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In Memory of Robert Morris, 1931-2018

W. J. T. Mitchell

 

Robert Morris, one of the founders of the “Great Generation” of American minimalist artists in the 1960s and a frequent contributor to this journal, passed away on 28 November 2018. The New York Times (30 November) devoted a full page to his obituary, complete with photos of some of his iconic pieces in felt, plywood, and other humble industrial materials. Over the last twenty-five years, Critical Inquiry published many of his essays on art—its history, its many worlds, its follies and frustrations.  In honor of his long relationship with CI, we will be temporarily opening public access to all those essays soon.

Morris was also a longtime personal friend, mentor, and inspiration to the editor of this journal. We enjoyed a running conversation about art, politics, and culture, along with specific discussions of the essays he sent to us. He introduced me to contemporary art in the late 1980s, which probably jaundiced my normally hopeful eye. I wrote an essay (“Wall Labels for Robert Morris”) for the catalogue of his 1993 Guggenheim retrospective based on a dream diary entry that he sent to me.  He was also an occasional visitor to Chicago for exhibitions of his work at the Art Institute. And on 13 November 2013, when he was in somewhat precarious health, he agreed to come to Chicago to give a lecture/performance. He packed the 474-seat Logan Center Auditorium, dazzling the audience with four screens, two large ones with automated images, and two smaller ones that he controlled from two lecterns. Images from throughout the history of art cascaded forth as he proceeded, in steadfastly deadpan Morris fashion, to give two parallel lectures, the combination entitled “A Few Thoughts about Bombs, Tennis, Free Will, Agency Reduction, Museums, Dust Storms, and Labyrinths.” As I recall, one lecture was emphatically more negative than the other. Neither was what you would call positive or affirmative. From the lectern on stage right, Bob declared his refusal

to talk about art that I made half a century ago; minimalism does not need to hear from me. I do not want to talk about art that I made yesterday; contemporary art is making enough noise without me. I do not want to be filmed in my studio, pretending to be working. I do not want to participate in staged conversations about art, either mine or others, past or present, which are labored and disguised performances. I do not want to be interviewed by curators, critics, art directors, theorists, aestheticians, aesthetes, professors, collectors, gallerists, culture mavens, journalists, or art historians, about my influences, favorite artists, despised artists, past artists, current artists, or future artists. A long time ago I got in the habit, never since broken, of writing down things instead of talking. It is possible that I was led into art making because art making and being in the presence of another person were not requirements.

Moving over to stage left after a reflection on free will and determinism  (“Now comes the hard part”), Bob switched from sardonic monologue to a Samuel-Beckett-style dialogue between two mysterious interlocutors:

One:  “Ever hear the expression, ‘I have reached bed rock and my spade is turned’”?

Other:  “Maybe. Why?”

One: “What do you think it means?”

Other:  “Metaphors don’t have meanings.”

One: “Really?”

Other: “They just lead us to see one thing as another.”

One: “Hmmm.  So where is the spade and rock leading you? Not the rock or the spade but the turning. The turning after it hit the fucking rock.”

Other: “OK, the turning. Where is it leading you? Something about going on without reasons.  You never have reasons anyway.”

One:  “There is more.”

Other:  “Oh, no.”

One: “The way it goes is to begin with a qualification.”

Other:  “Let’s hear it.”

One: “It goes, ‘I’m inclined to say,’ and then you get to the rock and spade.”

Other:  “Well, that changes everything.”

At the end, Bob agreed to answer exactly ten questions from the audience, no more, no less. The answers were all quotations from famous philosophers written on slips of paper drawn out of Bob’s hat. In answer to the question, “what are you really trying to say in this performance?” Bob luckily pulled out a line of John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing”:  “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.”

I won’t try to make sense of all this for you. Bob’s critical intentions always seemed directed at puncturing the clichés of “artspeak” and the mystique of artist “personalities.” He loved labyrinths of thought, continually weaving metaphysics and everyday language. His sensibility was unrelentingly pessimistic, ironic, and quietly jocular, poised somewhere between Buster Keaton, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and George Carlin. In private, he was a gentle, considerate friend, with a deep reservoir of rage at cruelty, injustice, and pompous hypocrisy.

The first time I met him was at his invitation, sometime in the late 1980s. He had read my recently published book Iconology and wrote me a short note telling me that he liked it and would be  happy to meet me if I ever came to New York. He mentioned in a PS that he had a show at the Art Institute of Chicago, which I duly attended. It was the debut of one of his numerous departures from his minimalist origins into a maximalist exploration of apocalyptic firestorm paintings laminated onto heated lead plates, framed in hydrocal structures riddled with impressions of body parts—fists, penises, skulls.

Robert Morris, Untitled, 1984.

I suspect that I pissed Bob off when I said that “they look like ornaments suitable for Darth Vader’s boudoir,”[1]but he seems to have forgiven me. I felt that the firestorm compositions were staging a paragone or debate between sculpture and painting, “insisting on the frame as an equal partner in the work”:

The hydrocal frames with their imprinted body parts and post-holocaust detritus stand as the framing ‘present’ of the works, trophies or relics encrusted around the past event, the catastrophe that left the fossils as the imprints in which it is enframed.  Frame is to image as body is to the destructive element, as present is to past.[2]

On my next trip to New York, I arranged to meet Bob for coffee at 4 PM at a café in Soho.  We didn’t stop talking until midnight. For the next twenty years, every trip to New York included a meal with him. When he moved his studio to upstate New York, he let me use his top-floor loft on Greene Street as a crash pad, and I spent many lovely evenings there sitting out on the fire escape watching the crowds on Canal Street and the sunset over the cast iron buildings of Soho.

Most of our correspondence over the years dealt with his writing, but twice I was able to commission works of art from him. One was an illustrative cartoon for a lecture at MoMA entitled “How the dinosaurs broke into the Museum of Modern Art,” which dealt with issues such as neglected and deaccessioned holdings in the museum, as well as (naturally) Robert Smithson. MoMA’s director politely suggested that the museum would be happy if I were to give them Bob’s drawing as a gift, and I just as politely declined to do so.

Cartoon by Robert Morris and the author.

The other, more serious commission was my request in 2008 that Bob make a drawing that would show the famous multistable image of the Duck-Rabbit with a body. He provided a straightforward sculptor’s answer to the challenge by resorting to the time honored technique of contrapposto, turning the creature’s body so that the rabbit is facing forward while the duck is twisting his body 180 degrees.

Robert Morris.

But he added to the image an internal framing structure based on the Greimasian “Square of Opposition” used by linguists to visualize the structures of negative statements, and later used by Jacques Lacan to produce his famous “L-Schema” depicting the relation of the subject with the Other. He mused about fabricating the Duck-Rabbit (with body) in glass, but I don’t know that he ever did.   

After he sent me the embodied Duck-Rabbit drawing, Bob launched into a set of reflections on this “quadratic diagram” in a letter that will forever tantalize me with its plunge into a world of abstractions rendered concrete, visible, and structural, driven by his inveterate “Kunstwolling,” his drive to make ideas into things and vice versa:

12 December 2008

Dear Tom,
I hope your talk went well.  Your visit here gave me a real lift. Our visits are too infrequent.
I was thinking about how to expand the quadratic ideogram to something like a quadratic equation; something which moves from a static map to a mapping of 3-D force fields. Desire gets expanded from just directional arrows-Eros to the animating axial force. So let Desire be the force moving from below where it transits first the Quadratic Ideogram of space-object and image-language. Here predilection, imagination, tropism cross the first filter/screen of the material.  The next level-screen-filter is that of the Other where the dream of private language perishes, where Desire encounters existing models, where the Oedipal resistance of that which is “always already” in place intimidates. The third passage is Desire’s move through the triangular filter of Peircean signs of concrete material means where one seizes the stuff of forming (am I just Kunstwolling along here below a big mental model which I want to grasp?). The fourth and final filter to be crossed is that of Rhetoric/Logic. Here I do not have a clear memory of how you articulated this opposition. I can see it partly as taking the form of a Klein group (x-not-x; x-not-y;x-not-x or y, etc). This fourth level is also that of format and revision and where revenge is taken on the Other by means of signing and presenting the work-thought-object-art .
All this is extremely tentative. I don’t know the geometry of the four levels–squares? triangles? circles?
I thought you might be able to (a) play/expand/refine this quadratic equation,or (b) rip it to shreds.
Love,
Bob

As Morris’s apprentice, editor, and friend, I found these exchanges endlessly delicious and inconclusive, a wonderful meal that left me with renewed appetite for more. The idea that there will be no more conversations of this sort left me desolate and blue all day, until I received the following note of condolence from my old friend and former student, John Ricco, quoting from Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo’s book Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship:

No end, I swear by all that is holy, only the silence in between the movements. You know those silences in which the educated audience members at concerts don’t applaud? Because they know it is a ‘movement’ that’s just ended and not the end of a song? I think or hope that’s what death is. The silence between movements; those who don’t know any better applaud, but those who know music more intimately sit in silence and wait for the next movement to begin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]Actually, I was quoting my wife, Janice Misurell Mitchell, who didn’t like them nearly as much as I did.

[2]W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago, 1994).

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PRESENT TENSE: Time, Madness, and Democracy around 6 November 2018

W. J. T. Mitchell

“The present is real in a way in which the past and the future are not.”
—Saint Augustine

“May you live in interesting times.”
—Ancient Chinese Curse

“Insanity in individuals is somewhat rare. But in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche

This essay is written in the present tense about a tense present. It concerns the period leading up to the US midterm election on 6 November 2018, and it will no doubt continue writing itself after that date. It is not an attempt to predict the results of that election, which seem to become more uncertain every day but will be known by the time you read these words. The aim is to reflect on time itself as an experiential, qualitative category, in the midst of a time in American political culture that is by all accounts tense, uncertain, “interesting,” and (above all) crazy. The craziness of the moment is threefold: (1) it is a collective psychosis, involving a pathological detachment from reality by large masses of the American population; (2) the individual pathology of a psychopathic and narcissistic sovereign who channels and exploits the collective insanity to maintain his power; and (3) a world order that seems to be trending inexorably toward the death of democracy and its replacement by authoritarian regimes led by strong men. If it has been clear for some time that Friedrich Nietzsche was right about the madness of “groups, parties, and nations,” we must now turn our attention to the epoch, the swerve or tipping point in history that is experienced by many with a sense of astonishment, anxiety, and alarm. On every side one hears ominous predictions that if the Trump party (formerly known as Republican) is victorious on 6 November and holds on to the House of Representatives, Trump will reign unchecked for at least two and possibly six more years. In that time he could deal a decisive blow to American democracy itself, and (in the longer durée of climatological time), deliver a death blow to the meager efforts to stave off a planetary crisis of rising sea levels, displacement of large populations, and increasingly disastrous weather events.

In view of the urgency of this moment, who has time to reflect on time? It might seem like it is time to act, not to think. But the only actions available to a private citizen (voting, canvassing, sending money to candidates and causes) seem like pinpricks on a runaway elephant. The knowledge that “the system is rigged” by voter suppression, gerrymandering, hacking of voting machines, dark money, foreign interference, and the inequities of an electoral system that makes a vote in Nebraska twenty times as powerful as a vote in California has the predictable effect of dampening any notion that “every vote counts.” So it may be a good time to reflect on time after all.

Saint Augustine set the problem of time up beautifully, noting that when he wasn’t thinking about time as a concept he knew perfectly well what it meant. It was when he turned to philosophical reflection, asking the question “What is time?” that difficulties began. I am going to avoid the question of what time is by turning instead to how we see it and represent it, and specifically to what sort of images of time, both visual and verbal, underlie the discourse of temporality. Instead of an ontology of time, I propose an iconology of time. I will begin with three pictures of time that I am sure will be familiar to you and that are everywhere in the way we talk about it, measure it, and experience it.[1] The first, predictably, is the image of the line, with all its associated notions of succession, sequence, flow, and directionality. This is the image that governs our individual experience of time, beginning with birth and ending with death, or our supra-individual time sense of line that extends from our forgotten ancestors in the distant past down to the present and leads on into possible futures. It is personified in classical mythology by the Greek figure of Kronos—the Roman Saturn—who devours everything, including his own children.

Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, Kronos/Saturn with Child. 17th c. National Museum in Warsaw.

 

Peter Paul Rubens, Kronos or Saturn devouring his own son. 1636. Museo del Prado (detail).

Linear time is what underlies the sense that we are “ahead of our time” or “behind the times,” part of the avant-garde or doomed to obsolescence. Raymond Williams’s concept of historical periods as containing “residual, dominant, and emergent elements” suggests that the moment itself is characterized by three parallel vectors or lines of force, one pointing to the past (residual) but persisting in the present, one pointing forward to a possible future (the emergent), and one that is bidirectional, the dominant poised in “the floating now,” a phrase that Jonathan Culler has proposed for the lyrical present. In this regard, we should not forget the linear character of language itself and particularly of the structures of discursive time, of speech spatialized in writing. This can be seen at the microlevel of the sentence, which proceeds in acoustical time and scriptive space, interrupted by pauses (that is, dashes, commas, semicolons) and, most notably, by periods, with full consciousness of the pun on units of language and of history.

The second image is of an expanding/contracting bubble, trivial and ephemeral or “momentous” and catastrophic (economists employ this metaphor to describe times of runaway speculation and the bubble’s inevitable burst). This is a moment spreads out in all directions like an endlessly ramifying fractal, so that dimensions such as past, present, and future are seen as copresent, and multiple temporalities range all the way from the individual experience of time to the vast scale of paleontological “deep time” and the blinding speeds of machinic time measured in nanoseconds. It is the temporality that the Greeks associated with Kairos, the opportune moment that comes and goes and must be seized at the right time or lost forever. It is King Lear’s “ripeness is all” or (conversely) Hamlet’s sense that “the time is out of joint,” wherein every action seems futile and unprofitable. In Christian thought, Kairos is the time of special grace and inspiration, when a given moment is seen as the convergence of distinct time scales ranging from the tiny, ephemeral moment to the momentous era. Kairatic temporality is invoked when a poet/prophet like William Blake declares that he can “walk up and down in Six Thousand Years,” a temporal panorama that is equivalent to the “pulsation of an artery in which the poet’s work is done.” It is also the image that Walter Benjamin describes as a “constellation,” when a pattern linking past and present in a moment of crisis flashes up in a dialectical image.

Kairos is personified by a winged youth who balances the scales of decision and judgment on a razor’s edge. His most notable feature is a strange hairdo with a large, exaggerated forelock and a prominent bald spot on the back of his head. Kairos’s haircut illustrates the commonplace that the opportune moment must be grabbed by the forelock as it arrives, because once it has passed by there will be nothing to hold onto. As should be clear, the figure of Kairos in our present moment is none other than Donald Trump himself, the clever opportunist who sensed so accurately the collective mood of the post-Obama era and leveraged it into the most powerful political office on the planet.

 

Kairos. Roman work after the original by Lysippos, ca. 350—330 BCE. Turin, Museum of Antiquities.

 

Kairos emphasizing forelock and bald back of head. The hair illustrates the proverb about Kairos as the “carpe diem” moment.

 

Nicolas Poussin, Dance to the Music of Time. 1634-36. Wallace Collection, London. The two headed pillar on the left is the figure of Prudence, that looks both to the past and the future.

The third is the image of the circle, which emphasizes the repetition and return epitomized by the cycle of the seasons and the diurnal cycles of night and day. At its most cosmic scale, one is reminded of the image of the Ouroboros—the serpent with its tail in its mouth, Nietzsche’s image of “eternal return”—or the Greek figure of Aion—the youth who stands in the center of the Zodiac wheel in the clouds in Nicolas Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time. Poussin combines figures from all three of our pictures of time. The chariot of Aion is led by the female personification of Fortuna, who rains money from above the clouds. The circular dance of the seasons is performed to the lute accompaniment of old Kronos or Father Time and is framed between a pair of cupids, one holding the hourglass that symbolizes time as something that is “running out,” and the other blowing bubbles that will quickly expand and burst.

To these three pictures of time I want to add a fourth dimension that I will call the affective temporality that specifies the mood of a time, what Williams called “the structure of feeling” that characterizes a period, or the particular emotions and attitudes that arise in a specific moment or epoch.[2] The idea of affective temporality inevitably suggests that categories of individual human feeling such as anxiety, hope, fear, dread, shock, depression, happiness, and joy are also experienced collectively, as shared, common, and contagious “feelings of the time.” There are numerous small-scale stagings of affective temporality, as in moments of panic and terror, or enthusiasm and hatred. Trump rallies, with their ritual performances of hateful mockery of innumerable enemies, are the most vivid examples of these moments in our time.

Other forms of affective temporality are even more visceral and long-lasting. We speak of hot and cold periods, times of normalcy and exception.[3] The Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” suggests that the best, the happiest times are relatively boring, containing relatively few memorable incidents outside the ordinary. The “normal” includes a limited range of special or extraordinary events, mundane recurrences like births, deaths, and marriages, the punctuating moments in ordinary human life that mark a period, pause, or transition. To live in a hot period is to share experiences of crisis, trauma, uncertainty, and rapid change. It is to feel that history itself is pressing down on individuals’ and groups’ consciousness, disrupting lives and interrupting the normal cycles of daily life. Perhaps the most extreme version of the hot period is what American evangelical Christians refer to as “end times,” when history itself will come to an end after a cataclysmic battle or holocaust and the revelation of an eternal order beyond time. This is also the affective temporality that Nietzsche’s rule associates with the “epoch,” the turning point or tipping point that feels like madness.

A period of hot temporality is one in which multiple scales converge in a singular present and the pace of events and crises seems to accelerate. For the purposes of this essay, the present is a historical epoch that began on 9 November 2016 and is rapidly approaching a critical moment of decision in the very near future—in fact a precisely datable future, the election on 6 November 2018. I call this a hot period first because its onset was widely experienced as a surprise and shock. Very few experts saw it coming or predicted it. Second, the ensuing two years have been widely experienced in American political culture as one of almost constant shock, scandal, and dramatic news events, ranging from threats of imminent nuclear war to revelations of criminal behavior among powerful political actors, rumors of treason by the American president, and shocking breaks with long-established customs, alliances, and norms. Part of the heat of this two-year moment is its contrast to the previous period, the by all accounts relatively cool presidency of “no-drama Obama.” It is not merely that that the previous eight-year reign of the nation’s first African-American president has now been succeeded by the regime of an openly racist white-supremacist president. The contrast has more to do with the quality of temporal rhythms or what is called “the news cycle.” The Obama era was almost completely scandal free. (As if in compensation for this “scandal deficit,” one of the most popular TV series in the Obama era was House of Cards, the story of a completely corrupt president who ruthlessly lies, betrays, and even murders his way to power). During the Obama era, there were no new wars, no investigations of his administration, and no personal issues to speak of, other than a boringly perfect marriage. By contrast, the daily and weekly news cycle since the election of 2016 has been an almost constant series of shocks and surprises, a 24/7 reality TV show that has driven the ratings of cable news to an all-time high. Deplorable as Trump may be, he has produced huge profits for television and social media along with an overheated stock market fueled by massive tax breaks for the rich. The phrase “breaking news” is now joined by Trump’s favorite line, “fake news,” which treats the idea of objective truth, reliable information, and scientific knowledge as delusions to be abolished by fiat and arbitrary power. Every evening, the news begins with so many breathless updates of new or ongoing scandals that yesterday’s events are crowded out of attention.

The affective temporality of the Trump presidency has been described in the language of insanity, mental illness, and madness so many times in the last two years that it has become utterly commonplace to think of this as the perfect fulfilment of Nietzsche’s rule about “epochs” of radical change. Trump himself has been labelled by numerous members of the American Psychiatric Association as possessed by a pathological and dangerous “narcissistic personality disorder.” I won’t go into the debates over this diagnostic language (see my “American Psychosis” essay for a fuller discussion). My only point here is to note that insofar as the affective temporality of an epoch is often defined by the sovereign figure, the most prominent image of power and the most powerful image of the time, Trump is the incarnation of one of the craziest periods in American history, comparable to the 1960s and the Civil War.[4] More important, he is not just a harmless lunatic, but a highly skilled demagogue and con man who understands crowd psychology very well. He is a genius at what is called gaslighting, the production of delusions, false beliefs, and outright lies presented as truths. So skilled is he at the art of manipulation that he openly brags about it in public—most famously when he bragged that he could murder someone in broad daylight and his followers would still stick with him.

And it is his followers who most potently transform his individual talent for the production of delusions into actual political power. This is where Nietzsche’s rule about the madness of “groups, parties, and nations” comes into focus. Nationalism, tribalism, and the Party triumph over all appeals to common sense and ordinary decency, much less appeals to professional journalism or scientific fact. Trump’s followers, taken individually, are precisely the “normal, decent” folks you encounter every day in the suburbs and small towns of America; it would be “rare” to encounter a Trump follower who is mentally ill. But as a group, and especially as a crowd, they are transformed in an instant into a paranoid, sadistic, and cruel mass that is ready to heap contempt on any target of Trump’s abuse, most notably journalists who are denounced as “enemies of the people.” And hovering in the shadows behind the crowds at the typical Trump rally are the political and economic elites who see themselves as beneficiaries of the political power he generates. Like Trump himself, they help to fuel the mass hysteria with the clear-eyed cynicism and opportunism he provides. As a representative of this Faustian coalition of fools and knaves, Trump has managed to give mental illness a bad name. Unlike most people who are mentally ill, and generally harmless, Trump does not suffer from his condition, but exults in it, particularly in his psychopathic lack of empathy for other human beings. As a final insult to common sense and the reality-based community, anyone who questions the legitimacy of the Trump regime is denounced as mentally ill—suffering from a completely novel diagnosis known as “Trump derangement syndrome.”[5]

The Trump epoch was launched by an election, and the long-awaited event that has the potential to produce a significant turn or break in that era is the impending election, just a few days in our future. How can we picture the temporality of this miniature moment, the days leading up to this election? What is the moment’s structure and affective charge? Most obvious is perhaps the figure of the circle, explicitly named in the language of American election “cycles.” There is also a sense of the linear progression from its onset to a critical instant of “punctuation,” the first time the American public gets to make a collective statement and an electoral judgment about the Trump presidency. One might hope for a period, the emphatic punctuation mark for an ending, but a less decisive mark is more likely. The end is not at hand, only a hope for a slowing of the Trump juggernaut. Since the shocking day of Trump’s election, the majority of American citizens have been waiting for an end, a punctuating event—indeed, a sentence such as an impeachment or indictment—that will bring an end to his presidency. So the Trump epoch is unlikely to come to an end on 6 November, and we can be sure the madness will continue. The best we can hope for is the application of some restraints on his behavior and that of his followers, in the precarious possibility that the House of Representatives will be flipped to a Democratic majority. We are in a moment when, much as we would like to predict and talk about the future, we are incapable of making any verifiable statements about it such as “the sun will rise tomorrow morning.” But we are not quite in the condition that Aristotle described in De Interpretatione when, reflecting on statements about time, he said “It is necessary that either there will be a sea battle tomorrow, or there will not be.” In fact it is necessary that, in the chronological cycles of democratic time, there will be “a sea battle tomorrow,” in the form of the election on 6 November. What is not necessary or certain is the outcome.

So this moment has to be seen structurally as the convergence of all three of my pictures of time: the line that moves in a direction out of the past, into the present, toward futurity; the cycle of American democratic elections; and the bubble containing its network of different temporalities that are all concentrated in this moment. This last structure becomes visible if we simply remind ourselves of the matters that are at stake and will be at least partly decided on 6 November. The clearest way to imagine this is to contemplate the possibility that the Democrats will fail to take the House, and the Trump juggernaut will be free to push forward with little or no institutional opposition beyond street protests (dismissed by Trump as “mob rule”), professional journalism (denounced as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people”), and a rapidly diminishing number of “so-called judges” who will uphold the rule of law and the US Constitution. At the level of macropolitics, one has to admit that the fate of American democracy hangs in the balance, on the razor edge wielded by Kairos. If Trump reigns unchecked for two more years, he could well be fatal to the Constitution itself. Worst-case scenario: he could follow the example of the political leaders he admires most and declare a state of exception in which future elections are postponed, suspended, or hopelessly compromised by even more extreme forms of gerrymandering and voter suppression. He has joked about being “president for life,” but we have learned the hard lesson that Trump’s jokes are no laughing matter.

At a completely different level of temporality, larger than the fate of the United States and the Constitution, there is the question of the world. Admittedly, I have been sketching a dark picture of what he could do to my country, but we have already seen a sample what he could do to the rest of the world. At the largest time scale there is the question of climate change, which he has repeatedly denounced as a Chinese hoax, while pulling the US out of the very fragile international agreements that address this longest-term threat to the quality of human life. Our problem is the world’s problem and is part of a global process of failing democracies, failed states, and the rise of authoritarian governments and warlords as the emergent tendencies of our moment.

Another way to put this in the terms of our discussion here is to see that Kairos and Chronos are converging in the coming days. Chronos—the irresistible force of time with his scythe—gives Kairos—the beautiful youth who personifies possibility and the potential to seize the occasion—a cut-off date. We tend to think of Kairos in mainly positive terms, as the opportune moment when luck and readiness might lead on to good fortune. But Kairos is also a figure of precarity, balancing uneasily on a globe holding scales that could tip in either direction. Kairos closely resembles the later figure of Fortuna, an equivocal image of uncertainty and risk. And Fortuna is haunted by her dark sister, Nemesis, who stands blindly over scenes of catastrophe.

The affective temporality that accompanies these structures and figures of time is one of peak intensity, a mixture of hope and fear, possibility and dread. It is, above all, a sense of what the Greeks called parousia and Christians call “advent,” the inevitable approach of something that will certainly happen on a certain date but which has not yet shown its face. This moment stands in stark contrast to October 2016, when a majority of Americans were complacently sleep-walking toward a Clinton regime that would continue the cool temporality achieved under Obama, with every expectation that Trump would fade into oblivion. This time is different, at least in the sense that the American public is awake, alert, and alarmed. We can only hope that this will make a difference on the day of reckoning, the “moment of truth,” and decision that approaches.

The image of Kairos and his scales links him to icons of judgment and justice. It is notable in this regard that the weeks preceding the 6 November election in which these pages were written were marked by an even more literal crisis of justice, namely the tumultuous hearings over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States. Judge Kavanaugh was credibly accused during the hearings of attempting to rape a young woman when they were teenagers, over thirty years ago. His response to the accusations was to engage in a tirade of counteraccusations, insulting the Democratic senators, claiming that the rape accusation was a political plot, and (even worse) dissembling and perjuring himself about his behavior during his high-school years. Within the larger moment of parousia leading up to the elections, the process of Senate confirmation provided a miniature passion play of the crisis of the Trump regime. On the day I wrote these words, the Senate approved Kavanaugh’s nomination by the slimmest margin in history, voting almost exactly along party lines to give him a lifetime appointment. The right-wing effort to stack the courts with conservative judges succeeded in elevating a morally tainted liar and ideologue to the highest court in the land, with the high probability that he will be serving there for the next thirty years. The decision was widely regarded as a repetition of a drama that was played out twenty-seven years earlier in the confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court despite the credible allegations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill. This time was arguably worse in every way. Anyone hoping for a Kairatic moment with respect to justice in our time had to be devastated by this outcome.

I have no idea whether this essay on the images and affects surrounding temporality will have any utility in answering the perennial question of political crises and historical epochs, namely: what is to be done? Written in a present tense with uncertainty and dread, its only use may be as a message in a bottle. One can hope that it will be washed up on shore by the hoped-for “blue wave” that will check Trump’s power. The alternative is too awful to contemplate. In the meantime, there is no time like the present to produce critical pictures of the times.

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1. Henri Bergson also proposed three pictures of time (the “two spools,” the “spectrum,” and the infinitely small piece of elastic) much more complicated than the commonplace ones I propose here. What we share is: (1) the basic distinction between Chronos and Kairos, mechanical or clock-time versus subjective, experiential time; and (2) the need to avoid ontological questions such as “what is time?” in favor of iconological models, triangulated so as to orient our ways of experiencing and discussing time. See Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F. L. Pogson (Mineoloa, N.Y., 2001). The triangulation of time seems to be an ancient obsession, as the triad of Chronos, Chairos, and Aion indicate.

2. Williams coined this phrase originally in his Preface to Film (1954) as an alternative to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. I am adapting here Marshall McLuhan’s distinction between hot and cool media, defined as “high” and “low” resolution respectively, the hot medium bombarding the senses with information overload, while the cool medium invites the recipient to fill in and supplement the gaps in information.

3. See Thomas L. Friedman, “The American Civil War, Part II,” New York Times, 2 Oct. 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/02/opinion/the-american-civil-war-part-ii.html

4. The origin of this phrase is credited to conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who coined it during the presidency of George W. Bush. It has been widely adopted by a variety of conservative and moderate pundits as a way of underscoring their own possession of a balanced, mature, and reasonable sensibility.

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Wet Humor

 

 

 

Kyle Stevens

President Trump’s visit to London this summer was met with protest and more specifically with protest humor. Barbs like “Orange is the new twat” and “Trump wears poorly tailored suits”—pointed, but not particularly funny—were scrawled on poster board and stapled to sticks in an effort to telegraph disapproval, attract attention, and demonstrate national cultural identity. In the US such humorous signage has become commonplace since the day after Trump was sworn into office. The Women’s March on 21 January 2017—the largest protest in the nation’s history—inaugurated an idea of protest behavior that would quickly become dominant as it echoed the absurd new condition of being considered subversive for representing an opinion held by a national majority. This behavior tends to follow the lead of journalists and comics whose views gain traction on social media, chiefly Twitter, the medium made notorious by the current president. These commentators try to help us interpret our society, to make sense of insensible times. They are our intelligentsia, and they typically accomplish their work through quips and aphorisms. The burn has become a powerful public weapon. Indeed, as Maggie Hennefeld succinctly puts it, today “There is no fiercer political weapon than laughter.”[1] On the side of those agitating for change, laughter is offered up as the antigunshot, the anti-pussy grab, the antichokehold, the antideportation, the antichildren learning a lockdown rhyme. We ask a lot of humor. We expect it to take the place of physical retaliation, of sit-ins, of the guillotine. But in this space, I want to ask how cutting it is. I want to (somewhat provisionally) map out what I call wet humor, a humor that registers the fear, anger, and exasperation of inhabiting this precarious and nonsensical cosmology. Wet humor stages the sentiment of laughter through tears, unlike much of the urbane, dusty political comics and polemics of the past.

Look at some of the widely circulated protest signs from the Women’s March.

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Or signs from the March for Our Lives on 24 March 2018.

Clearly, humor is the chief strategy for communicating each event’s agenda and for inviting media attention. But before we consider the humor of these signs, compare them to those from various Black Lives Matter (BLM) marches.

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The tonal discrepancy of the images disseminated suggests that political humor—however fierce a weapon—is associated with whiteness; and there were indeed complaints from women of color and trans communities that the Women’s March focused on cishet white women. In a point I will return to, BLM signs are clearly addressed to the group’s political foes, and given the historical expectation in the US for black subjects to entertain white people, wittiness may threaten to reinforce the racist perspectives precisely at stake.[2] The directness of BLM signage is reminiscent of the 1980s and ’90s slogan for AIDS awareness group ACT UP, “Silence=Death,” which suggests that humor is unavailable to those of us who must argue not just for the merit of their lives but for the validity even of speaking about that worth. That said, marches against gun violence and the control of women’s bodies are deadly serious, too. Seen from a different angle, even if the availability of humor is a sign of white privilege, it may also be a form of self-deprecating hesitation, even doubt, about the validity of one’s voice, or about the fear that a voice will be refused unless it speaks in a pleasurable manner.

I want to say that while all of this may be true we might, at the same time, retain the old-fashioned notion that wit is a form of thinking and judging and that if we want to understand our current political moment, we must take wit seriously as a style of protest humor. But first, to carve out a space for wet humor, let me briefly say a few words about kinds of humor it is not. It is not, for instance, a derivative of Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of populist humor, the carnivalesque.[3] This comedy relies on the thrilling but necessarily brief undoing of established sociopolitical structures, whereas political protests seek permanent change, not transitory liberation. (Social media’s hierarchical algorithms are never overturned, either.) Wet humor also falls outside of Henri Bergson’s well-known theories locating humor and its resultant laughter in the mistaken attribution of automaticity to organisms, because our current context complicates the presumed ease of such perception. To see “the mechanical encrusted upon the living” entails an agreed category of “the living,” those whose lives are acknowledged as mattering.[4] One might also think of dark humor, or what André Breton dubbed “black humor.” But dark humor is ultimately nihilist, deliciously petty, the “mortal enemy of sentimentality”; it seeks to undermine meaning in the world altogether, whereas those marching do so earnestly.[5]

Rather, as I hope is obvious, wet humor is formulated in relation to dry. Dry humor is an established aesthetic concept, yet we cannot point to a definition. Humor theorists use the term to help elucidate the operations of other modes of humor—if not humor itself—but that dryness remains unexplained makes it a powerful ideological concept, one we may have learned without knowing when or how, one that appears natural. There is a relevant use of dry to mean impassive or emotionless that dates back to the beginning of English, but its use in connection with humor to denote a coherent or accepted kind or mode of humor appears to be largely a late nineteenth- and twentieth-century phenomenon. In his survey of humor theory, Simon Critchley depends on an intuitive understanding of dry to build an account of humor rooted in suddenness and revelation, but he leaves the term itself undisturbed, though we may infer that its meaning is akin to the old Germanic witz.[6] It is Kantian in the buildup and release of tension, but—and here I’m projecting a bit—it is also about a subject with both little and much at stake. When we use dry or similar words like droll, are we not rolling our eyes at something whose importance is misconstrued? It is the taking of the serious as unserious or vice versa.

I also suggest that dry humor is paradigmatically verbal. That is, although we might call nonverbal objects dry, such as a cinematic cut that twinkles in the eye of the canny observer, that nomination tends to rely on a metaphorical association with verbal rhythms. More importantly, dry humor presents as indistinguishable from earnest conversation. It threatens itself in its very creation. Even deadpan styles announces itself as humorous via suggestive insinuation, unlike truly arid wit. Dryness seeks to achieve maximal humor with minimal expression, demanding attentive labor from its listener, and this economy of detection is bound up with its economy of emotion, too. The bemused smile or chuckle erupts from one’s own thought, not from the spontaneous outburst proceeding from the perception of humor (as in slapstick, say). Hence, dry humor is often supercilious and lends itself to cruel or condescending swipes. It excludes the unobservant, the stupid, insisting the audience is on the right level by testing the listener’s ability to puzzle through lurking logics.

This tenuousness helps understand why dry humor is associated with a vein of campy writing for which Oscar Wilde is a touchstone. Consider this example from The Picture of Dorian Gray:

“Dry-goods! What are American Dry-goods?” asked the Duchess, raising her large hands in wonder, and accentuating the verb.

“American novels,” answered Lord Henry, helping himself to some quail.[7]

Now, Lord Henry obviously does not mean that American novels are witty. Wilde’s genius is in demonstrating dry wit by deploying the easy pun and then asserting his control beyond the characters’ statements (via the third sense of “dry” that he intends to operate here). Here, dry humor undercuts the possibility that to withhold expressivity is to be less expressive—much less to amount to the taciturn refusal of masculine privilege embodied in “the strong, silent type.” It is not a case of less is more, but a situation in which the recognition of humor and the dawning laugh comes with the realization that more was there all along, closeted in the speech act. Again, dry humor plays with the limits of what we imagine to be the other’s capacity to detect humor. And it would be wrong to say that it wears a disguise or masquerades as conversation—as though it was something else in the first place—or that it is somehow unmeant. Rather, it tests the limits of language, of how the performance of utterance affects meaning. (In this way, dry humor is a potent tool for highlighting and subverting an attachment to models of language use overly rooted in referentiality.)

One may thus see why dry humor would be an unappealing tool if one is concerned about the intelligence of one’s fellow citizens. Nevertheless, creating and ingesting comedy may be a justified recourse in the face of an administration that meets with Kim Kardashian to discuss prison reform or makes up fake terrorist attacks (“the Bowling Green massacre”). Equally, though, creating and ingesting comedy might be essential in the face of membership in a voting body that includes so many who voted against their own interests and believed—and continue to believe—patent lies about everything from the president’s history of sexual assault to his campaign financial dealings, who remain unmoved in the face of mass death following Hurricane Maria and the ongoing lack of clean water in Flint, Michigan. The manifestation of wet humor I want to focus on here has surfaced when neither purely intellectual nor predominantly emotional petitions succeed.

To think about wet humor—with all the registers of drenched, dank, damp, and so forth—we first have to agree that signs featuring slogans like “Power Bottoms Against the Patriarchy” are funny. They may not elicit a great deal of diaphragm exercise, but they at least provoke a good, amused exhale. Then we must agree that it’s not best labeled dry. There may be something dry about it, in that it relies on the reader’s experience and lexicon to get why it’s funny (the meeting of the slightly graphic term “power bottom” with rainbow stickers; fairly complex ideas regarding the history of relations between sex, gender, sexual positions, power, and so forth), but there is no built-in revelation. Similarly, users logging on to Twitter to see protest signs curated by those they follow pretty much know what messages will be conveyed. (Because we know that most social media typically functions as an echo chamber and in turn that we cannot rely on these streams to be accurate representations of reality—even as they are our dominant access to knowledge about reality—they generate a new anxiety that our representations of the world are illusory. Call it a new kind of political skepticism. But that is a topic for another time.)

There is of course variation within these generalizations about protest humor. The inflatable chicken Trump is not wet humor, because one sees it as funny. You needn’t think deeply about it to get it. Wet humor shares with dry a rejection of the immediacy that may be enjoyed by humor based on perception. Or to take an example from Saturday Night Live, another prominent source of wet humor, Alec Baldwin’s Trump was soggier than Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, because Baldwin’s depiction was somehow pre-saturated; Fey, on the other hand, revealed things about Palin to which the world had not yet attended. (All impressions are a form of wet humor, because they play to an already known standard, even if the distance from that standard can itself be a measure of revelation.) Wet humor is about predictability, the presumption of a shared opinion. If dry humor wants, via surprise, to subvert or redress values and assumptions, wet wants to confirm them. Lauren Berlant asserts that comedy is “about surprise, an unequal distribution of being knowing and a sucker.”[8] Wet humor is comedy without surprise—but with the form of surprise. Dry wit encourages a listener to come to a new view; wet wit encourages a listener to come to the same view again, reminding us that not all satire operates the same. In this sense, wet humor’s express purpose is not to encourage people to “forget their problems”—as Berlant quotes Jerry Lewis as saying and suggests Bergson intends with his phrase that laughter is “a momentary anesthesia of the heart” (quoted in “H,” p. 320). Berlant elaborates this therapeutic vision of laughter: “The good laugh is thus a generous genre of relief from the humorlessness with which one eats the effects of ordinary absurdity and injury” (“H,” p. 320). Wet humor positions itself in the face of extraordinary absurdity and injury.

To put it another way, if dry humor involves a coming to knowledge or measure of the energy invested into insight, wet humor involves a similar logic of recognition without the suddenness or revelation. It is not the opposite of dry; it exists on a continuum with it. Dry humor is dehydrated of emotional investment and agreement. Wet humor embraces the fort-da repetition necessary to the working through of trauma. It is thus proving to be a vital tool for building solidarity, for reiterating—and more importantly for ratifying—shared values and judgments. In this respect, wet humor need not be seen as a form of self-deprecation, because it’s not addressed to the other side. While dry humor can be patronizing, it is not necessarily exclusive of the other, and can indeed be jovial, even loving. In contrast, wet humor inspires a communal affect that depends upon the identification and exclusion of an antagonist, threatening to evacuate from politics ambivalence or the possibility of the transformative joke. Of course wet humor has not replaced all protest—BLM reminds us of that—but the question of who is laughing at whom often dominates media coverage of events. The problem here is not with laughing itself but with erasing the distinction between political rally and protest (or other actions of resistance). When seen as a method of protest, wet humor suggests that the 1960s dream of peaceful protest that creates change is lost in the course of the failure of the American experiment. It is also, I think, the reason that the government is free to ignore protests, counting not on the unreliability of conviction but on its ephemerality, on the sense that public outcry is merely part of the attention economy.

 

[1] Maggie Hennefeld, “Comedy is part of feminist history—and we need it more than ever,” Transformation, 6 May 2018, http://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/maggie-hennefeld/comedy-is-part-of-feminist-history-and-we-need-it-more-than-ever

[2] For a history of how black artists have used humor to address institutional racism and racial injustice, see Glenda Carpio’s Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (New York, 2008).

[3] See, for example, Mikhail Bakhtin, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Holquist (Austin, Tex., 1981), p. 79.

[4] Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (Mineola, N.Y., 2005), p. 18.

[5] André Breton, “Lightning Rod,” in Anthology of Black Humor, trans. Mark Polizzotti (San Francisco, 1997), p. xix.

[6] See Simon Critchley, On Humor (New York, 2002), p. 6.

[7] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Philip Smith (Mineola, N.Y., 1993), p. 28.

[8] Lauren Berlant, “Humorlessness (Three Monologues and a Hairpiece),” Critical Inquiry 43 (Winter 2017): 319; hereafter abbreviated “H.”

 

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From the Authors of the “Theses on Theory and History”

We are the members of the Wild On Collective, authors of the “Theses on Theory and History,” who have in the past month opened a spirited conversation about the place of theory—any theory—in the discipline of history.[1]  The three of us are historians, though with different theoretical investments and different institutional locations.[2]  What drew us together was our impatience with the persistent refusal of disciplinary history to engage with long-standing critiques of its practice: critiques of its realist epistemology and empiricist methodology, its archival fetishism, its insistence on the primacy of chronological narrative, and its maintenance of reified boundaries between present and past. How had it happened, we wondered, that the critiques which had nourished our own thinking had somehow failed to transform disciplinary norms in siginificant ways? Why the recurrent need for critique generation after generation?[3]  We discussed the perverse mechanism whereby successive epistemological challenges to conventional history were superficially embraced only to be domesticated as new themes or topics to be explored in familiar ways. We talked about the way in which “theory” became a ghettoized domain of intellectual historians, many of whom simply produced documentary and synoptic accounts of critical thinking but did not employ the insights of that thinking in their own analyses.

We decided that it was time to raise yet again the questions of what counts as historical evidence, argument, and truth in order to counter the discipline’s narrowly circumscribed definitions.  Since the last round of epistemological critique (roughly between the 1960s and 1990s) history, along with many of the human sciences, has become even more resistant to theoretical analysis and self-reflection. Whether due to a backlash against earlier theoretical challenges (or their perceived gains), neoliberal attacks on noninstrumental knowledge, academic downsizing, a depressed job market, mistaken perceptions of theory as intrinsically elite or elitist, or any number of other factors that need to be explored, the US academy seems to be suffering a period of intellectual conservatism that is nourished by epistemological realism (and vice versa).  In this context, we felt it was time for renewed efforts at a critique that questionedthe institutional norms, rewards, and sanctions exercised by the historians’ guild.  Individuals are not our target—it is the institution of disciplinary history itself. Our aim is to provoke a debate among and beyond professional historians about the intellectual implications of the field’s (usually unstated, but regularly enforced) disciplinary common sense.

Of course, we recognize that there is already a good deal of analytic and methodological diversity among practicing historians, many of whom employ or generate important theoretical concepts in productive ways. But they are a minority, whose work is often diminished as not really history because it starts or points beyond acceptable boundaries. We are also aware of a burgeoning resistance to the backlash against theory in some new journals directed specifically at that problem: History of the Present and Critical Historical Studies.  They are a welcome addition to History and Theoryand Rethinking History, which have been the sole places for the kind of reflection we are seeking more broadly. This seemed an important moment to articulate the broader critique that was often only implicit in the creation of those new journals.

Our “Theses” are not meant to be a call for historians to abandon empirical work in order to produce transhistorical “theory.” Nor do we think that everyone in the field should become intellectual historians whose objects of study are thinkers, theorists, or texts. Neither is this a call for our colleagues to become metahistorians who only write about the theory or practice of producing historical knowledge. As should be clear, in the third set of “Theses” especially, we are as critical of decontextualized theory as we are of reified facts. Rather, we are challenging any artificial separation of empirical research and theoretical reflection. We are calling on historians to be more conceptually self-aware and critically self-reflexive about the kinds of arguments they are making, about the social worlds or processes they account for, as well as about their own practice as historians. We are inviting conventional historians to recognize, or even themselves experiment with, nonrealist and nonempiricist modes of analysis as legitimate and valuable ways to know the past or to think historically. We are reminding scholars in other fields that professional history does not possess a monopoly on modes of historical thinking or means of historical insight. Indeed, we note that in recent years, some of the most innovative attempts to think historically have been produced by scholars who were not primarily trained as historians.

The “Theses” are divided into three sections. The first set addresses the assumptions of disciplinary history, the second set addresses several of the logics and strategies through which the field resists theory as somehow foreign to its enterprise, and the third calls programmatically for a practice of critical history that is epistemologically self-reflexive and engaged with questions that concern us in the present.

Because history’s domesticating and disciplining processes are systemic, our theses address all aspects of professional history – training, research, writing, publishing, hiring – just as any attempt to redress the problems we identify must do. But this intervention is not in any way meant to be a comprehensive inventory of all that is wrong, even theoretically, with the field and the guild (the persistent Eurocentrism of its frameworks). We believe that any attempt to change a specific aspect of the field that brackets questions about what counts as evidence and how we produce knowledge is likely to be limited at best.

Even less is our intervention meant to be theoretically prescriptive; we make no claims about which theories historians should engage or how such theory should be employed, how they might go about theorizing their own work, or to what end. Indeed, we have been asked repeatedly to cite examples of the kind of work we are advocating, but we have decided not to do that. For one thing, it seems to repeat the empiricist logic we are refusing (what is your evidence? where are your footnotes?) And, too, there’s a real danger that any examples we offer will be read as prescriptions, limiting exactly what we want to open: new space for the practice of critical history. The problem of exemplarism is that it creates a hierarchical separation between those works that have been chosen as examples and those which have not. There are, in our estimation, many exemplary works of history. But the purpose of the “Theses” is not to provide a template to be followed. It is to create a space for critical reflection, assessment, and experimentation In that space, we need to explore the possible underlying relations between the field’s epistemological common sense and of any of its institutional limitations.

These “Theses on Theory and History” are themselves driven by just such a concern to link form and content, means and ends. Thus our considered decisions, against normal academic practice, to write collectively, to publish independently (encouraging free distribution through a Creative Commons license), and to cultivate a public debate digitally (through a website, theoryrevolt.com, on social media, and through short pieces in digital publications).

This open access platform has led to a global reception that has exceeded our initial target but also reveals that these “Theses” have hit a nerve and provoked a response. At this moment, the “Theses” have been translated into Portuguese and are being translated into German, Spanish, and French. There have been substantive blog posts and discussions on social media in Europe, the UK, Australia, India, South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil.[4] Closer to home, the response at the Society for US Intellectual History website has been robust and sustained if less positive as a whole.[5] Inside Higher Education has reported that the Research Division of the American Historical Association “planned to discuss” the “Theses.” By contrast there are many other posts such as this Tweet: “This basically sums up all my pent-up grad school frustrations w/the teaching and writing of history. I cannot express how much these statements by historians I look up to . . . means to me as a student. Thank you.” The point here is that whether one agrees or disagrees with the “Theses,” they have started a debate about the norms of the historical discipline. As importantly, responses to the “Theses” extend beyond the discipline of history; we have received or viewed posts from philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, art historians and literary scholars who seek to apply to their field of study the criticisms and questions posed in the “Theses on Theory and History.” This suggests to us that the struggle against empiricism and for more critical approaches to scholarship is transdisciplinary.[6] It may also suggest that scholars in other fields who engage the past in unconventional ways may feel similarly constrained by the restrictive norms of disciplinary history.

Given the enthusiastic response we have received so far, we see the “Theses on Theory and History” as an initial intervention. It is the first step in opening a broader debate about these issues about the field of history. In this way we aim to create a community of like-minded scholars, within and beyond the field of history, to share concerns and strategies, and to enact change in the discipline of history. This will be the difficult work of the Wild On Collective and we encourage all interested parties to join the effort via our website. The time for #TheoryRevolt is nigh!

The Wild On Collective:  Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder.

 

___________________________________________________________

[1] The “Theses” are open access and available for web viewing or as a downloadable .pdf at www.theoryrevolt.com

[2] Our critical vantage comes in part from the fact that none of us are fully in a conventional history department. Kleinberg directs the Wesleyan Humanities Center and holds a joint appointment in the History Department and the College of Letters; Scott is in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study; and Wilder is a professor in an anthropology doctoral program and director of the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the Graduate Center of the City University of NY.

[3] Among the successive rounds of critique which challenged realist history, we might recall that which accompanied the consolidation of professional history (Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Simmel, Benedetto Croce, and others), that which corresponded to a broader crisis of Western liberalism during the interwar period (for example, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, W. E. B Du Bois, C. L. R. James), and that which followed decolonization, the anti-systemic movements of the 1960s, and the broader decentering of the (white male Euro-American) subject (for example, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Michel de Certeau, Edouard Glissant, Reinhardt Koselleck, Hayden White, Edward Said, Dominick La Capra, Joan Wallach Scott, Aníbal Quijano, the Subaltern Studies Collective, and Saidiya Hartman).

[4] For a sample selection see http://www.oulu.fi/blogs/theoryafterall; http://www.oulu.fi/blogs/revolts; https://inheritandrespond.com/2018/06/04/a-place-for-theory-in-history/; one can also search Facebook or Twitter using #TheoryRevolt.

[5] https://s-usih.org/2018/06/the-means-of-history-theoryrevolt-evidence-and-purported-anti-intellectualism/

[6] After our “Theses” were published a helpful reader alerted us to the recent “Manifesto of the V21 Collective,” a parallel intervention in literary studies.

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The Fate of Bedouin Schools in the Negev Desert: Margaret Olin and David Shulman Report on a Specific Case in Text and Photos

June 22, 2018 Al-Auja, Khan al-Ahmar – text by David Shulman

 

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Michael Bérubé Responds to Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu

I agree with much of Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu’s critique of the anti-BDS resolution passed by the Modern Language Association (MLA) last year. Although I cannot speak to what happened in Executive Council debates on the issue (since I am not a member of the EC), and though I do not support BDS (or the Occupation, for that matter, or Israel’s increasingly unhinged and draconian responses to BDS), I believe Hanson and Palumbo-Liu make three incontrovertible arguments.

One, resolution 2017-1 should have been a motion from the outset because it directed the MLA to take an action—or, in the words of the resolution, to “refrain” from taking an action. This is a minor procedural point, but it opens out onto a larger issue of some consequence: once the Delegate Assembly had voted down the pro-BDS resolution, the anti-BDS resolution should have been withdrawn because it makes no sense to direct the MLA to refrain from taking an action it is not taking. Had I been a member of the council when the resolution came forward from the Delegate Assembly, I would have argued not only that it should have been a motion but that it was, under the circumstances, out of order.

Two, Hanson and Palumbo-Liu are right to say that the proponents of the anti-BDS resolution engaged in questionable conduct, going well beyond compiling the email addresses of MLA members; their mailings did indeed suggest some level of official MLA/EC endorsement of their position. This further inflamed what was already an acrimonious debate, and, since the Delegate Assembly had voted down the pro-BDS resolution, it did so gratuitously.

Three, and most important, I agree with Hanson and Palumbo-Liu that the resolution was “both censorious and disrespectful of the intellectual and ethical capacities of the MLA membership into the future.” I would add only that it is also disrespectful of the intellectual and ethical capacities of current MLA members. Current and future members of the association should be able to revisit this question as a matter of principle: no scholarly organization should attempt to shut down debate permanently on any contentious subject, let alone a contentious subject whose contours change from year to year, as conditions in the Occupied Territories worsen and Israel adopts the posture of a garrison state. That is why I signed the petition opposing the resolution.

All that said, I want to direct attention to the letter’s reference to “the Bérubé resolution,” which Hanson and Palumbo-Liu describe as “protecting our [MLA] members’ academic freedom from attack from the Trump regime.” They characterize its passage as an action that “offends every notion of the ‘humanities’ we hold dear—including but not limited to free speech, open debate, and a critical understanding of these terms.” This part of Hanson’s and Palumbo-Liu’s letter is regrettable and woefully mistaken.

It is unfortunate that Hanson and Palumbo-Liu do not explain, or even provide a link to, the resolution I proposed. So let me explain what it was, and what it was trying to do. (It is available here.)

On 9 November 2016, the leadership of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a statement, “Higher Education after the 2016 Election.” The MLA resolution was an expression of support for the AAUP statement. Nothing more, nothing less. Which means, among other things, that Hanson and Palumbo-Liu’s dismissal of what they call the “ahistorical, US-centric, anti-international and deracinated version of academic freedom” in that resolution is a dismissal of the principle of academic freedom as the AAUP has defined and defended it over the past hundred years. This is why this aspect of their letter is so misguided. It may also be why Hanson and Palumbo-Liu never make clear that the object of their critique is the AAUP itself, leaving instead the impression that some awful thing called “the Bérubé resolution” contains an anemic sense of academic freedom that offends every notion of the “humanities” they hold dear.

The charge that the AAUP’s definition of academic freedom is “ahistorical” is itself ahistorical because that definition has been revisited time and again (as all principles, including BDS, should be) since its inception. The AAUP’s definition of academic freedom is decidedly not anti-international, since it covers every person teaching in a university in the United States, regardless of citizenship status or national origin. It is, however, “US-centric,” as my previous sentence acknowledges, because despite our fondest wishes, there is no supranational entity that safeguards academic freedom worldwide and enforces a unitary and universal standard of academic freedom in China, Cameroon, Chile, and California. And I am not sure what work the word “deracinated” is trying to do in this context, but I am sure it is not doing it well.

It should be painfully clear, then, that the allegedly inadequate idea of academic freedom derided by Hanson and Palumbo-Liu is in fact identical to the academic freedom they enjoy. Hanson and Palumbo-Liu castigate “the selfish protection of the convenient, familiar, and particular that the Bérubé resolution embodies.” Very well. Let me elaborate on what convenient, familiar, and particular principles they are ostensibly rejecting. If you teach in a reasonably respectable institution of higher education in the United States—that is, a college or university that is not run as a private fiefdom—the policies in your faculty handbook were either written by the AAUP or are based on the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure. And if you have tenure at an American institution of higher education, your intellectual freedom and your due process guarantees, underwriting your right to continuous employment with termination only for cause (with a standard of clear and convincing evidence), were won by the AAUP. AAUP policies, practices, and intellectual traditions simply are what academic freedom means in the United States.

I am sorry that so few people working in US higher education care (or know?) about any of this. I am sorry, too, that of the 1.5 million people teaching in US institutions of higher education, only 45,000 are AAUP members. (And unlike the MLA, we try to serve the entire profession, including the 1.455 million people who are not AAUP members. That is why we investigated and censured the University of Illinois over the “de-hiring” of Steven Salaita, regardless of the fact that Salaita was not a member of the Association.) In my twenty-five years of AAUP membership, I have heard many dismissals of the organization, though none quite so vehement and uninformed as Hanson and Palumbo-Liu’s claim that the AAUP definition of academic freedom “could similarly have provided the basis for a MLA resolution that instructed its members to refrain from expressing solidarity with the South African anti-apartheid boycott, or Cesar Chavez’s grape strike, or the Montgomery bus strike.” Fortunately, this claim is utterly groundless, which is why they do not bother trying to make a plausible case for it.

There is another issue at stake here, as well. Over the past fifty years, AAUP membership has dropped markedly among faculty at elite private universities, no doubt because they believe themselves to be secure from contingencies like the depredations of the Trump administration. In recent years, some of those faculty have awakened from their states of complacency, as when Yale formed an AAUP chapter partly in response to the challenges to academic freedom faced by their colleagues on their Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS) campus. But for the most part, faculty at elite private universities have forgotten, or are completely unaware, that the principles of academic freedom in the US stem in part from Arthur Lovejoy’s outrage that one Mrs. Leland Stanford could have Stanford economist Edward Ross summarily fired because she didn’t like his advocacy of labor rights.

Some proponents of BDS have argued that it is hypocritical to defend the academic freedom of faculty working in US universities but not the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars. But this argument makes sense only if one presumes that BDS (and only BDS) somehow promotes or safeguards the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars, such that a vote against it is a vote against those scholars’ academic freedom. As yet, no supporter of BDS has explained precisely how a boycott of Israel helps to sustain academic freedom for Palestinians.

Most of all, I am sorry that Hanson and Palumbo-Liu think so little of the traditions, and the organization, that created the conditions of possibility for their own work. Nonetheless, the AAUP will always be ready to defend the academic freedom of faculty—including faculty who do not value or understand what the organization stands for.

Michael Bérubé
Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature
Pennsylvania State University

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Letters to the MLA

Dr. Paula Krebs, Executive Director

10 October, 2017

 

Dear Dr. Krebs,

I write to tell you that I will not be renewing my membership for the foreseeable future. The MLA has recently failed to take a stand on an issue of immense global concern, and one that demonstrates the inextricable connection between human freedom and academic freedom.  I was part of a small (and unofficial) party of MLA members that visited Israel-Palestine in the summer of 2016. It became clear to me that Palestinian students and faculty are working under intolerable conditions both in the occupied territories and in ‘1948’ Israel itself. As our report reflects, they suffer not only passive prejudice but active discrimination, routine brutality and sometimes fatal violence. Many do not even enjoy human freedoms, let alone academic ones.  Routinely, faculty and students face vetoes on their mobility within and beyond Palestine, and impeded access to books, technology and other standard resources. Many are or have been in prison. The MLA, unlike a number of scholarly organizations, has recently voted not to endorse a call for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions (not individuals) as a response to these increasingly well-known conditions. It has also voted to foreclose further discussion of this issue, while passing an unctuously self-congratulatory vote in favour of academic freedom for our members in the USA.

It may be that the vote accurately reflects the views of the membership. Or it may be that the membership has been poorly informed owing to the difficulties put in our way regarding the dissemination of information, the managing (or manipulation) of procedures, and the lack of safeguards against those with more financial support getting their own message across.  Any one of these explanations leads me to conclude that I do not wish to support the MLA with any more  membership fees. I would be happy, indeed delighted, to rejoin when the association changes its position on what is in my view one of the most important and consequential ‘academic’ issues our generation is currently facing.

Yours Sincerely,

 

David Simpson

Distinguished Professor of English

U.C. Davis

 

 

August 10, 2017

To:
Diana Taylor, President, MLA diana.taylor@nyu.edu
Anne Ruggles Gere, First Vice President argere@umich.edu
Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President sgikandi@princeton.edu
Paula Krebs, Executive Director pkrebs@mla.org
Carolyn Zuses, Staff Liaison governance@mla.org

Dear MLA Leadership,

In the wake of the sad votes on Propositions 2017-1 and 2017-4, I write to ask you to remove my name from the membership rolls of the MLA. Though a member for more than fifty years, I take this decision sadly but easily. I had thought that those of us who strongly backed the Resolution to join a growing global moral majority in support of BDS, defeated in the much-abused voting process of the Delegate Assembly, might be able to gain sufficient numbers at least to prevent victory of 2017-1, a Proposition calling on MLA members to annul their own freedom to speak formally on this subject with respect to future MLA policy. That its proponents were able not only to pass such an anti-democratic Proposition but to affirm our capacity for limitless hypocrisy by simultaneously passing 2017-4, asserting our own right to various freedoms, makes the MLA an organization to which I can no longer in good conscience belong. That 90% (or something such) of the membership could choose not to vote at all on so important a matter only makes our position the more disgraceful.

I shall not repeat again the specific political, military, academic and colonial conditions that should make BDS our ineluctable choice. That has been admirably done by at least three predecessors, Bill Mullen, Julie Rak and Cynthia Franklin, and I have written enough about them in the run-up to the membership vote. But I must say something about the MLA itself, and why I have to resign from a professional organization that has abrogated its moral, and professional, duties; even, I may say, its reason for being. This, too, is why, unlike some of my more sanguine colleagues, I have concluded that it is hopeless to work from within to counter this abuse of our procedures and, in due course, overturn these shameful decisions. Bernard Williams, a few pages into his essay “Politics and Moral Character,” examining the (un)acceptable practical traits of the politician, remarks on the “classical ‘working from within’ argument” that it cannot be “straightforwardly either instrumental or expressive,” cannot, for example, only aim at such consequences as correcting our recent aberration or be a (symbolic?) expression of my overall belief in the general worth of the MLA or, contrariwise, by refusing to work from within, at such a result as moving others to achieve the correction or express the view that these votes destroy the MLA’s purpose. Williams adds right away that this working from within argument “has kept many queasy people tied to many appalling ventures for remarkably long periods.” That is surely the point. What we have done is appalling. Not only have we come down on the wrong side of what many recognize as the great moral issue of our time, voting to condone the Israeli academy’s oppression—deprivation—of Palestinian freedoms, academic and all others (Israel’s educational institutions’ participation in their state’s colonial practices is amply documented), not to mention Israel’s broader oppressions (since many of our members prefer to think such “political” practices are not within our “professional” purview), but we have chosen at the same time to deprive our members of their own full freedoms even as we assert our rights to them. Quite aside from this immediate shame, Williams’ “remarkably long periods” is a phrase that will describe all too exactly all and any efforts to change these terrible decisions.

The reason is simple. The MLA is no less political than any other professional organization. Too often we hear colleagues declare that the professional MLA must not take “political” positions. Ngugi long ago observed that all writers are in politics. He is in broad and ancient company. So are we. Certainly those who manipulated the DA voting had no doubts as to its political meaning and consequences. As the largest professional humanities association in the United States—and doubtless, therefore, the world—and one of the publicly most visible, the impact, symbolic and practical, of our vote on BDS was obvious to all. Symbolically, an affirmative vote would have said that the tens of thousands who teach and research the values and practices of the fictive imagination in what has been the most powerful democratic society in the world (“has been” may now be the appropriate tense), and Israel’s principal booster, support the rights of Palestinians to the same freedoms we and Israel claim for ourselves. Practically, an affirmative vote of so great and influential a number of teachers and students would most certainly have drawn others in our wake. That is why Israel and its US and MLA supporters went all out to prevent such a vote now and in the future. Perhaps those members who chose not to vote thought they were protesting some sort of “politicization” of the MLA? Even such an excuse does not, of course, change the fact that their non-vote is a vote, a political act whether they like it or not. You do not avoid politics by burying your head in the sand. The symbolic and practical consequences of our votes are why they will not be permitted to change for a very long time—probably not until the pressure of a global BDS forces us to overcome our cowardice. But by then it will be too late and as indifferent to outcomes as was our similar pusillanimity on the anti-Apartheid boycott.

Further, however, we claim to teach the critical values of literature and other products and activities of the fictive imagination. These are “critical” in the sense that they enable us to get at the varieties and meanings of human actions in the world, to analyze and understand aspects of those varieties, meanings and actions, to see through them the nature and importance of human capacities to act freely—not to do whatever we wish but at least perhaps to act freely in doing, to echo the familiar saw, as we would be done by (a freedom whose infraction, Israel claims, justified their seizure of Palestinian lands and continuing oppression of its people, both inversions of their claim that make them now its infractors). We say we teach the aesthetic, ethical, philosophical and, yes, even political values of the artifacts and practices of that fictive imagination. Most of us tend to ascribe particular content to those values, especially, in the ideology dominant in this country, such values as those also inscribed (not coincidentally) in the US constitution. We have just voted to support one people’s deprivation of these values and their benefits—while screaming out our own right to them. Like it or not, political values are inextricable from all those others that glove the fictive imagination.

So the MLA, by these votes, has turned its back on its professional claims and obligations. I have deep respect for all who elect to fight from within to get the Association back on track. I hope it can be done. I fear it will take years, at best. Above all it will require concerted political will, majority accord on what having and doing a profession are, besides great practical changes in voting procedures, in decisions on such as what constitutes a quorum (and why), and so on. I doubt that so large, unwieldy and broadly conservative an association as the MLA can achieve the first two of these (in which the overwhelming number of abstentions suggests that few are interested). I cannot but resign. I am a Life Member, so cannot simply withhold my dues. Please cancel my membership right away.

Respectfully,

Timothy J. Reiss,
Emeritus Professor,
New York University

 

 

 

 

 

 

What kind of freedom do we promise when we talk about ‘academic freedom’? To speak out against the obvious and open abuse and destruction of Palestinians is to be tarred with the brush of hatred, or worse. In Israel and in the United States, where threats both professional and private to those who dare to raise questions or debate about Palestinian human and political rights remain very much a reality, our political engagement and action within the halls of the MLA should have sent a message that Israeli leaders would have been the first to understand.

 

Instead the MLA acquiesced in a silence that fortifies and sustains not only the Israeli occupation but also the brute racism and continued violence against people of color in the United States. The most well-intentioned and reasonable folks thus end up abetting the state of fear and atrocity, terrifying because commonplace. What terrorizes is this casual but calculated disregard.

 

By resigning from the MLA, I hoped to add my voice to that of colleagues who shared with me a belief in the political — not only scholarly — possibilities of this organization, and who refuse now to acquiesce in such genial disregard, especially dangerous in the time of Trump.

 

Colin Dayan

Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities
Professor of Law
Vanderbilt University

 

 

 

Dear MLA Leadership,

I will not be renewing my membership in the MLA. I have been a member since 1993 and because of the passage of MLA Resolution 2017-1, I no longer wish to be one. Here is why:

  1. Resolution 2017-1 puts the MLA on record as the only professional academic organization to condone Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians.And it does so in a way that undermines the most important, non-violent, Palestinian-led international movement against these violations.

Israel’s ongoing practices of colonization, occupation, and apartheid make Palestine one of the great moral issues of our time. It is not the only one (no issue ever is) but it is one that has grown ever more visible in the public sphere for a variety of reasons that is not the purpose of this letter to detail. And unlike other offenders of human rights, Israel continues to enjoy enormous and largely unqualified support from the United States, the country in which the MLA is based.

Now, the MLA has thrown its weight behind those who seek to repress the struggle for justice in Palestine. Rather than supporting Palestinians as they struggle not only for their academic freedom and right to education, but indeed for their very survival, the MLA has elected to be on the side of oppression.

What reasons do I have for these assertions? You will find the evidence carefully and thoroughly documented on the MLA Members for Justice in Palestine  (MLAM4JP) website, which painstaking details Israel’s violations of Palestinians’ academic freedom and their right to education. These materials articulate why these violations should matter to the MLA. It is one thing for the MLA not to endorse the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel on the grounds laid out in these documents; it is entirely another to actively oppose and undermine the boycott movement.

  1. MLA processes have proven to be undemocratic. The processes by which all the 2017 resolutions were discussed and voted upon were profoundly inequitable. The anti-boycott group campaigning for this resolution and against the academic boycott resolution engaged in tactics at the Town Hall, at the Delegate Assembly, and during the membership vote that reasonably deserved censure by the MLA. At the very least, these questionable tactics required the MLA leadership to level the playing field by giving each side equal access to the membership to explain just what we were voting on and why.

There is no need for me to say more here because in her letter to you, my friend and colleague Julie Rak details the questionable ethics of the anti-boycott group and the problems with the MLA structures that gave them undue influence in promoting this resolution; in opposing the academic boycott resolution; and in formulating their cynical and dishonest resolution asking MLA members to condemn Hamas and the Palestinian Authority for the plight of Palestinians while leaving Israel unmentioned.

  1. However inadvertently, and also hypocritically, given the passage of Resolution 2017-4, Resolution 2017-1 erodes the academic freedom of anti-Zionist scholars and, more broadly, supports the repression of anti-racist and other social justice movements on college campuses. Palestinians and anyone else who expresses anti-Zionist positions or support for Palestinian rights can expect to be harassed and then to have academic institutions either look away, or punish those under attack.

My own experiences provide but one small (in degree and kind) example of such attack. As one of the hundreds of students and faculty listed on the anonymous blacklisting website Canary Mission, I intermittently receive virulent hate mail—including death wishes, and pictures of guns pointing towards me. As with many of my colleagues, my scholarship has been subject to accusations of anti-Semitism and terroristic sympathizing, and to FOIA requests accompanied by trumped up charges that are time-consuming and that can lead to disciplinary actions. A few days after a December 22, 2016 article about the MLA’s boycott resolution appeared in The Legal Insurrection that included my name and photograph, my phone was hacked and another member of MLAM4JP received a text from my mobile phone number linking to a porn video. Over the past several years, I have been insulted on grounds of my scholarship and charged with anti-Semitism for giving scholarly papers on Palestine, including at the MLA. Almost everyone I know who does scholarship on and organizing for Palestine has similar experiences, and almost without exception, not only is our academic freedom not protected, but such harassment can lead to more serious infringements and even, as in the case of my friend, colleague, and fellow MLA member Steven Salaita, violations of tenure and unemployment.

I provide these examples to suggest how Resolution 2017-1 reinforces repression in the North American academy. Palestine is not just an “over there” issue, even as what is happening in Palestine itself should be of foremost concern.
For an organization like the MLA to find itself unable to support an ongoing non-violent, anti-colonial struggle is deeply hypocritical, and also racist and nationalist. The simultaneous passage of Resolution 2017-4 which, in response to the election of Donald Trump, supports the AAUP’s definition of academic freedom makes this painfully clear.

As I write this letter, Gaza has three or fewer hours of electricity a day—a condition that not only violates the rights to education of those living there, but that also imperils their very existence. That MLA will offer no support to the struggle for justice in Palestine is disappointing. But that, enabled by its undemocratic processes, the MLA actively condones Israel’s actions, and contributes to the repression of those engaged in non-violent resistance to a violent occupation, makes it an organization that I do not wish to be a part of.

 

I have great respect for those who will remain within the MLA and fight to change its practices and positions. And although I choose not to work within an organization structured to foreclose democratic debate and participation in social justice work, should these conditions change, I look forward to rejoining these colleagues and friends. Both within the MLA and beyond it, as with other progressive movements, the fight for justice in Palestine will continue.

Respectfully,

Cynthia Franklin

Professor of English

University of Hawai’i

 

 

 

Dear MLA Membership Office,

I’ve been a member since the early 1980s, but I will not be renewing my membership of the MLA. Here is why. The delegate assembly at the 2017 conference in Philadelphia exhibited appalling racism in its refusal to permit the proposed resolution for the academic boycott of Israel to be brought forward for a vote by the membership.  The delegate assembly’s support for Israel’s racist and discriminatory policies toward the Palestinians living within its borders and for violations of Palestinian rights in Gaza and the West Bank, dressed up as concern for the academic freedom of Israeli academics, was, frankly, so disingenuous as to be shocking.

That we are scholars of literature and languages makes us skilled wielders of argument and rationalizations. So perhaps I should not be surprised that many members of the association believed that involving the association in questions of human rights and unimpeded access to education for Palestinians was outside the purview of literary scholars. Maybe I was naïve in my disappointment that many scholars and educators of the MLA wondered whether the association should concern itself with political questions when, after all, the fundamental reason, they averred, that one is part of the association is to study such things as translation theory and the nuances of poetic aesthetics. Really, as humanists, we should not put our toes in the messy waters of global politics, because that would detract from our pursuits in the rarefied intellectual spheres of literary aesthetics.  How wonderfully immersed we are in our privilege as literary scholars in the United States that we can “check out” from our – as individuals and as voters in the United States’ —  responsibility to examine our support of the state of Israel that routinely and everyday renders Palestinian rights meaningless and erases the reality of the dispossession of the Palestinian peoples from the global public consciousness.

In refusing to allow the Israeli academic boycott resolution to be debated and discussed by the membership, the MLA delegate assembly engaged in an unforgiveable act of silencing. Worse, it then paraded this egregious act as sophisticated procedural wizardry.  The lack of ironic perspective within the delegate assembly was astonishing. And, as many others have pointed out, the delegate assembly’s support of a resolution that would protect academics in the United States from the censorship and intimidations of a Trump administration, coming on the heels of its refusal to provide these same protections to Palestinian scholars, students, and educators living within Israel and under Israel occupation, was surreal.

Witnessing the dance of anti-Palestinian racism dressed up as deep concern for the academic freedom of Israeli academics was truly nauseating. Yes, I know that we are trained to use words effectively, and yes I know that literary texts and literary study have often served fascist ends. Nonetheless, to hear scholars and educators who purport to train their students to think critically and analytically and with deep self-reflection simply brush aside the deprivations and injuries that Palestinians endure every day left me feeling depleted and disgusted.  I can no longer comport with such colleagues.

Therefore, I will not be renewing my membership. Good riddance to this association. May it drown in its own obfuscations and arrogance.

Sincerely,

Rajini Srikanth, Professor, English, University of Massachusetts Boston

 

June 26, 2017

To:
Diana Taylor, President, MLA diana.taylor@nyu.edu
Anne Ruggles Gere, First Vice President argere@umich.edu
Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President sgikandi@princeton.edu
Rosemary Feal, Executive Director rfeal@mla.org
Carol  Zuses, Staff Liaison governance@mla.org

 

Dear MLA Leadership:

I am writing to say that I will not renew my MLA membership for 2018 to protest the recent vote for Resolution 2017-1.

I have been an MLA member for more than two decades and I have done much work for the organization as a Division Chair and for the Delegate Assembly. I believe that my work as DAOC Chair in 2015 was valued as I brokered an agreement with both sides regarding the academic boycott issue. That is why it is particularly painful for me to see the success of resolution 2017-1, a resolution which directs the MLA to not use academic boycott against Israel for the forseeable future. The resolution denies the request of Palestinian MLA members and allies to make use of academic boycott as a strategy, much as it had been used against South Africa in the 1980s.

The level of cynical electioneering that the anti-boycott group engaged in during the resolution campaign process was outrageous and deserved censure by the MLA. I was horrified to see how pro-Israel speakers hogged both mikes at the DAOC, somehow used lists of MLA members to send a pro 2017-1 message which looked as if it came from the MLA, a message I received. This group, as has been independently reported, received funding from the Government of Israel to pay for memberships in order to ensure that the vote was ratified. At the same time, I co-authored an eyewitness report for the MLA that came from a trip MLA members took to Palestine to assess the situation, so that MLA members could evaluate what we saw. Somehow, it wasn’t possible to circulate that report. And why wasn’t it? That is the worst use of bureaucracy, a structure that exists not to educate its own members.

I note too that the DAOC of 2017 allowed a third resolution to go forward that contained serious errors of fact, erroneously blaming HAMAS and the Palestinian Authority (and not the state of Israel) for what Palestinians endure. If I had been on the DAOC, I would not have allowed that resolution to even be presented in that form. Even seeing such a resolution make the floor is evidence for many international news organizations that the MLA is entertaining xenophobia and racism within its governance structures, despite the fact that the resolution was withdrawn. And I agree with that assessment.

I cannot believe that it is so easy for such racism and xenophobia to be tolerated by the MLA’s governance structures, or that both sides of the resolution debate could not be given ways to contact the whole membership of the MLA. The MLA, I must conclude after years of working in it, is profoundly anti-democratic.

I also am outraged by the Emergency Resolution that became 2017-2 and the refusal of the DA itself to abide by UN guidelines for academic freedom, deliberately choosing to use American guidelines from the AAUP instead. I am not a citizen of the United States, and so this decision clearly underscores a message that I constantly encounter–the Modern Language Association of America is also by America and for America. It’s not for other scholars. It’s not for Palestinian colleagues, and it’s not about Palestinian American colleagues either. It’s most certainly not for me. And it’s for an America that wants to give millions of dollars per day to prop up a regime that shoots students, denies them water and electricity, and stops professors from doing their jobs. Your American President has served notice through his ambassadorial appointment to Israel that he wants to fight any BDS effort on US campuses, and will step up a campaign of intimidation against those of us who support BDS.  The resolution adopted will make it impossible to fight the Canary Mission and its assault on the academic freedom of professors and students. I want no part of an organization that has nothing to say about this.

The ugliness of what transpired at the Delegate Assembly will stay with me for a long time. I heard hateful and racist things said and saw resolutions proposed that had hate in them–I heard lies told that could not be corrected because of the format for discussion. I saw people who were supposed to be my colleagues vote to turn their association inward, away from caring about Palestinian colleagues and students, or even caring about those of us who thought the MLA could be international and perhaps participate in the work of decolonization. I do not undertake this decision lightly, and many of you on this list know how much work I have done, and what my belief in fairness and justice for all is about. If the MLA worked to rescind 2017-1 and made a less opaque governance process with more transparency and fairness, I would come back to the MLA. I will not be a member until I see positive steps taken in that direction.

I can no longer belong to an organization that condones such things, and then turns around and affirms the power and beauty of the work we do when we teach language and literature.  There is no power, there is no beauty, where support for oppression undergirds what we do.

Thank you for your time.

Regards,

Julie Rak
Professor of English
University of Alberta
Canada

 

June 26, 2017

 

To:

 

Diana Taylor, President, MLA diana.taylor@nyu.edu

Anne Ruggles Gere, First Vice President argere@umich.edu

Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President sgikandi@princeton.edu

Rosemary Feal, Executive Director rfeal@mla.org

Carolyn Zuses, Staff Liaison governance@mla.org

 

Dear MLA Leaders,

 

I write to say that I will not renew my MLA membership in protest of the recent vote in favor of Resolution 2017-1 stating that the MLA will not boycott Israeli universities.

 

My decision is based on a long-time commitment to support for Palestinian self-determination and the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement.

 

Since 2009, I have been a public supporter of BDS.  I am a member of the Organizing Collective of USACBI (United States Campaigns for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel).  In January, 2012, I traveled with a USACBI delegation to the West Bank where I saw firsthand the daily violence of Israeli’s occupation.  I met with University students and faculty whose academic lives were constantly disrupted and restricted by Israel’s apartheid state.  In 2013, I was one of many members of the American Studies Association who campaigned for a resolution to support the academic boycott of Israeli Universities. We won the membership vote by a 2-1 margin.

 

The MLA vote to oppose a boycott of Israeli universities is to my mind tantamount to support for Israel’s illegal, racist Occupation.  It has been well documented in the public sphere, and was further documented during discussion of the resolution, that Israeli universities are complicit with the Occupation: some, like Hebrew University, are partially built on confiscated Palestinian land; others, like the Technion, build weaponry that is used to murder Palestinians and raze their homes.  Israeli Universities also discriminate against Palestinians, who constitute nearly 20 percent of the population of Israel, but less than 10 percent of students enrolled in its Universities.  As has also been well-documented, Palestinian universities, like Birzeit University and Al-Quds University, are routinely closed or invaded by Israeli Defense Forces.  Many Palestinian political prisoners in jail for opposing the occupation are students. Palestinian scholars and students enjoy no real academic freedom, concordant with their lack of political freedom.  They cannot move freely to academic conferences or to conduct research, and are subject to funding restrictions as controlled by the Israeli state.  Most cannot openly advocate for their own liberation through support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement because such support is vulnerable to civil lawsuit. Most recently, the state of Israel announced that it would not provide visas to visitors to the country who support BDS. And yet: the MLA membership has decided not to boycott Israeli universities because such a boycott might “block possible dialogue” with Israeli scholars.

 

This profoundly racist, ethnocentric vote and rationale run counter not only to the MLA’s own professed commitments to academic freedom, but to an emerging global consensus.  In recent years a myriad of professional academic organizations and teachers’ unions have voted to support academic boycott of Israeli universities precisely to protest conditions I have outlined above. I refer not only to the American Studies Association but to the Association of Asian American Studies; the National Women’s Studies Association; The Critical Ethnic Studies Association; the National Association of Chicana/o Studies and The African Literature Association.

 

These scholars, our peers, have taken the simple and admirable step of solidarity with their oppressed counterparts living under Israeli occupation.  In going against their principled example, the MLA membership has doubled down on its own history of resistance to democratic progress: where the association refused to openly support the academic boycott of South African Universities under apartheid, it now takes the more egregious step of declaring itself opposed to protest of Israeli apartheid.

 

I cannot in good political conscience pay membership to, or actively participate in, such an organization.  Doing so would betray my commitment to Palestinian freedom, and my wider commitments to social justice.

 

I encourage you to do everything in your power to reverse this resolution in the name of oppressed Palestinians and the many good people fighting alongside them, including members of your organization.

 

Respectfully,

 

 

Bill V. Mullen

Professor of American Studies

Purdue University

 

 

October 3, 2017

Paula Krebs, Executive Director

Modern Language Association

85 Broad Street, suite 500

New York, NY 10004-2434

 

Dear Ms. Krebs,

Thank you for your recent invitation to renew my membership in the Modern Language Association.  I regret to inform you that I will not be doing so and do not intend to renew my membership for the foreseeable future unless improbable but significant changes take place in the Association’s governance, procedures and modes of public engagement, and in particular with regard to its sense of responsibility towards the “humanity” that is invoked in any claim to advocate for the value and values of humanities scholarship.

This is not a decision I have taken lightly, having been an active member of the MLA almost continuously since 1982.  During that time, I had always hoped that the Association would prove capable of realizing the promise embedded in the ideals of the humanities and liberal scholarship and represent more than the interests of a body of academics bound only by common professional status.  Like many, I had hoped that the MLA might eventually take a leading role, not only in advocating for the privileges that some humanities scholars have always enjoyed, whether those of tenure and academic freedom or of generous state and federal funding for our disciplines, but also in fighting in more principled ways for the rights and welfare of those who have been denied such privileges, whether in North America or beyond.  Such a concern is surely within the mission of a body that is hopefully devoted to the humanities as more than a mere disciplinary portmanteau and committed to realizing its claim to an international reach and relevance.  A number of American scholarly associations have proven capable of bridging professional advocacy and a more generous engagement with social issues to which their members’ scholarship or the fundamental principles that should inform scholarship and thought as vocations have directed them.  As the largest body of humanities scholars in the world, surely the MLA ought to take a leading role in this way?

The outcome of the membership vote last June on Resolutions 2017-1 and 2017-4 succeeded in dispelling any illusions I and others may have had about the possibilities of the Association. The voting members of the MLA did not only pass a resolution that sought to limit members’ exercise of free speech while denying to one highly vulnerable segment of our colleagues the ability and means to redress massive injustices that profoundly limit their academic freedoms, among many other rights we take for granted. They also overwhelmingly voted to endorse a feel-good resolution that seeks to protect for themselves the very rights that they simultaneously denied to their Palestinian colleagues.  It is not necessary to dwell on the manifest contradiction here, which has been eloquently analyzed since the Delegate Assembly meeting of January 2017 that endorsed these resolutions.  What it signals about the Association, however, has led me to determine that the MLA is not an organization to which I can in future commit in any way, moral or material.

There might be some consolation in considering the contradiction between these two votes as a symptom of common or garden and unthinking hypocrisy.  But the tenor of discussion of Resolution 2017-1 over the past three or four years indicates that it is, rather, an outcome consequent on how MLA members and the association itself define and imagine the humanities and their purview, an imagination inseparable from how the conception of humanity and its boundaries are understood.  Debate on Resolution 2017-1 and on Resolution 2017-2, which asked that the MLA commit to endorsing the Palestinian struggle for fundamental human rights, consistently revealed that supporters of 2017-1 condoned a conception of academic freedom that granted it to some while dismissing as beneath our concern its daily denial to others. In their view, as it turns out the view of the majority of voting members, the rights that we enjoy and defend as scholars do not necessarily extend to all of our colleagues, if those colleagues should happen to live beyond the pale of that full humanity with which these MLA members so clearly identified themselves.  The resolution, practically speaking, installed a division within the notion of the human that is all too familiar and all too insidious.

The division is familiar because, as we know all too well, it is one that has defined the humanities and the idea of the human on which they are based at least since the Enlightenment.  It is the negative counterpart of the hopeful vision of the humanities as a project of emancipation. It is a division that has historically regulated access to education as it has the right to rights and privileges.  It is a toxic template that continues to inform even the most well-meaning discourse about inclusivity or diversity and, at times like the recent debates around Palestine, manifests in its full virulence. By endorsing Resolution 2017-1, the MLA sent the message that not only our Palestinian colleagues and their students but also by implication our own colleagues and students of color could enjoy at best probationary humanity, at worst be denied more than their rights to academic freedom, their right to be acknowledged as fully human, political and cultural subjects.  In doing so, it confirmed what many have suspected for all too long, the white normativity that structures this association and the literary disciplines and that informed even its best intentioned desire for “inclusivity”.

Inclusion is not what is at issue.  More inclusion merely means, as this contradictory pair of resolutions demonstrates, more forms of conditional incorporation that effectively reassert the boundary lines between human subjects and the provisionally, potentially human beings who for now have not gained the right to rights.  Inclusion is not the solution when we desperately need the dismantling of what Toni Cade Bambara called “disconnectedness”, that is, “the separation between the world of academia and the world of knowledge that exists beyond the campus gates, the seeming dichotomy between politics and ethics, the division between politics and art.” Such disconnectedness, on the other hand, is precisely what advocates of 2017-1 most fervently endorsed in their insistence that it was impossible to distinguish between the institutions and individual academics—whom the Palestinian call for academic boycott very scrupulously and, it must be said, very generously, exempt from any sanction as individuals.  No matter that the language of the AAUP underwrites that distinction by making clear that academic freedom as such is a right that applies to individuals alone.  This supposed indivisibility of the individual and their institution was asserted over and over again in the interest of protecting Israeli academic institutions from their well-documented complicity in a system of state-organized injustice.  And such is the self-interest of professional academics that a majority of MLA voters endorsed this judgment.

This is really a very sad statement of the values of the MLA and of its members.  For generations, the vital dynamic of intellectual life and work has been determined not by the identification between individual and institution but by the radical disidentification of scholar and intellectual from the institution with its privileges and ossifications, its servitude to power and its perpetuation of injustices.  The only respectable way to be an academic, one might think, is to be in opposition to one’s institution, to recognize the lures of corporate power and appointment, and to further those movements that seek to break down its disconnectedness.  Conformity of the scholar to the institution is just what makes the scholar, in the common sense of the term, “academic.”

But over the past few years, the MLA has proven itself to be less an intellectual association, if an association means a kind of horizontal collective of equals, than a typical institution.  It has developed an institutional structure that operates as a series of filters against debate, hedges against any possibility of disruption by democracy, and constitutes an ever-narrowing pyramid of hierarchical decision-making that deters participation and militates against any real transformation.  Its Delegate Assembly operates to disenfranchise those who seek to speak from the floor and to impose decorum when what is needed is the unruly vigor of real debate. As debate constantly revealed, that structure is invested in concern for pecuniary self-interest and reputation, and it is all too easily manipulated by those who—precisely because of their institutional identifications—are more accustomed to exerting control than concerned with a broad and representative participation.  Like any institution, it fears the embarrassment that ensues upon taking any stand that opposes convention or the powers that be.  That is how institutions behave and it says much about the membership of the MLA that it would vote to protect a body of institutions, Israeli academic institutions, rather than add a small but meaningful voice to the now global effort to realize the 70-year-old struggle for justice to Palestinians.  It is fair to say that what they voted for was to protect institutions in which their idea of the MLA finds its own reflection.

It has taken me several months since June’s announcement to come to the decision not to renew my membership, not because the MLA as it exists is an association that has proven so tempting to commit to, but because I had thought I might convince myself it was worth staying and working to change it.  After much reflection on what transpired over the past few years, let alone over the association’s longer history, I have had to conclude that the institutional structure of the MLA is too deeply embedded in the history of racism and of academic privilege and power to transform itself.  An association that in the 1980s could not bring itself to express solidarity with the divestment campaign against South African apartheid, and thirty years later goes yet further in actively seeking to suppress even the discussion of endorsing the Palestinian campaign against Israel’s version of apartheid, is an association that has openly declared its complicity with injustice and discrimination.  That is not an association I wish any longer to endorse.

 

Sincerely,

David Lloyd

Distinguished Professor of English

University of California, Riverside

 

Cc: Diana Taylor, President

Anne Ruggles Gere, First Vice President

Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President

Carol Zuses, MLA Governance

 

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