Showing posts with label Theory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Theory. Show all posts


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).

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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, among many other things), so we can talk about essays like this one in venues other than Facebook (TM) and Twitter (TM). 


Das Racist Splits up

So: Das Racist has split up.

I have mixed feelings about it. As an Indian American kid raised on hip hop in the 1980s and 90s, I was for a while quite taken by the promise of a rap group with two Indian-American members suddenly becoming famous (cover of Spin! K Mart commercials!), even if they were a generation younger than me. But I was also often frustrated with their choices and actual performances (i.e., the terrible performance on Conan), and in some ways I'm not really that surprised they've broken up.  Below I have some thoughts about what I really liked about Das Racist and also some of what I found frustrating.

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I've been aware of Das Racist since Abhi blogged about them on Sepia Mutiny in 2009, though truth be told I didn't actually bother to click on the link and listen until Phillygrrl did her two-part interview (Part 1; Part 2) with Himanshu Suri that September.

I also saw the band perform exactly once, at the Roots Picnic in June 2010 (an event that was photographed and described a little [not by me] here). I meant to write something about my thoughts after that event but didn't. Briefly now: I thought the rise of a rap group with a strong Indian-American presence was kind of amazing, and I wanted to love them -- but the actual live performance was a little disappointing. By that point I had been enthusiastically listening to band's mixtape, "Shut Up, Dude," for a few weeks, and even knew some of the verses to songs like "Ek Shaneesh" by heart.

But at the DR show I went to the sound levels were set so high that it was impossible to hear any actual lyrics. And Heems, Kool A.D., and Dapwell just seemed to be running around the stage like maniacs--not working at all to win over the crowd or draw in potential new fans. DR was followed that afternoon by a Black Thought side project (Money Making Jam Boys), and you could instantly see the difference between Das Racist's self-referential, semi-comic "rap in quotation marks" and the serious posture and delivery style of Black Thought and his peers. Black Thought seemed to care about what he was saying and wanted the audience to hear it and understand it; to my eye, that afternoon, Das Racist did not.

Of course, Das Racist has been, from the beginning, as much interested in commenting on rap music and hip hop culture as they have been in actively participating in it. Even the band's name refers to a famous  MTV meme from 2005 (the band was clearly ahead of the curve in naming themselves after a meme that involved a Gif!). Also, their debut track, "Pizza Hut/Taco Bell," was intended as a kind of clowning version of a rap song, and several of the band's songs on "Shut Up, Dude" seemed to "do" rap more referentially than literally. (The most compelling of these efforts is of course, "Fake Patois," which is beautifully explained and decoded via crowdsourced hypertext links at Rapgenius.)

Still, you can only get so far in rap -- a medium that prizes authenticity and the singularity of the voice (even if those values are present more in the breach than in the observance) -- while performing as a kind of postmodernist simulacrum of a rap group. Either you have to start being real and aim to have an actual career in the music industry, or the joke has to end.

I don't want to suggest that Das Racist didn't write some really amazing lyrics. On their recordings they seem to take their task quite seriously, writing witty and even, sometimes, brilliant verses.

Good vibes PMA
Yeah, believe that
Listening to Three Stacks, reading Gaya spivak
Listening to KMD and feeling weird about Naipaul
Fly or Style Warz, war-style Warsaw
Listening to jams with they pops about dem batty boys
Listening to  Cam while I'm reading Arundhati Roy
Yeah, yeah my pops drove a cab, homes,
Now I drop guap just to bop in the cab home
[Again, see Rapgenius for help decoding some of the obscure references here]

Seeing the references to Gayatri Spivak, V.S. Naipaul, and Arundhati Roy alongside Andre 3000, Cam'ron, and the notorious homophobia of dancehall reggae all in seven short, witty lines is pretty exhilarating. (Not to mention the element of personal biography: Himanshu's father did briefly drive a taxi when he first came to the U.S.)

In a way I am the perfect listener for this sort of song -- as a postcolonial theory scholar and old school hip hop fan, I'm exactly the kind of person who, in college and then graduate school, might have been culturally multitasking on precisely these terms. At some point, I'm pretty sure I've listened to Illmatic or Enter the Wu-Tang while also trying to figure out Homi Bhabha's frequently baffling Location of Culture or Spivak's even more baffling Critique of Postcolonial Reason (interestingly, both hip hop and postcolonial theory can involve readers & listeners hustling to get to the bottom of deeply obscure references).

Despite the exhilarating moments, in the end I often felt a little let down by Das Racist tracks, mainly because the political self-consciousness and desire for critique seemed to lose out to a broader enthusiasm for easier reference points: the banalities of middle-class American consumer culture, and of course the endless references to weed and booze. The booze in particular often troubles me (I'm agnostic on the weed), especially since so many accounts of Das Racist performances in recent years have described the trio as drunk on stage (Google "Das Racist drunk" to see what I mean). From Das Racist I wanted to hear more songs like "Ek Shaneesh" and "Fake Patois" and fewer that contained verses like this one:

Finna spark an L and have myself a Big Mac Attack
Known to rock the flyest shit and and eat the best pizza
Charge that shit to Mastercard, already owe Visa
Catch me drinking lean in Italy like I was Pisa
We could eat the flyest cage-aged cheese for sheez, ma
Pizza, big macs, mastercard, visa, the leaning tower of Pisa... Oy, vey. Can we go back to talking about Arundhati Roy, Gary Soto, and Junot Diaz again? I was feeling that more.

To his credit, Himanshu has taken an approach on his solo mixtapes that seems a little more serious. There were the amazing Punjabi tracks on Nehru Jackets, for one thing (see especially "Chakklo," track 15).  But even more than that I was impressed by the searing condemnation of police brutality and corruption in "NYC Cops" (see Rap Genius again).

Himanshu's second mixtape, Wild Water Kingdom, wasn't quite as strong as Nehru Jackets overall, though I did think the track "Soup Boys," which samples the viral Indian pop hit, "Why this Kolaveri Di?" and nicely mixes the postmodernist randomness of Das Racist with elements of protest and critique (drone warfare, Islamaphobia, Hinduphobia... lyrics at Rapgenius).  


"Commonwealth" and "Postcolonial" Studies Journals: Some History

A few years ago, when I was going up for tenure at Lehigh, I did a blog post compiling links to several postcolonial studies journals I was looking at as possible venues for publication. At that time I was not in the habit of regularly reading academic journals; like a lot of people, I tended to focus more on academic books. For various reasons, I've been both reading academic journals more regularly and closely in recent years, and publishing in them more frequently since 2007.

I also don't think I mentioned here that this past summer I joined the Editorial Board of the Northampton, UK-based Journal of Postcolonial Writing as an Associate Editor. And as I've grown more involved with the inner workings of a busy academic journal, I've gotten interested in the complicated 'career arc' of this particualr journal (formerly World Literatures Written in English) as well as others like it -- journals founded in the 1960s and 70s, often with an approach quite different from what they currently print.

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Another quick prefatory comment: I have been helping out a colleague at another university with an article she's working on, on the institutional history of the field -- specifically, the interaction between "Postcolonial" literary studies and "Commonwealth"  literary studies, and the goal of this blog post to put together some of my own thoughts related to the different journals.

"Commonwealth" refers, of course, to literature of the British Commonwealth of Nations, an organization with 54 member nations, all but two of which were former British colonies. The Commonwealth idea was conceived in the 1880s, as a way to grant semi-autonomy to settler colonies like New Zealand and Australia, and it rapidly expanded after Indian and Pakistani independence (since both new nations joined the Commonwealth). Beginning with the Harare Declaration (1971), the Commonwealth has been 'post-colonially correct' -- which is to say, it has clearly indicated that member countries are a group of sovereign states on an equal footing. It has also focused on alleviating poverty and fostering development in poorer countries.

And clearly, the Commonwealth concept was not really in question this past summer, when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games, which was according to some observers an astounding success and to others a total catastrophe. (The fact that many Commonwealth nations are also cricket-playing nations probably doesn't hurt the popular and mass-cultural recognition of the term.) All in all, the Commonwealth of Nations organization seems to be alive and well; indeed, there are several pending applications for membership from countries that were never British colonies -- Algeria and Sudan, for instance. As to what precisely the organization actually does, that might be the subject of another post.

Despite the change in the status of the Commonwealth of Nations, the term "Commonwealth Literature," as most people know, has largely gone out of fashion in recent years. The most famous critique of the idea of Commonwealth Literature is probably Salman Rushdie's 1983 essay "Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist" (republished in Imaginary Homelands, 1990). And following Rushdie, the most significant event marking the decline of Commonwealth Lit. might be Amitav Ghosh's famous decision, in 2001, not to accept the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia) for his book, The Glass Palace. Ghosh objected to the idea and term "Commonwealth," but he also had a problem with the English-only requirement for the prize. (Other Commonwealth Literature institutions, such as the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, do not have an Anglophone literature-only policy.) The core of Ghosh's complaint, however, was evident in the following sentences:

So far as I can determine, The Glass Palace is eligible for the Commonwealth Prize partly because it was written in English and partly because I happen to belong to a region that was once conquered and ruled by Imperial Britain. Of the many reasons why a book's merits may be recognized these seem to me to be the least persuasive. That the past engenders the present is of course undeniable; it is equally undeniable that the reasons why I write in English are ultimately rooted in my country's history. Yet, the ways in which we remember the past are not determined solely by the brute facts of time: they are also open to choice, reflection and judgment. The issue of how the past is to be remembered lies at the heart of The Glass Palace and I feel that I would be betraying the spirit of my book if I were to allow it to be incorporated within that particular memorialization of Empire that passes under the rubric of "the Commonwealth". I therefore ask that I be permitted to withdraw The Glass Palace from your competition. 

Ghosh's comments (the full letter is reproduced here, along with further comments in support from Amitava Kumar) remain at a somewhat abstract level. I interpret him to mean something like this: yes, we have to acknowledge the history and legacy of colonialism (indeed, The Glass Palace is largely about that history). But we should have the right to redefine our present selves separately from that legacy. The larger point seems to be that the term "Commonwealth writers" or "Commonwealth Literature" cannot help but be a kind of celebration of British colonialism.

The British Journal of Commonwealth Literature is still going strong despite the critiques of the word Commonwealth such as Ghosh's and Rushdie's. In 2005, two editors of the journal wrote an introduction on the fortieth anniversary of the journal, defending their decision not to update the title despite the changing fortunes of "Commonwealth":
Nevertheless, more than a dozen years on, the decision to keep the Journal’s original title seems right. Although post-colonial studies have come to occupy a central position in the metropolitan academy’s curricula, the term has frequently been rejected by writers and readers, who see it as a strait-jacket that encloses them within a limited and predictable range of political agendas. “Post-colonialism”, particularly when used in the singular, offers a curious mirror-image of the “one-world” discourse of globalization, which it supposedly contests. At its worst it is an exclusive term, which homogenizes the “rest of the world” in a counter-image of the older European imperialisms or US neo-imperialism. Meanwhile multinational publishers commodify and disseminate the work of cosmopolitan writers who interpret “other” societies for a Western or “global” readership. Arguably “Commonwealth literature”, with its emphasis on inclusivity, continues to be more genuinely eclectic and to invite approaches that can be related to a broader-based set of non-Western humanisms. (John Thieme. Editorial: "JCL Forty Years On," JCL 40:1, 2005)
There's a valid point here, though it's too bad John Thieme doesn't respond directly to the critique made by Ghosh, which we quoted above. Instead, his approach is to suggest that Commonwealth continues to work as a pragmatic signifier, in large part because "Postcolonial" is, as he sees it, worse. It's also unfortunate that he doesn't cite any specific scholars or theorists whose definition matches the "post-colonialism" he doesn't like.

The person cited by Thieme and Alistair Niven as instrumental in the founding of JCL (and the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies -- ACLALS) is A. N. Jeffares. Jeffares, who was Irish (and a scholar of Yeats), was responsible for the first ever conference devoted to Commonwealth Literature at the University of Leeds, in 1964. The proceedings of that conference were published in book form by Heinemann, as Commonwealth Literature: Unity and Diversity in a Common Culture. Jeffares' introduction to the conference (and the volume that it provoked) are widely cited by scholars who have thought about the status of Commonwealth literature since then, including especially Tim Watson (2000).

Interestingly, though he's credited as the driving force behind the advent of Commonwealth literary studies, Jeffares was not the first editor of JCL, though he did go on to serve as the first editor of the Canadian journal Ariel: A Review of International Literature (founded in 1970 at the University of Calgary, where it remains). Ariel bypassed the terminological morass by always defining itself as focused on "international" literature -- which means its first issues could comfortably and without contradiction contain essays on all sorts of topics, from George Herbert, to Canadian authors, to the Caribbean writer Wilson Harris. Over time, and with subsequent editorships, Ariel has come to be seen as primarily (though not exclusively), a "postcolonial" journal. The journal published a pair of special issues in 1995 debating the pros and cons of the postcolonial turn in literary studies, and then returned to the subject in another special issue in 2000.

Another journal that was founded in the 1960s/70s was World Literature in English. WLWE was first based at the University of Texas for several years, before moving to University of Guelph (where it was edited by Diana Bryden for several years). The journal had a brief stint based in Singapore (under the editorship of Kirpal Singh), before finding its current home at the University of Northampton, UK.

Importantly, in 2005, WLWE deviated from the path set by JCL when it did change names, becoming, under Janet Wilson's editorship, the Journal of Postcolonial Writing (JPW). In her brief editorial announcing the change, Wilson did not say much about the debates over terms such as "world literature," "Commonwealth literature" or "postcolonial literature"; she simply suggested that the move from WLWE to JPW was a way of moving towards "theoretical respectability."

Even as these journals were either changing (or, in JCL's case, not changing), several new postcolonial literature and theory journals came into being in the 1980s and 1990s, including especially Wasafiri (University of Kent), Interventions (whose first editor was Robert JC Young, then at Oxford), Journal of Postcolonial Studies (Melbourne), Jouvert (a U.S.-based online journal, now defunct), Kunapipi (another Australian journal, which I think is also defunct), Diaspora (a cultural studies and anthropology journal, by and large), The Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies (based at George Southern University), and Postcolonial Text (also based in Australia). Of these newer journals (and I may be missing some), the most influential have perhaps been Wasafiri and Interventions. 

One major journal that I haven't mentioned is Transition, which was started in Uganda in 1961, with a pan-Africanist focus (publishing essays by writers like Ngugi, Achebe... and Skip Gates!). Transition was famously edited by Wole Soyinka until it was disbanded in 1976. The journal was then revived in the 1990s, though it was published in the U.S. (it's now housed at Indiana University Press), and in its reincarnation it seems to be quite a different beast. There are also "Area Studies" literature journals, specifically South Asian Review (with which I have been involved, in the past), as well as the solidly established Research in African Literatures. But these journals, as important as they may be in their respective fields, are still not as widely circulating or as influential as their more 'transnational' (postcolonial, commonwealth) peers. Area studies is, in short, still an academic ghetto: it's still much better for you if you say you teach and write on "Postcolonial literature" than "Indian literature" or "Nigerian literature." That's unfortunate, but it seems to be a fact of life in the British and North American academies. (I wrote about this a bit in the second half of an essay in the South Asian Review issue I guest-edited with Kavita Daiya a few years ago: see here).

So where does that leave us? On the one hand, the proliferation of the new Postcolonial journals, alongside the continued vibrancy (and frequent self-reinvention) of the older Commonwealth and World Literature journals, suggests the field is bigger and more established than it's ever been. Even so, certain critiques of the term "postcolonial" seem to have struck a chord (Aijaz Ahmed, Arif Dirlik, Ella Shohat, and more recently David Scott) -- and they haven't gone away. In the inaugural essay to Interventions, Robert Young seemed to acknowledge as much when he wrote:

Whatever one might say about the troubled term 'postcolonial' -- and we take the discussions of that on board, but as read -- one characteristic aspect of postcolonial writing, be it creative or critical, involves its historical and political agenda, which in broad terms give it common objectives. This is the reason why, just as with feminism, postcolonialism offers a politics rather than a coherent theoretical methodology. Indeed you could go so far as to argue that strictly speaking there is no such thing as postcolonial theory as such -- rather  there are shared political perceptions and agenda which employ an eclectic range of theories in their service. Moreover, as with some feminisms, a substantial constituency of postcolonial writing is radically anti-theoretical, giving a primacy to the value of individual consciousness and experience. Postcolonialism's curious combination of heterogeneous theories with a sometimes problematic or even condescending counter-affirmation of the truth of experiential knowledge, is an articulation too easily characterized either as the postcolonial predicament or as a disjunction between the western academy and 'Third World' conditions of existence. (Robert JC Young, 1998. Full essay available on the author's website here)
I thought this was an interesting way of putting things: there may not be a theoretical commonality, but there is a shared political praxis. What's surprising about this claim is of course that so many critics of postcolonial theory have questioned precisely that -- for Left (Marxist) critics of Postcolonial studies, the problem has always been that much Postcolonial theory has distanced itself from Marxism or from a concrete political agenda. Someone like Arundhati Roy may be admired by many Postcolonial intellectuals, but almost no one is actually standing up and agreeing with her on, say, the Maoist insurgency in eastern and southern India. It sometimes seems that being 'postcolonial' is a way of positioning oneself as generally aligned with the plight of poor, non-western societies -- without having to make hard ideological choices regarding how to alleviate the suffering of people in those societies.

The debates that follow Young's opening volley in the first few issues of Interventions are quite fascinating, though it would make this blog post too long to actually engage that material substantively (perhaps in a subsequent post).

One big issue I have been thinking about is the status of the American academy in particular vis a vis the advent and institutionalization of Postcolonial Studies. Some critics have argued that Postcolonial Studies was really initiated in the American academy, and that the various and proliferating institutional appearances of postcolonial studies groups and journals are nothing more than attempts to copy an intellectual model initiated in the U.S. The best support for this way of seeing things comes from the fact that so many key figures have taught in American universities, including especially the theory 'triumvirate' of Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, and Edward Said. But one could also question this reading of American dominance, since the U.S. still does not have a regular "postcolonial studies" national association or conference (by contrast, the UK has a Postcolonial Studies Association). Moreover, of the journals I've named here, the vast majority are in fact based at institutions or with publishers outside of the U.S. -- the UK, Canada, and Australia -- suggesting that the supposed dominance of American academic institutions may be overstated.

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So here are my discussion questions for readers -- feel free to write in at Facebook or in comments here, as you wish, if you have any thoughts.

First, is postcolonial literary studies and theory primarily an 'American' academic institution in your perception?

Second, does "postcolonial studies" mean something different in the different places where it is institutionally (academically) practiced (i.e., can we compare its status in the UK with its status in Canada, its status in India, or its status in Australia)?

Third, is the field rising or falling? Has it been superseded by "globalization studies"?

Fourth, what is the status of the literary in current postcolonial theory? While many of the initial concepts in postcolonial theory came from literary theorists, it has sometimes seemed to me more recently that the momentum for postcolonial studies in recent years has shifted to the social sciences, particularly cultural anthropology.


Five Types of Hybridity: Steve Yao in Wasafiri

A little while ago I did a long post on the concept of 'hybridity', hoping to provide a resource useful for people who teach on this topic the classroom (along the lines of my earlier "Introduction to Edward Said & Orientalism"). My intention was to simplify a complex concept in postcolonial theory for a general readership, but I don't think I entirely succeeded -- since the essay I wrote raised three new problems for each conceptual problem it addressed.

Cultural hybridity is simply quite difficult to define, in part because it's a metaphor from biology, and we have to remember that metaphors can fit literary or cultural artifacts well or poorly. Hybridity can also be hard to pin down in part because it's become so widespread (if one takes a look at contemporary American popular music, for example, it's hard to find very much that isn't in some way hybridizing hip hop culture with the conventions of mainstream pop.).

One essay I came across recently, "Towards a Taxonomy of Hybridity" by Steve Yao (Wasafiri, 2003), seems to suggest that it might actually be helpful to embrace, rather than shy away from, the biologism in the idea of hybridity. I cannot post the whole essay for copyright reasons, and unfortunately it is not online as far as I can tell (if readers would like a copy, send me an email and I will send it to you). Here is how Yao sets up his "taxonomy" of hybridity:

Closer consideration of'hybridity's' biologistic foundations can help to delineate a more refined critical 'taxonomy'. As Robert J C Young has usefully pointed out, the English word 'hybrid' stems from the Latin term hybrida, meaning 'the offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar', or more generally according to another source, an 'animal whose parents belong to different varieties or to different species'.' Hence the word also meant a 'person whose parents belong to different ethnic groups, probably of non Indo-European origin'. Going back even further, a commonly held etymology relates the term 'hybrid' to the Greek word hubris, or the quality of overweening pride most closely associated with the heroes of classical tragedy. More specifically, hubris implies a going beyond one's proper station, as in presuming to the status of a god or committing rape. Based on its historical development, then, the term 'hybridity' carries with it a sense of sexual, and implicitly violent, transgression of 'natural' categories that produces a new entity with a complex and multiply determined lineage. Hence the notion entails a necessarily biologistic conception of (reproductive interaction between categorically separated 'types'. This inherent biologism finds its clearest expression, moreover, in the strictest current botanical sense of'hybridity', which designates the union of genetic material from parents of two different genotypes that results in the simultaneous expression of traits from both within a single organism. Transposing this idea of generative fusion to the domain of culture implies mutually constitutive and reinforcing signification between different cultures and traditions.

[...] I propose a new 'taxonomy' of hybridisation that explicitly acknowledges and builds upon 'hybridity's' biologistic foundations. Differentiating among various techniques for combining cultural traditions and/or linguistic systems, this taxonomy includes the following categories: 'cross-fertilisation', 'mimicry', 'grafting', 'transplantation', and 'mutation'.'

In subsequent pages, Yao goes on to show that Marilyn Chen's polyglot poetry (she inserts Chinese characters in her English-language poems, and plays on complex etymologies of Mandarin words in English verses) might be seen as "cross-fertilization": "At this moment in the lyric the Chinese language shapes the poetic articulation of English, thereby constituting an instance of productive cultural interaction."

[Examples of Marilyn Chen's poetry -- though without any Mandarin characters -- can be found here.]

Another example of "cross-fertilization" that comes to mind might be Agha Shahid Ali's attempt to encourage the use of the Ghazal form in English, which I talked about here.


Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: A Few Reflections

As many readers may be aware, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick passed away last weekend. Her friend Cathy Davidson has a tribute, and Duke University Press has noted it as well on its internal blog. I'm sure there will be much more to come from Eve's friends, colleagues, and students in the months to come.

I knew Eve in person for about two years, but I have remained, in one way or another, in constant engagement with her work during my entire career as a scholar. She was teaching at Duke until around 1998, and I joined the Ph.D. program in 1996. I took two classes with her, one a general seminar on Victorian novels, the other a more specialized seminar called, if I remember correctly, “Victorian Textures.” The ideas in the latter class, which were in turn inspired by Renu Bora’s work (“Outing Texture”), became the basis of some of Eve’s final published essays, in the volume Touching, Feeling (2003).

I did not work with Eve Sedgwick at the dissertation level, and indeed, I don’t believe I saw her again in person after 1998, when she left Duke and started teaching at the CUNY Graduate Center. Still, she had a pronounced influence on me, both as a person and as an intellectual and academic. The following is a brief account of the nature of that influence. It’s not meant to be a definitive, or even a very representative, statement on Sedgwick’s work; I am probably not the best person to write that. Rather, and quite simply and humbly, her work has meant a lot to me in particular, and here is a little bit as to how.

1. Variations of "the closet."

First and foremost, Eve Sedgwick’s work pretty much directly inspired my dissertation project, which I originally titled (for myself), “Epistemology of the Religious Closet.” The actual title I used in the finished dissertation was “Post-Secular Subjects.” I later decided I didn’t like the term “post-secular,” and abandoned it, opting instead to a develop the argument that secular authors who engage religion in modern life articulate a distinctively literary approach to secularization, one which cannot come close to abolishing religious the influence of religious texts or practices (in short, a complex genealogy of secularism rather than a “post-secularism”). I published a version of the dissertation in book form in 2006, as “Literary Secularism”; though the top-level argument had changed, it was in many ways still a close version of what it was when I first conceived of it.

The idea came to me, like a shot, while reading Epistemology of the Closet, a book I still think of as perhaps the best example of politicized close reading I have ever encountered. The paragraph that set it off was the following:

Vibrantly resonant as the image of the closet is for many modern oppressions, it is indicative for homophobia in a way that it cannot be for other oppressions. Racism, for instance, is based on a stigma that is visible in all but exceptional cases . . . ; so are the oppressions based on gender, age, size, physical handicap. Ethnic/cultural/religious oppressions such as anti-Semitism are more analogous in that the stigmatized individual has at least notionally some discretion – although, importantly, it is never to be taken for granted how much – over other people’s knowledge of her or his membership in the group: one could ‘come out as’ a Jew or Gypsy, in a heterogeneous urbanized society, much more intelligibly than one could typically ‘come out as,’ say, female, Black, old, a wheelchair user, or fat. A (for instance) Jewish or Gypsy identity, and hence a Jewish or Gypsy secrecy or closet, would nonetheless differ again from the distinctively gay versions of these things in its clear ancestral linearity and answerability, in the roots (however tortuous and ambivalent) of cultural identification through each individual’s originally culture of (at a minimum) the family. (75)

In subsequent pages, Sedgwick goes on to use an example of a kind of Jewish closet in Racine’s adaptation of the Book of Esther, in Esther (1691), as a powerful contradistinctive tool. She uses the similarities and differences between the Jewish closet of Racine’s play and the homosexual closet to limn what is in fact the ‘proper’ subject of her analysis.

Reading Eve at that time, I had no ambition or hope of adding anything to what seemed to be an exhaustive consideration of how the closet is central to thinking about the modern discourse of homosexuality. But I couldn’t help but be interested in the idea of a Jewish closet she was alluding to, and mapping it to yet other frontiers: what about other religious closets in other cultural spaces? One thinks, first of all, of the complex embodied expression of religious identity in the Indian subcontinent, and of how fraught that identity can become at times of communal violence, such as the Partition, or the many incidences of communal riots that have followed. Much South Asian literature (and cinema) exploring the legacy of Partition marks this problem; there are numerous scenes where writers describe men being forcibly disrobed by mobs to establish whether they are circumcised or not (Muslims are traditionally circumcised; men from other religious communities traditionally are not). Though this is a very different space from the Victorian prose fiction Eve Sedgwick specialized in, the analytics she developed in Epistemology of the Closet can be a productive starting point for thinking about the strange crossing of sexuality, religious ritual, and raw violence in those South Asian scenarios.

2. Politics; the culture wars

Both during her most productive phase and more recently, a few scholars under the “anti-theory” aegis have attacked aspects of Eve Sedgwick’s work. She was attacked by Roger Kimball, for instance, in Tenured Radicals, after she gave an MLA paper called “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” in 1990. (She opens the final published version of that essay, in Tendencies, with a response of sorts to Kimball; see this blog post at The New Yorker.) This was the peak of the culture wars moment, and Eve ably responded to those sorts of kneejerk cultural conservative criticisms, both in her academic work, and in public venues like NPR and even, occasionally, on television.

More recently, I remember seeing a more respectful criticism from Erin O’Connor, in her “Preface to a Post-Postcolonial Criticism” essay in Victorian Studies, which still reflected some doubts about Eve’s latter turn to affect and texture:

Some scholars have begun to question the governing paradigms of the field, most notably Amanda Anderson and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. But as a rule, critics of interpretive paradigms have tended to avoid concluding that paradigms are themselves the problem; instead, they make their analysis of faulty paradigms into the basis for proposing new, ostensibly improved ones. Anderson, for example, devotes her most recent book to promoting "detachment" as an alternative to the popular theoretical rubric of "cosmopolitanism," while Sedgwick concludes her remarkable skewering of the "hermeneutics of suspicion" that dominated 1980s and 1990s criticism by recommending a new-age psychoanalytic approach derived from Silvan Tompkins's little-known cybernetic work on shame. But as the far-fetched quality of Sedgwick's peculiar solution shows, the quest for a perfect paradigm is a quest for a methodological grail.

Here O’Connor is referring, approvingly, to Sedgwick’s essay introducing her anthology, Novel Gazing, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction is About You” (1997). She’s obviously less enthusiastic about “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Sylvan Tompkins” (1995), an essay she co-authored with Adam Frank. I’ll say a bit more about that in the following section.

I vaguely recall other people saying, in various settings (including the Valve), that they find Eve Sedgwick’s writing opaque and impenetrable, along the lines of the “bad theory writing” charge that is often levied (sometimes, admittedly, by myself) against theorists like Judith Butler, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Spivak. Though I sometimes have to run to a dictionary to look up the words Eve throws out (“saltation”), I actually don’t find Eve’s writing to pose the same problems as Butler or Spivak do.

There is, granted, a slipperiness that sometimes enters in at moments of peak intensity in Eve’s later close readings, and some prodigiously long and complex sentences. But one never feels she is evading the question she’s posed through jargon. Indeed, some of Eve’s more declarative moments, addressing legal matters (see, for example, her engagement with Bowers v. Hardwick in the opening section of Epistemology of the Closet) are models of clarity and intellectual rigor. Eve Sedgwick, in short, uses literary theory jargon appropriately, to engage difficult conceptual problems and make complex arguments, not to hide what might be seen as straightforward assertions behind terminology derived from Lacan/ Derrida/ Foucault. In her later essays, Sedgwick made a pronounced effort to nudge her fellow progressive academics to rethink how our established terminology can in fact be a crutch.

It might seem strange to bring up all this intellectual argument just after Eve Sedgwick has died. But in truth, if you read her works, it's clear that Eve was a gifted and inspired polemicist (a "fighter") in addition to being a brilliant reader of Victorian literature. It seems like a mistake to only acknowledge the people who liked her; in fact, Eve Sedgwick was a fairly controversial figure for many people. Let's not gloss over that.

3. Affect and Texture.

Though I've always found the texture material fascinating, for years I agreed tacitly with the spirit of Erin O’Connor’s response to Eve’s work on shame and affect. The bits and pieces of Sylvan Tompkins’ “Affect, Imagery, Consciousness” Sedgwick and Frank quote in “Shame and the Cybernetic Fold” sounded like beautiful psychoanalytical poetry to me, but hardly the seeds of a post-paranoid critical method:

If you like to be looked at and I like to look at you, we may achieve an enjoyable interpersonal relationship. If you like to talk and I like to listen to you talk, this can be mutually rewarding. If you like to feel enclosed within a claustrum and I like to put my arms around you, we can both enjoy a particular kind of embrace

It wasn’t until this very spring that I had a good opportunity and excuse to read Tompkins at greater length, and see better what Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank were interested in; I also came across a good many passages that sound nothing at all like the one above. As I see it, it’s not just Tompkins as a theorist who might potentially be more friendly to gay, lesbian, and queer analyses than are Freud and Lacan. Rather, with his emphasis on “weak theory,” and his ability to autochthonously generate concepts to insightfully describe interpersonal dynamics, Tompkins is a good model (though by no means a “methodological grail”) for how we as critics and teachers can respond to the representation of psychological nuances and embodied emotion (“affect”) in modern fiction, without having to lean on the questionable edifice of Freud/Lacan.

(I would say more about what I’ve been getting from Sylvan Tompkins’ work as I’ve been reading it this spring, but that might be the subject of another post, for another time.)

My project on secularism & religion is perhaps over (though I keep writing things that branch off of it in some way; there’s this essay on E.M. Forster, for instance). But I seem to have started building towards another project that is substantially inspired by Eve Sedgwick’s work, on texture. I posted some early thoughts along those lines a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve sat down with John Lawler’s essays on Rime- and Assonance-coherence (did I ever thank you properly, Bill Benzon?), and I’m starting to expand further into “phono-semantics” -- with a hope of writing up a publishable essay early this summer.

A big challenge remains the fact that texture, unlike most of the other concepts Eve Sedgwick is credited with contributing to literary studies and queer theory over the course of her career, does not seem to have an obvious or essential political application. One can certainly study texture and affect in modern fiction as a “queer” alternative to the repressive hypothesis, as Renu Bora does with Henry James' The Ambassadors, or as Eve herself does with James' "Art of the Novel." But one might also be inclined to pursue it simply because it’s interesting to see how George Eliot, Thomas Hardy (or, in "my own" 20th century, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce) represent the textures of the material world in their works.

Thank you, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. For everything.


Fall Courses

I'm teaching two courses this fall, a graduate seminar called "Literary Theory and Anti-Theory," and an advanced undergraduate class on James Joyce.

Here are the descriptions for the courses; I may post excerpts from lectures from time to time (if I have my act together).

Literary Theory and Anti-Theory

This course introduces students to several important paradigms in literary theory, including Jacques Derrida's deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, contemporary feminist theory, Edward Said’s postcolonial theory, and the emerging field of “science studies.” However, alongside some of the most influential theoretical arguments of the latter part of the 20th century, we will also engage with critics and skeptics of these theoretical approaches, who wonder if there is any "there" there. So alongside Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, and so on, we will read essay-length critiques by J.R. Searle, M.H. Abrams, Martha Nussbaum, Noam Chomsky, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Stephen Adam Schwartz, Valentine Cunningham, Denis Donoghue, and others. Some of these theory skeptics would prefer a return to an earlier era and traditional methodologies, but others disagree with the premises of certain recent theories for reasons that might be seen as non-ideological. The larger goals of the course are 1) to help students decide for themselves whether given theoretical approaches are valuable, and 2) to enable students to use literary theory as a tool in shaping their research. A vigorous climate of debate will be encouraged; no previous experience with literary theory is required.

And here is the course on "James Joyce and Modern Ireland":

James Joyce and Modern Ireland

This course will survey the major works of James Joyce, one of the 20th century's greatest writers. The course begins with Joyce's earlier works, including Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, where he developed the seeds of an experimental prose style. We will also discuss the historical and cultural background out of which Joyce emerged, and consider the influence of the Irish relationship with England, the status of the English language in Ireland, and Joyce's struggle with the Catholic Church. Much of the semester will be spent with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, the two longer works through which Joyce effectively reinvented the modern novel. The range of topics raised by Ulysses alone is quite vast, and includes the changing relations between men and women in the early part of the 20th century, the representation of sexuality and the body, the advent of advertising and mass culture, the status of Jews in Ireland and Europe, and the changing philosophical understanding of the "self" in modern society. This course will give students the tools to decode Joyce's obscure referents and find threads of meaning in Joyce's work. We will also work closely with reference texts so that reading this so-called difficult author becomes an enjoyable and stimulating experience.


Postcolonial Journals

(This post is mainly for the academics in the audience)

Following is a short list of "Postcolonial" oriented journals. Now that my book is out, I'm planning to focus on writing some articles, which means, to begin with, getting a better sense of what's actually out there.

There is a useful feature in the MLA Bibliography search, where you can search by "Periodical Subject." If you search for "postcolonial," 34 journals show up, and I've been exploring them. (I don't know why I never tried this before; one of my colleagues showed me how). On the individual entries for the journals, MLA actually gives very specific information as to how long articles should be, what the turn-around rate is, and what the submission/acceptance ratio is.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing

Hybridity: Journal of Cultures, Texts, and Identities does not seem to have a website. It is published in Singapore.

Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies. I published a review with them some time ago.

New Literatures Review is published in Australia.

Textual Practice is not a specifically postcolonial journal, though it does list "postcolonial" as one of its keywords.

Journal of Commonwealth Literature

Ariel: A Review of International Literature; it is published in Calgary. This is one of the preeminent postcolonial journals; they are highly selective.

Wasafiri. I've published an essay with them; they are good (also preeminent, if I can say so myself).

Kunapipi. Another Australian poco journal.

Postcolonial Text. It's online-only, but it is peer-reviewed.

Postcolonial Studies.

Jouvert is defunct -- I'm curious to know what happened there.

South Asian Review. I'm editing a special issue for them this year; I'm also on the Advisory Board.

* * *
Paul Brians has a list that includes a few other journals on his site at Washington State University.

And there's another list here.

Can anyone think of other journals they would recommend?

Secondly, do readers have experiences with these journals they would like to share? (feel free to comment anonymously, if you prefer)