Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Call For Papers: "Academic Prose and Its Discontents" (MLA 2015)

I am organizing the following panel for MLA 2015. 

How do academic writers navigate stylistic conventions associated with differing rhetorical contexts? Is academic writing in literary studies a necessary set of conventions to be learned and mastered, or merely an intellectual impediment to be circumvented? Do academic prose conventions, argumentative styles, and specialized jargon help or hinder the effort to “defend the humanities” from the perception that it is under attack from other compartments of the university as well as a broader educational climate that values STEM fields at the expense of the traditional liberal arts?

This set of questions of course has a considerable history. The “bad writing” contest sponsored for some years by Denis Dutton’s Philosophy and Literature became so influential in the late 1990s and early 2000s that it inspired a number of theory luminaries, including Jonthan Culler, Gayatri Spivak, and Judith Butler to respond in a collection of essays called Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Stanford, 2003). Some contributors to the collection (Culler especially) responded to the “Bad Writing” accusation quite directly, while others focused on the value of and context of “difficulty” more generally.

The debate was renewed quite recently in response to an essay by the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (“Professors, We Need You!”; February 15, 2014) and a follow-up column by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker (“Why is Academic Writing so Academic?”; February 21, 2014), as well as many responses by practicing academics in the mainstream media, on blogs, as well as Twitter.

Notably, alongside critics of narrowly academic prose (such as Kristof and the New Yorker’s Louis Menand), one also sees academic writers such as Michael Bérubé, who in a variety of rhetorical settings frequently find ways to make difficult concepts in literary theory accessible and relevant to broader social and political debates. This might seem to be another kind of response to criticism such as Kristof’s. What cultural or political work does this sort of “translated” theory do?

This panel, sponsored by the MLA’s Division on Nonfiction Prose, invites arguments and polemics on all sides of this debate.

On the one hand, we are curious to see defenders of academic style argue for the value of academic writing as an aspect of the discipline of literary studies that remains central to the identity of the field. Is it not possible that the stylistic conventions and jargon of literary studies and literary theory are simply a specialized discourse such as may be found in any intellectual discipline? Can we not see “difficulty” in academic prose as requiring a readerly discipline akin to “going to the gym” (as Spivak has described it)?

We would also welcome fresh critiques of the conventions of academic writing from scholars invested in non-traditional modes of writing, including “creative nonfiction,” web publication formats such as blogs, social media, and literary memoirs. How and why do scholars dissent from academic writing conventions? Have the new technologies (i.e., the digital humanities turn) encouraged more experimentation with academic writing conventions?

Prospective panelists are encouraged to be as narrow and focused in their proposals as possible. Owing to limitations of time, papers will likely be limited to twelve minutes, meaning careful focus will be of the essence.

Panel sponsored by the MLA’s division on Nonfiction Prose. Five hundred word abstracts by Monday March 17 to Amardeep Singh: Email inquiries welcome.

Monday, January 13, 2014

MLA 2014: Notes and Comments

I was at MLA from the beginning all the way to the end – somehow I managed to draw a panel in the second session of the entire conference on Thursday, and a second panel at the very end of the conference. So I was in Chicago for a full four days.

It was on the whole a good conference for me -- I got to see a number of old friends, eat interesting food, and connect in person with a few people I've only met online. I had a great 'power' lunch with my copanelists where we worked through our issues with the recent "post-secular" turn, and revived my involvement with an anthology project where I had earlier withdrawn my name. I even went to a party...

Just a quick disclaimer about the notes below... I generally try not to give away too much about what panelists were saying in their papers so as not to "jump the gun" on their ideas if and when they are going to be published. My notes below are intended to give readers a quick thumbnail indicating what people were talking about, and maybe a brief comment from me in connection. 

* * *

1914 in 2014: Body of War. #s28

The research on this panel was very solid and the papers were well-researched and interesting. Stuff I wanted to investigate more: H.G. Wells’ World War I novel “Mr. Britling Sees it Through” (1916); Mary Borden, “The Forbidden Zone (1929) – an experimental nurse’s narrative. Another panelist was working on another nurse’s narrative, Enid Bagnold’s A Diary Without Dates (available on Gutenberg). The third panelist, David Lubin, was an art historian from Wake Forest University, working on images of plastic surgery. He mentioned Dr. Harold Gillies, the famous plastic surgeon ("the father of plastic surgery") who performed thousands of plastic surgery operations on wounded soldiers during and after the war. Soon afterwards, plastic surgery for cosmetic improvement took off -- especially in the U.S.

One line that stood out to me from Borden: “There are no men here so why should I be a woman?” The panelist (Sarah Cole) was doing some really interesting work with gender in Borden's narrative.

This was also the first time I’d seen Wilfred Owen’s poem “Disabled.”

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him. 
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,
— In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls' waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
Beautiful poem -- not sure how I'd missed it earlier, since I've taught Wilfred Owen numerous times over the years.

* * *

Manifesto Revisited. #s76

I co-organized this panel with Roderick Cooke for the Division on Nonfiction Prose. Tamara Beauchamp’s paper looked closely at a particular anti-psychoanalytic obloquy (i.e., rant) by D.H. Lawrence, called A Fantasia of the Unconscious. She also did a good deal of helpful bibliographic work, mentioning Janet Lyon’s influential work on the manifesto, as well as an important essay by Marjorie Perloff called “Violence and Precision.” 

Roderick Cooke’s paper attempted to see a reprise of the Dreyfus Affair in the way French intellectuals responded to the Algerian War in the 1950s and 60s. The Dreyfus affair was of course a key moment in thinking about European Jews and anti-Semitism, but it was also a watershed moment for public intellectualism. Zola’s gesture of accusing the French government of a conspiracy to keep the truth about Dreyfus’ innocence suppressed was a bombshell that continued to reverberate. An analogous manifesto from the Algerian civil war was the “Manifesto of the 121” (1960), largely penned by Maurice Blanchot but signed by 120 other prominent French figures, including Sartre and de Beauvoir. 

Nagihan Halliloglu’s paper looked closely at Alain Badiou’s Manifesto on the Headscarf Ban in France. Badiou’s essay goes against what has been the intellectual consensus on the secular left in France – that headscarfs are somehow “un-French,” and tears apart the French political establishment. He’s often brilliant on the absurdity of the law – singling out this particular religious symbol as a kind of litmus test of French laicite:

Picture a secondary school principal, followed at a few centimeters' length by a squad of inspectors armed with scissors and books on jurisprudence: at the school gate they're going to check whether the hijabs, kippas and other hats are "conspicuous." That hijab, as big as a postage stamp perched upon a chignon? That kippa the size of a two-Euro coin? Fishy, very fishy. The tiny may well be the conspicuous version of the huge. Wait a minute, what do I see? Watch out! It's a top hat! Well now!

But ultimately he is using the headscarf girls as part of a broader critique of capitalism –he’s not really seriously interested in the idea of accommodating religious minorities or multiculturalism.

Daniel Burns’ paper wrapped up the panel, looking at the way in which the French pamphlet The coming Insurrection has been represented in the American media. Burns brought to bear a considerable amount of critical material, including Richard Grusin’s idea of “premediation” as well as Hofstatder’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” He also considered the Tarnac 9 group in its French context before talking about Glenn Beck’s rather bizarre appropriation of The Coming Insurrection on his now-defunct Fox News show.

Overall the panel felt quite solid though we did not have much time for questions. We also had a relatively decent audience of about 15 people.

* * *

Parodic Form in Asian American Poetry.  #s101

This was an entertaining panel that gave me quite a number of reference points I might use if and when I teach Asian American literature down the road.

Timothy Yu talked about Billy Collins exoticization of the Chinese – which he first noticed in Collins’ “Grave,” but subsequently charted in a large number of poems by this famous American poet. The invocation of “one hundred kinds of [Chinese] silence” in Collins’ poem inspired Yu to do his own parodic project, “100 Chinese Silences.” The quotes he gave us from this work in progress (the first 15 poems have been published as a chapbook) were quite witty and smart.

Juliette Lee and Juliana Chang worked through a large number of poets and individual poems that make use of parody in some way, from John Yau’s “Ing Grish” to Beau Sia’s “A Night Without Armor II, The Revenge” (a parody of Jewel’s “A Night Without Armor”). Juliana Chang’s paper was exclusively focused on John Yau, mentioning his “Genghis Chan: Private Eye XXV” and “Ten Songs.”

* * *

(Post)Racial Vulnerabilities and Race in the Neoliberal Televisual Imagination. #s145 #s250

I also went to two panels that dealt quite a bit with film and television representations of race.

Stefanie Dunning talked about blackface and racial identity in Tropic Thunder. Previously I had thought of Robert Downey Jr.'s famous use of blackface in this film as actually kind of progressive – since it was used so self-consciously and, later in the film, deconstructed. But Dunning’s paper convinced me that if you triangulate that performance with the infamous line about “going full retard” with reference to depicting characters with cognitive impairment, as well as “We’re all a little bit gay sometimes,” the gesture starts to look much more problematic. In effect all three of these modes of performing minority status might be versions of the same.

Douglas Ishii presented on multiculturalism in Grey’s Anatomy – which he argues can be quite thin, in large part because it omits references to histories of oppression in favor of a more feel-good model. And Candice Jenkins did a close reading of Michael Thomas' novel Man Gone Down, a novel about an African American man with an upper-class white wife, who finds himself in a somewhat desperate financial pinch – as he has to raise $12,000 in four days to pay his daughter’s private school tuition. One of the challenges to America becoming a “post-racial” society is the fact of differential accumulations of wealth – these discrepancies have not disappeared, nor are they likely to.

In the second panel, Jonathan Gray gave a presentation on the short-lived ABC drama Last Resort. Gray has also published a article about this show. I was interested in the idea that black masculinity works on television and commercial Hollywood film insofar as it is seen as supportive of the state; this show, perhaps, broke the code by figuring a black male protagonist who turned against the state. Eden Osucha talked about the advent of the “multiracial office family” in contemporary television, locating a starting point for the phenomenon in NBC’s LA Law –a series that started in 1986. She looked at the second episode of the show, when a new black associate was hired. Adrienne Brown talked about Shonda Rhimes’ show Scandal, where the protagonist seems to stand quite alone – without any female friends. In the Q&A, people raised questions about “black female best friends” and characters like Jasmine in Parenthood, and the Netflix series Orange is the New Black.

* * *

Reforming the Literature Ph.D. #s290

This was a panel I was eagerly anticipating, as we have in my own department begun talking about ways to reform our own program to better prepare our Ph.D. students for the jobs they are most likely to get.

The roundtable featured Rachel Arteaga, a graduate student from the University of Washington, who has been involved in a number of digital humanities projects and fellowships on that campus – possibly leading to further Alt-Ac and university library gigs down the road. Don Balostoky or the University of Pittsburgh talked about the unconventional design for their Ph.D. program in Critical and Cultural Studies. Juliette Cherbuliez of the University of Minnesota talked about how her program has intensified its focus on preparing its students for Alt-Ac positions. John Allan Stevenson of the University of Colorado talked about a new Ph.D program in German studies at the University of Colorado which has been designed as a four-year Ph.D. It too has an unconventional design. Bill VanPatten from Michigan State talked about the need to emphasize collaboration. Julia Brookins from the American Historical Association, talked about the findings of a major study conducted by the AHA regarding the careers of history Ph.Ds. They looked at 2500 History Ph.D.s and tracked what graduates were doing with their degrees. She also talked about principles for reforming the doctorate.

Overall this panel left me feeling cautiously optimistic that Ph.D. programs that are currently in distress because of the poor job market might restructure themselves so as to help graduate students prepare for different kinds of careers. Some promising directions for English Ph.Ds. include academic administration, digital humanities type positions, and university press publishing. But we would need to make sure we give our students opportunities to develop credentials in these areas during their graduate student experience. 

The larger message seems to be that we need to start thinking of the Ph.D. as a degree that might lead to the development of a range of different skills and knowledge bases, rather than as a program that leads to the production only of highly specialized knowledge about a narrowly defined subject. I'm hoping to take the message of this panel (or at least the message as I saw it) back to my own department as we continue to talk about these topics this coming spring.

* * *

NEH Grant Workshop

I went to about an hour of a presentation by a representative from the NEH named Jonathan Rhody regarding the different kinds of grants and fellowships that are available. There was a pretty vast amount of information in this presentation, and I could barely keep up in my note-taking. It was helpful in general for me in getting a better sense of different fellowship areas (“Digital Humanities,” “Bridging Cultures,” “We the People,” “Public Programs,” “Education Programs,” “Challenge Grants”) as well as classes of grants (DH Start-up grants vs. DH Implementation Grants).

* * *

Reframing Postcolonial and Global Studies in the Longer Duree. #s346

I was only able to take good notes on Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s paper in this panel. But it was quite a doozy of a historical account of the historical translatability of the concept of “religion.” He talked about a 17th century Dutch Encyclopedia project which had a surprisingly broad scope (including cultural groups from the New World, Africa, Asia, and Europe). After talking about this European example, Subrahhmanyam moved to non-European contexts, such as the invention of “religion” in Japan in the 19th century, and a 17th century Urdu text by a Parsi historian that attempted to consider the concept of religion outside of the Abrahamic traditions. “Who is capable of producing abstractions? Is it true that all of the [big] abstractions [i.e., “religion”] come from Europe? [Hint: the answer is no]

* * *

South Asians in North America: Inter-Ethnic Readings. #s578

Auritro Majumder of Syracuse University spoke about M.N. Roy’s memoirs – specifically his alliances with non-European leftist movements in places like Mexico. How important was anti-colonial thinking to Roy’s concept of world communism? Majumder seemed to suggest that early on this was very important to Roy, but as he revised some of his key policy statements he toned down the anti-colonial emphasis in favor an approach that gave the Soviet Union a leadership role in the planned proletarian revolution.

Maya Winfrey of NYU talked about Vijay Prashad’s role as the sole “brown” representative in a 2003 exhibition catalogue called “Black Belt” – which focused on interactions between African Americans and Asians vis a vis martial arts culture in the visual arts and film. I had not seen either Prashad’s essay in this catalogue or the exhibition itself, but I have seen Prashad’s essay about “Kung Fu Anti-Imperialism.”

Gaurav Desai talked about Mississippi Masala, mainly using material he had to cut from a chapter of his recent book where he talked about Mira Nair’s groundbreaking film. He mentioned a documentary film that probably inspired Nair’s own nonfiction work, called Mississippi Triangle (1984); that film actually focused on Chinese grocery stories in Mississippi. Desai also mentioned Mamdani’s early memoir about the Asian Expulsion from Uganda by Idi Amin, From Citizen to Refugee. This is a book that I myself have looked at in my (as yet) unpublished book manuscript on Mira Nair.

I think this is quite an important topic -- and all of these papers were individually interesting -- but there was a debate about "inter-ethnic" relations that this panel I thought wasn't really able to enter into. My own interest in this is in the changing ethno-racial positioning of South Asians; I'm hoping to some day figure out how to turn my blog argument about Nikki Haley into some kind of academic article. 

* * *

Decolonizing DH: Theories and Practices of Postcolonial Digital Humanities. #s679

This panel, the first of its kind as far as I can remember, was surprisingly well-attended for the "dead zone" of Sunday morning at 8:30am. (Heck, I was even a little surprised that I made it!)  Adeline Koh outlined in a general way what a postcolonial digital humanities might be -- she and Roopika Risam have built a website on this and are working on a book-length project on the subject. Porter Olsen also gave a really interesting presentation about the discourse of imperialism in "civilizational" games like Civilization, Age of Empires, Empire, etc. He also had some provocative examples of hacks and modded versions of these games -- what happens if you give the slaves more power to revolt than the game normally would? 

Alexander Gil described his work looking at DH projects from outside of the United States and Europe, and mentioned an interesting project called Around DH in 80 Days. Amit Ray talked about the economic and corporate basis of much contemporary computing, and argued that mainstream DH (especially the emergent "maker" culture) has not done enough to acknowledge its complicity in transnational capitalism. 

Overall I was heartened and inspired by this panel though at present I'm mostly just an interloper; I'm hoping to get my act together finally and contribute something myself to these discussions at some point soon. 

* * *

Religion, (Post)Secularism, Literature. #s799

The final panel I attended was my own.

One of my co-panelists, Sadia Abbas, had a provocative essay in the recent issue of Boundary 2 on the “postsecular.” Her presentation here focused on the way the Pakistani state presumes and enforces Islamic identity constitutionally – and through the intentional disenfranchisement of the Ahmadiya community. She also mentioned the disastrous Blasphemy law, which has been invoked all too often to justify abuse of the country’s Christian minority.

Michael Allan gave a paper heavy on the sociology of religion, and took steps (this is something I have tried to do as well from time to time) to get from social/political theorists like Carl Schmitt back to the “literary.”

R. Radhakrishnan talked about the gap between his willingness (as a thinker influenced by poststructuralism) to challenge and critique the “secular” on epistemological grounds, and his commitment to a secularist political identity. Can we derive a politics from a complexly theorized idea of (post)secularism?

Allison Schachter talked about work she has been doing on a Hebrew novelist named Lea Goldberg, who published a novel in the 1940s dealing with the question of whether Hebrew literature can be secular – and if it is, how it is received by others.

My own paper was something experimental – something new. I started from the blog post I had written a couple of months ago about hate speech; my goal was to try and take that somewhat personal and anecdotal account and think about "religious hate speech" as a theoretical concept. 

I am not sure whether people liked it or not – the comments were much more focused on other panelists’ papers than my own. Still, here are the three core paragraphs of my paper.

The question I want to pose is what connection speech that offends religious people living in secular societies might pose to the way we understand secularism more generally. If we believe that speech communities ought to restrict racist speech, do we then have an obligation to protect religious communities along the same lines? Is an insult to the Prophet Mohammed or Jesus Christ (for sake of argument let’s think of it as a linguistic insult, not a visual or iconic one) comparable to a personally injurious speech act (i.e. an insult delivered live against a single individual)? On the surface, the answer would seem to be no – since being a member of an ethnic minority or a person with a disability refers to attributes over which we don’t have any control, while religious beliefs presumably will be seen by most secular people as choices.

But of course in many parts of the world, religious identity is as much a set of practices and an ingrained way of life as it is the result of conscious choice. When the idea is to hurt an individual through associating him with a stigmatized minority religious community (think of the various attempts that have been made to slur President Obama as a Muslim), the injury works like hate speech, and I want to posit, cautiously, that a culture characterized by persistent religious hate speech will see its claim to secularity deformed. To me it’s a fairly straightforward thing to defend the legal right of, say, the Danish cartoonists and their publishers to publish material that might offend Muslims, but it’s also important to try and marginalize such speech by derecognizing it where possible.

A starting point to framing the injurious speech act more secularly might be Louis Althusser’s idea of interpellation -- the police officer who shouts “hey, you there,” and by so doing constitutes the hearer ontologically and as a subject of the law (does he mean me? I’m not doing anything wrong right now). Althusser interprets the power of a state actor to name through a religious metaphor: his idea of interpellation is as a kind of divine naming (Butler notes his allusion to St. Paul and the Logos in her critique of Althusser in Excitable Speech, and of course there’s a long section of Althusser’s ISA where he posits Christian subjectification as his prime example of ideology at work). In short, God’s naming is also a creating; in secular form, that is what the state does when it addresses us. Is Althusser secularizing religious subjectification or imbuing what might be seen as a secular linguistic function with strong theological overtones?

Monday, January 06, 2014

Panels at #MLA14 on my radar

I took a few minutes to look at the MLA program for this weekend's conference. The following is as much a bookmark for me to follow as it is a possible guide for other conference-goers.

First, I am presiding over this one:

76. The Manifesto Revisited
Thursday, 1:45–3:00 p.m., Missouri, Sheraton Chicago

Program arranged by the Division on Nonfiction Prose Studies, Excluding Biography and Autobiography. Presiding: Amardeep Singh, Lehigh Univ.

1. "'Mind It Doesn't Bite You': D. H. Lawrence's Obloquy against Psychoanalysis," Tamara Beauchamp, Univ. of California, Irvine

2. "History Repeats as Tragedy: The Algerian Crisis as a 'New' Dreyfus Affair," Roderick Cooke, Haverford Coll.

3. "What We Talk about When We Talk about the Hijab: Alain Badiou's Manifesto on the Headscarf Ban in France," Nagihan Haliloglu, Fatih Sultan Mehmet Univ.

4. "The Premediated Manifesto: On the US Reception of The Coming Insurrection," Daniel Burns, Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro

I co-organized this with Roderick Cooke of Haverford. I think there are some very interesting papers here; hopefully we will have a good crowd.

* * *

Second, I am giving a paper on the following panel:

799. Religion, (Post)Secularism, Literature
Sunday, 1:45–3:00 p.m., Clark, Chicago Marriott

Program arranged by the Division on Twentieth-Century English Literature. Presiding: Susan Stanford Friedman, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison

Speakers: Sadia Abbas, Rutgers Univ., Newark; Michael Allan, Univ. of Oregon; Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan, Univ. of California, Irvine; Allison Schachter, Vanderbilt Univ.; Amardeep Singh, Lehigh Univ.

What are the entwined politics, practices, and imaginaries of religion and secularism? In constant flux globally, they impact geopolitics, shape communal identities, and make pawns of gender, sexuality, and race. How have they registered in the literary domains of the long twentieth century?

And here are some that I might attend. There are a few overlapping panels, so in some cases I will have to make some tough decisions as to what to attend:

Thursday 12pm. 1914 in 2014: Body of War.

Thursday 3:30. Have We Ever Been Secular?

Thursday 3:30. Parodic form in Asian Diasporic Poetry and Culture.

Thursday 5:15. South Asia at Risk. Papers on 1971, 1984, Kashmir.

Thursday 5:15. (Post)racial Vulnerabilities. (Stefanie Dunning, Candice Jenkins)

Friday 8:30. Harlem's Transnational Modernisms.

Friday 8:30. Rethinking the Seminar Paper.

Friday 10:15. Transatlantic Ireland.

Friday 10:15. Race in Neoliberalism's Televisual Imagination. (Eden Osucha)

Friday 12pm. Reforming the Literature Ph.D.

Friday 3:30. Reframing Postcolonial and Global Studies in the Longer Duree.

Friday 5:15. Beyond the Digital: Pattern Recognition and Interpretation.

Saturday 10:15. African Literature and Performance and New Media. (A paper on Teju Cole's Twitter feed!)

Saturday 12pm. Taking a Stand from Where We Sit. (Donald Hall).

Saturday 1:45. South Asians in North America: Inter-ethnic Readings.

Saturday 3:30. Everyday Unrecognized Sexual Violence in South Asia.

Saturday 5:15. One Hundred years of Bollywood.

Sunday 8:30. Decolonizing DH. (Adeline Koh, Roopika Risam)

Sunday 12 pm. Steampunk.

Sunday 12pm. The Sacred and the Sexual in South Asian Literatures.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Reagan and Apartheid -- a Few Reflections

When Nelson Mandela's death was announced earlier this week, I had just a few minutes at my computer before my kids needed to be fed their dinner.

I tried to think of something that reflected my own experience with the South African freedom struggle, and this is what I posted on Facebook:
The South African freedom struggle, which reached a climactic phase my freshman year in high school, introduced me to the idea that the United States could act on the wrong side of history -- that this country, led by supporters of Apartheid like Ronald Reagan, was not quite the noble bastion of real democracy our school textbooks told us it was. It was a difficult but necessary education. RIP Mandela.
A Facebook friend -- we'll just call him "BK" -- soon wrote in with a "correction":
I'm usually the least likely person to defend Ronald Reagan, but this is just wrong. His policy toward South Africa and the ANC was all about anti-communism. That was a hideous failure in judgment and morality, but it doesn't make him a "supporter of Apartheid."
This started a long thread that I won't recapitulate here. Some unpleasant things were said; some people ended up getting unfriended. Enough said.

(In fact, it seems like this debate is not just happening on my particular Facebook feed; it's happening in the media more broadly as well. This conservative site, for instance, is clearly taking note of all of the "liberal" commentators taking jabs at Reagan in the wake of Mandela's death.)

I did think it might be appropriate to do two things that are difficult to do on Facebook: 1) expand out the personal / biographical component of what I wrote, and 2) have a somewhat more nuanced and annotated discussion of Reagan's South Africa policy.

First, my own story:

I started high school in 1988. It was a new start -- I had just transferred from a public junior high school in Potomac, MD to an elite private school inside DC, the Sidwell Friends School. Before Sidwell, I had spent most of my childhood in a relatively protected suburban world, with little exposure to politics. Because of repeated trips to India (especially in those anxious and difficult years after 1984), I probably knew a little more than some 14 year old suburban peers that the world of Nintendo, black felt Guns n' Roses posters, and Redskins' paraphernalia was not the only world out there. But in truth I tended to bracket off my Indian experiences from what I considered proper teen stuff (some Indian experiences: the anxious nights waiting to hear news from family members during the riots; the vehement fights over Khalistanism at the Maryland Gurdwara; and in India itself, the police checkpoints, the sense of fear, bribing corrupt policemen on the train...). I didn't then have the tools to realize that this India stuff was important, because at junior high in the suburbs at least the only thing you had to know pretty much was that Led Zeppelin is awesome and Milli Vanilli sucks.

One of the big surprises then in the new school was that seemingly the entire population of the school -- led by the teachers and administrators, but also including many students -- was engaged in an intense debate about divestment from South Africa. I was profoundly changed by these discussions. In effect, it quickly became clear that 1) the practice of Apartheid was deeply wrong and unfair, and 2) the U.S. policy at the time was doing little if anything to change that. Rather than treat the matter as a distant issue affecting poor black people thousands of miles away, my peers at Sidwell were actively engaged in the cause. Because of those peers, I attended my first protest -- at age 14 -- at the South African embassy.

The lesson that the U.S. might not always act on the right side of things has stayed with me. To a large extent I would credit this experience with making me politically aware.

* * *

Now, what about Reagan and Apartheid? Did Reagan support Apartheid or not?

I think it's pretty clear that Ronald Reagan did in fact support the Apartheid regime. Whether he supported Apartheid as an ideology is a somewhat trickier question.

This interview  with David Schmitz does a great job in running down the main tenets of Reagan's support for South Africa. To wit: he reversed the Carter administration's sanctions, and instead preferred a policy of "constructive engagement." That policy did little to encourage any substantive changes or concessions from the South African regime. In 1985-1986, things became measurably worse within South Africa, and martial law was declared. Many Republicans then abandoned Reagan's position, and the Senate voted to override his veto and impose sanctions against his will -- effectively showing that his policy in South Africa was a failure.

Reagan also supported right wing dictators like Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and of course had blood on his hands in Nicaragua (there is actually a long list; we'll save it).

So anti-Communism was certainly a factor in Reagan's refusal to distance himself from the Apartheid regime in South Africa, but was it the only factor? Wouldn't it be fair to also see him as generally and persistently indifferent to the suffering of black people -- both within the U.S. and outside of it? Didn't he see what was happening in South Africa as a replay of sorts of what happened in the U.S. itself in the 1960s? And if so, what did he do?

At The Nation, there is also a useful summary of Reagan's troubling history vis a vis race and desegregation in the domestic U.S. context:

Early in his political career Reagan opposed every major piece of civil rights legislation adopted by Congress, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. And even if one tries to explain away this opposition on the grounds that it came early in the history of the civil rights movement or was motivated by a misplaced reluctance to empower the federal government, Reagan’s civil rights record during his presidency is tough to justify. As President, Reagan supported tax breaks for schools that discriminated on the basis of race, opposed the extension of the Voting Rights Act, vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act and decimated the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). When you combine Reagan’s political record with his symbolic stance on race issues—his deriding welfare recipients as “welfare queens,” his employing “states rights” rhetoric in the same county where in 1964 three of the most infamous murders of civil rights workers occurred, his initial opposition to establish a national holiday to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.—the Reagan legacy begins to lose much of its luster. (link)
So if Reagan was, by the early 1980s, opposed to Apartheid, given his history on race in the U.S., one would have to wonder what exactly had changed for him? Is it possible that, as President, he knew there were certain things he was not allowed to say or do anymore. But what, given his record in the 1960s, did he really believe about black civil rights?

In using the particular phrase I used, "supporters of Apartheid like Ronald Reagan," perhaps I was not acknowledging the nuance of the "constructive engagement" position -- though history does now show that position to have been at best delusional, and at worst a ruse. While Reagan seemed to give lip-service publicly to the idea that Apartheid was not sustainable, he did not did not do very much to convince anyone he really believed that -- and again, given his history, putting in some effort here seems necessary.  In short, in the context of what was happening in the 1980s and in light of Reagan's own history of opposition to rights for blacks in the segregated American South, the difference between supporting the Apartheid regime and supporting Apartheid itself turns out to be a distinction without a difference.

To insist that that difference is meaningful despite Reagan's long opposition to civil rights in the United States, and his increasingly anomalous loyalty to the Apartheid regime, is to extend a courtesy to Reagan that Reagan himself did not extend to his own political enemies. The same article in the Nation has a classic instance of Reagan's willingness to twist the truth to suit his purposes:

The murder of at least nineteen unarmed protesters by South African police at a march commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre sparked further outrage and activism, culminating in a national day of protest on April 4, 1985, the seventeenth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. On that day 4,000 marched on the South African embassy and fifty-eight were arrested in a sit-in. Reagan evoked outrage in the movement by suggesting that at the Sharpeville memorial the “rioters”—who were in fact nonviolent—had provoked the violence.
In the internet age, we would call this brazen act of disrespect for the dead "trolling." Reagan would have been a great troll.

In some ways, I would rather not have had this debate at all. Ronald Reagan is not the point. The 19 unarmed protesters who died in South Africa on April 4, 1985 -- they are the point. The man who lost 27 years of his life in prison in the name of democracy -- he is the point. Nelson Mandela was one of the greatest leaders and statesman of the 20th century; he should be celebrated and emulated. His shift from supporting authoritarian revolutionaries like Castro and Gadhafi to his pragmatic and forgiving posture towards white South Africans after 1994 is one of the great ideological pivots of all time -- it's one of the main reasons he is remembered with such admiration. He managed to change, evolve, and forgive.

Ronald Reagan? Not so much.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Ethnic Slurs and College Life: A Personal Essay

Ethnic Slurs and College Life: A Personal Essay

[I read this aloud in my English 11 class this morning. It's a first-year writing class focused on literature related to immigration. Alongside conventional analytical essays I have given students the option on occasion to do personal essays that connect the readings in class to their own families' experiences of immigration. This morning I decided to present my own version of one such paper.

As you all undoubtedly have heard, the African American oriented dorm on campus, Umoja House, was vandalized Wednesday morning with eggs and the N-word spray painted nearby. As of this writing (Thursday 11/7) we don’t know anything about who did it. Still, that event and the conversations that have emerged from it on campus made me realize it was time for me to do my own version of the personal essays I've been encouraging you to write on occasion in this class. 

Today, then, I want to talk a little about my own experience with ethnic slurs. As you know I am a Sikh, with family from India. I wear a turban and full beard as part of the custom for Sikh men. All of the adult men in my family have worn turbans, going back many generations. Given what has happened on campus this week, I want to talk a little about the damage that can come from ethnic slurs – but also about the strange and sometimes paradoxical thinking that leads them to be uttered in the first place. I will use some personal experiences I have had as examples, but my goal is to use those examples in connection with some general ideas about ethnic and racial slurs on a college campus. This is a personal essay, yes, but it's not really about me

In the books we have read in this class, slurs have sometimes entered into the story somewhat ambiguously. In T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, slurs for Mexicans are used but in one instance at least Candido Rincon doesn't read enough English to understand what's being said -- though he certainly understands the message since the vandals who spray-painted the words “Beaners Die” on a rock near his makeshift camp also destroyed his personal property. With Henry Park and Chang Rae-Lee’s Native Speaker, we had some discussion about the slur "gook," that American soldiers coined with reference to the North Koreans they were fighting in the Korean War in the early 1950s. (As we discussed, "gook" would also be applied to other Southeast Asian people, especially the Vietnamese.)

The example of the term "gook" should instructive. It was a term coined by soldiers who had been trained to see things in white and black: the Koreans were the enemy. They weren't to be thought of as human beings with families or individuality. Turning people into a faceless other was at that time part of war (and perhaps it still is: in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American soldiers have developed new slurs for the enemy). 

But obviously, immigrant minorities and African Americans living in the United States are not the enemy and should not be treated that way. Yet that's what ethnic slurs do: they turn a group of other Americans, our neighbors and our children's playmates, into a faceless other. Especially if you are already struggling to fit in and to find your place in American society, having that done to you by the people you hoped would be your friends hurts. 

In Native Speaker, Lee’s protagonist, Henry Park, did mention at one point that as a child he actually preferred to be called gook rather than other derogatory terms used for Asians: “I thought, I know I’m not a chink or a jap, which they would wrongly call me all  the time, so maybe I’m a gook. The logic of a wounded eight-year old.” On reading that passage, some students in the class seemed to understand Henry to be saying he liked being called “gook” – no. Pay close attention to the final sentence there: “The logic of a wounded eight year old.” What he is expressing is a response to being wounded. But the truth at the bottom of it is that he wanted to be recognized by his peers—if not sympathetically and respectfully, at least accurately.  The hope for accurate recognition is something that I think all ethnic and racial minorities share – and not just minorities. As a mature adult, Henry looks back at his eight year old self and sees just how twisted his thinking was.

In my own experience in college at Cornell University I myself had ethnic slurs directed my way more than once. Cornell has a tradition called Slope Day, towards the end of the semester, when it's finally warm enough to be outside for a little while. I only went to it once, my freshman year. I hadn't had much experience with alcohol at the time and indeed I didn't drink that day. But as I was exploring the scene with friends from my dorm an obviously drunk student approached me and out of the blue called me a "raghead." I had never heard that term before and didn't even know it was a slur for someone like me until that moment. 

Another time, I was walking near the main college drag in Ithaca with a friend I’ll call M. M. wore her hair short cropped and had recently bought a black leather jacket.  Later in her life she would come out as a lesbian, but at the time she identified as straight. A man who looked like he had come out of the bar on College Ave. approached us. He pointed at me and said "fucking towelhead." He pointed at her, and said "fucking dyke." We just swallowed our feelings and walked on – but we were both jolted. I was amazed at how quickly the words came out of the student’s mouth; he didn’t even have to think – he just pointed and rattled them off, like he was ordering fast food from a drive-thru. I was also stunned to see that my friend could be subject to an insult that was totally different from the one that was directed at me – but that it could do the same kind of damage.

These experiences were not the only ones. I did not dwell on them all that much at the time, though in part because of them I developed a strong mistrust of the fraternity culture at Cornell and must admit that I continue to have a mistrust of fraternity and sorority culture in general. I also have a mistrust of situations where there are lots of men around who have been drinking. I don’t like big sporting events; I’m paranoid and find it hard to enjoy myself and root for my team. I now stay completely out of sight on St. Patrick’s Day, and Halloween is strictly for Trick or Treating in the suburbs.

(I can say that as a faculty member at Lehigh I am almost never on campus in the evenings, so I don't have to deal with that aspect of life here. I should also say that I have always been treated with respect and consideration by the staff and students of this university.) 

For a while after college I didn't hear much in terms of ethnic slurs. I lived in Boston and then Durham, North Carolina and had mostly positive experiences there (I do have some stories about Boston, but I’ll spare you.)

Not all that surprisingly, after 9/11 the ethnic slurs erupted with a vengeance. Though I am not a Muslim and have never supported any of the beliefs held by religious extremists (of any religion), my superficial resemblance to certain leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda made me an easy target for casual slurs for months, even years, after that event transpired. 

Young men on the street (in both Philadelphia and New York) would casually, and with a sneer, say things as they passed me: "Hey, look it’s Bin Laden!" "What's up, Osama?" I'm not going to dwell on specific incidents, because there were so many that I stopped counting them. I had a few situations that seemed like they could get nasty. In one case I had some friends with me who were not Sikhs who stood up for me and faced down people who were making these types of comments. In another instance I was tailgated by an insane truck driver on route I-78 in New Jersey for miles and miles.

But perhaps the most representative experience was a woman who started screaming at me from her car at a traffic light. I actually couldn't understand what she was saying; I just saw the anger in her voice and on her face.  I tried to laugh about it when I told a colleague about it a little later: whatever she wanted to call me I didn't hear it so I guess she failed. Right?

But actually that encounter has stayed in my head, and now I think of it as a quintessential example of what a racial slur does and how it works. In fact, whenever people addressed me by these names they were always getting it wrong. And this is not just me: the people are being “named” when ethnic slurs are invoked do not in fact resemble the images those names would seem to suggest. 

The people who wrote the N-word on the sidewalk outside the U-House at Lehigh, or who called me raghead or towelhead in college didn't know their victims. Whatever their negative perception is of African American people, the students in that dorm do not reflect that. They did not get to Lehigh as gangsters or thugs; they got here by earning the right to be here academically, just like everybody else. In part we know that we are not what they call us -- and that surely ought to be the best way to resist the damage that can be done by ethnic slurs. But sometimes it’s not so easy: it’s in the uncertainty that sometimes arises that the potential for damage arises: am I that thing? Are they naming me correctly?

As I mentioned, immigrants and other minorities are often struggling for recognition. We are struggling with who we are – and what we call ourselves and how others address us is a big part of that struggle. I am not immune to this -- I am not always sure whether I want to be known by my slightly more difficult Indian name or by a nickname that others will find easier to say. (Many of my students have told me about similar kinds of dilemmas over the years; college is where a lot of this stuff gets worked out.) 

But when someone calls me “raghead” or “towelhead” or “Bin Laden,” that can be a form of naming from without. This is why it’s not enough to say, “oh, it’s just words, you can shake them off.” Actually, you can’t shake them off so easily, any more than you can shake off the primal association you have with your own first name. As with ethnic slurs, the names we are given by our parents are not chosen by us. And yet we accept them as helping to define who we are. Do slurs that are wielded against me also then define me? 

I do have a strong belief that in the United States you don't have to choose between who your family was before migrating and the dominant/mainstream culture of American society. You can continue being Irish American or Polish American or Indian American two generations, three generations, or four generations down the line. You can be proud of that heritage, celebrate it, and continue to feel connected to your family's pre-immigration culture. But the use of ethnic slurs makes that a little harder. It suggests a dominant culture that is intolerant of any difference from the mainstream, including the kinds of differences (ethnic and racial) that you can't do anything about. The possibility of slurs and dehumanization makes many young people want to do whatever they can to try and fit in – downplaying any signs of difference. That’s how Nikhil (in The Namesake) becomes Nick, and how Kalpen Modi becomes Kal Penn. 

A quick comment for the students in the class who don't feel ethnically marked -- who identify as effectively just "white" [note: we had talked about this in an earlier class]. Sometimes students in your position feel kind of helpless in these discussions: this doesn't apply to me. I’ve never used that term and I don’t think it’s likely anyone will ever use that kind of derogatory language about me. 

In fact, in some of the worst situations I ever found myself in I was helped by allies who were white. In college, I had a friend named David who was ready to physically fight one guy who insulted me -- I had to hold him back. And there are many other ways of being an ally. I know at least some students at Lehigh have been seeing the recent events as overhyped or blown out of proportion – what’s the big deal? (It doesn’t help that the issue of the racial slurs was not mentioned in the email detailing this incident that was circulated Wednesday morning by the University President.)

One way of being an ally is to intervene in those conversations, not from the position of some kind of civil rights expert or advocate, but simply to say: well, actually racial slurs do matter and this is not something to joke about. The complaint minority students are making in response to these racial slurs is legitimate and real. That small act of taking someone else’s complaint seriously can go a long way towards building a community that feels inclusive and concerned, rather than merely a place you have to suffer through.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"The First Four" -- Women Faculty in the Lehigh English Department

One of my students was involved with the making of a documentary about the first women faculty in the English department. I had a chance to see the film a few weeks ago at a public screening, and it's terrific -- probably of interest to anyone interested in gender issues in academia. Happily, permissions have been ensured to allow the film to be posted online (on Vimeo). An embedded link to the film is below.

A bit of background. At its inception in 1865, Lehigh University was an all-male college mainly focused on engineering. The university was founded by Asa Packer, a railroad tycoon, and over the years the university had connections to the steel and auto industries as well (major buildings on campus are the "Iacocca Building" and "Packard Lab" -- named after James Packard, who founded the eponymous car company). Colleges of Business, Arts and Sciences, and Education were later added; today they are highly ranked and well-funded.

The university moved to include women as students in 1971 (see "40 Years of Women at Lehigh"). As part of that change, the university also began to attempt to diversify its faculty (which was, not unlike other American academic institutions of that era, universally white and male). A large number of the first women faculty hired by Lehigh in those first years (1972-3) were in the English department.

Three of the first four women faculty were still part of the department when I joined the faculty in 2001. Rosemary Mundhenk, Elizabeth Fifer, and Barbara Traister are friends and have been mentor-figures to me. (Another faculty member hired in this period who also played a mentoring role for me, Jan Fergus, joined the department a bit later.) I consider myself lucky to have started my career as a professor in a department with a strong cohort of senior colleagues who were women. That said, as you'll see from the documentary, things were not easy for these women in the early years.

Finally, I'm quite proud of my student, Laura Casale (@lauralehigh on Twitter), who is one of the four students involved in putting this documentary together. Well done!

The English department's intro to the film is here:

And the film itself:

THE FIRST FOUR from Lehigh IMRC on Vimeo.

Monday, September 23, 2013

"He couldn't provide any descriptions about his assailants, and it seemed to me that in some way, he didn't want to remember them."

As many readers have probably already seen, a Columbia University professor named Prabhjot Singh was attacked by a large group of men on bicycles a couple of days ago in New York City (at the edge of Central Park -- 110th Street and Lenox Ave.). The incident is being investigated as a hate crime. You can read Simran Jeet Singh's account of the incident at the Huffington Post here. There is also a video interview with Prabhjot Singh at NBC New York here (including brief footage of his broken jaw).

A friend who is a journalist wrote me asking for a brief comment. Here's the statement I sent him. 

I don't know Prabhjot Singh personally, though we have many mutual friends and this incident has been saddening and disturbing for many of us.

Most Sikhs in the U.S. know that they are potentially subject to verbal abuse and hostility at virtually any time, though especially in large crowds. We also know that supposedly cosmopolitan cities like New York and San Francisco are actually not any better or worse than small towns when it comes to encountering mean-spirited people and thug-like behavior. What is admittedly a surprise is when that kind of name-calling turns into something else, as seems to be what happened here.

As always, with incidents of Muslim-bashing / Sikh-bashing, it seems important not to dwell on the fact that Sikhs are not Muslims. For one thing, the attackers may not care that much one way or the other. But more importantly, one doesn't want to sanction hateful speech or violence against any vulnerable group based on "correct" identification.

The attackers here appear to be young men in a large crowd thinking they own the city. A lone Sikh with a turban and beard presents a very visible possible target, especially in a relatively quiet place like the edge of Central Park at night. I can't help but suspect that the person they chose to target could just as easily have been a gay person (rightly or wrongly identified), or a woman.

I was especially struck by the following sentence in a post by Prabhjot's friend Simran Jeet Singh, which was published yesterday in the Huffington Post. Simran Jeet wrote, "He couldn't provide any descriptions about his assailants, and it seemed to me that in some way, he didn't want to remember them." This rings true to me. With many crimes of this sort (does it make sense to call it casual racist violence?), it seems the attackers may not know or care that much about the identities of their victims. But it goes both ways: for those of us who may be targeted in such attacks, the particular motivation that drove the attack is, from our perspective, much less important than our overwhelming desire just to be able to walk down the street safely -- and go about our business.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Post-9/11 Essay Fragment: "'War on the Rag-Heads': Learning the Meaning of Racism..."

This is an essay I started writing shortly after 9/11, a time when I was in shock -- and as preoccupied with suddenly being branded as "the enemy" as I was with the massive tragedy that had transpired just 90 minutes away in New York City. I think I wrote this with the idea that it might be published somewhere as an Op-Ed or something, though in the end I didn't do anything with it. 

In the archives of my computer, this file is dated 9/18/2001. I returned to some similar themes a year ago, in the blog post I wrote after the shooting at the Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin by a right-wing extremist. 

One word that I used that today I'm not sure of is the word "backlash." It wasn't really a "backlash" that many of us experienced that fall; more of a kind of ethno-cultural realignment and displacement from a position of complacency and relative privilege. Until that fall I felt that at heart I was really an American, despite my connections to the Indian subcontinent and my visible religious difference. After that fall, I came to feel that perhaps I didn't really know anymore what "American" might mean. 

* * * 
“War on the Rag-Heads”:
Learning the Meaning of Racism in the Midst of a Backlash

Many in the Sikh community in the U.S. are amazed at the kind of hostility they have been encountering in the wake of last week’s world trade center attacks. Some of the attacks have been extreme – one Sikh man in Arizona, for instance, has been killed by a “patriot,” while many others have been assaulted, verbally and physically, around the country. Mosques Gurdwaras and Mandirs have been vandalized, firebombed, even rammed, in one instance, by a mad motorist. Whether or not we have been harassed in such a manner, nearly everyone who looks different (even vaguely Arab) has felt the glare of a newly virulent hostility. Sikhs in particular are gawked at openly on the streets where we have lived for years, as if we just appeared there yesterday; kids torture us in schools, where we are present inevitably as micro-minorities of one or two individuals in masses of thousands; on the highways we are confronted by a juggernaut of obscene gestures; and we are skewered on American talk-radio by callers and even, at times, by the hosts of the shows. As a particularly egregious example of the latter, Howard Stern has suggested that America “declare war on the rag-heads.”

Sikhs have been doing their best to respond to the hostility in a constructive manner, though some of the things people have been saying have been problematic. Sikh leaders protest that "Sikhs are not Arabs, we are not even Muslims"; the attacks, they claim, are “misdirected,” as if attacks against innocent Arab-Americans would somehow be appropriate. Sikh and Hindu leaders seem outraged by the obvious ignorance of the attackers, and the highly vague definition of the Americans who are now being singled out. Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister of India, even went so far as to call George W. Bush to ask for help in protecting the Sikh American community. For their part, Sikh community leaders around the country are working overtime to try and get media coverage for the incidents of racially-motivated murder, assault, and racial profiling that have been occurring, along with elementary descriptions of the Sikh religion and the meaning of the Sikh turban. One hopes these educational efforts may make some difference in the long run, especially if they develop a wider base and more systematic implementation. Sikh educational efforts also, one feels, ought to be deployed in direct cooperation with Muslim groups that want to accomplish the same kinds of things.

But at the present there is the deadly realization: it doesn’t make a difference to the angry white men in pick-up trucks, the “patriots” who are hunting us down. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an Arab Muslim, Arab Christian, or Druze. If you’re a woman in a Hijab (head-scarf), it doesn’t matter whether you’re Arab, Indian, or Indonesian. If you have brown or light-brown skin, it doesn’t matter what language you speak or what your accent is. And it certainly doesn’t matter to these guys whether you’re Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh. The name they call you is the same: “terrorist.”

The people who are attacking us do not know the difference, and they do not feel they need to know. In my mind, this blind hatred is racism in its purest, most concentrated form. It is hatred of certain symbols (such as turbans), of a certain range of complexions, without any interest in whether the symbols have any relationship to actual grievances in their lives. It’s a new kind of racism, in large part because it has nothing to do with nineteenth-century racial categories. It lumps quite a wide array of Americans (including especially Arab Americans and South Asian Americans) together under a word, “terrorist,” that is fundamentally disconnected from the personal characteristics or values of the vast majority of the people it wants to describe.

Many South Asian immigrants in particular have led relatively comfortable lives in the United States until recent days, only facing sporadic xenophobia in this country we or our parents came to twenty or thirty years ago. While most South Asians are at least somewhat sympathetic to the grievances we have heard from African Americans about the long legacy of discrimination and racism that community has faced over many generations, I at least was not really able to understand what it might feel like to hear something like the "n word" very well. I had never found myself viscerally on the receiving end of that kind of hatred. Now I have; now I know what "racism" really feels like.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On N+1's "World Lite"

I'm teaching a graduate class called "Global Cities" this fall, and when I was casting about for a text to use for the first 75 minute session it occurred to me that the recent essay by the editors of N+1, "World Lite," should be it.

I just got out of that session and it seemed like it worked: my students seemed engaged and interested in the arguments. Most had not heard of many of the authors the editors mention. The exercise gave me a chance to do quick spiels on Mario Vargas Llosa, Ngugi, Benedict Anderson, and a few others. So before we go any further I should credit the N+1 editors for writing something provocative and stimulating.

At Tehelka, Pooja Rajaram and Michael Griffith posted a spirited and intelligent critique. The editors have responded to that critique with some clarifications of their main intention and argument.

I'm not going to take issue with the central claim the N+1 Editors are making in "World Lite"; in any case, I feel pretty sure that the editors have defined their terms loosely enough that my main criticisms could be easily parried. As I understand it, their primary interest is in criticizing the "Global Lit" marketplace, and positing instead an "internationalist" literature that preserves (or revives) some of the confrontational energy and edginess of an earlier generation of postcolonial authors from the 1970s and 80s ("angry Rushdie," "angry Gordimer," and early Ngugi are favored; later Rushdie, "Wizard of the Crow" Ngugi, the abstractions of Coetzee, Murakami, Pamuk, and many others are not).

Let's just look briefly at what might be the nub of my disagreement with their periodization of "internationalism" -- their characterization of modernism.
Literary modernism in the strict sense — the “last literary season of Western culture,” Franco Moretti has called it — was a more international than national phenomenon. This was a virtue made partly out of necessity, since modernism was nowhere locally popular. Ulysses, written in Zurich and Trieste, published in Paris in 1922, and unprintable at home in Dublin, became an event in London and Berlin. Futurism was current in Italy, but also Soviet Russia and even, through Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticism, England. Surrealism was French (Breton) and Spanish (Lorca), but also Brazilian (Mario de Andrade) and Chilean (Huidobro). Little magazines and publishing houses set up in capital cities all over. Yet much as the general air of revolution had invigorated modernism with a sense of enormous imminent change, the repression of revolution knocked the wind out of it. The failure of socialist insurrection in Germany and Italy in the ’20s, paving the way for fascism; the success of the generals’ uprising in Spain (during which Lorca was killed); the frigid congealing of Stalinism (which put to death modernists as varied as Mandelstam, Babel, and Pilnyak) — these thinned the ranks of international modernism and demoralized its troops. (link)

The idea that modernism was more an international than a national phenemenon is certainly right (see my notes last year on my course on "Transatlantic Modernism").  And I strongly agree with the editors' emphasis on the little magazine culture as an element in that internationalism. That's how the British futurist Mina Loy, who lived in Italy and had ties to Marinetti and Italian futurism, was able to publish her first poems in New York-based little magazines like Others and Rogue. It's also how Ezra Pound leveraged himself to become the central arbiter of English-language modernist poetry in the 1910s (his residency in London and sheer pushiness and swagger got him a gig as the "Foreign Editor" of Little Review -- a position that benefited the visibility of the magazine as well as his own career).

But the part that seems strange in this periodization is the idea that “repression of revolution” knocked the wind out of modernism. It’s much more complicated than that. For one thing, many of the most influential modernists were either apolitical or actively reactionary – modernism was never neatly aligned with leftist revolutionary politics. (The most infamous example here being the aforementioned Ezra Pound.) But I would also argue that the first mini-decline of modernism actually happened immediately after modernism first emerged – with the beginning of World War I, avant-garde publishing in England slowed to a trickle (leaving an opening for American magazines like Poetry and Little Review to take the lead during the war years). Another decline happened once Ezra Pound left Paris (1925) and T.S. Eliot converted to Christianity (1928), whereupon he stopped writing about the sexuality of London shopgirls [i.e., The Waste Land] and started writing about the glories of the Anglican Church. A third, more definitive decline would have to be the Great Depression, which led to a new generation of socially conscious writers like Auden and Isherwood – writers who were active Leftists and who rejected the obscurity and difficulty of writers of the earlier generation. The decline here was caused not by activist writers being beaten down by repressive governments. If anything, the progressivism of the Auden generation saw the preceding generation (i.e., "modernism") as insufficiently political.

Why all of this is important to their broader argument: if we are looking for an activist “internationalist” literature, as the authors of this essay seem to be, we won’t find it in the avant-gardist / high modernist moment. Modernism was a much more chronologically fractured and politically ambiguous literary event than the N+1 account allows.

Even the internationalism needs an asterisk. While all the American writers in England and France, and the expatriate Irish (Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Edna O'Brien...) seem to embody through their very act of emigration a certain internationalism, it's not necessarily clear to me that modernism as it unfolded in western Europe was much connected what was happening elsewhere, in Berlin, in Moscow, etc. Vorticism did indeed appropriate Italian futurism, but it turned out to be basically a a two man show -- and a one-trick pony (Pound abandoned it after a year, just as he had abandoned Imagism earlier when Amy Lowell tried to coopt it). In short, there were borrowings back and forth of style and technique, but I have my doubts as to whether there was really an active "internationalist" spirit, at least in literary terms. 

Let's look at another paragraph from the essay, where N+1 makes a distinction between high modernism and late modernist style: 

Tidings of war and revolution accompanied European literature for only a few years after 1945. The term “modernism” became current in the ’50s and ’60s, when the thing itself was expiring. The so-called late modernism of the postwar — of Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, and Sarraute; of Peter Handke, Nabokov, and John Barth, as well as the earlier texts of Kafka and Borges that now attained a vast audience — feels very different from the “high modernism” of Joyce or Woolf, Bely or Dos Passos or Döblin. Titles from these writers include Dubliners (1914), “Kew Gardens” (1919), Petersburg (1913), Manhattan Transfer (1925), and Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). There is, by contrast, a kind of geographical and social underspecification about much of the best Euro-American literature published after World War II, which, in the most striking cases, turns deep personal peculiarity into a gnarled universality. (link)

I have no objection to the local point here that high modernist writing looks very different from late modernist writing, though they seem to be jumping over the key point that the later modernist writing seems to be eschewing geographical specificity precisely because their predecessors worked through it to the point of exhaustion. (So for example, Beckett, after early experiments like More Pricks than Kicks, stopped mentioning Dublin places and names because James Joyce had already seemingly exhausted all of them in Ulysses. But both writers were interested in psychology and subjectivity…)

I do think mentioning just Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” is a bit idiosyncratic (it supports their point about localization in high modernism). In fact after Mrs. Dalloway (which is very much a London novel, rich with place names and geo-historical specificity), Woolf’s modernism is also quite delocalized – a high modernist work like To the Lighthouse could take place anywhere. Or is Mrs. Dalloway (1925) High modernism while To the Lighthouse (1928) is Late?

In short, I think N+1 is getting their reading of modernism a bit wrong. It doesn't necessarily undercut the force of their critique of the literary festival circuit or the slowing of the momentum that the first generation of postcolonial writers seemed to have -- their anger, their outspokenness, and the personal risks so many of those writers took to speak truth to power. (Not just Rushdie -- think of Ken Saro-Wiwa!) But it does suggest that the internationalism they are looking for, and connecting, unconvincingly to my eye, to a handful of emerging "good" internationalists -- while consigning aesthetically ambitious, socially-engaged writers like Junot Diaz and Teju Cole to the category of bad "Global Lit" -- does not really have a precedent. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Gay Rights and Sochi: Boycott or Protest?

I have been trying to catch up a bit on the emerging discussions regarding a possible boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics that are scheduled to take place in February 2014.

There are growing calls among gay rights activists in western nations that the games should be boycotted -- or at least the threat of a boycott should be used to nudge Vladimir Putin to have the law repealed. I think the threat of a boycott should be taken seriously, in part because of the danger to the safety of gay athletes sent to the games.

The would-be boycotters seem to be in the minority at present. For every voice arguing for a boycott, I have come across several counter-arguments suggesting that athletes and media should go and protest. (One example might be this interview with Adrian Hilton at, where he specifically takes issue with Stephen Fry's brief calls for a boycott).

The strongest "go and protest, dare them to arrest you" type Op-Ed I've seen is Rosie DiManno's piece published in the Toronto Star on August 13:

I defy any Russian government authority to drag an athlete off the medal podium or a lesbian personality out of the broadcast booth for the crime of making a pro-gay gesture or statement.   
It won’t happen. The imbecilic legislation passed in June will be not merely ignored but exposed for all its ridiculous, draconian ambition. The athletes, primarily, will see to that. Throughout the history of the modern Games, they have always been the ones who’ve rescued the Olympics from politics, ideology and craven greed.
The most iconic image of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin — the Nazi Games — is Jesse Owens accepting his gold medal, on four occasions, even while German rivals gave their “Heil Hitler” salutes. A black man put the boots to Aryan racial superiority, with a sour-faced Hitler looking on. 
While too much of a burden is routinely placed on athletes to exemplify something other than their sporting pre-eminence, in Sochi they will once again transcend the rhetoric and ranting on all sides with memorable performances. That’s as it should be. There will be no boycott, no moving of the Games to another city, as some have promoted. Logistically, it’s impossible. Morally, it’s on slippery turf. 
The Olympics cannot be expected to define any principle beyond the human right to participate in sports, as codified in the International Olympic Committee charter. If condemnation of homophobia were to be the guiding light of interaction among nations, then no country would do any business or maintain diplomatic ties with states — in Africa, in the Muslim world — where homosexuality is a grievous crime, in many cases subject to the death penalty, and persecution heavy-handed. 
It’s only the Olympic brand that has stirred so much passion. Few of these boycott boosters had otherwise bestirred themselves to slam Russia for its pre-existing monstrous human rights record. (link)
There's much in this that I find sympathetic and compelling. The invocation of Jesse Owens in Berlin in 1936 is a powerful one -- and by contrast, history has not been especially kind to the United States' decision to boycott the 1980 Olympics because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. 
However, one issue that I think Rosie DiManno might dismiss too easily is the actual danger of arrest or imprisonment for the athletes. The Russians themselves have been contradicting one another regarding whether the law will be enforced. While the IOC had earlier said they'd received assurances from Russian officials that gay athletes could plan to attend the games safely, the Russian sports minister recently seemed to contradict that statement when he stated that the law would remain in effect during the games. 
For background, the best summary of how the law works in context (i.e., the rapid growth of social conservative politics in Russia in the past decade) is here. While the law in question claims to be focused on "propaganda of non-traditional sexuality" directed to minors, the first people reportedly arrested under the new law were a group of Dutch tourists making a documentary about gay rights in the Russian city of Murmansk. In other words, hardly conventional "propagandists." 
I think athletes who follow Stephen Fry's call (now that he's given up on the boycott idea) for theatrical and visual protest at the games (i.e., wearing of rainbow flags and so on) should seriously consider the possibility that these public displays could be construed as "propaganda" under the incredibly vague provisions of the Russian law. The IOC, for its part, has not been very helpful, effectively encouraging participating athletes to stay in the closet for the duration of their time in Russia. They should presume that at least some athletes and their supporters at the games will disregard this and test the Russian authorities on their bizarre law. 
Until the issue of enforcement of the law is clarified by Russian authorities, I think the calls for a boycott will continue to gather steam. And with good reason. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wrap Up from Spring Teaching: "Writing for the Internet"

Writing for the Internet: A Wrap Up from Spring 2013

Earlier I had mentioned I would be debuting a new course called "Writing for the Internet" this spring. Below are my reflections on the course as it actually transpired. I will certainly try and do the course again soon, though I might alter it or refine certain parts of it in some ways, and would welcome feedback from readers as to how to do this.

It's hardly revolutionary to use blogs or blogging in writing courses. I myself had used blogs in courses before, but generally as a secondary feature in courses where conventional papers constituted the bulk of the grade. Students in those courses generally didn’t care too much about the course blog: it didn’t really reach outside readers, and the students saw it as a chore, not so different from logging into Blackboard/CourseSite to write a response paper.

I wanted to make online writing the center of this course, not a secondary feature. I also wanted to try and create an ecosystem where students would actually be interested in reading each other’s works and find it convenient and simple to do so. I also had hopes of connecting students with outside readers – so I was going to ask them to post on the open internet (of course, with the option to use a pseudonym). This mean we would need to move beyond firewalled courseware options.  

To help students feel that their writing was “live,” I decided to use Tumblr, a free social networking oriented blogging platform.  Admittedly, the Tumblr platform has some pretty substantial design limitations which would make it hard for me personally to commit to Tumblr as a primary platform for longer posts. Also, the broader stylistic norms on Tumblr emphasize a sense of immediacy and short comments rather than longer, more substantial writing. Successful Tumblr bloggers tend to be aggregators, image hunters, and meme generators rather than serious writers (which is not to diminish the value of skillful aggregation – but it’s a different skill from composing a convincing argument).

For the purposes of this class, however, we didn’t need to worry too much about those stylistic norms – since the goal was to create a closed Tumblr loop for the 19 students in the class and myself. This was fairly easy to do. (You can see my root blog for the course here: amardeeplehigh, with a blogroll consisting of student blogs on the right column.)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Fall Teaching: Global Cities

[This fall I will be teaching a new graduate course on postcolonial literature that I am calling "Global Cities." The following is the "short" course description.]

English 479: Global Cities (For Fall 2013)

This course will focus on literary and theoretical texts connected to London, New York, and Mumbai. It is also intended as an introduction of sorts to postcolonial literary studies, though one targeted to a particular set of themes: urbanization, immigrant narratives, and the idea of cultural hybridity. Many of the issues in the course will also be relevant to students interested in immigrant literature of the United States and multiculturalism in contemporary England.

We will begin by reviewing some of the classic literature of urbanization from the late Victorian period, and then move to consider the increasing diversity of these three urban spaces. A city like Mumbai, built by the British, is often seen as haunted by its colonial past, still visible in the Victorian architecture and English place names that dominate its landscape; analogously, there are signs and traces of the Empire scattered across both the map of contemporary London and the English literary canon. From the late Victorian Imperial metropolis we move to the first wave of post-colonial migration – where patterns of immigration to London and New York from the Caribbean, West Africa, and South Asia almost seemed to suggest a kind of reverse colonization (one thinks of the famous activists’ slogan: “We are Here because you were There”). The post-colonial rewriting of the Anglo-American metropolis has been be followed by a third wave of immigration, tentatively understood as tied to globalization, characterized by heightened mobility and the decline of fixed borders, constant connectivity enabled by the internet and mobile technology, and the creation of new transnational cultural formations.

Literary selections include Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Zadie Smith’s NW, Amitava Kumar’s Bombay-London-New York, Teju Cole’s Open City, and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Nonfiction narratives by writers like Suketu Mehta, Sonia Faleiro, and Katherine Boos will also be discussed, along with selections from postcolonial theory and globalization theory.