Category Archives: Arts

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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Ballad Laid Bare by Its Devices (Even) A Bachelor Machine for MLA

Somethin’ ’bout sound

Repeatin’ in degree

A voice not mine

Singin’ as a we.

 

You call it boundry conditions

But don’t put your bounds on me.

 

Is there more to a ballad

Than weave and dodge and stall?

Some folks say it’s a cokehead’s ball

Some say a cure for all.

 

We’ve heard it from a nutbrown maid

And from a fellow who every day

Takes the blues from Ghent to Aix.

 

Some say ballad’s a slow romantic croon

Others an unsophisticated, moralizin’ folk tune

Neither epic nor lyric

A singable narrative atmospheric

Riddled with discontinuity

Usually endin’ in catastrophe.

 

Bullets have been dancin’ farther back than we can see.

Greeks first cast ballots in 423 BCE.

English ballads been ’round since 13th century.

 

Blatant rhythm alleges its decree

Fluid dynamics

If you want a God damn creed.

 

You call it boundary conditions

But don’t put no shame on me.

 

Fuck your lyric framin’

Fuck your depth of feel

If you’re not willin’ to sing along

Your messin’ with the deal.

 

Is this just an excuse for doggerel?

Resurrectin’ a long-outdated mode?

Solidarity is a lonely road

That begins at the inaugural.

 

Don’t call it boundary conditions

When you put your pain on me.

 

A little bit south of here, in Washington, D.C.

Next week’s gonna get a whiff of Armageddon

Billionaire racist takin’ over

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Not to mention the Pentagon too.

Wait and see, he’s gonna make the earth

His own private barbeque.

 

Winner of unpopular vote, FBI’s man

Armed and dangerous with his clan

Got the nuclear codes in his hands

(Nuclear codes in his hands.)

 

This ballad cannot fix or change

The course of our collective pain

Even makin’ the lyrics strange

Is no guarantee of liberty.

 

But closer to here than Washington

Is Camden, New Jersey

Home of Walt Whitman

Molderin’ in his grave, you bet

Lilacs wiltin’ on the dooryard

Of these Benighted States.

 

We raised ourselves on the left

Only to get socked by the right

It’s not rocket mechanics

What we’ve got to do is fight.

I used to have a boarder

Till I kicked that boarder out.

 

I came down to Philadelph-i-a

On an Amtrak train

When I finish with this job

Goin’ straight back to Brook-o-lyn.

 

The 2016 ballot was stolen

With mirrors and smoke.

The mediocracy, virally swollen

Couldn’t resist a con man’s joke.

 

Watch as castles made of sand

Become law of the land.

 

We all know about voter suppression

Twitterin’ lies in endless succession.

The ballot’s in danger, that’s the dope.

But, say?, did you even vote?

 

The danger that we face

Is not capitalism versus race

But race as capitalism’s sword

To vanquish our fight for all.

 

What’s to be done?

What’s to be undone?

The ying’s not in the yang.

The pang has lost its ping.

 

Turns out the ballad’s no place to be

For a self-respectin’ poet like me.

 

At this MLA convention

The crisis of greatest dimension

Is our jobs goin’ down the tubes

Like we are just a bunch of rubes.

 

We old-time full timers gettin’ replaced

With terrific young scholars

Doin’ the same work for half the dollars

Teachin’ students crippled by debts

In the clutches of banker’s threats

 

Regardless of our attitudes to Palestinian or Jew

Enrollments are divin’ like flies into glue.

 

Call it border conditions

But when he stiffed us on the rent

We booted the boundary out.

 

Neo-illiberalism’s on the rise

Provokin’ all to despise

Scorn, resist, chastise.

But a word to the wise ––

Illiberality comes in every guise.

 

Free speech may be a barrel of bare-knuckle lies

Mixed with a soupcon of truths gonna die.

But bein’ trigger happy about what can be taught

Will never liberate thought.

 

To offend or not is not the question.

Neither is transgression, repression, nor discretion.

(Though never underestimate digression.)

 

These days I keep thinkin’

We ought to boycott ourselves.

 

This isn’t a poem about politics

About which I don’t have a clue.

It’s a poem about a form

That sputters and cranks, is mortally torn.

 

Between here and there’s a boundary

I almost found it yesterday

One day I hope to cross it

If history don’t get in my way.

 

Is there more to a ballad

Than formula and rhyme?

A whiff of a story

Told with in the nick of time?

 

If there’s more to it than that, my friends

I sure as hell can’t say.

You call it boundary conditions

But I’m not in the mood to stay.

 

There is no freedom without constraint.

No border that’s not a wall.

Good fences sell for 99.99.

Even cheaper on Amazon.

 

There once was a little ballad

That didn’t know its name

Didn’t know it’s pedigree

Didn’t know its taint.

 

This ballad got mixed up in a robbery

And though it wasn’t in the plans

Ended up with blood on its metaphorical hands.

 

The verdict came down swift as a slap:

100 years for stupefaction

150 for personification.

But with parole it will only be

A matter of time before we see

Langue and all that rigmarole

Back on the streets

Purveyin’ an aesthetic trap.

 

There is no moral to this ballad

But, hey!, don’t forget:

Our jobs goin’ down the tubes

Quicker than an Xpress Lube.

 

We old-timers gettin’ replaced

With super young scholars

Doin’ same work for half the dollars

Teachin’ students with loans to pay

Turn ‘em into big banks’ prey.

 

Graduate students: unionize!

Don’t let yourselves be patronized!

Let’s turn over half of bloated university president wages

To tenure-track jobs to counter adjunct rages.

 

Call it border conditions if you like.

Or call it a struggle for a better life.

 

Dylan’ got one of those Nobel Prizes

Unsung poets put on more disguises.

Nobels to superstars and pamphleteers!

Not for impecunious balladeers!

 

If songwriters are poets, poets write songs

A Grammy for Baraka woulda righted many wrongs.

For next year’s Nobel we expect to see

(Havin’ shown class strife as metonymy)

Jean-Luc Goddard tapped for economy ––

The Rollin’ Stones for biology.

As for the Peace Prize, which Norway grants

How ’bout Lillyhammer’s Steven Van Zandt?

 

A ballot says, this is what we want.

A bullet does that too.

A ballad’s just lousy fantasy

Goin’ out from an us to a youse.

 

I ha been to the wild wood; mak my bed soon;

I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie doun.

Oh, yes, I am poisoned; mak my bed soon

I’m sick at the heart, and fain wad lie doun.

 

Now at end

Of what to tell

Hailin’ you, friend!

Between us dwell!

 

I came down to Philadelph-i-a

On the Amtrak train

When I finish with this job

Goin’ straight back to Brook-o-lyn.

 

A ballet’s not a bullet.

A ballot’s no balloon.

But when you add up all we’ve lost

You’ll soon be sighin’ this rune.

 

Call it boundary conditions if you like

Or call it a struggle for a better life.

 

Charles Bernstein

bernstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First presented at “Boundary Conditions of the Ballad,” at the MLA Annual Convention, Philadelphia, January 6, 2017. (“Boundary conditions” was the theme of the convention).

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Palestine at the 2016 MLA

W. J. T. Mitchell

One of the most notable developments at the 2016 Modern Language Association meeting in Austin, Texas could be glimpsed simply by looking at the program. There were no less than a dozen sessions devoted to the question of Palestine. Many of them were, of course, devoted to the movement known as BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction), which for the last ten years has been directed at Israel’s financial, agricultural, and military institutions and now includes academic and cultural institutions as well. Like the boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, the BDS movement seems to be reaching a critical mass in its effect on professional organizations in the American academy. Already six associations, including the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association of Asian American Studies, and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association have endorsed the boycott, and it looks as if the American Anthropological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association may join the movement as well. This time next year the Modern Language Association will consider a resolution to endorse BDS.

This is a far cry from the days when Palestine was only a distant rumor at the MLA, with the voice of Edward Said crying in the wilderness. Today numerous scholars from many different disciplines are converging on the issue, using their considerable skills of research and analysis, not only to illuminate the oppressive conditions of Palestinian life in Israel, but also to bring Palestinian culture into a new prominence. The sessions at MLA ranged from discussions focused directly on BDS, to “Comparative State Racisms” and “Cross Racial Alliances,” to specific cases (the firing of Steven Salaita by University of Illinois) to discussions of Palestinian literature “beyond Darwish,” the famous national poet of Palestine. Particularly striking to me were the frank and open discussions of the complexities of joining a boycott that tries to distinguish between individuals and institutions, encouraging open dialogue and cooperation between scholars on all sides of the debate, while firmly condemning the complicity of Israel’s universities in the occupation and military subjugation of the Palestinians. It seemed clear to me that the discussion has now moved beyond a simple “for or against” rhetoric into a more nuanced debate over the internal struggles of BDS to refine its tactics and reach out to form a broader consensus. It was refreshing to hear detailed historical discussions of previous boycott movements, from the Civil Rights era to South Africa, and to give serious consideration to the precarious and often ambivalent moments that punctuate activist practices. One panelist critiqued what she called “teleopoetics,” the sense that the success of liberation movements is somehow guaranteed in advance, and that every choice of tactics is simple and straightforward.

As someone who has come late to BDS, after a long history of solidarity with progressive scholars and artists on both sides of the Green Line, it was reassuring to find that one can be critical of specific tactical decisions while remaining supportive of the fundamental goal of the boycott. It has struck me that the decision of BDS to boycott the West-East Divan, the musical organization founded by Said and Daniel Barenboim to foster exchanges between Palestinian and Israeli musicians, was a rather sad mistake. I understand the complaints that the Divan’s programmatic rationale contains familiar liberal clichés about “dialogue,” mutual understanding and the transcendent neutrality of the arts, but still, one wonders at what is to be gained by disrespecting an organization founded by Said and Barenboim to overcome the occupation and degradation of Palestinian lives. If there were ever a prime candidate for an exception, the West-East Divan would seem to qualify. (See the response to Mariam Said’s arguments in favor of the Divan in The Electronic Intifada.)

More generally, the ready-made distinction between individuals and institutions needs to be interrogated in more detail. If contemporary theory has taught us anything, it is that individual and collective identities are deeply interwoven by racial, national, gendered, professional, and political forms of belonging. Barenboim has been a Palestinian citizen for eight years (Haaretz, January 13, 2008). The fact that both Iran and Israel hate the idea of Barenboim conducting the Berlin Staatskappelle Orchestra in Tehran indicates to me that he is doing something right. When the militant mullahs, reactionaries, and racists start agreeing about who is not to be tolerated, I know where my instinctive sympathies belong.

So I have made my decision to join the BDS movement as a supportive critic who regards political movements, not as lock-step marches toward a single goal, but as internal and external struggles for moral and political clarity. As Said once put it, I want there to be a Palestinian state (or, as now seems to be inevitable, a pluri-national state called “Israel/Palestine” where everyone enjoys equal rights), so I can take up my proper role as a critic and attack it. Meanwhile, for those who are wavering about the rightness of the boycott, and want their questions answered in a straightforward fashion, I recommend the fact sheet focusing on the proposal for the MLA boycott.

I should mention, finally, that this is my personal decision and is not a matter of Critical Inquiry policy, which maintains its neutrality on the question of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

 

Further information on the Palestine sessions at the 2016 MLA may be found at: https://mlaboycott.wordpress.com/

The CI Blog welcomes other comments, information, and debates about the boycott.

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JE SUIS CHARLIE HEBDO!

Critical Inquiry shares the universal outrage felt by decent people all over the globe (including 99% of Muslims, the Palestinian movement known as Hamas, and the broad range of political opinion in the U.S. and abroad. Two things we DO NOT SHARE: 1) the timorous response that blames the victims and the satirists themselves for having offended radical Muslims. They deserve to be offended. Their actions invite universal condemnation, and are inexcusable. 2) the right wing reaction that tries to use this terrible event as an excuse for even more erosion of civil liberties, more calls for police and state surveillance of whole populations, and more expressions of hatred for Islam, as if these acts were somehow a natural outgrowth of this great religion. They are not, and the completely betray the spirit of Mohammed.
We also want to commend cartoonists and intellectuals like Joe Sacco and Robert Crumb and Slavoj Zizek, who have taken up the only real armor against fanaticism and violence, namely the great tools of satire. Long live the right to offend, and to be funny!  We offer the following links to these artists and writers, and welcome our readers to suggest more.

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On Aaron Swartz

http://preaprez.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/aaron-swartz-rip-how-the-kids-fought-for-civil-liberties-and-pissed-off-the-feds/

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Casablanca: A Lament and a Riposte on Its Seventieth Birthday

Steven Light

That Casablanca finished first several years ago in a poll of critics designed to select the greatest screenplays in the history of cinema is not altogether surprising. I wouldn’t place it this high. I might give a nod to Lubitsch’s Ninotchka or Naruse’s Floating Weeds or Ozu’s Late Spring. Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle has a film length voice-over narration which is invincible, but the film itself is a failure, which is to say that the screenplay fails. Nonetheless, Casablanca always charms me.

But there is a moment in the film which always rankles me. And despite the fact that white supremacy and anti-Black racism were at that time more profoundly rooted socio-historical, socio-psychological, and socio-linguistic structures than they are today, I’ve never been able to explain how this moment could have been placed in the film or even more why this moment was not expunged at some point prior to the film’s release. No matter how many times I might try to think it was a question of a “convention of the time”—and I don’t think it would have necessarily been a convention amongst those who wrote the screenplay—an explanation eludes me. Certainly the easy explanations don’t satisfy me or to whatever degree they do, they become exonerations and I don’t think there should be any exoneration here at all. Could I say that from one point of view or from one significant affective and one significant affective-ideational place within me this moment could vitiate my good will for the film? That it doesn’t really do so bothers me even though I understand the inescapable polyvalent simultaneity of human experience and of human thoughts and emotions.

Ilsa Lund has entered Rick’s club with her husband, Victor Laszlo. She sees Sam—whom she had known well in Paris—at the piano and wants him to come join her. She asks a waiter: “Could you ask the boy at the piano to come over here?” Doubtless, the point is obvious and perhaps so obvious that it will considered tedious. But the tedium will appear as such only to those caught in the vortex of cynical reason’s proliferations or in the vortex of that reactionary and delusional notionality held and trumpeted by right-wing opinion wherein all references to continuing or past socio-linguistic instantiations of domination, racism, and denigrations of African humanity are considered to be anachronistic and/or divisive. But the obviousness of the point in question is rendered neither null nor illegitimate just because there are a million other instances in past—and in present—cultural productions and in cinematic history where there are indignities and infelicities in relation to people of African ancestry, to people of color, etc. Still, no matter what prolepses, no matter what anticipations to objections in advance I might or have employed, I can immediately hear the inevitable retort to my displeasure at the existence in the film of the nominative, “boy”. According to this retort the nominative’s use was simply a function of the fact that the film dates from l942 (the film was proposed to Warner Brothers on December 8, l941). This inevitable retort is impatient—and pre-fabricated—because for it there is no matter to raise, no discussion to be had. Convention and past but not present history rule—and explain all.

But who in the United States in l942 used the word “boy” with reference to an African-American man? Millions certainly. More. It was conventional usage—and thereby the willed usage of domination—in the South and amongst millions of others in non-southern states and across class and ethnic lines too. Yet, it was not a universal convention and it was not a conventional usage amongst a significant portion of the country’s population, indeed in significant portions of the country and population it was understood as a pejorative, even a pejorative of the first order, and was condemned.

It must immediately be considered that the usage makes no sense at all given the character who utters it. Ilsa is someone with left-wing views (not liberal, but rather left-wing). These views would have as an important component a condemnation of ethnic and racial domination and prejudice (which is not to say that all leftists at the time, European or American—or at any time, past or present—were or have been immune from racism and prejudice or lapses in this regard). Her husband, Victor Laszlo, is, given his status as an anti-Nazi resistance leader, almost certainly a communist, if that is one were to extrapolate the most probable scenario from the film’s objective significations. And the man she is in love with is (or was) almost certainly a communist, given that he had been an American volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (the majority of whose members were of communist affiliation), the American brigade within the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War against the fascist army of Franco. Moreover, one could easily speculate that Sam himself was a Spanish Civil War volunteer and combatant, given that there were a significant number of African Americans who went to fight in Spain (or as in the case of several women, volunteered to serve as nurses there), and that it was in Spain that Rick and Sam formed their friendship (or maybe they even volunteered together and had already been friends in New York). Of course one could vis-a-vis the origin of the friendship of Sam and Rick also imagine that in l938, when the International Brigades were disbanded by the Spanish Republic (the Republic desperately hoping that this move could win them—impossible and naive hope—aid from western countries), Rick made his way to Paris and there met an expatriate American jazz musician, Sam, and that they became friends. I prefer to think they became friends in Spain—or even already in New York.

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VIDEOPOETRY: A MANIFESTO by TOM KONYVES

“If I knew what the picture was going to be like I wouldn’t make it. It was almost like it was made already… the challenge is more about trying to make what you can’t think of.” – Cindy Sherman

“The writer is entitled to his boomboom.” – Tristan Tzara

What follows is intended to distinguish videopoetry from poetry films, film poetry, poemvideos, poetry videos, cyber-poetry, cine-poetry, kinetic poetry, digital poetry, poetronica, filming of poetry and other unwieldy neologisms, which have been applied, at one time or another, to describe the treatment of poetry in film and video but which have also developed different and divergent meanings.

The democratization of the medium realized by the introduction of video technology has, in the last 25 years, only sharpened the initial art vs entertainment debate; in particular, the movement of poetry to the “big screen” has exposed two conflicting positions – one demystifying the poem by complementary “visuals”, the other augmenting the suggestive power of poetry by unexpected juxtapositions.

The underlying dichotomy opposes videopoetry – I envision the measured integration of narrative, non- narrative and anti-narrative juxtapositions of image, text and sound as resulting in a poetic experience – to works which publish poems (voiced or displayed on-screen) in video format. While the latter are to be commended for bringing a new audience to poetry, their use of imagery as embellishments to (if not direct illustrations of) the text, their preference to employ narrative over self-reflexive sequences, their rejection of contrast, fragmentation, the incongruous and the dissonant, prevent these works from being considered as models for a new genre of technology-assisted poetry.

 

“Transformations in expression and in modes of communication cannot exist without influencing the transformation of poetry itself.” – Jean-Marie Gleize

Of its definition.
Videopoetry is a genre of poetry displayed on a screen, distinguished by its time-based, poetic juxtaposition of images with text and sound. In the measured blending of these three elements, it produces in the viewer the realization of a poetic experience.

Presented as a multimedia object of a fixed duration, the principal function of a videopoem is to demonstrate the process of thought and the simultaneity of experience, expressed in words – visible and/or audible – whose meaning is blended with, but not illustrated by, the images and the soundtrack.

 

“Progress in any aspect is a movement through changes of terminology.” – Wallace Stevens

Of the term.
Videopoetry is one word; it is not separated or hyphenated. As one word, it indicates that a fusion of the visual, the verbal and the audible has occurred, resulting in a new, different form of poetic experience. As one word, it recognizes that a century of experiments with poetry in film and video – poems introduced to motion pictures as intertitles, then as kinetic texts, as images illustrating voiced texts (some excluding visual or voiced text entirely), poems performed in front of a camera, poems as text superimposed over images – is the narrative of a gradual movement from the tenuous, anxious relationship of image and text to their rare but perceptible synthesis, i.e., from poetry films to film poems to poetry videos to videopoetry.
As an amalgam of Latin (video) and Greek (poetry) origins, “videopoetry” combines the best of two classical traditions: making poetry with technological innovation.
As a closed compound noun, “video” not only functions to modify “poetry”, it alters its meaning. Therefore, videopoetry is more than a term of convenience; it asserts that a poem is being created without the linear story-telling style of many “poetry videos” (which are made primarily to promote poems in print, using images directly representing the descriptions and actions in the text and are assembled in the conventional narrative form of movie-making). While a videopoem is, in fact, a “movie”, its intention is to provide an alternative that is non-narrative, sometimes anti-narrative, even ante- narrative.

Of its constraints.
Text, displayed on-screen or voiced, is an essential element of the videopoem. A work which does not contain visible or audible text could be described as poetic, as an art film or video art, but not as a videopoem.
Imagery in a videopoem – including on-screen text – does not illustrate the voiced text.

 

“I tried constantly to find something which would not recall what had happened before.” – Marcel Duchamp

Of narrativity.
Videopoetry recognizes that narrative moments – whether presented as individual elements or a combination of text, image or sound – encourage the viewer’s engagement; to sustain the poetic experience, some narrativity is necessary as a structural device. (A non-narrative element juxtaposed with another non-narrative element for an extended period of time may result in distancing the viewer from the work.) From scene to scene, narrativity propels the work forward, providing context for the viewer during the process of the poetic experience. The distance traveled, the time elapsed, the voices heard, the images seen, are measured out with what best suits the poetic direction of a particular moment – the awareness that when the narrative moment has reached its usefulness, a deliberate disruption must occur, must appear, must sever the forward movement toward which the narrative will always conspire. The viewer’s expectations of eventfulness are, by turns, satisfied and subverted; meaning is eventually derived from the effect of the repeated movement from the narrative to the non- narrative elements of the work.

“Bringing together two things into a previously untried juxtaposition is the surest way of developing new vision.”– Andre Breton

Of poetic juxtaposition.
In the assembly (editing or “montage”) phase, syntactical decisions are made to render image-text-sound juxtapositions as a metaphor for simultaneous “meanings” which the viewer interprets as a poetic experience. These decisions are based on presenting the 3 elements as distant realities (often arrived at through chance operations) whose relationship strikes the viewer as surprising, as always new. It is imperative that the juxtapositions be consistently perceived as suggestive of indirect relationships – mysterious, oneiric.
The success of each syntactical decision is achieved when the distant realities – the ambiguous or enigmatic relationship of a particular image to a portion of text, for example – are not so distant as to cause disengagement with the work. The key to a successfully executed poetic juxtaposition is balance, the weighing of image-text relationships for their suggestive, rather than illustrative qualities, the determining of durations, the positioning and appearance of text, the treatment of colour, the layering of the soundtrack, the acceleration or deceleration of elements, etc. Balance, in this scheme, is the demonstration of control over the narrative impulse.

 

“In film, poetry is opposed to reality.”– LuisBunuel

Of the poetic experience.
Videopoetry recognizes the power of video for producing and communicating unprecedented and unlimited associations between image, text and sound.
The viewer is presented with non-illustrative juxtapositions of image, text and sound. As the work gradually unfolds, it is perceived that the visual (image and/or displayed text) and audible (sound and/or voiced text) elements are fragmented expressions of the artist’s imagination, suggestive of meaning, yet denying clarification of the purported meaning – a teasing, vertiginous exploration of desire.
When the introduction of these fragmented expressions causes an impediment to the narrative flow, the viewer will either surrender to the symmetry of the disruptions – and participate in the adventure – or disengage and “tune out”. Provided that the image-text-sound juxtapositions exhibit a pleasing balance between narrative and non-narrative moments – achieved through strategic, self-referential disruptions, a demonstration of awareness of the spatial and temporal relationships between elements, intentional repetitions, etc. – a viewer will experience their sense of time suspended or blurred.
Tension and repose, the “ebb and flow” of narrative and non-narrative moments, may also be interpreted by the viewer as simultaneity made manifest, while the complexity and significance of relationships between the presented elements – as in dreams, for instance – may have to wait to be resolved.

 

“Always the precious repetition for the joy of recognition.”– Oyvind Fahlström

Of rhythm.
The poetry in a videopoem is characterized by a discernible rhythm, but it is different from the traditional written or oral form of poetry: it’s not limited to an attribute of the text element.
Rhythm is the effect produced by the introduction and the subsequent duration of a new portion of image, text or sound in the process of assembling the work.
Videopoetry also exhibits internal rhythms; enveloped in each appearance of a series of images, on- screen text or sounds, the viewer discerns patterns specific to the element presented.
Repetition – as a visual or audible device – produces the most effective signalling of the presence of poetry. Its many functions include emphasis, self-reflection, division, regulation or suspension of time, even a hypnotic quality (especially when prolonged); it is most useful in sustaining the rhythmic structure and the poetic experience of a work.

“The purpose of art is to ask questions.”– Lawrence Weiner

Of illustration.
To see an image as a representation of the audible text or to hear the words as they are displayed on the screen violates the premise that poetic juxtaposition is the presentation of distant realities; inevitably, the viewer is prevented from forming their own imaginative associations between the elements presented, resulting in the demystification of these associations, diminishing the poetic quality and experience of the work.

Of collaboration.
The videopoet is a poet, filmmaker and sound artist combined.
Videopoetry recognizes that production logistics sometimes require a team of individuals to cooperate during the creation of a work; the genre accommodates both individual and collaborative work, provided that the work exhibits a unified vision.

Of duration.
Whether composed of multiple scenes or one continuous shot, a videopoem longer than 300 seconds faces the challenge of sustaining the poetic experience of the viewer. The videohaiku (approx. 30 seconds) uses a few words of text attached to the shortest duration of images.

 

“Plotless film is poetic film.” –VictorShklovsky

Of categories.

Differentiated by their use of text, there are 5 major categories of videopoems:

KINETIC TEXT

SOUND TEXT

VISUAL TEXT

PERFORMANCE CIN(E)POETRY

KINETIC TEXT is the animation of text over a neutral background.
Continuing the ongoing experimentation with text as an aesthetic object, these works owe much to concrete and patterned poetry in their style – the use of different fonts, sizes and colours, strategic spatial positioning, self-referentiality – simultaneously presenting text as image.
By virtue of its equal acceptance of the semantic and non-semantic, as well as its ability to demonstrate the destruction, reconstruction and transformation of static words or letters into “characters” which move (in both senses of the word), the category represents the “prototype” of a videopoem.

SOUND TEXT presents the text on the soundtrack.
Juxtaposed with the video images on the screen, it is expressed through the human voice.
Of the five categories of videopoetry, this form (with or without music) – is the most popular, due to the facility of working within the traditional form of video/film, i.e., using the voice as the chief mode of text presentation and juxtaposition with images and other sounds (e.g., music, chant, sound effects, etc.) – without the additional difficulty presented by visual text.

VISUAL TEXT displays the text on-screen, superimposed over images captured or found.
Charged with leading the genre, this category presents the most significant challenge to videopoetry.
For the engaged viewer, the complex relationships and multiplicity of meanings suggested by juxtapositions of on-screen text with curious, non-illustrative images make extraordinary imaginative leaps not only possible, but automatic.

PERFORMANCE is the on-screen appearance of the poet, or designated poet (actor), speaking directly or indirectly into the camera. Of the five categories, it is the most problematic: the poet/performer is perceived as the intermediary between the viewer and the poem, possibly demystifying the process of presentation. (Excluding the form of sound poetry, there are many excellent, emotionally moving representations of “verbal art”, but they are only that – re-presentations of poems, not the poems.) In a videopoem, on-screen appearances only succeed by virtue of their visual expression (i.e., eccentric body language)and their juxtaposition – within the image frame – with a background suggesting a unique, unusual “setting” for the performance.

CIN(E)POETRY is the videopoem wherein the text is animated and/or superimposed over graphics, still or moving images that are “painted” or modified with the assistance of computer software, e.g., Photoshop, Flash or the 3D modelling and animation features in Second Life, the online virtual world. It closely resembles VISUAL TEXT, except the imagery has a computer-generated or modified appearance. The parenthesized “e” (electronic) was introduced by George Aguilar, who works most often in this form.

Individual works may overlap and exhibit combinations of categories.

Of image and the displayed (on-screen) text.
Videopoetry does not differentiate between camera-captured and found images (appropriated from another source or format); the genre accommodates both.
Videopoetry does not differentiate between concrete (representational) and abstract (non- representational) content in images; the genre accommodates both.
Abstract images – extreme close-ups of objects, details of hand-made or computer-generated paintings, out of focus or gel-covered lens shots – enable text elements to be placed almost anywhere on the screen; the more the text stands out in contrast to the image, the more it receives the viewer’s immediate attention, takes precedence over and assigns to the abstract image a supportive role, that of the background, moving or not. The more the text is blended with an abstract image, the more the viewer is required to consider a more subtle relationship between the two.
Concrete images require a different approach to displayed text: a still object in a motionless frame provides surfaces and edges, horizontal, vertical, oblique and curved lines as potential text-spaces; a moving object in a motionless frame restricts text-space to empty areas.

Of image and special effects.
Advancements in graphic design have refined image-text relationships to the degree that videopoetry, in terms of innovative juxtapositions, has followed the latest “cutting-edge” commercial/advertising methods with interest; while some effects, such as floating text or text crawl are still useful, other “high- end” flip-swoop-wrap-zoom-spin-shake dynamics so clearly refer to product promotion that they have acquired a secondary symbolic value: the commodification of society.
As alluded to above, videopoetry accommodates both modified and unmodified images; whether an image is to be modified or not will always depend on the effectiveness of its juxtaposition with text and sound.
Of the countless effects in post-production (the editing and assembling of the work), two transitions have proven invaluable: the dissolve and the fade. Both affect the viewer’s perception of time.
The (cross) dissolve – the superimposition of one image over another – presents two scenes (one ending, one beginning) simultaneously; as one of the most common transition effects, it is used primarily to indicate that a period of time has elapsed between the two scenes.
In videopoetry, when the superimposition is prolonged, it produces a sustained experience of time suspended while simultaneously signalling the uncontrolled state of dreaming. (Related to these, a freeze-frame can also be seen as a device that “stops” time, while the split-screen effect enables the viewer to follow two scenes on the screen simultaneously; yet both are of lesser poetic value than the dissolve or the fade.)
The fade (or fade-to-black) is used to indicate an end to a scene, usually followed by a fade-in to introduce the next scene; in videopoetry, we can interpret this effect as the blink of an eye or – when it’s prolonged – the shutting of the eyes, followed by “re-awakening” to a new “world” (or at least a new context/scene in the videopoem).

Of image and motion.
In the process of filming, the camera is either locked in position (the still shot), moving with a fluid, tracking motion or is hand-held. Of these three, the still and fluid-motion shot will not cause a disengagement with the work; the hand-held camera shot is more problematic.
The unstable image of the hand-held shot becomes a constant reminder of the operation (and operator) behind the camera; every possible accident of the moment becomes magnified, leaving the viewer unsure whether drawing attention to camera movement is an oversight or an intentional ‘self-referential disruption’. Of these accidents, it can be argued that an element of chance should be always brought into play, as it may produce the most unexpected trophies of “found” imagery. The final decision to include or exclude hand-held shots is determined by their function in the balance act of poetic juxtaposition. Accelerated motion is often associated with a comic scene; in a videopoem, depending on whether the action recorded is for atmospheric or illustrative use, the time-lapse effect can be more forgiving.
Slow motion appeals to videopoetry for a number of reasons: the effect suggests a gradual suspension of time; a dream-like state is evoked; action unfolds like a painting; a perception of reality is emphasized. In the structure of the videopoem, it functions as punctuation.

“Words would be redundant in film if they were used as a further projection from the image. However, if they were brought in on a different level, not issuing from the image, but as another dimension relating to it, then it is the two things together that make a poem.” – Maya Deren

Of text.
Videopoetry recognizes that text has the unique capacity to deliver the signs of abstract objects (ideas) as well as concrete objects to the viewer; as such, it performs the most essential function in a videopoem – to provide the ideal counterpoint to the elements of image and sound.
Videopoetry recognizes that text – due to its capacity to be displayed on the screen (i.e. freed from its fixity on the page), found in a captured image or voiced on the soundtrack – is in the propitious position of enabling the viewer to experience poetry in a time-based visual form; it is the essential catalyst in the transformation of a work from “poetic” to poetry.
Typically, text is written for the videopoem; in some cases it is “found” and repurposed for the videopoem.
Used in a videopoem, a previously composed/published poem represents only one element of the videopoem, the text element. The “poetry” in videopoetry is the result of the judicious juxtaposition of text with image and sound.
When the text is borrowed from a previously composed/published poem, it must be that the artist has discovered a new function for the pre-existing text, based on its juxtaposition with certain imagery, or a certain soundtrack.
In its visual/displayed form, text is “looked at” before read.
The looked-at text applies the strategies derived from concrete poetry, typography, graphic design and motion graphics. Fonts, the characters of type, are selected for their clarity and suggestiveness, always in relation to the image presented on the screen. Positioning, motion, duration and method of appearance (positing by dissolve, pop or typewriter effect, for example) are similarly considered in relation to the image presented on the screen.
While the demonstration of the variety and versatility of text treatment is proof that new ways of seeing words performs a poetic function, effects are not prerequisites of videopoetry.
In the relentless manipulations of the appearance of text – from the textured to the malleable, from the casually handwritten to the finely-chiseled 3-D reflective surfaces – there is a tendency to be preoccupied with the materiality of the written word, sometimes at the expense of “meaning”.
Read or meaning-driven text, wherein the appearance of words is of lesser importance, narrows the context of the moment, favouring interior effects over superficial effects. It is the strategic balance of appearance and meaning – in addition to the ‘judicious juxtaposition’ with images and sound – that produces the “poetry” in a videopoem.

 

“Where you have music that doesn’t imitate what’s on the screen, but goes against it… is far more interesting than anything imitative.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Of sound.
Videopoetry recognizes that the use of a “soundtrack” significantly augments the sensory perception of the work; as such, it provides the ideal counterpoint to the elements of image and text in assisting the viewer to process the effect or meaning of juxtapositions.
The soundtrack is not a prerequisite of videopoetry (silence is an effect and a syntactical decision), but its presence contributes to a richness of effects and meanings.
The three “branches” of the auditory capacity of the soundtrack are: voiced text, music and sound effects. Videopoetry does not differentiate between voiced and displayed text; the genre accommodates both. Voiced text intensifies the videopoem with its range of expression: the “real” voice of the poet provides an authentic connection to the creator of the work; affected or natural, loud or soft, slurred or modulated, metallic or cloyingly sweet, passionate or dull, nasal or throaty, the voice of a nightingale or the filtered voice on the phone, the human voice colours the text with nuance.
On the sound track, the bridge between voiced text and music is occupied by what is commonly termed sound poetry. Of all the various “imports” or repurposed forms of poetry, these vocalizations emphasize more aural than semantic qualities and have proved most compatible with the non-narrative objectives of videopoetry: the declamations, the chants, the recitations of “nonsense words” provide a natural counterpoint when juxtaposed with abstract images.
Music is a considered, measured “device” in videopoetry; it can be used minimally or sporadically, overlapping or underlying selected segments. In certain cases, it can be assigned the more demanding task of delivering the entire soundtrack of the work, from beginning to end, in the form of a score.
Prior to, at the point of, or immediately after a juxtaposition (the introduction of a new element – image, text or voice), music’s primary function is to intensify, diminish or eliminate the emotional content of a particular “scene”, thereby altering the viewer’s interpretation of the meaning of the content.
Music which happens to be present during the shooting (diagetic music) serves to identify the content of a scene as narrative content.
Use of music segments exemplifying specific cultural associations provides cues for the viewer to identify supplemental meanings in the work.
While music tends to emphasize, accent and generally support narrative scenes, sound effects in videopoetry are more often than not isolated, disruptive gestures used to highlight incongruous image- text juxtapositions while contributing dissonance to the internal rhythm of the soundtrack.

Concept videopoems.
Concept or conceptual videopoems focus on the materiality of language, exclude narrative and tend to hold little of intentional semantic value; “meaning” is attributed to the process of presentation, which follows a pre-conceived formula (the idea), often executed in a methodical technical manner.
The dominating element is text; its content is gathered from sourced information: found phrases, statements, lists, etc.
The text element in these works is strong on context but stripped of emotive value.
The viewer may not perceive development or change of perspective throughout the work, as heightening or diminishing effects are superseded by the intention to present an object of examination – the process of presentation – in a pure self-referential state.

Of translation.
Texts in videopoems should be provided in multiple languages; in DVD format, the viewer should be able to select the preferred language. SOUND TEXT videopoems should provide translation as subtitles, optimized for legibility: white, sans-serif font on a separate display below the screen or yellow with black outline at the bottom of the screen.
In the subtitling process, the accurate synchronization of audio and subtitle is essential.
VISUAL TEXT videopoems should provide translation on a separate display below the screen; if the visual text is one or two words, the subtitle should be positioned close to the side of the on-screen text. The subtitles should be synchronized to appear with the on-screen text.
In cases where the foreign language uses both SOUND TEXT and VISUAL TEXT, the subtitles of the VISUAL TEXT should be synchronized to appear with the on-screen text, using a colour different from the SOUND TEXT subtitles.

© 2011 Tom Konyves

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Grateful thanks to all who made this possible.
In the spring of 1978, my friends Endre Farkas and Ken Norris, of our ‘group of 7’ – The Vehicule Poets – for their participation in my first videopoem, Sympathies of War. Herman Berlandt, Director of the San Francisco Poetry Film Workshop, who drew a line in the sand when he informed me that he wouldn’t look at Sympathies of War because ‘We don’t recognize video. We work only in film.’ Michael Konyves, aged 7, who performed as General Misunderstanding in Ubu’s Blues and held signs in See/Saw. Steve McCaffery. Stephen Morrissey, who published my essay on videopoetry in The Insecurities of Art, 1981. Heather Haley, Vancouver media artist, Visible Verse festival curator, faithful supporter for many years. Vancouver videopoet Susan Cormier, for her confidence in this work. Dean of Arts, Jacqueline Nolte, whose encouragement led to Word and Image, a course in visual creative writing at the University of the Fraser Valley. Brad Whittaker, Research Office, UFV. Kin spirit, George Aguilar, whose archive of video poems and cin(e)poetry in San Francisco was invaluable to my research. David Jhave Johnston, multimedia/digital poet of the exquisite short, for his funnybone and suggestions for order. Chicago video artist, e-poet and theoretician, Kurt Heintz, for the endless hours of inspired discussion. Richard Kostelanetz, for access to his home and his many works in and on this genre. Javier Robledo, organizer of the Videobardo Videopoetry Festival and Archive in Buenos Aires, for VIP hospitality and five days of screenings. William C. Wees, Professor Emeritus of English at McGill University in Montreal, editor of The Canadian Journal of Film Studies, for his generosity to discuss some aspects of this at length and introducing me to David Foster’s work on adapting poetry to film, Toronto filmmaker Richard Hancox’ Waterworx, Peter Todd, filmmaker and curator of the London Film Poems Series, and Arthur Lipsett’s Very Nice, Very Nice. Al Razutis for Visual Essays. Thomas Zandegiacomo Del Bel, for access to the vast archive at the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. The Hungarian connection, Tibor Papp, Paul Nagy and George Galantai’s amazing documentation and research centre, Artpool in Budapest. Eduard Escoffet, for his work in sonorous poetry in Barcelona. Lionel Kearns, a pioneer and friend, and Jim Andrews, vispo, for rescuing bp nichol’s First Screening. George Bowering, for his performance in Lost in the Library. Michael Snow, for So Is This. Toronto Intermedia artist, W. Mark Sutherland, for his encouragement from the start. Eric Cassar, for inventing the videohaiku. Visual poet and meta-blogger, Geof Huth, for asking all the right questions. Ron Silliman, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, critic, Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere, for the kick-start to this. Tony Trehy, for the Text Festival evening of videopoetry in Bury. UK artwriter extraordinaire, Tamarin Norwood, for her near-translations and in-sightful comments. Portuguese video artist, Rui Silveira, for translating Oyvind Fahlström into a one-sentence videopoem. Finnish videopoet, Jani Sipila, for spreading the word. Eduardo Kac, multimedia, communications and biological artist, for including E.M. de Melo e Castro’s essay on videopoetry in MEDIA POETRY, Poetic Innovation and New Technologies. Fil Ieropoulos and Chris Funkhauser for historical analysis. Chicago poet, Francesco Levato for works from the Split This Rock Festival. Linden Ontjes, Larissa Moore, for access to Reel to Real, Seattle. Bart Testa for feedback and guidance concerning issues related to screen text. Alex Konyves, for his continued technical assistance. Martin Borycki, for mind-bending distractions. Jack Velvet, CITR, for providing hypnotic musical support. Gary Hill, whose early experiments were most instructive. Mel Vapour, East Bay Media Center, Berkeley. Enzo Minarelli, 3ViTre Archivio di Polipoesia, Cento, Italy. Parisian poet, researcher, Jean Pierre Balpe, for La Poésie Vidéo ou Vidéo Poésie. Dave Bonta, for the Moving Poems forum. Sarah Tremlett, for her continued support. German filmmaker Ralf Schmerberg, who proved that 19 poems from the German literary canon can be brought to the big screen as a feature film, Poem. Nico Vassilakis. Jérôme Game. Manuel Portela. Juan F. Egea. John M Bennett/Nicolas Carras. Gary Sherwin. Gary Barwin. Joel Baird. Caterina Davinio. Hubert Sielecki. Victoria Messi. Eric Gamalinda. Nick Carbo.
Special thanks to my wife, Marlene, my terra firma.

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