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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 )

The Fourth and Fifth Waves

January 8, 2019 - 11:54
Tags:  feminism, television, Internet, Black Lives Matter, popular culture

Everyone knows the first 3 waves of feminism: the first was the political fight for women’s suffrage (let’s say 1880-1920), the second was the revival of the struggle around issues of sexual and financial freedom, inspired by the Civil Rights movement (around 1965-1980), and the third is whatever the hell happened after 1980. Various candidates for what counts as Third Wave include the expansion of the white women’s struggle to women of color, a new openness to gay rights, the rise of queer theory, the revaluation of femme fashion choices (but absolutely not in a backlashy way), sex-positive feminism, and the expansion of academic women’s studies to other groups defined by gender, such as masculinity or trans studies.

It’s clear we’re now in a different moment, albeit one that incorporates elements of the previous movements. Wikipedia says we are currently in a “fourth wave,” linked to the revival of open feminist activism around 2012. But I’d like to muddy the waters by suggesting that we have actually experienced two separate waves of feminism since Y2K, and that they are quite different from each other. Both of them are mediated more or less through internet communication: the fourth through blogs and chat rooms, and the fifth through social media.

Here’s my suggestion for what constituted fourth wave feminism—a phenomenon that went under the radar because it was explicitly opposed to academic feminism, and was considered too trivial to be interesting to the national media. Fourth wave feminism was the rise of girls’ fan culture on the internet in response to popular culture.

Hear me out! The early 2000s were an age when the internet rapidly democratized and we found out what people really care about: cat pictures and porn. (It was not, as I mention here, the cyberpunk dystopia our science fiction had prepared us for.) In this cultural turmoil, new communities formed around fan groups, some of the first of which were the communities around TV recap sites. The best of these was probably Television Without Pity, which originated in 1998 as a recap site for the teen drama Dawson’s Creek, and by 2002 had expanded its focus to 30 shows.

Eventually, with the rise of prestige TV, recap culture was integrated into the rest of entertainment journalism. (This article by Alison Herman tells the story.) The writing was personal, funny, irreverent, and addictive—it was an entirely new voice, and one that rapidly spread to the rest of the internet. The recappers and their communities identified fiercely with the characters and their bad choices, and “shipped” characters they longed to see in romantic relationships.

From the perspective of academic literary criticism this point of view is a basic category error: as Linda Holmes recalls in Herman’s article, “It’s easy to think ‘they’re getting angry at a fictional character.’” Fiction is not life, and fictional characters are not real people: this is the basic epistemological bracket within which all literary criticism takes place (though this point gets fudged all the time when we talk about the important historical context of works of art). The idea of “caring” about the characters is not totally scorned, but it’s considered a little immature: literary study means also learning to consider the characters’ actions from a more distanced perspective in the context of the work as a whole.

So there was a true gulf here between academic and popular responses to these TV shows, even though the idea that popular culture is worthy of study was not itself controversial in the academy (see Anne Jamison’s 2013 Fic: Why Fan Fiction is Taking Over The World.) Both in academia and in entertainment journalism, a bit of lingering sexism also made pop culture aimed at boys (like Star Wars) seem just a little more serious than the “trivial” romances aimed at girls (like Twilight). Imagine Fredric Jameson writing about Twilight

But was this really a new wave of feminism, in particular? Many other marginalized groups and voices also seized this opportunity to have an impact—think, for example, of the impact of African-American fan communities on twitter as they discovered they could boost the ratings of Scandal by live-tweeting it on Thursday nights. However, I believe we can’t understand what’s happening in feminism today unless we understand what was happening in the early 2000s outside the academy and traditional understandings of activist politics. This moment changed feminism in 3 ways:​

1. It was highly democratic, inviting in people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, including tweens, teens, and older women. The only requirement was access to a television and some kind of linked computer. You didn’t need a college degree to understand the community’s codes—all you needed was an opinion.

2. It was based on passionate enthusiasms that were both shared and highly individualistic. This kind of enthusiasm (often for swoony romance genres or dumb reality shows) had been kept at arm’s length by the other waves of feminism, and especially the academic kinds, which were eager to prove that women were not hysterical but in fact deeply learned and professional. It overturned Gen X’s penchant for cynical grownup approaches to culture, and was in harmony with what would become the millennial mood of creative collaboration (with a bit of faux-infantile absurdism). Feminism was about to lose the slight air of elitist snobbery that separated it from girlish play.

3. It was powerfully inclusive of all sexual orientations and experiences—as long as they were consensual. As I noticed here, it sidestepped a lot of complicated ‘90s gender theory and drew directly on the experience of frustrated desire we associate with the teen years. Shows that showcased this openness to queer experiences—like the optimistic TV series Glee, which premiered in 2009—were rewarded by ardent fan bases.

The fourth wave gave new confidence to teens and young women, helping them feel their voices mattered and that they were understood by networks of people like themselves. At the same time, the relation to celebrity was one of direct and probably unhealthy over-identification, blurring the lines between reality and entertainment just like reality TV was doing, and by extension Trump’s political career would do. A more inclusive popular culture was the goal of the fourth wave; undramatic matters such as abortion access and getting more women to vote were less compelling. Just as the second wave was inspired by the other liberation movements of the ‘60s, the fourth wave shared its essential shape with the fun-loving, infantile, oversharing, and profoundly democratic spirit of the internet in the 2000s.

As for the fifth wave, with its organized political activism, its radical fight against sexual abuse on every level, and its keen distress at the overwhelming pressure of entrenched misogyny—I feel that began precisely in August 2014, around the time the internet began to suck. Trolls and flame wars had been endemic to internet communication since the days of e-mail, but Gamergate was something new. We now can see that the gangs of organized trolls who gleefully doxxed female tech journalists for the crime of being SJWs were inspired by Steve Bannon, who would use the same techniques to catalyze the rise of the alt-right in 2016.

August 2014 was also the month Beyoncé famously used the then-shocking word “Feminist” as the backdrop to her song “***Flawless” at the VMA's, as well as the month of the protests in Ferguson, MO that would give rise to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The moment of the fourth wave, which rejected conventional political action in favor of individual personal testimony, was passing. Everything got darker, more intense, and more horrifying—we were plunged into an information war of which the stakes were very real. The fifth wave looks more like the second wave, and so we recognize it as “feminism,” whereas the fourth wave—which avoided the vocabulary of “opposition” and “fighting” in favor of identificatory feelings and personal stories—didn’t feel like a noticeable shift, even though it radically transformed the way women articulated their experiences.

Two separate waves of feminism within twenty years! Neither of them will reflect every woman’s interests, but together they have massively expanded the ways women can talk about their experiences in public, and inch closer to a recognition of collective possibilities. For those of us who grew up feeling that feminism had basically done its work, the past few decades have been nothing but wake-up call after wake-up call.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I )

Is Arab Middle Class Literature under Siege?

December 17, 2018 - 23:48
Tags:  Ihsan Abdel Quddous, Naguib Mahfouz, Arab Middle Class, AUC, AUC Press, Arab fiction, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Trevor le Gassick

There’s an enchantment readers feel when we stumble on a relatable novel. To find a story that reflects our lives, and to read ourselves in its characters, their background, the places they frequent, and the difficulties they encounter. If the author is skillful enough, she’ll smoothly strum across our reality and fantasies, leaving us believing the story could well be ours. Yes, novels can induce a state of literary insobriety, a conscious high that develops a better understanding of our human dynamics.

I know the feeling because I’ve experienced it many times. Not recently, though.

No sooner had I learned to read than I started devouring the novels I found on the shelves at home. In fact, my fascination with books began long before that. At the age of three or four, I’d put on my father’s reading glasses, browse through the pages, and fake amusement as if I fully understood what was going on. It didn’t matter much that the novels we had were by Egyptian authors. It was the mid-seventies, and the Ba’athists’ strong grip over the cultural scene made it very difficult for noncompliant novelists to publish their work. Many writers left Iraq, while others decided to stay but stopped writing altogether. We didn’t have a single Iraqi novel in the house, I’m certain, but that wasn’t a problem because I immensely enjoyed the stories told by two particular Egyptian novelists: Naguib Mahfouz (first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1988) and Ihsan Abdel Quddous.

While Mahfouz’s famed Trilogy and other novels navigated the fantastical bygone alleys of Cairo with their prostitutes and thugs, tyrannical husbands and submissive wives, Abdel Quddous’s novels seemed incredibly vivid and relatable. His educated-middle-class protagonists straddled two different cultures, as did my father, who was a descendant of farmers with a post graduate degree in Internal Medicine and Cardiology from Columbia University, NY. The working women in Mahfouz's novels and their fight for their rights resonated with my mother, an independent and headstrong teacher of history. And indeed, the westernized children’s rebellion against their parents and their constant questioning of issues like love, sex, politics and religion sounded exactly like mine, as well as my siblings’ and friends’.

Ihsan Abdel Quddous didn’t shy away from tackling social ills. His strong advocacy for gender equality manifested itself in the way he portrayed many of his female characters. Ana Hurra (I Am Free, 1952), to cite one example, tells the story of a young middle-class girl who embarks on a journey to defy the patriarchal authority of her family and society. The novel immediately stirred up controversy, earning Quddous the title of an adept interpreter of modern day Arab women’s aspirations and feelings.

Influenced by a journalistic background, Quddous’s style was fresh, unpretentious, and irresistibly cinematic. Dozens of his novels and short stories were thus adapted into films that varied in quality and depth.

Naguib Mahfouz’s and Ihsan Abdel Quddous’s personalities couldn’t have been more different, and yet the two great novelists had mutual respect and admiration for one another. The screenwriter for several films based on Abdel Quddous novels was none other than Naguib Mahfouz. But, unlike Mahfouz, who was keen not to upset the Egyptian leaders of his time, Abdel Quddous, a born confrontationist, was jailed several times for his political views and stances. Another difference between the two was that Mahfouz had a small circle of friends and abhorred travelling, so much so that he declined to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, and sent his daughters to receive the accolade on his behalf. Abdel Quddous, on the other hand, was a world traveller and a socialite, hence the remarkable diversity of form in his writings, covering such genres as fictional travelogue, diaries, and psychological fiction. Several of his books were translated to English and other foreign languages.

In an interview with Hadil Ghoneim for Mada Masr in 2015, translator and scholar Trevor le Gassick admitted that Abdel Quddous was envied by many of his fellow writerfolk. “The fact was, everybody was reading his work, and everybody knew that everybody else was reading his work. He reached a level of popularity that nobody else had. The American University in Cairo did a survey at one time on who was the most popular novelist, and Ihsan topped the list,” le Gassick said. However, when the Nobel went to Naguib Mahfouz in 1988, everything started to change.

The American University in Cairo Press has since published over forty volumes of Mahfouz’s writing translated into English. In 1996, it established the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, awarded annually in support of Arabic literature in translation. AUC Press’s Facebook page rightly proclaims itself “the leading English-language publisher in the region, offering a backlist of more than 1,200 publications including e-books, and publishes annually up to 100 new books.” That’s wonderful! But how many novels or short story collections by Ihsan Abdel Quddous did AUC Press translate? Zero!

The emphasis on Naguib Mahfouz’s bona fide localist literature and the total negligence of Ihsan Abdel Quddous’s overreaching novels might well be part of the university’s and its press’s attempt to rebut the allegations of a Western-colonialist mission that have surrounded them. But they’re not the only ones to blame.

It’s undeniable that there has been a significant shift over the years in the social structure in most Arab countries. The gap between the rich and the poor is drastically widening, threatening to swallow much of the middle and upper-middle classes, which should be all the more reason for western publishers to provide titles by the insiders in the middle who can see how the economic pressures are reshaping the cultural and political scene. Instead, presses choose to invest in the unwavering appeal of Orientalism and translated several books about ISIS and its horror stories of atrocities. I’m not insinuating in any way that those accounts are unimportant or they don’t deserve to be shared. On the contrary, they are and they should. It’s just that dwelling on them alone doesn’t allow the readers to understand the big picture. Symptoms are features of the disease, but they’re not the disease.

Another factor that’s been driving the lack of interest in publishing novels about or by the Arab middle class, deeming their stories and viewpoints superficial, and thereby illegitimate material for valuable fiction, is the current Arab Gulf's domination over the publishing industry. If a certain press today is barred from the only remaining and thriving book markets in the Arab world and the handsome literary prizes awarded by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar — unless it relies on other foreign funding — that may well be the end of it. The aforementioned prizes, worth hundreds of thousands of American dollars, have been going, with a few exceptions, to either historical, fantasy or extremely abstract works. There’s hardly any meaningful tackling of modern-day problems.

Even some of the Lebanese publishers, once known for their daring and liberal editorial policies, have been domesticated by the new bosses, who can’t tolerate the call for personal and political freedoms. It’s not allowed in the lands of the rich to talk about injustice or to pinpoint the other flaws in their prevalent system. Abdel Quddousean characters are considered a threat to autocracy and patriarchy. And to be honest, they are!

Twenty-eight years have passed since Ihsan Abdel Quddous’s death. His novels are still widely circulated throughout the Arab world—albeit mainly in pirated digital copies. The challenges and conflicts endured by his characters are as relevant today as they ever were. But when I tried to search for their English translations, I could hardly find any in print.

It’s also been a while since I last read an Arabic novel that I could see myself in, or anyone I know for that matter. And the argument that the middle class is not influential anymore doesn’t make much sense, because just like my father’s generation had played a significant role in modernizing their communities in the mid-to-late twentieth-century, the young educated middle class Arabs are also leading political reform movements. They may have lost the battle for an Arab Spring to the Islamists, but they haven’t given up the fight.

First appeared in ArabLit, titled “The Silencing of Ihsan Abdel Quddous”

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I )

Irony and Sincerity in a Time of Crisis: Sentimental Piety in The Robe

December 6, 2018 - 12:59

The Age of Trump has pushed irony once again to the forefront of our cultural conversation. In a 2016 essay published in the New York Times, Christy Wampole argued that the “Age of Irony ended abruptly on Nov. 9, 2016” with the election of Donald Trump. The corrosive irony that had inundated the “blue bubbles of educated, left-leaning, white middle-class people in cities, suburbia, and college towns,” evaporated in the face of the “cataclysmic election.” Wampole suggests an America split between those who live “defensively” and those who live earnestly. In a December 2017 essay for Salon, Sophia A. McClennan suggests just the reverse: that Trump’s deliberately imprecise use of language has turned all political discourse ironic—the only important question is how that irony is being used. But we have been here before. An historical excursion can help clarify today’s debate. During World War II, American politicians, academics, and writers using the language of “morale” were similarly concerned with issues of irony and sincerity: did Americans sincerely believe in the fight, in the pronouncements of its politicians and military officials? Did irony end with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor? There was never a clear answer then, or now, because we have been, and continue to be, a culture both thoroughly ironic and unabashedly sentimental.


The bestselling American novel of the World War II years was written by a then 65-year old Congregational clergyman, Dr. Lloyd C. Douglas. Published in October of 1942, The Robe tells the story of Marcellus, a young Roman soldier, who participates in Christ’s crucifixion and then wins his robe in a dice game. Marcellus’s encounters with Christ’s garment are dramatic, at first deranging him and then healing him. A transformed Marcellus, accompanied by his Greek slave Demetrius, search out information about Jesus, his teachings, and his followers.

It is not surprising that Americans—at least the white middle-class readership that was Douglas’ primary audience—would seek wartime comfort in a spiritually uplifting story of personal transformation. The first year of American involvement in the war was grim and uncertain, good news scarce. Who could blame readers for wanting both escape and reassurance? And although the culture was suffused with patriotism and an earnest commitment to fight, many Americans—soldiers included—remained suspicious of the war and the government officials that were directing it. The armed forces conducted many large-scale surveys of soldiers, and it is surprising to learn just how uncertain so many GI’s were about why they were fighting (these surveys were collected and analyzed in the landmark volumes of The American Soldier, published in 1949 under the direction of sociologist Samuel A. Stouffer). Ernie Pyle’s popular wartime journalism articulated one very popular version of this detached attitude: soldiers fought to get home, not to end tyranny. 

In 1942, Lloyd C. Douglas was already a successful novelist. His breakthrough came with 1929’s Magnificent Obsession, a surprise bestseller about a spoiled playboy’s transformation into a selfless doctor. So it wasn’t unexpected that The Robe might sell; but the novel’s tremendous success was surprising. According to a 1946 Life profile of the author, The Robe “used up so much paper that its embarrassed publishers, Houghton Mifflin Company, were compelled to rent their rights in the property to the firm of Grosset & Dunlap.” On its release, the novel stayed on the bestseller list for nine months, was translated into 12 languages, and sold $1, 396, 000 copies.  Most people today know The Robe from the grand 1953 film adaptation directed by Henry Koster and starring a young Richard Burton.

Critical reception of the novel ran from tepid—an “admirable” fusion of historical fact and fiction well told (New York Times)—to cantankerous—a “pathetic” and “vague sociological experiment” (America: A Catholic Review of the Week). In his extraordinary New Yorker review from 1944, the literary critic Edmund Wilson dismantles the novel’s literary aspirations. “It is so difficult,” Wilson writes, “when one first glances into The Robe, to imagine that any literate person with the faintest trace of literary taste could ever get through more than two pages of it for pleasure that one is astounded and terrified at the thought that seven million American have found something in it to hold their attention.” And yet, amid the snark, Wilson is clearly sympathetic to the book’s great success, its good “old-fashioned” storytelling with an uplifting message for a very dark time. “It is quite natural,” he writes, “that people should find it a relief to hear about somebody who was interested in healing the blind and the crippled rather than in blinding and crippling people, and in comforting the persecuted rather than in outlawing large groups of human beings.”

Here Wilson approaches one of the reasons—perhaps the essential one—for the book’s massive popularity: its sentimentality. Cosmopolitan magazine noted this in an editorial preface to an essay by Douglas, contrasting the book’s simple and dramatic story with the “cynical age” it inhabited. The primary characters of The Robe—Marcellus and Demetrius—through tears and struggles shed their cynicism for the satisfaction of spiritual commitment. But when I describe The Robe as sentimental I am not using that term only in its common meaning of excessive or unwarranted emotion (although it has some of that. Douglas is excessively fond of the exclamation point!). The Robe is sentimental in a specifically historical way, part of a long Anglo-American literary and philosophical tradition. In the United States that tradition is best represented by mid- 19th century novels, many of them by women, the most famous being Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1850) and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). The sentimental tradition emphasized the power of emotion and sympathy to morally improve ourselves and the world around us. Religion, particularly protestant religion, was central to this effort, manifested in what literary historian Claudia Stokes calls “sentimental piety,” a generalized Christian spirituality composed of prayer, Bible readings, and moral improvement (in fact, as Stokes shows, what seems so “colorless or indistinct” to us today was actually riddled with diverse, controversial theological commitments).

As a cultural force in American life, sentimentality withered along with the Victorian morality of the late 19th century. But as a set of cultural tropes— themes, images, and ideas—sentimentality lived on, thriving in 20th century modern mass culture’s novels, magazines, films, radio serials, and popular songs. In this context, The Robe’s success makes perfect sense. Sentimental piety was waxing in the early years of the war. The Robe shared the bestseller list with two other popular Christian novels (interestingly, both written by Jewish authors): Franz Werfel’s Song of Bernadette (1941) and Sholem Asch’s The Apostle (1943). One of the most popular radio “soaps” of the early 1940s, Irna Phillip’s The Guiding Light centered on a non-sectarian minister named John Rutledge and the Five Points community he served. The show’s title and opening music—a ringing church organ—set the pious tone, a contrast to the sordid problems faced by the shows’s characters. Bing Crosby, the bestselling American musical artist of the era, had hits with songs such as 1944’s “Just a Prayer Away” and, most famously, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” (1942).

Crosby also carried sentimental piety to the screen, portraying easy-going Father O’Malley in Going My Way (1944) and the Bells of St. Mary (1945). Both films were massive commercial and critical successes that solidified Crosby as the era’s defining celebrity. The character of Father O’Malley drew closely on the actor’s star persona—a down-to-earth, slightly mischievous, everyman. O’Malley is a believer but he is also modern—he likes to play golf and watch baseball—and he wears his religion lightly. Both films, despite their setting, are not specifically religious. In fact, it is O’Malley’s secular musical abilities that save the church in Going My Way. These films’ portrayal of a generalized Christian faith strongly echoed 19th-century sentimental piety with its emphasis on prayer, Bible reading, and faith. Like Douglas’ novel, the Father O’Malley films studiously avoided controversial theological ideas.           

Next to radio soap operas, Christmas songs, and affable Hollywood priests, Douglas’s novel may seem the odd one out. But despite its more overt religiosity—telling the story of Christ’s crucifixion and the early years of the church—the novel is deliberately ecumenical. The main characters—Marcellus and Demetrius—are pragmatic, hard-headed, and rational people. They take an ambivalent stand on the miraculous nature of the Robe (Douglas nearly always capitalizes the noun), rationalizing its power in distinctly modern psychological terms. When Marcellus finally accepts the truth of Jesus’ miracles, he reluctantly acknowledges that reason has failed him: “There’s no use trying to explain…I gathered up the Robe in my hand—and it healed my mind.” For the majority of the novel Marcellus remains a hardboiled pragmatist, skeptical of people’s motives and frequently doubting the truth of what he hears from Roman and Jew alike. At least until his total spiritual transformation, Marcellus lives “defensively,” using irony as way to navigate his often deceitful world.

The Robe then is simply a different perspective on the same cultural dynamic—the revival of sentimental piety as counterweight to the era’s hardboiled cynicism: just as Irna Philips and Bing Crosby infused sentimental popular mass culture with a generalized religiosity, Douglas modernized Protestant piety for the hardboiled wartime American masses. As with any popular cultural text, the novel undoubtedly meant many things to its diverse readership. The novel reads as a thinly veiled critique of the materialism and decadence of modern American life. And it certainly had a strong resonance with the war and its many atrocities, some of which had already been reported on. But The Robe is, above all, classically sentimental, focused on the emotional and tearful transformations of its central characters. When the distraught Marcellus finally touches the Robe for a second time, he is flooded with emotion—a “curious elation,” “an indefinable sense of relief from everything.” During World War II Americans wanted to read stories of Ernie Pyle’s battle-hardened GI’s as much as they also yearned for the joyful rapture of sincere emotional catharsis: “He wasn’t afraid any more! Hot tears gathered in his eyes and overflowed.” Despite its distance from our postmodern moment, The Robe traces some very familiar cultural terrain: the concern that irony saps moral certainty and political action. But the novel is also a reminder of the enormous influence of the sentimental tradition, a persistent companion to Americans’ ironic habit. Between irony and sincerity, Americans continue to choose both.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I )

The Shape of Law

October 10, 2018 - 12:14

Titled Declarations of Dependence: Money, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Care (University of Nebraska Press, July 2018) my recent book develops the insights of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) for critical theory and aesthetics. While the modern Liberal imagination treats money as a finite, private and decentralized exchange instrument that seems incapable of serving all, MMT’s state or “chartalist” approach to political economy insists that money is an inalienable public utility that can always be mobilized to meet social and ecological needs. In Declarations, I trace the historical repression of chartalist ideas to the rise of modern Western metaphysics through the negation of the medieval Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas. I uncover the impoverished social topology upon which both Liberal modernity and critical aesthetics have historically relied. Ultimately, I labor to redeem critical theory and aesthetics by recovering a more capacious social topology from the Thomist theology that modern Western philosophy supplanted.

Here, I would like to extend this project by complicating the Westphalian model of sovereignty, which MMT’s state theory of money presumes. My contention is not that international finance, supply chains, and NGOs somehow render the modern-nation state powerless or passé, as theorists of globalization regularly claim. Rather, I contend that the metaphysical suppositions behind modern Westphalian sovereignty obscure globalization’s interdependent legal architecture, while simultaneously naturalizing a politics of irresponsibility. In response, I argue, MMT would do well to return to a Thomistic topology of law and politics, which figures law as the center of global interdependence and governance as unavoidably answerable to all worldly forms.

That MMT sounds foreign to contemporary ears owes to the fact that it unwittingly conjures a whole topological and causal background, which modern Western metaphysics long ago rejected. During Europe’s High Middle Ages, however, a similar social topology became legible in the scholastic theology centered around the Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas.

Writing during the great political and economic expansion of the High Middle Ages, Thomas argued that Being takes the shape of a centralizing, inalienable, and inescapably interdependent cascade. While no doubt reliant upon the contiguous comings and goings of individual creatures and things, this cascade realizes the broad labor of Creation all at once via its entire mediating infrastructure. Emblematized by the miraculously inexhaustible transubstantiation of the Eucharist on disparate altars, Thomas’s metaphysics sought to make sense of the mystery of the late medieval period’s ballooning political economy and converging heterogenous cultures. What is more, his topology served as the basis for legal conceptions of the fiscal apparatus or treasury, what contemporary jurists from Bracton to Accursius referred to as the “most holy fisc.”  

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, Franciscan theologians such as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham and humanists from Petrarch to Erasmus challenged the Thomistic synthesis with a new metaphysics and a recognizably modern social topology. This metaphysical topos decentered Thomism’s boundless cascade, reconstituting the Christian God as an absolute and immediate willing power in a definitively contiguous world. In so doing, the Franciscans and humanists variously contracted Creation’s wide causal breadth into a contiguous and alienable “thisness,” which Scotus famously dubbed “haecceity.” As a consequence, this new topology reduced causality to a series of proximate relations and deemed anything like concurrent mediation at a distance either unnecessary, artificial, or impossible.

Over time, the topos of haecceity became the unquestioned metaphysical backdrop for an ascendant Westphalian modernity. It enabled influential Franciscans and humanists to reject Thomist visions of an incorruptible sacred fisc and to re-envision money as an alienable medium of exchange well before the likes of John Locke. It also gave rise to Reformation conceptions of the Almighty as an immediately willing God which, in turn, perpetuated destructive wars of religion and the rise of a Westphalian system of fiscally-strapped sovereign states.

The problem with modernity’s contracted haecceity metaphysics is that it grounds human relationality upon a primary unboundedness or non-relationality, which externalizes the question of relationality from the start. Beginning from this lethal premise, modern metaphysics thereby envisions the central challenge of collective belonging not as governing an always-already interdependent and bounded reality, but as finding means to unify ontologically disaggregated beings into some kind of coherent and legitimate whole. Far from natural, this seemingly primordial difficulty is metaphysically spurious, thoroughly modern, and exceedingly political.

Liberal money is the most salient expression of this fantasmatic non-relationality, and money appears non-relational because the modern metaphysics of haecceity has inscribed estrangement into the heart of law and politics. To put a finer point on it, this originary alienation weaves itself into how Western modernity figures the topological relation between law and politics. In the eyes of Westphalian modernity, or if one prefers, Jean Bodin or Thomas Hobbes, sovereignty is exclusive and primary, and law is an extension of sovereign power. Should law spill over sovereignty’s jurisdiction, it is characterized either as geopolitical domination, a compact between sovereign wills, or wishful thinking.

On my reading, such a topology turns the relationship between law and politics disastrously inside-out and the modern Liberal money form is the result. This modern view of law and politics casts money as a decentered global exchange relation for which no governing body is ultimately responsible. It exculpates modern governance from perpetual legal entanglements in what are characterized as external social and ecological problems.

I would like to recast this inside-out relation between law and politics from the vantage of the Thomist metaphysics that modern thought has rejected. Thomas’s understanding of law and politics is most discernable in his philosophy of “natural law.” In Thomism, natural law is mostly empty of positive precepts and commandments. Instead, natural law marks the ineludible riddle of social and material interdependence from the widest to the smallest scales. This riddle knows no outside. It assumes a tiered, heterogenous, and overlapping structure. But it traces no external bounds. Natural law, according to Thomas, is the basis for the various positive laws that organize a given social order. Yet, for Thomas, just like the natural law it realizes, positive law forever mediates the many from one, ex uno plura, rather than tenuously forging one from many, e pluribus unum.

Having predicated law in an ineluctable dependence, Thomas then characterizes the rapport between human governance and law via the scholastic method of analogy. He begins with the broader relation between God and what he calls “eternal law,” a kind of cosmic or supranatural interdependence that forms the mysterious basis of all order in the universe. Articulating this relationship, Thomas once again proves perplexing since, for him, God is both an infinite font of Creation and a legally bounded subject of His own created order. On Thomas’s reasoning, that is, God is the boundless and omnipresent center of Being’s continual Creation, not the absolute power or unbounded will characteristic of post-Reformation divinity. Yet at the same time, God’s infinitude is ineluctably restricted by eternal law’s own sublime interdependence. As a result, law appears simultaneously to proceed from God’s boundless creativity and to hold sway over Creation in ways that no divine agent can instantly dismantle. Therefore, God is nothing like an absolute will or power, Thomas concludes, precisely because the Divine remains forever indebted to the order to which divinity gives rise.

We discover a similarly paradoxical topology in Thomas’s theorization of the rapport between human governance and law. A governing institution is a site and source of social provisioning which, as every MMTer knows, must remain indebted to a particular society in the long run if that society is to continue to reproduce itself. To do so, a governing institution wields law’s infinite capacities to organize a certain scale of social and material creation. Yet Thomas argues that law as such always traces wider, narrower, and overlapping scales of interdependence than any particular governing institution can possibly oversee. Demarcated by neither territory nor sovereign will, these many scales of interdependence meet at Creation’s widest circumference and encircle each particular governing institution on all sides. It is therefore impossible for any governing institution to operate either before or outside law. Governing institutions can contest, suspend, or overturn specific instances of positive law. They may collapse in revolution or war. But, for Thomas, even states of exception and political chaos never fully circumvent the abiding quandary of social and material interdependence.

Today, I think it can equally be said that nothing escapes law’s interdependent causal horizon and charge. Law’s purview weds the present-day nation-state to cities, unemployed persons, and territorial resources as well as to other polities, stateless peoples, and the challenges of global climate change. Thomist legal and political philosophy makes these elementary connections freshly perceptible by folding the relationship between governance and law radically outside-in. At the same time, Thomas’s insistence that this legal relationality leans on a boundless center lifts the fiscal ceiling that presently prevents governing institutions from meeting social and ecological needs.

In this way, Thomism appears to both buttress MMT’s political economy and to problematize its still-unreflected attachments to the language of modern sovereignty. The resulting MMT-inspired approach to law and politics would neither subordinate jurisprudence to the problem of sovereignty nor pit universal beneficence against the evils of political and economic power. Instead, a Thomistic MMT would re-imagine the originary shape of law and turn the terms of political contestation irreversibly outside-in.

This essay is based on an oral presentation delivered at Law in Global Political Economy: Heterodoxy Now, a conference organized by the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard University, June 2–3, 2018.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I )

Biography as Novel: A Look at Cavafy in Love

September 24, 2018 - 06:14
Tags:  C. P. Cavafy, biographical writing, Napoleon Lapathiotis, Marios Vaianos, Rika Sengopoulos

Constantine P. Cavafy’s sexuality (1863-1933) was a paradox. While he composed daring homoerotic verse, he wrote very little about his own erotic life.

As a result, few traces of his homosexuality remain in the archive. Not a single letter addresses the topic in any detail, nor is there a journal or a diary devoted to it. Anyone interested in Cavafy’s life is left with the puzzling question: How could someone, who published path-breaking poetry about men loving men, have written so little about his own lovers?

Quite possibly Cavafy feared being ostracized from his social milieu. Alexandrians knew of his “anomaly” and accepted it as long as it led to no scandal. While they may have made passing references to this “perversion,” they did not write about it, preferring a conspiracy of evasion.

Therefore, little exists in the historical record about the poet’s intimate life. We know from hearsay that he had his first sexual experiences with a cousin in Istanbul between 1882 and 1885 and that he frequented the hamams (bath houses) in that city. But we have no eye-witness account and certainly nothing from Cavafy himself.

Of course, Cavafy might have written about his experiences with men in texts that had been expunged from the archive. His executors, Alekos and Rika Sengopoulos, had access to many boxes of his private notes, drafts, and belongings. Rika, who planned to write a biography of the poet, was the first to examine and organize this material. Did Rika and Alekos delete certain letters, comments, or other papers in their desire to present a more acceptable Cavafy?

Quite likely they removed their own letters to the poet from the archive. Although Constantine wrote to both of them when they visited Athens in 1928, none of their own responses to him survive, a remarkable occurrence for a man who kept receipts, lists of tasks and kitchen articles, train tickets, and drafts of letters.

In order to compensate for this hollowness of the archive, a biographer of Cavafy has to work like a novelist, conjecturing and recreating scenes, filling in the gaps. Of course, all biographies are imaginative reconstructions but even more so those that are marked by the deep absence of information.

As an example of this literary reconstruction in biographical writing, I would like to point to Cavafy’s friendship with the poet Napoleon Lapathiotis who was born in 1888 and who committed suicide in 1944. Did the two share a sexual relationship? While the historical record is inconclusive, I propose through a retelling of their story that we can imagine them to be in love.

Cavafy, then 54, met the 29-year-old Lapathiotis in 1917, a year before he had made the acquaintance of E. M. Foster. In his autobiography, Lapathiotis, who in his later life was open about his homosexuality, tells us that he had arrived in Alexandria as a second lieutenant to accompany his father, a general in the Greek army.

Like many visitors to Alexandria, Napoleon wanted to meet the then famous poet and asked a friend to arrange a visit. And Constantine himself, keen to spend time with young men, embraced the idea and prepared for it with anticipation. He lit, for instance, his artistically-made, “damask lamps” in the “oriental” siting room and strove for the right atmosphere of suggestion and artistic illusion. Charming and affable, he offered hors d’oeuvres and served special cognac in his prized red glasses. And Napoleon, so taken by the attention he received in the magical setting of poetry, promised to return.

But one day, promenading in his military uniform on the elegant Rue Rosette, the main corridor for European Alexandria, Napoleon felt someone’s approach. Turning around he saw Constantine with his round glasses and piercing eyes who chastised him for not having visited him as he had promised. Constantine then invited the young man to a patisserie and afterwards to his apartment. According to Napoleon, who would become an ardent supporter of the poet in Athens, the relationship remained amicable but they never saw each other again.

Constantine, however, saw the relationship differently as he reminded Napoleon in the fall of 1932 when he had arrived in Athens for a tracheotomy. Staying at the Hotel Cosmopolite before his operation, he received a visit from Napoleon and Marios Vaianos, then 26 and the most passionate disciple Cavafy had in Athens. Marios, who claimed that Napoleon had always referred to Constantine as his “teacher” and to himself as “pupil,” described the scene in his own memoirs.

As soon as he and Napoleon appeared at Constantine’s door, the poet embraced Napoleon warmly, in contrast to the frosty welcome he showed Marios a few days earlier. Constantine, overjoyed to see the now middle-aged Napoleon, exclaimed how “you were constantly in my mind and I tried to conjure you up alive, just like that time, whenever I came upon a poem of yours.” Pulling his visitor by the hand, he sat down at the foot of the bed and beckoned to Napoleon to join him. Constantine looked him straight in the eyes, “as if erotically,” while he placed “his left hand on his shoulders and with his right hand struck tenderly and playfully his two thighs, constantly and with warmth.” Napoleon, “pleased and satisfied,” looked occasionally up at Marios, perhaps out of embarrassment, but otherwise remained silent. Constantine in the meantime “continued his love in this manner” drawing his head ever closer to his guest.

Marios, for his part, feeling as if he had been an obstacle to some more intimate communication, escaped to the balcony. After sometime he returned to find that Napoleon, still looking “satisfied and happy,” had moved to a chair leaving Constantine still at the foot of the bed. But both continued to smile and stare into the eyes of the other “in unbroken exultation.” And then as if to break the spell, Constantine, indifferent to what his actions and words might be having on Marios, reminded Napoleon of the pleasant time they had spent together in Alexandria fifteen years earlier. “It was very lovely, when you came. Young, very young …. But now you are the same, Dorian Gray – and even more young … with your uniform, with your curiosity, and your frequent questions … Ah, how lovely it was and how you struggled to forget these things when you returned home.” He expressed the hope that Napoleon would revisit Alexandria so that they would go to the same gardens to “see what we like.”

Then something remarkable occurred. Leaning closer to his visitor, with his voice “dry and forbidding,” Constantine let out a pain through his “ailing throat” which he had until then suppressed. “I am very jealous, Napoleon, of your freedom, of the life you lead… It is as if you had your ideal Republic where you live and invite others for your company.” But “we can’t,” he emphasized with much anguish. Napoleon, made uncomfortable by this intense confession responded that “whoever wants can” achieve such freedom.

But Constantine affirmed that such conduct was impossible in Alexandria. “People there are very conservative. One surveils the other, through windows and through keyholes. Because of a few poems, they characterize me as unlawful and stigmatized.” Although he felt free to write “scandalous poems,” he could not lead Napoleon’s life in his city. He seemed defeated when he said these words. Sensing the poet’s fatigue, Napoleon gestured to Mario that they should go.

In the following days, Constantine underwent surgery, lost his voice, returned to Alexandria and died a couple of months later in April 1933. Napoleon’s return to Alexandria never materialized.

It is tempting to wonder if Constantine and Napoleon had an intimate relationship exactly as Marios’ description allows us to assume. If this was indeed the case, why did Napoleon himself not reveal this in his autobiography? Why did he not include the poem, “To the Artist from Tyre” with its subtitle “À la manière de… Kavafis” (1924) in his collected works of 1964? Was he not as in love with Constantine as Constantine himself seems to have been? Had he suppressed the affair after his return to Athens, as Constantine implied? Why were Constantine’s two letters to Napoleon in 1923 and 1925 so dry and professional in tone? (His correspondence was always cold, as many of his friends, including E. M. Forster, complained.) Finally, what were Vaianos’ intentions? Was he himself infatuated with Constantine? If so, was he jealous and hurt by Constantine’s apparent rejection of him?

We will never know. But this vignette comes as close as possible to offering us a picture of Constantine in love. Given the absences in the Cavafy archive, we have no choice but to fill in the gaps with our imagination, bringing together disparate stories and reading between the lines – in Cavafy’s words –“perfecting life, synthesizing impressions, blending the days.”

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I )

Unsentimental Vistas

September 11, 2018 - 05:45
Tags:  architecture, photography, Urbanism, gentrification, Art History, twentieth century

When the American photographer Berenice Abbott returned to New York in 1929 after nearly a decade away in Paris, she came back to a city transformed by a frenzy of epic construction projects. Contractors for the Chrysler were racing to lay three million bricks in less than two years in the hopes of becoming the tallest building in New York; by then, the Holland Tunnel had been open to traffic for nearly two years. Having spent her early career doing portraits in France, first for Man Ray and then on her own, Abbott felt inexorably drawn to the transformation of New York for her next subject.

In a 1935 application for a Guggenheim fellowship, Abbott wrote: “I am an American, who, after eight years of residence in Europe, came back to view America with new eyes. I have just realized America—its extraordinary potentialities, its size, its youth, its unlimited material for the photographic art, its state of flux particularly as applying to the city of New York.” That moment of transition, Abbott urged, had gone underappreciated by the artistic community: “I feel keenly the neglect of American material by American artists. . . America to be interpreted honestly must be approached with love void of sentimentality, and not solely with criticism and irony.” For someone coming back home after almost a decade away, Abbott’s insistence on a “love void of sentimentality” seems unusual, even at odds with the enthusiasm she feels for America’s unrealized artistic potential. What she longs for though is a middle ground, an artistic sincerity, located somewhere between patriotic nostalgia and highbrow irony.

Yet, what Abbott calls an honest artistic interpretation of our cities is difficult to achieve because by their nature cities are always in the act of aging, and confronting that decay triggers an understandably emotional desire to preserve. As I write, the hutong alleys of Beijing are disappearing; Gezi Park will soon be a faded memory in the history of Istanbul. In New York, historical commissions scramble to preserve both beauty and ugliness. Those prior layers are rarely fully removed; their half-sloughed skin remaining draped around the streets we pass by every day. We feel immense anxiety about the passing of our structures, sometimes rushing too quickly to restore. In 2011, architecture critic Sarah Goldhagen published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled “Death by Nostalgia.” She argued that the sentimentalizing impulses of preservationists had sometimes prevented necessary urban development by turning historic architecture into tourist traps rather than authentically lived spaces. She proposed the use of European-style design review boards, which would permit New York City to evolve, even where that evolution meant the replacement of older structures.

Abbott’s documentary approach to her New York City, both curious and detached, tries to avoid urban nostalgia. A crucial part of that unsentimentality is paying careful attention to facts as they exist in the present. In Changing New York, the iconic photographic collection that resulted from Abbott’s decision to come home, each photograph is labeled meticulously with a time and location. This attentiveness to detail has made it easier for subsequent photographers like Douglas Levere to attempt to re-create Abbott’s work. For example, a photograph of a schooner named Theoline is presented as: “‘Theoline,’ Pier 11, East River, Manhattan; April 9, 1936. Fore, main, mizzen and spanker masts; flying, inner and under jib staysails and four lower and four topsails. . .  [Theoline] makes trips from New York every three or four months, carrying whatever cargo it can get.” Captions such as these further amplify the clinical precision of her work.

That detached and analytical language spills over to buildings, whose former and current uses are noted, as well as to street peddlers, trinket shops and food vendors. Abbott’s crisp 1936 picture of a hot dog stand owner—taken in the middle of the Depression—is notable for the absence of any maudlin social commentary, especially in comparison to the work of her contemporaries, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Abbott is thus not a romantic poet gushing over Grecian ruins; nor is she a futurist frothing at the mouth about the salve of modernism. Rather, she seems to be sensitive to moments of disjointed transition, to the seams between one city and the next.

Of all the plates Abbott produced during this period, I always return to “Cliff and Ferry Street,” which was left out of the Changing New York edition published by E.P. Dutton. Shot in 1935 against a backdrop of glistening new skyscrapers, “Cliff and Ferry Street” looks south toward lower Manhattan and therefore toward industry, progress and wealth. In the distance stands the recently finished 50-story colossus of 60 Wall Tower. The vista closer to the viewer is less regal. On the right is the foreshortened facade of the Schieren Building, a leather belting factory that had been built in 1906 when this area of Manhattan was still called the “Leather Swamp.” In the lower left foreground stands the humble Mac-Lac Shellac shop, its large black sign acting as a counterweight to 111 John Street’s tiny white moniker.

The most striking element of the photograph, however, is the single horse drawing a cart in the foreground. The creature is the only living being within frame. Like Eugène Atget, whose work she deeply admired, Abbott was frequently drawn to compositions emptied of life. As Henry Allen noted in 1998, Abbott’s photos “show architecture with only the occasional human being as an accent point: cubist upthrusts of the skyscrapers massed around Wall Street, storefronts and piers that look wildly forgotten; a leafless and unpopulated city: l’esthetique du neutron bomb.” This emptiness makes the horse-cart that much more prominent and strange. Where and at what hour is this animal without a driver barreling down the road? Its defiant posture in the foreground has always made me feel, paradoxically, that instead of fleeing its own replacement by the automobile, it is almost pulling forward that gleaming city behind it. In this way, Abbott’s composition refuses to give into romantic clichés about the decline of the urban horse, nor is she advocating only for those skyscrapers on the horizon.

My grandfather, who ran a construction company in southern Turkey, had a similarly unsentimental attitude toward the inevitable fall of things and spaces into disuse. Everything in his house, which was kept in a pristine cleanness, needed to be useful in the present. When my grandmother was diagnosed with MS and eventually became unable to walk and then to fit into her clothes, he began to preemptively discard her possessions. I insisted on bringing back from Ankara to Connecticut—in a panic I am only now beginning to understand—her cashmere sweaters, none of which were my size.

I always thought my grandfather was too severe, but when my husband and I moved into our current one-bedroom apartment in New York and the amount of habitable space available became a real concern, we began our own struggle: what could we no longer bear to look at and what were we no longer conscious of not needing? We first rented a small storage unit in Queens. My grandmother’s clothes were donated. A first-generation iPhone, which my father had gifted me during his first visit to the United States, was boxed away. All the books that would not be of use for my dissertation were similarly dispatched into safekeeping. I have now devised a system in which instead of mining for sentences I underlined long ago, I pile up in the corner next to my desk only books borrowed from the library even when I know there is a copy waiting for me in storage. A sentimental attitude toward our old pencil marks inevitably slows us down. 


Today, the intersection of Cliff and Ferry no longer exists. While the area of Cliff Street in the far distance is still around, Ferry Street was completely covered over in 1969 to make room for a middle-income co-op complex called Southbridge Towers. Yet, in a way, the city had moved on even in 1938, three years after Abbot shot "Cliff and Ferry," when Alexander Alland, a Russian émigré and photographer, set out to capture the same scene as Abbott's original. Like Abbott, he set up his camera just north of Cliff and Ferry. Facing south, he chose a less imposing, less vertical composition. Sixty Wall Tower was still looming in the distance, guarded by 111 John St. The Mac-Lac Shellac sign was still there. But the horse—that four legged strangeness—was no longer in the frame.


Image Captions in Order of Appearance:

1. Berenice Abbott. “Cliff and Ferry Street, Manhattan” (1935). The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.

2. McKnight Kauffer. “B.P. Ethyl Anti-Knock Controls Horse-Power” (1933). Photolithograph. © Simon Rendall.

3. Ayten Tartici. “Pulaski Bridge Facing South” (2017).

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I )

Auerbach's Simplicity

August 28, 2018 - 04:50
Tags:  Auerbach, literary criticism, Renaissance, medieval

“A good writer must write in such a way that one infers from the text what he intended to express. That is not easy.” So declared Erich Auerbach in his “Epilegomena to Mimesis,” a short piece he wrote responding to some of his critics.  He is not talking about Augustine, Dante, or Flaubert here. He is describing his own style—or rather, his own effort at creating a style that conveys what he wants to convey. As reader, Auerbach has what M.H. Abrams once called the prerequisite of all criticism: a keen eye for the obvious. But that eye isn’t enough—you also have to be able to communicate that obviousness, make it obvious in your writing, make someone else see how a chapter from To the Lighthouse makes sense. It is easy to forget: criticism is, first and foremost, writing. 

Auerbach spent an enormous amount of time thinking about his own style. He worked very hard at making his writing convey what he intended—“the subtle flair for artistry and its techniques,” in Leo Spitzer’s words, that always characterized Auerbach’s writing. That subtle flair has sometimes worked against Auerbach: he is still occasionally described—very recently— as lacking theoretical sophistication. But his style was the result of a great deal of work. Two writers in particular stand out as models: Virgil and Dante. In an early essay, Auerbach remarks that what Dante learns from Virgil is “simplicity”—how to absorb thoughts into the “very substance of the poem”; in a late essay, he points to Virgil’s description of Camilla as a perfect example of classical poetry because it is a “quiet, self-contained, pure unreflecting epiphany.” Everything about Camilla is embodied in every word Virgil puts down about her. He makes Camilla obvious.  Mimesis is, among other things, Auerbach’s effort at writing his own mix of classical formal perfection with a Christian stress on the everyday. The argument of his great book about style is contained in his own style, a style which strives for (even though it does not always achieve) simplicity, but which also wishes to be—this is the intention that I find Auerbach wishes to express—a quiet, self-contained, pure unreflecting epiphany of the everyday.  

Here is a small example. Chapter Ten is among the less read chapters of Mimesis. Auerbach mostly discusses Antoine de la Sale, whose style is addicted to a medieval class pomp associated with legal writing and chivalry: most egregious, most honorable, most noble—today, you might think of a professor who keeps reminding you what schools she went to, what fellowships she won, what invited talks she gave. But la Sale is also obsessed with a stress on bodily sensations that he inherits from Christian writing, which always has a streak (it comes and goes over the years) of hatred of the flesh and the world. The result? The “highest respect for man’s class insignia” in la Sale is, writes Auerbach, coupled with “no respect whatever for man himself as soon as he is divested of them. Beneath them there is nothing but the flesh, which age and  illness will ravage until death and putrefaction destroy it” (249-250). Out of this unpromising and dreary combination comes one of the most stunning moments in all of Auerbach’s book: his reading of Madame du Chastel.  

The story la Sale tells is of Seigneur du Chastel, who commands the fortress at Brest, currently under siege by Edward the Black Prince. Chastel’s thirteen-year-old son is given as hostage while negotiations ensue. They go badly, Edward demands the fortress or he will execute the boy, and Chastel, alone with his wife at night, “breaks down and completely abandons himself to his despair” (233). He begs his wife to tell him what to do. Eventually she renounces the boy. You have to read the speech. I am intentionally not trying to do it justice here.

But, as one student remarked to me, Auerbach’s reading of the speech may be even more remarkable, and more moving. He has a keen eye for the obvious in the interactions of the couple. Madame “puts [her husband] under the necessity of as it were ordering her to express her views, which means that she reinstates him, albeit only outwardly, in his accustomed position of leadership and responsibility” (245). She plays the subordinate woman, which she is not at all, to make him back into a lord which he is not at the moment, having abandoned himself to his own grief. But the political situation demands he become an honorable lord again; the boy is lost no matter what, and Madame knows it and must convey this to her husband.  “It is hard,” writes Auerbach, “to decide what is most praiseworthy in this speech, its self-effacement or its self-control, its goodness or its clarity” (245).  

How does Auerbach convey that goodness and clarity, the self-effacement and self-control of Madame du Chastel?

Children, she says, are more the children of their mothers, who carried them and gave birth to them and suckled them, than of their fathers.  Our son is more my son than yours; and yet I now renounce all my love of him as though I had never had him; I sacrifice my love for him; for we can have other children, but if your honor is lost, it cannot be recovered. (245)

The writing makes the reading. Auerbach switches from a third-person paraphrase to a first-person account. “She says” becomes “our son”; “my son”; “I now renounce all my love of him”; “we can have other children.” This change makes Madame’s speech come alive. It is no longer simply a strange, late-medieval moment. The son is your son, the life is your life, and the agony is your agony. This is not a past safely cordoned off in scholarly detachment—it lives and throbs in the present sentence. With that vivacity, Auerbach conveys something almost incredible that happens here. Madame du Chastel remains entirely within the stylistic tics of la Sale, and so does Auerbach. Madame never steps out of the role of obedient wife; she is in fact declaring a respect for honor, and a diminution of the flesh, so strong that she is willing to try to forget about her thirteen-year-old boy (whose brutal death la Sale narrates with pornographic precision). And yet, she sounds nothing like the tired class-language of la Sale. Her embrace of Christianity somehow sidesteps its hatred of the flesh and the world. Her speech is calculating and insidious, but with a quiet dignity that renounces worldly ambition as a dutiful Christian wife while also announcing in every syllable a love of her husband and the world. She is a pure epiphany. Unexpectedly, a world changes. There can be more children, and we are not too old. 

It is not only a matter of the impressiveness of Madame du Chastel. Auerbach is making a theoretical argument with his style about what, exactly, historical criticism amounts to. His change of pronouns addresses the most difficult challenge of historical writing: describing how one thing turns into something else; stressing that the same thing will happen to you, that you too are a piece of history. Against both Christianity and the classical world of class pomp, Auerbach’s historicism insists that the world is not always the same thing, that it changes and develops in unpredictable and astonishing ways. Life changes: that is the constant argument of the German professor in Istanbul, writing as the catastrophe of the second world war unfolds around him. An impossible political situation will change, and “if we do not find pleasant things,” as Voltaire writes in Candide, “we will at least find new things.” A style dedicated to a particular world-view, to medieval honor and to Christian hatred of flesh, suddenly opens on to a different world when Madame du Chastel speaks. And when Auerbach changes pronouns, that difference redoubles out of the page. This shift has been carefully set up by Auerbach: the next chapter of Mimesis details Rabelais’ celebration of the body and his proliferation of possible worlds.  With Madame du Chastel’s speech, or perhaps with Auerbach's change of pronouns, the Renaissance is born.  The world that seemed unchanging, permanent, brutal, suddenly turns into something else; and that Renaissance happens as well in the pages of Mimesis.  In Auerbach's book, life is reborn through style.  

What could be more simple and more obvious, it seems, than the shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the birth and rebirth of human life in history? The task of literary criticism must be to make such pure epiphanies as obvious as possible—to learn Auerbach’s art of simplicity.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I )

The Critical Horizon of Barbara K. Lewalski

August 20, 2018 - 20:49
Tags:  criticism, genre criticism, history of criticism, early modern literature, John Milton, Reformation

The opening passage of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, when John relates his vision of "one like unto the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle," arrives at a startling figure for the power of the revealed word: "and he had in his right hand seven stars, and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword; and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead."

The same figure reappears several times in Revelation, in a symmetrical pattern: twice near the beginning, in the aforementioned passage and in 2:16, and twice near the end, in 19:15 and 19:21.

This curious figure is the first instance of literariness considered by Barbara K. Lewalski in her long and rich career as a literary scholar. A beloved mentor and colleague to me and many others, Lewalski passed away March 2, 2018. At the beginning of that career, in her first publication, she addresses the figure of the Christ with stars and sword in a brief article called "The Authorship of Ancient Bounds," which appeared in the journal Church History in 1953 and concerns the provenance of an unsigned Puritan tract of 1645. (The article is by Barbara Kiefer, who was not yet Barbara Kiefer Lewalski.) Kiefer considers several pieces of evidence for the ascription of the tract to the unorthodox divine Joshua Sprigg, but concludes with the use of the rhetorical figure from Revelation that also appears in both Ancient Bounds and another pamphlet known to be Sprigg's, an appeal to the judges of King Charles to show mercy. She discusses a figure that appears in three places, in Scripture as well as in two early modern works, and for the first time we see the outline of what will become her characteristic method of collating Biblical materials with seventeenth-century lyric, polemical, or philosophical writing to adduce a poetics they hold in common—what in the Preface to her second book, Donne's Anniversaries and the Poetry of Praise (1973), she will call a Biblical poetics, or "the ways in which sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant theory regarding the literary elements of Scripture (genre, figurative language, symbolic mode) affected contemporary English poetry and poetics, especially religious poetry" (vii).

"The Authorship of Ancient Bounds" is the work of an apprentice, framing and resolving one narrow question. But I would like to suggest that Kiefer is a little too interested in what she calls the "rather unusual figure" found in Revelation, especially in the setting of Church History, among articles on topics like "The Haddon-Osorio Controversy of 1563-83" or "Molanus, Lutheran Irenicist (1633-1722)." The topic of the article may be Sprigg's authorship of the tract, but its subject, which dawns only on the final page, is how a rhetorical figure moves from the Bible—where it is already unstable, appearing in slightly different contexts—into devotional and imaginative writing, and what it does there. I might even go so far as to suggest that a rather brittle and difficult figure is a kind of stand-in for the more developed instances of literariness that will preoccupy this critic in her next phase. The scale here is smaller, but the problems are already becoming evident.

From 1953 we go to 1966 and the publication of Milton's Brief Epic: The Genre, Meaning and Art of Paradise Regained, Barbara Lewalski's first book. More than fifty years on, it is still the best thing ever written on Paradise Regained, but at this distance one is struck by how carefully Lewalski draws the horizons of her scholarship: that is, the sense of what this work is ultimately about. In a blog post called "Misplaced Horizons in Literary Studies," I have written about the drawing of horizons in criticism and the perspectives that contribute to them, and how (especially now, as our common enterprise seems less and less urgent to the rest of the academy, let alone the public) we have to see the making of a horizon as a statement of values: is the horizon the real world, or intellectual history, or the Bible and its influence, with literary texts inside that horizon as perspective? Or is literature itself the horizon, with all of these things inside it as perspective? It is the latter kind of project, I argue, that has met certain parochial customs and rewards of our discipline while pulling us away from the intellectual life of other disciplines—because historians, philosophers, social scientists, and others simply do not see literature as a valuable horizon in relation to the real world.

Milton's Brief Epic belongs to an unusually fertile moment for Renaissance literary studies, and I want to tarry for a moment over the question of why the criticism of that era has maintained its power all these years later. One could distinguish between the several areas within Renaissance literature that undergo a revival in the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-seventies; I think the conditions were different for, say, Spenser than for Donne and Milton, and even between Donne and Milton, in part because of when and how formalism arrived to each of these corpuses (Greene 118-20). For the scholars of seventeenth-century literature of Lewalski's generation who flourished in this era such as Rosalie Colie, Earl Miner, and Stanley Fish, there is a Janus-faced methodological orientation: that is, they mostly begin as historicists with a facility for formalism. The historicism of that era was a category that masked such sharply delineated approaches as the history of ideas, biography, and allegorical interpretation, while the contemporaneous formalism was the New Criticism. The methodological condition of Lewalski and her peers was a legacy of the recent history of Donne and Milton studies, where many interventions by Cleanth Brooks, William Empson, and others had fashioned a New Critical Donne but Milton came into this era still largely in the hands of traditional historicists, and any younger person in the field of seventeenth-century literature had to be able to engage with both kinds of approaches.

Milton's Brief Epic is about how a variety of models are absorbed into the container that is Paradise Regained, at once a satisfactory and an unsatisfactory example of a brief epic; and in this early phase of Lewalski's career, the horizon is not Milton or even Paradise Regained but genre: "Milton's tremendous creative energy," she writes, "modifies and transforms the genres he uses, making them adequate to sustain new demands, which his profound respect for order and discipline in art as in life preserves most of the formal traditions appropriate to each kind" (5). 

What is a genre in this kind of criticism? It's important to recognize that for the early Lewalski, genres exist between literature and other kinds of writing, especially Biblical and speculative, and that instead of being closed boxes, they are open channels that shuttle between fields of discourse. The designation of genre as Lewalski's horizon here doesn't close the project to perspectives outside the work at hand or beyond literature. On the contrary: genre is how those perspectives get into the argument. This is a significantly more historical understanding of genre than the one received from the New Critics; and at the same time, it is a more dynamically literary understanding of genre than was available from the historical scholars of the preceding generations.

But while they all start from a more or less common position, these critics also wrestle openly in their work with the challenge of identifying the vivid conceptual term that enables them to move from one literary work to another, from literature to other kinds of writing, and from literature to history. What is needed is a term that draws a horizon, a term that is itself part of literature but puts literature into something larger. For the early Lewalski that term is first genre and then Biblical poetics; for Miner it is mode; for Colie it is first criticism (in her book on Andrew Marvell) and then kind; and for Fish it is reader, with consequences for the entire discipline of literary studies. The work of this generation survives because their terms get worked into the fabric of our recognition of the period; we come to feel that our understanding of the literature depends on having such terms available as perspectives to bump against a horizon. It's not that we now do criticism like that of Lewalski and her contemporaries, or even, oddly, that we obtained from them stable accounts of genres such as the religious or metaphysical lyric, rhetorical tropes such as the paradox, or symbolic processes such as allegory. If anything, these genres, tropes, and processes were left by them better defined but somehow also more open, more accessible to our investigations.

Donne's Anniversaries and the Poetry of Praise—which opens what I consider Lewalski's middle or georgic phase, leading up to the epic of Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (1979)—is the pivotal point in the development I have been tracing, because here she broaches the concept of Biblical poetics as a guiding concept or a horizon. Suddenly the limitations of genre as a horizon are plain, and while that term continues to play an important role as a contributing perspective, from here on it is nearly always controlled by Lewalski's more powerful and original concepts of Biblical poetics and Protestant poetics that permit her to chart the flow of ideas and figures into and out of seventeenth-century literature.

Lewalski's later work, notably three more distinguished monographs, builds on this foundation, but the essential moment in her scholarship is the passage through the first three books to 1979. A year later, she left Brown University, where she had taught since 1956, for Harvard, and remained there until her retirement in 2015. I had the privilege of knowing her as my undergraduate teacher and adviser at Brown and then a few years later as my colleague at Harvard. For many of us, Barbara at Brown was her essential phase, in which her approach was still being formed in conversation with the aforementioned peers such as Miner, who became my Ph.D. adviser. By contrast, Barbara at Harvard in the 1980s and nineties was an eminence who embodied a settled method, a then somewhat old-fashioned historical scholarship that stood apart from the fashion for the New Historicism of the time. In the Brown years, moreover, she was younger (not yet fifty when I first knew her) and more informal, and her human existence took place in Providence, where she lived until the end of her life, as it never did in Cambridge. I can see Barbara in shabby Horace Mann House at Brown in about 1977, wearing casual clothes she would never appear in at Harvard, sitting at the head of the seminar table with one leg tucked under her and reciting in a brassy, colloquial tone: "Busy old fool, unruly sun / Why dost thou thus / Through windows and through curtains call on us?" As I told my students a few days after Barbara's passing, I'll always hear certain poems in her voice. Maybe our voices that survive resonantly in the memories of students are as powerful as those in our criticism; or maybe these voices are somehow the same. I believe Barbara found her voice in those early books and in the Brown era.

Three years ago I spent an afternoon with Barbara in her home on University Avenue in Providence, talking a little about the past but mostly about the future, especially politics. She and her delightful husband Ken Lewalski were Stevenson Democrats and shrewd observers of national politics across many eras. (A professor of history at Rhode Island College, Ken passed away in 2006.) I saw her again in January of 2017, in the audience for a panel of Ph.D. students at the Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia at 8:30 in the morning, but couldn’t catch her eye across the room and had to leave early. How many scholars of Barbara's distinction in their eighties, I thought then, would trouble themselves to attend such a session and pitch constructive questions at nervous graduate students? She always paid respect to the field by investing in its future.

When I delivered a version of the foregoing as a talk at a celebration of Barbara's career in 2011, she told us how her adviser, Ernest Sirluck at the University of Chicago, had encouraged her to publish the paper on Ancient Bounds. What Sirluck (and even Barbara herself) might have seen then as merely a study of attribution contained the rudiments of a method and a voice that was to figure in a Golden Age in criticism. My students often find their way to her books, and their students will continue to do so for as long as I can imagine.


Works Cited

Images Courtesy of the Archives of Brown University.

Colie, Rosalie L. "My ecchoing song": Andrew Marvell's Poetry of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.

—. The Resources of Kind: Genre-Theory in the Renaissance. Ed. Barbara K. Lewalski. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. New York: St. Martin's, 1967.

Greene, Roland. "Close Reading Transformed: The New Criticism and the World." A Touch More Rare: Harry Berger, Jr., and the Arts of Interpretration. Ed. Nina Levine and David Lee Miller. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009. 115-24.

Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer [as Barbara Kiefer]. "The Authorship of Ancient Bounds." Church History 22 (1953): 192-96.

—. Donne's Anniversaries and the Poetry of Praise. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.

—. Milton's Brief Epic: The Genre, Meaning, and Art of Paradise Regained. Providence: Brown University Press, 1966.

—. Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Miner, Earl. The Metaphysical Mode from Donne to Cowley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Against Hate: The US Supreme Court, Islam, and Justice in a Xenophobic Age (IV)

August 20, 2018 - 03:18
Tags:  travel ban, Donald Trump, Islamophobia, Islam, nationalism

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a decision to legalize the ban on five Muslim countries. This ruling prevents part of the Muslim population from entering the US on the pretext that they pose a potential security threat to our country. One wonders to what extent this assumption of a national security threat is reasonable and what body of evidence supports it. How many American citizens, separated from their families, will suffer from this ruling? How many more lives will be shattered? How many children will be separated from their parents?

To be sure, not all the justices agreed to uphold Trump’s travel ban. It was a close 5-4 vote. Of the four justices who voted against it, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented and compared the majority’s vote to Korematsu, the infamous Supreme Court case that upheld the internment of 100,000 Japanese in the 1940s. Justice John Roberts, who authored the majority opinion in Trump v. Hawaii, was strongly supported by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Anthony Kennedy. All five of them dismissed a well-documented argument that the travel ban and its waiver program were unlawful. They argued instead that the ban is fair and a standard directive falling “squarely within the scope of Presidential authority” and that “the President has inherent [italics Justice Thomas’s] authority to exclude aliens from the country.” It was further concluded that “the plaintiffs cannot raise any other First Amendment claim, since the alleged religious discrimination in this case was directed at aliens abroad.” All evidence of anti-Muslim discrimination presented in the case was dismissed as “unpersuasive.”

A decision that will change the fate of millions of Muslims does not “conclude” that those Muslims are a potential threat to national security. But much like the trade war declared on Canada, this ruling creates a situation in which the tattered clothes of national security once again hid the vicious monstrosity of partisan politics. The organic, independent, and impartial body of the Supreme Court, the official guardian of the Constitution, has made a decision that embodies both the reality of the political moment and its illusion at the same time. The reality is that we are living in one of the most divisive times in recent political history. The illusion is that within this divisiveness, the law, in its most sublime embodiment has turned into the last straw, drowning citizens’ rights and denying families basic human rights to belong together. The ‘validity’ of this decision arises from the politics of ‘confirmation’ and partisan loyalties, telling the truth about the US today, that is, revealing that there is something deeply rotten in this interpretation of the law, which appears to be based on ideology, rather than on fact.

During his campaign, then-candidate Trump made the following promise to his base: “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” The statement was immediately welcomed with enthusiastic applause from the audience. This statement remained on Trump’s campaign website until May 2017. It was taken down only after the President issued the first two executive orders.

The President also stated on Public TV that “Islam hates us” and reiterated that the United States is “having problems with Muslims coming into the country.” Shortly after being elected, Trump was asked whether circumstances in Europe had influenced his plans to “ban Muslim immigration,” to which he replied, “You know my plans. All along, I’ve been proven to be right.” One week after his inauguration, the President issued his promised ban. Rudi Giuliani, who at time was one of the President’s campaign advisers, stated in a TV interview that when the President “first announced it, he said, ‘Muslim ban.’ He called me up. He said, ‘Put a commission together. Show me the right way to do it legally.’”

Unfortunately, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court refused to connect the dots and decided that there should be no connection between the rhetoric of campaign promises and the right of the President to exercise his authority. Justice Kennedy concurred in judgment and joined the Court’s opinion in upholding the ban in full. The irony is startling. In his decision to uphold the anti-Muslim ban, Justice Kennedy reminds Government officials that they are not free to disregard the Constitution. But the reality is that Justice Kennedy’s concurrence has authorized Government officials to disregard the articles of the very Constitution that it sets to uphold and protect. This is the worst form of ideology, no longer an ideology of confusing linguistic with natural reality, but rather an ideology that defaces the real and dissolves it into pragmatic legality. The Muslim ban, a postulate of bigotry, has now become the law of the land, a real executable force on Muslim Americans, who are now officially, legally, and irrefutably, second-class citizens in their own homeland.

How a Muslim ban that rocked the nation for over a year in its various iterations—a ban that epitomizes a promised anti-Muslim crusade— is not a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is beyond comprehension. How Justice Kennedy overlooked the fact that banning Muslims (which has nothing to do with national security, is an exercise in racial superiority, and goes against the freedom of religion) is the latest failure the Supreme Court has penned indelibly onto the unforgiving walls of history.

If this ban does not violate the Establishment Clause which safeguards religious neutrality, why then wouldn’t the government apply the exemption and waiver system to Muslim applicants who satisfy the security and information terms stated in the Proclamation? The answer is unequivocally clear: the Proclamation is a “Muslim” ban, not a “national-security” ban. The poor Yemeni child with cerebral palsy who could not move or speak and whose doctors said she would not survive in Yemen must have been too dangerous for national security to be allowed entry into the US to receive treatment. She was told that “a waiver will not be granted in your case.” It was only after her case received embarrassing international highlighting that a waiver was finally granted.

An anxious world needs healing not lecturing or a scolding statement, and definitely not a hackneyed confirmation of the status quo. In the aftermath of Justice Kennedy’s concurrence, an anxious world has seen that despite its freedom and autonomy, the conservative judiciary is not immune to bias, especially against citizens who hold beliefs contrary to their own. For all these reasons, an anxious world has grown exponentially more anxious.

The terms and spirit of the First Amendment are clear. They almost remove any possibility for misinterpretation. I say “almost” because in language there is always a chance for a misreading. If this misreading comes from the justices of the Supreme Court who are confirmed and sworn to protect the Constitution, then American citizens have every reason to be concerned. Muslim American minorities have every reason to be alarmed because we connect the dots. We may disagree about the interpretation of a work of art, but not on the laws that safeguard human dignity and freedom. Justice Kennedy’s concurrence does not change our minds, nor does it whitewash the tremendous animosity toward Muslims under the current administration. The Supreme Court’s decision will hurt millions of Americans citizens. By upholding the Muslim ban, the conservative justices have abandoned their responsibility towards the Constitution. They were not asked to consider the authority of the President or the political discourses of the administration. They are not charged with looking for personal gain or with protecting their own political party. They are freed from any pressure whatsoever precisely in order to uphold the Constitution. They are free to be responsible and responsible to see that our dearly won freedom prevails, especially in the face of subversive politics determined to demonize minorities. That freedom is guaranteed by the very Constitution now betrayed with serious repercussions for Muslims and all our citizens.

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

Costs and Crossings: on Apolline Traoré’s "Borders"

August 1, 2018 - 10:21
Tags:  borders, ethnicity, gender, Film, Africa, Francophone

Apolline Traoré’s 2017 film Borders unfolds across a sequence of rich and beautiful landscapes and cityscapes, following the journey of a group of four women from Dakar (Senegal) to Lagos (Nigeria), passing through Bamako (Mali), Cotonou (Benin), and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) along the way. The film, Traoré’s third feature, is an experience of motion, novelty, and adventure: each day of the trip and each arrival into a different city is indicated by intertitle text, and frequent shots of the moving bus or the urban approach coupled with a gorgeous soundtrack make the movie feel actually transporting. This is a remarkable re-framing of the road movie, with its masculine and US-centered baselines of open road, heroic exploit, and self-discovery. Here, instead, the journey leads the four women—Adjara, Emma, Sali, and Micha—through trials of extortion, harassment, and rape. They confront and reveal personal demons and family histories; they come to examine their motives for travel; they witness a bloody car accident; they spend a night sleeping on the roadside after a breakdown; they form unlikely friendships and alliances. That all of this action is centered almost exclusively on the four African women—different in personality, age, nationality, class, and cultural and religious backgrounds—is notable in itself, as is its direction by Traoré, who is from Burkina Faso and completed her film training in the US.

In other words, there’s plenty to say here about gender and genre. For example, the film works a strange tension between monotony and melodrama: the boredom inherent in a multi-day bus journey is largely not shown, and episodic adventures follow immediately one after the other, while the melodramatic tropes Traoré invokes are suspenseful and surprising, especially at the film’s end. Moreover: at a moment at which many popular US film directors are experimenting—with varying degrees of success—with gender-flipping films, it’s worth thinking about how this works in Borders both to illuminate the ways in which the experience of the border is inflected by gender (more on this) and to evoke a real and touching community of women. There’s a comic scene, for example, when the bus’s newest and most handsome passenger, a dapper middle-aged man, becomes purely the ridiculous subject who brings the women together as they realize that, napping, he’s the one whose flatulence has made the ride suddenly unbearable. When the bus stops for a break, and he approaches them, they respond with something along the lines of: after you’ve been stink-bombing us this whole time? Get out of here! Like many moments in the film, this one feels unexpected in the movies in general: a frank picture of sturdy intimacy between girlfriends carved out of an otherwise hostile and masculine environment.

There is also the movie’s specific cultural and geographical context. Traoré participates in and extends the rich legacy of Burkinabe cinema, for which the struggle against gender imbalance is ongoing (as it is elsewhere). The film premiered to great acclaim in 2017 at the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, or FESPACO, which has been an institution of African cinema since 1969. In materials accompanying the film’s release and a recent screening in Paris, Traoré frames her intervention in terms of a specific geographical configuration: ECOWAS, or the Economic Community of West African States. Established in 1975 by the treaty of Lagos, this economic union was formed to promote trade and exchange—of goods, people, cultures—across its member states. According to Traoré, Borders is intended to show the persistence of what still hinders free motion across national boundaries: “the goal of this film,” Traoré writes,

is in part to raise awareness among our States about the problem of borders, and in part to show—through the commitment of these women, who are proof of real community in their daily struggles for their families—the type of community sought by ECOWAS and prescribed for our states. Above all, this film takes account of the permanent dangers present along the cross-border routes, which cause enormous suffering to populations.

In addition to this depiction of community and the obstacles to it, finally, Traoré charges her film with imparting practical knowledge to some of its spectators. “I decided to make this film,” she writes, “not only to show the struggles of African women but to demonstrate that things can change on a smaller scale.” Traoré is referring to the film’s almost pedagogical interest in the factual details of the rights of border-crossers, the frequent impingement on those rights by border-enforcers, and the kinds of resistance that succeed or fail. The director’s stated moral here is pragmatic: know your rights at the border, and know what kinds of action are available—and what kinds aren’t.

But Borders also opens onto different and broader questions about borders, and what borders are, and what they do. For me, one of the film’s most striking moments was a scene showing a particularly deserted border crossing. I remember it now as a still photograph: the bus has pulled off beside the road, the passengers are disembarked and lined up quietly behind a table in the dust beside the road. A single man sits behind the table. While other of the film’s borders are significantly more elaborate—fences, offices, waiting rooms, lines of soldiers, arms, noise, scuffles, chaos and commotion—this one very simply consists of a road, a table, a chair, a man, and a government stamp. The concept of “border” starts to look much starker: no visible boundary, no other physical impediment. While we are perhaps mostly used to thinking of borders as configurations of fences and walls, as what keeps people out, this scene reveals something about the essence of a border as a site of power over passage. An essential function of the border is to be permeable. It is this differential permeability that means that some people and goods get through and some don’t. Or, in the words of Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, in their 2013 book Border as Method, borders are also “instruments for managing, calibrating, and governing global passages of people, money, and things.”[1] They continue: “borders are […] devices of inclusion that select and filter people and different forms of circulation in ways no less violent than those deployed in exclusionary measures.”[2]

Now, in the summer of 2018—at least in US and European imaginaries—the question of borders seems largely centered on the construction or performance of violent and deadly exclusionary measures: detention facilities at the US-Mexico border, the erection and systematic eradication of migrant camps and communities in Europe, the refusal of aid or port to vessels crossing the Mediterranean, the genocidally disproportionate use of force by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian protestors at the Gaza border. This is not to draw attention away from any of these immediate crises. But what Traoré’s film reminds us is that the border itself, even devoid of its attendant apparatuses, is a problematic institution. A border is what the rich, white, and / or male move through at will, more easily than others; even in its most stripped-down form, a border exists for the exercise of power against those populations whose movements it controls. As Traoré shows, who crosses—and at what cost—depends on lines of race, class, and gender. For the women of the film, despite their community and commitment, and despite their courage and creativity in smuggling, bribing, scheming, hiding, and escaping, the border is a fundamentally hostile entity. Traoré’s film is a provocation to think both questions of “who gets in” and beyond those questions, since even a permeable border—or especially a permeable border—functions as a site of exploitation, profit, and struggle.


[1] Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).

[2] Ibid., 7.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II