalism. Each slave was the property of the master and the state therefore had no recourse to intervene and regulate the master’s power. Abolitionism therefore cast itself as a movement to gain freedom for slaves.  Marxism and its various historiographical incantations, from Eugene Genovese to Paul Gilroy, did not buy into this liberal narrative of freedom and tied capitalism firmly to slavery, refusing to sever slavery from the rise of the modern liberal regime. Yet, Bennett argues, these writers still rely on the same conceptual and discursive liberal underpinnings of the Enlightenment: slavery belongs in political economy.

Bennett also takes on the narratives of slave resistance as part of the same liberal discourse, because they build on individual agency as their unit of analysis. Not surprisingly, Bennett offers a critique of Orlando Paterson’s Slavery and Social Death since it is the violent deracination of the individual that kills political and cultural community. If for Bennett the category of social death is problematic, so too is that of ethnogenesis. The liberal underpinnings of the diasporic historiography, Bennett argues, have led to an obsession with “culture.” The newer diasporic historiography has sought to reconnect the deracinated individual back to resilient and original African cultures or to Afro-American creole ones, created in haphazard mixings and transoceanic and continental movements.

Bennett explores an alternative understanding of slavery as co-constitutive of early modern notions of European sovereignty, not merely economics and culture. In his rendering, there is no possible theorization of the early modern “absolutist” state without slavery, and no understanding of slavery without theology and political culture. From Victoria to Bodin, slavery was at the core of any definition of dominium and imperium, in short, sovereignty. According to Bennett, Catholic writers did not separate the oikos from the polis, that is, they did not render property and labor into fetishes, categories with no anchor in theories of sovereignty.  For authors like Victoria, Bennett argues, there was no autonomous master or slave outside the purview of the sovereign. Notions of individual slave- or master- agency had no room in this political theory. The authority of the individual was always implicitly or explicitly curtailed. Slaves could be taken away from masters by the church. There were also masterless slaves, namely, the slaves of the king.

Bennett goes back to 1450 to 1500, to the encounter of Portugal with the peoples of Guinea.  He uses papal bulls, the writings of travelers like Ca’ da Mosto, and the contracts (charters or entradas) between adelantados (entrepreneurs) and the crown (all three types of document translated from Latin and Portuguese and long published in English; Bennett offer no new archival evidence) to investigate the role of slavery in the constitution of the sovereign. The things Bennett describes in these documents should be familiar to those acquainted with sixteenth-century Ibero America.

Contrary to common belief, the papal bulls never assumed Guinea to be a land of pagans whose property and political authority was there for the taking. The pope simply acted as broker between rival European kings claiming monopoly to engage, within a given area stipulated in the charter, in trade and treaties with local lords to win them over to conversion. Iberian kings themselves issued charters to entrepreneurs not to take property or land away from anyone; nor could adelantados become lords of lands that already had natural lords in the first place. Entrepreneurs got contracts over vast coastal areas where to trade, not unlike the charters which the Pilgrims and Puritans got in the 1630s to set up islands of sovereignty in Massachusetts. Adelantados got charters to set up fatorias (fortified trading posts) in “empty” spaces (islands in deltas or off the coast).  It was only in these fatorias-vacant lands where adelantados could exercise sovereignty (issue grace and legislation and mete out justice).  

Bennett describes how Adelantados shared with travelers taxonomies of African sovereignty that determined their relations to the various African territories. A place was considered “empty” if it had stateless, lord-less peoples. Peoples and lands were there to be taken. There was little incentive to acquire dominium over “empty” spaces, however, because there was no trade to be had. One could raid these lands for captives; but since there were no African lords, there was no effort to set up fatorias on tiny islands of European sovereignty. There was no trade in “deserts.” Territories with lords, however, were something else.

According to Bennett, taxonomies of lordship were essentially based on the political analysis of African spectacle and pageantry. Adelantados and travelers were keen at recognizing local lords’ political-ritual language of sovereignty and acting accordingly. Lord-led territories were worth “controlling,” not by dispossession but by acknowledging the authority of the natural lord to trade in slaves and conversion. For Europeans, the sovereignty of local lords began with the recognition of the lords’ power to sell captives. Europeans might have doubts on the legality of systems used by lords to seize captives to trade, but the status of the captive was never questioned. Adelantados thus had sovereignty to purchase, via rescate, captives to take back to households in the Canaries, Azores, and Portugal.

Bennett argues that sixteenth-century Catholic theorists began to call into question the expansion of rescate as the main system for the expansion of slavery, for the trade itself had the secondary effect of separating slaves from sovereignty as property.  According to Bennett, this was the crux of Victoria and Mercado’s critique of the early modern slave trade. Bennett takes on Davis’s Problem of Slavery in Western Culture for having presented these early modern Catholic theologians as the first critics of the slave trade and therefore the first abolitionist writers. Theirs was not a liberal critique of slavery as labor system and as the antithesis of freedom; theirs was a critique of aspects of the growing challenge of the oikos to overwhelm the polis, as economic motives began to challenge sovereignty and therefore “absolutism.”

Bennett’s African Kings and Black Slaves is a challenging book. While it does not bring new documents to light, it succeeds as a polemics.  It offers a most provocative critique of the unspoken liberal underpinning of historiography on slavery. It is also a book addressed to Europeanists who have ignored the centrality of slavery to early modern political theory.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II )