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 Baltimoreheritage.org.

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.)

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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
http://scalar.lehigh.edu/mckay/

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."

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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.
http://www.electrostani.com/2016/05/in-defense-of-digital-tools-by-non-tool.html


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:
http://www.electrostani.com/2015/09/the-archive-gap-race-canon-and-digital.html


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
http://www.electrostani.com/2015/12/digital-teaching-notes-harlem-shadows.html


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.
http://www.electrostani.com/2015/10/syuzhet-sentiment-analysis-of-novels.html


An Account of David Hoover's DHSI 2015 Keynote: Performance, Deformance, Apology. I found this controversial keynote address alternately really interesting and deeply frustrating.
http://www.electrostani.com/2015/06/an-account-david-hoovers-dhsi-2015.html




Monday, May 02, 2016

In Defense of Digital Tools (by a Non-Tool)

Like many of my friends and colleagues, I found the recent broad critique of the Digital Humanities in LARB by Daniel Allington, David Golumbia, and Sarah Brouillette to be pretty gripping reading. I know many of those same friends and colleagues have many disagreements with the characterization of the Digital Humanities in that essay; here are a few of mine.

The first paragraph of "Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): a Political History of the Digital Humanities" is carefully considered -- the authors are not newbies to this debate, and know what they're doing. I'll work mainly from the paragraph in these brief comments, since it introduces many of the main themes of the essay that follows. I'm also much more interested in the overall tenor of this essay than in debating at great length every individual topic they cover. So here is the opening paragraph:
Advocates position Digital Humanities as a corrective to the “traditional” and outmoded approaches to literary study that supposedly plague English departments. Like much of the rhetoric surrounding Silicon Valley today, this discourse sees technological innovation as an end in itself and equates the development of disruptive business models with political progress. Yet despite the aggressive promotion of Digital Humanities as a radical insurgency, its institutional success has for the most part involved the displacement of politically progressive humanities scholarship and activism in favor of the manufacture of digital tools and archives. Advocates characterize the development of such tools as revolutionary and claim that other literary scholars fail to see their political import due to fear or ignorance of technology. But the unparalleled level of material support that Digital Humanities has received suggests that its most significant contribution to academic politics may lie in its (perhaps unintentional) facilitation of the neoliberal takeover of the university. (Source; my emphasis)
Many of the points Allington et al. make, here and throughout the essay, can be characterized as deflating a caricature of a DH-branded balloon: while the Digital Humanities positions itself as a "radical insurgency," in actuality it is anything but. But I have to shrug a bit at these types of arguments: even if there's some truth in the idea that DH is not the vanguard of a progressive revolution within academia, so what? What actual harm is it committing? If you don't find the scholarship interesting, you don't have to read it.

I put in bold-face the two phrases that suggest where the harm might fall for Allington et al. On the first assertion -- that the rise of the DH has "involved the displacement of politically progressive humanities scholarship," I'm very curious to know what progressive humanities scholarship they're thinking of, and how it's been displaced. The  American academic environment I have always known (I started graduate school in 1995) has been elitist (bordering on casteist), exclusionary, and utterly dependent on a capitalist economic system. Yes, there were Marxist, black, queer, feminist, and postcolonialist voices in this pre-DH university. But they were marginal then -- and sadly, remain marginal now. Have they been further displaced by DH? Or are we talking more about branding? (i.e., postcolonial theory was once seen as "the next big thing," while today it isn't quite as shiny)  If so, I'm still unimpressed. Branding led to a certain bubble-like atmosphere within postcolonial studies (think of Dirlik's idea of "the Postcolonial Aura"); that bubble has, undoubtedly, popped. And I'm not sorry.

Here's a way of thinking that might get us past this muddle (and I think I agree with the authors that the hype around DH is a mistake): let's stop branding our scholarship. We don't need Next Big Things and we don't need Academic Superstars, whether they are DH Superstars or Theory Superstars. What we do need is to find more democratic and inclusive ways of thinking about the value of scholarship and scholarly communities. In my brief time engaging with DH scholars and scholarship, I have had very good experiences, while I have struggled with some of the other academic communities I have worked in. With its emphasis on collaboration and on resource-sharing, I have found Digital Humanities to be a more inclusive and welcoming community than, say, the community of scholars intensively focused on French and Continental theory.

The second phrase I put in bold in the paragraph above ("the neoliberal takeover of the university") is one that I take quite seriously. I recently gave a talk where I cited Wendy Brown's new book quite extensively (Undoing the Demos), and I share the authors' concern with what Brown and others have been calling the Managerial University. I should probably also point out that last year I published a favorable review of Sarah Brouillette's awesome book, Literature and the Creative Economy (here's the Project Muse link to my review)

For at least part of this argument -- the question of the dependence on funding -- I have to say that the authors of "Neoliberal Tools" have a point. There's no doubt that university administrators are only too happy to encourage DH projects (I had a conversation like that just last week with an administrator at my own university...), while conventional humanities scholarship can be a harder sell, specifically with regards to funding.

However, we should note that funding isn't everything: DH projects might easily find funding, but that doesn't mean they will find audiences composed of interested faculty and students. At my own institution, I attended several talks this year related to critical race studies that were standing-room only, while some prominent DH speakers we invited got relatively modest audiences. So it's not so much a question of "don't believe the hype"; I'm not quite clear there is that much hype around DH for the graduate and undergraduate students I have been working with.

In general, I think we need to be more careful than Allington et al. are being with regards to exactly how and when DH practitioners are complicit in managerialism / neoliberal takeover. I put the blame for this phenomenon first and foremost on the institutional frameworks that govern our universities: boards of directors, university presidents (especially those that come into their positions from the corporate world rather than through academia itself), and upper university administration more concerned with "prestige" and financial shortcuts (i.e., online education) than with the core values of liberal arts education.

There's a relatively easy fix for the possible harms that could come from an overly cozy relationship between scholars engaged in digital humanities work and university administrators and funding agencies. And that is to deemphasize the dollar values of big grants as much as possible while emphasizing the actual outcomes of the projects funded -- specifically, their value as humanities projects. Finally, for people just starting out in DH, I might suggest considering whether you even really need big grants -- there's so much we can now do with "off the shelf" tools (see Lauren Klein's essay, "Hacking the Field: Teaching Digital Humanities with off-the-shelf Tools."). If we really can't do DH work without big grants (and without the sense that the size of those grants reflects the quality of the scholarship), then Allington et al. will be proven correct. But there are so many DH practitioners who are doing interesting work without this grant infrastructure (for example, Jonathan Goodwin did this enlightening and revealing project without seeking any grant support at all).

* * *

Don't just take my word for it...

I would recommend checking out some responses to Allington et al. by other people (and if you know of other responses, please post them in the comments below).

Joshua Danish in the comments at LARB has some understandable strong feelings. Danish points out (I think rightly) that the real object of critique here is the legacy of the DH program at the University of Virginia. While the authors do have a lot to say about Franco Moretti (at Stanford), there's little discussion of the rest of the DH program at Stanford in the essay under discussion. Nor is there much discussion of the DH programs at other institutions, including George Mason, Maryland, Nebraska, Kansas, etc. Each of these programs are different from one another. And while to me it seems accurate to say that the Digital Humanities first congealed as an academic field at the University of Virginia, it has not been "central" to DH as a field for some time. To construe it as such in order to support an argument that the field is composed of Jerome McGann clones is highly problematic.

Along these lines, I found the comments from Schuyler Esprit, a Caribbeanist and Postcolonialist scholar who had earlier in her career worked with some UVA people, quite salient:

(See her whole Storified Twitter response here.)

And I also agree with many points made by Grace Afsari-Mamagani at HASTAC, including especially this paragraph:
Suggesting that “the workers in IT departments of corporations such as Elsevier and Google are engaged in humanities scholarship,” then, is particularly problematic. There is a fundamental difference between the “preservation and access” agenda at play with a project like Google Books and the “preservation and access” agenda pursued in an academic library or department: the latter tends to care deeply for the content itself, and to integrate an awareness of a particular object’s needs and potential uses. The production of digital archives and editions becomes itself an act of scholarship, reliant upon criticism about the role of scholarly resources, accessibility across demographics, use cases, and book and media history, all typically supplemented with contextual information and annotations reliant on deep engagement with existing scholarship. (Link)
This nails it for me. One way to attack DH (and people have been saying a version of it for years) is to say that it's too dependent on tools and applications developed by for-profit companies like Google (and indeed, Wordpress), who don't share our values or priorities (especially with regards to archival content). I doubt we'll be able to overcome at least some dependence on Google anytime soon, but I do think that projects like Scalar (a non-profit CMS developed with a DH grant that is now free to use, and pretty powerful) suggest that we can use DH grant money to develop non-profit versions of commercial applications that are suitable for scholarly projects in the humanities. Along those lines, I think we also need non-profit versions of social networks (witness the recent controversy over Academia.edu, among many other things), so we can talk about essays like this one in venues other than Facebook (TM) and Twitter (TM). 

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Spring Teaching: Immigrants and Refugees

(I wrote this up for an informal talk at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia. I ended up not using much of the actual text of it since the event was a more informal, salon-type conversation. Thanks to Colleen Clemens for inviting me.) 

I’ve been teaching a first-year writing course called “Nation of Immigrants” this spring with a combination of literary texts and films and a strong non-fiction component emphasizing refugees. Earlier in the course we read books like John Okada’s No-No Boy, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus, and T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, to open up a space of conversation about different immigrant histories and experiences. What are some of the dilemmas immigrant communities face as they follow the path towards acculturation into the American mainstream? What is lost and what is gained along the path to becoming an American?

We used the Boyle novel, which was published in the wake of the Proposition 187 debates in California, as an opening to talk about the huge and yawning problem of America’s undocumented immigrant population. I had the students read debates about immigration in the press at that time (including op-eds by Governor Pete Wilson and others); it was remarkable to see how much overlap there is between what was being said then and what is being said about undocumented immigrants now. I also showed the students Jose Vargas’ documentary, Documented, to give them an example of an undocumented immigrant who looks and sounds a lot like themselves. And we of course talked about how the Presidential candidates have been discussing the issue of undocumented immigrants in the current election cycle.

In the last few weeks of the course we’ve been focusing on refugees. I built the unit around the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, a remarkable event where 125,000 Cuban migrants entered the U.S. without documentation or prior approval, and were immediately granted parole (parole: temporary legal status and work authorization; the first step towards permanent residency). The vast majority of them would later be granted green cards under the Cuban Adjustment Act – a policy which has enabled hundreds of thousands of Cubans to come to the U.S. and gain legal status without the same kinds of resistance experienced by undocumented immigrants from other national backgrounds. While we talked about this unique event in class, I also gestured to my students about the contrast between the American response to this extraordinary influx of immigrants in 1980 and our current response to the prospect of admitting increased numbers of Syrian refugees fleeing the devastating conflict in their home country.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Gender and the State: A Beginner's Guide to the Personal Law Debate in India

Next week, Lehigh hosts an exciting conference called "Feminisms Beyond the Secular," with a number of prominent feminist academics coming into speak, from India, the U.S. and Ghana. 

I am not presenting at the conference, though I am moderating a panel. Nevertheless, I thought this might be a good moment to post something of my own related to this topic. I had tried to get it published earlier with a scholarly journal, without success. The second half of the essay, not included, deals with novels -- Taslima Nasreen's writings related to secularism and Muslim women's feminism, and Samina Ali's Madras on Rainy Days

This section contains an account of the Personal Law debate in Indian law, which affects Marriage Law, Divorce, custody of children, and property in marriage. It might serve as a beginner's introduction to that debate -- helpful to people who don't have much background in debates over feminism and secularism in India. 

* * *

It is becoming increasingly clear that the often-presumed link between “secularization” and “modernization” does not quite hold, as certain regions of the developed world remain strongly religious in the cultural sphere, while the rapid progress of industrialization in the developing world has come with the growth, not the diminishment, of strong religious beliefs. Secularization, as a cultural, historical tendency, is therefore not an inevitable process, and in a surprisingly wide swath of nations around the world the question of what exactly constitutes “secularism” has become a hotly-contested issue. In these debates, women's rights are often—indeed, nearly always—the central material question under debate. Questions of women’s dress, access to education and employment, control over reproductive rights, the right to divorce, property rights, and child custody rights—these are variously contested by religious conservatives, from Saudi Arabia, to Europe, to India, to the United States. The diversity of different national histories and cultural contexts is so great that no simply universal, “secular feminist” response is readily available.

As critics such as Chandra Talpade Mohanty and others have pointed out, universalism has tended to lead to analytic errors, and is often premised on a kind of neo-colonial presumption of western feminist superiority. And yet, women’s struggles with repressive religious authorities in different parts of the world can be explored, and indeed, profitably understood, across cultural and political boundaries, as long as close attention to cultural and historical specificities is maintained. In the case of the concept of secularism in particular, a helpful corrective to a conventional universalist model might come from a political philosopher like Rajeev Bhargava, who has argued that western political secularism may be only one among many concepts of workable secularism. If in a country like the United States “secularism” seems to indicate a wall of separation between Church and State, in India secularism can refer to a state deeply involved with religion, but focused on using its power to adjudicate resources and rights equally amongst different religious communities (Bhargava 2005; Bhargava 2011). As Priya Kumar phrases it, this kind of secularism emphasizes “tolerance or freedom of all religions rather than as the exclusion of religion from state” (Kumar 2008: 15).

Gender and Secularism in India: a Brief Historical Overview

In the Indian case in particular, secularism in the contemporary moment seems to hinge on women's rights, sometimes with the same degree of complexity and even awkwardness of the recently enacted French laws regarding the Hijab, or headscarf. The current crisis in women's rights and religion has been directly debated in regard to two legal controversies in the 1980s, the Shah Bano case (Agnes 1999; Agnes 2007) and the Roop Kanwar Sati case (Mani 1998), though arguably it could be extended both backwards—to the debates over Sati in the colonial era and the centrality of rape in narratives of Partition—and forwards, to the violence against women in the riots that engulfed the Indian subcontinent in 1992 and 2002 (Baldwin 2002). 

Monday, March 07, 2016

"The Classroom is a Public"

The following is a shortened / excerpted version of a keynote address I gave at the Literature and Social Justice (LSJ) graduate conference held at Lehigh this past weekend (see details here). The topic of this year's LSJ conference was "Public Humanities," and I wrote this to address that particular topic. 

Many of my colleagues and students know me as an enthusiast for social media but in truth I have grown increasingly ambivalent about these services as tools for social transformation. I felt misgivings about giving a boosterish talk that would have aimed to show everyone how great it is to be on Twitter, Tumblr, and various blogs. Finding publishing success via social media and mainstream venues like Salon.com is highly dependent on market forces and ratings/rankings structures that quantify -- or economize -- the fundamental mechanics of communication online. While doing this kind of writing can be very rewarding, writing for commercial venues and ranking-based social media will not, by itself, resolve the "crisis in the humanities." In my talk, I tried a different tack: instead of encouraging attendees at the conference to retrain themselves to be more "public" than they already are, I argued that teaching -- something we're already doing, but don't always value -- is a very important way in which we all already engage with a non-specialist public. What's more, humanities teaching in particular plays an important role in helping to create the next generation of questioning citizens. 

As mentioned, these are excerpts from the longer talk. If anyone would like to see the full text of the talk, please feel free to contact me. 

* * * 
The Classroom is a Public

1. The Idea of the Public Is In Crisis

It’s customary for talks like this to begin with a discussion of how the “humanities are in crisis.” We’ve heard that phrase a lot -- maybe a little too much -- and academics writing in public venues have become very skilled at diagnosing the causes of that problem. And my talk today will speak to at least some facets of what’s ailing the humanities and what might be done to better defend and advocate for the kind of work we do. But I want to start somewhere else: with the stipulation that the idea of the public is in crisis.

In his classic book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas put forward the idea of a modern bourgeois public sphere as an intermediary between the private space of individuals and families, and the state.

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Habermas’ idea of the public sphere has been widely and persuasively critiqued, and I’m not too strongly attached to the ins and outs of his argument, especially as pertaining to the putative decline of the public sphere. (Among other things, it seems strange that the era of the public sphere he talks about was one in which women and people of color were by and large excluded at the very period when he claims the public sphere was most effective.) That said, Habermas continues to be helpful in giving us a vision of what a public sphere might look like, where we might find it, and why we might want it. We find it in evidence in a free and independent press, in public spaces where citizens of different socioeconomic strata can engage in free and open debate about pressing issues, and in institutions that are designed to support and sustain it: museums, public libraries, civic centers, coffee houses -- and yes, universities.

Another political theorist who may take us further in terms of providing a useful way of understanding the present-day crisis in the public sphere might be Wendy Brown; her recent book, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, explores the triumph of neoliberal ideology. For Brown,

[N]eoliberalism transmogrifies every human domain and endeavor, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic. All conduct is economic conduct; all spheres of existence are framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized. In neoliberal reason and in domains governed by it, we are only and everywhere homo oeconomicus, which itself has a historically specific form. (Brown, 10-11)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Evolution of the “Natural Born Citizen” Idea: An Explainer For Students

[I am teaching a course on "Immigration and Literature" for first year-students this spring. Today we talked about the controversy about whether Ted Cruz is eligible to be President as an opening conversation. I wrote up this explainer for the students to introduce them to some of the basic outline of the history.]

In the past few weeks, there’s been a growing debate over whether Senator Ted Cruz is eligible to run for President. There are certain basic facts that everyone agrees on: Ted Cruz was born in 1970 in Alberta, Canada, to an American mother and a Cuban father; the family relocated to Texas in 1974 and Cruz grew up there. The Constitution requires that a person who runs for President be a “natural born citizen.” Is a person with one American parent who was born outside of the U.S. eligible to be President?

Most Constitutional Law specialists seem to think that the answer is yes, because Cruz’s mother was an American citizen. But a number of serious scholars have raised questions about the assumptions they’re making. One is a Widener University Law Professor named Mary Brigid McManamon. Her essay arguing that Cruz is ineligible (if you’re curious) is here. Warning: it’s a bit legalistic:


Two terms that are helpful to know before we get deeper into this: “originalism” refers to a mode of interpreting the Constitution to the effect that our goal is to understand what the Framers must have meant at the time. According to Originalists, all laws we pass today need to be in line with their intentions. Originalists are often politically and socially conservative (several of the conservative Supreme Court members on the current Supreme Court consider themselves to be “originalists”). Against originalism is a philosophy described as the “living Constitution” philosophy. According to people who follow this line of thinking, the Constitution was never meant to be an absolute document that could never change. As society changes and evolves, we have to pass laws to describe events no one in 1789 could have dreamed of. (The Framers could never have imagined digital surveillance or drone warfare. Don’t we need to think about those types of controversial practices using reasoning based in our present moment?)

A Timeline -- to help understand the history of the controversy

1789: Ratification of the U.S. Constitution, which contains this phrase:

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

Some constitutional law experts (who follow the “originalist” methodology) have argued that what “natural born” meant in 1789 is exactly what it sounds like: you have to be born in the United States.

1790: Naturalization Act of 1790

"the children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born citizens: Provided, That the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States.”

1795: Naturalization Act of 1795. The phrase “shall be considered as natural born citizens” is removed. The author of the revised statute was James Madison, an extremely important figure in the drafting of the Constitution (later, he would be the fourth President of the United States). In this version, the sentence is “shall be considered citizens of the United States.”

Mary McManamon thinks the removal of the phrase in the 1795 bill is telling:

Third, Katyal and Clement put much weight on the first U.S. naturalization statute, enacted in 1790. Because it contains the phrase “natural born,” they infer that such citizens must include children born abroad to American parents. The first Congress [1790], however, had no such intent. The debates on the matter reveal that the congressmen were aware that such children were not citizens and had to be naturalized; hence, Congress enacted a statute to provide for them. Moreover, that statute did not say the children were natural born, only that they should “be considered as” such. Finally, as soon as Madison, then a member of Congress, was assigned to redraft the statute in 1795, he deleted the phrase “natural born,” and it has never reappeared in a naturalization statute.

1986: Immigration and Nationality Act of 1986

Naturalization and Immigration laws passed by Congress have continued to evolve and redefine what it means to be a “Natural Born Citizen.” There have been a number of laws passed in the 20th century that have attempted to clarify various issues and complications relating to the meaning of “natural born citizen.” For instance, earlier there was doubt as to whether someone born in a U.S. territory that is not a state (say, Puerto Rico or Guam) could be called a natural born citizen (the consensus is that they are).

In 1986, Congress defined natural born citizen for people born overseas as follows:

  • If both parents are U.S. citizens, the child is a citizen if either of the parents has ever had a residence in the U.S. prior to the child's birth
  • If one parent is a U.S. citizen and the other parent is a U.S. national, the child is a citizen if the U.S. citizen parent has lived in the U.S. for a continuous period of at least one year prior to the child's birth
  • If one parent is a U.S. citizen and the other parent is not, the child is a citizen if
    • the U.S. citizen parent has been "physically present" in the U.S. before the child's birth for a total period of at least five years,and
    • at least two of those five years were after the U.S. citizen parent's fourteenth birthday.

Ted Cruz’s mother meets those criteria; she lived in the U.S. for most of her life.

That law seems like it ought to solve everything. But some legal scholars have doubts. For one thing, the law defines people in that last category as citizens -- not “natural born citizens.”

For another, note that this is a law passed by Congress in 1986. For a real Originalist, nothing passed in 1986 ought to matter. What matters for them really is the meaning of the text as the Framers intended it in 1789. What did they intend, then? We don’t entirely know (and that fact is by itself an argument against Originalism in my opinion: there are many things the original Framers of the Constitution could not have thought of that we now have to make decisions about. Living Constitutionalists would say that we should make the fairest decisions we can based on the realities of the world we live in today, not the world as it was 226 years ago).

People like Mary McManamon have argued that for it to be unambiguously clear that someone like Ted Cruz is eligible to be President, what we really need is a new Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that plainly states that a person meeting those criteria is a natural born citizen who is eligible to serve as President. Not just a law passed by Congress -- but an actual Amendment to the Constitution itself. Here’s what Prof McManamon says:

Article I of the Constitution grants Congress the power to naturalize an alien — that is, Congress may remove an alien’s legal disabilities, such as not being allowed to vote. But Article II of the Constitution expressly adopts the legal status of the natural-born citizen and requires that a president possess that status. However we feel about allowing naturalized immigrants to reach for the stars, the Constitution must be amended before one of them can attain the office of president. Congress simply does not have the power to convert someone born outside the United States into a natural-born citizen.

It’s unlikely that a Constitutional Amendment will happen anytime soon; however, given that there are now numerous legal challenges to Cruz’s eligibility that have been filed, it’s entirely possible that the Supreme Court will rule on the issue sometime this year. My bet would be that they say that Cruz is, after all, eligible to be President. But even then, if he actually wins the job, because of this controversy there will likely be some folks around who will doubt it.