Saturday, December 24, 2016

Visualizing the Trump Presidency. Scenario #3: the Muslim Ban

This is part of a series imagining the likely twists and turns of Donald Trump's presidency before he is actually inaugurated. See earlier Scenarios here and here.

In the first few weeks of the Trump Presidency, the proposal he had mentioned many times during the campaign, to ban all Muslims from entering the country, is effectively stalled.

He repeats the proposal several times in speeches and on Twitter, but his Cabinet officials and advisers all tell him it's actually not possible to do -- just as they had told him before. The best that can be done is the secret Muslim registry and a ban on immigrants from "Muslim-majority countries." So this is what goes forward. (Outrage greets these proposals on the left and in the Muslim American community every time Trump goes to this topic, but it is inconsequential. What we have to say is going to be inconsequential until he actually takes action. Which he will.)

There are many problems with even the modified ban. The list of proposed countries on Trump's list includes many allies, like Turkey and Egypt, who are gravely offended at being treated this way, and excludes countries with hundreds of millions of Muslims, like India, that are not Muslim majority. In an interview on CNN, Jake Tapper mentions to Trump that there are more Indian Muslims in the U.S. than there are Muslims from Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq combined. President Trump, unphased, simply responds that "We'll have to look into that." India stays off the list, while Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia stay on.

Several Persian Gulf countries, including, surprisingly, Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, all indicate that if this proposal were to go through that they would have no choice but to reciprocate -- and ban any U.S. citizens from visiting or working in those countries. This does not go over well with the large number of American business leaders who have long and deep business ties to the region.  

Turkey and Egypt, both huge strategic partners for U.S. interests in the Middle East, push back aggressively against Trump's proposal. Egypt has significant leverage over U.S. interests in Israel, while cooperation with Turkey -- where the U.S. has a major airbase at Incirlik -- is essential to U.S. actions in the ongoing battles with ISIS and Assad in Iraq and Syria. But the leaders of both countries are offered something in private (presumably military in nature) and subsequently their criticisms are muted.

Still, with all of these problems the negotiations around even the modified Muslim ban are stalled out again, while Trump focuses on domestic issues for a few weeks. 

Then in June 2017, a significant terrorist incident of some sort occurs on U.S. soil. 

The profile of the terrorist is a bit different from what we've seen before: a young Indian-American college Student from a Small Liberal Arts College has been angered at the direction Trump has been trying to take the country, and at the weak (and, as we've seen, inconsequential) resistance to the Muslim ban from the liberal establishment. He decides to resort to violence. The Student, as he is called by the media, leaves extensive commentary explaining how he is not in fact affiliated with ISIS, but has rather been inspired by Malcolm X (specifically, early Malcolm X) and Che Guevara. He writes an extensive critique of Trump's policies and Trumpism that commentators will later read and pronounce accurate. 

And the Student does something violent. The number of deaths and the method does not matter. It may not be very many people. But the striking profile of the Student -- born and raised in the U.S. -- and his articulate critique, all grab the nation's attention. He has fans on Twitter. There is a worry that his action will lead to copycat actions...

Trump is suddenly very motivated to act. He leaves behind his Secretary of Homeland Security. He leaves behind his Secretary of State. He instead huddles in the Oval Office with Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, and of course his adult children, and emerges with a signed executive order requiring that Muslims in the United States sign an oath of allegiance to the "laws and principles of the United States." Those that refuse to sign it will be considered suspected terrorists and monitored and investigated by the FBI. 

From a legal standpoint, the executive order is a disaster for Trump. It is immediately challenged by civil liberties groups and there appears to be a strong indication that it will be declared unconstitutional by the courts. But this will take several weeks, and in the meantime the authorities begin to compile a list of American Muslims and print out millions of copies of The Statement of Allegiance. The media debates the merits of the proposal.

But the real disaster is within the Muslim community. The numbers of hate crimes against Muslims, already increased since Trump's nomination to the Presidency and his surprise victory at the polls in November 2016, spike to new and unheard-of levels. The number of deaths of Muslims at the hands of other Americans quickly exceeds the number of people that were killed in the Student's original terrorist action. These deaths, of course, are called "hate crimes" rather than "terrorism." The President expresses some regret about "bullying," but also says that "given what the Student did," some retribution is "understandable." 

Bullying in schools is rampant and vicious in a way that hasn't been seen in generations. Some young Muslims commit suicide. Others, including some prominent business executives, declare their intention to leave the U.S. A number of Mosques, targeted by drive-by shootings, are forced to close for the safety of their congregations. Many Muslims and Sikhs decide to give up any visible evidence of religious affiliation as a matter of self-protection. They take their religious beliefs and practices underground. 

And Trump lets it happen. President Trump, in fact, is the one who makes it happen. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Visualizing the Trump Presidency. Scenario #2: Trump Nullified

[Note: this is very much a best-case scenario. Also, this post is part of an ongoing series. See scenario #1 here.] 

Scenario #2: Trump Nullified

After a few chaotic weeks in the spring of 2017, the generals who are managing the new President's foreign policy start to blow him off.

Not in so many words, of course. In public and on television, they acknowledge the latest controversies created by the President's incoherent statements that are now roiling across the global media landscape. But they insist that, by following through with a more measured set of policies, they are actually doing exactly what their boss intends. Many viewers miss the subtlety. Those that see it are a little shocked at the sense of contempt the President's own surrogates seem to have for their boss.

Over time, the gap between executive rhetoric and political reality widens, to the point that finally some stories are printed that acknowledge that President Trump is surprisingly detached from his own administration. He is often at Trump Tower in New York, or at rallies in Ohio or Florida. Less than a year into his Presidency, he seems on track to achieve his hinted-at vision of inhabiting the Presidency through executive summary rather than executive action.

Political business increasingly happens without him.

To be sure, he "accomplishes" some things in those first few weeks. A few miles of new fencing are planned in Texas, for instance. The President happily flies south -- tweeting all the way -- and poses for a picture with the first few feet of new fencing. At the photo-op, the President makes a joke about it not exactly being a wall, but describes it as a "big, beautiful wall" all the same. His supporters quickly point out that fifteen foot steel fences with lights and cameras everywhere still look pretty imposing. The TV cameras seem to agree, pondering the desolate landscape and the miles and miles of fencing that were already in place. And everyone begins to relax.

The numbers of undocumented immigrants that are subject to removal are regularly touted by the administration as a sign that they are following through with their campaign promises to crack down on illegal immigrants. A few liberal analysts point out that the numbers are actually roughly comparable to the numbers under Obama. This does not seem to matter to anyone. Soon the numbers are just part of the background noise, like the color-coded terrorism alerts under George W. Bush.

A registry of immigrants from Muslim countries is in fact re-instituted by the DHS, but little is known about it. Various advocacy groups sue the government to have the registry overturned, but the cases proceed slowly and under thick confidentiality protections. Because the names on the registry are kept secret and no one knows exactly what is being done with the information collected, the outrage about the registry remains limited to a small minority of civil-liberties liberals and libertarians like Rand Paul. Trump supporters point out that the new database is almost exactly identical to the NSEER database that was instituted under President Bush and that remained in effect through the first two years of the Obama presidency.

No outright Muslim ban is ever imposed, as the President's advisers convince him that the court battles would create too much bad press.  

And it all just rolls along as it was before, until Russia invades the Ukraine again in 2018.

Visualizing the Donald Trump Presidency. Scenario #1: The Repeal

I'm going to try a new series of short posts -- daydreams -- imagining events in Donald Trump's upcoming Presidency. Some will be highly plausible, others will be a bit counterfactual and dream-like. The goal is partly self-therapy and partly to contemplate a means of viable intellectual resistance. I would invite readers to give suggestions for future Scenarios, or even to write their own. 

Scenario #1: The Repeal

They will repeal Obamacare even before the inauguration. They will rush to do it, they will not bother in the short run to implement a "replacement" (they will promise in vague terms that a replacement will be coming). There will be alarm amongst people who depend on Obamacare for their health insurance, but it will be ignored by the media. There will be joy and jubilation in the Tea Party; they will even bring out the Revolutionary War costumes and wigs again, and this will be all over the news.

President Trump will sign the Repeal into law in his first week as President.

The Repeal will also of course be "effective 2019," because no one wants to risk the consequences of actually doing this in the current Congressional Term.

They will promise to pass a new and improved version of the Affordable Care Act somewhere down the line. Sometime in 2017, they might actually do this, and call it, yes, "Trumpcare." It will be substantially the same as Obamacare, but it will be sold to Red States as a substantial improvement that is now based on "free market principles," not "government healthcare." No one will notice or remember that actually the Obamacare exchanges constituted a patchwork free market solution.

Meanwhile, the Democrats will be in complete disarray. Every complaint from Democratic politicians will be dismissed with a Tweet or two from President Trump.

All of this will be so outrageous to former President Barack Obama that he will come out of retirement in 2018, and declare that he's running for a third term as President.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Spring 2017 Teaching. "Writing Empire: Race, Gender, and Power in British India"

I'm teaching a graduate course in spring 2017 called "Writing Empire: Race, Gender, and Power in British India." 

In addition to regular primary and secondary readings for the course, I'll encourage students to seek out an archival project on a thematic topic related to the intersection of race & gender in Victorian India. This could be an exploration of newspaper archives related to a particular hot-button issue picked out by students, such as the "Rukhmabai" issue relating to Hindu child marriage, debates over laws relating to widow remarriage, issues affecting the mixed-race Eurasian population, etc. Students will be asked to conduct a limited amount of archival research on that topic, and then find a productive way to edit and present those materials online, in a digital format. I will use my work on my digital project, "The Kiplings and India," as a model, though students will not be in any way obliged to contribute to that project. 

Here's the brief course description.

"Writing Empire: Race, Gender, and Power in British India"

This course will explore 19th and early 20th century texts related to British colonialism with an "intersectional" lens. Broad questions to be considered include: What role did liberal 19th century British feminism play in helping to consolidate -- or critique -- an ideology of British Imperialism? How can we understand the early Indian nationalist movement specifically with regards to the representation of Hindu and Muslim women? How do interracial relationships and cross-cultural structures of desire and intimacy factor into the history of the later unraveling of the British Empire? To address these questions, we will introduce ideas from postcolonial theory and specifically postcolonial feminism, and apply them to a set of primary readings that includes both well-known authors like Rudyard Kipling, Wilkie Collins, and E.M. Forster, as well as more marginal figures like Flora Annie Steel and Pandita Ramabai. In addition to primary texts, a portion of the course will introduce students to research methods in order to access archival materials related to the British empire; this archival unit will also entail some digital humanities concepts and methods.

Likely Primary Texts (we may not do *all* of these):

Rudyard Kipling, Early Poems, Indian journalism, select short stories (The Kiplings and India
Rudyard Kipling, Plain Tales From the Hills (1900) (Gutenberg version
Flora Annie Steel, On the Face of the Waters  (1897). ( version
Meera Kosambi, Ed., Pandita Ramabai's American Encounter (1889 / translated 2003) 
Krupabai Satthianadhan, Kamala: The Story of a Hindu Life (1894) ( version
Rabindranath Tagore, Chokher Bali  

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868) (Gutenberg version)
Sara Jeannette Duncan, The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib (1893) ( version)
E.M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924)
E.M. Forster, Biographical materials and India-related essays
Florence Nightingale, Letter on the Madras Famine of 1876 (5 page famine report)

Secondary Criticism  (Preliminary list -- mostly supplementary/optional reading)
(Excerpts from these available on CouresSite)

Victorian/ Postcolonial 
Patrick Brantlinger, Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies (2009)
Priya Joshi, In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India (2003)
Nathan Hensley, Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty (2016)
Tim Watson, "The Colonial Novel" (from The Cambridge Companion to the Postcolonial Novel)
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (1993)

Gender and Race

Indrani Sen, Woman and Empire: Representations in the Writings of British India 1858-1900. (2002) 
Shuchi Kapila, Educating Seeta: The Ango-Indian Family Romance and the Poetics of Indirect Rule (2010) 
Krupa Shandilya, Intimate Relations: Social Reform and the Late Nineteenth-Century South Asian Novel. (2017) 
LeeAnne Richardson, New Woman and Colonial Adventure Fiction in Victorian Britain: Gender, Genre, and Empire. (2006) 
Claire Midgley, Gender and Imperialism (1998) 
Padma Anagol, The Emergence of Feminism in India, 1850-1920 (2005)

Poverty and Famine

Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts (2002), Chapter 1
Leela Sami, "Starvation, Disease and Death: Explaining Famine Mortality in Madras 1876–1878" (2011) 
Sukanya Banerjee, Becoming Imperial Citizens: Indians in the Late-Victorian Empire (2010). Chapter on Dadaji Naoroji's "Poverty and Un-British Rule""
Margaret Kelleher, The Feminization of Famine (1997). Chapter 4, "Literature of the Bengal Famine" 
Louise Penner, Victorian Medicine and Social Reform: Florence Nightingale Among the Novelists (2010). Chapter 4: "Engaging the Victorian Reading Public: Nightingale and the Madras Famine of 1876  
Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981). Chapter 6: "The Great Bengal Famine.""Appendix D: Famine Mortality: A Case Study" 
Meghnad Desai, "The Economics of Famine" (in Harrison, Ed. Famine [1988]) 
William Digby, Famine Campaign in Southern India, 1876-1878. (1878). Digital Copy on Hathi Trust 
B.M. Bhatia, Famines in India: A Study in Some Aspects of the Economic History of India (1963). Chapter 3: "Famines and Famine Relief, 1860-1879"

Rudyard Kipling

Zohreh Sullivan, Narratives of Empire : The Fictions of Rudyard Kipling (1993) 
Charles Allen, Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling (2008)
Christopher Hawes, Poor Relations: The Making of a Eurasian Community in British India (Chapters 5 and 6)
Jan Montefiore, "Kipling's North Indian Travels" (From In Time's Eye
Harish Trivedi, "Kipling's 'Vernacular': what he knew of it -- and what he made of it" (From In Time's Eye) 
Don Randall, Kipling's Imperial Boy: Adolescence and Cultural Hybridity (Introduction) 
Thomas Pinney, Kipling's India: Uncollected Sketches 1884-1888. (Introduction)

Flora Annie Steel

Violet Powell, Flora Annie Steel: Novelist of India (1981) 
David Wayne Thomas, "Liberal Legitimation and Communicative Action in British India: Reading Flora Annie Steel's 'On the Face of the Waters'" (ELH 76.1: 2009, pp. 153-187)

E.M. Forster

Jenny Sharpe, "The Unspeakable Limits of Civility: A Passage to India
Benita Parry, Delusions and Discoversies: India in the British Imagination 
P. N. Furbank, E.M. Forster: A Life 
Antony Copley, A Spiritual Bloomsbury: Hinduism and Homosexuality in the Lives and Writings of Edward Carpenter, E.M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood 
Parminder Kaur Bakshi, Distant Desire: Homoerotic Codes and the Subversion of the English Novel in E.M. Forster's Fiction.  
Sara Suleri, "Forster's Imperial Erotic." in The Rhetoric of English India

Bagchi, Barnita. "'Because Novels Are True, And Histories Are False': Indian Women Writing Fiction In English, 1860-1918." A History of the Indian Novel in English. 59-72. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2015.

Stephen Knight, "The Postcolonial Crime Novel" (from The Cambridge Companion to the Postcolonial Novel)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Teaching Notes: "Religion and Literature" (Fall 2016)

This fall I taught a course for advanced undergraduates on "Religion and Literature." In it, I assigned Milton's Paradise Lost (the first five books), a substantial selection from William Blake, Iris Murdoch's The Bell, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, and Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Overall, a pretty successful class on a topic I have been thinking about for much of my career. The following is a lightly edited version of the opening day lecture I wrote up for my students. 

Let's start with the following poem by William Blake:
“The Garden of Love” (from Songs of Experience)

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars, my joys desires.

English and American literature has been deeply connected to debates over religion, going back to the medieval period. Even as Christianity seemed to recede in public life in the modern era, prominent writers continued to write about it, sometimes expressing their passionate dissent from various religious orthodoxies -- as we see in Blake's poem "The Garden of Love" above. For Blake, the formal institution of the Church (represented by the Chapel that's been built in what used to be a garden) is first and foremost an institution of interdiction and denial ("Thou shalt not"). Its principles of self-denial and its championing of suffering are a species of death for Blake. And yet he resists them not in the name of atheism or secular humanism -- but in the name of a much more personal, text-centered interpretation of Christianity. Blake's Christianity was not centered around the idea of Christ's particular suffering on the cross, but on the idea of a divine gift in the form of human prophetic genius in dialectical relationship with the restraints that are placed on it.

For many of Blake's peers, his radical beliefs and personal practices (he refused to enter Churches for much of his adult life!) would actually have placed him outside of Christianity. It’s worth remembering that in England at least, the Church of England was the “Establishment” Church throughout this period: the Monarchy and Parliament were directly connected to the Church. Non-Anglican Christian sects -- Roman Catholics, and Protestant “Dissenters” (Quakers, Baptists, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Methodists…) were banned from holding public office, and there was widespread discrimination against them in many walks of life. It wouldn’t be until 1835, for instance, that Catholics would be allowed to vote or serve as members of Parliament in England. English Jews wouldn't get the same privileges until 1858.

With Milton in the 17th century, through Bunyan, Blake, Defoe, and Swift in the 18th century, and going further through the 19th and 20th centuries there is no shortage of canonical writers who have seriously engaged issues of religion in their works. Books like Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) are thickly saturated with religious references. People often overlook these when they talk about Robinson Crusoe – whose eponymous hero starts off rebelling against religion. His life as a castaway can be interpreted in the novel as punishment for his sins. Later, he has a “conversion” experience; his subsequent rescue might be seen as a reward for that good behavior.

There’s a shift in the approach to religion in the 19th century. During this period, many of the great canonical novelists (especially George Eliot and Thomas Hardy) are preoccupied with the decline in influence of the Church on everyday life. A writer like Eliot agrees with many of the moral ideas of Christianity, but from an early age she rejects organized religion and makes the case to friends and family that the teachings of Christianity should be seen as mythology rather than literal truth. If we had more time together in this course, we could look at novels like Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1894), and Eliot’s novel Adam Bede (1859) – which both show ordinary people turning against the values of the Church in favor of a more common-sense idea of personal morality. The sense of a Church in decline is also very much present in mid-20th century novelists like Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark. Here we will look at Murdoch’s fascinating novel The Bell (1958), in which the novel’s heroine finds herself on a kind of spiritual quest. Can the Church reassert itself, and can religion/Christianity once again play the defining role in the lives of modern people (and especially: modern women) that we believe it played in the Medieval period?

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Op-Ed in Indian Express

I recently had an Op-Ed in Indian Express called "The President is Coming." In case it disappears from the internet at some point, here is the text of the essay. According to Indian Express, as of November 29, 2016, it's been shared 107 times. 

The President is Coming

When my 10-year-old son woke up to the news that Donald Trump had won the American presidential election this past week, he was extremely upset. He said, “I think Donald Trump is going to make us leave our house and go out of the country.” I had a lump in my throat. Though we are of Indian origin and are practising (turban-wearing) Sikhs, my son and I are both American citizens. He was born in Philadelphia. I tried to reassure him the best I could: nothing can happen to us. Don’t worry.

Even with some hesitation that morning, I succeeded in calming down my son, but I was projecting a confidence that I really do not feel right now, as an Indian-American and as a member of a small religious minority group under a Trump presidency.

Over the course of his campaign, Donald Trump made many statements that were alarming to immigrants from all over the world. Some of the comments ought to be alarming to Indian immigrants and Sikhs in particular. To begin with, there is the infamous proposal to ban all Muslim immigration, and possibly create a “registry” of Muslims already in the country. This programme is, to begin with, both unconstitutional and morally wrong.

But what if it were to come to pass? Though non-Muslims might expect to be spared in a Trumpian anti-Muslim crusade, the reality is that most Americans simply do not know the difference between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims.

The massive wave of anti-Muslim feeling that would follow the implementation of these policies would likely lead to public hostility against all brown immigrants.

The prospect of mass deportations of illegal immigrants would also have a major impact on South Asian communities in the US. The stereotype of an undocumented immigrant may be someone who is from Latin America. But in truth, Asians are the fastest growing community of undocumented immigrants in the US right now. Of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants thought to be in the US at the present moment, at least one million are from Asian countries, including approximately 5,00,000 from India alone. There are many Indians who entered on a student or tourist visa, and overstayed; they are now considered undocumented. They work at small shops and hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurants; they drive taxis. We see them on weekends at mandirs, masjids and gurudwaras.

President-elect Trump has also indicated that he intends to restrict legal immigration. There are strong hints that a Trump administration could drastically reduce the number of permanent residency visas (green cards) issued in the coming months. Temporary business visas like H1 and B1 visas might also be affected. Trump has said as much directly, though his statements on the subjects tend to be overlooked compared to his stand on illegal immigrants.

Many readers may be wondering about the Republican Hindu Coalition, a group in New Jersey that hosted a fundraiser for Trump earlier this fall. Trump did appear at a Bollywood-themed Hindu function in New Jersey but that should not indicate that his presidency will be good for US-India relations. In fact, Trump has a very shaky grasp of world affairs, revealing in interviews and debates that he has only the barest of knowledge of what is happening in places like Syria and the Crimea — and no one has even bothered to ask him about Kashmir or where he stands on India-Pak relations.

Indians hopeful about a Trump presidency should not be naive. Trump has a long history of taking people’s money and giving nothing in return. This was his business model in Trump University, which was supposedly a “school” for educating aspiring real estate investors. In fact, the “university” is now out of business, with a fraud case pending even after Trump’s election. He had a regular habit in his building projects of refusing to honour his contracts; he has been sued hundreds of times for non-payment. Finally, any Indians expecting gratitude from Trump for the small amount raised by Indian supporters during this campaign should also be aware that Asian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton by an overwhelming margin.

As of right now, these are speculations based on Trump’s statements and behaviour over the past year and a half. Trump has changed his position on key issues many times, and we do not really know yet much at all about what Trump will actually do when in office. That said, based on everything we have seen thus far, we should expect a wild ride. Indian companies that do business with the US or that rely on travel visas should be concerned. Anyone waiting for a green card or even a work authorization permit had better be ready to wait a very long time.

The uncertainty Indian Americans are experiencing now, immediately after the election of Trump, might be comparable to what we felt immediately after 9/11. Then, as now, there was an immediate spike in hate crimes directed against Muslims and those perceived as Muslim. But even more than that, what concerned us was that we felt uncertain then about our place in American society. With roughly half of American voters in the recent election supporting a man who regularly shows contempt for non-white immigrants, we are experiencing a version of that uncertainty again.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Parable of a Kleptocracy

Kleptocracy (n.): A form of government rulers use their power and influence to enrich themselves while in office.  

Kleptocracy is by definition something that never happens here, in Westland -- it happens over there, in corrupt Otherland. Here are a few aspects of the Kleptocracy in Otherland:

There, in Otherland, wealthy men campaign for office while hawking their products and promoting their properties. They commit fraud that costs thousands of people their entire life's savings, and shrug it off if caught. They pay bribes to try and make fraud cases go away, and shrug it off if caught. This sense of impunity and imperviousness to shame might seem strange to us, but their culture is very different from ours, in Westland. We must try to understand the ways of Otherland.

Women are second-class citizens in primitive Otherland. They are required to be sexually available to the leader for his enjoyment. The leader frequently assembles large numbers of women deemed to be "attractive" to men, and then sadistically ranks and quantifies their physical attributes on a 1-10 scale, humiliating and berating those women he deems inadequate. This might seem disgusting to us, but people in Otherland have not yet heard of feminism. Women are also forced to walk on uncomfortable shoes that elevate their height. 

Despite rules that forbid it, the rulers of Otherland appoint family members and loyal cronies to high positions in the government irrespective of their qualifications for the job. Those family members also continue to manage the leader's business while he is busy with his official duties. (In fact, the rulers of Otherland are not that busy; they spend much of their time on Twitter, criticizing comedians who have satirized them.)

In this imaginary Otherland, the wealthy ruler also regularly takes time off from running the country to make arrangements with businessmen from Other Otherlands to sell new products that will make all these men become even richer.

In this far off, barbaric Otherland, the wealthy ruler even leases buildings from the government and turns those government buildings into hotels, while also appointing the administrators who are responsible for determining the rent of those buildings. The wealthy leader will also personally profit on high room rates from those hotels, as lobbyists and foreign leaders attempt to curry favor with him. 

All of these practices might seem horrifically corrupt, uncivilized, and barbaric to us here in Westland. But we must understand that Our Ways are not Their Ways. We hope that the people in this society learn about the benefits of Democratic Checks and Balances, but it may take many years before that happens in such a primitive, backward society.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Digital Humanities Exhibits at #MSA18: An Annotated Overview

I'm at the MSA this year to talk about my Claude McKay project as part of a Digital Exhibition.

The format is unusual: in one of the main halls of the conference hotel, the organizers set up large-ish monitors. Presenters bring their own laptops and, for a single morning of the conference, demonstrate their work to conference attendees as they come and go from regular panels. You don't give full-length talks, but that makes sense for many digital projects -- the open-ended format allows you to be more interactive and exploratory than is possible in a conventional conference talk.

Here are some of the exhibits that were on display at #MSA18 with my brief annotations:

Mapping Expatriate Paris. I got a chance to talk to Clifford Wulfman and Joshua Kotin from Princeton, who have been building a polished, very useful site based on Sylvia Beach's lending library records at Shakespeare & Co. bookstore. She kept the lending library records for many users. These contain books signed out but also the addresses of members of the lending library. One interesting discovery: many of the users of her lending library were actually not poor, left-bank bohemians, but members of the French upper class. (Check out this page to see a map and discussion of the left bank/right bank addresses of Shakespeare & Co. lending library patrons.)

Modernist Archives Publishing Project. I got to talk to Alice Staveley of Stanford about this project. It's an impressive archive of the output of the Hogarth Press -- its books, but also secondary materials like account books and correspondence. There was much more printed by the Hogarth Press than just Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury mainstays; among the many authors and texts I'd never heard of were a number of Indian authors whose works I'd like to explore. Many of the texts in this archive might be technically under copyright, but many of the authors' families have granted permission for the digital presentation of their works. I was impressed by the level of care and attention to details in this well-funded project.

Marianne Moore Digital Archive. The majority of Marianne Moore's poetry is under copyright, but this site is planning to put forward some really interesting ancillary materials, including Moore's notebooks and the Marianne Moore Newsletter, which contained sketches Marianne Moore made in her notebooks as well as analysis and rare historical-biographical engagement with the author.

Modernist Networks (Modnets). I didn't get a chance to talk to the folks doing this project in person but the goal is pretty clear -- they're aiming to be a hub for modernist studies digital humanities project and also a kind of vetting / peer-review mechanism along the lines of what we see with sites focusing on earlier periods. Currently they have 59 federated sites and links to more than 78,000 objects. (I will submit my own project to them for peer-review / federation once it's a little further along.)

Modeling Modernist Studies (Topic Modeling Modernism/Modernity). Jonathan Goodwin's interesting topic modeling project exploring keywords and concept-clusters in the flagship journal of Modernist Studies. It's a continuation of a kind of meta-scholarly analysis he was doing earlier with his modeling of the language of MLA job listings. I got a chance to talk with Jonathan about the project and I hope to play around more with some of the newer topic modeling tools he's been using at some point. 

Modernism in Baltimore: A Literary Archive. I did not get to talk to the folks behind this project. Still, the idea here seems fairly straightforward -- they're collecting artifacts and historical materials related to literary modernism in Baltimore (the contributors also appear to have an interest in architecture and the arts more broadly). As of now the home for this is a Facebook page, though some resources are stored at

Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism / Linked Modernisms. Stephen Ross, whom I met at DHSI last year (he teaches at University of Victoria and is currently President of the MSA), is the general editor of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism (a large-scale digital / subscription-based encyclopedia project). He's been taking the metadata generated by that project to produce an open (non-paywalled) resource called "Linked Modernisms." As of this morning the main link for the project seems to be broken, but you can read about the project here.

Open Modernisms. Another project from the University of Victoria. It's a collection of modernism studies syllabi. At this point just starting out, it looks like. (But I have some syllabi I want to send them... Readers, consider contributing!)

I enjoyed talking to Brandon White of UC Berkeley about his project using WordNet and NLTK to analyze the plot and evolving thematics of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom (incest, bigamy, race/miscegenation...). I don't see a link to his Compson project online, so I don't think it's public research yet.

William S. Burroughs Digital Manuscript Project at  Florida State University. Unfortunately the Burroughs archive is, for copyright reasons, largely behind a password-protected firewall. But I got to talk to Stanley Gontarski and Paul Ardoin about the project at length, and I was really impressed by the level of attention and care they have put in -- there are some really powerful tools for analyzing and comparing versions and studying Burroughs' intertextuality. In short, a really powerful resource for serious Burroughs scholars. (Anyone reading this interested in using the site should contact the site editors; they can get you a temporary password to access FSU's amazing Burroughs materials.)

Using a Visual Understanding Environment to Understand H.D.'s Networks of Influence. Celena Kusch is co-chair of the international H.D. Society. I got to talk to her about using a software package called the Visual Understanding Environment to study the social network around the writer H.D. Fascinating project and a software package I definitely want to explore a little myself, perhaps for my Kiplings project.

American WWI Poetry Digital Archive. I talked to Tim Dayton of Kansas State at length about this excellent archive of more than 400 books of American World War I poetry. This morning, unfortunately, I can't seem to find a link to the project itself anywhere. (I think this project is currently being migrated from Scalar 1 to Drupal or perhaps Scalar 2.)


My own Claude McKay project was a modest first version of a site that will eventually have more primary texts (the two Jamaican collections of poems are coming soon!) and more robust network diagrams (probably using Giphy down the road). It was gratifying to talk about the work with a number of people walking by my booth; thank you to everyone who took a few minutes to stop by and say hello. Most people seemed to get it, and saw the value of the network diagrams / thematic tagging that I and my graduate students have been doing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Claude McKay: New Site, Expanded Project (w/Network Diagrams)

Harlem Shadows: Claude McKay's Early Poetry

I've recently been working on rebuilding a collaborative class project on Claude McKay's Harlem Shadows in the Scalar platform. As I've been putting the new site together, I've also been adding fresh material to the project, including a number of McKay's early political poems. (I've also been using Scalar for my Kiplings and India project.) It's a powerful platform, especially with regards to metadata, annotations, and tagging. It's also designed to allow you to create multiple "paths" through overlapping material. In McKay's case the Paths feature comes in particularly handy as he tended to publish the same poems in different venues; it's revealing to see which poems he tended to republish and which he quietly "put away."

The new site can be accessed here. I would particularly recommend readers play around with the Visualizations options on the menu at the top corner of the screen.

Here is the text of some new material I've added to the site, analyzing, in a very preliminary and informal way, a couple of network diagrams I generated using Scalar's built-in visualization tools.

* * *

Below I'll present two different network diagrams I've derived from Scalar's built-in visualization feature. One looks at the clusters created by thematic tags, the other looks at the relationship between poems published in different venues.

Skeptics of Digital Humanities scholarship sometimes see objects like network diagrams and wonder what they might tell us that we don't already know. And indeed, even here, to some extent, the diagrams below do show us visually some things we might have been able to intuit without the benefit of this tool.  I should also acknowledge that the thematic tags we have been using are somewhat subjective. We have the poem "A Capitalist at Dinner" tagged by "Class" but not by "Labor." Others might structure these tags differently and end up with diagrams that look different. 

That said, there are some surprises here. In McKay's poetry I'm especially interested in thinking about the connections between the two streams of his writing from this early period, which we might loosely divide into a) political poems (including race-themed poems and Communist/worker-themed poems) and b) nature-oriented, pastoral and romantic poems. At least in terms of publication venue, there is quite a bit of overlap between these two broad categories. McKay excluded the most directly Communist poems from his book-length publications, but he included—often at the urging of his editors—poems expressing decisive anger at racial injustice in American society. And even in the body of poems published in magazines like Workers Dreadnought there are hints of the nature themes in poems like "Joy in the Woods "and "Birds of Prey." The network diagrams show us a series of other poems as well at the "hinge" between the two clusters. These poems might be particularly worthy of special attention and study in the future. 

A. Thematic Tags.

Take a look at the following network diagram showing the relations between a limited set of thematic tags, generated by Scalar using the built-in visualization application. The image below is a static image, but if you click on VISUALIZATIONS > TAG on the menu in the corner of this site, you'll get a "clickable" diagram that is also live and manipulable. The body of poems included here is comprised of all of the poems from Harlem Shadows as well as about fifteen of the early poems not included in Harlem Shadows

(See the full-size version of this diagram here)

What does this diagram show? First, we should note that the red dots show tags, while the orange dots show poems. As of November 2016, only eight thematic areas have been tagged: Race, Class, City, Nature, Home, Sexuality Homoeroticism, Labor. (More Tag information from the earlier, Wordpress version of this site is currently in the Metadata for individual poems, and is discoverable using the search function on this Scalar site. Try searching for "Birds," for instance.) 

What Can We Learn? 

1. Thematic Clusters. First and most obviously, certain themes are "clustered" together. Nature and Home have many overlaps, and thus appear clustered. Sexuality and homoeroticism also form a cluster. And finally, the tags focused on Class, Labor, and city life also form a natural cluster, though the clustering is significantly less tight than the others.

2. Centrality of Nature. An obvious discovery is that "Nature" is one of the most common tags in McKay's early poetry. This was a surprise to the students in the Digital Humanities class (given that we think of McKay as a black poet with militant/leftist politics, we might expect those themes to be more dominant). Of course, many of the poems marked "Nature" also overlap with race, class/labor, or sexual/queer themes. The surprise in finding so much discussion of Nature—and specifically McKay's interest in writing about birds—might remind us that we actually need to read a poet's poems before rushing to narrowly define them (i.e., as a black, political poet). (I would encourage visitors to look at Joanna Grim's essay exploring the "bird" theme in Harlem Shadows)

3. Home. Many of McKay's poems in this period thematize his memory of life in Jamaica. Thus, a few of the poems (for instance, "The Tropics in New York") reflect McKay's nostalgia for his pastoral upbringing from the vantage point of someone now living in a much larger, modern urban setting. 

4. Poems with three or more tags. I'm interested in the poems that presently have three or more tags: "The Barrier," "The Castaways," and "On the Road." These are poems that scholars may not have paid very attention to in the past, but diagrams like the one above might lead us to think of them as newly important as they bridge some of McKay's most important themes from this period. (Again, the number of tags is a bit arbitrary and at present an artifact of the way metadata has been tagged. At most this information might nudge readers to pay a bit more attention to some poems rather than others, not to make any sweeping conclusions about the poems as a whole.)

I would encourage users of this site to play with the live visualization tool and send me (Amardeep Singh) any screen captures that seem interesting or telling. 

B. Publication Venues

This diagram is a bit more messy. It contains nodes for publication venues (which are organized on this Scalar site using "Paths"). These appear in light blue in the diagram below.  Users can access a "live" version of the diagram using VISUALIZATIONS > CONNECTIONS in the menu in the corner above. 

(See the full size version of this diagram here)

What do we see here? (Note: the blue dots represent publication venues. The red dots represent thematic tags. The orange dots represent individual poems. The green dots are media files uploaded to this site. Readers should probably try and ignore the green dots.)

Essentially there is a larger cluster around Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems and Harlem Shadows, and a smaller cluster around the Workers Dreadnought path and the Early Uncollected Poetry path I've constructed on this site. Perhaps not all that surprisingly, the sexuality and homoeroticism tags are mostly entirely disconnected from the labor & class oriented poetry published in magazines like Workers Dreadnought.  But there are some poems right in the middle between the two clusters that seem especially interesting to consider -- poems like "Joy in the Woods," "The Battle," "Summer Morn in New Hampshire," "Birds of Prey," and "Labor's Day" that appear with strong connections both to the "Nature" tag and to "Class" and "Labor" tags. Though few of these poems have been looked at closely by critics, they are in some ways the key to understanding the two major aspects of Claude McKay's poetry in this period. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

"I'm Happy to Own All Of It": Teju Cole's "Known and Strange Things"

I have been reading and reveling in Teju Cole's new collection of essays, Known and Strange Things, over the past week. Many of the essays here were published earlier in magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, and Granta.

And indeed, I had read several of them before, but spread out over years and often sandwiched into lots of other online reading that sometimes diluted their impact. As a result, I did not see the true implications of important essays like "Unnamed Lake" or "A True Picture of Black Skin" in those earlier reads. Seeing them in print and in the context of other essays on overlapping topics helps the author drive the point home. (Another reminder of the limits of our online media + text consumption ecosystem.)

The collection as a whole is divided into three sections, including essays on writers and literature, essays on photography, and travel writings. The travel writings I found particularly engrossing; Cole has visited dozens of countries since he became a literary star after the publication of Open City in 2011. I also see in the travel writings echoes of the voices of other great travel writers, including Conrad, Naipaul and more contemporaneously, Amitava Kumar... There's a very precise balance in these essays of the personal voice and experience with a journalist's eye for broad questions of general interest. I would not be surprised if we were to see more travel writing from Teju Cole in the future.

* * *

James Baldwin, Barack Obama, and Cole's Cosmopolitanism

One essay I had missed outright is the first essay in the collection after Known and Strange Things' prologue. Here it's published as "Black Body"; it was first published in The New Yorker in August 2014 as "Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin's 'Stranger in the Village.'" This essay encapsulates at once Teju Cole's originality -- his distinctive voice and unique way of thinking -- while also underscoring his deep filiation with earlier generations writers and intellectuals, both from the Black Atlantic tradition and from the Postcolonial / Global tradition.

The signature of Cole's outlook to global culture is eclecticism:

There’s no world in which I would surrender the intimidating beauty of Yoruba-language poetry for, say, Shakespeare’s sonnets, nor one in which I’d prefer the chamber orchestras of Brandenburg to the koras of Mali. I’m happy to own all of it. This carefree confidence is, in part, the gift of time. It is a dividend of the struggle of people from earlier generations. I feel no alienation in museums. But this question of filiation tormented Baldwin considerably. He was sensitive to what was great in world art, and sensitive to his own sense of exclusion from it. He made a similar list in the title essay of “Notes of a Native Son” (one begins to feel that lists like this had been flung at him during arguments): “In some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the Stones of Paris, to the Cathedral at Chartres, and the Empire State Building a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.” The lines throb with sadness. What he loves does not love him in return.
This is where I part ways with Baldwin. I disagree not with his particular sorrow but with the self-abnegation that pinned him to it. Bach, so profoundly human, is my heritage. I am not an interloper when I look at a Rembrandt portrait. I care for them more than some white people do, just as some white people care more for aspects of African art than I do. (link)
This is a remarkable statement -- and I can't help but see my own evolution on these topics expressed perfectly in these eloquent paragraphs. I had a deep sense of cultural dispossession as a young person -- in which I remember perceiving a sense of exclusion that resembled James Baldwin's -- though more recently (really, as I have grown into my shoes as a literature professor) I have had a growing sense of cultural ownership in the mainstream of Euro-American life that resembles Cole's: "I'm happy to own all of it."

For many postcolonial academics based in the West, the dilemma of whether to embrace a European cultural heritage or to develop a sense of identity based on the recovery of a sense of lineage to Africanness or Asianness has been a long-term preoccupation with no easy answer. But it doesn't have to be either-or. A Nigerian writer in New York can have a world-class knowledge of Euro-American photography and modern classical music (Mahler!) and also make and share playlists of contemporary Nigerian dance songs. For my own part, I can teach and write about everything from Bollywood movies to Milton without embarrassment. I can own all of it too. (As a side note, Cole also recently made up a playlist for Known and Strange Things. You can see it here.)

To be clear, eclecticism and cosmopolitanism should not be confused with loyalty to dominant cultural institutions. Nor would Cole allow that his passion for "serious" photography, writing, and music means he is more interested in "aesthetics" than "politics." If anything, Cole's voice -- as embodied in the essays contained in this collection -- seems to suggest that what makes certain works of art powerful is in fact often precisely their embrace of an urgent politics (and this is as true of W.G. Sebald's novels as it is of Derek Walcott's poems). In other words, aesthetics need not be seen as separate from politics; our preoccupations with the latter can be what drives us to strive to make something beautiful and meaningful in response to terrible exigencies in the world around us. Or: Out of passionate politics can come great art.

Another essay that beautifully encapsulates Cole's unique status as a hybrid figure is his essay, "The Reprint" (it does not appear to be available online) recounting the night Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the Presidential elections of 2008. Cole was on-hand in Harlem to witness the crowd's reaction as the news was announced late in the evening.

One reason Obama is an important figure in understanding where Cole is coming from might be their shared connection to Africa:
The argument could be made that he wasn't really 'the first African American to be voted into the office, because he was African American only in a special, and technical, sense, the same way I was African American: a black person who held American citizenship. But the history of most blacks in this country--the history of slavery, Reconstruction, systematic disenfranchisement, and the civil rights movement--was not my history. My history was one of emigration, adaptation, and a different flavor of exile. I was only a latter-day sharer in the sorrow and the glory of the African American experience. 
[...] Obama, at the core of his experience, is hybrid. The significant achievement is not that, as a black man, he became president. It is that, as a certain kind of outsider American --of which the Kenyan father, Indonesian school, and biracial origin, not to mention the three non-Anglo names, are markers--he was able to work his way into the very center of American life. [...] His victory, I would think, should resonate even more strongly with these out-of-place characters who have been toiling in the shadows of the American story: the graduate students with funny accents, the pizza-delivery guys with no papers, Americans, regardless of color, who remember a time when they were not Americans. (249-250)
Cole doesn't underline it for us, but it's pretty clear that the link he drew between President Obama nd himself in the first paragraph quoted above also holds for the second. He is very much an "out-of-place" character (as am I) -- though at this point he is no longer "toiling in the shadows of the American story."

* * *

Photography and Blackness

Another essay in the collection that I found quite powerful is "A True Picture of Black Skin" (first published in the New York Times Magazine in February 2015). The jumping off-point for this essay is the Roy DeCarava photograph, "Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington DC, 1963."

Cole's comments on this photograph and on the complex historical legacy of photographing black skin are quite smart. We might begin with the elegant explication of the photo itself:
One such image left me short of breath the first time I saw it. It’s of a young woman whose face is at once relaxed and intense. She is apparently in bright sunshine, but both her face and the rest of the picture give off a feeling of modulated darkness; we can see her beautiful features, but they are underlit somehow. Only later did I learn the picture’s title, “Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, D.C., 1963” which helps explain the young woman’s serene and resolute expression. It is an expression suitable for the event she’s attending, the most famous civil rights march of them all. The title also confirms the sense that she’s standing in a great crowd, even though we see only half of one other person’s face (a boy’s, indistinct in the foreground) and, behind the young woman, the barest suggestion of two other bodies.

Cole goes on after this to talk about why the history of photographing African American people (and people of African descent more generally) has been so fraught -- a history that has both ideological and material, technological elements. Camera light meters and developing processes were designed with light skin tones in mind, meaning that even when African and African-American people have been photographed with respect and dignity, the photos have not always "come out" right. Cole argues that DeCarava developed his own emulsion process to produce images like the one above.

* * *

The Ethical Responsibility Not to Turn Away

I'll end this brief review with an account of another essay that left me floored, "Death in the Browser Tab" (New York Times Magazine, May 2015). Again, this is one that I somehow missed when it was printed last year. The theme here is the growing pattern of seeing people getting killed in videos posted online. Often these are black people. The most immediate trigger event for this particular reflection was the shooting of Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina -- but the list was long in 2015 and has become, sadly, even longer with a series of further "deaths in the browser tab" we've seen this year.

(Incidentally, here's something I wrote last year that attempted to link the Ferguson event to a police murder that galvanized Malcolm X and other black radicals in 1963.)

Cole shows that there is a long and fraught legacy of thematizing death in photography, which goes back to the 19th century tradition of "postmortem pictures." This was transformed in the twentieth century, as cameras become more portable and faster shutter speeds meant that by the 1960s, still photographers could capture the moment of death in a way that had never been possible earlier. (In this context Cole mentions Eddie Adams' famous photo of the death of a South Vietnamese general in 1969.)

The videographic afterimage of a real event is always peculiar. When the event is a homicide, it can cross over into the uncanny: the sudden, unjust and irrevocable end of the long story of what one person was, whom he loved, all she hoped, all he achieved, all she didn’t, becomes available for viewing and reviewing. A month after I went to North Charleston, back in Brooklyn and writing about the shooting, I find a direct approach difficult. 
I write about Holbein’s “Pictures of Death,” and about Robert Capa’s photograph and Eddie Adams’s. I write about “The Two Drovers,” about Robin tramping through the borderlands intent on murder. I write about my morning in North Charleston, the gloomy drive there and back and the wilted flowers on the chain-link fence on Craig Road. If you set enough tangents around a circle, you begin to recreate the shape of the circle itself. Finally, I start to watch footage of Scott’s last moments. It’s the third time, and it makes me uneasy and unhappy. The video begins with the man holding the camera racing toward the fence. A few seconds later, Walter Scott breaks away from Michael Slager. Slager plants his feet and raises his gun. There is still time. He shoots once, then thrice in quick succession. Scott continues to run. There is still time. That is when I stop the video and exit the browser.

We are well beyond the ethical dilemma many people discuss regarding the effect of these videos: is it right to watch these images? Is there a kind of pornography of violence at some point? Indeed, I couldn't help but think of some comments from Julius, the protagonist of Cole's Open City, along the lines of: must we watch every act of violence? The fallout of that refusal which, when we first encounter it early in the novel, might even seduce us into agreeing, is pretty stark: people who don't want to engage the pornography of violence might well have an instance of it in their own past they are trying to hide.

I think Cole's reflections here (also expressed in the essay earlier in the collection, "Unnamed Lake") seem to suggest we actually do have an ethical responsibility to witness these deaths. But their impact on us is complex and sometimes hard to read. We are traumatized by them, hurt by them, and (in my case) depressed by our sense of powerlessness to stop this pervasive violence. Insofar as we sometimes see these shootings from the point of view of the shooters (police body cams) we are implicated in the violence in unsettling ways. We do have a right to limit the experience -- to close the browser tab when it becomes too much. But we simply cannot not watch. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Why I Was Unmoved by the Sikh Prayer at the RNC

Amidst all of the other things going on at the RNC this past week, night two started with something very unusual -- a California lawyer named Harmeet Dhillon recited a part of the Sikh Ardaas prayer that is one of the central prayers in the Sikh daily practice. A room full of Trump and Cruz supporters bowed their heads and followed along in silence.  This is probably the highest profile "Sikh sighting" we have had in this country since the tragedy of the Oak Creek Gurdwara mass shooting three years ago. It ought to be an occasion to celebrate.

I wanted to be proud of Harmeet Dhillon for being brave enough to do this, considering that, in the past, large Republican gatherings have not always respected Sikhs or Sikh prayers. If this were any other cycle for the Republican party -- if this had happened at Romney's convention in 2012, for instance -- I would be only too happy to celebrate this.

But here's the thing...

The Republican candidate for President this year, Donald Trump, has consistently and repeatedly advocated banning another religious minority community from entering the country. The Republican party as a whole has become a hotbed of viciously anti-Islamic thinking. Among the leadership there are few voices who have the basic decency to follow the example of former Republican President George W. Bush -- who in his public statements carefully differentiated between the vast majority of Muslims around the world who want nothing more than the opportunity to live their lives and freely practice their faith in peace, and the small minority who support Jihadism.

Sikhs are not Muslims. But as members of an immigrant community, and as members of a small, but highly visible religious minority in American society, we are not so different from our Muslim American brothers and sisters. I cannot understand how we could look at what's happening in the Republican party with regards to the demonization of Muslims and not see our fate as a community as connected to theirs.

For these reasons, I cannot be moved by the recitation of the Ardaas at the RNC. My understanding of Sikhism is that it has, as a core principle, a rejection of discriminatory thinking. The tradition started by Guru Nanak more than 500 years ago was born out of a sense of the deep injustice of the Indian caste system. The poet Kabir once said: "There is no Hindu, there is no Mussalman [Muslim]"; those lines are also in the Guru Granth Sahib, considered the sacred and authoritative scripture for Sikhs. Those words represent a fundamental rejection of discrimination based on religious identity. 

The philosophy and the ethics engendered by the Bhakti movement and by this strain of thinking within Sikhism might well have something to say to the Republican party of today. Perhaps we could go a step further and say that it is actually something today's Republican party desperately needs to hear. But that is not the message that was sent to the Republican National Convention Tuesday night. And I don't see much here to celebrate.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Summer Teaching: "Beyond Bollywood -- Indian Cinema in an Era of Globalization"

This summer I'm teaching an online course called "Beyond Bollywood." It's meant as a gentle introduction to a small slice Indian cinema that is equal parts mainstream Hindi cinema, Indian art films, and Indian diaspora films. I tried to peg the course to the Mira Nair book that I'm finally finishing up -- and that will hopefully be out sometime in the near future. I also decided to bypass classics that I thought my students might find tedious or over-long and just do a handful of films that will 'work' with American students -- and also illustrate some key aspects of Indian cinema.

I have some conventional lecture notes on some key concepts in the course (i.e., "melodrama," "song and dance," etc). I can't imagine that readers will be too excited about those (I'll spare you). But I've also been doing slides with screen captures from the films we've done so far to help the students work through the films with a focus on the visual elements. Making these has been a bit time-consuming but also really fun (I especially had some fun with the intense, bordering on over-the-top, cinematography of "Dil Se...")

So here are the first three slide shows. (Hint: they look better if you click on the full screen option) Next week, we'll do "Monsoon Wedding" and "Maqbool."

Sholay (1975)

Salaam Bombay! (1988)

Dil Se... (1998)

Friday, June 10, 2016

Group Project: Sentiment Analysis of Poetry in Python (DHSI 2016)

I took a one-week course on Coding Fundamentals at DHSI 2016 with Dennis Tenen (Columbia University) and John Simpson (University of Alberta). You can see the syllabus for the course here

Let me start with a quick plug for Dennis Tenen's group at Columbia, the "Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities"  You can see some of the projects they are doing at their Github site; one in particular that seems really interesting is RikersBot, a Twitter bot that conveys a series of statements from inmates at Rikers Island Prison in New York. It was created as a joint project between Columbia University students and Rikers inmates interested in learning coding; part of the project involved teaching all of the young people in the class the coding they would need to build a Twitter bot. The Bot is currently not active, but the stream it produced over several months is well worth a look.


Why coding? I wanted to get started with coding because it seems to be one of the major dividing lines between people who can chart their own independent course through the digital humanities and people who work with ideas and tools developed by others. It's not the be-all, end-all, of course (as I've said before, you can do so much now with off-the-shelf tools), but some experience with coding seems like it could be really helpful for projects that don't quite fit the mold of what's come before.

The class itself was intense, frustrating, and sometimes really fun. I'm not going to lie: learning how to code is hard. I can't say that I will readily be able to start spitting out Python scripts after four days of working with the language, but I might at least be able to figure out how to a) do some simple scripts to process batches of text files that otherwise require repetitive, laborious work, and b) use libraries of code developed by others in Python to do more advanced things.


Monday, June 06, 2016

#MyDHis... (Text of my Presentation at DHSI)

(I'm doing a 5-7 minutes presentation at DHSI in Victoria this afternoon. This is the text of what I'll be presenting.)

Admittedly, I'm not using the hashtag quite right -- it should be #MyDHis. But I like the flexibility (and brevity) of just making it "MyDH"... 

1. I feel presumptuous saying #MyDH; I have until recently been more a kibitzer than a doer. But ok, I’ll own it. #MyDH, here goes #dhsi2016

2. #MyDH explores social justice issues as a starting point and as fundamental to project architecture. Not as an afterthought. #dhsi2016

3. #MyDH allows that people who agree with #2 might not necessarily agree on what social justice looks like. #dhsi2016

4. #MyDH encourages projects that mitigate the uneven access to the internet outside of privileged, western academic centers. #dhsi2016

5. #MyDH: Just as women writers were once excluded from the Canon, contributions of women scholars have been marginalized in DH. #dhsi2016

6. #MyDH is oriented towards communicability and teachability. Don’t skimp on documentation, roadmaps, explainers, and How-Tos. #dhsi2016

7. #MyDH uses technology as a subset of humanities scholarship, and advocates for all humanities work, including non-digital work. #dhsi2016

8. #MyDH opposes technoutopianism and worries about depending on commercial cloudware. I prefer presentism, realism, autonomy. #dhsi2016

9. The focus on #MyDH needn’t diminish the DH ethos of collaboration (i.e., #OurDH). #MyDH is a way of recognizing differences. #dhsi2016

10. #MyDH doesn’t need six-figure grants. We can do a lot with off-the-shelf tools, patience & a willingness to learn/ screw up. #dhsi2016

I would be more than happy to talk more with you about any or all of those Tweets in the Q&A later. But in the time I have left, I’d like to just briefly expand on Tweets 2 and 3, related to social justice. In the fall of 2015 my colleague Ed Whitley and I co-taught our first-ever Introduction to Digital Humanities course at Lehigh. One of the prominent units we lined up related to digital archives; what I discovered was surprising and disconcerting. (Incidentally, I wrote about this in detail in a blog post called “The Archive Gap: Race, the Canon, and the Digital Humanities.”) The essential point is that there is a huge gap between the archive frameworks that exist for canonical writers and those that exist for minority writers and writers from the colonial world.

There’s no doubt that this problem has been recognized and that there’s been a growing effort to address the conservative and canonical legacy of some early digital archive projects. But in my view, simply aiming to match archives of canonical figures with works by writers from the emerging canon isn’t sufficient. Going forward, I would be interested in seeing if we can design digital archives differently. Established archives of canonical figures tend to emphasize the neutral and idealized presentation of the materials. Any references to politics, and any specific points of editorial advocacy are carefully downplayed. What if we reconceived of our role as archivists and editors? Perhaps our role in presenting materials should be as much to advocate for the authors themselves – and along the way, offer actual interpretations of their works – as it is to present their textual materials. 

I’ve been aiming to do some of these things with a new digital project I’ve been developing in Scalar with a pair of graduate research assistants (the project is presently at a very embryonic phase). We aren’t exactly hiding from the canon – the project is called “The Kiplings and India.” But there are two ways in which our thematic collection might be different from earlier projects. One is that it emphasizes the extensive degree to which the famous Author, Rudyard Kipling, collaborated with his other family members, including especially his sister, Alice Kipling. (In my Tweet #5 I mentioned that women writers have been written out of the Canon; here we could say the women Rudyard Kipling collaborated with have been written out of the story of his emergence as a writer, and I would like to write them back in.) Second, we are designing the journalism component of the archive with an eye to social movements and conversations that were happening all around British India (including the voices of actual Indian people, especially Indian women), but with which the Kiplings themselves may not have had extensive direct engagement. The idea is that someone interested in issues related to, say, Indian women and divorce law (a topic which was being hotly debated during by both British and Indian participants in the 1880s) could gain access to useful editorial insights and archival materials from our site without necessarily having to see that interest mediated through the Kipling family.

To go back to teaching. After we talked about the Archive Gap dynamic in the DH class I was co-teaching last fall, I designed a collaborative class project assignment around a groundbreaking 1922 book of poems by Claude McKay, Harlem Shadows (which includes the famous statement of rebellion, “If We Must Die…”). Admittedly, there is already a pretty nice presentation of those poems in a project by Chris Forster and Roopika Risam, but it’s very textually focused and offers minimal editorial commentary. With my graduate students at Lehigh, I encouraged them to think about a project that might appeal to a broad constituency of readers, including undergraduates and high school students as well as non-specialists.

The students were given certain encouragements, but then we let them loose to make their own design and editorial decisions. What they came up with was surprising and deeply impressive. First, they retitled the project to differentiate it from a standard digital edition. Second, they created two presentations of the poems in Harlem Shadows, one version that corresponds to the poems in the order in which they were originally printed, and another version that presents the poems thematically. All of the poems are thematically tagged based on a set of tags agreed upon collaboratively by students in the class. The site includes a clickable Wordcloud of student-generated tags that leads users to lists of poems oriented around specific tags. They also generated a substantial number of contextual and biographical essays that help bring the poems in Harlem Shadows to life for today’s readers. And finally, students built the site themselves, including menus, graphics, and text. I directed them to use a public domain, “dirty OCR” version of Harlem Shadows derived from the Internet Archive. They proofread and corrected the OCR and produced unique pages for each poem in Harlem Shadows. (As a side note, if we did the project today, we would do it in Scalar -- but I hadn’t really gotten my head around Scalar last September.) 

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Digital Humanities Blogging: Retrospective on a Pretty Productive Year

I'm in Victoria this week for the DHSI. On Monday 6/5 I'll be presenting at a plenary session at the conference; I'll probably post the text of my brief presentation here sometime tomorrow.

Meanwhile, for new friends visiting this page, here are a few blog posts I have written related to Digital Humanities issues over the past year. (Quite a diverse range of stuff! Now that I've embarked on my own DH project in earnest the range of topics we discuss might narrow.)

In Defense of Digital Tools (by a Non-Tool). My response to the critique of DH in the LARB that appeared last month. The critics of the Digital Humanities make many good points, but their critique is tendentious and aims to demolish the field rather than make it better. I think we can use critique to keep making it better.

The Archive Gap: Race, the Canon, and the Digital Humanities. I was proud of this essay, which evolved out of teaching notes in September 2015. If I have my act together I will turn this into a publishable article sometime:

Fall 2015: Digital Humanities. The syllabus to the course I co-taught with Ed Whitley in Fall 2015. We designed the course with a strong emphasis on social justice. 

Digital Teaching Notes: The 'Harlem Shadows' Collaborative Project

Syuzhet For Dummies. Where I learned enough R to be able to apply Matthew Jockers' Syuzhet package for sentiment-analysis and assess some of the challenges people have made regarding the way the package visualizes data. I tried applying the package to a series of George Eliot novels.

An Account of David Hoover's DHSI 2015 Keynote: Performance, Deformance, Apology. I found this controversial keynote address alternately really interesting and deeply frustrating.