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On The Latest Recipes for The Cookshops of the Future

June 5, 2015 - 14:18

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I ) and Wikimedia ( I

Several years ago, I wrote a short article for Jacobin Magazine called “Soviet Space Opera,” on the occasion of Neil Armstrong’s death, in defense of space travel and the Promethean dream of human interplanetary colonization.

The piece was intended as a provocation, in keeping with the editors's stated dedication to Marxist, or at least left-wing, polemic. The decline of space travel and the futurist utopianism associated with it, I argued, coincided with the failure of actually existing socialism and the communist idea. I was at the time just beginning to engage with certain elements of what has since become a full-scale accelerationist revival on the Anglo-American left, exemplified by Alex Williams and Nic Srineck’s Accelerationist Manifesto.

In keeping with this engagement, my polemic was also at least partially aimed at certain backward-looking , romantic, and potentially defeatist tendencies on the left—localism or the more quasi-primitivist strains of the environmental movement—as dissected by Greg Sharzer, among others, in his No Local.

Leigh Philips is one of the writers whose work I cited in my article. Philips, a science writer and self-described “modernist,” wrote an essay entitled “Put Whitey Back On The Moon,” which both preceded and inspired my own polemic. Philips argues—against neo-liberals and the anarcho-localists of the left alike—that the central planning of the state socialist variety is a necessary prerequisite for grand, collective, projects such as space exploration. He advocates a return to such projects as the best way to build a twenty-first century socialism, which would include “guaranteed incomes, well-funded pensions, a transformation to a low-carbon (or even carbon-negative) economy, and investment in space exploration."

So I was surprised when Philips suggested that I had abandoned my earlier views in criticizing what I think is a rather poor essay, entitled “A Plea For Culinary Modernism," by Rachel Lauden, that recently appeared in Jacobin.

Lauden’s essay, for me, was a case study in false dichotomies and an exercise in bash the straw hippie, which in this case, is the artisanal or slow food movement, subsumed under the term, “culinary luddism.” Lauden begins the essay by outlining her long relationship with organic and artisanal methods of food production, before letting her readers know that traditional food was really bad and hardly natural, or in her words: “to make food tasty, safe, digestible and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission.” In other words, “natural” and “organic” are modern inventions. But are Michael Pollan and his fellow travelers, advocates for organic and artisnal food, really offering their prescriptions as historical claims? And are they rejecting the modern age or modern industrial agriculture  in its entirety as opposed to calling for a set of (perhaps dubious) alternative agricultural practices in the very modern form of national food policy proposals? 

In terms of her own policy prescriptions, Lauden calls for a better industrial agriculture and “an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial.” While I agree with Lauden’s proposal and endorse the need for a better industrial agricultural system, I suspect so too would most of her putative opponents. These are just a few of the problems I had with a piece in which the author praises McDonalds and fast food in general because it supposedly freed the poor and working class woman from slaving in the kitchen all day, as if these were the only two alternatives, and without mentioning the negative health consequences of Big Macs on working class communities where this modern wonder is what most people can afford in terms of time and money. Nor does Lauden mention food deserts. Nor the labor conditions of modern farm workers.

Lauden, under the guise of historical demystification and policy prescription, outlines an aesthetic position: culinary modernism. Like certain iterations of artistic modernism, Lauden defines her edible modernity against the romanticism of the slow fooders. In a recent, and, for me, illuminating, interview published in the wake of the Jacobin essay (which, it should be noted, is a fifteen year old piece of writing republished by the magazine) Lauden admits as much: “it’s romanticism and it has older roots. Pollan’s three rules (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”) had already been advocated by Rousseau in the middle of the eighteenth century. Rousseau praised the peasant diet. According to him, the sturdy inhabitants of Swiss valleys grew tall, strong on milk straight from the cow and vegetables straight from the garden. Not for him aristocratic French dining with cooks who disguised meat with sauces to titillate the nobility into overeating and obesity.”

As Lauden recognizes in the excerpt, culinary aesthetics are socially and politically overdetermined in a way that is recognizably modern. Romanticism is a product of nascent modernity, born of enthusiasm for and then disillusionment with the French Revolution. European romantic fantasies of a natural life, from which modern people have fallen away, speak to the dislocations attendant upon capitalist modernity. The various romanticisms, reactionary and progressive, functioned as both imminent critique and symptom of what Marx would later call alienation. The same could be said of the foodie neo-romanticism that even Lauden tacitly acknowledges as having changed the industrial food system for the better: “Look what’s happened in the 15 years since I wrote the article. Walmart’s become a major player, so has Monsanto, celebrity chefs, sustainability, and locavore have become household words, fats and sweeteners have been vilified and un-vilified, and now Taco Bell is removing artificial flavoring and coloring, corporations are scrambling to make their products appealing to those who want healthful and organic foods, and McDonald’s is in trouble. No one could have predicted or managed these changes. And many have happened through the power of the word. So I’d turn down the offer [of a hypothetical food czar position]. The pen is mightier than the czar!”

Most modernist movements, of the artistic sort, build on the romantic critique of modern alienation even while rejecting romanticism and its conventions (think of Eliot’s The Waste Land). Culinary modernism is more accurately described as a futurism, in line with that avant-garde’s over-identification with modern technological processes; this over-identification famously included the movement's first, Italian, adherents’s brief rejection of retrograde pasta in favor of futuristic food.

Futurists, such as F.T. Marinetti, sought to overcome alienation and, in the words of Benjamin Noys, “solve [the] suffering of labor by integrating labor into the machine” (Noys, Malign Velocities, 21). In fact, both futurism and romantic primitivism, of the Thoreauvian sort offer an experience of the sublime in place of a systematic political analysis or program. They are understandable, but insufficient, aesthetic responses to various political and social deadlocks.

All of this might seem very far afield from the issue of slow vs. fast food, although food, its production, and consumption are nowadays a great example of a (symptomatic) politics by other means. These reflections came out of my debate with Leigh Philips on the Lauden piece, as I mentioned above, which was in many ways more interesting than the essay itself. I have reproduced this debate below or at least the first exchange, which Leigh Philips posted on his own blog.

One of Marx’s great innovations in relation to earlier radicalisms was his reconceptualization of the opposition between the progressive’s year zero future orientation and a historicism marred by reactionary traditionalism. Revolution, shaped by historical limitations and possibilities, does not represent a complete break with the past and its traditions so much as its radical reconfiguration. Walter Benjamin, the great critic of futurism, best exemplifies this ethos in his "Theses on The Philosophy of History," when he writes: "Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments” (Thesis II). This model of the past, and our relationship with it, represents one possibility for rethinking the human relationship with the planet—the environment—in a way that is consonant with a broadly modernist socialism, but without falling into the opposition between neo-futurist Jetsons and eco-localist Flintstones—a topic to be explored in future blog posts.

What follows is the conversation between myself, science writer Leigh Philips, and others in response to Lauden's Jacobin piece mentioned above:

Anthony Galluzzo Historical accuracy isn't really my criterion for whether food is good or not. "Artisanal"—another flavor of gourmet—is better aesthetically. And as noted below, too many straw men or rather straw hippies here.

Yes, we need a better, more sustainable, large scale industrial agriculture, of which small scale organic farming will form a tiny part. Why always these antinomies? So our only choice is between McDonalds ("edible" garbage) and "Luddism?" This is a C student-level example of the false dichotomy. And why are the masses consigned to Big Macs again? Note the subtle hints of reactionary cultural populism-fancy food is only for fancy people, after all!

And as for celebrating bad mass produced food as a "modernist" gesture...this increasingly predictable kitsch Jetsonism is veering into self-parody at this point. I will take farm-to-table over Soylent any day.

Will Hough I agree re the straw men. As for the rest, I'm hoping Leigh Phillips will help me sort it out.

Anthony Galluzzo The problem isn't the technical point (s) per se—there is a campy aesthetic here—a callow 1950s era futurism (the wonders of Jell-O and canned foods) used as a fuck you to some hypothetical Park Slope neo-hippie. Tiresome.

A sensuously aesthetic life for all—which will include "reconfigured" traditions, many of which were once the province of elites—should be one primary goal of socialism.

And do Michael Pollan or Anthony Bourdain really offer their recipes as historical claims? Please. Sophisticated geek trolling—the future as endless McRibs at the Jetsons' place. Kill me now.

Will Hough This'll do for sorting things out, thanks.

"A sensuously aesthetic life for all—which will include 'reconfigured' traditions, many of which were once the province of elites—should be one primary goal of socialism."

Miguel Antonio Gomez A tiny part? You might want to check your facts. Small farmers produce most of the world's foodand they are doing this with less than a quarter of the world's farmland.

Anthony Galluzzo I am critiquing the article, if you didn't notice. My point being that a sustainable future will depend on a better, large scale industrial agriculture and small organic farming. These false dichotomies make for stupid—ideologically coded—debates.

Connor Kilpatrick Anthony Galluzzo, now is the perfect time to confess to you how much I love the Olive Garden's Zuppa Toscana soup.

Anthony Galluzzo Cheer whiz and Spielberg movies—a Marxist vision that even Fox News can get behind, Seriously, I generally love Jacobin, but this article is embarrassing and the constant trolls will only undermine the magazine. Also, some more nuanced takes on environmentalism would be nice. It's not always an either/or.

Anthony Galluzzo Make sure to snap a pic of every McDonalds you visit in Europe, Connor—no "feudal" food for you: #accelerate

Miguel Antonio Gomez Oh but there is a dichotomy, Anthony Galluzzo! There is indeed a big contradiction between the two "modes of production"! The most obvious one is that they compete for resources: space, land, water, financing, etc...

Anthony Galluzzo So what's your take on the essay, Miguel Antonio Gomez? We need to go all organic and local? Neo-agrarianism? Elaborate.

Anthony Galluzzo What's the Eco-socialist perspective, John Gulick?

Leigh Phillips I'm surprised at your antagonism to the article, Anthony, after the other day, you were quite rightly fulminating against Carol Lipton for her salmagundi of anti-vaxx, primitivist, pseudoscientific, Malthusian, "other ways of knowing," noble-savage brain rot. This essay is countering many of the same tendencies with respect to food. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to all the evidence-phobic, faddish waffle everywhere you go about gluten-free, chemical-free (impossible unless what is on offer is a perfect vacuum, as everything is made of chemicals), paleo, local, all-natural, organic, anti-GMO, etc., etc. It’s not trolling to contest the problems of what the author calls "culinary luddism." It’s not the term I would have chosen, as the Luddites of the 19th Century were a lot more complicated than the term luddism would suggest, but otherwise, the essay is a brilliant, provocative piece of popular history.

More broadly, we are living at a moment when a rainbow of anti-modern ideologies dress themselves up as anti-capitalist, or at least anti-corporate. Yet for all their claim of opposition to capitalism, when you scratch the surface, they very frequently turn out to be quite neoliberal and market-friendly while unconsciously drawing on 19th Century counter-Enlightenment thinking or early 20th Century Blood and Soil reaction, and usually come marinated in postmodernist anti-rationalism and relativism.

We find these counter-Enlightenment ideologies within a great deal of environmentalist thought in particular; within the technophobic opposition to nanotechnology, space exploration, cloning, genetic modification, neuroscience, human enhancement, etc., etc.; within the essentialism of identity politics; within the mysticism of alternative medicine; within the scepticism of civil liberties mounted by safe space, trigger warning, ‘no-platform’ forms of campus censorship; but also within foodie culture. To contest the Malthusianism within environmentalist ideas is not to deny climate change, or stop worrying about overfishing or pollution, say, but to propose real solutions to these problems. To contest technophobia is not to embrace the "gadgets + capitalism = awesome" naïveté of a Wired or Popular Mechanics magazine, but to offer future-oriented egalitarianism. To argue against the magical thinking of alternative medicine is not to abandon our challenge to Big Pharma. To contest the censoriousness, viciousness and victimology of SJW berserkers is not to abandon the fight against racism, misogyny and homophobia, but to argue for a better, universalist mode of campaigning against these phenomena. Similarly with this critique of the ahistoricism of contemporary foodie culture, the argument is not to damn aesthetic pleasure in artisanal food, craft beer, etc., but to remind of their fundamental dependence on industry that has brought so much benefit and how industry is not to be done away with, but captured by us and planned in the interest of all.

A growing number of Marxist writers—myself included and I think a lot of folks in "the Jacobin ecosystem," if you’ll permit me to project a little here—are growing increasingly frustrated with the hegemony of such counter-Enlightenment ideas on the left and are groping towards a way of critiquing them without alienating those who unfortunately but with the best of intentions embrace these ideas. The Accelerationists likewise are largely on the right track, albeit steeped in a philosophical register impenetrable to most. Elsewhere, the self-styled Eco-modernists are interesting and definitely coming up with very good solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss but insufficiently confronting the contradictions of the market system.

Do we always get it right? No. Are we sometimes inelegant, ham-fisted or even sneering in this regard? I’m the first to admit that my curmudgeon performance around these sort of issues is a little clumsy at times. But this isn’t the same as trolling. And for all the fumbles, I remain convinced that our best hope for breaking out of the neoliberal impasse lies in a universalist, global, future-oriented, labour-centric revival of the modernist project, not a small-is-beautiful retreat to some Golden Era that never existed. And so this critique must continue to happen, however maladroit it may be sometimes. (That said, I don’t think this essay is maladroit in any way. It’s a superb piece of writing)

Anthony GalluzzoThe fact that you're surprised illustrates my point, Leigh Phillips—apparently there are only two caricatural positions on this (and other issues) where one is either Carol Lipton-a "hippie" devotee of counterenlightenment—OR an unequivocal advocate of McDonalds.

Some general points: there was no one Enlightenment, and romanticism is also a development within the aufklarung-imminent critique—which both Hegel and Marx understood. The problem of alienation and its overcoming was central to Marx's project. I am just as disturbed by scientism and recent attempts to posit some reductionist folk enlightenment—reinventing Marx as a technocrat, for example—as I am opposed to the the obscurantism I critiqued on Ms. Lipton's thread. Both positions are equally false antinomies, as is the opposition between a reified technophilia and a reified technophobia. Human techne must be a conscious, collective, and rational praxis conceived with both material limits and human ends in mind (which include a non-alienated mode of human living, plus the aesthetic, affective, and imaginative dimensions of human self-making).

As for the specific issue addressed in this article, who is advocating the complete abolition of industrial agriculture here? One of the writer's many straw men in what is a very poor article. Certainly not me—look at my comment above. I wrote that we need an industrial agriculture that is better—more sustainable, healthier...and yes, more conducive to aesthetically preferable foods. Such a development does not necessitate the complete abolition of organic farming, which will play one—probably small—role in food production.

As for the article, it is a beastiary of fallacies: for example, modern organic farming is just that: modern. It is dependent on modern agricultural techniques—adapted to a different scale—and does not imply a return to the medieval period or feudal relations of production—a conclusion either dishonest or moronic on the writer's part. You notice the author's historically illiterate use of Luddism—one of many such flaws here. I don't think Michael Pollan, Anthony Bourdain, or other artisanal  locavore types—gourmets and gourmands—would claim they are making historical statements about actual peasant diets, nor are they offering a blueprint for revolution; it's better, more aesthetically pleasing—pethaps healthier—food that they advocate in the end. McDonalds is shit. The poor should not have to eat McDonalds, Everyone should be able to eat farm to table luxuries, although it can't make up all of our diet....

Will Hough I'm just going to peek in again to say that I feel like a prize fight promoter.

Anthony Galluzzo...and I am sorry, but it is hard not to see in this essay a certain, deliberately provocative, cultural politics, camouflaged as no bullshit empiricism. It's bash the straw hippie married to a reactionatey populism—McDonalds FUCK YEAH!—that I can also detect in other forms (celebratory paeans to the blockbuster mode of culture industry). Sophisticated trolling, which sometimes mars a magazine with which I am in broad agreement.

Also, I see no value in equating eco-radicalism, SJWs, and trigger warnings under the broad, and largely meaningless, category of irrationalism; while I might be opposed to these phenomena individually, they are distinct things and must be criticized on their own terms.

The team sport mentality—with its cartoonish misrepresentations (primitivist! futurist! You either accept the entirety of a position or you are the enemy or an SJW or a witch) is as far from dialectical as you can get, while intellectual progress won't happen when our only two argumentative modes-and this isn't directed at you in particular-are snark or cheerleading.

Anthony Galluzzo I am done. This consumed my whole day. My two cents.

Occupy the Humanities

May 22, 2015 - 02:50
Tags:  University of Amsterdam, Dutch student occupations, budget crisis, Humanities, Ohio State, neoliberalism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I , II

So it is the same everywhere, I said to myself, as I listened to students bemoaning cutbacks in higher education. I had come in April 2015 to the University of Leiden, the oldest in the Netherlands, to hold a number of presentations on the fate of literary studies today.

But the conversation had became more relevant and heated than I could have imagined when I was initially invited five months earlier. Since then students from the University of Amsterdam had occupied two administrative buildings to protest cuts in the Humanities. Some of them had come to my seminar.

I had heard vaguely about this occupation as it wasn’t covered by the mainstream international press apart from the Guardian and a few online sites. Thus I really came to understand its significance only on the afternoon of the seminar.

Participants explained to me what happened. Students in Amsterdam began to protest in November 2014 the draconian budget cuts imposed on Dutch universities. Because the budget model that funds universities is based on student enrollments, the economic tightening adversely affected the Humanities, especially less-frequently taught languages and cultures.

This is exactly the same situation at Ohio State, my home institution. Economic mismanagement at the university and cuts from the State have created the most severe crisis in a generation that undermines the survival of some subjects in the arts and humanities. 

I hear the same news from colleagues in Sydney, Toronto, Copenhagen, Athens, Chapel Hill, Madison and other cities. We are in the grips of a neoliberal ideology that puts into doubt the very existence of public education as social good and especially the arts and humanities, often characterized as useless.

But the situation in Amsterdam was different. The students took matters into their own hands. In February, they organized themselves into a movement they called Nieuwe Universiteit (new university) and occupied the Bungehuis, the art deco building in the center of Amsterdam, which serves as the home of the humanities.

The management of the University of Amsterdam initiated a lawsuit that threatened each student occupying the Bungehuis with a fine of 100,000 Euros for each day of protest. This outrageous action inspired an international petition that gathered more than 7,000 signatures, including those of Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, and Saskia Sassen.

The occupation of the Bungehuis was symbolic since the building had just been sold to a private corporation to be converted into a luxury hotel and spa. Incredible as this may seem, it’s not unique.

Ohio State, facing declining state support, leased its parking garages to a private firm for fifty years in exchange for close to 500 million dollars. Other public universities are exploring possibilities of leasing their physical facilities. Gradually the public university is turning private but without the autonomy the latter enjoys.

It is one thing, however, to lease parking and quite another to sell a landmark of the university. After the Bungehuis occupation ended in February 24, on February 25 the students occupied the Maagdenhuis building, the university's administrative center and headquarters of its Board of Directors. (The occupation of the Maagdenhuis was historically symbolic because students had occupied it during the protests of 1969.) 

In the events of 2015 the students demanded an end to the privatization of the university along with greater democratization, transparency, protection of temporary teachers, end to restructuring and plans of merging universities together. But one of their main aims was to protect the humanities.

This is what makes the protest fascinating. Students initiated something that professors are normally expected to do and indeed many professors and lecturers -- temporary and tenured - joined the protests in support of the students' demands. Lectures and discussion groups accompanied the protests. French philosopher Jacques Rancière and David Graeber, a leading figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement, came to the Maagdenhuis to talk with the students.

On April 10 however, riot police, some on horseback, moved in and forcibly evicted the students, arresting a number of them. Intimidation against students and faculty preceded and followed this eviction. Many commentators noted that such violence was rare in the Netherlands. 

Although the occupation was crushed, its political and cultural meaning has spread out as students in a number of universities in the United Kingdom and Canada have organized against budget cutting and the privatization of the university.

From Peter the Great, who was dazzled by Amsterdam’s modernity, to the hippies of the 1960’s who sought out its liberal climate, this city has always seemed ahead of its time. And now Amsterdam has begun what seems like a worldwide movement for the humanities against asphyxiating restructuring by neoliberal regimes everywhere.

What I found encouraging was the personal accounts of the students in my seminar. They were fighting for the humanities, trying to figure out a way of justifying them, or, even more importantly perhaps, asking university administrators and the government, too, to justify their own choices and measures and their disastrous impact on the humanities.

This was missing in the accounts I read online. Students were claiming something that professors have been loath to do, namely, that the humanities have their own inherent value. Indeed, accustomed to our projects of endless critique and weary of being labeled essentialist or conservative, we, as teachers, are reluctant to argue that there is something socially good about literary study. We play the instrumentalist game of the neoliberal times by arguing that literary study enhances writing skills or sharpens critical thinking.

Of course, literary study can promote more nimble thinking and can teach students to become better writers and readers. But when the crunch time arrives and we have to justify our profession to an indifferent or hostile world, what more do we say? Can we discuss openly and without embarrassment the public worth of literary and, more broadly, the humanistic profession? Can we explain that humanistic work is not an expensive luxury or irrelevant preoccupation as our detractors claim?

The arts have faced this dilemma through the ages because they don’t have practical value. Unfortunately, we live in a time of instrumentalist thinking where things are good only if they make money. But in the face of a university selling a lovely building, should we not argue that there is worth in beauty. We should keep this edifice because it is old and magnificent. And we should study it for these reasons as well.

This was, it seems to me, one of the messages of the Dutch occupations. The students of Amsterdam have drawn a line beyond which they will not be pushed. Their government is listening. And the rest of us, facing similar attempts to create a crisis to cut back on the humanities, should be emboldened.

The Last Café in Klidi

April 23, 2015 - 00:29
Tags:  Macedonia, nostalgia, home, Greece, modernization, loss, Climate change

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Photograph Gregory Jusdanis 

We pulled off the main road and began to climb to the remote village in western Macedonia where I had been born. Since I had last visited 13 years before, the coal mine had taken a big bite of the hills east of my neighborhood, leaving an open wound of crimson earth. From the road below, I tried to erase this lesion by focusing on the red-tiled roofs, the water trickling down from the spring, and the scent of mountain sage.

The Greek power company had discovered coal years earlier, had purchased many fields and now had plans to buy the houses themselves. In a few years Klidi would no longer exist, just like Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Garbriel García Márquez. Its population, once a couple of hundred, now numbered 38.

I had come with my wife and daughter for a final look but was full of apprehension. Should I visit the few people I still was related to? Would they remember me? Would they want to see me?

I started with the school itself, closed now for years, where I last stood holding my grade four diploma, before poverty pushed us to immigrate to Canada and others to Germany or Australia. It was reassuring to know that this building still stood, that there was a place I could return to after all. When I attended this school, the world seemed small, limited to letters coming from abroad and the music and news from our battery-powered radios.

We then moved on to the main square in front of the café. The steam on the glass windows meant people were inside. But who? Would anyone know me or care? Suddenly someone came out and asked who I was. When I introduced myself he told me to go in and I opened the door with an unsteady hand. “Gregory,” shouted Mimis the owner.  I was astonished that he could recognize me. “We thought you were representatives of the power company. That’s why we did not come out and talk.” Mimis told me he had bought the kafeneion 28 years earlier and had run it by himself all this time. “How is business?” I asked. He said he only made about 2-3 Euros a day as he passed out raki, the home-made spirit that men drink here and elsewhere in the Balkans.  But he would keep it open until the end. And then he would never come back. He will be the last café owner of Klidi, the final man to serve coffee and raki on this spot of the globe.

We walked on to the house of my birth, in ruins for decades.  I stood by the fallen stones, remembering my mother locking the door the afternoon of our departure.  The houses near us seemed deserted. But then from the corner of my eye I caught a figure. Moving closer I recognized my mother’s cousin, Vangelis. When I told him who I was he broke into tears and took me inside to his 91-year-old brother, Tragianos, who could not believe I was standing in front of him.  While he was holding my hand, I tried to figure out our relationship – second-cousins-once-removed. But to him, I could have been his son. Relations matter here.

I had vague images of the two brothers appearing at my parents’ threshing floor, with two winnowing fans, those wooden tools shaped like oars. Along with my family they shoveled up wheat, waited for a gust of wind, and tossed it in the air so as to separate the wheat-berry from the chaff. “What will you do,” I asked “where will you go?” They would move to the nearby town but could not imagine being buried away with their wives and parents, brother’s and sisters. I asked who was left in the village for me to visit.  “You must go to Lenka,” they insisted, the daughter of my mother’s best friend. “She is also of our clan,” they reminded me, an important distinction.

After a visit to the cemetery to light candles at my grandparents’ graves, we went up to Lenka’s door and knocked. No one came. Feeling disappointed we were moving away when a middle-age man poked his head out. “Who are you,” he asked. When I identified myself, he admonished me for knocking at the door. And I remembered that it was rude and unfriendly here to knock. You just burst in and say hello.

The family was in the midst of coloring eggs for Easter. Over more raki I asked Lenka’s son, Vassilis, why our village was in decline while the one over the mountain was thriving. He said that they never abandoned their flocks of sheep and goats while our village wanted to modernize. “We didn’t want our children to be shepherds and till fields. We wanted them to get an education, like you did.”

We left the house, laden with red eggs, Easter bread, one large bottle of raki, and two bottles of homemade red wine. Overwhelming generosity by north American standards, it seemed a gesture of kinship and hospitality.

For our final stop, we made our way to a neighbor who seemed inconsolable when she saw me. When I lived in Klidi, they were the poorest family, sometimes not having enough to eat. She told me that my mother often gave her a slice of bread with sugar strewn on top as a treat.

How did she feel about the move? She said she could not wait to leave. For her the village meant poverty and grinding labor. She wanted to live in the city, closer to her children, near stores, and restaurants. She wished finally to be modern. And the electric company was going to allow her to do this.

I remembered my cousin from a nearby village saying the same thing about her washing machine. Unlike me, she had little nostalgia for village life, having worked in the fields since she was 12, either her family’s own or as a hired-hand. The washing machine represented progress – freedom from having to fetch water from the main spring in clay pots and scrub clothing by hand.

There was a connection between her washing machine and the threat hanging over my village. The power company that was freeing my cousin from manual labor was going to obliterate my house. Coal had enabling and destructive energies.

Now on my final stop, I faced my contradiction: On the one hand, I believe that climate change is the most serious danger facing humanity. At the same time, I realize that billions of people live in poverty. But will their modernization through fossil fuels lead to our own extinction? Can we avoid the fate of my village?

The Hamlet Effect

April 20, 2015 - 06:23
Tags:  Hamlet, Social Media, Internet Shaming

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I ) 

Until very recently, I have avoided writing about Hamlet. With the occasional exception, I have also avoided teaching Shakespeare’s most famous play. I might have casually referred to this avoidance as “The Hamlet Effect.” My reasons for ignoring one of the Anglophone world’s most recognizable cultural scripts fall somewhere between intimidation and resignation: with so much cultural investment, from learned commentary to popular reference, I’d long thought there was little “undiscovered country” (3.1.81) left in this well-turned terrain.[1]

What I’d failed to appreciate is the value of a text that is as widely shared as Hamlet. I had neglected to contemplate the active properties of sharing, of what it means to be bound to others through the common experience of a textual/dramatic artifact. I had accepted the text as given to me, rather than thinking through aspects of Hamlet that might not cohere with the play’s overarching focus on the young prince’s struggle. The most urgent of these aspects, now that I’ve finally returned to the play afresh, is the play’s treatment of those characters Hamlet deems disposable, or those characters who muddle his attempts to find moral clarity about the vengeance he seeks against Claudius. Ophelia is one such character, but, as I discuss elsewhere, the gendered dimensions of her psychic undoing make her death a point of shame in the play (“something is rotten in the state of Denmark [1.4.67]).[2]

The demise of other characters—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example—is not afforded the same degree of moral heft.[3] Because they are presented as fawning and insincere, the deaths of Hamlet’s school chums only index the growing disarray of the Danish court. Because Hamlet sees them as disposable, in other words, their deaths do not count in the same fashion as others’. In this vein, no character suffers the indignities of Hamlet’s disregard more strikingly than Polonius. To say that the old man is tedious is to offer an understated characterization of the young prince’s attitude towards the senior counselor: “This counselor / Is now most still, most secret, and most grave, / Who was in life a foolish prating knave” (3.4.188-89). Over the years, much ink has been spilled about his role: his proverbs echo teachings of the ancient rhetorician Isocrates, but scholars remain divided over whether these are just a tired recirculation of worn adages that every schoolboy might have known, or an upright deployment of respectable wisdom that a prudent father and counselor might have endorsed.[4] There is evidence that his counsel is still valued, since his instruction is frequently cited out of context: “[T]o thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man” (1.3.78-80). It is only when this guidance is attached to Polonius that its wisdom becomes suspect.

This devaluation is directly traceable to Hamlet’s mistreatment. After Hamlet kills Polonius, he disappears the old man’s body, unleashing a series of events that result in the play’s cascade of deaths. Without a body, the inability to mourn draws Laertes back to Elsinore. Hamlet’s continued disrespect for Polonius drives the young man into a moral cycle of vengeance that is not too far removed from that of the play’s titular protagonist. Ophelia’s destruction, too, proceeds directly from her former suitor’s disrespect for her deceased father’s remains. She unravels in a scene that underscores the wrongs done to Polonius’s memory:

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray, love, remember. And there is pansies; that’s for thoughts…There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. (4.5.173-4; 178-81)

The grief of Polonius’s children is not widely shared. His foolishness supposedly excuses his murder, so much so that Saul Bellow icily if wittily remarked, “One of the nice things about Hamlet is that Polonius gets stabbed.”[5] As the old counselor’s dishonorable death affirms, certain bodies are not just “ungrievable,” to use Judith Butler’s way of putting it, they are socially and ethically dispensable.[6] Pondering how the play convinces audiences to overlook Hamlet’s trespass opens a different vista on the play’s moral landscape: it produces a different “Hamlet effect.” The play’s focus—which has rightly attracted critical focus—is on the development of a certain form of subjectivity, what Katharine Eisaman Maus investigates as “an unexpressed interior and a theatricalized exterior.”[7]

This emergence is not enabling; instead, Polonius’s murder uncovers its ethical costs. The ghost presses a specific mode of action, of being in the world, upon Hamlet; and, though the aggrieved son knows he might be damned by what the senior Hamlet’s specter demands of him, he is obligated to take on the role of revenger anyway. To redress a murder he must become a murderer, in short. The play justifies Claudius’s death by detailing his duplicitous treachery, but the moral poverty of Hamlet’s position is revealed with Polonius’s unceremonious dispatch.  

The tragedy of this play, then, lies in the ways that we are sometimes asked to assume roles that will destroy us as moral beings. It is a critical habit to detect greatness as a byproduct of Hamlet’s revenge. Yet if we look more fully at the retribution that embroils the young prince, there is little evidence to suggest Hamlet’s self-awareness makes up for the fact that his vengeance cheapens the lives of others. The play might present those others as relatively insignificant. But when we are conscripted into centralizing the importance of one life over another, we should pause to examine the stratagems that have been worked upon us.

Because, let me hasten to add, I point to Hamlet’s ethical deficiency not to condemn Shakespeare’s play. I’m convinced, in fact, that Shakespeare calls us to notice the young prince’s loss of moral bearing. Indeed, the proper response to the play’s conclusion is included within the play text itself: when Fortinbras encounters the grisly scene of death at the play’s close, his bewildered reaction furnishes an ethical model: “This quarry cries on havoc. O proud death, / What feast is toward in thine eternal cell / That thou so many princes at a shot / So bloodily has struck!” (5.2.308-311). That we have been witness to the escalation of violence that leads to this horrific tableau should caution us to attend more carefully to moments when what seemed like simple, even straightforward, reprisal might become more complicated, compromised, or even corrupted.

If we think something like the events Hamlet dramatizes could never happen to us (wherein the ghost of one’s murdered father demands vengeance)—well, okay, we are probably correct about that in the particulars. But we are often called upon not to care when certain lives are rendered disposable, and there are plenty of instances in our digital world where what initially seems like straightforward retaliation gets out of hand. For the latter, one need only think of the practice of Internet shaming, some of the most high-profile cases of which have gone viral through social media. Even after time passes, we might dimly remember Justine Sacco, or the “racist AIDS joke-/South Africa-woman,” as one of my friends called her, or Lindsey Stone, or “the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier-rude gesture-woman,” as she’s known to some of her online enemies. Jon Ronson is chronicling these cases, which seem new for their ability to reduce a person to a single online trespass.[8] We might agree with internet columnist Archibald Perkins, who entitled her response to Ronson’s New York Times feature, “I Don't Feel Sorry for Stupid White People on the Internet,”[9]; nevertheless, to treat these lives as if they don’t matter, despite, or even on account of, their bare, fumbling foolishness, is to restage the collectivizing disregard that Hamlet cultivates to excuse his act of rash violence against Polonius.

It is not as if these people are murdered. But, as the shame-and-troll cycle of Internet culture spins out of control, lives are ruined. Some of these lives are lesser, we might think, because they are racist, sexist, or just unbelievably stupid. Shakespeare’s Hamlet cautions us against espousing this attitude: it is not that we shouldn’t call out inane or wrong ideas—Hamlet is not mistaken to view Polonius as tedious, pompous, and overbearing. He errs, however, when he acts as if Polonius’s very life doesn’t matter. Shakespeare’s play shows us the violence inherent to a particular strain of folly, which, in no small irony, dangerously derives from moments when we are morally right, ethically just.

Hamlet is right in his conviction that his father’s murder needs to be redressed; his uncle Claudius is, as Hamlet exclaims, a “Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindles villain!” (2.2.557-58). His mother Gertrude, too, needs to be recalled from moral blindness, since her “o’er-hasty marriage” makes her at least casually complicit in the treachery that led to her husband’s replacement (2.2.57). Hamlet feels just in his conviction “That one may smile and smile and be a villain” (1.5.109), because he is just in this conviction. He goes astray, however, because of a funny little trick of being in the world, one that he’s probably more subject to than the rest of us, and one that the short-storyist George Saunders put best in a commencement speech to Syracuse graduates in 2013: we are all, Saunders explains, “born with a series of built-in confusions,” the most devastating of which, I would say, is the belief that, as Saunders puts it, “we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really).”[10] Now, if you are the protagonist in a drama entitled “The Tragedie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke,” you perhaps get more slack than the rest of us in pursuing your life as a self-centering endeavor.[11]

Yet, and as I want to emphasize, Shakespeare’s play cautions us against seeing ourselves in such terms. When we do, at minimum we miss out on the lives of others, even if we are right in our conviction that those lives are foolish, or ethically diminished in their outlook or conduct. At worst, we find ourselves responsible for the destruction of those “lesser” lives. Sam Biddle, the Gawker blogger who originally retweeted Justine Sacco’s disastrous “joke,” revisited his part in her online shaming:

The internet is a mountain, and if you climb that mountain, waiting for you at the top will be the person with whom you need to make peace. I climbed my mountain and a woman named Justine Sacco was there.[12]

A year earlier Biddle had, without much thought, he claims, retweeted what he knew was a poorly worded missive by Justine Sacco: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding I’m White!” What Biddle could not have known, even if he recognized her tweet as one that would generate outrage, and therefore traffic, is that Sacco’s post would misfire so colossally that it would garner its own hashtag with a global following of enraged internet users. Calls for Sacco to be fired were the least of it: by the time Sacco arrived in South Africa, several hours after she posted what many took to be a racist tweet, there were people waiting at the airport to take her picture—all the better to witness the moment as she was publicly humiliated. As Biddle recounts it, what had started as casual condemnation of an inarguably stupid, arguably racist, remark had provoked a worldwide chorus of jeering, sometimes abusive, shaming.

Sacco’s life as she had known it was destroyed. Biddle returns to his part in this drama because he regrets the damage his unthinking act caused. As he explains, he had to apologize to Sacco, because, even if he’d convinced himself that his act was just, he couldn’t look at her and not feel sorry for the ruin he brought upon her. Truth is, what Biddle did was not wrong: Sacco tweeted her remark, after all. But Biddle’s reflective revisitation should cause all of us to pause before we casually subject another person to shame, even that which is deserved.

Like the many with whom we share our digitized world, we are not at the center of a drama of vengeance or retribution. When we see stupid things or unjust things—even criminal things—our task is not to define ourselves in response to those things. This is not to say that we should not respond. We should practice justice, and see injustice in our midst punished. But we shouldn’t extract purity of self by doling out punishment (even deserved punishment) against others. Our identity should not be defined in relation to punishment, revenge, or shame. The harder task, rather, is to figure out how to go on being open to the lives of others, even in a world that does not reward or even justify such behavior. Hamlet’s first tragedy is his loss of openness. Because he is at the center of his own revenger’s-plot, he cannot see those around him as deserving of his regard. When Polonius asks him, “What do you read, my lord?” he responds, “Words, words, words” (2.2.190-91). Words are never just words, especially in a world where digital culture makes what we say ephemeral and indelible at once.

This slight is casual, but it is a prelude to the devastating violence that follows. “The Hamlet effect,” as I’m sketching it, then, is the distillation of self that results from punishing others. Hamlet wants to be seen as a revenger, as someone who pursues the righteous path of retribution against corrupt others. Yet, one of the things Shakespeare’s play shows us is the ethical insufficiency of pitting a solitary, self-centered individual against any number of others. When we define ourselves in this way—as the just actor extracting vengeance from the corrupt—we lose what made us good in the first place. When we pursue the punishment of another, we should do so with the awareness that we will be sorry for what we have had to do. Sam Biddle, the Gawker blogger I mentioned earlier, comes up against this uncomfortable reality: when he hears from Justine Sacco, six months after his retweet set off an international storm of Internet shaming, he says “There was a ghost speaking directly into my Gmail inbox.”[13] When that happens, when ghosts press us about committed wrongs, we should accept the charge, but not the identity, that goes along with righting the wrongs in our midst.

[1] All references to Hamlet, hereafter cited parenthetically, are to Hamlet, in The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 2nd edn., ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus. (New York: Norton, 2008), 336-424.

[2] I discuss Ophelia’s treatment in my book-in-progress, The Matter of Virtue: Women’s Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare. My thinking is informed by the ground-breaking arguments by Lynda Boose, “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare,” PMLA 97 (1982): 325-347; Elaine Showalter, “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism,” Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Ed. Patricia Parker, Geoffrey Hartman (London: Methuen, 1985), 77-94; Sandra Fischer, “Hearing Ophelia: Gender and Tragic Discourse in Hamlet,” Renaissance and Reformation 14 (1990): 1-10; and R.S. White, “Jeptha’s Daughters: Men's Constructions of Women in Hamlet,” Constructing Gender: Feminism in Literary Studies, Eds. Hilary Fraser and R.S. White (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1994), 73-90.

[3] Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), is filled with action that doesn’t register because it is not part of the central protagonist’s consciousness.

[4] A debate over Polonius’s rhetorical stature broke out in the 1950s. Josephine Waters Bennett started all the fuss with her article, “Characterization in Polonius’ Advice to Laertes,” Shakespeare Quarterly 4 (1953): 3-9. Responses included O.B. Davis, “A Note on the Function of Polonius’ Advice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 7 (1956): 275-76; G.K. Hunter, “Isocrates’ Precepts and Polonius’ Character,” Shakespeare Quarterly 8 (1957): 501-06; and Elkin Calhoun Wilson, “Polonius in the Round,” Shakespeare Quarterly 9 (1958): 83-85.

[5] Quoted in Catharine R. Stimpson, “Polonius, Our Pundit,” American Scholar 71 (2002): 97-108 [99].

[6] See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 128–51; Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009), 1–32.

[7] Katharine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 2.

[8]Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (London: Riverhead, 2015). Excerpts from the book, which offer different takes on Sacco’s and Stone’s stories, appear as: “How One Stupid Tweet Ruined Justine Sacco’s Life,” New York Times Magazine, February 15, 2015, p. MM20:; and “’Overnight, everything I loved was gone’: the internet shaming of Lindsey Stone”:



[11] This is the play’s title in the 1623 First Folio.


[13] Ibid.


Robert Stone 1937-2015: exploring the counterculture's limits

April 16, 2015 - 14:06
Tags:  Robert Stone, Ken Kesey, California, Stegner Fellowships, Wallace Stegner, The Sixties, Merry Pranksters

Stone by Dustin Cohen

Robert Stone, my teacher, died a few months back. Though he spent most of his life on the east coast, his origin story was intimately tied up with the west and Stanford University in particular. As a Stegner Fellow in the 1960s, Stone was a favorite of that program's namesake and founder, as well as a fellow traveler with one of its most renown graduates Ken Kesey. It seems right to make sure his passing is recognized in some way on this blog—a return, of sorts to the place that helped make him.

What I'll post is a small excerpt of a longer remembrance I posted in The New Republic about a month after his death:

On one level, Stone could be seen as a living connection to a lost world of hip. Born in 1937, he was in his twenties by the late ’50s: too young to be a Beat, too old to be a hippie. Stone belonged to neither generation, but was fully present when each made contact with popular culture and created what we think of as “The Sixties.” He had fond memories of listening to poets like Allen Ginsberg read at New York City's Seven Arts Café, where he met a waitress named Janice who would become his wife. But Stone’s bohemian bona fides did not end there. In the early ’60s, after receiving a fellowship to study creative writing at Stanford, he went west to a California that hadn’t yet grabbed the nation’s full attention. He described it is as a kind of Eden—“a garden without snakes”—and there he met and befriended Ken Kesey, author of the revered 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a figure whose real significance lay in how he took that book's anti-authoritarian posture into the world. Kesey’s “Acid Test” parties and cross-country trips on the "magic bus" further helped popularize psychedelic drugs and culture. Kesey’s clique, the Merry Pranksters, was soon mythologized in Tom Wolfe's 1968 book of reportage, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.


For Baby Boomers, the question, "Were you on the bus?" became shorthand for determining if you had really participated in the ’60s cultural ferment. But here's the thing: Though Stone was a kind of proto-Prankster and included in accounts of their glory years, he was literally and metaphorically not fully on board… In a sense, by the time the Pranksters came along, Stone already had doubts about their Dionysian project and its echoes of his chaotic childhood: Its excesses had an attractive familiarity, but he was also repelled by an awareness of the ways these things can go horribly wrong.


And so, Stone’s final feeling on hip America was circumspect. Yes, he partook in the revels of the time—he'd readily admit to the good times, as well as subsequent issues with alcohol and drugs—but he also kept his distance. While the Pranksters drove cross-country, Stone “waited, with the wine-stained manuscript of my first novel, for the rendezvous in New York.” In 1968, when his clique broke into the mainstream, he expatriated with his young family to London for four years to establish his literary career, returning only for a spell in Hollywood to adapt that first book into a film for Paul Newman. When his peers’ ambitions expanded into politics, Stone did not join them in their stateside protests against Vietnam; instead, he visited that country as a loosely credentialed freelance reporter. While his contemporaries sought attention for what they were doing, Stone chased new experiences, banking what he saw. If he’d had a credo, I think it would be this: Play the long game; don’t sweat the zeitgeist.

I contribute to Arcade very rarely. (My last post was over a year ago about Lou Reed.) At the risk of making my appearances here solely of the memorial variety, I thought I'd share these thoughts of Stone, in the hopes that others might be inspired to look at his legacy anew.

I figure this academic community is one to whom he should matter most. As well as being an important contributor to my life and my path — you can glean a bit more of that in my full remembrance — he made a great contribution to American literature, to the expanding influence of California culture on the 21st century, and to many people's bookshelves.

Arabic and the Monopoly of Theory

April 13, 2015 - 22:58

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I ) 

Alexander Key’s recent article on the future of Comparative Literature, “Arabic: Acceptance and Anxiety,” asks hard and important questions about the status and adequacy of the discipline’s theoretical inclusiveness and historical consciousness. The article strikes a chord with many Arabists in the field who, like Key himself, seek to balance the demands of their specific academic goals and their contributions to the overall improvement of the humanities, especially the capacity to expand and connect its theories to a time of terror. Key does a brilliant job in a limited space of considering this balance in the relationship between the acceptance and neglect of Arabic,  “an enemy language,” or rather between the familiar consistency of the discipline and the necessity for responsible thought, a task which requires us to be theoretically globalized, linguistically diverse and fully cognizant of the much larger narratives of our human history.

What Key points to, and what is known to every comparatist in North America, is the chronic drift of theory towards Europe, resulting in a single-minded dimensionality, one that while having a compassionate eye towards its Other, is still incapable of de-totalizing our intellectual production and immunizing the discipline against surrendering once again to the good old gravitational pull of Eurocentrism. As it looks at the future of Comparative Literature, Key’s article reflects on the newly published English translation of Barbara Cassin’s 2004 Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisables (Apter, Lezra, Wood).   A “paradigmatically ‘Comp Lit’ endeavor,” and an important work in its own right, as Key rightfully characterizes it, the irony in the volume’s Introduction does not escape Key’s notice.  While it “gestures with intent towards the rest of the world,” addressing other translations of the French text into Arabic and Farsi, among other languages, the Introduction is pronouncedly clear about the “undeniable European focus” of the volume, which cannot simply be wished away by the translators’s decision not to translate the reference to Europe in the original title. This is a rationalization of the means that does not exactly match the rationalization of the end and a baffling if not unfaithful choice for a volume on the untranslatables.

Speaking of new horizons in human thought, a substantial and transformative work of translation (from Arabic) that is yet to receive its due status among all comparatists is Asad Ahmed’s Avicenna’s Deliverance: Logic (Oxford, 2012). Drawn from the arcane of the arcane of classical Arabic, Ahmed’s work brings to the English reader for the first time a translation of Avicenna’s Kitāb al-Najā (The Book of Deliverance). Not only is Avicenna one of the greatest logicians known to this world, but his theory of logic, as Ahmed brilliantly remarks, departs from Aristotle’s Organon in fundamental ways that compel us to revisit the Arabic tradition of logic, which has been long dismissed by the likes of Hegel as mimetic renditions of Greek philosophy and thus lacking in originality.

We therefore cannot emphasize enough the need to continue to broaden and deepen our comparative horizons, especially in the face of all sorts of essentialisms and monopolies exercised on our diverse human traditions. It is true that the future of Comparative Literature in North America provides a more promising framework for overdue inclusions of less emphasized languages and literary traditions than were readily available, say, during the post-Vietnam era, where French Structuralism followed by Derridean and de Manian Deconstruction, then the Frankfurt School of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas dominated the field, bringing with them all sorts of texts to the fore in languages such as Greek, French, German, and English. All this is studied against an exclusivist background in European philosophy which begins normally with the 10th chapter of Plato’s Republic and The Phadrus, and ends somewhere on the threshold of Nietzschean thought and its ramifications in Heidegger, Bataille, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Nancy etc. But the Arabic tradition and the heritage of other less commonly taught languages with hundreds of un-translated manuscripts on literature and philosophy have literally been shelved for the last 50 years.  Even postcolonial theory, which has its roots in the colonized Arab world (Fanon, Said, Memmi) could not survive the siren call of Eurocentrism.  Today, many of Comparative Literature’s fundamental books (theories, philosophies, literary works) continue to be taught, emulated, recapitulated, reemphasized, remediated, re-envisioned, in almost every single department in the US. The list from Plato to Umberto Eco is pretty much known to all comparatists all over the country. There is nothing wrong with this and understandably every graduate program differs in terms of flexibility and inclusion of non-European texts. While all those foundational books are enriching and crucial for a deeper understanding of humanism, most of us in the field are left with nothing but a footnotes of our histories, not to mention the almost futile endeavor of trying convince renowned publishing houses to consider publishing our work, unless of course political Islam is part of the title.  And so we are left with an ironic reproduction of the same despite the good intentions of auto-critique, a malady that Comparative Literature teaches us to avoid. Self-critique is enlightening, no doubt, but it is not enlightenment, and certainly not enough in today’s increasingly polarized world.

In Poetics of Relation, Edouard Glissant makes the salient point that the West (although I would prefer to call it Euro-America), has found a way to reproduce itself through self-critique, a fascinating yet dangerously exclusivist formula: “[T]he West has produced the variables to contradict its impressive trajectory every time. This is the way in which the West is not monolithic, and this is why it is surely necessary that it move toward entanglement [in rough terms: interrelations between itself and the non-west]. The real question is whether it will do so in a participatory manner or if its entanglement will be based on old impositions.”[1] This ‘participatory manner’, this grave warning against falling again into the warped wires of self-replication is what still remains far from achievable in the discipline. The reality is that such a maneuver remains oblivious, intentionally or not, to the multitudes on the periphery that are “powerless to be born,” to echo yet another European poem. 

Because I was trained as a comparatist who writes in English, I felt somehow that I would make more sense if I quoted a German poem or a French novel, or an English author, or better yet something Greek. For an Arabist in the discipline, and I am speaking only for myself, to write was never an “intransitive verb,” as Mr. Barthes has perversely tried to show us, but a “repressive verb.” To learn to write as an Arabist and a comparatist in English was to learn to write while repressing the other, only that this other is none but myself, emptied out almost unnaturally of my ipseity. True, English has become the language of my intellectual thinking, but it has never replaced Arabic nor will. To write then is a repressive verb, an act that silences al-Qur’an, resisting hundreds of readily available verses in my brain, or dismissing captivating lines of poetry from al-Mutanabbi, Umar ibn al-Farid, Malik ibn al-Rayb,  ‘A’isha al-Ba’uniyya, Ahmad Shawqi, al-Sayyab, Nazik al-Malaa’ka, Amal Dunqul, or al-Bayyati. I was taught, implicitly that is, that my reader’s unfamiliarity with my language and its vast tradition could hinder understanding and could make my point difficult to grasp because of the cultural connotations that may not come across in the act of translation. Or, as Aamir Mufti has keenly put it, gesturing towards a future of engaging the Qur’an in literary studies, “if you really want to write a dictionary of untranslatables, then the Qur’an is the mother of all untranslatables.”

The soft criticism against the invocation of Arabic in my writing was always conveyed with a careful and regretful tone that if only Arabic were an easy language to acquire, or if only more scholars and readers knew or appreciated this valuable language, etc.…I won’t turn this into a commentary on my own personal experience as a graduate student in a Comp Lit program, but I remember two turning points quite vividly. First, a gathering with all new graduate students (all English native speakers) when everyone was asked to introduce themselves and speak about their second language and a third ancient language they were studying. Hearing French, German, Italian, Spanish as a second language, I said “English. English is my second language.” Everyone laughed, including myself, except that my laughter was a nervous hiding of the creeping realization that my linguistic position is peripheral. Secondly, the refusal of one of my professors to accept an essay that included the modernist Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab in a comparative study with Baudelaire. The department PhD reading list still included familiar Arabic texts like the Quran, A Thousand and One Nights, some Mahfouz, some Darwish, and a few other texts, all in translation, of course.  But my professor’s disclaimer was that because (s)he didn’t  speak Arabic, (s)he wouldn’t be in a comfortable position to offer constructive comments on my final paper. I respect that response. I could not blame my professor for not knowing my language and it is a point well taken, even though I provided a translation. However, the shock was inconceivable as I was advised to focus on the ‘recognized languages of the discipline’ in order to be able to publish my paper and secure a decent job. That of course, until 9/11 happened and Arabic suddenly acquired a different significance in a must- approach-with-caution anxiety-shift as Key has forcefully indicated.

So an all-inclusive future of Comparative Literature remains a Sisyphean task, but this must not discourage us, for it behooves us as humanists in a discipline enticed by what Lyotard has called “ the desire called Marx” to treat all literatures equally. This turn in what essentially is a discipline empowered through the very inclusiveness and multitudes of a world brought together by literary conversations, and precisely because of its various cultural and intellectual productions, will mark an overpowering transformation for the discipline. In the case of Arabic, this turn won’t happen until Avicenna and Averroes are read against Aristotle, not until al-Jurjani’s long-neglected theory of Balagha shatters all gates of comparative rhetoric, Dante is compared to al-Ma ‘arri, Shakespeare to Shawqi, Percy Shelley to Ali Mahmud Taha, Kafka to Tawfiq al-Hakim and Sonnallah Ibrahim, and dare I say, al-Sayyab to Baudelaire. In other words, the reinvigoration of the discipline through significant ancient and modern non-European languages and their accompanying literary histories, traditions, philosophies, and other arts, including Persian, Hebrew, and Urdu is what is now most needed in order for the discipline to stand tall and not to fall into the vapid recyclability of itself, which, while still fundamental at a certain level, may indeed signal its irrelevance. Why Comparative Literature? Because like all literature, in confronting the massive demonization of the humanities and the ghoulish corporatization of our university systems, it is all we have to bring the world back to the essence of its human condition and mobilize the globe against the vicious partitions practiced on it in the name of callous ideologies, pernicious nationalisms, and the cancerous growth of world capitalism.

[1] Edouard Glissant,Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997) 191.

Three Upcoming Fora at Republics of Letters

April 12, 2015 - 10:38

Cover graphics by Michelle Jia; image from

Dear Readers,


The editors at Republics of Letters are excited to preview three fora coming to Arcade in the near future. The first is a forum on “Noise” slated to appear later this year, edited by David Ellison (Griffith University), Bruce Buchan (Griffith University), and Peter Denney (Griffith University).  Contributors will include Denise Gigante (Stanford University), Nicola Parsons (University of Sydney), Lisa O’Connell (University of Queensland), John Gascoigne (University of New South Wales), Neil Ramsey (University of New South Wales), and Harriet Guest (University of York), among others.  Topics will range widely, from the conversation piece in eighteenth-century culture to Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, from cross-cultural communication between the British and the Pacific to noise and vision in military literature, and from domestic soundscapes to noise and political culture in the late eighteenth century. 


A second forum, on “Beauty and Form,” will appear early next year, edited by Thomas Pfau (Duke University) and Vivasvan Soni (Northwestern University). The editors offer this provocative preview:


The concepts of beauty and form are as old as Western philosophy itself. In Plato, they are the foundation for our love of the good. And yet, by a curious paradox, even though these concepts have been perennial features of the philosophical landscape ever since, we witness with the rise of systematic aesthetics in the eighteenth century their marginalization, denigration and divorce from ethics. Concepts like the sublime, the new and even the zany acquire an unprecedented prestige as the aesthetic concepts associated with modernity, while beauty and form come to be allied with a staid premodern or neoclassical love of order and hierarchy, or else with a bourgeois aesthetic of commercialization and kitsch. However, today, there are signs that a significant reappraisal of this legacy is underway, tied to an intuition that concepts like beauty and form may well be indispensable to humanistic inquiry, and perhaps even urgent remedies for the disorientations of modern life. Issuing from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, these six essays by distinguished scholars and intellectuals present a detailed conceptual analysis of a particular moment in this history.


Contributors will include Natalie Carnes (Baylor University), Robert Pippin (University of Chicago), James Porter (University of California-Irvine), Gaby Starr (New York University), Jonathan Loesberg (American University), and Jonathan Kramnick (Yale University), who will address subjects ranging from recuperations of beauty as disruption of class hierarchy, justification and modernism in J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, beauty and perceptions of pleasure, the long death of art from Hegel forward, a challenge to the binary of utility and aesthetics, and a unique view of beauty through poetic images of the moving body. 


A third forum, edited by Alexander Regier (Rice University) on the topic of “Sport and Literature,” will appear late next year. 


The Editors, Republics of Letters

Shakespearean slips

April 9, 2015 - 03:44
Tags:  Freudian slips, parapraxis, Shakespeare, Freud, costly signaling, Hamlet, Henry IV, Antony and Cleoatra Othello, MacGuffins, Grice, Otto Fenichel, Dickinson, Richard II, Twelfth Night

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I ) 

I am wondering whether Shakespeare invented the Freudian slip.

Did other people before Shakespeare represent mistakes on stage? I am thinking of the way Shakespeare has people make everyday mistakes (the mistakes of everyday life), as in certain kinds of forgetfulness

Courteous lord, one word.
Sir, you and I must part, but that's not it:
Sir, you and I have loved, but there's not it;
That you know well: something it is I would--
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten. (Cleopatra)


what was I about to say? By the mass, I was about to say
something: where did I leave? (Polonius)

HOTSPUR    Lord Mortimer, and cousin Glendower,
Will you sit down?
And uncle Worcester: a plague upon it!
I have forgot the map.


KENT               I am come
To bid my king and master aye good night:
Is he not here?

ALBANY   Great thing of us forgot!
Speak, Edmund, where's the king? and where's Cordelia?

I don't think this is just the reality effect, though it is that. Or maybe it would be better to say that the reality effect is one in which something real is going on, something real offered and bargained for and exchanged and clarified.  It matters to Polonius that he was about to say something, and it matters that Reynaldo reminds him of what he wanted to say, show's him a kindness where Hamlet would scorn him.  It matters that Albany forgets Lear and that he has to remember him before Edmund is willing to help: recalling the fates of Lear and Cordelia makes Edmund count.

In a previous post I alluded to Grice's distinction between naturalistic and non-naturalistic meaning.  A fever of 102 degrees F means you're sick, whether you say so or not; "I'm sick and can't come to work today" also means you're sick, whether you are or not.

Freud (we know) had trouble with theorizing repression, because the unconscious mind seemed split between the part that wanted to tell the truth (about its desires, judgments, demands, etc.) and the part that was censoring the part that wanted to tell the truth.  The result of this split was a compromise formation: the unconscious got to tell the truth slant.  Parapraxes -- Freudian slips -- were good evidence for this, he thought.  Whether this is true or not, it's certainly true in some literary contests, where a writer or performer imitates a telling and revelatory lapsus linguae.  But how do we analyze how it's telling?

Does an unconscious communication, a hysterical symptom, a slip of the tongue, mean naturalistically (it's a sympton! like a fever) or non-naturalistically (it's discursive! it knows what it's saying and wants to say it).  Some extreme Freudian formulations (I am looking at you through my -- gulp! -- myopic eyes, Otto Fenichel) saw all symptoms as non-naturalistic meaning, as expressions of unconscious intentions.  Although the intentions themselves might not have been intentions to express, so that naturalistic meaning can come back that way, this doesn't seem true of slips of the tongue: they are my unconscious talking, and my unconscious is talking to you.  So they may have naturalistic meaning on a conscious level (they mean I am repressing something) and non-naturalistic meaning on the unconscious level: they say what my unconscious mind wants to say.

I am interested in costly or honest signaling, how such signaling evolved, what happens when such signaling interacts with conscious expressive intention, what such signaling hopes to elicit (e.g. Reynaldo's aid, Antony's love, Hotspurian enthusiasm; in the Lear case, it's more like we've all forgotten, and need Edmund as he needs to be needed: Albany's forgetfulness is his as well, and only Kent remembers).  One argument in favor of Freud's view is that Freudian slips would be uncontrollable and therefore honest signals, and cooperative species, especially hypercooperative species like our own, need honest signals.  Freudian slips, and maybe the Freudian unconscious, solve a problem in cooperation for a species that has to be able to use language in an extremely skillful and fine-grained way, without being able to lie too easily and at will.  We need to be able to tell when someone is lying, and the way to tell that is both by detecting lies and by detecting truths that they might not wish to admit.  (Some of these truths can be happy ones: she's too shy to admit it but she does love me! Upon that hint I'll speak!)

Anyhow, I think Shakespeare saw this and used it.  Here are two examples of classic Freudian slips, a quick one and a more subtle and therefore more telling one (since what's telling about them is the point).  The quick one is this: when at the end of Twelfth Night Orsino realizes that his page and friend is actually a woman, Viola, he's delighted.  He can marry her.  His repressed homoerotic affection for her now finds heteronormative (sorry, seriously) legitimation.  And so he speaks, and calls her... Caesario.

Cesario, come.
For so you shall be, while you are a man...

He quickly corrects himself, but the mistake isn't one.  That she is pricked out as Cesario is not a bug but a feature.

Here’s my other, longer example, from Richard II.  Richard has gone to Ireland, his rebel cousin Bullingbrook has landed at Ravenspurgh in Yorkshire.  York is the last, despairing survivor of the previous generation.  The trouble in the play begins when his brother (Bullingbrook’s father) the Duke of Lancaster dies; now he receives news that his sister-in-law (“my sister Gloucester”), who had been the close confidante of the last two surviving brothers has just died, and he is the last surviving member of the great generation of Edward’s sons and their widows.  The Duchess of Gloucester doesn’t count as one of them in the psychology of the play because she is not a widow, but a wife and mother who will be called on to interpose between husband and son.  Shakespeare has a bit of playcraft to do here; he has to make plausible the fact that York will change sides, and that the Duchess of York isn’t reason enough to stay loyal to the old regime and its legacy, though loyalty is his natural instinct.  The whole play is about the counterpoint, divergence and convergence between public, politico-theological fidelity and obligation on the one hand and private loyalties and motives on the other.  Shakespeare must represent York as a figure who believes himself to be acting according to the dictates of political theology (as his brother Gloucester certainly had), but who nevertheless is too weak-willed and weak-minded to represent the true principle that he wishes to and thinks he does.  So Shakespeare makes him needy: what’s best is to feel that public duty and private commitment coincide.

Shakespeare has already begun this portrait of his character by showing how Richard manipulates him (in the same way but far more easily than he manipulated Lancaster into voting to banish his own son) by making him his deputy when he goes to Ireland, playing on York’s desire to show his loyalty against his own private preferences, while realizing that this desire is itself a private preference. The Queen contributes to that.  Everyone capable of loving loves her (a fact Bullingbrook capitalizes on); we do, and York does too, so that she adds a private incentive to his preference to do the right official thing.  The Freudian slip that Shakespeare writes for York shows his neediness, his loneliness, his fecklessness and confusion, all of which are necessary to his character, even while adding another touch to the portrait of the sorrow of the Queen, whose husband is later to be murdered just as the Duchess of Gloucester has been murdered.  Off York must go to prepare for Bullingbrook’s invasion, and he takes the Queen with him, calling on her (as Orsino has called on Cesario):

Come, sister,--cousin, I would say--pray, pardon me.

He wants her to be his sister, to replace the sister he has just lost who herself replaced the brother he had lost before.   But she is not his sister and won’t be Queen long, and he no longer has a friend or close relation to support him in his last attempt to support his generation’s view of the world.  He is like Polonius, flustered by a new world, whose grimness his discomfiture underlines. We see he's flustered, we see his need.  Shakespeare, at least, thought such slips worth the telling.  He may not have invented, but discovered them. 

Three Upcoming Issues in Occasion

April 2, 2015 - 11:14

Cover graphics by Michelle Jia; image from

Dear readers,


We at Occasion are very excited to preview three upcoming issues, all intervening in significant and urgent matters of our time. First in line is an issue on "Race, Space, and Scale," edited by Wendy Cheng (Arizona State) and Rashad Shabazz (University of Vermont). Taken together, the articles in this issue ask

How does the relationship between race and space work at various (non-exclusive) scales, from the body to globally?  What is the role of the state in continuing to produce and mediate the relationship between race and space?  How do geopolitics function in the everyday, and how might we foreground political economy in metropolitan, regional, and global analyses to examine both intended and unintended consequences?  What is the role of middle-classness and relatively privileged segments of racialized minorities in shaping US cities and suburbs today, and how might these transform dominant understandings of metropolitan space?  And finally, how do long histories of colonization and dispossession function in shaping individual lives, landscapes, and public memory today?

Contributors include Jenna M. Loyd, Orlando Serrano, Thomas Michael Swensen, Shiloh Krupar and Nadine Ehlers, Johana Londoño, Michael Kahan, Kwame Holmes, and Darius Bost. Discussion ranges widely and deeply from "the global reach of carceral power" and their compounding with national and regional racial ideologies, to "medical mapping that spatially profile Black people in order to market 'race-specific' drugs," to various "practices of defiance and resilience that cannot be suppressed."

Also in the works is one issue on "Censorship and Religion," as emanating from the Charlie Hebdo killings, edited by Cécile Alduy (Stanford), Bruno Cornellier (U Winnipeg), and Dominic Thomas (UCLA), and a third issue on "Cosmopolitan Palestine," edited by Salah Hassan (Michigan State). We look forward to seeing these timely conversations gain momentum, and hope you will help us spread the word!


The Editorial Team, Occasion

The State of Comparative Literature—and Arabic

March 25, 2015 - 09:55
Tags:  Comparative Literature, arabic, Literary Theory

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( III ) 

I recently contributed to the ACLA's 2015 State of the Discipline report; it is the first time they have let assistant professors participate. My post is about what happens when the discipline of Comparative Literature lets Arabists participate.

If the Arabists in question work on the mediaeval period, there is a risk that they will want to take the theories of meaning, attention, literature, and poetics that they find in the texts - and test those theories on the contemporary world. I remember in the first few weeks of graduate school, asking Wolfhart Heinrichs (the late James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic at Harvard and my advisor) whether the test for Western theory might be its application to the mediaeval Middle East. And if the Western theory I had picked up at undergraduate was true (as it claimed to be), then surely it must apply? What the intervening years, and the reading and writing involved, have led me to wonder is whether another naive test of theory might be more productive, and more appropriate to my disciplinary home of the past three years - the test of whether old Arabic theory works for the contemporary West, or for the future South. If it was true - it should work?!

This is how I start the ACLA piece:

"Comparative Literature is comfortable with the inclusion of Arabic in its scope. But ours is also a discipline with a persistent concern for its own identity. What can one unpack from this combination of comfort and concern? What has happened since the first Comparative Literature hires were made in Arabic over the last few decades? Is there an interface between the anxiety about disciplinary identity and the steady integration of Arabic into the comparative conversations? Will this process be finished by 2025? These short remarks track one of the old, pre-Arabic, Comparative Literature concerns – the development and use of theory – in order to test answers to some of those questions.

In 2014, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood published their English translation of Barbara Cassin’s 2004 Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisables. The new Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon [discussed by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker "Word Magic: How much really gets lost in translation?"] was a paradigmatically “Comparative Literature” endeavor. It updated a French engagement with a European tradition into an English work of Anglophone theory, cognizant of a further decade’s work on the philosophical ideas in play, engaged with theory in dialogue with the original Francophone philosophie, and gesturing with intent towards the rest of the world. The 2014 introduction mentioned other translations of Cassin into “Arabic, Farsi, Romanian, Russian, and Ukrainian” and diffusion of her work in “Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America” (vii, ix). Apter, Lezra, and Wood were commendably frank about their project both having roots in Cassin’s vision of a forward-looking Europe in touch with its Indo-European and Semitic neighbors, and now taking place in Anglophone “literary theory and comparative literature” (xi). They talked in the introduction of removing reference to Europe from the title whilst being “worried” about the “difficult call” because “the European focus of the book is undeniable.” (ix).

This is the combination of anxiety and acceptance with which I am concerned. Apter, Lezra, and Wood are aware of and engaged with the banal truth that our discipline is of and in the whole world, not just Europe and North America. They worry that their work excludes that world at the same time as they try to include it and also catalyze its further engagement. There is not even a shred of doubt about whether or not the rest of the world, including Arabic, should be part of Comparative Literature. There is no harkening back, even between the lines, to Hugo Metzl’s nineteenth-century world of European connections (the ten official languages on the front page of the journal Metzl founded, Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarium, are an assortment from Europe and Scandinavia with a Hungarian center). Arabic must of course be part of Comparative Literature and yet it isn’t, quite. Comparative Literature can never ignore Arabic, or Korean, or Nigerian Pidgin (three languages represented in the Junior Faculty Writing Group of which I am a part at Stanford), but it remains worried about the mechanics and power relationships involved in their inclusion. What is holding us back? Will it be solved by 2025? ..."

Keep reading at the ACLA site...

Since the piece went up on the ACLA website, I have been looking at the responses on social media and the 140-character re-framings on Twitter - most of the first ones emphasised the threat encapsulated in "the anxiety of acceptance" (to be fair this was the initial ACLA-provided title after I didn't produce one): "anxieties of including Arabic lit", and "the fraught position of Arabic studies in comparative literature". Most of the people who responded were in Arabic-related fields, which might match the identifications I was trying to make: Comparative Literature comfortably accepts Arabists, but those accepted Arabists remain anxious.

Subsequent conversations with more experienced colleagues, or colleagues more theoretically grounded in postcolonial studies, have suggested that the accepted Arabists might be right to feel this way! Is some form of double-bind inevitable? Is there any way to hire enough faculty to change the conversation's center of gravity? Is talking of hiring even appropriate? Both the other pieces on Arabic in the report, by Waïl S. Hassan on modern Arabic literature and the instrumentalist imperative and by Mohammad Salama on fundamentalism, address these issues to great effect.

I also changed the title from "The Anxiety of Acceptance" to "Arabic: acceptance and anxiety" - because I want the framing to be the combination of acceptance and anxiety, rather than a description of the acceptance as anxious. When initially forced by the 140-character limit, my own advertisment had picked comfort as a slogan over anxiety: "My Contribution to the ACLA 2015 State of the Discipline Report - Comparative Literature is comfortable..." But that tweet didn't attract much attention; perhaps it is fear that always proves most attractive!?

omparative Literature is comfortable with the inclusion of Arabic in its scope. But ours is also a discipline with a persistent concern for its own identity. What can one unpack from this combination of comfort and concern? What has happened since the first Comparative Literature hires were made in Arabic over the last few decades? Is there an interface between the anxiety about disciplinary identity and the steady integration of Arabic into the comparative conversations? Will this process be finished by 2025? These short remarks track one of the old, pre-Arabic, Comparative Literature concerns – the development and use of theory – in order to test answers to some of those questions.

In 2014, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood published their English translation of Barbara Cassin’s 2004 Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisables. The new Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon was a paradigmatically “Comparative Literature” endeavor. It updated a French engagement with a European tradition into an English work of Anglophone theory, cognizant of a further decade’s work on the philosophical ideas in play, engaged with theory in dialogue with the original Francophone philosophie, and gesturing with intent towards the rest of the world. The 2014 introduction mentioned other translations of Cassin into “Arabic, Farsi, Romanian, Russian, and Ukrainian” and diffusion of her work in “Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America” (vii, ix). Apter, Lezra, and Wood were commendably frank about their project both having roots in Cassin’s vision of a forward-looking Europe in touch with its Indo-European and Semitic neighbors, and now taking place in Anglophone “literary theory and comparative literature” (xi). They talked in the introduction of removing reference to Europe from the title whilst being “worried” about the “difficult call” because “the European focus of the book is undeniable.” (ix).

Part of the front page of Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarium.

This is the combination of anxiety and acceptance with which I am concerned. Apter, Lezra, and Wood are aware of and engaged with the banal truth that our discipline is of and in the whole world, not just Europe and North America. They worry that their work excludes that world at the same time as they try to include it and also catalyze its further engagement. There is not even a shred of doubt about whether or not the rest of the world, including Arabic, should be part of Comparative Literature.

- See more at:

omparative Literature is comfortable with the inclusion of Arabic in its scope. But ours is also a discipline with a persistent concern for its own identity. What can one unpack from this combination of comfort and concern? What has happened since the first Comparative Literature hires were made in Arabic over the last few decades? Is there an interface between the anxiety about disciplinary identity and the steady integration of Arabic into the comparative conversations? Will this process be finished by 2025? These short remarks track one of the old, pre-Arabic, Comparative Literature concerns – the development and use of theory – in order to test answers to some of those questions.

In 2014, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood published their English translation of Barbara Cassin’s 2004 Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisables. The new Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon was a paradigmatically “Comparative Literature” endeavor. It updated a French engagement with a European tradition into an English work of Anglophone theory, cognizant of a further decade’s work on the philosophical ideas in play, engaged with theory in dialogue with the original Francophone philosophie, and gesturing with intent towards the rest of the world. The 2014 introduction mentioned other translations of Cassin into “Arabic, Farsi, Romanian, Russian, and Ukrainian” and diffusion of her work in “Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America” (vii, ix). Apter, Lezra, and Wood were commendably frank about their project both having roots in Cassin’s vision of a forward-looking Europe in touch with its Indo-European and Semitic neighbors, and now taking place in Anglophone “literary theory and comparative literature” (xi). They talked in the introduction of removing reference to Europe from the title whilst being “worried” about the “difficult call” because “the European focus of the book is undeniable.” (ix).

Part of the front page of Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarium.

This is the combination of anxiety and acceptance with which I am concerned. Apter, Lezra, and Wood are aware of and engaged with the banal truth that our discipline is of and in the whole world, not just Europe and North America. They worry that their work excludes that world at the same time as they try to include it and also catalyze its further engagement. There is not even a shred of doubt about whether or not the rest of the world, including Arabic, should be part of Comparative Literature.

- See more at:

omparative Literature is comfortable with the inclusion of Arabic in its scope. But ours is also a discipline with a persistent concern for its own identity. What can one unpack from this combination of comfort and concern? What has happened since the first Comparative Literature hires were made in Arabic over the last few decades? Is there an interface between the anxiety about disciplinary identity and the steady integration of Arabic into the comparative conversations? Will this process be finished by 2025? These short remarks track one of the old, pre-Arabic, Comparative Literature concerns – the development and use of theory – in order to test answers to some of those questions.

In 2014, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood published their English translation of Barbara Cassin’s 2004 Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisables. The new Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon was a paradigmatically “Comparative Literature” endeavor. It updated a French engagement with a European tradition into an English work of Anglophone theory, cognizant of a further decade’s work on the philosophical ideas in play, engaged with theory in dialogue with the original Francophone philosophie, and gesturing with intent towards the rest of the world. The 2014 introduction mentioned other translations of Cassin into “Arabic, Farsi, Romanian, Russian, and Ukrainian” and diffusion of her work in “Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America” (vii, ix). Apter, Lezra, and Wood were commendably frank about their project both having roots in Cassin’s vision of a forward-looking Europe in touch with its Indo-European and Semitic neighbors, and now taking place in Anglophone “literary theory and comparative literature” (xi). They talked in the introduction of removing reference to Europe from the title whilst being “worried” about the “difficult call” because “the European focus of the book is undeniable.” (ix).

Part of the front page of Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarium.

This is the combination of anxiety and acceptance with which I am concerned. Apter, Lezra, and Wood are aware of and engaged with the banal truth that our discipline is of and in the whole world, not just Europe and North America. They worry that their work excludes that world at the same time as they try to include it and also catalyze its further engagement. There is not even a shred of doubt about whether or not the rest of the world, including Arabic, should be part of Comparative Literature.

- See more at:

Terry Pratchett: "Not having battles, and doing without kings"

March 23, 2015 - 13:15
Tags:  Terry Pratchett, fantasy, Genre, humanism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I ) 

I don’t think any writer did more to form me than Terry Pratchett. That might be a bit of a dangerous thing for a professional literary scholar to say. It would be easier to recount how much Ulysses, say, meant to a budding adolescent highbrow. In fact, though, I suspect that as a teenager, and not only as a teenager, I had a Pratchettian reading of the novel: Joyce’s Dublin as Ankh-Morpork, puns and pastiche as the engine driving the narrative language forward, the library of culture as an interdimensional transit zone, and no icon left unsmashed. In any case, I’m certain I would be a very different person if my elementary-school librarian hadn’t read Truckers to us and started me on a Pratchett kick that never stopped.

It’s terrible that Pratchett is gone, much too young, after a particularly cruel form of brain disease. I read a few obituaries in the usual places that made me angry with their banalized versions of this writer. It’s easy to be mistaken, for example, about Pratchett’s Death and his comic image of afterlife. The thing to remember is that when you die on the Discworld, you get a few minutes of postmortem existence before you notice you’re dead—Pratchett’s version of Wily E. Coyote running off the cliff—then Death comes along, chats with you a bit, swings the scythe, and adieu. Afterlife, when it happens, is a problem that has to be solved, as in Reaper Man, or a punishment for Pratchett’s worst villains, as in Witches Abroad. Noli timere messorem, Pratchett put on his coat of arms (causing life to imitate art: the heraldic gags of Men at Arms), but only because you’re going to face him eventually.

He shook his head. “There’s no justice.”

Death sighed. NO, he said, handing his drink to a page who was surprised to find he was suddenly holding an empty glass, THERE’S JUST ME.

(Mort [New York: Roc, 1987], 43)

But I particularly feel that the pious tributes are liable to miss the convictions that underlie Pratchett’s fantasy narratives. Fantasy on the Tolkien/Lewis model, which looms so large in the U.S., is saturated with religiosity, racial and gender essentialisms, authoritarianism, and the ideology of just war. The Discworld series begins as a parody of the genre conventions that support these toxic aspects of fantasy fiction; but even when parody recedes into the background and the imagined world turns into a very flexible vehicle for all sorts of generic amalgams and satiric analogues, Pratchett continues to make fantasy—and commercial fiction—live comfortably with a pluralist, democratic, and atheistic worldview. Pratchett said when he revised The Carpet People, a novel he wrote at age 17:

[The first version of the novel] was read by Terry Pratchett, aged forty-three, who said: hang on. I wrote that in the days when I thought fantasy was all battles and kings. Now I’m inclined to think that the real concerns of fantasy ought to be about not having battles, and doing without kings.

(Author’s note to The Carpet People, rev. ed. [London: Corgi, 1992], 7)

This is especially the theme of the great second phase of the Discworld series that starts after the earliest novels have given heroic fantasy the smiting it deserved: novels like Pyramids, Guards! Guards!, and Wyrd Sisters, culminating in the furiously anticlerical Small Gods.1 The Disc is made out of fantasies, but we enter it to discover that not all satisfying fantasy involves the violent clash of good and evil, the triumph of hereditary authority, or the imposition of a carefully-regulated cosmology in which only the chosen few have the power to determine how our collective life will unfold.

The point, of course, is not that Pratchett was good because he is politically and philosophically appealing in a way that other fantasy authors are not. It would be terribly un-Pratchettian to go around vetting our make-believe for ideological correctness or indeed any other kind of correctness. Measure the difference by comparing Philip Pullman’s dour antitheology with the comic parable of philosophical modernity in the Bromeliad Trilogy. Or consider this exchange from Usenet between a reader and Pratchett about Granny Weatherwax’s witchcraft:

—What are the ‘rules’ and ‘regulations’ of headology? It just seems to be an area that is not properly defined.

“Ah. It appears you have discovered Rule 1.”

(“Words from the Master,” in The Annotated Pratchett File)

It would also cause us to miss so much else in Pratchett—including the pulpy fun that those terrible early American paperback covers promised, a wonderful science-fictional imagination (the permutation of the dimensions in Pyramids, the instantaneous transmission of kingons and queons in Mort) and a breadth of cultural reference to make even the Librarian say “Oook” (read The Annotated Pratchett File). But I hope we will reread Pratchett for, among other things,2 his surpassingly rare combination of democratic humanism and fantastic world-building imagination. Otherwise the joke’s on us.

  • 1. The later City Watch novels may be rather different. Pratchett gets interested in state-building and, in reaction perhaps to the continuous disaster of neoliberalism in the U.K., works hard to imagine the possibility of relatively benign political authority, particularly in the form of the institutions of civil service. For more on the phases of the career, see my projected post-tenure and/or post-detenuring study, The Achievement of Terry Pratchett.
  • 2. Pratchett is of course also the master of the comic footnote, to whose footnotes my own jokey footnotes are the merest wossname.

Shakespeare and Misgiving

March 19, 2015 - 10:16
Tags:  Shakespeare, John Milton, Jim Jarmusch, Ira Glass, Marlowe, Crisis in the Humanities

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Wikimedia ( I ) and New Scientist ( I ) 

What follows is old news. I’ve been preoccupied, probably for longer than justified, with two of last year’s strangest instances in Shakespeare’s afterlife (a word I use advisedly). Taken independently, I find both instances disorienting and opaque. Taken together, they resolve into an unsettling clarity.

Shakespeare’s 450th year was also the year Ira Glass started tweeting. The collision of these events in the text of Glass’s irascible response to a summer performance of King Lear in Central Park needs no summation beyond the iterative: without irony, “Shakespeare sucks.” It’s a nice phrase, really, tarring the name in an extension of the name’s own crowded sibilance. Poetics of dumb things to say – dumb enough that I’m almost embarrassed to bring it up again, having followed the extensively blogged “controversy” (Jimmy Fallon’s word, after Glass, blog-heavy, tipped into late-night television appearances) with an attention that I tried and failed at the time to explain to colleagues and students and that I’ll explain now only as an anxiety that this was a thing that clearly shouldn’t matter, but mattered. I want to venture that Ira Glass was turned off by Lear in the sense of being unaware of being on to something, and in a way that draws awareness to what he was unaware of, which is that his tweet was too late, a poison tongue without a living victim, elegizing what it sought to victimize.

By one account, after all, the year of celebration of Shakespeare’s birth was also the year he died. In Only Lovers Left Alive, released January of that year, Jim Jarmusch imagines another Shakespeare who sucks, but in the manner of a tick or mosquito, and he isn’t Shakespeare but Christopher Marlowe, the immortal (ha) author of Shakespeare’s plays. To be sure, the idea of the author of Tamburlaine surviving his bar fight and proceeding, as a vampire, to pen Hamlet and Lear and the rest is the most credible to date of the many extant anti-Stratfordian scenarios (by far). But never mind. Replacing Shakespeare with Marlowe in a film otherwise without investment in the question of the historical Shakespeare’s biography or authority is a substitution not of authors but of signs, a message folded in a joke that the conditions of aesthetic modernity, Shakespeare being one, may warrant rereading.

To suppose with Emerson that Shakespeare “wrote the text of modern life” is not necessarily to suppose knowledge of what that text is, or what that life is, or what marks it as modern, or what that marking requires of us. At the end of Only Lovers, Marlowe, played by John Hurt, drinks some bad blood and dies in a room behind a café in Tangier. He is more or less a minor character, onscreen for fewer than twenty minutes altogether. So much for him, as Claudius says, too easily, of Fortinbras. Still his death organizes the themes of the film, which are otherwise diffuse and atmospheric, into a kind of argument, pointing to what Glass can’t put his finger on, dismisses, therefore, as “not relatable.” Forget for now that the usage of “relatable” is a neologism for which Glass was roundly scolded in The New Yorker. Jarmusch’s Shakespeare is no less alien to and alienated from the modern life of which he allegedly wrote the text. He is a sort of ur- as well as heir to Burroughs, living out a junky’s exile, or a Bob Dylan, his real name refashioned as an alias, his alias an identity he will fail to outlive. More Stones than Beatles, more Warhol than Rockwell, more doubt than certainty.

It could be said more Marlowe than Shakespeare. The current of Jarmusch’s characterization runs entirely counter to the mainstream idea of Shakespeare that emerged in contour with the emergencies of the twentieth century, the idea that so entirely failed in Glass’s view. One episode of Doctor Who describes Shakespeare as “The most human human there’s ever been.” His is the only uncontested place in most American high school and college curricula – indeed, among the protocols for New York City public schools, the word “Shakespeare” is the only individual name that counts as its own academic subject, and he is the only author explicitly mandated for instruction in high school English classes by the Common Core State Standards, adopted now by 46 states. When Nigel Smith undertook to challenge Shakespeare’s predominance in his 2008 polemic Is Milton Better than Shakespeare?, he knew the reflexive response to his title would be incredulous laughter. The evocation of that laughter is essential to his argument, counterpoint and counterpart to the total seriousness of Harold Bloom’s own audacious title: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1999). Shakespeare’s reinvention in Only Lovers as explicitly inhuman is either a confirmation that he is “not relatable” or a radical reassessment of the range and reach of human relations.

Only Lovers is expansive in its consideration of what relates to what. Among its many visual citations and allusions is a photograph of Nicholas Ray, an early mentor to Jarmusch, hanging on a wall alongside Buster Keaton, Mahler, Robert Johnson, and a dozen others eclectically arranged. Famously, in directing Rebel without a Cause, Ray borrowed a title and little else from Robert M. Lindner’s case study of criminal psychopathy. Jarmusch borrows Ray’s strategy of borrowing in Only Lovers, which is titled for, but not really adapted from, Dave Wallis’s 1964 pulp novel about post-apocalyptic teenagers. Or more accurately, and more elaborately, Jarmusch’s Only Lovers is titled for Ray’s own Only Lovers, a planned adaptation of Wallis’s Only Lovers, which was to have starred the Rolling Stones. That combination of talent didn’t survive even the most preliminary negotiations, but it holds a place among the most remarked upon unmade films in Hollywood history.

If Only Lovers ends with the death of Shakespeare, we might remember that Rebel ends with the death of Plato – transmigrated to Sal Mineo’s performance of a dissolute teenager responding with desperation to the constraints of bourgeois life, the unmooring of the American family, and the sense that modernity is in the process of destroying itself. The latter Cold War disquiet is only barely sublimated in a film preoccupied with cliffs and ravines ethical and actual, and in which millennial expectations are translated with jarring nonchalance to a secular and suburban context. In the planetarium, the edifice at the heart of the film, after an authoritative voice predicts the “demise” of the Earth in the “blackness of space from which we came,” James Dean’s Jim Stark consoles a cowering Plato: “Hey. It’s all over. The world ended.” Plato wonders later whether “the end of the world will come at nighttime.” Jim’s reply is both inarticulate and prophetic. “Uh-uh,” he mutters. “At dawn.”

We can easily imagine that the reason Ray’s version of Only Lovers went nowhere was because there was no need for it: he’d already made the definitive film about emotionally orphaned teenagers with apocalyptic sensibilities. In discourse with the film that doesn’t exist, Jarmusch’s Only Lovers knits itself to the film that does, eliding and elaborating a network of loose allusive intersections. The rhetorical trope at work is transumption, an echo of an echo: Jarmusch echoes and extends Ray’s misgivings that the forms of the past, mistaken for immutable, are instead contingent and unstable, and that they are always in some phase of disintegration. I’ll risk a broad stroke to say that Plato’s death, on the steps of the planetarium, is a metonym for the death of ideas in a culture without convictions, as Shakespeare’s death, in Jarmusch’s telling, announces the death of aesthetics, which is the death of the human, which is a hoax.

At the bedside are two vampires named Adam and Eve who have tried desperately and in earnest, like James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel, to accommodate themselves to the forms of domesticity, marriage, and romantic love that will, they trust, then hope, then misgive, keep them from the violence beyond temporary homes in tumbledown mansions. Chased from those imaginary gardens with real toads, or, in Only Lovers, toadstools, vampires and rebels take their solitary way, seeking frantically for Plato in one instance, for Shakespeare in the other, just in time for dawn and the death of the world they thought they knew.

Jarmusch asserts his protagonists derive not from Genesis, at least not directly, but from Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve, which is a reading of and answer to Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is a reading of and answer to Genesis. The Miltonic perspective intrudes as a kernel of misgiving about the Shakespearean perspective, which forms the horizon of aesthetic possibilities, “the text of modern life.” This is the Milton for whom paradises are always resolving as prisons and heavens are always dissolving into hells, a formula adopted and adapted from Marlowe in an epic that began in Milton’s earliest plotting as a Marlovian metaphysical tragedy. That unwritten tragedy, titled “Adam Unparadised,” was to have begun with Satan on Mount Niphates, having traversed Chaos, finding himself still surrounded by the conditions of his punishment: “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell," he complains, echoing Marlowe’s Mephistopheles to Faustus, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” Jarmusch’s own unparadised Adam stalks hospitals at night, costumed as a doctor whose name tag collapses the distance between these orbiting texts: Dr. Faust.

In Marlowe’s handling, as established in the first lines of Doctor Faustus, the tragedy of Faustus’s own making is not an effect of hubris or greed but misgiving in humanistic study. It is not identical in all ways to Ira Glass’s anti-Shakespearean misgiving, and in some ways it may be opposite, but the origin is the same: they just don’t see the point. Glass tweets: “No stakes.” They’re not alone. The failure to find a point to the enterprise we call the humanities is itself a point of pronounced alarm in the scholarly and pedagogical contexts that frame our place in Shakespeare’s fifth century. Most of us who work in those contexts would say that the present ongoing divestment of literature, philosophy, languages, and the arts is a deal with the devil. But which devil are we dealing with? Is it the Mephistophelean devil mortgaging liberal education for a seductive but eventually bankrupting careerism? Or is it the devil of Milton’s late-career revision tempting not our ambition but our narcissism, winning our sympathy by seeming so much like ourselves? At least we can relate to him.

Yet the devil we know may be worse than the devil we don’t. As Leon Wieseltier wrote recently in The New York Times, “[A] complacent humanist is a humanist who has not read his books closely, since they teach disquiet and difficulty.” I will discuss in a later post how Jarmusch, in killing Shakespeare, also turns to Shakespeare in seeking a way of reading past complacency. I began by saying Glass’s tweet was too late, but now I'll say, with Romeo, “I fear too early, for my mind misgives."

Paris as an American City

March 6, 2015 - 10:18
Tags:  Paris, African diaspora, American Studies, Walter Benjamin, University of Sussex

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I

City of lights. Capital of the nineteenth century. The clichés pour down: the cultural metropolis, the imperial center, the capital city of the republic of letters.*

But if we press on this just a little further, we also see the city as conduit, as medium. Perhaps it's not an accident that the great theorist of Paris (and source of not a few of our Paris clichés), Walter Benjamin, was a media theorist, close reading the very materials that made a medium of the city:

Iron is avoided in home construction but used in arcades, exhibition halls, train stations—buildings that serve transitory purposes.**

Recent research by Nancy Green and Brooke Blower has also thrown into question why the quintessential American expatriate in Paris is usually thought to be an artist: these historians have uncovered the deep networks of American business, philanthropy, and diplomacy in Paris, and Paris's role as a site of U.S. power.*** The ideologies of aesthetic autonomy and romantic love that have long attached to Paris have also made the city a crucial conduit for U.S. interests.

What, for example, is Paris doing for Fred Astaire's American character in this video?

[Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire]

The clip is from the 1957 MGM musical Silk Stockings, based on the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch (MGM) film Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo. Silk stockings, here, are the luxury commodity that will seduce a Soviet agent (in Ninotchka, it's a truly wack hat).

Greta Garbo in a capitalist hat.

Why is Paris the setting for this Cold War comedy, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, he of the "Great American Songbook"? Why is it the logical scene of a seduction into American capitalism? None of this film is set in the United States (except that all of it is: this "Paris," and "Moscow," are built in Hollywood).

At the same time, what genuine pockets of resistance or autonomy were opened up by the Paris myth, especially for black Americans and for pan-African organizations?****

Questions like this drive the "Paris as an American City" project, a new Sussex Centre for American Studies international research network, co-directed by Daniel Kane (AmStuds/English), Katharina Rietzler (AmStuds/history), and me. We are funded by a Sussex International Research Partnerships and Network grant and are delighted to be working with collaborators including Nancy Green, Brooke Blower, Jonathan Eburne, Abigail Lang, Vincent Broqua, Olivier Brossard, and Daniel Katz, in partnership with Arcade, the Karla Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture at Chicago, and the Musée Franco-Américain at Blérancourt.

Reflecting that American Studies itself has its roots in the extraterritorial extension of U.S. power, we hope that the study of Paris as an American city will open out disciplinary questions as well as historical and cultural ones.

[Ideology at its very purest. Paris, je t'aime, 2006.]


*Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters (Harvard University Press, 2004).

**Walter Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century (Exposé of 1939),” in The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 16.

***Brooke Blower, Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the World Wars (Oxford, 2011); Nancy Green, The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941 (Chicago, 2014); Green, “Expatriation, Expatriates, and Expats: The American Transformation of a Concept”, American Historical Review 114 (2009), 307-328.

****Davarian L. Baldwin and Minkah Makalani, eds., Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (Minneapolis, 2013); Fionnghuala Sweeney, and Kate Marsh, eds., Afromodernisms: Paris, Harlem and the Avant-Garde (Edinburgh University Press, 2013); Jeremy Braddock and Jonathan Eburne, eds., Paris, Capital of the Black Atlantic: Literature, Modernity, and Diaspora. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

Bonsoir, Monsieur Antipyrine

March 5, 2015 - 13:24
Tags:  #avant-garde #Tzara #biography #Dada #dadaism #surrealism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Wikimedia ( I,...

Imagine attending a performance advertised as a modern art event featuring lectures, music, poetry readings, and paintings. The show will be sustained by young artists full of talent, in search of beauty (words borrowed from the poster for a 1920 Dadaist soirée). The curtain lifts and on stage you see a non-assuming, bespectacled young man who starts declaiming an absurd collation of abstract images punctured by meaningless sounds. No, he is not a stand-up comedian, he continues by indiscriminately insulting the audience. Then he reads from a manifesto: “DADA; abolition of memory: DADA; abolition of archaeology: DADA; abolition of prophets: DADA; abolition of the future … “ Finally, he takes out of his pocket a famous speech by one of the most cherished national political leaders of the country (think about the equivalent of “I Have a Dream”). In a symbolic defilement, like a burning in effigy, he takes the scissors, cuts the words, puts them in a hat and then randomly takes them out and reads them loud.

Today, reactions to such an eccentric character may vary from sedation to sophistication; however, about one hundred years ago, the audiences would brutally fall from their expectations in a manner that has been documented in detail: first, a respectful silence, then bafflement, a sense of revolt, loud booing, and even violent physical reactions leading to total chaos. The man good at programming the pandemonium on stage was also one of the best cultural public relation practitioners and self-promoters of the early 20th century: Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), born as Sami Rosenstock in a small city in northeast Romania, who stormed over Zurich and Paris in his youth as one of the main creators and disseminators of Dadaism. 

We are getting close to the 100 year anniversary of Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich and I dedicate my post to Tzara while reading the recent biography[1] Marius Hentea wrote about him, with a title inspired by the artist’s alter-ego, Mr. Antipyrine. As Hentea contends, Tzara constantly manifested a “desire to self-fashion his literary legacy” (276) because, in his own words, he considered himself “the corrosive center of the world” (277). He did not have a predefined aesthetic but “did everything to make himself indispensable” to the community prone to experimentation at Cabaret Voltaire (66). Together with Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Arp, Marcel Ianco et co. he left an important legacy for art today: a “veritable cross-fertilization across media as music, painting, sculpture, design, and written texts worked together to further the cabaret’s emergent goal, which was to break art out of its separation from life.” (69).

In the case of non-fiction, we look for the accuracy of sources and for new, even sensational information or elements that may open unexplored avenues of research and change the current angles of interpretation. A biography is a work of endearment, an assumed devotion to one person; therefore, like the well-trodden mimetic desire, it should be able to transfer its haunting affection to the readers in order to compel them to go over sometimes tedious details, irrespective of how interesting, ebulitive, grandiose or simply inspirational the life was overall. In his visually illustrated tome, Marius Hentea carefully incorporates, collates and reorganizes information available in other books about Tzara and Dadaism (mostly in French), to which he adds his own field research results in the United States, Romania, Switzerland, and France. Beyond interrogations pertaining to identity, exile or diaspora, the biographer depicts a cosmopolitan character that is associated with the avant-garde but ultimately openly avoids and transcends it. Hentea taps in to the notion that Tristan Tzara’s most important creative dimension is to be found in his verse, an idea always dear to French readers and criticism. Therefore, the main organizing principle of this biographical excursus, apart from the unavoidable chronology, is Tzara’s poetry, which offers the background and accompaniment en sourdine to the noises and sometimes cacophony of his vita.

The biographer lists several explicative avenues for Tzara’s pseudonym (the well-known “trist în țară,” in Romanian that is, sad in one’s country or in the countryside, or St. Dada). He leaves out a piquant one: Ion Vinea, one of the most important avant-garde figures in the inter-war Bucharest, claimed he was the one who found the last name “Tzara” for his friend, Sami, in hope he would give up his already-chosen “Tristan” that only sounded to local Francophones like Triste âne (pardon my French, “sad ass”). Hentea traces back Tzara’s first years in a Moldavian shtetl and hints to his layered reception in Romania (still open to interpretation and analysis), where the local avant-garde (1912-1947) is circumscribed to a certain historical period due to the ideological restrictions of the totalitarian regime. Between the wars, the synchronization with European modernism and a conservative ideological stand co-existed in the country. Cultural authority figures in the 1930s did not refrain from anti-Semitic reactions. Tzara was ironically regarded as an audacious Jew, who simulated spontaneity and whose aesthetic program was just a mystification and negation of convention. He only returned to Romania once during a week of public lectures he gave in 1946, even if his fellow writers there always revered him. Irrespective of his own type of protest against the “bourgeoisie,” he was soon after added to the category of “irrational” artists, who did not correspond to official aesthetic criteria of socialist realism. Today, local critics view him as the the first Romanian writer who made an international career thus compensating a peripheral complex, and this is a big deal for a national pride that appropriates émigré artists and writers, such as, among many others, Constantin Brancusi, Eugen Ionesco, E. M. Cioran or the recent Nobel Prize winner, Herta Müller.

Tzara’s early life could be depicted as a series of vignettes with subversiveness as a common denominator. In 1919, when he decided to move from Zurich to Paris (and, invited, occupy for a while the apartment where Francis Picabia lived with his partner at the time and their infant son), he brought along just letters, posters, leaflets, track reviews, manifestos, and advertisements. Together with the writers who would later form the Surrealist movement, Tzara rediscovered scandal as the best self-advertisement, cannibalized conventions (even wrote a manifesto titled Cannibale Dada), promised audiences he would show them Charlie Chaplin and “Dada’s sex,” and ultimately mockingly presented himself as the disparaged emblem of Dada before unilaterally deciding the movement was to self-dissolve. 

In 1925, the former enfant terrible married the painter Greta Knutson, a well-off Swedish lady (about whom I would have liked to read more in Hentea’s biography). In the 1930s, he published several volumes marked by a type of incantatory lyricism meant to render the voyage of the self in a world of chaos. He received eulogies from important French literary figures, including his former close collaborator, André Breton. However, his break with the surrealists was complete due to their different views related to the purpose of art. It was a “misrecognition” of poetry’s aims and nature, Tzara claimed, to make it “a mediated, documentary activity of allegorical description with the moralizing goals of fabrication and propaganda.” Poetry was simply too important—“in the totality of its complexity, it covers the destinies of thought”—to be turned over to such a barren course (in Hentea 241). Tzara distanced himself, along with many others, from the Surrealist idealizations of the Soviet regime, did not sign the appeal to liberate Trotsky, and joined the French Communist Party only after the war. During the volatile and dangerous times of World War Two, he lived with false papers in various locations and was part of the Résistance. Despite having been in the country for 20 years, he only obtained French citizenship in 1947. The more Tzara departed from his avant-garde years, the more serious his interrogations were, such as, for example, in his 1946 lecture, “Le surrealisme et l’après-guerre”: “Where is the end of this war, this shredded end that prolongs itself in each individual, bringing about new questions and temporary solutions and necessary but makeshift repairs and the crushing weight of pains and destructions and the gravity of wounds that are still raw?”

Until the end, Tzara was involved in the world of collectors and manifested an interest for “primitive” art in organizing exhibitions, writing essays and collecting Oceanic and African artifacts. He also worked on his most abstruse book, an attempt at deciphering alleged cryptograms in the poetry of François Villon. No one to this day has proved Tzara’s findings either right or wrong, in spite of the anagrams he discovered. His biographer, Marius Hentea, does not offer us the key either. We get a sense that, in spite of his early self-fashionings, Tzara's belief in the deepest, abiding secrets of a text was more rewarding to him than any critical recognition.

[1] Marius Hentea. TaTa DaDa: The Real Life and Celestial Adventures of Mr. Tristan Tzara, The MIT Press, 2014, 368 pages


Neocolonialism and Neofascism in Europe

March 1, 2015 - 00:17

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I ) 

I had never seen a neo-Nazi before.  On a cloudless Sunday morning in January, the day of the Greek elections, I was making my way through people holding cups of coffee and pushing strollers in a polling station.

Amidst my neighbors, I spotted a solitary young man in black trousers, shirt, and jacket. Standing apart from the crowd, he appeared like someone going to an art-exhibit. 

He looked at me as if he wanted something.  Did he know me, I wondered? Did he want to give me a political leaflet?  Getting closer, I saw that he was checking lists on a clipboard while speaking into his hands-free devise.  And then I recoiled at the sight of a Golden Dawn pin on his lapel, the Greek key design resembling a swastika.

So this is the face of Golden Dawn, I thought, the neo-Nazi party that placed third after Syriza and New Democracy.  He stood as a symbol of a Europe becoming anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-Islamic.

The worrisome and remarkable rise of Golden Dawn is directly related to the depression economics that Greeks have experienced for the last five years, the worst in Europe and unprecedented in peacetime. And many people fear that the ongoing austerity policies imposed on Greece by its European creditors will push more people towards this party whose leaders are in jail awaiting trial. 

Greece’s finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, warned in an interview with Charlie Hebdo that only fascists and racists would profit from the squeeze Greece’s creditors are placing on his government.

Many people in Greece have expressed this same fear to me. If Syriza, the first prominent left-wing party to come to power in Europe since the economic crisis began, fails in its attempt to reboot the Greek economy, it would only lead to the expansion of Golden Dawn.

Yet the Europe’s leaders, the neoliberal governments of northern Europe, seem not to be concerned with the tide towards fascism in Greece and in their own countries. On the contrary, fearing the election of a left-wing government, they may be unintentionally encouraging the spread of fascism.    

Syriza came into power in January on the promise to relieve the crippling austerity forced upon previous Greek governments in exchange for European loans. Within a month of its election, the government of Alexis Tsipras sought to renegotiate the terms of the loans that had created a humanitarian crisis 

Unfortunately, the untried members of the new government made mistakes in their initial dealing with their European partners, talking tough as if still running for office. In their inexperience, they never reckoned with the implacable and ruthless drive of the neoliberal European countries, headed by Germany.

Indeed, Germany’s Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, was unyielding in his negotiations with Yanis Varoufakis, demanding that Greece abide with the original agreements, commitments that have destroyed the Greek economy and that have made it almost impossible for Greece to repay its loans.

Day by day Schäuble forced Varoufakis and Tsipras to yield more of their positions. Faced with the near collapse of the Greek banking system, as Greeks, fearing an exit from the Euro, were transferring a billion Euros a day into European banks, the Greek government caved in completely. 

A jubilant Schäuble expressed the North’s schadenfreude: “The Greeks will certainly have a difficult time explaining this deal to their voters,” he said with a sardonic smile. Not only did he give voice to the rightwing orthodoxy in the European Union, he also wanted to humiliate the Greeks. Indeed, he rubbed it in by saying that “Being in government is a date with reality, and reality is often not as nice as a dream.” 

He and others spoke of the responsibilities of the borrower without mentioning the responsibilities of the lender. If previous Greek governments were negligent in borrowing huge sums of money, so were the Europeans banks in lending it to them. Should these banks not assume some risk for their own greed? 

Schäuble did not mention that the loan agreements arranged by the Eurogroup to Greece were meant to save European banks and not Greece itself. Nor did the member of his own party refer to this when in the Bundestag he asked his colleagues if they would buy a used car from Tsipras and Varoufakis. Ordinary Greeks have not received any benefits from these loans and only have suffered the consequences.

Rather than addressing the humanitarian crisis, Schauble and his partners thwarted the plans of the Tsipras government to boost the economy by raising the minimum wage and some pensions.  And they celebrated the degrading collapse of the Greek position.

Schauble’s jubilation and his no-prisoners attitude was sorrowful to watch, like Germany’s 7-1 thrashing of Brazil in the World Cup.  You could not help but be in awe of Germany’s ascendance, its hegemonic role in Europe unquestioned. 

In reality it was not just Schauble.  He represented the public face of European animosity at the election of a radical left-wing government within its borders. While the Germans, Finns, and Dutch have led the campaign of austerity, even those governments that have suffered from these measures, like the Portuguese, Spanish, and Irish, along with the Baltic States, don’t really want Syriza to succeed. It is in the interest of these governments for Syriza not only to fail but also to fail in a spectacular and dishonoring way.

This is so because to admit a progressive government in Europe is tantamount to questioning the dominant right wing orthodoxy. This is the real threat of the Tsipras government. It points to what may be happening elsewhere such as the possible election of a similar government in Spain. Podemos, Spain’s anti-austerity party, may be leading in the polls, a possible victory that would again shake the European order. This is why the very existence of the Tsipras government causes anxiety in the halls of Brussels and Frankfurt. 

There are historical precedents for this. In the late eighteen-century revolutionary stirrings against the reactionary regimes in Europe and against the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires brought fears of disorder and chaos among the rulers.

Indeed, European powers were disheartened by the Greek attempt to rebel against Ottoman authority.  While ordinary people were swept up by a Phillhellenic spirit and wanted the Greeks to win in their struggle, their governments were initially hostile to the Greek War of Independence in 1821.

Ultimately, France, and Russia joined in the efforts and helped to defeat the Ottoman forces only so as to control the Greek revolution. To this end, once Greece gained its independence, these powers imposed on the Greek state a “hereditary monarch” — Prince Otto, the second son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria.  

Greece was a quasi-colony then as it is a debtor colony now.  And this realization — the humiliating terms of the austerity as well as the ensuing humanitarian catastrophe  — is pushing people into the arms of a fascist, antidemocratic party like Golden Dawn.

Sadly, Herr Schäuble, the possibility of a Golden Dawn victory in the future is not a dream.  

Emotion and the evolution of intersubjectivity (Literary Need: V)

February 10, 2015 - 05:39
Tags:  costly signaling, Deborah Gordon, supplication, evolutionary game theory, Anthony Kenney, anternet, Hume, Richard Jeffrey, Paul Grice, evolutionary psychology, subjective probablity, the handicap principle

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I,...

Costly signaling may be a universal biological phenomenon, an essential part of the structure of all biological activity.  Yeast do it and so do ants and so do humans.  They do it because it is the nature of costly signaling to be reliable, and the reliability of signals is of paramount importance.

For most organisms, though, signaling is not intentional.  Paul Grice distinguishes between naturalistic and non-naturalistic meaning.  Naturalistic meaning is the kind of thing characteristic of symptoms of disease.  A fever of 102 degrees means an infection, for example.  It doesn’t mean infection because the microbe or the person it infects is trying to declare that an infection is occurring.  It means infection as a natural consequence of the microbe’s interaction with the body (e.g. the body may be reacting in such a way as to make itself an inhospitable environment for the microbe).

On the other hand, if I say that I feel feverish, nothing about those words naturally means that I might have a fever.  You’d need to know English, and to know that I was uttering an English sentence, to know that my saying that meant the possibility of an infection.  Utterances of this sort involve non-naturalistic ways of meaning.

Now one might think that these two kinds of meaning are actually two completely different phenomena.  Naturalistic meaning might better be described as evidence for or consequences of some state of affairs.  Whereas nonnaturalistic meaning means to mean, so to speak.  Its function (or at least a major part of its function) is to be interpreted.  We don’t produce a fever in order to get our physicians to intervene (or when we do, that's interesting).  But we do tell them we feel feverish in order to get them to intervene.

Grice is right, though, to connect these two kinds of meaning.  The reasons peacocks have such elaborate tails, the reason flamingoes are pink, the reason some frogs are blue, is precisely that it is (at least a major part of) the function of such phenomena to be interpreted.  Costly signaling (as in all three of these examples) and warning signs (as in the third) are “designed” (i.e. evolved) to be the object of assessment and appropriate response.  Peacocks and flamingoes signal their fitness by showing (respectively) that they can afford the costs of carting around so large and easily damaged a tail, or the costs of ingesting the poisonous foods that turn flamingos pink.  And some frogs are blue, as is well known, to warn predators that they are poisonous and should be avoided.

In such cases a kind of automatic process of signaling and interpretation occurs.  It’s equivalent to a “flag” in computer programing.  Both the existence of the flag and the appropriate response to it come about automatically.  The flag requires interpretation but does not require deliberation.  Biological signals in general are part of a circuit of interpretation without deliberation.  They’re game theory automatized.  The basic idea of evolutionary game theory is that dominant strategies are selected automatically, because they are the ones that are successful, and success is an automatic selector.  Signals are indeed meaningful, in a fuller sense of the term than is captured by the idea of evidence, residue, trace, relic, byproduct or some other such term implying the post-facto possibility of reconstruction a state of affairs.  Evolutionary advantage accrues to organisms that can respond appropriately, relevantly, and efficiently to the state of affairs by seeing how various flags are natural ensigns meaning that such a state of affairs obtains, and to the organisms whose signals are well- and easily-interpreted.

Cybernetics began as the science of automatic communication within a system, whether biological of mechanical.  Automatic communication follows many of the same principles in both domains.  For example ants follow chemical trails and touch antennae when they meet each other, modifying their activities and pathways as a function of the frequency of their interactions.  Deborah Gordon has dubbed this system the anternet because it turns out to work pretty much the way that the Internet automatically looks for the most efficient pathways between nodes.  (The development of the Internet allowed scientists to notice the same sorts of things in the anternet.)

Now, at some point signaling and reception became more deliberative activities.  Signalers became aware of the efforts and costs of signaling; receivers became aware, at least, of the signalers’ awareness of these things.

There are various evolutionary pathways that might lead to the development of non-automatic deliberation. Not all strategizing can be automatized.  It is a basic theorem in automatic computation that novel situations will arise within a system that the system cannot solve optimally.  Risk-taking, and eventually deliberate and therefore conscious risk taking, will sometimes lead to very high payoffs (even if they will also sometimes lead to disaster).  In evolution novelty will also appear with the appearance of any new externalies (in ecology, environment, population, climate, or unexpected events).

In all such cases of genuine novelty there is no automatically dominating strategy.  That’s what makes novelty novelty.  The probabilities that enter into the calculation of expected utility and thereby govern decision-making are not established.  They are therefore what we call subjective and not objective probabilities.  As Richard Jeffrey argues, subjective probabilities are those that there is no independent way to check. Novel situations will always require subjective assessments of probabilities.  (That’s what’s novel about them.  Hume consistently argued that all probability was subjective, because every situation is novel.)

Once the production and assessment of signals becomes a matter for deliberation, then both the signaler and the receiver will have to take into account the fact that the signaler is choosing to signal.  Conscious signaling, whatever else it signals, also signals that fact.  Signals become a sign of the deliberation that produces them, and to the extent that the receiver reads them that way, she recognizes the subjectivity of the signaler, who has deliberatively and deliberately made the choice he has.  Because the choice isn’t automatic, the signaler is individuated.  Here we have the beginnings of an irreducible individuality, a subjectivity that isn’t simply exemplary of species-being.

By "deliberative" here, I don’t mean a necessarily lengthy, careful, or well-considered process.  All I mean is that subjectivity becomes part of the equation, so that some signals become expressions of subjective attitudes and commitments.  These are the kinds of signals we call emotions or emotional expressions.

It is for this reason that it’s right to say (with Anthony Kenny and those he draws from) that emotions are reasons, not causes, for action.  But I would add that their function (as signals) is to give reasons to others to act.  They can only give reasons for others to act if they signal honestly that they are also giving those who express them reasons to act as well (which is a standard view of emotions).  Emotions therefore have to appear causal to those to whom their expression acts as a signal: they have to start looking as though they are causal.  Not automatically causal, though, but quasi-causal since they are routed through the subjectivity of the signaler.

If we were to try to express the schema of the expression of emotion in its most skeletal sense it would have to contain the following recursive component: Part of what I am feeling is that I am really trying to make you see that I am really trying to make you see what I am feeling.  The really-trying aspect is the part of the emotion that points to the fact, or is pointed to by the fact (they’re the same thing) that the expression of the emotion is costly.

Emotions arise from and promote intersubjectivity.  If the signaler is recognized as deliberative, then he also must consider how to signal to a receiver capable of such recognition.  From an evolutionary standpoint, they are therefore emergent properties of the vast and intricate kinds of cooperation predicted by non-cooperative game theory (that is game theory where cooperation isn’t a prior part of the set-up or rules, but has to come about, if it does, on its own).

Consider supplication, as a kind of gold-standard expression of desperate emotion. The costs (measured as risks) of supplication are very high.  The suppliant is utterly defenseless. In this way he shows that he really wants, is really trying to make the dominant figure who has the choice of mercy or murder to see that he is defenseless, and that he really wants the dominant figure to see this.  He gives such urgent reasons for being spared that they begin to him to feel like causes.  They aren’t causes, but he needs them to be.

Toward an Epicurean Scholarly Practice

February 9, 2015 - 09:55
Tags:  academia, asceticism, Epicurus, idealism, productivism, Utopia, veganism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( ...

To be a scholar is to accept certain ascetic practices—this is an economic constraint as well as a voluntary and cultic self-discipline. The economic constraint comes via several forms of artificial scarcity: the shrinking public investment in education, the insistence that more educational transactions be accomplished with less money, the dogma that human experience be subsidized with maximum “efficiency.” The scholar is a heretic who must be punished:  he renounces the principle of short-term gain, for either himself or for his bosses; she embodies all the vices (self-indulgence) but none of the virtues (profit) of the luxury product. Like Oliver Twist, she dares to ask for more (more knowledge!) than is decreed sufficient for her vocational needs. Hence no amount of scholarly poverty is really shocking to public opinion.

You want more than your allotted vocational training??

There are several strategies for coping with the terrible guilt of wanting to be a scholar within the all-encompassing atmosphere of puritanical American anti-intellectualism. Each strategy carries with it its corollary of perverse pleasures, and is guiltily modeled on the habitus of the business world against which we ambivalently posit ourselves. Maniacal productivism is a relatively pro-social strategy, and one to which the structures of professional advancement offer no resistance. The joy of over-caffeination and the soft egotistical glow of feeling busy: how central is this pleasure to every domain of American life! I’m afraid another strategy is political anger, of either the idealistic or the cynical variety. This praxis is always justified, given the large amount of injustice out there, and may even occasionally be helpful—but the risk of exhaustion is real, and it’s just a sad way to be all the time. Obsession-compulsion is another effective scholarly engine: you get to be a geek, you get to be the best in your field, and you get to rev up your motors to the neurotic pitch that proves your utility. If you have no obsession yet, one will be provided for you.

Here is my guilt: I am not really a puritan. It’s only an avid curiosity that’s kept me in the game thus far. So I had mixed feelings about this fascinating conversation between two lovely scholars about veganism (see pages 18-23). In fact it made me sort of panic and want to eat a donut. Yet I think my deeply symptomatic panic is not just food-based (there are apparently good vegan donut recipes), but also about the Sisyphean self-discipline of academic work.  When Berlant asked Stein, “What relation do you see between your scholarly pleasures and disciplines, on the one hand, and your incessant appetitive consciousness, on the other?” I got a little sad because the answer was so clear. Choosing veganism is (for me at least) to choose constraint amidst plenty—or maybe to choose constraint as if there were plenty—and so it does not conflict with academia’s already (I would argue) excessive commitment to ascetic ideals.*

Keep writing until you get the donut. Then accept that there is no donut.

How difficult it is, under current conditions, to imagine an alternative scholarly praxis based on Epicureanism. Epicurus was a materialist philosopher of the 4th century BC who called his school “The Garden” and valued friendship and pleasure above all. He got a bad name for vicious overindulgence, whoring and feasting—as Stephen Greenblatt tells it in The Swerve, the Christian fathers saw his philosophy as a “noxious threat” (101)—but in fact he believed that only moderate pleasures were truly reliable in the long run. (Indeed, Seneca reported that Epicurus would offer gruel and water to guests, since peace of mind is the truest pleasure.) He feasted with his friends, he sought to minimize pain, and the memory of these pleasures allowed him to contemplate death with the cheerfully balanced spirit known as ataraxia. As Americans, the idea of moderation is naturally abhorrent to us—it feels as if your potential for true excess, for pushing boundaries, is being left untapped. (The tradition of Epicurus as a discriminating gourmet—that we’re OK with.) Can you imagine the punitive rage that would be evoked, among all classes of society, by the spectacle of scholars failing to be miserable? But the path of asceticism we tread now, though it seems safe, is also precarious—we invite burn-out and reinforce the solitude of egotism, losing our ability to care for ourselves and others.

I don’t know if I’m ready for full Epicureanism. Withdrawing from political battles, as Epicurus was accused of doing, seems both short-sighted and difficult. Politics can also be a pleasure, as some other Greek probably said. But friendship, self-care, lack of fear, moderation, generosity—without these as possibilities, however utopian, our scholarly praxis risks being merely a reaction to inherited structures of artificial scarcity. Vegans are also welcome at the feast.

*I felt I had to let Jordan Stein respond to my unfair dislike of veganism. He ripostes “My hesitation is that you characterize veganism as an asceticism, a doing-without. And that’s not really what it is, but more germanely, not at all how Lauren or I describe it. I for one am a great fan of donuts!” 

White Happened to You

January 27, 2015 - 21:08
Tags:  arsalan iftikhar, beverly daniel tatum, bhagat singh thind, bobby jindal, cheryl harris, ian haney-lopez, james loewen, janet helms, joe feagin, neil foley, takao ozawa, white privilege, Whiteness

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr (...

In January, MSNBC effectively banned a guest from appearing on its network. Those of us who have been shaking our heads at CNN personality Don Lemon's recent series of on-air gaffes may already be familiar with the guest: Arsalan Iftikhar, an international human rights lawyer perhaps better known as "The Muslim Guy." Iftikhar, who thanked Lemon and his panicked query about ISIS for "making me famous," appeared on MSNBC's Now with Alex Wagner saying that, in furthering the myth of Muslim no-go zones in Europe, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who is Indian American, "might be trying to scrub some of the brown off his skin." Following Jindal's condemnation of the remark and general outrage from within conservative circles, a spokeswoman for MSNBC told CNN that "We found this guest’s comments offensive and unacceptable, and we don’t plan on inviting him back." What, exactly, was "offensive and unacceptable" about Iftikhar's language? While Iftikhar may not have done himself any favors with his tone and word choice, I suspect that MSNBC was troubled by Iftikhar's barb that Jindal would rather be white and, more importantly, by the insinuation that there is something wrong with being white. MSNBC sets a dangerous precedent by dictating how we can discuss race in open forums, lest we be banned. In this blog entry I will discuss how even in higher education, the dominant, institutionalized ways of talking about the meaning of white skin do not tell the whole story, particularly to white people. Some vigorous scrubbing may not be a bad idea for all of us.


Bobby Jindal is not the first Indian American to be accused of wanting to be white, nor will he be the last, but the honor of the Indian American with most interesting story in this regard goes to Bhagat Singh Thind. Memorably profiled in the indispensable PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion, Thind was a Sikh from India who immigrated to the US as a young man. After his naturalized citizenship was revoked, he famously took his case to the Supreme Court in 1923. Until well into the twentieth century, only "free white persons" and persons of African descent (thanks to the 14th Amendment) were eligible to naturalize as American citizens. Only months before the Court heard Thind's case, it had ruled against Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant who sued for his right to naturalize based on his beliefs and values, which he argued were as "American" as any white man's. Ozawa lost because the Court ruled that he could not be considered white by any accepted scientific measure. Thind seized upon this ruling by claiming that his high-caste, northwestern Indian ancestors were, by the anthropological definitions of the day, Caucasian and not Mongolian. But Thind lost too. The Taft Court effectively decreed that race was a social construct by ruling that being Caucasian on a technicality did not make one white: "Whiteness was what the common white man said it was." Japanese and Indian immigrants were not the only ethnic groups contending for whiteness and therefore American identity at the time; they were simply two of the most prominent to have lost.


Ozawa and Thind and so many others knew the value of whiteness in their time, value made tangible by the access to rights and resources that whiteness promised. Following United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, many immigrants of Indian descent also had their citizenship revoked, some losing title to property because extant alien land laws were now applicable to them. One man, Vaishno das Bagai, committed suicide. According to Neil Foley, the decision to create a separate racial category for "Mexicans" in the 1930 census was strenuously protested by Mexican Americans (previously assigned to the "white" category) as well as by the Mexican government itself. Very simply, whiteness guaranteed access to an array of possibilities in life closed to people of color. In her influential 1993 Harvard Law Review article, law professor and critical race theorist Cheryl Harris argued that whiteness is valuable because it is, in fact, a form of property. White identity maximized personal liberty for those lucky enough to have it, revealing a greater range of choices in life, beginning with whether and where you could live, how you could learn and work for a living, and whether or whom you could marry. This meaning of white skin has become the dominant one in social justice-oriented higher education today, the knowledge of its social effects institutionalized in the field of study known as "white privilege." But approaching the topic of white privilege only as a possessive phenomenon, something that gives but never takes, can attenuate even the best-intentioned antiracist pedagogy.


Several years ago, an administrator at my university made a disappointing comment to me. "David, what you try to do is make white students feel guilty for being white," he found it necessary to say. I responded by inviting him to watch me teach. (He never did before he moved on to another institution.) I work at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) in the Midwest, and given that the literature defines a PWI as having a majority white student body, we probably qualify as a Super PWI. Approximately 90% of our student body is white. That figure correlates with the share of white students enrolled in my three classes, in aggregate, last semester. We instructors recently received our student evaluation results for the fall semester. I realize how flawed this evaluation process can be, but, like most instructors, I would be lying if I said that I didn't care about them and didn't want my students to feel as though they learned a lot during our time together. The evaluations, frankly, were through the roof. I'm not mentioning this to boast but to make the point that virtually all of my students, again all but a tenth of them white as far as I know, felt as though they had a positive experience learning about racism and white supremacy, and not just for a unit or a few weeks here or there. Every. Single. Class. What was so compelling to my white students, if not guilt and shame?


Over the years, I've had many conversations with colleagues who want to integrate learning about whiteness--including white privilege--into their curricula but don't know how to do so effectively. They know that doing so will provoke strong reactions from white students, from defensiveness to guilt to shame. Is it right to focus on white students this way, they ask, and how best to address their feelings? I tell them that I am just as concerned about the welfare of my white students as I am about the welfare of my students of color. Early into a semester, I announce that one of the key goals for the course is for students to develop what Beverly Daniel Tatum, citing Janet Helms, calls a "positive" racial identity. For students of color, this means that they begin to disrupt the internalization of white supremacy by refusing to believe all of the lies that our culture circulates about their "inferiority." White students begin to disrupt their internalization of white supremacy by learning how the superiority of whiteness is a social construct, knowledge that then must effect a disposition of responsibility rather than guilt. In other words, white students learn that whiteness happened (and is happening) to them, and the history of the process is shameful. (It is beyond the scope of this entry to detail this process, but the literature--see Joe Feagin and Ian Haney-Lopez to begin--is available and essential.) This is the reason why white students should never want to take pride in being white: doing so means embracing not a cultural identity like an ethnicity but an unjust and inequitable historical process working in their favor. Far from guilt or shame, my white students begin to feel another emotion once they learn about the history of whiteness.


Regardless of their race, my students eventually volunteer that they never learned about racism this way in high school or even in other college courses, and many say that they're angry about that. Anger is a natural response to this realization, I say, but do you know why you're angry? Students of color have clear and cogent reasons for their anger, but my question gives pause to white students. That's when I tell them about a former graduate student, a white woman who was in her fifties when she took a course from me. She'd also told me that she was angry that this knowledge had been kept from her, that it was not institutionalized in any required curriculum at any level, and that she had to happen into a course on it by sheer chance. We were sitting in my office, and our conversation drifted from the course to more personal matters. "I would have lived my life differently," she said firmly. That was it. My graduate student was angry because choices had been taken away from her. White identity, which many of my undergraduates understood only as the key to more choices in life--hence their initial guilt--also foreclosed and is foreclosing upon untold numbers of possibilities and opportunities in their lives, as it had done to their ancestors. How might all of them have lived their lives differently if white supremacy did not determine the range and depth of their relationships with other people?


The devastating power of racism is that it deforms the relationships we have with other people, particularly with people of a different race, or it precludes those relationships altogether. My all-time favorite headline from the satirical newspaper The Onion is this: "18-Year-Old Miraculously Finds Soulmate in Hometown." The faux dateline for the article is Peshtigo, WI, a city a couple of hundred miles from my university, and the two lovebirds in the accompanying photo are white. What's less funny about the article is the story of why these two imaginary teenagers have the same hometown, why huge swaths of Wisconsin and the Midwest are populated by mostly white people. James Loewen answered these questions in his crucial study Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. Sundown towns were communities that exploited black people for their labor during the workday but demanded that they leave town at nightfall. Loewen's thesis is that racism in the Midwest was worse than it was in the South because most Southern communities could segregate but not expel whole populations of black people (Loewen's website is a public history project that allows users to learn about and contribute to the sundown history of their hometowns). Many Midwestern towns were home to more black people in 1890 than in 1930, while suburbs across the country like Levittown, NY were whites-only enclaves. (This recent article describes how communities in Oregon went even further with their ordinances, creating what might be called sunup-to-sundown towns.) What does it mean, I ask my white students, that your experiences and those of your parents and grandparents may have been racially-engineered in this way? What does it mean that larger forces decided who you would live next to, befriend, or fall in love with? How incomplete, how meager, those possibilities in life must seem now.


Today, we exist in a state of confusion about the meaning of white identity. Arsalan Iftikhar is banned from MSNBC for hinting that whiteness is an index to something other than the amount of melanin in your skin. Billboards spring up off I-59 in Alabama to proclaim that white people are the real victims of racism and genocide. FOX News blasts an academic course on whiteness at Arizona State University as "unfair" and "wrong." Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is white to some, not to others. And white students sit in classrooms unsure how to talk about their white identity while their peers of color wait, fidgeting in their seats. Colorblindness and MSNBC-style color cautiousness are not the solution. I don't think any billboard or ten-minute news segment can expect to be. We deserve better. For this reason I'm excited to begin another semester with students eager to learn something new, most of them strangers. Paraphrasing Tim Wise, I will tell them what I have told all of my students in recent years. "If you're religious, then imagine that what I'm going to say to you comes from a higher power. If you're not, then imagine that your mother or other loved one is saying this to you. Whether you are a person of color or a white person, I want you never to forget something," I will say. "Never forget that you were meant for more than this."

On Russia's Invincibility

January 26, 2015 - 15:42
Tags:  Russia, Russian history, Invincible Russia, Putin, Hobbs, Leviathan, opposition, nation of Russia, Russian Orthodox Church

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Wikimedia ( I,...


Like all myths, the myth of Russia's invincibility does not stand scrutiny. The record is mixed or worse. The Mongol-Tatar Yoke hung over the neck of Ancient Rus for over 200 years before the hordes were either vanquished or, as evidence suggests, decamped to deal with their own internal problems (1480). During the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), Polish forces, even though eventually chased away, occupied Moscow. True, the Russians defeated Napoleon, eventually and not before he occupied and burned down Moscow in 1812. Russia lost the Crimean War (1856) and, by all accounts, it was a loser in WWI, her defeat overshadowed by the Russian Revolution. Soviet Russia lost territory in its war with Poland in 1920. The war with Finland in 1939, given the Soviet's catastrophically disproportionate losses, looks more like a pyrrhic victory if not a defeat. The celebrated victory in WWII came at the mind-boggling cost in life, treasure, and near-complete devastation of the Soviet territory west of Moscow. In the nuclear age, when wars between major powers became unthinkable, Russia competed with the West in the so-called Cold War. It was sure to win because History, pace Karl Marx, was on its side. Khrushchev thought Soviet Russia to be, like the proletariate, the proverbial "gravedigger of history" and promised to the West in 1956: "We will bury you." It lost that war, too. 

Foreign wars aside, Russia has been fighting what seems like an endless war with itself. In the 16th century Ivan the Terrible pretty much exterminated the Russian high nobility, laying waste to the whole country. Following Peter's Reforms, the Russian educated elite fought, mostly with the pen and printing press but sometimes violently, against the autocratic state, until it rose again and overthrew it in the 1917 Revolution. What happened next was a withering civil war between 1918-21. Then again, before the wounds had the time to heal, Russians resumed their "civil war" during the Stalin collectivization of agriculture and later in the Great Terror with devastating consequences for the nation. Whatever the exact math, the numbers of victims of Bolshevism and the Nazi Wehmacht appear to be comparable (see, e.g., The Black Book of Communism). 

Fast-forward to August 1991, the Russians, it seemed, won against their Communist party-state, the machine that Stalin had built. Yet, with all the fits and starts under Yeltsin, the silent civil war proceeded apace, at times spilling into violence, as in the anti-Yeltsin revolt in 1993 or the well-publicized government raids on misbehaving oligarchs. Today, it is increasingly clear that the party-state - now morphed into the state-church Leviathan (pace Andrey Zvyagintsev's brilliant film) - has gained the upper hand over the opposition in Russia's educated society. This "Leviathan" state, flaunting the quasi-divine sanction granted it by the Russian Orthodox Church, now refers to its internal opposition as the "Fifth column" (Vladimir Putin's March 18, 2014, "Crimea Speech"). Wielding this archetype of war-time rhetoric, President Putin held an explicit threat over the heads of the dissenting professional classes. In effect, he was theatening to unleash the "people's wrath" against them should they continue questioning the legitimacy of what is by all accounts a monumentally corrupt, even worse, incompetent state. 

Today's Russia is a house divided. The war between the Russian state and its own Russian elite goes on unabated while the "silent majority," whose brain is wired to the state-controlled Channel 1, continues to support the new tsar, grumbling under its breath at the "national traitors" (Putin's own coinage from the same March 18 "Crimea Speech"). How long this "civil war" will last and how it will end –– time will tell. In the meantime, dissenting voices continue to be heard even as Putin's trick war with Ukraine has unleashed forces so dark that the Russian Leviathan, puffed up as it is, may be too unstable to handle them.


In Praise of Zombies

January 26, 2015 - 08:17

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I, ...

We need to talk about zombies.

In a recent article in Inside Higher Education about the precipitous decline of English majors at my institution, the University of Maryland, College Park, the undead rear their charred and mutilated heads. Our zombie friends, we are informed, promise (or threaten) to help lure resistant students back into the English major:

’Cartwright said there’s a demonstrated interest in updated versions of Great Books courses, but also in what he said some have called “zombie courses” -- pejoratively, not descriptively. Those include courses on such popular genres as science fiction, fantasy literature, J.R.R. Tolkein, regional literature or children’s literature.

‘Cartwright said there’s some feeling among his colleagues that such offerings equate to “dumbing down” the curriculum.’

Zombies might increase enrollments, but it seems that there are fears that more majors might come at a terrible price: a "dumbing down" of the curriculum.

As someone who has taught a variety of zombie courses, both at UMD and elsewhere, as someone who will undoubtedly teach more, and who will enthusiastically help spread the zombie plague across College Park, I’m always alert to possible misunderstandings about what such courses look like, what their justification for existing is, and what kind of intellectual demands they make on students. The common presupposition is that courses on popular genres and forms -- such as comics, science fiction, and television -- eat the brains of students. They represent a zombification of the curriculum, a submission to inexorable market pressures, which might be understood as part of a broader corporate takeover of the university. We used to trade in rigorous knowledge; now we deliver edu-tainment to the slovenly, capricious undergraduate masses, who punish us in our teaching evaluations if we don't pander to them.

There are two sorts of degradation involved in letting curricular zombies eat our brains. On the one hand, we’re allegedly abandoning Great Books or culturally serious texts in favor of lousy popular works. On the other hand, we’re hollowing out the methodological core of literary studies as a discipline. That is, we used to trade in aesthetically sensitive close analysis of difficult or historically important texts. Now, we’re allegedly doing little more than teaching cultural history or adopting cultural studies methodologies (methods that can be applied to anything, from cereal boxes to Shakespeare). We’re all becoming less intelligent versions of Murray Siskind from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise.

These are serious concerns and deserve a careful reply. If zombie courses were only about putting butts in seats, we should not teach them at the university level. If such courses were little more than examples of cultural studies or cultural history, we might need to have a discussion about the proper disciplinary boundaries of literary study. (Although, I should say I am in favor of accepting the broadest possible conception of literary study, and see nothing wrong with having cultural studies be integrated into literature departments. Frankly, I thought these questions of disciplinary boundaries were settled in the eighties. In any event, actually existing literature departments, including the department at Maryland, teach much more than Great Books: we teach film, linguistics, rhetoric, digital humanities, among other dynamic subfields.)

Over the last few years, I’ve taught comics at the undergraduate and graduate level as well as a range of science fiction classes. I’ve also taught courses on canonical twentieth-century fiction and courses on various avant-garde and experimental literatures. So I feel as if I have something to say about the way zombie courses tend to go, and how zombie courses compare to more traditional literature classes. My experience has been that, while they do -- fortunately -- get butts in seats, courses on popular genres and art forms can sometimes be much harder for students to adjust to. Many students have a harder time learning (for example) how to read comics critically than they do canonical works. They know how they’re supposed to talk about Virginia Woolf; they initially have no idea -- or only a very shallow idea -- about how to respond to Alison Bechdel. Indeed, many students come into the classroom assuming that we’ll be reading what they regard as canonical within a popular art form, or that we’ll be reading for plot, or that every week will be pure fun. As my students quickly learn, the reality of the zombie classroom is very different.

In my SF and comics classes, the first couple weeks are invariably partly devoted to disabusing students of these ideas, to helping them learn to suspend other ways of reading, and to teaching them to read art forms they thought they understood with new eyes. My pedagogical aim is to re-channel the considerable passion students bring into such classes toward more critically focused ends.

Which isn’t in any way to disparage zombie courses, but to sing their praises. These courses can be the most intellectually rigorous and aesthetically transformative classes that college students take. And the nature of this transformation isn’t only about alienating them from their naive enjoyment of popular genres. I can't speak for others, but my method of teaching these materials is practically old fashioned. (This isn't, it should go without saying, the only valid way to teach popular art.) I insist that the reason we’re reading comics isn’t in order to learn something about the culture, but because many of the books I assign are masterpieces. And they’re masterpieces you can’t just read casually or unthinkingly. You need to learn to read, for example, Chris Ware's Building Stories. To fully appreciate Ware's brilliance, you need to become familiar with the history of comics and become comfortable reading a variety of comics styles and formats. At more advanced levels, you need to develop the capacity to assess critically sophisticated theories about the poetics of comics. None of this is, as many of my students will attest, easy to do. 

Giving students access to an important, brilliant, historically significant corpus of art seems to be an entirely appropriate activity for the undergraduate classroom at a university. After you have taken a Zombie Course, you may discover you have actually just taken a Great Books (or in the case of Ware, a Great Box) course without realizing it, and you may also decide that any Great Books course worthy of its name cannot afford to ignore the recent surge of brilliant zombie art. If anything, we need more Zombie Courses than we have, and one hopes -- in time -- even full-blown Zombie Majors (or at the least Zombie Double-Majors).