Category Archives: Humanities

An Interview with Dipesh Chakrabarty and François Hartog

Interview by Nitzan Lebovic


During the Fall of 2022 I served as the Joyce C. Greenberg Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. When I learned that Dipesh Chakrabarty and François Hartog plan to coteach a seminar, that semester, I thought that that would be an excellent opportunity not only to study with the two historians but also to interview them. During the first half of the interview I stayed in the background, as the two thinkers contemplated a series of issues concerning the history of time, the history of the Anthropocene, and their own personal relation to the two topics. I was a little more involved in the second half, when we discussed the implications of their theories on the situation in the Middle East. I recorded the conversation and edited it in the most minimal fashion. I did my best to capture the different tone of the two speakers: Hartog spoke in a deep, reflective and calm baritone. Chakrabarty, in contrast, spoke in fast, long humorous sentences. The different styles show in the changing lengths of the responses. But what feels natural within the flow of conversation may look different in writing. For obvious reason, I could not transcribe the many sounds of delighted consent and intellectual companionship that gave this interview its particular warm atmosphere. The loyal reader is invited to imagine Hartog, with silver hair and glasses, brown turtleneck sweater and dark blue blazer, and Chakrabarty, in a white shirt under a grey sweater and a brown scarf, sipping slowly from their glasses of red wine. Whenever François coughs–the result of catching cold on the Paris-Chicago flight–Dipesh shoots a quick concerned look at him, without turning his head.



N.L. Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed. The two of you are considered two of the greatest historians of the past few decades, so it’s not surprising you are also friends. Can you tell me when the friendship began and weather it had any impact on your view of history along the years?

F.H. Our friendship started when I was in Chicago, in Fall 2016, and taught a course, as you do now. I was engaged with a book that became Chronos. The section about the “Christian Regime of Historicity” followed a few years of seminars in Paris, but through our conversation I discovered a new field. Dipesh made me aware of what was for him already a known territory. I was agile. Since then, it was clear to me that I could not end the Western reflection about time without the Anthropocene.

In a way, you see, we were not supposed to meet. We came from very different spheres. Dipesh came from Calcutta, postcolonial studies and moved to the climate question. I came from the classical European tradition. But it’s precisely because we were not supposed to meet, that the meeting became so important.

D.C. I’m grateful that the work on climate change brought me some extremely valuable  friendships. The friendship with Bruno Latour was natural, given the topic.[1] François became an extremely important friend, and the conversations with him became critical to my own thinking. I knew, of course, about François’s work since his book on Herodotus (The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History [2009]). That book was of interest to scholars in postcolonial studies because of its discussion of “the other” and of “difference.” I read parts of Regimes of Historicity before but read it more carefully when François was teaching his class. The critical thing for me was what François calls “presentism”: the end of the modern regime of historicity. I suddenly realized that my time and my childhood began with what he—and [Reinhart] Koselleck before him—discussed as the end of historicity. A décallage between Europe and new nations, as waves of European presentism washed over South Asian history, particularly Indian, history. The “modern regime of historicity” that India entered in 1947 was somewhat displaced by memory studies: The partition of 1947 became, like the “Holocaust,” our site of memory studies— generating interest, for example, in books like Alessandro Portelli’s The Order Has Been Carried Out (2003). François and I discussed these and other issues even beyond his stay in Chicago. Our concerns overlapped again when François was working on the chapter about apocalyptic thinking in Chronos and analyzed some of Latour’s writings on the Anthropocene. He made the arresting argument that Bruno’s thinking here was influenced by Christian ideas of the apocalypse, which made me think that while this observation was absolutely fascinating, the Anthropocene as a global formation time could not merely be  an extension of Christian time; otherwise one would not be able to explain India and China’s pursuit of energy-intensive modernization in apparent disregard of the alarmism that often marks the discussion in the West. François’s work was extremely helpful in teasing out, as if with a pair of pincers, the Western strands of time in the knotty temporal formation that the Anthropocene hypothesis implied. This was eye- opening for me. So both Regimes of Historicity and Chronos were instructive but I’d say that Chronos carries the evidence of our meeting.

Also, François may have been the first scholar to describe the Anthropocene, our present, as “disorienting.” Disorienting in the sense that the many strands of temporality that made up the global time of the Anthropocene, an entity that involved geological, that is, planetary, time as well, never gave us a consistent sense either of the present or of the future. Both the present and the future appear fragmented. Planetary environmental crisis could manifest itself as the pandemic; it could also appear in the form of extreme weather events, or the general warming up of the surface of the earth. And these all look to different kinds of presents and futures that operate on difference scales of time. Latour would also describe our present as disorienting.

N.L. How does this “disorientation” show in contemporary historical thinking?

D.C. In the Dilthey sense of understanding, and that is profoundly disorienting within the tripartite division between Chronos, Kairos, Crisis. Some say, with reference to anthropogenic climate change, that we are way past the decision time. Others, like Latour (or James Hansen the scientist), say it’s decision time. There is a crisis and we should take charge, but it’s disorienting because who will take charge?

N.L. That was his claim in a recent article published in Critical Inquiry [See “How to Remain Human in the Wrong Space? A Comment on a Dialogue by Carl Schmitt,” Critical Inquiry 47 (Summer 2021)], where he advocates for a Schmittian rereading of the Anthropocene, and asks that we take action in a “terrestrial” space.

D.C. Precisely, but there is no we. There are only disagreements. So that’s why it’s internally plural but crisis-ridden sense of time. It’s no longer the time of globalization of the 1980s-90s when the dilemma was whether the technology forced into existence a global humanity too quickly without giving humans time for any genuine cross-cultural conversations . This, in a sense, was the fear of technology expressed by a long line of German thinkers. Postcolonial scholarship and globalization studies tried to make cultural sense of globalization by developing forms of thought that sought to get around this fear.  Francois’ work saves us from this [cultural] pessimism with his delicate sense of irony.


Frances Tanzer, The World (2021)

N.L. It seems that both of you changed course, about two-to-three decades ago, and moved from a more local and archive-oriented history to a broader and more conceptual history. Can you tell me about the change and what instigated it?

F.H. Dipesh referred to the Regimes of Historicity, which was, for me, a change from historiography, in the broader sense, to a new temporal perspective. The inspiration came from reading anthropologists who focused on time. Critical reviewers argued that Regimes of Historicity was written from a European, or even French, perspective. It’s wrong, because we—succeeding anthropologists and historians such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marhsall Sahlins, and Koselleck of course—focused on multiple temporalities. Sahlins followed Lévi-Strauss’s  distinction between cold and warm societies [see the “Time Regained” chapter in The Savage Mind] when he merged a structural analysis and an emphasis on the event. Analyzing the apotheosis of Cook [in How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, for Example (1995)] he came to realize that it was a mutual misunderstanding of the English and the Polynesians that led to violence. Cook, “the white God,” was not supposed to return—there was a problem with the ship. The Polynesian lived an ancient regime of historicity and the English saw themselves as the representatives of a modern temporality. This led to a clash, not of civilizations, but of temporalities.

That was the backround, but the concrete change occurred when I was invited to the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin in 1993. During that year I walked through Berlin, a short time after the fall of the wall. Berlin looked like a huge construction site. I discovered a city that lived between different temporalities. You could see that with your own eyes. This was a distinct embodiment of the Regime of Historicity. It’s not an abstract “ideal type,” in the Weberian sense, but a Benjaminian embodiment. I realized, there, that the regime of historicity is not an abstract analysis of far away societies but a contemporaneous tool.

D.C. My personal interest in climate change started in 2003, when the devastating fire in Canberra destroyed many of the natural spots I grew to love when I was a graduate student there. I had a complete sense of loss and grief. But I was also fascinated by the proposition that humans now acted as a very powerful geological force on the planet, a sense of human agency that was so different from what my historian heroes such as E. P. Thompson used. I wrote the “Four Theses” essay [“The Climate of History: Four Theses,” in Critical Inquiry 35 (Winter 2009)] first in Bengali, in 2007, for a Calcutta magazine. No one there was interested in it. When, a few years later Critical Inquiry was running low submissions and asked me if I had anything for them, I said I could translate and expand that article.

While working on Provincializing Europe [Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000)], I realized that while I’m a trained historian, I also love thinking beyond the kind of questions that historians usually ask. My legitimate way of doing such thinking was by putting pressure on the categories with which historians think. In Provincializing Europe these were memory, oral history, indigenous history that allowed me to questions “historians’ history.” In the “Four Theses” I used science—geology, evolutionary biology – to the same end. All disciplines have their “externalities,” things they don’t train you to think about. Economists don’t want to know about the social cost of coal when they work on the price of coal; historians don’t want to know about evolutionary history, geological history. They see them as given. Braudel was an exception. He’s an ancestor of what he are doing today but for my liking he went too far in neglecting the importance of everyday human experience. In On History (1980) he argues that the individual doesn’t really matter. I am too much of a humanist, too much of a reader of E. P. Thompson to think that the individual doesn’t matter. The tension between our participation in geological and evolutionary history and what we, as human beings, think of as our mortality, that tension is of interest to me.

It is also interesting to think about the criticisms I get for my planetary views. There are, of course, those who argue that capitalism is at the root of all our crises. One response I get in the subcontinent sometimes is that the planetary view is too Western and universal. The planetary voice, some of them say, is White. And then there are “decolonial” scholars who think the world should go back to a pre-1492 world. While I agree with much in their criticism of colonial domination, as a historian I think that there is no going back. We are in the world that we are in. But these criticisms make me reflect on my own reasons for being interested in planetary questions. I realize that while I’m certainly not a White person—Tagore is a major figure in my book; I criticize him, but he’s my own person— the Western academy still retains, perhaps as a remnant of their imperial days,  a deep capacity to speak in the name of univerals. Otherwise, how would one explain the fact that most if not all of the scientists who have so far written books for the general reader explaining global warming as a physical-social phenomenon are based in in what we call the West?

F.H. I would like to add something here: Dipesh was born in December 1948. That is the time of independence, in India, and the rise of its modern regime of historicity, under (Jawaharlal) Nehru and other modernizers. I was born in 1946. Of course, I didn’t know it back then, but I’m the son of the Nuremberg Trials. That makes a difference. It became apparent to me many years later, walking through Berlin in the 1990s, but the first time it hit me was actually during the mid-1970s, in the early days of the “memory wave,” or the start of memory studies. Lanzmann’s Shoah—which took fifteen years to complete—and Pierre Nora’s Les lieux de mémoire [“Shoah” was released fully in 1985; Nora’s in 1984] raised the question: what is national history? Unlike Lanzmann, Nora didn’t deal directly with the Holocaust but the Holocaust was present in everything he did. So in that regard I’m the son of the crash of the modern regime of historicity. After the Nuremberg Trials we lost faith in the progress of humanity. It took me time to become fully aware of it. The time of being born on this earth changes my, or our, perspective.


N.L. So far, we’ve been talking about different historical conceptions, but your theories reverberate strongly for those interested in the present and future state of things. As a Middle Eastern, I wonder how you see your analysis working in particular settings, such as the amplified rhetoric against the Arab population inside and outside the 1967 line. What is the significance of the Anthropocene to the current situation in Israel/Palestine/ the Middle East? How does history help—or not—understanding the conflict?

F.H. I do not know enough to judge whether the Anthopocene is a present concern for Israelis and Palestinians. It would be good if they cared. But one aspect of the conflict is the temporal gap between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel was established (in 1948) with a modern perspective—the building of a new nation and taking progress as a mission. But Israeli “progress” meant a catastrophe [the Nakba] for the Palestinians. Their sense of time, after the catastrophe (of expulsion and military regime) changed fundamentally. The Arab world, at that time—Egypt for example—did experience a drive to modernize and developed its own version of modern regime. I’m sure there was a section of the Palestinian population that strove for that, too. However, an essential component in that history is the Iranian Revolution of 1979. It changed the situation dramatically in the whole Arab world and marked another end of the modern regime. The result was a mass shift from the Left or the Marxist view of history, to religion, which has a very different notion of time. The Palestinians were trapped in that tectonic change, on the one hand, and by the Israeli state, on the other hand. Israel was navigating between different times, the modern regime remained active, but presentism started altering the society. The Palestinians experienced a growing dispossession because their future was negated by the Israelis, their past was denied and in the process of disappearing [many of the deserted Palestinian villages, after 1948 and 1967, were destroyed] they were trapped in a present that kept changing, under a barrage of regulations and orders by the Israeli authorities. So from my perspective, the Palestinians experience is now a complete temporal disorientation. When Arafat was trying to comfort the Palestinians and commit to the struggle for national independence, he explained it may take a day or a thousand years, but this demonstrated an inability to grasp time realistically. After that, the rise of a presentist regime of time pushed an apocalyptic worldview and when realized by individuals, the Shahid suicide attacks, it expressed an individualized apocalypse. Da’esh followed the same apocalyptic view, advocating a Kairotic time which is the time of the Caliphate and resisted a Chronos-time. Da’esh’s is a deep faith in the end-time and the coming of the apocalypse. But not understanding that defending a territory and a border is more related to Chronos than to Kairos led to their defeat.

N.L. So reading the Greeks could have helped them win…

D.C. Or lose better…

N.L.: I see the conflict moving—within what François calls Chronos-time—from an ethnic postpartition conflict to a biopolitical, permanent conflict. The incessant slicing of the West Bank to smaller and smaller enclaves, Bantustans, changes the temporal experience of Israelis and Palestinians. Dipesh, how do you see the Anthropocene changing or helping us understand this situation? Could it propose, ironically, an opportunity for a dialogue?

D.C.: on a practical level Israelis have been doing a lot of work on climate, dry cultivation and irrigation systems. Building desalination plants or growing tomatoes in desert climate are part of the technological approach to climate change. So one obvious question is whether the Palestinians are or will be losing out on such technological solutions. Your description is exactly right, the Palestinian territory looks more and more like a patchwork quilt. Israel has made it impossible for them to even dream of a separate state. At the same time,–going back to what François was saying,– Palestinians have a hard time accepting this as their reality, because acceptance sounds like defeat, and creates despair. I’m sure it’s hard for them to think beyond the moment, except making demands for a separate state… The real solution must be, however, a  bi-national state, where Palestinians would become full citizens with full rights and where Israelis would confront their ethnocracy. Hannah Arendt was writing this in the 1930s, before Israel was established,– but the Hebrew University was already there. She was writing about a shared settlement of Jews and Arab. I am sure some Israelis think about this situation in a way similar to how some Indians think about Kashmir. The assumption is: We’ll spend money and maintain our control. It’ll bleed our state but we’re rich enough to support it. No one knows how long that could work.

N.L: A politics of suspension…

D.C.: Yes, the politics of suspension on both sides, and one wishes for a leadership that would break through these barriers, which doesn’t seem possible in the near future. So going back to the Anthropocene question, no country knows fully how it’s going to be affected. Israelis are exposed as much as others in the Middle East. That’s the problem with Climate Change; no country can prepare for it. That is why the most powerful countries invest a lot in defense technology, in internal and external security [for example, against climate immigration, N.L.]. Sometimes people fight battles in times that are different from their own: Hitler fought a nineteenth century self-aggrandizing battle, colonizing other people and taking over their territories. Putin is fighting an old Imperial war. Israel and India are locked in a twentieth-century nation-state politics while the times have moved on. We need to think beyond the nation state, beyond ethnocracy. That’s the problem with climate politics: the politics we’re engaging with are mostly twentieth century politics, but Climate Change is redefining the twenty-first century, and politically, we haven’t yet responded to it.

F.H. We see a strong move in the opposite direction, towards radical nationalism, with the recent election campaigns in Europe and South-America…

N.L. We need to end soon, but let me challenge you one last time: I hear also the arguments from the other end, that we are the dreamy Idealists and that the lessons of such changes should be the opposite, that is a shift towards a biopolitical fight for survival and securing basic means of living. Why insist on future hypothetical solutions?

D.C. We don’t know how the crisis is going to affect us. In the short term, selfish politics makes sense: I’ll become richer and gather resources to deal with whatever problem. Or I will build walls and stop human movement. But what happens if the problem out scales your resources? We all go down. It’s a gamble based on presentist calculations. We are still using much more fossil fuel than we should. The world will get hotter, humans will move both within and between nations, and there will be more conflicts. But what happens above 2.5 degrees? That’s an unfamiliar terrain.

N.L. Many thanks to you both for a fascinating conversation.

The interview was recorded at University of Chicago’s “Quad Club,” on 27 September, 2022. I translated the full interview for a forthcoming special “climate issue” of the Israeli T’eoria u’Vikoret (Theory and Criticism). The English version is about third shorter than the Hebrew/Arabic.

[1] The interview was conducted a few days before the news about Bruno Latour’s death, on 9 October 2022.

Nitzan Lebovic is a professor of history and the Apter Chair of Holocaust Studies and Ethical Values at Lehigh University, and the Joyce C. Greenberg Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago.

Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History and South Asian Studies at the University of Chicago.

François Hartog is the director of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS).

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Filed under Humanities, Interdisciplinarity, Philosophy

Poetry and Translation in Times of Censorship; or, What Cambridge University Press and the Chinese Government Have in Common

Jacob Edmond

What is lost in translation? It’s a perennial concern for someone like me, but it took on a new twist when I was recently asked to approve a Chinese translation of a review of Maghiel van Crevel’s book Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money (2008). My review of the original English version appeared in The China Quarterly back in 2011, but I gave permission for it to be translated and published in China following the release of the Chinese translation of Van Crevel’s book, Jingshen yu jinqian shidai de Zhongguo shige 精神与金钱时代的中国诗歌 (2017). This Chinese version of my review will formally be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Modern Chinese Studies (现代中文学刊), but you can already read it here.

A translation of a review published as a review of the translation: the complexities only begin here. Readers of Chinese will already have noted the title change in the Chinese translation of Van Crevel’s book: “money” (金钱) and “mind” (精神) remain, but “mayhem” has disappeared. That omission also signals a larger one: the Chinese version lacks the chapter on “Exile,” which includes discussion of poems written by Bei Dao 北岛, Wang Jiaxin 王家新, and Yang Lian 杨炼 after the Chinese government’s violent 4 June 1989 suppression of dissent.

No one familiar with working and publishing in China will bat an eyelid at such changes. Yang Lian’s own collected poems were published in China with some works removed and the titles of others changed. “To A Nine-Year-Old Girl Who Died in the Massacre” (给一个大屠杀中死去的九岁女孩) became “To a Nine-Year-Old Girl Who Died Suddenly” (给一个猝死的九岁女孩). Journals and publishers that engage with China—The China Quarterly and its publisher, Cambridge University Press, among them—face a similar pressure to avoid sensitive topics in disseminating their work in the country.

In approving the translation of my review, I faced the same dilemma that Van Crevel and these publishers and editors face in deciding whether to allow their work to be censored: refuse to change anything and so lose the possibility of addressing a Chinese audience, or make the changes and hope that one’s translated words and the mute marks of censored omissions might communicate better than the total silence of refusal. Van Crevel’s is an excellent book on contemporary Chinese poetry: I stand by my review’s description of it as the “definitive sourcebook.” It therefore deserves a wide audience in China, where its insights are most relevant. Cutting one chapter was the price of that audience.

The pressures and choices are not, of course, the same in every situation. As a large and important source of scholarship, Cambridge University Press and other major international scholarly publishers have a much greater power to stand up to censorship, as their wholesale banning in China would severely inhibit the government’s desire to make the country a world leader in research and higher education. Yet even large multinational publishers often bow to the pressure, as illustrated by Cambridge University Press’s widely publicized decision to block selected articles from The China Quarterly at the request of Beijing authorities, a decision that was only reversed after “international protests, including a petition signed by hundreds of academics, and the threat of having its publications boycotted.” Despite its enormous financial and cultural capital, Cambridge University only refused the demands of censorship because of external pressure, public embarrassment, and reputational threat. For an individual researcher working on Chinese poetry, however, there’s little to be gained and much to lose by refusing to modify one’s work to satisfy the censors.

With a heavy heart and somewhat pained conscience, then, I allowed explicit reference to events like 4 June 1989 to be removed from the Chinese translation of my review. My review retains, however, a discussion of the book’s “major advantage” when compared to “similar studies published in the PRC.” As the Chinese translation by Zhang Yaqiu 张雅秋 puts it, “this book’s advantage compared to similar research published in China is clear: . . . its frank discussion in relation to relevant historical facts” (在中国出版的同类研究著作相比,这本书优点显明:……对相关史实有率直讨论).

The ironies here, of course, abound. The translated review discusses advantages that the book, in the version published in China, no longer possesses. And the reference to Van Crevel’s “ability to address directly sensitive political matters, such as June Fourth” has been transformed into a vague reference to a “frank discussion in relation to relevant historical facts” (对相关史实有率直讨论). Still, I took small and perhaps false comfort in thinking that my reference to “historical facts” (史实) that cannot be openly discussed in China—though perhaps not quite as explicit as the phrase “sensitive political matters” used in the original review—would be clear enough to any intelligent reader. I also took some satisfaction in how the review highlighted the omissions of the Chinese translation of Van Crevel’s book by referring to the thirteen chapters of the original English version and to the discussion of work by Yang Lian and Bei Dao. Are these the false comforts of people who seek to find righteousness in their own cowardice? Perhaps. It’s a question I keep asking myself and one that I hope anyone else writing about contemporary Chinese society and culture does too.

In writing this piece and reviewing my original review published in The China Quarterly, however, I was surprised to discover something more unexpected and disturbing. Unbeknownst to me, The China Quarterly had also removed my reference to 4 June 1989 when it published my original review back in 2011. I went back to check the final version submitted to The China Quarterly and confirmed that the Word document that I submitted referred to “June Fourth.” However, in the version published, those words had been changed to the “Tiananmen incident.” While June fourth is occasionally (and erroneously, given the much wider geographic reach of the protests and the crackdown) called the second Tiananmen incident, the term Tiananmen incident usually refers to the 5 April 1976 protests in Beijing’s central square and not to the massacre of protesters thirteen years later.

Rather bizarrely and ironically, then, my very reference to the ability of those outside China “to address directly sensitive political matters, such as June Fourth” had been altered and so disproven. In fact, the Chinese translation now published in Mainland China actually gets closer to my intent than my original review after it was subjected to silent censorship by the editors of The China Quarterly.

It is easy to become worn down or even blind (as I was) to the many silent and insidious operations of censorship in the world today. Perhaps the one advantage of engaging directly with overt censorship in China is that it can make one aware of the broader workings of censorship and self-censorship that operate in contemporary culture. These lessons are, like censorship itself, eminently—and frighteningly—translatable.

Jacob Edmond is an associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (2012) and has published essays in such journals as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly. He has recently completed a book manuscript entitled “Master Copy: New Media, World Literature, Iterative Poetics.”


Filed under Criticsm, Humanities, Interdisciplinarity, Uncategorized

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











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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Filed under Criticsm, Humanities, Interdisciplinarity, Palestinian protest, Uncategorized

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:

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


Filed under Humanities, Palestinian protest, Uncategorized, WJT Report

Digital MLK

If MLK Day 2013 taught us anything, it is that after the internet, the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., has become one of the most contested of all American legacies. While relevant examples abound, one viral YouTube clip from the day was sufficient in itself: “Cornel West Explains Why It Bothers Him That Obama Will Be Taking the Oath with MLK’s Bible.” Reshared by thousands of MLK-memorializing Twitter and Facebook users, as well as dozens of media venues ranging from The Huffington Post to The National Review, the West clip asserts that the POTUS’s swearing-in on MLK’s Bible devalues MLK’s radical critique of racism as fused with the militarism and capitalism that Obama’s position facilitates.  However, the virality of the clip hardly indicates that genuine political debate has suddenly became visible in the age of social media. To the contrary, while the broadcast media predecessors of YouTube and Twitter reframed American society as mass culture, digital culture has, in David Weinberger’s terms, reframed “everything [as] miscellaneous.” 

This includes, of course, West’s attempt to set the record straight on MLK. For liberals, MLK has long appeared as an icon of collective progress, one summed up almost exclusively by the collapse of de jure segregation. The West clip, however, went viral not only because it pointed out the more radical aspects of MLK’s critique ignored by liberals but also because it appealed to all of the POTUS’s detractors, wherever they might stand politically.  

For twenty-first century conservatives, the West clip was assimilable because MLK has also emerged as a primary source for the creeping opposition to civil rights; within the libertarian subsect, racial inequality is understood as having become sufficiently minimal that it is now time to judge individuals by the content of one’s character rather than the color of one’s skin.  Such sentiments are so common amongst conservatives that The National Review’s article accompanying West’s YouTube clip didn’t even reproduce the substance of West’s argument. The paragraph-long piece simply recited the most usable sound bites: that the POTUS had invoked MLK’s “prophetic fire as just a moment in presidential pageantry”. 

Not only MLK’s words then, but West’s, too, were renarrated by the herd mentality he sought to displace, only this time via the conservative rather than liberal herd. As one YouTube commenter would then go on to confidently proclaim, “MLK would have voted for Ron Paul.” It is plausible that this may be the fate of ideas in the age of the social media sound bite; as Susan Sontag once remarked in a different context, abbreviated thinking often takes the form of “aristocratic thinking” since sound bites are decontextualized by default. Thus, very differently positioned stakeholders appear to agree, even if they are far from any such state. Just as the abbreviation MLK accommodates 140 characters more easily than the extended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then, so too does concise rhetoric become resharable rhetoric, which then becomes renarratable rhetoric. This perhaps, is the truth of the comment accompanying one user’s retweet of the West clip: “do I even want to read what he said?” 

Of course, MLK really did assert the inseparability of racism, militarism, and capitalism, as West asserted. The question, though, is how does this remain so undigested today? Does digital culture promise genuine political debate while delivering cloaked consensus, just as Karl Marx claimed liberal secularism promises theological diversity while delivering cloaked Christianity?  Perhaps the answer is to be found in MLK’s political theology. Shortly before his assassination, MLK gave one speech that, to invoke one of West’s terms of art, is particularly characteristic of the black prophetic tradition. Indeed, so much so, that ever since “Where Do We Go From Here?” rumors have circulated about his affiliation with democratic socialism. As he put it therein: “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.” Just as West’s words were largely lost to the virality of digital culture on MLK Day 2013, the theological roots of MLK’s antimilitarist, post-Communist “democratic socialism” have also been lost and for quite some time. Twelve years prior to that speech, MLK wrestled with the question of collectivism vs. individualism in remarkably resonant language, in his dissertation: “Wieman’s ultimate pluralism fails to satisfy the rational demand for unity. Tillich’s ultimate monism swallows up finite individuality in the unity of being. A more adequate view is to hold a quantitative pluralism and a qualitative monism. In this way both oneness and manyness are preserved.” The dissertation, accepted by Boston University’s School of Theology in 1955, was entitled “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” Concerned with the tension between impersonalist, all-engulfing monism and personalist, ultimate pluralism, MLK’s theology, like his later politics, asserted a “higher synthesis.” West, along with scholars like Gary Dorrien, Dwayne Tunstall, and others, show how this higher synthesis eventually grounded his political convictions; for MLK, racism, militarism, and capitalism devalue the diversity of human personality while also violating the divine oneness upon which it is grounded.  

Translated to digital culture, if American society seems as shallowly individualist in the conservative sense as it does narrowly collectivist in the liberal sense, perhaps something reducible to neither would require more than just viral, renarratable sound bites; at the same time, it may be precisely the substance of those ubiquitously reshared MLK quotes, if read carefully. 

Jason Adams teaches in the departments of philosophy and liberal studies at Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, Michigan.

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Filed under Bill of Rights, Consitution, Humanities