Kanye’s Desiign, or The Author Function in the Age of Yeezus

Michael Maizels and Thomas Ray Willis

With special thanks to Clio Rom

(This article has been prepared based on publicly available information.  If anyone who had direct access to the creative process in question here is interested to reach out to the authors, we would welcome such conversation – Authors.)

“He did not want to compose another Quixote —which is easy— but the Quixote itself.”

–Jorges Luis Borges, 1939.

As it did for many of us, 2016 did not end well for Kanye West. What began with an apparently bizarre though self-contained rant on the election spiraled into a series of increasingly serious events, including a cancelled tour, a hospitalization, and a rumored divorce. But this sour ending belies a Kanye triumph from the part of 2016 before the Time of Trump: the release of his seventh studio album The Life of Pablo. Indeed, Pablo is an enormously complex album—juxtaposing samples from a Pulitzer winning classical composer and a jailhouse recording from an imprisoned hip hop pioneer—but what made Pablo so unique was an achievement that flew under the radar. Nobody noticed that Kanye brought a fictional character to life.[1]

Questions about the dizzying cast of figures who populated Pablo first began to emerge in the weeks after the album’s release date, when the single “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2” began to receive wide radio play. The track featured an extended sample from what seemed to be as-yet-unheard song from the Atlanta-based rapper Future, who was also enjoying a meteoric ascent in his own recording career. The key word, however, was “seemed.” The sound was so similar—and the confusion so thick—that several members of Future’s inner circle, including a producer who has worked with Future on numerous tracks, were convinced that Kanye’s “Father Stretch My Hands” appropriated as-yet unreleased Future track.[2]

The sampled artist, it turned out, was not Future at all but an unheralded artist from Brooklyn going by the odd-sounding stage name Desiigner. The striking similarity in their sonic styles briefly lit up the hip hop blogosphere, with some denouncing what they saw as a patent rip-off and others maintaining that such acoustic thefts were an inevitable part of a genre built on equal parts swagger and sample. This piece, however, takes a slightly different approach. Our argument is simple: Desiigner is not in fact a rapper but rather, as his stage name subtly suggests, a character created and then cast by Kanye West.  There is, indeed, some precedent for doing just this. When Jay Z split from his business partner Damon Dash in 2004, Dash attempted to create a sound-alike for recently departed talent.  And Sean “Diddy” Combs has ostensibly attempted a similar stunt twice: promoting knock-off versions of Biggie Smalls (“Guerilla Black”) and Mase (“Loon”) without much commercial success.[3]

But Kanye’s ambition here seems to be different.  While Dash and Combs promulgated what many have seen as artistic copycats as a matter of expedience, the larger trajectory of Pablo suggests that West employed a similar tactic as a means of advancing a conceptual goal. He can be seen, to a certain extent, using Desiigner as a kind of pseudonym along the lines of those employed by the great artists and writers of the twentieth century. Situating Desiigner in the tradition of fictional meta-authorship—of Marcel Duchamp’s R. Mutt and Jorge Borges’s Pierre Menard—allows us to see the scope of what the extraordinarily ambitious West hoped to achieve in Pablo, an album he has referred to as “the greatest of all time.”[4] While West braids together the recondite world of the chamber orchestra with the sounds of the soaring Gospel choir and the gritty hip hop underground, the coup of Pablo is conceptual rather than acoustic. Not content to merely create raps, the inimitable Kanye evidently created a rapper.

Desiigning A Future (From Scratch)

Separating fact from fiction about Sidney Royel Selby III, the actual human being who currently goes by the stage name Desiigner, has become increasingly difficult in the wake of “Father Stretch My Hands.” Selby’s sampled track, the ultra-catchy though difficult to parse “Panda,” catapulted a unknown teenager to the top of the hip hop charts over the course of a dizzying twelve weeks.  As of late 2015, Selby’s music was just beginning to gain traction in the underground hip hop scene in his native Brooklyn.  He uploaded a pair of songs at the end of the year: first “Zombie Walk” to a new Soundcloud account on 24 October then “Panda” on 20 December.[5]

Somehow—and Selby claims that the precise route remains a mystery—his music made its way to Kanye’s A&R team and then on to the man himself.[6]  Soon thereafter, the publicly available story goes, Selby was en route to Los Angeles for a curbside introduction at LAX, where Kanye played the finished “Father Stretch My Hands” for Selby in a limo parked outside of the terminal.  Although Kanye waited to publicly release the name of his album the day before its live premier in February 2016, Selby was out in front of the curve, having his social media handles to @LifeOfDesiigner before the album was announced. Seemingly The Life of Pablo gave rise to an entirely new Life of its own.[7]

This narrow time frame looks markedly unusual, and given Selby’s status as a virtual unknown, downright suspicious. Indeed, the beat’s original producer, the UK-based Menace, revealed in an interview that Kanye’s camp reached out to him only days before the album’s release and, in his words, “made it [Panda] his own vision.” [8] This is an unprecedented order of events for incorporating a sample by an obscure artist, especially one comprising almost half of the runtime of the larger track. Part of what might be at issue here is the unusual sampling strategy employed through the arc of the whole album. While Kanye made his name, as he put it, “chop[ping] up soul,” he increasingly found himself in hot legal water over copyright issues.[9] On Pablo, West largely elected to forgo recorded samples in favor of live covers: the singer Rihanna covers snippets of the 1968 Nina Simone song “Do What You Gotta Do” on the now-infamous “Famous.”

Although one might argue that Kanye perhaps sought to “cover” Future much as Rihanna had covered Simone, this explanation fails to account for the most easily apparent oddness of Desiigner—the staggering similarity of his sound to that of the Atlanta-based rapper. Desiigner’s lyrics actively foreground this near duplicate similarity, which seems to verge on forgery rather than homage. “Panda’s” now iconic brag “I got broads in Atlanta” seems directly targeted at the rapper down south, especially given that the imitative teenager had never, at the time of the song’s writing, been to Atlanta. Desiigner then followed up his Pablo-catalyzed success with additional, targeted provocations. His next released track, “Pluto,” borrows its name straight from Future’s first album, Pluto, released three years prior. As of this writing, Selby continues to troll the more established rapper. In April 2016, he superimposed himself in front of an image of Prince’s Purple Rain to announce his new mixtape (Future’s most recent mixtape, Purple Reign, had come out only months before), and in July, he covered Future’s recently released single at an Atlantic City nightclub. This ongoing, career-defining imitation clearly transcends the strategy of pastiche by recorded cover rather than appropriated sample. But to parse what Kanye might be up to, we need to take a brief detour through the intellectual history of “authorship” in the art and literature of the last ninety-nine years.

Panda & Dada

Over the course of the preceding century, the question of what it means to author a work of art has come under increasingly focused critique. While the cult of the genius—the celebration of the artist as brilliant, reclusive, and the sole voice behind the work—served as a lynchpin of the nineteenth-century Romantics, this construction still drives the way Kanye encourages his listeners to think about his music. “Name one genius,” West rhetorically asks, “who ain’t crazy?” Kanye often seems to play the part of a postmodern, postcelebrity strum and drang icon, but to understand the coup of Desiigner, it is necessary to sketch out the ways in which prior artists and theorists have attempted to destabilize the Romantic transparency between author and work.

Indeed, one of the most popular strategies for prising apart the assumed immediacy between an artist and his or her creations has been for the artist to adopt a fictional name, or even an entire character. Almost exactly ninety-nine years to the month before the release of Pablo, the newly modern art world was wrestling with its first pseudonym-based succès de scandale after Duchamp submitted a “sculpture” to a prestigious juried exhibition under the pseudonym R. Mutt. That sculpture, Fountain, was simply a urinal Duchamp had purchased from a nearby hardware store. As a recognized European avant-gardist residing in the cultural backwater of New York City, Duchamp was actually serving on the jury to which Mutt had submitted his plumbing fixture reconsidered as art.[10]

When his fellow jurors rejected the work—arguing that an unmodified urinal was beyond the pale—he resigned in protest, an act that catalyzed a furious back-and-forth in the pages of newspapers and art periodicals. Duchamp and his contemporary apologists argued that Fountain revealed the way in which art was a constructed category, built on the shifting sands of cultural definition. What made the toilet art was not some intrinsic quality of the object, but rather its social designation: chosen by an artist and exhibited as such, the urinal underwent a kind of elevation. But while Duchamp may have been attempting to draw attention to the arbitrariness of the art object, the intervening century has seen many draw the counterpoint lesson from the Fountain overflow. Namely, the status and meaning of an artwork is not determined by the thing in itself, but rather by the name of the artist who undersigns it.

This question of how we assign value based on who rather than what was taken up repeatedly by experimental artists and writers of the twentieth century. Perhaps the most poetic take on the question belongs to Borges, whose oft-cited “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” poses a fantastical scenario about indistinguishable works produced by different authors. The story imagines its eponymous literary historian attempting to immerse himself so deeply in the language of Cervantes that he will be able to organically rewrite Don Quixote, line by line identical with the seventeenth-century original, but as an authentic product of his own modern mind. The narrator of this story, the source of the epigraph of the present article, insists the latter Quixote to be “almost infinitely richer” than the original. The literary achievement of Cervantes pales in comparison to that of Menard because of the much more tortuous journey necessary to arrive at a storied, but completely predetermined, destination.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the role of the author’s name also became a site for serious investigation by literary theorists and intellectual historians. Most notably, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault each wrote an influential essay examining this issue. While Barthes’s “Death of the Author” and Foucault’s “What is an Author” were framed differently—the former was more concerned with literary reception, the latter with historical and scientific claims to truth—their central claims were consonant with one another.[11] For both Barthes and Foucault, the name of a highly regarded author served to stabilize what would otherwise be a body of disconnected texts. Crystallizing the notion of SHAKESPEARE around a group of plays (many of which maintain contested origins) delimits the textual artifacts in a way that allows critics and historians to impute motive, significance, and even genius into them.

In the 1980s, these ideas became the driving force behind an important group of American artists, most notably Sherrie Levine, who sought to explore and expose the ways in which the names of (famous, white, dead) men are the guarantors of value in the art world. Levine’s most notorious strategy involved appropriating the photographs of the ostensible “modern masters” of photography, photographing prints by Edward Weston and Walker Evans and presenting the resulting work (visually indistinguishable from the original) as her own.[12] Levine drew her precedents from the above-described nexus of ideas—borrowing Barthes’s “Death of Author” almost whole cloth—but it is worth observing the way in which the appropriative strategy of Levine and the larger Pictures generation evolved synchronously with origins of sampling culture in early hip hop. The widespread availability of copying media coincided with the intellectual currents of postmodernism in a way that it became newly possible to create an oeuvre out of other people’s work.

So Who is this “Pablo” Anyway?

While Barthes and Borges were probably closer to the front of Levine’s mind than West’s, the question of what it means to fill the role of the “creator” is written all over Pablo. Notably, Kanye has repeatedly characterized the project as a Gospel album, and beyond the lofty sounds of the choir near the opening, the model of losing and then finding one’s way on the Path structures the arc of Pablo. The album opens with a childlike call to cast out Satan, descends through a series of slippages from spiritual excitation to a manic, dark vision of overwrought sexuality, finds itself with Kanye encountering a vision of Kim as the Virgin Mary in a nightclub, briefly resurfaces with a note of optimism, and then dissolves on a note of existential despair with the final track “St. Pablo.”

It is this nexus of Christian spirituality, rap-world braggadocio and art-world erudition that gave Kanye his new alter ego Pablo. Paul the Apostle, West explains, “was the strongest influencer of Christianity, Pablo Escobar was the biggest mover of product, and Pablo Picasso was the biggest mover of art.”[13] An enormous number of pages could be written about this intersection, but the essential point for the purposes of this article is the way in which this this three-fold “Pablo” model entails a kind of return. Pablo envisions Kanye back into the role of what Barthes dismissed as the obsolete model of the “Author God” or what West talks about when he refers to himself as a “Rap God”—the artist creating the miniuniverse of the work of art de novo.

This model of divine creation—in which every facet reflects the will and intention of its making—is mostly clearly delineated in “I Love Kanye,” the album’s ninth track. In the demarcated middle of an album that, for the most part, is a Kanye meditation on Kanye, West inserted a song that muses hypothetically about writing a song about himself. “What if Kanye wrote a song about Kanye?” he wonders. “Man, that would be SO Kanye,” he decides. This track is a tour de force of meta-authorship, a culmination of a career in which he was alternatively celebrated and denounced for keeping himself as his most important muse. But the Borgesian tinge to “I Love Kanye,” in which the solidity of the author god involutes into a series of cascading shells, demonstrates the precarity of authorship in the mode of Yeezey. While lyrically he aspires to divine status—the title of Pablo’s predecessor, Yeezus, demonstrates this quite clearly—the price for these aspirations is the gnawing sense of unease palpable throughout Pablo. It is a burden enough to make it nearly impossible, per West, to “name one genius that ain’t crazy.”

Indeed, the eccentric creative is a mode that has become increasingly important to West’s public self-presentation over the course of his career. One of West’s protégés, the rapper Rick Ross, even went so far as to suggest that Kanye’s highly publicized recent troubles were all a part of an elaborate plan to instantiate his one-of a kind creativity.[14] And while the line between a personal crisis and a persona crisis may be impossible to determine, West has clearly worked to pattern himself partly off of the paradigm of the Romantic—misunderstood and troubled in his lifetime, only to be recognized as a visionary with the benefit of hindsight. In this way, the Pablo of Picasso bleeds into larger cultural stereotypes derived indirectly from older figures such as Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and El Greco. The Picasso allusion in fact serves to deflect this Romantic suffering into the realm of commercial success: the Spaniard was the first modern artist to be feted (and commercially valued) as an historical genius in his own lifetime.

And what better way to insist on the singularity of your creative possibilities than to “design” an entire artist from scratch. On one level, the alter-ego serves a similarly destabilizing function as it served for Duchamp and Borges. As an R. Mutt, Desiigner becomes a technique of trolling of the rap world by violating the implicit norms governing creativity and originality, while his nearly indistinguishable sound also positions him as a kind of Pierre Menard to Future’s Cervantes. But here, this status as quasi counterfeit becomes a means through which Kanye tips his hand back to himself. The unknown artist sampled on Pablo could never have organically derived this sound. He must have been desi(i)gned.

Coda, Disowning Desiigner

But, like much of the rest of the album, the relationship between author and artwork closes on a note of complexity and confusion, with West seeming to disown Selby. No one, it seems, can reject a creation quite like its creator. The claim in question emerges in the middle of “Facts,” a discordantly aggressive track situated in the midst of the album’s mostly introspective final chapter. “Facts” addresses Kanye’s shoe endorsement deal with Adidas, and the song is framed as a rejoinder to Drake (and Future’s) track “Jumpman,” which touts Drake’s parallel deal with Nike shoes produced under the imprimatur of the Jordan Jumpman logo. In the chorus of “Facts,” West rails against Nike, repeatedly proclaiming, “Yeezey just jumped over Jumpman.”

The most significant line is buried deep in the verse. In a track largely about his commercial prowess and the brands that come and go under his affiliation, West subtly cuts his ties with Selby. “I done wore designers I won’t wear again,” West raps. “Make them n***as famous, they get arrogant.” While the internet reception of this line has tended to focus on its surface meaning—Kanye the fickle tastemaker—this literal interpretation is only reinforced when one considers its fairly blatant double entendre. Now that he is famous in his own right—and bearing out the concomitant arrogance—Desiigner will not continue as a Kanye character.

This disavowal is redoubled in the music video for “Panda.” The video is composed of otherwise interchangeable (though artfully shot) footage of stock gangsta rap scenes—tough looking guys in street wear hanging outside of dingy looking apartments, police buzzing by on patrol—intercut with second person, body-mounted footage of Selby rapping and spinning around in nervous excitation. This manic presentation is an extension (or perhaps a self-parody) of his hyper-energized, over-the-top performance style, for which he was frequently mocked on Internet comment threads. His mania reached a famous apotheosis on 22 April 2016, when, on stage during a concert, he vomited from a combination of nerves, excitement and too much spinning. During the “Panda” video, a selfie-esque body mounted camera on Selby partially stabilizes his turbulent movements. The ecstatic Desiigner we see on camera is caught in isolated stillness, with his world around him spinning far too fast to perceive. Selby’s exuberance to the point of nausea eloquently attests to the emotional state of a teenager actually caught in this situation: catapulted to success beyond your wildest dreams by accepting a bit part in someone else’s drama.

In the video itself, the question of the authorial voice rears its head at the end. In the final chorus, West makes a surprise appearance, silently taking the wheel of a white BMW X6 (the car that “look like a panda,” per the song’s chorus), while Selby chatters away his rap in the passenger seat. The action briefly cuts to Selby rapping in the parking lot, with Kanye lingering menacingly behind him (a creator watching his creation?), and then, back to the car, with West laughing viciously as he squeals donut turns. Kanye, we are left with no doubt, is firmly in the driver’s seat.

When considered through this lens, West’s designed provocation functions as a counterpoint to the interventions of Duchamp or Sherry Levine, all of which cut against the unwritten rules of their genre forms. Both of these latter, visual artists pushed against seemingly inviolable credo of artistic originality—and thereby asked questions about the meaning of the philosophical and political structure behind the artistic gesture—by essentially presenting the work of others as their own. By contrast, West’s challenge to decorum hammers at his own creative prowess: conjuring a character out of thin Instagram air and making him into an (almost) freestanding performer. Indeed, some have seen a darker tinge to West’s artistic ontology, with Slate magazine’s Katy Waldman going so far as to argue for a fascist thread connecting West’s music with Trump’s politics.[15] And while West does intimate in a Pablo lyric that “2020, I’m ‘ma run the whole election,” the emphasis of electoral politics misses the stakes of the Desiigner in(ter)vention. West elevates the stuff of a quotidian rap beef—one performer “stealing” another’s sound—into a discursive strategy that reimagines the modernist traditions of meta-authorship. In so doing, West might even be said to bring the Duchampian gesture full circle. Instead of a readymade commercial object repurposed as art, West repurposes an artist into a new kind of commercial, made-for-radio readymade.

Michael Maizels is an art historian and curator based at the University of Arkansas.  His first book on the artist Barry Le Va was published by the University of Minnesota press in 2015.  His second book, on the history of avant-garde art and music, is  currently under review. He has also published widely on topics including including media and performance art, hip hop, and conceptual art and mathematics. In 2016, he curated The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer, the first museum exhibition ever given to a single videogame designer.

Thomas Ray Willis is an artist working across media and in installation, with a particular interest in the rituals of the experience economy. His outlook is informed by the parallel worlds of his hometown––Las Vegas––as both a local community and Vegas as spectacle. Willis’s art has been featured in publications such as Big Red & Shiny, The Las Vegas Weekly, and The Huffington Post. His work has been exhibited across the United States with works in both public and private institutions such as the Luo Ruvo Center for Brain Health (NV), Socrates Sculpture Park (NY), Wellesley College (MA), and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas (NV). Willis received his BFA in painting and drawing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in 2009, and is currently living in Queens (NY) where he is pursuing his Master of Fine Arts at New York University.

NOTES

[1] Well almost nobody. Montreality’s animated short “Kanye’s Laboratory,” which casts West in the role of Dr. Frankenstein to his monster Desiigner, pretty much captures the gist of the present argument.

[2] Discussing the reaction of producer Mike Will Made It. Brian Hiatt, “Future: Syrup, Strippers and Heavy Angst With the Superstar MC,” Rolling Stone, 29  June 2016, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/future-syrup-strippers-and-heavy-angst-with-the-superstar-mc-20160629 . DJ Akedemiks makes a similar claim in a 31 August 2017 interview.

[3] For Jay Z and Mase, author correspondence with Terrance Lomax, independent hip hop expert.  For Diddy/Biggie, see Staff, “The Rise of and Fall of Guerrilla Black,” XXL Magazine, 11 July 2013, http://www.xxlmag.com/news/2013/07/the-rise-and-fall-of-guerilla-black/

[4] https://twitter.com/kanyewest/status/691489910293991424. The Tweet is no longer available on Twitter.

[5] See upload dates on  https://soundcloud.com/lifeofdesiigner/desiigner-king-savage-zombie-walk  and https://soundcloud.com/lifeofdesiigner/desiigner-panda

[6] Joyce, “Desiigner Performs “Zombie Walk,” Shares Story of How Song Got Its Name,” Pigeons And Planes, 5 Oct. 2016, http://pigeonsandplanes.com/music/2016/10/desiigner-zombie-walk-88rising-interview

[7] Danny Scwartz, “Desiigner Reveals Title Of His Debut Album,” Hot New Hip Hop, 24 May 2016, https://www.hotnewhiphop.com/desiigner-reveals-title-of-debut-album-news.21811.html

[8]Eric Diep, “How Desiigner’s ‘Panda” Ended up on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo,”Genius, 16 Feb. 2016, genius.com/a/how-desiigners-panda-ended-up-on-kanye-wests-the-life-of-pablo

[9] See for example the multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed against West for one of the samples used in the 2005 track “Gold Digger.”

[10] For the best treatment of Fountain and its attendant controversies, see Thieery de Duve, “Echoes of the Readymade: Critique of Pure Modernism,” The Duchamp Effect, ed. Martha Buskirk and Mignon Nixon (Cambridge, Mass., 1996), pp. 93-131.

[11] Roland Barthes, “The Death Of The Author,” Image – Music – Text,  trans. and ed. Stephen Heath (New York, 1977), pp. 142-148. Technically, Foucault’s contribution was first written as a lecture and only later disseminated in written form; see Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion (New York, 1998), pp. 205-22. See also Sean Burke, The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida (Edinburgh, 2008).

[12] For the most comprehensive treatment of Levine’s work, see Howard Singerman, Art History After Sherry Levine (Berkeley, 2011).

[13] Yohance Kyles, “Kanye West Explains The Meaning Of The Life Of Pablo Title,” All Hip Hop, 22 Apr. 2016, http://allhiphop.com/2016/04/22/kanye-west-explains-the-meaning-of-the-life-of-pablo-title/

[14] Jay Knight, “Rick Ross: Kanye Played Y’all with Mental ‘Breakdown,’” TMZ, 12 Dec. 2016, http://www.tmz.com/2016/12/12/rick-ross-kanye-west-meltdown-fake/

[15] Katy Waldman, “Donald’s Beautiful Dark Fascist Fantasy,” Slate, 14 Dec. 2016, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/12/when_donald_trump_met_kanye_west_one_ego_vanquished_another.html

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“Terror” at the University of Chicago

W. J. T. MItchell

The attached poster (redacted to remove students’ names) was created by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. It was posted anonymously and illegally in several places at the University of Chicago last week, as classes were resuming. It is the second time that the Horowitz’s campaign of intimidation has attacked students and faculty at the University of Chicago.

David Horowitz is a well-known flack for the radical right. His “Freedom Center” has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He believes that anyone who exercises his or her right to free speech to criticize the state of Israel or defend the rights of Palestinians with nonviolent means is automatically a supporter of terrorism. He has carried this message to several American universities, including Berkeley, Irvine, DePaul, and now the University of Chicago. His tactics are similar to those of sexual harassers and racists who like to hang nooses to intimidate black students or send threatening Twitter messages to bully those they disagree with. Fortunately, his name appears on these posters; the people who sneak around posting them may be able to hide, but he cannot.

So far the University of Chicago’s administration has declined to call out Horowitz by name and to demand that he cease and desist in promoting these defamatory attacks. If you feel that universities should be more proactive about banning these kinds of attacks, please make your views known. This kind of campaign has nothing to do with freedom of speech. It is a form of hate speech, and like the recent Russian attacks on US elections, it corrupts social media by circulating lies and slander to produce division and paranoia, not to mention its potential for damaging the careers of vulnerable students and faculty.

I am proud to say that I was one of the professors subjected to this vile, slanderous attack. If we are known by the company we keep, we are perhaps even better known by the enemies we make. And I am happy to call David Horowitz and his nasty, cowardly minions my enemies. FDR put it best in 1936, when he said “I welcome their hatred.” He was referring to the right-wing reactionaries who tried to block the New Deal that rescued the United States from the worst depression in history. I hope Horowitz will send me a copy of his poster so I can hang it up in my office. The artist who drew my portrait has flattered me by making me look a bit like Salman Rushdie. Can I assume that this means that the Ayatollah Horowitz has declared a fatwa on me?

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A Case for Neurohumanities

Ana Hedberg Olenina

1. Introduction: The Current Status of Neuroscience Vis-à-Vis the Humanities

Over the past twenty years, evolving technologies have allowed us to map the activity of the brain with unprecedented precision. Initially driven by medical goals, neuroscience has advanced to the level where it is rapidly transforming our understanding of emotions, empathy, reasoning, love, morality, and free will. What is at stake today is our sense of the self: who we are, how we act, how we experience the world, and how we interact with it. By now nearly all of our subjective mental states have been tied to some particular patterns of cortical activity. Beyond the radical philosophical implications, these studies have far-reaching social consequences. Neuroscientists are authoritatively establishing norms and deviations; they make predictions about our behavior based on processes that lie outside our conscious knowledge and control. The insights of neuroscience are being imported into the social sphere, informing debates in jurisprudence, forensics, healthcare, education, business, and politics. A recent collection of essays, compiled by Semir Zeki, a leading European proponent of applied neuroscience, in collaboration with the American lawyer Oliver Goodenough, calls for further integration of lab findings into discussions of public policy and personnel training.[1] Neuroscience thus plays an increasingly active role in shaping society, intervening into the arena traditionally overseen by the humanistic disciplines: political science, law theory, sociology, history, and philosophy.

In the cultural sphere, neuroscience has invigorated the study of art psychology by highlighting neurophysiological processes that accompany the creation and appreciation of art. Within the burgeoning transdisciplinary field of neuroaesthetics, researchers are evaluating the responses of the amygdala to paintings ranked by subjects as pleasant or unpleasant, documenting patterns of distraction during the reading of Jane Austen’s novels, and exploring the neural mechanisms involved in watching dance – to name but a few recent high-profile projects.[2] Yet, it is not always clear how the data gathered in these cutting-edge studies could figure in crucial disciplinary debates within literature, visual art, or performance studies. More often than not, laboratory experiments are operating with reductive models that take into account only a limited set of variables. In their current state, the neuro subfields within the humanities are making little use of the wealth of knowledge accumulated by the established methods of interpretation, such as historical contextualization, hermeneutics, formal analysis, semiotics, narratology, sociological reception studies, gender and ideological critique.

The “neuro-turn” sweeping the humanities has already generated a great deal of skepticism. Many of these objections revolve around the mind-body problem. As the philosopher Alva Noë, a long-term critic of applied neuroscience, puts it, no research has ever been able to demonstrate how consciousness arises out of brain processes.[3] The reduction of our mind to the latter is not simply a pet peeve of the entrenched humanitarians; rather, it is bad science. To give an obvious example, writes Noë, considering depression as solely a neurochemical brain disorder would mean disregarding the social and psychological factors that contributed to it.[4] By analogy, detailing the functional anatomy of the brain will not provide us with a full picture of the subject’s unique lifetime experiences, which have influenced the formation of cortical synapses. What is more, in explaining mental states on the basis of brain processes, scientists are often drawing on animal research without duly acknowledging the vast gap that separates us from other species. In doing so, researchers frequently fall prey to what Raymond Tallis calls the fallacy of “Darwinitis” (to be distinguished from legitimate Darwinism), where the complexity of our mental behavior is reduced to a simplified account of evolutionary adaptation.[5]

The fact that the study of the social and cultural life of the mind is now being outsourced to neuroscience is a direct consequence of the routine defunding of the humanities. As Joseph Dumit points out, the undercutting of the humanities and more traditional psychology “means that certain arenas of inquiry are being starved of evidence.”[6] In the long run, such erosion of specialist knowledge is not good for neuroscience itself – if it indeed aspires to a nuanced view of a system as infinitely complex as the human mind. With regards to financial backing, an alarming trend is currently starting to thwart the prospects of neuroscience as such. Once, fundamental research into the functioning of the central nervous system relied on the big pharmaceutical companies, which invested in developing new drugs for brain disorders. Between 2009 and 2012, however, the majority of international drug corporations, such as GlaxoSmithCline, AstraZeneka, Pfizer, Merck, Sanofi, and Novatis, began to wind down these programs, because they realized that it was more profitable to issue slightly modified versions of the already existent, FDA-approved medications rather than pursue the costly and risky research for new products.[7] Paradoxically, then, in the midst of surging enthusiasm for all things neuro, new medical research on the brain is shrinking. The plateauing serves the current business model of the drug producers, but to presume that everything we need to know about the brain has been already discovered is preposterous. And yet, as another sign of the times, Dumit cites the complete exclusion of experimental cognitive neuroscience from The Human Brain Project (HBP): a multi-billion dollar EU venture to simulate the entirety of cerebral processes on the computer.[8] The HBP was founded on the astounding premise that “previous neuroscientific research has already generated most of the data necessary for understanding the human brain from genes to cognition.”[9] Once again, the plateauing of fundamental research is being justified by a new priority: the translation of biological processes into digital codes and algorithms. To model the brain in silico would mean to ascertain the EU’s status as a world leader in neurotechnology. It is disturbing to think that research standards within neuroscience proper are so tightly tied to the political and business priorities of its funders.

2. What Can We Learn from History?

Looking back in time may help us understand the promises and limitations of neuroscience and its impact on the cultural and public spheres. My own research focuses on what may be seen as the precursor of neuroscience at the turn of the twentieth century – the discipline of physiological psychology, which pioneered the systematic quest for the physical underpinning of mental states. In the late nineteenth century, laboratories of experimental psychology introduced instruments, procedures, and modes of representation that focused on patterns of muscular contractions and changes in vital signs as markers of nervous activity. This data was then deployed in the study of cognitive and affective processes. New scientific discourses rapidly penetrated into a broader cultural sphere, generating wide interest in the question how the body participates in and reflects affective and cognitive processes.

My work examines the repercussions of these methods for the arts, revealing the factors that motivated writers, actors, and filmmakers in the 1910s-1920s to reformulate corporeality in accordance with recent trends in science. These factors ranged from a search for a more immediate transcription of unconscious creative impulses in handwriting, articulatory movements, and gestures, to utilitarian concerns with optimizing labor efficiency and raising the effectiveness of spectacles and propaganda. Both a history and a critical project, my book attends to the ways in which artists and theorists dealt with the materialist reductionism inherent in biologically-oriented psychology – at times, endorsing the positivist, deterministic outlook, and at times, resisting, reinterpreting, and defamiliarizing scientific notions. I am particularly interested in cases in which the explanatory power of science was overstretched, leading to dubious results. For example, in 1928, the inventor of the polygraph lie detector, William Moulton Marston, was recruited by Universal Studios to gauge the emotional responses of film spectators by recording changes in their respiration patterns and systolic blood pressure. Yet, Marston’s findings only replicated gender stereotypes of his time in suggesting that women spectators are predisposed to fall for scenes of romantic conquest.[10]

Overall, what I have learned from my study is that:

  • Science always exists in contexts, both institutional and political
  • Science is not neutral: biases play into the design of experiments and interpretation of data, as well as the extrapolation of findings beyond each individual experiment
  • The application of science in other areas – law, business, education, or aesthetics– is never a direct, transparent channeling of “truth” to achieve more “progressive” results.

This explains why I am alarmed by the news of technologies such as “brain fingerprinting” entering the arsenal of police interrogators. [11] Brain fingerprinting supposedly can reveal whether the subject has any vivid emotional memories associated with the circumstances of the crime, as it detects surges of electrical activity of the brain in response to the interrogator’s prompts. Heavily criticized by leading neuroscientists as underdeveloped, this technology has nevertheless been already adopted in court procedures in India, and is currently being tested in Singapore and the state of Florida.[12] Working on the nineteenth and early twentieth century, I am very familiar with the devastating social consequences of discredited scientific concepts such as phrenology, Alphonse Bertillon’s photographic galleries of rogues, and the polygraph lie detector. And I cannot agree more with the Italian neuroscientists Paolo Legrenzi and Carlo Umiltà, who warn that laboratories of applied neuroscience often misrepresent the revelatory powers of brain research.[13] I believe that errors in science will eventually be corrected by science itself, but the intervention of the humanities is necessary in order to avoid the oversimplification of premises used in experiments and to warn policy makers about rushed wholesale applications of neuroscienscientific data.

In their book asserting the usefulness of neuroscience for law, Zeki and Goodenough brush off the historical misgivings of a purely biological perspective on the mind:

To the extent that biological approaches had been included in the great arguments of the twentieth century between fascism, communism, capitalism, socialism, dictatorship and liberal democracy, they wore a distorted and appropriately discredited aspect that had more to do with political expediency than with any accurate application of the admittedly limited science of the time. But that biology had been thus misused in the past is not a good reason for not taking into account its findings in the future, always of course with appropriate safeguards.[14]

Yet, who will be issuing the safeguards if the humanities continue to erode?

3. Conclusion

The humanities can help neuroscience to become aware of its current blindspots, to define more profound questions for research experiments, and design more sensitive and responsible methods for applying scientific insights outside the laboratory space. In particular, I would like to highlight several issues, where the sharing of expertise between neuroscience and the humanities would be crucial.

  • In the field of neuroaesthetics, how can we account for the complexity of human engagement with art objects? Too often we hear of studies that operate with a reductive model of aesthetic experience, relying on the subject’s reports of pleasure correlated with certain cortical activity and formal patterns of the art piece. Yet, to be impressive, art does not necessarily need to be pleasure inducing. Moreover, the perceptual properties of an art piece are not the only variable shaping our response; a much greater role is played by our cultural knowledge, memory, and imagination. Is there a way to create an empirical, quantificational method to factor in these variables? This formidable task cannot be accomplished without cultural historians, communication specialists, psychologists, and sociologists. Working towards this goal would give us a more nuanced view of the individual, contextualized, situational reactions, instead of the limited sets of universal, ahistorical laws that neuroscience gravitates toward.
  • What can we learn from the past? An inquiry into the social and political consequences of biologically-oriented approaches to the human mind, prominent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, may help us anticipate the potential dangers of overstretching neuroscience’s findings. Likewise, a study of artists’ and cultural theorists’ engagement with neurophysiological psychology in the past provides both cautionary tales and forgotten insights relevant for contemporary research priorities.
  • Foucauldian historiography may help open our eyes on the very functioning of what Nima Bassiri calls the current “regime of neuroscientific reasoning.”[15] The history of science teaches us that “the emergent authority of the neuroscience is a consequence of, among other things, complex political, economic and material contingencies rather than a consequence quasi-metaphisical revelations of the brain’s processes.”[16] What factors compel today’s research institutions, educators, politicians, and law enforcement agencies to embrace the neuroscientific explanations of human mind? In what way such reframing of our individual selves reflects the anxieties and impasses of our culture at this particular historical moment?
  • In light of the recent assertions that gender identity and sexual orientation are fixed during the fetal development of the brain, it is crucially important to draw on the expertise of women and gender studies specialists in the humanities. In working with neuroscientists, these experts could help create more nuanced categories of gender identity to be used in experimental setups, as well as more comprehensive and responsible interpretations of results. Moreover, as Sigrid Schmitz and Grit Hoppner argue in their article on “neurofeminism,” the recent research on the plasticity of the brain points to the “social influences on the gendered development of the brain and of behavior,” therefore opening up further avenues for transdisciplinary collaboration between brain scientists and humanities.[17]
  • Last but not least, the humanities may help to prevent the uncritical overstretching of “neuro-facts” and “neuro-explanations” in the popular media and applied neuroscience technologies. A very sensitive area, where such intervention is needed, is law theory, criminology, and court ethics.

 

 

 

Ana Hedberg Olenina is an assistant professor of comparative literature and media studies at Arizona State University and the founder of an interdisciplinary research cluster Embodied Cognition in Performance.  Her essays on performance in the Soviet avant-garde cinema, modern dance, and the history of applied psychology have appeared in journals such as Discourse and Film History, as well as several anthologies in Russia, the US, and Germany. Her current book project, Psychomotor Aesthetics: Movement and Affect in Russian and American Modernity,  traces the ways in which early-twentieth-century film directors, actors, and performance theorists used the psychological ideas of their time to conceptualize expressive movement and transference of emotion.

 

[1]See Oliver R. Goodenough and Semir Zeki, Law and the Brain (New York, 2006), p. xiii.

[2] See Zeki and T. Ishizu, “The Brain’s Specialized Systems for Aesthetic and Perceptual Judgment,” European Journal of Neuroscience 37 (2013): 1413-20; Natalie Phillips, “Distraction as Liveliness of Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Characterization in Jane Austen,” Theory of Mind and Literature, ed. Paula Leverage (West Lafayette, Ind., 2011), pp. 105-22; and Bettina Bläsing et al., The Neurocognition of Dance: Mind, Movement and Motor Skills (New York, 2010).

[3] See Alva Noë, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (New York, 2009), p. vi.

[4] See Ibid., viii.

[5] See Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Durham, England, 2011).

[6] Joseph Dumit, “The Fragile Unity of Neuroscience,” Neuroscience and Critique: Exploring the Limits of the Neurological Turn, ed. Jan Vos and Ed Pluth (New York, 2016), pp. 223-30, 226.

[7] See ibid., p. 226.

[8] See ibid., p. 226.

[9] Phillip Haueis and Jan Slaby, “Brain in the Shell: Assessing the Stakes and the Transformative Potential of the Human Brain Project,” Neuroscience and Critique, p. 120.

[10] See Ana Olenina, “The Doubly Wired Spectator: Psychophysiological Research on Cinematic Pleasure in the 1920s.” Film History: An International Journal 27, no.1 (2015): 29-57.

[11] See David Cox, “Can Your Brain Reveal You Are a Liar?” BBC Future, 25 Jan. 2016, www.bbc.com/future/story/20160125-is-it-wise-that-the-police-have-started-scanning-brains

[12] See ibid.

[13] See Paolo Legrenzi and Carlo Umiltà, Neuromania: On the Limits of Brain Science (New York, 2011).

[14] Goodenough and Zeki, Law and the Brain, p. xii.

[15] Nima Bassiri, “Who Are We, If We Are Indeed Our Brains?” Neuroscience and Critique, p. 45.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Sigrid Schmitz and Grit Hoppner. “Neurofeminism and Feminist Neurosciences: A Critical Review of Contemporary Brain Research.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 25 July 2014, journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00546/full

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Hurricanes!

Bill Ayers

A natural and expected reaction to the disasters in Texas and Florida is the normal, everyday human response: as fellow creatures, we will help you. Of course.

But when we watch Governors Abbott and Scott rolling up the sleeves of their work shirts, donning their “NAVY” baseball caps, and offering the optics of responsible leadership, it’s only fair to point out that these guys and their donors and allies are leading climate change deniers, that they’ve intentionally underfunded infrastructure development and safety programs, that they are austerity hawks who consistently serve the interests of the banksters and their hedge-fund homies, that they are vicious America-firsters and proponents of the harshest treatment of immigrants, and that they always seem to want FEMA, the EPA, and Washington “off our backs…” except for right now. They urge us to keep politics away from a “natural disaster,” and with the complicity of the bought media and the chattering class it is done—endless images of flood and storm, less and less illuminating as the catastrophe rolls forward, and not a peep about the climate chaos brought on by human-caused change and run-away predatory capitalism. And within the ballooning hypocrisy this: immigrant scrutiny and harsh treatment will be suspended for the storm, so please go to shelters; after the storm, back to normal: scapegoating, targeting, exploiting, oppressing. The gathering catastrophic storms here in Chicago and around the country—terrible schools, scarce jobs and crisis-level unemployment, shoddy health care, inadequate housing, and occupying militarized police forces—are of no interest to the political and financial classes, or the 1%. It’s up to us to organize and rise!

Original posted at https://billayers.org/2017/09/10/hurricanes/

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Boycott Dossier

There follows a series of three short papers delivered at the 2016 conference of the Modern Language Association, along with three letters written by individuals, discussing and explaining their support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign (BDS) called for by a number of Palestinian organizations. The papers are authored by three former presidents of other scholarly organizations that did, unlike the MLA, pass resolutions in support of boycott: Mark Rifkin (Native American and Indigenous Studies Association); Curtis Marez (American Studies Association); and Cathy Schlund-Vials (Association for Asian American Studies). They describe aspects of the debates within their organizations about who gets to speak (and vote) for whom (and what), and how appropriate it is for such bodies to express political opinions. The three letters by individuals  (Tim Reiss, Jacques Lezra, Bruce Robbins) were originally written for the website “MLA Members for Justice in Palestine” (April, July 2016).

David Simpson

 

 

The Process of Indigenous Alliance Building: NAISA Joins the Boycott

Mark Rifkin, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

What does it mean for an academic association to join the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel?  In the case of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), the organization itself does not engage in institutional relations with particular universities, except in terms of the committees that apply to host the annual meeting.  Since the chances of receiving such a request from a university in Israel were and are quite slim, what’s at stake in NAISA committing itself to the boycott?  The issue, actually, is even more focused: the governing council of NAISA can speak for the organization, but it’s statements are in no way binding on the activities of members.  With respect to something like the BDS movement in its various manifestations, NAISA Council could only offer a suggestion to the membership, could only state what the Council took to be the principles and ethical considerations at play in the question of boycotting Israeli cultural and academic institutions.  Again, then, why would NAISA “join” the boycott when the apparent material effects of doing so seem so minimal?  That question, though, does not really capture the stakes for me, nor I think for the other members of NAISA Council who voted unanimously to support the boycott.  The question guiding our actions was something more like, What does it mean not to declare ourselves in favor of the boycott (and implicitly of BDS more broadly)?

Before addressing this question, let me give you some background on how we came to endorse the boycott and what followed.  We received a petition in mid-August 2013 from a substantial portion of the membership asking the council officially to declare for the boycott.  According to the association bylaws, “The NAISA Council is empowered to speak for the association on public issues where these directly affect our work as scholars and educators. Such issues include, but are not restricted to, academic freedom and freedom of access to information.”  The governing council meets once a month via skype, and we addressed the issue of supporting the boycott in several meetings that fall.  Once we had decided to express council’s support for the boycott, we were left with the task of drafting a public statement, since we wanted to craft something that captured council members’ sense of the questions and issues at play rather than simply signing onto a statement written by someone else.  A subcommittee drafted a statement, which we discussed and edited at length; we approved that final statement in early-December, and it was emailed out to the membership and posted on the NAISA website about a week later.  The then-President and Secretary, Chad Allen and David Chang, received a good deal of nasty email in response, with the rest of us getting some but substantially less than they did.  (Someone did donate money in my name to the Israeli Defense Forces, so I periodically would receive thank-you letters from the IDF.)  The biggest consequence we faced was that the University of Texas at Austin, which was providing a large amount toward subsidizing the cost of our annual meeting that coming May, threatened to pull their funds, but in the end they did not (thanks to the excellent work of our host committee cochairs, Shannon Speed and Jim Cox).  While some members may have been upset, there was little in the way of public condemnation and no interest in discussing the matter during the association’s regular business meeting during the annual conference that May.  NAISA has continued to grow steadily since that time, continuing the pattern of increase from before the boycott.  Whether we lost or picked up members from endorsing the boycott, I’m not sure, but it certainly has not been a negative factor in the well-being or scholarly reputation of the association.

Now to return to the question I posed before: What does it mean not to declare ourselves in favor of the boycott (and implicitly of BDS more broadly)?  The call by Palestinian Civil Society for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel states:

These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

  1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

This is a call to recognize the self-determination of a people whose lands are illegally and colonially occupied by a government whose authority they do not recognize.  It is a demand that the mass displacements that began with the Nakba and that continue to this day within the Occupied Territories and pre-1967 borders (including those of the Bedouin peoples of the Naqab) end and that those lands be returned.  Like in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the BDS call combines a demand for recognition of a people’s (or multiple peoples’) traditional territories with acknowledging their full rights to citizenship within the state that has claimed authority over them and their lands, a right which Israel has never provided except in the most hollow, cynical, and tenuous ways.  The issue, as understood by NAISA Council, was that of a settler-state that continued to exert illegitimate authority over indigenous homelands.  To remain silent, then, was to condone this violence in the face of an active request for aid by those so occupied.  Although not all Palestinians may understand themselves, their desired forms of political life, and their collective modes of placemaking as falling under the category indigenous as it has emerged within international movements, such articulations certainly have been offered in the past, are part of contemporary public and political discourses, and provide a legitimate framework through which to approach Palestinian histories and aspirations.  What, then, is solidarity if not the refusal to turn away?  What do our expressed principles and analyses mean if we are unwilling to put them into practice when called on to do so?

Here, I would like to print the NAISA statement in full:

The council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) declares its support for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

A broad coalition of Palestinian non-governmental organizations, acting in concert to represent the Palestinian people, formed the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Their call was taken up in the United States by the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. A NAISA member-initiated petition brought this issue to NAISA Council. After extensive deliberation on the merits of the petition, the NAISA Council decided by unanimous vote to encourage members of NAISA and all who support its mission to honor the boycott.

NAISA is dedicated to free academic inquiry about, with, and by Indigenous communities. The NAISA Council protests the infringement of the academic freedom of Indigenous Palestinian academics and intellectuals in the Occupied Territories and Israel who are denied fundamental freedoms of movement, expression, and assembly, which we uphold.

As the elected council of an international community of Indigenous and allied non-Indigenous scholars, students, and public intellectuals who have studied and resisted the colonization and domination of Indigenous lands via settler state structures throughout the world, we strongly protest the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the legal structures of the Israeli state that systematically discriminate against Palestinians and other Indigenous peoples.

NAISA is committed to the robust intellectual and ethical engagement of difficult and often highly charged issues of land, identity, and belonging. Our members will have varying opinions on the issue of the boycott, and we encourage generous dialogue that affirms respectful disagreement as a vital scholarly principle. We reject shaming or personal attacks as counter to humane understanding and the greater goals of justice, peace, and decolonization.

As scholars dedicated to the rights of Indigenous peoples, we affirm that our efforts are directed specifically at the Israeli state, not at Israeli individuals. The NAISA Council encourages NAISA members to boycott Israeli academic institutions because they are imbricated with the Israeli state and we wish to place pressure on that state to change its policies. We champion and defend intellectual and academic freedom, and we recognize that conversation and collaboration with individuals and organizations in Israel/Palestine can make an important contribution to the cause of justice. In recognition of the profound social and political obstacles facing Palestinians in such dialogues, however, we urge our members and supporters to engage in such actions outside the aegis of Israeli educational institutions, honoring this boycott until such time as the rights of the Palestinian people are respected and discriminatory policies are ended.

While I cannot speak for the entire council, I can say something more about my own reasons for agreeing that NAISA should endorse the boycott.  As many others before me have said, a certain exceptionalism haunts discussions of violence in Palestine and against Palestinians.  In much public discourse, such violence doesn’t quite get to count as organized state violence, or an intensifying system of racism, or the expansionist aggressions of a settler colonial regime.  Instead, it appears as national defense, or bringing civilization to the wilderness, or part of a tit-for-tat among putatively ancient enemies.  All of these stories are colonial fictions.  All of these ways of minimizing, dismissing, and forgetting the eliminatory project of the Israeli state with respect to Palestinian people/peoples leave aside the asymmetry of force employed among the parties, the dependence of the existence of the Israeli state on ongoing and proliferating Palestinian dispossession, and the sanctioning (if not active incitement) of Israeli violence through the various kinds of aid provided within extant imperial networks (of which the US is most culpable).  To be for indigenous self-determination and to stand against empire in the present moment and not to take part in BDS seems to me incomprehensible.

With that being said, there’s one last thing that I should note.  One of the questions that emerged among indigenous scholars based in the US in the discussion surrounding the boycott was, why Israel?  Or, more specifically, why Israel and not here?  Why is settler colonialism by Israel unacceptable and a site of proper international outrage and action, while the theft of indigenous lands in/as the US is unremarkable, or unremarked upon, or implicitly envisioned as somehow already completed such that Palestinians should be spared the extinction to which American Indians have been subjected.  What does it mean to understand the ongoing violence there as related to the ongoing violence here, to put a commitment to indigenous self-determination in that instance in the service of commitment to it on these still very much occupied lands?  When does the struggle against the colonial politics of Zionism open on to engagement with the colonial politics of US existence, and when does the visibility of the one collude in the other’s erasure?

 

The ASA’s Academic Boycott and the Right to Education

Curtis Marez, University of California, San Diego

In 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA), responding to a call from Palestinian civil society, endorsed a resolution boycotting Israeli academic institutions. According to its web site, the ASA

promotes the development and dissemination of interdisciplinary research on U.S. culture and history in a global context. Its purpose is to support scholars and scholarship committed to original research, critical thinking, and public dialogue. We are researchers, teachers, students, writers, curators, community organizers, and activists from around the world committed to the study and teaching of U.S. history and culture from multiple perspectives.

The ASA website goes on to say that the association advances and participates in public discussions relevant to the field. Indeed, the ASA has a long history of public engagement with pressing questions about the United States and its historic and ongoing relations with the world.

The ASA has made numerous public statements on contemporary issues, as in its support for women’s rights movements, its 2006 call for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, its statement in solidarity with the Occupy movement, and, more recently, a statement opposing violations of academic freedom in Turkey and a statement in support of the Standing Rock Lakota Nation. When selecting sites for its annual convention, the ASA also has a history of boycotting hotels with bad labor practices.

Since opponents of the ASA resolution questioned the democratic processes that resulted in its passage, it is worth rehearsing that history in some detail.[1] In 2013, the Community Activist Caucus of the ASA submitted a boycott resolution to the ASA Executive Committee (an elected body), which could have passed it or one of its own but decided it was an issue that should be discussed and voted on by the larger National Council (also an elected body) and the membership at large. So at the November 2013 national convention in Washington DC, the Executive Committee organized an open discussion attended by about 745 ASA members. Members distributed information about the boycott in advance and filled the hall with leaflets representing different perspectives. The moderators clearly explained the different actions that could be taken and the process for deliberation. To guarantee a fair and orderly discussion members who wished to speak put their name in a box from which speakers were randomly selected. Speakers were limited to 2 minutes, providing the opportunity to hear from forty-four different speakers during the session’s allotted time. The discussion was passionate but respectful. Speakers included students, faculty, past ASA Presidents, former members of the National Council, former and current members of the American Quarterly editorial staff, American Studies department chairs, the editor of the AAUP journal Academe, and an ASA member also representing the organization Jewish Voice for Peace. While speakers voiced different opinions, the vast majority spoke in support of the ASA endorsing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.[2]

After the convention, the ASA National Council remained in session for the next eight days to draft a resolution. The result reflects the history and present state of conversations within the ASA, providing a principled position for the Association’s participation in the academic boycott while respecting the different positions of our membership on this issue. Which is to say that the resolution is directed at institutions and not individuals, so has no effect on individual scholarly exchanges; nor is it binding for ASA members. The ASA boycott is thus a largely symbolic gesture but one with real consequences in terms of breaking “America’s Last Taboo” on critical discussions of US support for the Israeli occupation.[3] Finally, the council’s resolution was submitted to the members for a vote, and with an unprecedented voter turnout, it passed by a two thirds majority.

In the last several decades, the ASA has welcomed critical analyses of the US that reach beyond national borders and and that include US foreign policy. The association’s commitment to the “transnational turn” has been accompanied by the comparative study of borders, migration, and citizenship. The ASA also has a history of critical engagements with Native American and indigenous studies that has increasingly come to shape and influence the field, and the ASA resolution thus emerged in relationship to the comparative study of Israeli and US settler colonialism. Finally, the resolution is in keeping with the ASA’s continuing support for ethical research, the right of scholars to dissent and to take public positions, and the right to education.

The resolution, for example, places particular emphasis on the educational consequences of the occupation. Its third clause reads:

Whereas there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation, and Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students.

In its statement on the resolution, the National council emphasized “the impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; [and] the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights.”

In terms of the right to education, the ASA’s boycott resolution resonated with the 2013 ASA conference theme, “Beyond the Logic of Debt: Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent.” My presidential address, subsequently published in American Quarterly under the title “Seeing in the Red,” focused on student debt, which among other things helps pay for US university collaborations with Israeli institutions.[4] In my talk I asked what is the relationship between the policing of campus dissent on the one hand, and the disciplinary force of student debt, on the other? In distinct yet related ways, both student debt and the occupation of Palestinian territories imperil the right to education, or what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten call “study,” a practice of collective thought and social activity irreducible to and in fact antagonistic to market logics. This point was suggested by a recent contribution to AQ by Rana Sharif titled “The Right to Education: La Frontera to Gaza.” Sharif’s essay was part of a forum based on a teach-in at University of Southern California (USC) organized by David Lloyd and Laura Pulido about “the connections and differences between the struggles of the Chicana/o and Palestinian peoples.” Sharif notes that the “cartography” of the Israeli occupation, with its “fragmentation of land due to borders, checkpoints, barricades, and the apartheid wall,” limits Palestinian students’ access to school. For instance, the wall blocks the path of 36 percent of students at Al-Quds University and prevents about 15,740 students from reaching their schools, while over 90 percent of An-Najah University students report missing classes because of checkpoint delays. Palestinian students are also frequently detained and harassed in response to their campus organizing efforts. Finally, Sharif argues that the educational system in the occupied territories often excludes knowledge about Palestinian history and culture: “The systematic denial by Israel of the histories of the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, the fate of the refugees, and the destruction of Palestinian villages, amounts to an attempt at eradicating any cohesive Palestinian identity.” In this way, the educational erasure of Palestinian history and culture thus complements the material obliteration of Palestine.[5] Sharif builds on the work of Birzeit University’s “Right to Education Campaign,” and a recent review of stories on their website details the different ways that the occupation endangers Palestinian education: “Students in Detention”; “Closure of Educational Institutions”; “The Wall’s Impact on Education”; and “Incursions and Attacks” on Palestinian schools and universities. Their website also reports on how the Israeli blockade of Gaza has financially devastated both universities and students, who have increasingly gone into debt. Finally, Birzeit’s website features notices of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) endorsements from non-Palestinian student groups focused on the abolition of student debt. As I concluded in my ASA presidential address, the student-led BDS movement on college campuses could thus also be described as part of a larger movement to take some control over the student debt financing of settler colonial violence.

The ASA’s critics predicted that if passed the resolution would splinter the membership and destroy the association, but the opposite happened: in the wake of the boycott the ASA experienced a significant increase in members and fundraising. The ASA is now bigger and better than it has ever been. Although critics also charged that the boycott would limit dialogue, transnational discussions of Palestine, Israel, and the United States have significantly increased at the ASA national convention, including scholars from Israel/Palestine. At the same time, ASA members are increasingly active participants in important national discussions. While not alone in this regard, the ASA helped open up an unprecedented discussion of US policies with regard to Israel/Palestine, and in particular the state of education there. The ASA is well situated to help us understand the challenges faced by education under a Trump administration that has been partly modeled on Netanyahu’s Israel.[6]

In terms of education, Trump stands on the shoulders of decades of rightwing work to discredit critical thinking about race, gender, sexuality, and empire. His blasting of “political correctness” can be traced to the early 1990s when conservative intellectuals and think tanks used the concept to help defund university education focused on problems of inequality, especially racial inequality.[7] Similar logics were at play in attacks on Ethnic Studies in Arizona and elsewhere, as well as in the conservative, state-level gutting of public education, from colleges to K-12. Trump’s anti-PC rhetoric has drawn upon this longer history in order to shout down critical accounts of structural inequalities, while increasingly making schools spaces hostile to critical thinking and traumatizing and unsafe for children and youth of color. All the news stories of Trump-inspired hate speech in colleges, high schools and elementary schools feels like the culmination of a long reactionary march though the public school system aimed at reproducing exclusionary nationalist constituencies.[8] Which is to say we may be witnessing the “Israelization” of US education.

For their part, far right Israeli politicians see their interests and desires mirrored in the Trump administration. In the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, the Israeli cabinet approved 7,000 new settlement housing units in Jerusalem that had been frozen for years because of opposition from the Obama administration.[9] Israel’s leaders have been emboldened by Trump to push a new bill that would retroactively legalize illegal settlements. The bill is supported by far right politician Naftali Bennett, a Trump supporter and head of the far right Jewish Home Party. One of Israel’s most ardent and influential advocates of expanding illegal settlements, Bennett responded to the outcome of the US election by proclaiming that “the era of the Palestinian state is over.” He argues that Israel should annex 60 percent of the West Bank, effectively making a Palestinian state impossible.[10]

As education minister, Bennett’s budgets have favored religious over secular schools and religious studies over math and science.[11] He has also limited academic freedom by barring schools from hosting speakers critical of the Israeli Defense Forces. Perhaps most infamously, Bennett endorsed the banning from high schools of Boderlife, a novel by Dorit Rabinyan about a lover affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. According to Haaretz, among the reasons cited for the novel’s ban “is the need to maintain what was referred to as ‘the identity and the heritage of students in every sector,’ and the belief that ‘intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity.’ The Education Ministry also expressed concern that ‘young people of adolescent age don’t have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation.’”[12] According to Haaretz columnist Or Kashti, the banning of Borderlife reinforces “the separation between the two peoples that lies at the heart of the Israeli school system. One of the most tangible expressions of this division, aside from separate school systems, is the institutionalized and official disparity in the Education Ministry’s funding for Arab students in comparison to their Jewish peers – which in high school is about 30 percent greater for Jews.”[13] With the rise of Trump, I thus project that the postboycott ASA will unfortunately find many new opportunities for the comparative study of racial inequality in US and Israeli education.

 

Third World Solidarities: The BDS Movement and Asian American Studies

Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, University of Connecticut

On 16 May 2013, Jonathan Marks (Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at Ursinus College) penned an open letter titled, “To Professors of Asian-American Studies.”[14] Published in Inside Higher Ed, Marks’s critical dispatch focused on the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS)’s 20 April 2013 “Resolution to Support the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions,” wherein he quickly took to task the organization’s resolution process. Expressly, Marks negatively reviewed the resolution vote (which was “problematically” done by secret ballot); he then shifted his censure to encapsulate what he deemed a profoundly distressing silence involving both membership and interdiscipline. Averring that “not one Asian Americanist has voiced dissent” since the resolution vote, Marks wondered if those in the Association “knew about the BDS movement,” given that “one has to ignore the fact that not one person in your field has thought the resolution controversial enough to question.”[15] This assertion of nonknowledge and ignorance foregrounded an admittedly puzzling citation of blogger Byron Wong, a self-proclaimed expert on “Asian American intellectualism, activism, and literature.”[16] Acknowledging that Marks had contacted him after the AAAS passed its historic resolution, Wong proceeded to “clarify” the field’s “problem.” “Because the whole notion of “Asian American” was created by hippies (unlike the concept of “African American which probably extended back past the Civil War), its primary foundation is deconstruction and doubt.” Wong added, “Asian Americans often distrust Asian American professors – fair or not, many of them feel that these are the people who forced Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, and David Henry Hwang on us.”[17]

Notwithstanding Wong’s confessedly sophomoric dismissal of Asian American literary studies (which, by the way, has been less than kind to Amy Tan), this perplexing reliance on the blogger, whose only “credential” appears to be the “racial” fact that he is Asian American, was rhetorically matched by Marks’s convenient utilization of curated anti-BDS quotes from the likes of Norman Finkelstein, Eric Alterman, and Noam Chomsky, who to varying degrees and ends decried the efficacy of such boycotts (though each supports the politics that animate them).[18] In concluding, Marks indignantly questioned the veracity of AAAS’s mission/vision statement and directed his ire at Asian Americanists, maintaining that the organization, “which claims to ‘act as an advocate for the interests and welfare of Asian-American studies,’ and consequently to act as an advocate for your interests and welfare, has hitched your wagon to a single deeply controversial strand of Israel criticism. Even if you do not agree with Alterman, Finkelstein, or Chomsky, don’t you think that unanimous agreement on the matter about which even Israel critics disagree vociferously is a sign of your field’s ill health?” Marks’s dire diagnosis of Asian American Studies was affectively matched by what he termed an irresistible question to field and practitioners: “Are you at all embarrassed?”[19]

David Palumbo-Liu quickly responded via a short yet powerful piece to Marks, published in Inside Higher Ed on 20 May 2013; as Palumbo-Liu succinctly noted, Marks’s “letter moves out from a critique of a single vote to a broad indictment of many fine scholars and teachers, indeed all of those in the field, impugning their moral character simply because their judgment did not coincide with your own.”[20] To be sure, Palumbo-Liu’s response in many ways offers a compelling “last word” on Marks’s inflammatory letter. And, if this presentation was concerned with “last words,” I could draw upon my intimate experience with the BDS movement: as one of the original twenty-nine signatories to the AAAS resolution to support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, which not coincidentally occurred a AAAS conference in Seattle focused on the “Afterlives of Empire,” as a participant at that conference, and as an attendee at the resolution meeting, I could easily counter – by way of firsthand account and on-the-scene witnessing – Marks’s unsubstantiated appraisals of nonprocess, nonknowledge, and nonprotest.

Rather than focus on matters of procedure, however, and instead of concentrating on topics of resistance, I want to draw attention to Marks’ indiscriminate disavowal of field via ignorance, which directly accesses my current role as the president of the Association for Asian American Studies. Such dismissals manifest the ways in which the AAAS was attacked by those on the other side of the BDS movement. Accordingly, while the AAAS boycott was declared an anathema, the organization was nonetheless “small,” irrelevant, and easily contained “threat.” Such diminutive characterizations extended to the organization’s resolution process, which was time and again misreported as only involving twenty-nine signatories; such administrative categorizations conveniently disremembered the 800 other academics and/or Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies scholars who, at that time, had endorsed and/or are involved in the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (as an aside, we as an association have, since the 2013 resolution, shifted our resolution policy to render more transparent our respective processes). Marks redirected the careful deliberations that led to the resolution’s specific focus on Israel and Palestine to human rights violations in other places (the “why not boycott China” argument and the “why not boycott Sri Lanka” conundrum). Even more damning, the very worthwhileness of Asian American studies as a comparative, critical, and transnational interdiscipline – along with the worthiness of its practitioners – was in wholesale fashion suspected, distrusted, and dismissed.

Some – if not all — of these arguments may sound familiar. I would likewise maintain that such repudiations are quite familiar to those who study Asian American history, culture, and politics; these renunciations are equally recognizable to those of us in higher education. Co-opted by conservatives as a flexible solution to a black/white “race problem” and divisively utilized as “evidence” against the perpetual reality of systemic racism, Asian Americans have historically occupied a binaried position as “model minorities” and “perpetual foreigners.” Regarding the former, many higher education institutions (such as my own, the University of Connecticut), Asian Americans – due to an absence of disaggregated census data and an unspoken belief in model minoritization – are not considered an underrepresented population. And in terms of the latter, there are multiple examples of xenophobic violence and anti-immigrant sentiment to access: from the 1885 Rock Springs massacre to the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, from Japanese American incarceration to Muslim American racial profiling, from state-sanctioned exclusions of Asian immigrants to state-authorized deportations of Asian American refugees, such foreign-hood has – more often than not – translated into civil rights struggle and human rights transgression.

While it is apparent from my presentation thus far that I am quite critical of Marks’s argument, I do think that the willful forgetfulness via the specificities of Asian America as a political formation alongside an intellectual unwillingness to seriously engage Asian American studies distressingly obscure the profound rights violations which animate the BDS movement: the illegal occupation of Palestine, the infringement of the right to education of Palestinian students, and the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. This is not to suggest an alternative strategy in terms of the larger BDS movement; rather, my intent here is to recollect, remember, and remind us of the past/present political stakes of Asian American Studies as an interdiscpline; such memory work purposefully combats historical amnesias via a recuperative assessment of analogous histories and well-established solidarities.

Incontrovertibly, Asian American Studies as identifiable interdiscipline was born out of mid-century civil rights movements and emerged within the context of US war making abroad (most immediately the second Indochina War) and third world liberation at home. While this “field staking” may seem a bit of a digression from the overall focus of this panel – “association presidential perspectives on the BDS movement” – it is telling that Marks’s critique of Asian American Studies as a viable field of inquiry pivots on a problematic conflation of demographics (emblematized by the slippage between “Asian Americans” and “Asian American Studies”) and troubling abjuration of intellectual rigor. And, while Marks implicitly alleges to “chart new ground” via his attack on the AAAS vis-à-vis boycott, this disparagement is by no means unfamiliar to those in Asian American studies, ethnic studies, indigenous studies, and women’s, gender, sexualities studies; as practitioners in these interdisciplinary “identity” fields, we are more than accustomed – within a neoliberal higher education imaginary marked by increasingly corporatized “diversity management” – to accusations of nonrelevance, administratively driven planned obsolescence (via soft funding lines, joint appointments, and budget cuts), tenure/promotion denials, and shifting programmatic/departmental metrics. In sum, while the argument may seem new insofar as it converges on the BDS movement, the attacks against these fields is, quite frankly old hat.

To return to the stakes of Asian American studies vis-à-vis this contemporaneous BDS movement moment, and in the interest of laying bare the racialized (and I would stress racist) dimensions of Marks’ critique (particularly in terms of model minoritized silence and conformist thinking), one must necessarily delve into the very notion of Asian American as politically inflected identity category. From the outset, this category – despite Wong’s attribution that it emerges from a “hippie” think tank – was envisioned by activists as an open-ended panethnic, pan Asian idiom. Such open-endedness is quite lost on those who contend  that Palestine and Palestinians fall outside the geopolitical rubric of Asian American studies as a field; this observation – replicated in Wong’s denial of “Asian American” as a real political identity – was reiterated in aforementioned criticisms of the AAAS that appeared in the days, weeks, and months after the boycott resolution. Such allegations of nonrelevance strike a strange chord when situated adjacent the larger history of AAAS resolutions, which consistently involved protests against militarization, imperialism, and mass violence. Like the MLA, the AAAS, issued resolutions opposing the war in Iraq; similarly, the AAAS expression of solidarity concerning Palestinian academic freedom at least carries some echoes with a previous MLA call by the delegate assembly to express solidarity with scholars of Palestinian literary scholars.

I purposefully end with the title of this presentation, which harnesses the solidarity-driven politics responsible for bring Asian American studies “into being.” Denotative of “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest,” and suggestive of “mutual support within a group,” “solidarity” as political noun is predicated on the identification of activist commonality. Notwithstanding – as Lisa Lowe fruitfully characterized – the “heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity” of Asian America, and despite divergent histories with war, imperialism, migration, what undergirds “Asian American” as identarian category is a necessarily politicized understanding of solidarity.   The term connects Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Indian, Pakastani, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao/Hmong, Burmese, Taiwanese, Thai, and Bangladeshi Americans (among others) and has expanded to include East Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian American subjectivities.  It connects through a shared but nonidentical, long durée histories of immigration, citizenship denial, de jure discrimination, forced relocation (internment, incarceration, and refugeeism), colonialism, imperialism, and militarization

Last, but certainly not least, “solidarity” as political noun also figures keenly in the institutional history of Asian American studies (and ethnic studies). It was, after all, due to the activist efforts of the Third World Liberation Front (a coalition of the Black Students Union, the Latin American Students Organization, the Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor, the Filipino American Students Organization, the Asian American Political Alliance, and El Rancimiento) at San Francisco State College in the late 1960s that we are arguably even here. To further illustrate this coalitional point, and by way of conclusion, what follows is a preamble excerpt from the Third World Liberation Front’s list of demands:

We offer a positive program. We are not anti-white; we are anti-white-racist oppression and it is this powerful and just determinant that is the genesis of our movement but the growth of the movement is affirmative; an affirmation of our humanity, our strength, our beauty, our dignity, and our pride. Our programs are working programs. Our direction is revolutionary. Our method is organization. Our goal is Third World Power. Our essence is a New World Consciousness of oppressed peoples.[21]

 

Statement in Support of a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Timothy J. Reiss

Concerning the MLA, Israel, and BDS, I have more than once been told that the issue is not one for a language and literature professional association that is not a political organization. To take a Kantian aesthetic autonomy stance in this case is of course hypocritically selective, as we have taken many political positions over the years (not least over South African apartheid), when the issues pertained to our professional concerns. Apropos of BDS, these concerns are deep indeed, even could we ignore the daily tortures Israel inflicts on Palestinians, ongoing theft of land, orchards and other property and the often increased individual and collective military and civil assaults. But we cry about academic freedom as our particular (professional) realm, we cry about intellectual freedom more broadly, as do Israelis—for themselves (not least against BDS). We readily ignore the fact that Israel has forever restricted Palestinian rights to those freedoms and continues to do so. Everything we study touches how people think, how we act, morality, speech, worldly and spiritual acts, events, thoughts, deeds. These are, however we define it, what literature and the arts are about—who, what, why humans are—all humans. Israel has for decades been trying to prevent Palestinians from such expression. And while I believe those of us from “First World” cultures, above all European, to be responsible to a past for which we may not be responsible but from whose oppressions we benefit, silence on ongoing oppressions against which collectively raised voices can have a beneficent effect does make us responsible, now, for those oppressions.

Coming from a family associated with modern Israel from far before its start, I write this in great pain of spirit. My grandfather (born in the grand 1848) settled in Manchester from Heidelberg in his twenties or thirties to establish an English branch of a family textile business that prospered so well before World War I, that even when I went up to Manchester in 1960 and opened an account at the main Lloyds Bank for my student loan, an elderly manager called me in to offer all the “help” he could. Since the 1922 crash had destroyed the firm, and I knew nothing of this erstwhile wealth, my father had to resolve the mystery. My grandfather must have been quite enlightened. Having said he would pay for whichever of his children first wanted to go to University and could get in, he did not blink at this being his firstborn, a girl. She went on to become a quite well-known suffragette in the north, author of The Rights and Duties of Englishwomen, the first woman barrister in Manchester (and second in England) and a judge on the Northern Circuit Court. She took all her degrees at the University of Manchester, so I must think it there that she first met and became friends with Chaim Weizmann, a lecturer at the University from 1904 and living in the city for thirty years before going to Israel to become its president in 1949. I’m not sure when Erna went to London to study for the bar, but as Weizmann moved there too for a while during the war, perhaps they further solidified their friendship there. Certainly, during the Versailles conference she worked often with Weizmann as his assistant. I assume these ties continued during their years living in Manchester proximity, my aunts in Didsbury at the end of the Palatine Road out of the city centre, still known to the bus conductors of my student days as Yidsbury and the Palestine Road.

Meantime, my father, five years younger than she (with two siblings in between) and twenty-one at the war’s outbreak, was sent first to the Dardenelles before returning to the Western Front in 1916, where he remained at least until the first months of Paschendaele in July-August 1917. But he had joined what became the Jewish Legion early enough to march into Jerusalem with Allenby and his troops in December. Through the following year, my father led a company in the Legion, with both Ben Zvi and Ben Gurion under his command, promoting the former to sergeant—that, at least, was my understanding; my sister recalls it as the latter. What is certain is that in the late fifties and sixties, when my father had at least once and at times twice a year lengthy business in Tel Aviv, he would lunch with Ben Gurion, as old comrades in arms. (I have no idea what happened to any ties with Ben Zvi.) Weizmann, Ben Zvi, and Ben Gurion (like Herzl) were secular Zionists, two of them at least not just open to living equally and at peace with Palestine’s Arabs but, in Ben Gurion’s case, pushing quite hard for it. My own family, believing throughout those years in the right to a Jewish homeland, were never the fervid Zionists that these future leaders were, maybe because they had not known the pogroms of Central and Eastern Europe. But all believed strongly in a secular state and hoped it able to accommodate as equals those peoples of Palestine who remained in and on the land. The Six Days War dealt that ideal a fatal blow, as did the growing influx of ultra- and Orthodox Jews from Central Europe and the Soviet Union. I remember my father growing ever more depressed by his visits and, as a man who had also fought in World War II, when being a German Jew meant something quite other than what it had during the First World War, horrified by conduct that increasingly smacked of that whose evil, after WWII, allowed Israel to assert in the world’s eyes its moral right to exist. I cannot imagine what he and so many coevals would be suffering now. I cannot think they would do so in silence.

For my own part, touching present issues, I had to take another small step in responsibility eighteen months ago. The following letter to the Royal Society of Canada is self-explanatory and, I am told, bears repeating in the present circumstance [I omit its French doublet]:

To the Administration and Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada

I am proud to have been a Fellow of the Society since 1983, and a Life Fellow since 2007. I thank you all.

I am also a Jew.

And I learned a few days ago, after reading rather by chance the Society’s news, thanks to email, that in May the Society, with a ballyhoo signaled by the presence of Israel’s president and Canada’s governor general, has affiliated itself with its Israeli homologue. Was there any consultation with Fellows? My shame is nigh inexpressible.

The Society claims to represent academic freedom, of research, teaching, education in all its forms. I learn this affiliation at the very time when Israel has chosen to destroy yet again in Gaza more than 170 Palestinian schools, more than 90 schools “protected” by the UN, at least one University. Even if, as an academic Society, we claim to have nothing to say about the death and wounding of tens of thousands of civilians, of the destruction of their homes, mom-and-pops, factories, shops, parks, hospitals, of yesterday’s murder, without trial, of two of the people accused, up till now without public proof, of having abducted the three young men whom Israel used as an excuse for more than 50 days of attacks against Gaza, of the theft, towards the end of those attacks, of yet many more acres of Palestinian land, and of the collective punishment of the Palestinian people—all actions contravening international law, several UN Resolutions, and the most elementary morality, it is incumbent upon us to cry out against the deprivation of academic rights of which we claim to be protectors. Setting aside the recent, entirely deliberate, destruction (which, you may say, hadn’t yet happened in May), Palestinian teachers and research have always been oppressed by the Israeli government—difficulties or simple forbidding of travel, of participation in congresses, sharing in the same infrastructural and logistical benefits, quite simply, in the same academic freedom that Israel is constantly calling for for its Jewish citizens.

That our Society should have chosen to be affiliated with the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (!!) ties us all directly to these terrorist and illegal Israeli actions. Was there any effort, when this affiliation was undertaken, to guarantee Palestinian academic rights? Has there been the slightest protest now? To my great regret, I have no choice but to resign my Fellowship in the Society.

Timothy J. Reiss

I need not say more on this topic. The outright, open military assault on Gaza may be paused. The rest continues in one form or another. This is why another topic needs addressing: the effort to suppress critical outcry by the utterly dishonest elision of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.

There are certainly those who identify as Jews and assert Israel to be acting in their name, whether Israeli or not. Doing so, they do help identify Israel and all Jews and repeat Israel’s prime minister’s claim to be speaking in the name of all Jews everywhere, as he did last year in Paris. He has no such right. Despite what such as Senator Feinstein and others in this country want to claim, to be a Jew is not to be an Israeli, just as to be an Israeli is not—unless Netanyahu and his cohorts have their final way—to be a Jew. This position stated by a Jew can elicit from the baying hounds of the JDL and its ilk cries that one is a “self-hating Jew.” I can but say that self-hatred should be the sentiment of those Jews who do identify with what Israel is doing in their name—and if I do not say “what Israel’s government is doing” that is because, tragically, such activities are far from just the government’s. To say all this is not to be anti-Semitic. It is to cry out at what a pariah nation is doing to another people, a people whose land and traditions it has stolen and continues to steal, a people all too many of whom it has killed, tortured, robbed, imprisoned and oppressed in countless ways and continues to kill, torture, rob and imprison—and for whom freedom of expression, freedom to meet, freedom to travel, freedom to engage in academic research and writing, freedom to teach that research and writing are mostly anguished dreams. The MLA owes them our voice.

23 April 2016

Statement in Support of a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Jacques Lezra

Dear Friends,

You’ve asked me to join other members of the Modern Language Association who have written statements about BDS.  I found it hard to take a public stand when the matter came up for me about two years ago: the fear of losing old, dear friendships weighed; of angering family.  Things in Israel/Palestine have changed since then, and here too, for me. Thank you for asking again.

I support the BDS movement, and I believe academic organizations like the MLA should vote to endorse the BDS motions that will come before them.  I support the movement for reasons similar to the ones that led me to support the boycott of South African goods during the years of apartheid.  Then advocates of sanctions were addressing in one way the scandal of an openly racist regime that sought legitimacy from and financial stability in the international community.  We hoped isolating, shaming, and to whatever extent we could manage financially constraining the apartheid regime would help bring about its end.  Matters in Israel/Palestine are different.  The dispossession of Palestinians and the juridical license to guarantee their subjection through any means necessary is not, with signal and repugnant exceptions, expressed or founded in explicitly racist terms.  The moral claim upon us, however, is not different from the claim made upon us by the violence of the apartheid regime.  Violence, systematic, structural and punctual, unceasingly exerted in every domain, supported economically and sheltered politically and militarily by the United States: this is the day-to-day experience of the Palestinian population under occupation.  I feel a special obligation to reject this state of affairs and to express my solidarity with the people of Palestine, because the country I live in and pay taxes in provides this support to the Israeli government.

I’m asked questions about my position.  Many of them are fruit of misinformation or fear. I answer them with some confidence and without claiming to speak for every supporter of BDS, a large, disaggregated movement with different tendencies and constituencies whose core principles and goals are routinely misunderstood and mischaracterized as eliminationist, anti-Semitic, naive, counterproductive, unfair, and so on.  Here are the questions I have the greatest trouble answering, for myself and for others.  Why would I, or any academic, support the boycott of academic institutions?  Surely we should encourage dialogue with colleagues who, after all, may be as repelled as we are by their government’s actions—more so, since they live with their consequences intimately.  Isn’t it exactly wrong, exactly counterproductive to close ourselves off to allies, or to the colleagues from whom we’d learn the most about the matter itself?  Let’s say we granted that an economic boycott would serve to isolate, shame, and financially constrain the Israeli state and its backers in the United States.  And let’s say that this might then have concrete political results.  Fine.  An economic boycott makes sense.  But why the universities?

Because it is in this domain that, as academics, we have some expertise, and thus the greatest responsibility.  Because the boycott may, as Lila Abu-Lughod has put it, push members of MLA “and their colleagues and friends in the US to think even harder about what else they might do about the relative privilege in which they work as academics and live as human beings. How could they help Palestinian colleagues achieve equality and dignity, not to mention helping other Palestinians?”  (Abu-Lughod has in mind anthropologists, but I see no reason to limit her argument to anthropologists.)  Because a boycott of Israeli academic institutions helps to bring into relief the role these institutions have in supporting everyday and structural violence in the Territories.  Finally, because the boycott and the discussion it provokes show up the role that academic institutions in Israel and in the United States—including professional organizations—have in normalizing that support: in making it a legitimate part of academic life.  It is not.

The answers don’t entirely satisfy.  It doesn’t satisfy me, for instance, nor do I think it’s fully possible, to draw a distinction between individuals—colleagues I’d collaborate with outside of institutional frames—and the institutions to which they and I belong, which pay our salaries and furnish us with the material wherewithal to carry on these extra-institutional contacts.  But distinctions don’t have to be drawn fully or categorically to be effective under particular circumstances.  Not all answers will satisfy us fully.  We bear this in mind; we acknowledge the provisionality and friability of our distinctions and the partiality of some of our answers; we hew to them as best we can.  They’re enough for me.

Dear friends, I find it discouraging and enraging that I feel the need now to lay out my bona fides—I feel shame: as if my background, the religion that my parents and sisters and I practiced, the company I’ve kept and sought over the years, my politics, where I’ve lived and how I’ve brought up my children—as if any or all of this could serve to explain my support for BDS, or make my support appear more legitimate or excusable, or could shelter me from gross accusations of anti-Semitism, of ignorance, of naiveté, or should help to persuade others somehow to adopt my position.  The situation in Israel/Palestine is on its face so clamorously wrong—the harm being done so clear, the imbalance of power so manifest, the complicity of many in the United States so brazen—that any such justification, any explanation that brings my life in particular into consideration, seems to trivialize my condemning that wrong.

So I won’t reach for those explanations; I won’t lean on my stories.  The means available to those of us in the United States—individual academics and our professional organizations—who are repelled by the policies of the Israeli government and who wish to support the Palestinian population are few and likely to become fewer.  BDS is one tool; it isn’t the only one, and it shouldn’t be imagined as an alternative, but as a complement, to the sorts of tools US citizens have, have used, and should marshal to seek change and redress in the US: the tools of democratic process, protest, information, education.  I support the BDS movement because I believe that it, in combination with other means, will help to isolate the Israeli government internationally; to shame those in the United States and elsewhere who support Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories; to help disclose the role of academic institutions in making possible and palatable to some the Occupation; to apply some small, but perhaps increasing, economic pressure; and thereby help bring about a just solution to the conflict.

All my best,

Jacques Lezra

28 April 2016

 

Statement in Support of a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Bruce Robbins

27 March 2016 marked the eighty-third anniversary of a mass rally at Macy’s in New York City to boycott German goods.  Subtracting 1933 from 2016 does not yield a round or otherwise important number, but it’s an opportunity for an edifying moment of retrospect.  The Nazis had just come to power, and the rally had been called in response to the steps they immediately took—steps we now see as prophetic– against Jews in the universities and against Jewish businesses.  What’s amazing to discover (I found it in D.D. Guttenplan’s compulsively readable biography of I. F. Stone, which has become even more fascinating in the miraculous months of the Bernie Sanders campaign) is how many Jewish leaders back then refused to get involved in the anti-Nazi boycott. After all, they complained, why single out Germany?  Won’t innocent people, including Jews, be harmed by such a boycott?  And so on.

All political action has some quotient of unpleasantness attached to it.  All political action is divisive.  But if you manage to step back and consider what will be most meaningful when time has gone by, meaningful to oneself and to others, it may come to seem mean-spirited to have let those up-front disadvantages make your ultimate decision for you.  Demonstrating against the Nazis was worth some inconvenience.  One wonders what the people who said no to that boycott came to think of their position afterwards.

Reasons for saying “no” to BDS seem to me similarly shortsighted, but that is not to say they have no merits whatsoever or that all the arguments in favor are well-chosen or watertight.  “The academy is firmly planted within the structures of power and domination in Israel,” one supporter of BDS wrote recently.  This is true, of course. (One thinks of the Dahiya Doctrine of disproportionate force, which premeditates the committing of war crimes against Palestinian civilians, one representative product of Israeli academic brainpower.)  But leading with it may be counter-productive.  Some Americans, especially those with a weakness for the “people in glass houses” objection, will immediately say that the same holds for the American academy.  This is unfortunately also true.  They will then conclude that what the opponents of BDS are saying is true as well: that Israel has been unfairly singled out.  I don’t believe that Israel has been unfairly singled out, but in order to avoid the appearance of unfairness it is necessary to admit something that many Americans will not want to admit: that Israel is guilty of doing certain things that the United States is not doing.  There are plenty of such things.  Talking about them does not let America off the hook for the things it is doing.  You can’t weasel out of this by implying (as other supporters of BDS do) that the only reason we are not asking for a boycott of the US as well is that the boycott would not be effective because the US is too big to boycott.  Especially after 2008, we don’t want to encourage the making of “too big to” arguments.

Racism has of course not disappeared from the United States.  Far from it.  But racism is not explicit government policy here, as it is in Israel.  One of the problems with the overuse of the epithet “racist” by the pro-BDS side is that it severely discourages any effort to compare better and worse situations.  If X is racist, it’s racist, and that’s all that needs to or indeed can be said.  Like being pregnant, degrees are ruled out.  But this is a fight that can’t be won without allowing for a discrimination of degrees. It is a fight whose center is Israel’s greatest economic, military, and political supporter, the United States.  If this fight is going to be won, it must be won by arguing that Israel, while not unique in the world, contravenes values that Americans hold dear, like human rights, values that Americans insist on, even if not always successfully, in the conduct of their own government.  It is necessary to say that the government of the United States is less racist than the government of Israel and that (along with US funding, of course) is an important reason why, for all our own faults and flaws, Americans should be engaging in a boycott of Israeli institutions.

Today, all but the most stalwart of Israel’s defenders have given up on the project of actually defending Israel’s misconduct.  How do you defend the ongoing theft of land for settlements, the periodic butchery of children in Gaza, the refusal to allow Palestinians on the West Bank to use the water that lies under their houses and fields?  Little remains for those who (however appalled they may be in private) refuse to speak up against such things except to attack the political forms and the vocabulary in which others do speak up.  Like BDS. Or like the more general idea that the conduct of states can be judged by universal principles.

Elevated to the level of the nation, “people in glass houses” becomes the post-poststructuralist common sense that on matters like Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians, there are no principles, only exceptions.  All nations are founded on acts of violence for which there is no room or justification in the legal and ethical code that violence establishes.  Everyone does it, in short, so why pick on Israel?  In any case, Israel’s very survival is at stake, so all rules are off.  Of course what they present as a matter of life or death is really only a matter of survival as a preferred and indeed privileged identity– “as a Jewish state,” meaning a state where Jews have special privileges and non-Jews can be treated not just as second-class citizens but as if they were not there at all.  It is probably not the self-conscious espousal of Carl Schmitt’s philosophy that sponsors most cries of anti-Semitism (and how ironic would that be?), but I would bet that a closet Schmittianism is operating silently and potently in many of those who can’t quite articulate their resistance to BDS but don’t mind acting as if they didn’t have a horse in the race.

This is not to say that the anti-BDS side never appeals to principle.  Whenever the subject of academics’ reluctance to engage in boycotts comes up, as it will, someone will mention academic freedom and our principled investment in the free circulation of ideas. Equally characteristic of us academics, however, is a still stronger disinclination to look into the material circumstances on which academic life depends, including the injustices of access that we know are there but would much prefer not to think about.  The fear is that if we did think about them, the whole enterprise would suddenly start to look untenable.  It’s these material circumstances that have to be contemplated, however, if we are going to understand why academic freedom is not a good argument against BDS.  Yes, there is a legitimate anxiety that, in spite of the distinction between individuals and institutions, some hypothetical Israeli scholars might be harmed by BDS.  That is possible.  What is certain, on the other hand, is that Palestinian scholars are already massively and systematically being boycotted.  The material circumstances of their work lives are such, what with checkpoints, visa delays and denials, and campus closures lasting weeks or months or even years, not to speak of university buildings bombed into ruins, that for them academic freedom is a joke.  There is nothing to stand in the way of us doing something to stop it from being a joke.  BDS is currently the best option we have.

14 July 2016

 

 

NOTES

[1] Edward Said’s experiences in another professional association provides a revealing framework for such procedural questions. In 1999 he was elected President of the Modern Language Association (MLA). In reaction, MLA’s official journal, PMLA, published a long letter to the editor from an Israeli professor calling for people to resign from the association because of Said’s supposed incivility in answering his critics. Said responded that the letter was “an extension of the Israel/Palestine conflict masked as an argument against public misbehaving; it is drenched in the usual hypocrisy about norms of conduct, a tactic employed by publicists who try to hide their real agenda” (Edward Said, letter to the editor, PMLA 114 [Jan. 1999]: 107). Said’s remarks have their parallel in the recent history of the ASA, where its critics raised numerous procedural questions despite the association’s scrupulously democratic process.

[2] This is in seeming contrast with the recent discussion of an academic boycott resolution at the 2017 MLA convention in Philadelphia. The MLA set up three microphones, one for pro-boycott speakers, another for antiboycott speakers and a third for the undecided. Yet witnesses report that antiboycott speakers spoke at both the anti-boycott and undecided microphones.

[3] Edward Said, “America’s Last Taboo,” New Left Review 6 (Nov.-Dec. 2000): 45-53.

[4] Curtis Marez, “Seeing in the Red: Looking at Student Debt,” American Quarterly 66 (June, 2014): 261-81.

[5] Rana Sharif, The Right to Education: La Frontera to Gaza, American Quarterly 62 (Dec. 2010): 855-60.

[6] For this reason, David Lloyd recently pointed out the irony of the MLA Delegate Assembly passing a resolution barring the association from endorsing an academic boycott of Israeli institutions at the same 2017 meeting where it passed another resolution condemning in advance Trump administration attacks on academic freedom:

During his campaign, it was Israel that Trump invoked as his model for successful racial profiling. It was Israel that he praised for having built a wall that denies freedom of movement on the basis of national origin, race and ethnic identity. Trump praised Israel’s discriminatory immigration policies that arbitrarily deny entry to Muslims and people of Arab origin. And under the Trump administration, there is no doubt that conditions for Palestinians will deteriorate with unprecedented rapidity. [David Lloyd, “’Progressive’ Defenders of the Racial State: Reflections on the Modern Language Association BDS Vote,” Mondoweiss, 9 Jan. 2017, mondoweiss.net/2017/01/progressive-reflections-association/ressive-reflections-association]

[7] See Christopher Newfield, “Inventing PC: The War on Equality,” Unmaking the Public University: The Forty Year Assault on the Middle Class (Cambridge, Mass., 2011), pp. 51-124.

[8] See two reports by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election,” and “The Trump Effect: The Impact of The 2016 Presidential Election on Our Nation’s Schools,”www.splcenter.org/news/2016/11/29/new-splc-reports-reveal-alarming-pattern-hate-incidents-and-bullying-across-country

[9] Isra Saleh El-Namy, “Analyst: If Trump Gives Netanyahu a Green Light ‘Palestinians Will Detonate in the Face of Israel,’” Mondoweiss, 11 Nov. 2016, mondoweiss.net/2016/11/netanyahu-palestinians-detonate/#sthash.DHrhpn80.dpuf

[10] Quoted in The Editorial Board, “Israel’s Alarming Settlement Bill,” The New York Times, 17  Nov. 2016, mobile.nytimes.com/2016/11/17/opinion/israels-alarming-settlement-bill.html?ref=opinion&referer. And see  Isabel Kershner, “Israel’s Right, Cheering Donald Trump’s Win, Renews Calls to Abandon 2-State Solution,” 14 Nov. 2016 www.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/world/middleeast/israel-netanyahu-trump-palestinian-settlements.html

[11] Akiva Eldar, “Is Israel’s Education Minister Abandoning Secular Schools?,” Al-Monitor, 8 Dec. 2016,  www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/12/israel-education-minister-bennett-ultra-orthodox-democracy.html.

[12] Or Kashti “Israel Bans Novel on Arab-Jewish Romance From Schools for ‘Threatening Jewish Identity,’” Haaretz, 13 Dec.2015 http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.694620

[13] Ibid.

[14] Jonathan Marks, “To Professors of Asian-American Studies,”  Inside Higher Ed, 16 May 2013, www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/05/16/open-letter-about-israel-boycott-professors-asian-american-studies.

 

[15] Ibid. See also Rajini Srikanth, “Asian American Studies and Palestine: The Accidental and Reluctant Pioneer,” in Flashpoints for Asian American Studies, ed. Cathy J Schlund-Vials (New York, 2017), pp. 132-49.

[16] See Byron Wong,  “The Association of Asian American Studies and the boycott of Israeli Institutions.” 6 May 2013, www.bigwowo.com/2013/05/the-association-of-asian-american-studies-and-the-boycott-of-israeli-institutions/

[17] Ibid.

[18] To clarify, Marks issued the following assessment, which bears quoting at length:  “Do you know about the BDS movement? Are you aware that the movement stands not only for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza but also for “respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands from which they were ethnically cleansed during the 1948 Nakba”? As Eric Alterman, who decries the “brutal treatment of the Palestinian people,” argues, the demand for the reintegration of “six or seven million Palestinians” amounts to the “demand that Israel, as currently constituted, commit suicide.” Norman Finklestein, one of Israel’s best known and harshest critics, has said that the BDS movement is dishonest on this score: “They think they’re being very clever. They call it their three tiers. . . . We want the end of the occupation, we want the right of return, and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel. . . . They know the result. . . . You know and I know what’s the result: there’s no Israel.” Finally, Noam Chomsky, a supporter of BDS tactics properly applied, nonetheless thinks the “call of Palestinian society” to which the AAAS refers is “a gift to Israeli and U.S. hardliners” not only because it implicitly calls for the “destruction of Israel” but also because it targets only Israel and lets the United States, England, and other countries “where it is a hundred times worse,” off the hook” (Marks, “To Professors of Asian-American Studies”).

[19] Ibid.

[20] See David Palumbo-Liu, “An Asian-American Studies Professor Responds.” 20 May 2013, Inside Higher Ed. www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/05/20/asian-american-studies-professor-responds-israel-boycott

[21] Quoted in Gary Okihiro. “Third World Studies” in Theater and Cultural Politics for a New World, Ed. Chinua Thelwell (New York, 2016), pp. 48-49.

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New Texts Out Now: Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, eds. Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East

[This post originally appeared on Jadaliyya —Ed.]

 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi (DP and NH): Over the last several years, a narrative has taken root in Western media and policy circles that attributes the turmoil and violence engulfing the Middle East to supposedly ancient sectarian hatreds. “Sectarianism” has become a catchall explanation for virtually all of the region’s problems. Thomas Friedman, for instance, claims that in Yemen today “the main issue is the seventh century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis.” Barack Obama has been one the biggest proponents of this thesis. On several occasions, he has invoked “ancient sectarian differences” to explain the turmoil in the region. In his final State of the Union address, he asserted that the issues plaguing the Middle East today are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” A more vulgar version of this view prevails among right-wing commentators. But in one form or another, this new sectarian essentialism, which is lazy and convenient — and deeply Orientalist — has become the new conventional wisdom in the West.

Our book forcefully challenges this narrative and offers an alternative set of explanations for the rise in sectarian conflict in the Middle East in recent years. Emphasis on recent: the book demonstrates that the sharp sectarian turn in the region’s politics is largely a phenomenon of the last few decades — really since 1979 — and that pundits who imagine it as an eternal or fixed feature of the Middle East are reading history backwards. So the book is an exercise in refutation and ideology critique on the one hand, while also offering a set of rigorous social scientific arguments about what exactly is driving the intensification of sectarian conflict in the Middle East today. Our contributors come from political science, history, anthropology, and religious studies, and it is from this range of disciplines that we present a social and political theory as well as a critical history of sectarianism.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

(DP and NH): The first section of the book offers big-picture historical, theoretical, and geopolitical perspectives on the sectarianization process — that is, the escalation of sectarian conflict in recent years. The second section dives into a series of case studies, examining how the sectarianization process has played out in Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and Kuwait. The concluding chapter explores the prospects of reversing the sectarianization process.

The book addresses a range of literatures: in the introduction, we draw on the literature on ethno-nationalist mobilization and evaluate the primordialist, instrumentalist, and constructivist schools of thought; in his chapter, Adam Gaiser revisits debates among sociologists of religion about the nature of sects and engages with theories of narrative identity; Fanar Haddad applies critical race theory to the politics of sectarianism in Iraq; Paulo Gabriel Hilu Pinto draws on the anthropologist Robert Weller’s concepts of saturation and precipitation to illuminate the sectarianization of the Syrian conflict; Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi draws on international relations theory — specifically Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Raymond A. Hinnebusch’s concept of “middle powers” in a “penetrated regional system” — to make sense of Iran’s role in the sectarianization process; drawing from the literature on republicanism, Islamism, and post-Islamism, Stacey Philbrick Yadav develops her original concept of “Islamist republicanism” and explores what she calls “convergent republicanism” among adversarial Islamists in Yemen; Toby Matthiesen deploys the concept of “securitization” associated with the Copenhagen school of critical security studies to examine the sectarianization process in Bahrain; Bassel Salloukh draws on Foucault, Gramsci, and James Tully in his analysis of what he calls the disciplinary logic of the sectarian system in Lebanon; Timothy D. Sisk draws on the growing body of research on ethnic and religious violence and post-conflict peacebuilding in search of lessons for de-sectarianization.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

(DP and NH): In 2013 and 2014 we were deeply engaged in the literature and the debate on the Syrian conflict. We organized two international conferences — one at the University of Denver, one at SOAS in London — and co-edited a book on the subject. It struck us that all sorts of journalists, activists, and even some scholars, across the ideological spectrum, characterized the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms. Prominent Syria commentators referred to the protests that began in March 2011 as a “Sunni uprising.” Diplomats cautioned against the West taking sides in “ancient” blood feuds. Some left-wing journalists and activists unwittingly echoed these essentialist, Orientalist tropes. This narrative of course belied the decidedly non-sectarian origins of the Syrian uprising. The slogans and demands of Syrian protesters throughout the spring and summer of 2011 were exactly those of the other Arab uprisings: dignity, social justice, democratic rights, an end to dictatorship. The Syrians making these demands came from various backgrounds and represented a cross-section of the society: Alawis, Christians, Druze, Ismailis, and Sunnis (Kurds, Armenians, and Arabs alike) took to the streets and demonstrated together, along with secular Syrians.

This history had been erased, and very quickly, in the sectarian narrative that took hold. We wanted to push back on that distorted narrative, but we also wanted to make sense of how exactly the Syrian conflict became sectarianized. So our interest in the sectarianization process emerged very directly out of our work on Syria. But we saw a pattern across the region: uprisings that began as non-sectarian/cross-sectarian but morphed into sectarian battles. In Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and beyond, the sectarianization process took different forms in different countries, but the underlying dynamic was remarkably consistent. We thus set out to assemble the case studies, drawing on the leading experts on those countries, but also to theorize the phenomenon as a whole.

Our longstanding interest in democratic theory and social movements also animated this project. Nader Hashemi’s book Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societiesmakes a case for democratic pluralism in the Islamic world. The sectarianization process has undermined the struggle for democracy in Muslim societies by sowing division and cultivating hatred, to borrow Peter Gay’s felicitous phrase. Danny Postel worked in the US labor movement for several years (for the organization Interfaith Worker Justice, and for a coalition of labor unions and community organizations). His interest in labor movements in the MENA region (and progressive political mobilization more generally) is related to the issue of sectarianization insofar as the former is an example of people organizing around issues of shared interests and aims that transcend religious identity. It’s vital to remember that there have been all kinds of labor movements and other forms of political mobilization in the region and that the politics of the Middle East have not always revolved around sectarianism — nor must they forever.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

(DP and NH): Our aims are ambitious: we want to change the very terms of the public conversation about sectarianism and to put a major dent in the currently ascendant narrative about why the Middle East is awash in violence today. We want to put the term sectarianization into general circulation and see it become part of the vocabulary of political debate.

We hope all sorts of people will read the book — scholars, journalists, researchers, policymakers, diplomats, religious leaders, and practitioners in the world of conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and human development. The book will soon be translated into Arabic, which is hugely important to us. We would love to see the Arabic edition reach not only scholars but people on the ground in the societies the book examines, especially religious leaders and activists engaged in cross-sectarian organizing. Those are the efforts that will chart the path beyond the maelstrom of sectarianization.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

(DP and NH): We’ve been developing a project on cross-ideological coalition building in deeply divided societies focused mainly on Tunisia and Egypt, but also drawing on cases outside the region. Nader is working on an intellectual and political history of Iran’s Green movement, and a volume on Islam and human rights. Danny is writing something on Syria and tragedy. Down the road he hopes to do something on the role of labor movements in the MENA region.

Excerpt from “The Sectarianization Thesis: A Social Theory of Sectarianism”:

This book forcefully challenges the lazy and Orientalist reliance on “sectarianism” as a catch-all explanation for the ills afflicting the Middle East today. We propose to shift the discussion of sectarianism by providing analternative interpretation of this subject that can better explain the various conflicts in the Middle East and why they have morphed from nonsectarian or cross-sectarian (and nonviolent) uprisings/movements intosectarianized battles and civil wars. The contributors to this volume—who include political scientists, historians, anthropologists, and religious studies scholars—examine this phenomenon as it has unfolded over a definite period of time via specific mechanisms. Through multiple case studies (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran) and with historical and theoretical chapters exploring the nature and evolution of sectarianization, they analyze and map this process, exploring not only how but why it has happened.

Conflict between sectarian Muslim groups has intensified dramatically in recent years. But why? What explains the upsurge in sectarian conflict at this particular moment in multiple Muslim societies? How can we best understand this phenomenon?

To answer this question, we propose the term sectarianization: a process shaped by political actors operating within specific contexts, pursuing political goals that involve popular mobilization around particular (religious) identity markers. Class dynamics, fragile states, and geopolitical rivalries also shape the sectarianization process. The term sectarianism is typically devoid of such reference points. It tends to imply a static given, a trans-historical force—an enduring and immutable characteristic of the Arab Islamic world from the seventh century until today.

The theme of political authoritarianism is central to the sectarianization thesis. This form of political rule has long dominated the politics of the Middle East, and its corrosive legacy has deeply sullied the polities and societies of the region. Authoritarianism, not theology, is the critical factor that shapes the sectarianization process. Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have deliberately manipulated sectarian identities in various ways as a strategy for deflecting demands for political change and perpetuating their power. This anti-democratic political context is essential for understanding sectarian conflict in Muslim societies today, especially in those societies that contain a mix of Sunni and Shi‘a populations. To paraphrase the famous Clausewitz aphorism about war as a continuation of politics by other means, sectarian conflict in the Middle East today is the perpetuation of political rule via identity mobilization.

[W]hy are these conflicts intensifying now; and why in this particular region of the world? In other words, what explains the flaring of sectarian conflict at specific moments in time and in some places rather than others? Sunni–Shi‘a relations, for example, were not always conflict-ridden, nor was sectarianism a strong political force in modern Muslim politics until recently. How did Syrians and Iraqis with different sectarian identities manage to coexist for centuries without mass bloodshed? How did these pluralistic mosaics come unglued so precipitously? What are the key forces driving sectarianization?

The Geopolitics of Sectarianism: 1979, 2003, 2011

The key regional development that shaped the rise of sectarianism was the 1979 revolution in Iran. Western-backed dictatorships in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, feared that the spread of revolutionary Islam could cross the Persian Gulf and sweep them from power in the same manner as the Pahlavi monarchy had been toppled. In response, the Saudi kingdom and other Sunni authoritarian regimes invested significant resources in undermining the power and appeal of the Iranian revolution, seeking to portray it as a distinctly Shi‘a/Persian phenomenon based on a corruption of the Islamic tradition.32 Sunni Muslims, they argued, should not be duped by this distortion of the Prophet Muhammad’s message. Anti-Shi‘a polemics in the Sunni world increased dramatically during this period, fueled by significant sums of Arab Gulf money. Sunni–Shi‘a relations were deeply affected by this development, and Pakistan was an early battleground where this conflict played out.

 

The key international event at this time was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Western support for the Afghan Mujahedeen, backed by Saudi petrodollars, produced a Sunni militant movement that attracted radical Islamists from around the world, most notably Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. This constellation of forces eventually morphed into al-Qaeda. The ideological orientation of these Salafist–jihadi groups was decidedly anti-Shi‘a, both in theory and practice, buttressed as it was by a neo-Wahhabi reading of the world.

The Saudi–Iranian rivalry is critical to understanding the rise of sectarianism in Muslim societies at the end of the twentieth century. Both Tehran and Riyadh lay claim to leadership of the Islamic world, and since 1979 they have battled for hearts and minds across the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Asia.

[T]he 2003 US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq marked a turning point in Saudi–Iranian relations, and subsequently in sectarian relations across the region.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein dramatically affected the regional balance of power. The rise of Shi‘a Islamist parties in Iraq allied with Iran set off alarm bells in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The subsequent Iraqi civil war, which after 2006 had a clear sectarian dimension to it, further inflamed Sunni–Shi‘a relations across the Middle East. The rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon was also a factor during this period. Its ability to expel Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000 and its perceived victory against Israel in the summer of 2006 increased the popularity and prestige of this Shi‘a militant group as a revolutionary force on the Sunni “Arab street.” An opinion poll at this time listed the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, as the most popular leader in the region, a fact that highlights both the chasm between state and society in the Arab world and explains how anti-imperialism trumped sectarian identity at the grassroots level during this period.

Around this time, King Abdullah II of Jordan reflected a common concern among Sunni Arab regimes when he invoked the specter of a new “Shi‘a Crescent.” Linking Beirut with Tehran and running through Damascus and Baghdad, this perceived rolling thunder threatened to dominate the politics of the region in the name of a new brand of transnational Shi‘a solidarity.

The “Arab Spring” of 2011 marked another turning point in Saudi–Iran relations and, consequently, in Sunni–Shi‘a relations more broadly. The Arab uprisings shook the foundations of Middle East authoritarianism. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia relied on sectarianism to deflect attention from popular demands for political change and to advance their influence in the region. The Saudi case is easier to diagnose and is better known. The Saudi regime blamed protests in Bahrain and in eastern Saudi Arabia on a Shi‘a conspiracy allegedly orchestrated from Tehran, while the Assad regime and its Iranian backers attributed the (nonviolent) Syrian protests of 2011 to Salafist “terrorists” supported by Riyadh and hell-bent on toppling Iran’s key regional ally in Damascus. The Iranian case of sectarianization is more subtle and less well known.

In the case of Syria, Iran has utilized a distinct sectarian narrative, albeit a subtle one, to mobilize support for the Assad regime, as Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi explains in his chapter in this volume. While officially Tehran claims that it is supporting the “legitimate” government in Damascus and fighting ISIS, all Syrian rebels are depicted as Salafi–jihadis who are bent on exterminating minorities should Assad be toppled. As the war in Syria has dragged on, Iran has organized a transnational Shi‘a militia movement from among the poor and devout Shi‘a communities of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. These militias are recruited through an explicitly sectarian narrative that draws on classic Shi‘a themes of persecution, martyrdom, and sacrifice. The imminent threat of the destruction of Shi‘a shrines in Syria is invoked, and financial compensation, educational opportunities, and Iranian citizenship are offered as an incentive package.

The key claim of this book is that sectarianism fails to explain the current disorder in the Middle East. Viewing the region through a sectarian prism clouds rather than illuminates the complex realities of the region’s politics. The current instability is more accurately seen as rooted in a series of developmental crises stemming from the collapse of state authority. At the dawn of the twenty-first century a series of UN Arab Human Development Reports forecast and predicted that this region was headed for a deep crisis unless these problems were addressed. The foreign policies of leading Western states toward the Arab-Islamic world have only made matters worse.

While it is true that religious identities are more salient in the politics of the Middle East today than they were in previous periods, it is also true that these identities have been politicized by state actors in pursuit of political gain. Authoritarianism is the key context for understanding this problem. In other words, there is a symbiotic relationship between social pressure from below—demands for greater inclusion, rights, recognition, and representation—and the refusal by the state from above to share or relinquish power. This produces a crisis of legitimacy that ruling elites must carefully manage to retain power. The result of this political dynamic is sectarianization.

[Excerpted from Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, with author permission, (c) 2017.]

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A Response That Isn’t

Chad Wellmon, Andrew Piper, and Yuancheng Zhu

The post by Jordan Brower and Scott Ganz is less a response than an attempt to invalidate by suggestion. Debate over the implications of specific measurements or problems in data collection are essential to scholarly inquiry. But their post fails to deliver empirical evidence for their main argument: that our descriptions of gender bias and the concentration of institutional prestige in leading humanities journals should be met with deep doubts. Their ethos and strategy of argumentation is to instill doubt via suspicion rather than achieve clarity about the issues at stake. They do so by proposing strict disciplinary hierarchies and methodological fault lines as a means of invalidating empirical evidence.

Yet as we will show, their claims are based on a misrepresentation of the essay’s underlying arguments; unqualified overstatements of the invalidity of one measure used in the essay; and the use of anecdotal evidence to disqualify the study’s data. Under the guise of empirical validity, their post conceals its own interpretive agenda and plays the very game of institutional prestige that our article seeks to understand and bring to light.

We welcome and have already received pointed criticisms and incisive engagements from others. We will continue to incorporate these insights as we move forward with our work. We agree with Brower and Ganz that multiple disciplinary perspectives are warranted to fully understand our object of study. For this reason we have invited Yuancheng Zhu, a former PhD in statistics and now research fellow at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, to review our findings and offer feedback.

With respect to the particular claims Brower and Ganz make, we will show:

  1. they address only a portion of––and only two of seven total tables and figures in––an article whose findings they wish to refute;
  2. their proposed heterogeneity measure is neither mathematically more sound nor empirically sufficient to invalidate the measure we chose to prioritize;
  3. their identification of actual errors in the data set do not invalidate the statistical significance of our findings;
  4. their anecdotal reasoning is ultimately deployed to defend a notion of “quality” as an explanation of extreme institutional inequality, a defense for which they present no evidence.

1. Who Gets to Police Disciplinary Boundaries?

Brower and Ganz argue that our essay belongs to the social sciences and, therefore, that neither the humanities nor the field to which it actually aspires to belong, cultural analytics, has a legitimate claim to the types of argument, evidence, and knowledge that we draw upon. Such boundary keeping is one of the institutional norms we hoped to put into question in our essay, because it is a central strategy for establishing and maintaining epistemic authority.

But Brower and Ganz’s boundary policing is self-serving. Although they identify the entire essay as “social science,” they only discuss sections that account for roughly 35 percent of our original article and only two of seven figures and tables presented as evidence. Our essay sought to address a complex problem, and so we brought together multiple ways of understanding a problem, from historical and conceptual analysis to contemporary data, in order better to understand institutional diversity and gender bias. Brower and Ganz ignored a majority of our essay and yet sought to invalidate it in its entirety.

2. Claiming that HHI Is “Right” Is Wrong.

Brower and Ganz focus on two different methods of measuring inequality as discussed in our essay, and they suggest that our choice of method undermines our entire argument. In the process, they suggest that we did not use two different measures or discuss HHI (or talk about other things like gender bias). They also omit seven other possible measures we could have used. In other words, they present a single statistical measure as a direct representation of reality, rather than one method to model a challenging concept.

If we view the publication status of each year as a probability distribution over the institutions, then coming up with a single score is simply trying to use one number to summarize a multidimensional object. Doing so inevitably requires a loss of information, no matter how one chooses to do it. Just like mean, median, or mode summarizes the average position of a sample or a distribution, type-token score—or the HH index—summarizes “heterogeneity” from different perspectives. Brower and Ganz call the use of type-token ratio a “serious problem,” but in most circumstances one does not call using mean rather than median to summarize data a serious problem.

If there is not a single appropriate score to use, which one should we choose? The first question is what assumptions we are trying to model. The type-token ratio we used assumes that the ratio of institutions to articles is a good representation of inequality. The small number of institutions represented across articles suggests that there is a lack of diversity in the institutional landscape of publishing. The HH index looks at the market share of each actor (here, institutions), so that the more articles that an institution commands, the more concentrated the “industry” is thought to be. Because the HH index is typically used to measure financial competitiveness, it is based on the assumption that simply increasing the number of actors in the field decreases the inequality among institutional representation––that is, that more companies means more competitiveness. But as we argue in our piece, this is not an assumption we wanted to make.

Here is a demonstration of the problem drawn from the email correspondence from Ganz that we received prior to publication:

For example, imagine in year 1, there are 10 articles distributed equally among five institutions. Your heterogeneity metric would provide a score of 5/10 = 0.5.

Then in year 2, there are 18 articles distributed equally among six institutions. We would want this to be a more heterogeneous population (because inequality has remained the same, but the total number of institutions has increased). However, according to your metrics, this would indicate less heterogeneity (6/18 = 0.33).

In our case, we do not actually want the second example to suggest greater heterogeneity. In effect the number of articles has increased by 60 percent, but the institutional diversity by only 20 percent. In our view heterogeneity has decreased in this scenario, not increased. More institutions (the actors in the model) is for us not an inherent good. It’s the ratio of institutions to articles that matters most to us.

The second way to answer the question is to understand the extent to which each measure would (or would not) represent the underlying distributions of the data in different ways. Assuming that the number of articles for each journal is relatively similar each year, the type-token score and the HH index actually belong to the same class of metric, the Renyi entropy. The HH index is equivalent to the entropy with alpha equal to 2 (ignoring the log and the constant), and the type-token score corresponds to when alpha equals 0 (it is log of the number of “types”; we assume that the number of tokens is relatively constant). To put it in a more mathematical way, HH index corresponds to the L2 norm of the probability vector, and type-token score corresponds to the L0 norm. Given that the L1 norm of the probability vector is 1 (probabilities sum up to 1), the HH index and type-token score tend to be negatively correlated. There is, then, not much of a difference between options. Another special case is when alpha = 1, which is the usual definition of entropy.

A big assumption is that the number of articles each year stays relatively constant. It is also debated and debatable which one (TT score or HH index) is more sensitive to the sample size. If we look at the article distributions for each journal, the assumption of a constant number of articles is in this case a fair one to make. Once becoming nonzero, the number of publications for each journal stays relatively unchanged, in terms of scale. It is indeed the case that sample size will affect both metrics, just like sample entropy will be affected by sample size. One could eliminate the effect of sample size by randomly downsizing each year to the same number (or maybe aggregating neighboring years and then downsizing).

If the two metrics are similar, then why do they appear to tell different stories? In fact, upon further review they appear to be telling the same story. In figure 1, we see the two scores plotted for each journal. The first row is the type-token scores for each of the four journals, red for institutions and blue for PhDs. The second row is for 1/HHI,  the effective number. In none of the plots do we see the dramatic decrease of heterogeneity in the early years shown in figure 4 of the original essay or the consistently strong increase of heterogeneity that Ganz and Brower argue for. The first row and the second row agree with each other in terms of the general trend most of the time. This is because in our figure 4 and Brower and Ganz’s replication, the four journals are aggregated. When two journals (Critical Inquiry and Representations) come into play in the late seventies and the eighties, the scores are dragged down because, on average, those two journals are less diverse. Hence, the two metrics do give us the same trend once the journals are disaggregated.

So when we pull apart the four journals, what story do they tell? If we run a linear regression model on each of the journals individually, since 1990 there has either been no change or a decline of heterogeneity for both measures (with one notable exception, PMLA for author institutions which has increased). In other words, either nothing changes about our original argument, or things actually look worse from this perspective.

We were grateful to Brower and Ganz when they first shared their thinking about HHI and tried to acknowledge that gratitude, even while disagreeing with their assumptions, in our essay. Understanding different models and different kinds of evidence is, we’d suggest, a central value of scholarship in the social sciences or in the humanities. That is why we discussed the two measures together. But to suggest that the marginal differences between the scores invalidate an entire study is wrong. It is also not accurate to imply that we made this graph a centerpiece of our essay—“its most provocative finding,” in their words.

Consider how we frame our discussion of the time-based findings in our essay. We point out the competing ways of seeing this early trend and emphasize that post-1990 levels of inequality have remained unchanged. Here is our text:

Using a different measure such as the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) discusssed in note 37 above suggests a different trajectory for the pre-1990 data. According to this measure, prior to 1990 there was a greater amount of homogeneity in both PhD and authorial institutions, but no significant change since then. In other words, while there is some uncertainty surrounding the picture prior to 1990, an uncertainty that is in part related to the changing number of journal articles in our data, since 1990 there has been no significant change to the institutional concentrations at either the authorial or PhD level. It is safe to say that in the last quarter century this problem has not improved.

In other words, based on what we know, it is safe to say that the problem has remained unchanged for the past quarter century, though one could argue that in some instances it has gotten worse. If you turned the post-1990 data into a Gini coefficient, the degree of institutional inequality for PhD training would be 0.82, compared to a Gini of 0.45 for U.S. wealth inequality. But for Brower and Ganz, this recent consistency is overshadowed by the earlier improvement that they detect. To insist that institutional diversity is improving is, at best, to miss the proverbial forest for the trees. At worst, it’s misleading. Their argument is something like: We know there has been no change to the extremely high levels of concentration for the past twenty-five years. But if you just add in twenty more years before that then things have been getting better.

Their second example about the relative heterogeneity between journals reflects a similar pattern: legitimate concern about a potential effect of the data that is blown into a dramatic rebuttal not supported by the empirical results.

In the one example of PhD heterogeneity, they show that a random sample of articles always has PMLA with more diversity than Representations and yet our measure shows that Representations exhibits more diversity than PMLA. What is going on here?

It appears Representations is unfairly being promoted in our model because it publishes so many fewer articles than PMLA (PMLA has more than twice as many articles as Representations). But notice how they choose to focus on the two most disparate journals to make their point. What about for the rest of the categories?

Interestingly, when it comes to institutional diversity, the only difference that their proposed measure makes is to shift the relative ranking of Representations. What is troubling here is the fact they they chose not to show this similarity when they replicated our findings, which are shown here:

Author   PhD  
       
Ours HHI Ours HHI
PMLA PMLA NLH NLH
NLH NLH Rep PMLA
Rep CI PMLA CI
CI Rep CI Rep

 

In other words, our essay overestimates one journal’s relative diversity. We agree that their example is valid, important, interesting and worth using. But as an argument for invalidation it fails. How could their measure invalidate our broader argument when it reproduces all but one of our findings?

Given both measures’ strong correlation with article output, we would argue that the best recourse is to randomly sample from the pools to control for sample size rather than rely on yearly data. In this way we we avoid the trap of type-token ratios that are overly sensitive to sample size and the HHI assumption of more institutions being an inherent good. Doing so for 1,000 random samples (of 100 articles per sample), we replicate the rankings produced by the HHI score (ditto for a Gini coefficient). So Brower and Ganz are correct in arguing that we overrepresented Representations’ diversity, which should be the lowest for all journals in both categories. We are happy to revise this in our initial essay. But to suggest as they do that this invalidates the study is a gross oversimplification.

3. When Is Error a Problem?

Brower and Ganz’s final major point is this: “We are concerned that the data, in its current state, is sufficiently error-laden to call into question any claims the authors wish to make.” This is indeed major cause for concern. But Brower and Ganz provide little evidence for their sweeping claim.

Brower and Ganz are correct to point out errors in our data set, a data set which we made public months ago precisely in hopes that colleagues would help us improve it. This is indeed a nascent field, and we do not have the same long-standing infrastructures in place for data collection that the social sciences do. We’re learning, and we are grateful to have generous people reading our work in advance and helping contribute to the collective effort of improving data for public consumption.

As with the above discussion about HHI, the real question is, what is the effect of these errors in our data set? Is the data sufficiently “error-laden” to call into question any of the findings, as they assert? That’s a big claim, one that Brower and Ganz could have tested but chose not to.

We can address this issue by testing what effect random errors might have on our findings. This too we can do in two ways. We can either remove an increasing number of articles to see what effect taking erroneous articles out of the data set might have, or we can randomly reassign labels according to a kind of worst-case scenario logic. In the case of gender, it would mean flipping a gender label from its current state to its opposite. What if you changed an increasing number of people’s gender—how would that impact estimates of gender bias? In the case of institutional diversity, we could relabel articles according to some random and completely erroneous university name (“University of WqX30i0Z”) to simulate what would happen if we mistakenly entered data that could not contribute to increased concentration (since we would choose a new fantastic university with every error). How many errors in the data set would be necessary before assumptions about inequality, gender bias, or change over time need to be reconsidered?

Figure 2 shows the impact that those two types of errors have on three of our primary metrics. As we can see, removing even fifty percent of articles from our data set has no impact on any of our measures. The results of gender bias and overall concentratedness are more sensitive to random errors. But here too it takes more than 10 percent of articles (or over 500 mistakes) before you see any appreciable shift (before the Gini drops below 0.8 for PhDs and 0.7 for authors). Gender equality is only achieved when you flip 49 percent of all authors to their opposite gender. And in no cases does the problem ever look like it’s improving since 1990.

But what if those errors are more systematic—in other words, if the errors they identify are not random, but have a particular quality about them (for example, if everyone wrongly included had actually gone to Harvard). So let’s take a look. Here are the errors they identify:

  • 100 mislabeled titles
  • twenty-three letters that should not be considered publications
  • one omitted article that was published but not included because it was over our page filter limit
  • eight articles that appear in duplicate and one in triplicate
  • one mislabeled gender (sorry Lindsay Waters)

First, consider those 100 mislabeled titles. We were not counting titles, but rather institutional affiliations. While they do matter for the record (and we have corrected them; the corrected titles will appear in the revised version of our publicly available data set), they have little bearing on our findings.

In terms of duplicates, all but one duplicate occurred because authors have multiple institutional affiliations. We have clarified this by adding article IDs and a long document explaining all instances of duplicates, which will be included with the revised data.

So what about those letters? Actually, the problem is worse than Brower and Ganz point out. We inadvertently included a number of texts below the six-page filter we had set as our definition of an article. We are thankful that Brower and Ganz have helped identify this error. After a review of our dataset, we found 251 contributions that did not meet our article threshold. These were extremely short documents (one or two pages), such as forums, roundtables, and letters that should not have been included.

So, do these errors call into question our findings? How do they impact the overall results?

Here is a list of the major findings before and after we cleaned our dataset:

 

                                                                       Before                         After

Gini coefficient

PhD institution.                                       0.816                           0.816

Author institution                                   0.746                           0.743

Diversity over time (since 1990)

#cases of decrease                                   3                                  3

#cases of no change                                5                                  5

#cases of increase                                   0                                  0

Journal Diversity Ranking                             PMLA                         PMLA

NLH                           NLH

      CI                               CI

                                                                            Rep                              Rep

Gender Bias (% Women)

4 Journal Yearly Mean                        30.4%                          30.7%

4 Journal Yearly Mean Since 2010   39.4%                          39.5%

 

Finally, they say we have failed to adequately define our problem, once again invalidating the whole undertaking:

Wellmon and Piper fail to adequately answer the logically prior question that undergirds their study: what is a publication?

What is a publication, indeed? And why and how did printed publication come to be the arbiter of scholarly legitimacy and authority in the modern research university? We think these are important and “logically prior” questions as well and that’s why we devoted the first 3,262 words of our essay to considering them. This hardly exhausts what is a complex conceptual problem, but to suggest we didn’t consider it is disingenuous.

So let’s start by granting Brower and Ganz their legitimate concern. Confronted with the historical and conceptual difficulty of defining a publication, we made a heuristic choice. For the purposes of our study, we defined an article as a published text of six pages or more in length. It would be interesting to focus on a narrower definition of “publication,” as a “research article” of a specified length that undergoes a particular type of review process across time and publications. But that in no way reflects the vast bulk of “publications” in these journals. Imposing norms that might be better codified in other fields, Brower and Ganz’s desired definition overlooks the very real inconsistencies that surround publication and peer review practices in the humanities generally and in these journals’ histories in particular. As with their insistence on a single measure, they ask for a single immutable definition of a publication for a historical reality that is far more varied than their definition accounts for. Their insistence on definitional clarity is historically anachronistic and disciplinarily incongruous. It is precisely this absence of consensus and self-knowledge within humanities scholarship––and the consequences of such non-knowledge––that our piece aims to bring to light.

Clearly more work can be done here. Subsetting our data by other parameters and testing the extent to which this impacts our findings would indeed be helpful and insightful. And we welcome more collaboration to continue to remove errors in the dataset. In fact, after the publication of our essay, Jonathan Goodwin kindly noted anomalies in our PhD program size numbers, which when adjusted change the correlation between program size and article output from 0.358 to 0.541.

4. Is Quality Measurable?

In sum, we readily concede that the authors raise legitimate concerns about the quality and meaning of different measures and how they might, or might not, tell different stories about our data. This is why we discuss them in our piece in the first place. We also appreciate that they have drawn our attention to errors in the dataset. We would be surprised if there were none. The point of statistical inference is to make estimations of validity given assumptions about error.

What we do not concede is that any of these issues makes the problem of institutional inequality and gender disparity in elite humanities publishing disappear. None of the issues Ganz and Brower raise invalidate or even undermine the basic findings surrounding our sample of contemporary publishing––that scholarship publishing in these four prestige humanities journals is massively concentrated in the hands of a few elite institutions, that most journals do not have gender parity in publishing, and that the situation has not improved in the past quarter century.

There are many ways to think about what to do about this problem. And here the authors are on even shakier evidentiary ground. We make no claims in our piece about what the causes of this admittedly complex problem might be. “Where’s the test for quality?” they ask. This is precisely something we did not test because the data in its current form does not allow for such inferences. In this first essay, which is part of a longer-term project, we simply want readers to be aware of the historical context of academic publication in the humanities and introduce them (and ourselves) to its current state of affairs for this limited sample.

Ganz and Brower, by contrast, assume, in their response at least, that quality––a concept for which they provide no definition and no measure––is the cause of the institutional disparity we found. They suggest that blind peer review is the most effective guarantor of this nebulous concept called “quality.” They provide no evidence for their claims. But there is strong counter evidence that peer review does not, in fact, function as robust a control mechanism as the authors wish to insinuate. For a brief taste of how complex and relatively recent peer review is, we would recommend Melinda Baldwin’s Making “Nature”: The History of a Scientific Journal as well as studies of other fields such as Rebecca M. Blank’s “The Effects of Double-Blind versus Single-Blind Reviewing: Experimental Evidence from The American Economic Review” or Amber E. Budden’s “Double-Blind Review Favours Increased Representation of Female Authors.”[1]

These are complicated issues with deep institutional and epistemic consequences. It is neither analytically productive nor logically coherent to conclude, as Ganz and Brower do, that because high prestige institutions are disproportionately represented in high prestige publications, high prestige institutions produce higher quality scholarship. It is precisely this kind of circular logic that we hope to question before asserting that the status quo is the best state of affairs.

In our essay we simply argue that whatever filter we in the humanities are using to adjudicate publication systems (call it patronage, call it quality, call it various versions of blind peer review, call it “Harvard and Yale PhDs are just smarter”) has been remarkably effective at maintaining both gender and institutional inequality. This is what we have found. We would welcome a debate about the causes and the competing goods that various filtering systems must inevitably balance. This is precisely the type of debate our article hoped to invoke. But Brower and Ganz sought to invalidate our arguments and findings by anecdote and quantitative obfuscation. And the effect, intended or not, is an argument for the status quo.

[1] See Melinda Baldwin, Making “Nature”: The History of a Scientific Journal (Chicago, 2015); Rebecca M. Blank, “Effects of Double-Blind versus Single-Blind Reviewing: Experimental Evidence from The American Economic Review” (American Economic Review 81 [Dec. 1991]: 1041–67); and Amber E. Budden et al., “Double-Blind Review Favours Increased Representation of Female Authors” (Trends in Ecology and Evolution 23 [Jan. 2008]: 4-6).

Chad Wellmon is associate professor of German studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author, most recently, of Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University and coeditor of Rise of the Research University: A Sourcebook. He can be reached at mcw9d@virginia.eduAndrew Piper is professor and William Dawson Scholar of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University. He is the director of .txtLAB,  a digital humanities laboratory, and author of Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times. Yuancheng Zhu is a former PhD in statistics and now research fellow at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

 

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