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Remembering Godard

Daniel Morgan      

There was a time in my early twenties when I had gone a while, probably a year or more, without seeing a film by Jean-Luc Godard. At that age a year felt like a long time. Like many cinephiles, Godard’s early films had been important to my self-understanding as a “serious” filmgoer. I suspect I thought I was now past him, more mature and sophisticated than his hipness or penchant for aphorisms and quotations. But then I reencountered Godard for the first time. I think the main feature may have been Bande à part, and I have no memory of which short film was screened first. But the first images of that short film—some foliage shot on the roof of a building; two people in conversation—struck me with force. This, I remember thinking, this is why you go back to Godard: to see the images and to hear the sounds; they are unlike anything else. A short film, probably made quickly—but such beauty.

            Godard died on 13 September, which puts an end to his remarkable output of films and videos over more than six decades. Others have treated this output with more care and depth than I will do here. I will simply say that Godard’s legacy may be measured by the fact that there is no one seriously invested in movies who has not been watching films and videos by Godard for most if not all of all of their adult lives. His passing feels like a gesture of finality that closes out an era.

            It’s been striking to see how many of the accounts of his career have been invested with autobiography: it was in this year, in this place, and with this person that the writer saw À bout de souffle or Sauve qui peut (la vie) or Le Mépris or any of his other work. Yet that seems to miss the point. We all have many pivotal moments as youthful consumers of art: concerts by bands we grow out of, movies whose limitations we later recognize, and so on. What is so remarkable about Godard is the way that these memories are not isolated, how they become folded into a lifetime of viewing and reviewing. In the week since Godard’s death, I’ve returned in my mind several times to a review John Updike wrote of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. It is a review from when Updike was an older man, written with the knowledge that he would never read the novel again—and so the review is haunted by the other times he had read it. Updike remains unimpressed by the archness of the plot. So why come back to it? “Between beginning and end,” Updike writes, “of course, there was marvelous writing.”

            Godard is no novelist, despite his love of literature, and his relation to narrative was, if deep, notoriously fraught and complicated. But there remains, as with James, the investment in form and the implications and broader significance—aesthetic, cultural, political—to be drawn from it. Some of this is about the composition of images and sound: their arrangement, framing, and interaction. But it is also about experimentation. One of the things that has always stood out with Godard was his refusal to remain content as and where he was. The experiments were technical as much as aesthetic: the jump cuts of À bout de souffle; the long takes of Week-end; the voice-overs of Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle; the video monitors of Ici et ailleurs; the stuttered motion of Sauve qui peut (la vie); the flashing superimpositions of Histoire(s) du cinéma. Even at the end, when he used 3D in Adieu au langage, there are two moments where the two cameras that construct the 3D image—our two eyes—split apart, and I remember an astonished and collective gasp coming from the theater as we struggled to process, intellectually but also physiologically, what we were seeing.

            For all his bombast, verbal and formal, Godard was also surprisingly delicate. For all the intricate details, he could be fundamentally schematic. Curiously, the combination of general and particular, abstract and concrete, meant that you wound up feeling like you had to look more carefully, to look again. As with James, the care and complexity of the formal qualities of the works meant that they repaid deep and close attention to the specifics of what’s going on. This also seems to be how Godard himself thought about art. If he largely framed his art-historical claims in general terms, his films and videos often obsessively attended to or replayed small moments from the history of art, and especially cinema, as if to create on their own terms a fantasy of close watching. And that rewatching, whether it was on your own or following Godard’s own paths, was wildly rewarding. Small moments you might have missed, montage sequences that turned out to be wildly allegorical, allusions to the history of cinema—even just the ability, as I said, to see something of extraordinary beauty again, but to know it was coming and so not to be surprised but to allow oneself to flow into its pleasures.

            Pleasures is an important word in this context. Much has been, will be, and should be written about the intellectual stakes of Godard’s films and videos and about their political significance. Few filmmakers have mattered in those ways as much as he did. Yet pleasure suffused his work, animating these ideas and keeping viewers going. One of these pleasures, surely, was the humor. Godard could be, and often was, extremely funny. He had a talent for physical comedy, something that was apparent in his appearance in Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 but which came to be a part of his persona—I think here, too, of the lovely play around American slapstick comedy in Soigne ta droite. There were also verbal games, from the “allons-y Alonso” of Jean-Paul Belmondo in À bout de souffle to the typographic word play of Histoire(s) du cinéma. Sometimes the jokes were wonderfully bad: Hélas pour moi, featuring Gérard Depardieu, highlighted the “dieu” and “God” in the opening credits; or in Adieu au langage, “2D” was printed on the screen and then, suddenly, “3D” popped up out in front of it.

            Godard was not the perfect filmmaker. That was part of the appeal. The films and videos often have dead zones, stretches of time where nothing quite clicks. He made works as if to record his thought process, to think through ideas in an audio-visual form—if it did not always work, often the result was spectacular. To lose Godard is to lose one of the most fundamentally interesting and curious of the thinkers in cinema; to lose the person who consistently explored what cinema was, had been, and could become; to lose an artist in whom aesthetics and politics could never be separated. For years, the pleasure of going back to Godard has been to trace the process of his thinking and to do so in the knowledge that he was still working and thinking, still making new things. Now what we have left is only the return. It is to our great fortune that the journey we have already taken has been so extraordinary and that there are still so many places to go—so many things to see and hear and think—even as we go back over terrain we already traversed.  

 


Daniel Morgan is a professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. He is also a coeditor of Critical Inquiry.

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On the Fortieth Anniversary of the Murder of Vincent Chin: What Is Anti-Asian Violence?

Colleen Lye

Recently, a Korean American friend of mine was walking in the San Francisco Mission District when she was called the c word (the racial not gender slur). She clocked that the man who said it wasn’t one of the regular unhoused persons she was used to seeing in the neighborhood. She ignored him. Just as she passed him, something hard smacked her on the back of her head. She stumbled forward but managed to dart across traffic to the other side of the street, half running at this point for a couple of blocks as he kept tracking her from the other side until eventually losing interest. More upsetting to her than the unexpected blow was that throughout the whole thing no one came to her assistance or said anything, though there were plenty of people around when it happened. Having lived in New York and San Francisco all her life, she was well familiar with the masks of detachment people wore while moving through an unpredictable environment, one that threatened to get more dangerous the more you acknowledged it. With all the trainings in the careful avoidance of offensive language, something that took off even more after the George Floyd uprisings, there was an increasing disconnect between the world inside the office and the world outside. The recent COVID-19 hate-crimes bill announced a government resolve to bring more of the culture of the inside to the outside. (Not that she entirely agreed with the criminalization of hate as a response to rising anti-Asian violence or even that hate necessarily got at the fundamental social roots of racism. But thank God for Biden.) Was it not just a little odd, she thought, that people, at least some of whom must have gone through one or more of these trainings, were not jolted by the racial slur? Later she thought: it’s more likely that people had in fact been alerted and made the risk assessment that getting involved would make things worse. Or maybe it was just the opposite: they’d made the observation, in the end correct, that she wasn’t in any real physical jeopardy and that no intervention was needed. Or, perhaps it was that the whole episode just made everyone feel more sad than anything else. It was another version of the sadness one resigned oneself to every day passing by dozens of unhoused persons, some completely unhinged. The more she thought about it, her indignation faded into shame.

She and I have had our political disagreements over the years—she’s a liberal corporate lawyer who takes an individual rights-based approach to injury, I’m an Asian-American-literature professor drawn to historical materialist analysis—but I could relate to my friend’s disquiet and self-doubt. In the past year, I’ve been on the receiving end of more racial aggression than in the previous twenty-five years living in Berkeley. I’ve never been punched or had something thrown at my head. But there’s definitely a level of intensity to the racial commentary my sheer bodily presence on the street seems to elicit that feels volatile. Between that and just reading the news, I’ve become less absent-minded when walking to and from campus, more vigilant about scanning the sidewalk ahead of me and calculating the potential for any sudden moves. Last March I was coming out of the Cheeseboard, a bread and cheese shop so popular there’s always a line to get in. The store is worker owned and operated, the kind of place that puts up a poster of a Muslim woman in hijab to illustrate that “EVERYONE is welcome here,” the opposite of a business that would readily call for the removal of “loiterers” and “vagrants.” The result is a strip of sidewalk densely populated with a combination of foodies and panhandlers. I was thrown off balance one day when a tall, probably unhoused man shouted, very angrily, “China put my family into a meat grinder,” just as I was exiting the store. Since there were no other Asians in the vicinity, I deduced he was talking to me or about me. As far as China-bashing narratives go, this particular one was just vivid and weird enough to stop me in my tracks, drawing out the sociologist in me. I looked around to others for confirmation that I’d heard right. But no one would meet my gaze. Nothing was going on here, their faces said. Later, I thought: this is similar to what my friend experienced. You’re racially accosted in full public view; the public doesn’t react or seem to know how to react. It leaves you with a feeling of estrangement twice over. First, you’re called an alien and the label is harder to shake off because it’s coming from a member of the oppressed. And second, when the studied neutrality of the well-mannered around you implies suspicious agreement or, more minimally, another concession to the atmosphere of a mounting US-China Cold War that’s making it plausible, for example, to prosecute scientists for committing small administrative errors. You know it’s overreading. Still, you’re left with a lonely feeling that when push comes to shove, you’re on your own and maybe always have been.

But you can’t really talk about it. It’s not like you’re Vilma Kari.[1] To couch the experience in terms of feelings seems like an indulgence, possibly a wholesale category error and misapplication of the discourse of microaggression solicited by corporate consultants and university administrators. In workplaces and educational environments, there’s space for intersectionality, time for appreciating multiple differences, feeding the hope that there’s room for all sorts—room on the inside, ultimately, for everyone. But when it’s a matter of an antagonistic relation between the socially disposable and the nationally alienable out there on the street, that’s class contradiction in action. It’s all the more horrifying that, in this season of anti-Asianism, women and the elderly are the prime targets because of a shared perceived physical vulnerability; but the pattern of selection is not the sign of their (usually) male attackers’ “cowardice” but often the product of their own extreme marginality. When the attacks are by mentally ill, transient Black men, the attacks are particularly hard to talk about; they don’t fit with the narratives of racial violence that command cheap political remedies.

Thus, it makes sense that so far the main contribution of #StopAAPIHate has simply been to count: for now, the cold numbers of mounting hate incidents since 2020 must speak for themselves (11,467 between March 2020 and March 2022).[2] In no small way, the 2021 COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act—one of whose provisions is the federal collection of hate crimes data that for the first time in history is aimed specifically at protecting Asian Americans—is a victory for forty years of pan-ethnic community organizing. The murder of Vincent Chin in 1982, followed by the light sentencing of his killers and the ultimate juridical finding that he had been illegally deprived of life but not his civil rights, rallied Asian immigrant communities to the cause of making anti-Asian violence visible. In 1989 Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987, dir. Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Though it didn’t win, in 1990 Congress passed the first-ever legislation requiring the DOJ to collect and publish data on crimes motivated by “hatred based on race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation.” Thereafter followed the passage of more hate crime laws in a decade characterized by a trend toward harsher sentencing, in sync with the general redistribution of public funds away from social welfare toward policing and prisons.

Which is to say, that, as much as it is a capstone of past grassroots activism, the 2021 COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act represents a mixed bag from the perspective of present day Asian American Left organizing. Centering resource allocation to law enforcement agencies, the legislation affirms the impulse to turn a very real issue of safety into a reactionary ideological wedge against broader progressive momentum for criminal justice reform.[3] Faced with the challenge of how to move civil rights protection out of the jurisdiction of criminal law enforcement, Asian American progressive leaders so far have reached for the modest (and not particularly effective) toolkit borrowed from the office.

In the 1980s the issue of anti-Asian violence drew Asian immigrant engagement in electoral politics. What made Vincent Chin’s murder especially notable was that his killers, two white Chrysler employees, appeared merely to be enacting more brutishly the UAW’s Japan-bashing rhetoric. Serving as an allegory of the “turn from class to race,” the story lent support to the Second Rainbow Coalition’s strategy of interracial coalition as the new frontline of social democratic struggle. Yet for progressives the Vincent Chin story packed its punch as a cautionary tale about a white identitarian working class only because unions were still an electoral factor, their leadership a part of the intended audience to be educated. In the 2020s—with organized labor vastly outweighed by rightwing dark money in campaign financing, the Democratic Party in extremis, and accumulating social discontent that has not yet achieved concentrated force in the form of Left organization—a new pattern of anti-Asian violence has emerged that painfully underscores the ruination of those long-ago rainbow hopes. Remembering that turning from “class” to “race” only makes sense within the context of an intra-Left conversation about desegregating organized labor, we are called by this moment to no longer speak about race—and gender!—without class.


Colleen Lye teaches in English and critical theory at the University of California, Berkeley. Her most recent publications are After Marx: Literature, Theory and Value in the Twenty-First Century (edited with Chris Nealon, 2022) and “Asian American Cultural Critique at the End of US Empire” (American Literary History , 2022)


[1] Vilma Kari, sixty-five, suffered a broken pelvis and head injuries from being beaten in an unprovoked attack in midtown Manhattan on 29 March 2021. The case drew particular attention because several workers inside an apartment lobby watched it happen and did not intervene.

[2] The report acknowledges that the data it collected is “just a starting point” for sparking community-level conversations “to reimagine what safety and well-being means beyond law enforcement.”

[3] See, for instance, the San Francisco District Attorney recall of June 2022.

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Threshold Times: From the “No Longer” to the “Not Yet”

Nessa Cronin

“It’s a curse to live in interesting times,” so goes the ancient Chinese proverb that Hannah Arendt was known to cite in the last years of her life.[1] In her essay “No Longer and Not Yet,” Arendt observes that sometimes dramatic moments occurring in human history are experienced more as a real rupture heralding a new era, rather than the gradual unfolding of the old. The decline of the old and the birth of the new, she writes, “is not necessarily an affair of continuity” as “between the generations, between those who for some reason or other still belong to the old and those who either feel the catastrophe in their very bones or have already grown up with it, the chain is broken and an ‘empty space,’ a kind of historical no man’s land, comes to the surface which can be described only in terms of ‘no longer and not yet.’”[2]

For many of us living through these pandemic times we seem to be living in such an “empty space” in a collective caesura of an indistinct “now” caught between pre- and post-COVID-19 worlds, stuck in an “historical no man’s land” that has somehow continued in calendar time but has not yet quite fully moved on to the future, whatever that may be. Since the arrival of COVID-19 there has been a feeling that life before the pandemic seemed to belong to another time and epoch. W. J. T. Mitchell has noted how “the year 2019 now seems to belong to another century”.[3] The past is indeed another country. While the present may seem to be of a different time and order, one gets the distinct feeling that we have not yet fully come to terms with the suspended space of our “now”.

After the first wave of the pandemic in Europe Turkish novelist Elif Shafak wrote of “the world to come,” and argued that “This is a threshold. The old world is simply no more. . . . The old world is gone, and yet we do not know what kind of a new world we want to build. It is a state of in-between-dom, full of anxiety and uncertainty, and fertile ground for demagogues and their false promises of redemption.”[4]  Stuck between calendar time in “real life” and an atemporal experience of the “virtual,” the frozen zoom screen seems to be the best visual representation and haptic experience of the pandemic “now”, signifying a moment in which time is seen to jump, skip, crack and freeze, through different spaces and time zones and sometimes, confusingly, happening all at once as seen in the work of digital artist and philosopher EL Putnam.[5] Screens now act as third parties in relationships, and often as a third party mediating between our “real” and “virtual” selves. As Jedediah Britton-Purdy has noted, we are now an “infrastructure species,” a category he uses to describe our physical and technological relationship to the world we have created.[6]

Android Dream, EL Putnam, 2021. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist.

The compression chambers of climate change and COVID-19 makes this contemporary period an “event” in itself. What has become increasingly visible throughout the pandemic is how language and rhetoric associated with the 2008 global financial crisis has re-appeared as an individualizing resilience narrative. Neoliberal narratives of “personal responsibility” foreground the primacy of the individual rather than the responsibility of the state in protecting the public and environmental health of its citizens. Such narratives also demonstrate an apparently wilful lack of understanding of epidemic or other crisis events and can even go further by viewing such events as opportunities in the Malthussian sense (“no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands”[7]), echoing the narratives of disaster capitalism as previously observed by Naomi Klein post-2008.[8]

More troublingly, however, is that the mantra of “personal responsibility” singularly assumes a level playing pitch for all members of society, with the concept concealing a dangerous assumption that everyone has the same level of social supports and economic security to help cushion them in a time of crisis. Not everyone can exercise personal responsibility by not exposing themselves to the virus when commuting to work on public transport, shielding a close relative, teaching or caring for unvaccinated children, or working in a meat-packing plant. Indeed, the mandates to work from home blithely assumed that everyone has an adequate home-space to work/learn from. Such narratives assume that “home” is a safe space and sanctuary from the viral dangers in the public sphere, instead of being a private space of harm for many in what has been regarded as a shadow pandemic of domestic violence.[9]

The assumptions behind the the phrase “personal responsibility” are therefore highly gendered, class-based, and politically structurally-biased; they make already inequitable social systems even more dangerous for many. These are just some examples of a highly problematic resilience narrative that has gained traction without sustained critique, and will undoubtedly re-emerge in future times. The failure to protect yourself and your loved ones, so the narrative goes, implies a moral failing on your part to “assess the risk” and act with “personal responsibility” to swerve and dodge that COVID-19 or climate wave coming your way.

We have much to learn from the necropolitics of the present in terms of how such resilience narratives will shape future crisis scenarios, therefore such narratives should be carefully tracked and forensically examined for what they ideologically assume and, conversely, what they dangerously conceal. Caught between the vice grips of the biopolitical crisis of the virus and the existential crises of climate change, we are living in a threshold decade, a pivotal time when decisions made now will set in train biopolitical tipping points that will determine the future of life to come, for better or for worse.


Nessa Cronin is a lecturer in Irish Studies, Centre for Irish Studies, and associate director of the Moore Institute at NUI Galway, Ireland.


[1] Quoted in Jerome Kohn, “Introduction” to Hannah Arendt, Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism (New York, 1994), p. ix.

[2] Hannah Arendt, “No Longer and Not Yet,” p. 158.

[3] W. J. T. Mitchell, “Present Tense 2020: On the Iconology of the Epoch,” Moore Institute Webinar, 9 June 2021, National University of Ireland, Galway https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WFCen3FmbE, later published as, “Present Tense 2020: On the Iconology of the Epoch,” Critical Inquiry 47 (Winter 2021), pp. 370-406. I am very grateful to Professor Mitchell for discussions on this theme when I presented at this webinar as a panelist respondent to his paper, much of which gave rise to the considerations expressed here.

[4] Elif Shafak, “The World to Come,” New Statesman, 20 August 2020. https://www.newstatesman.com/uncategorized/2020/08/world-come-old-world-gone Also see, Elif Shafak, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division (2020).

[5] See http://www.elputnam.com/

[6] Jedediah Britton-Purdy, This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for the New Commonwealth (Princeton, New Jersey, 2019).

[7] Prime Minister of Britain Boris Johnson was allegedly to have said this rather than impose further restrictions or lockdowns in Britain at the height of the wave. See, Jessica Elgot and Robert Booth, “Pressure mounts on Johnson on alleged ‘let the bodies pile high’ remarks,” The Guardian, 26 Apr. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/apr/26/pressure-mounts-on-boris-johnson-over-alleged-let-the-bodies-pile-high-remarks

[8] Initial media reporting of the COVID-19 crisis in Britain made reference to the tenor of conversations in government circles in relation to the impact of the virus on the elderly population in particular and a policy of herd immunity: “The report claimed that at one private event at the end of February, Cummings outlined then government’s strategy at the time in a way that was summarised by some present as “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/mar/22/no-10-denies-claim-dominic-cummings-argued-to-let-old-people-die And that the excess deaths of 125,000 people in the UK by March 2021 means that the Treasury will save more than £1.5 billion in state pension payments in 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/12/covid-crisis-social-care-elderly-people On Naomi Klein see, The Shock Doctrine (2008)

[9] I’m making the distinction here between home environments and living quarters to highlight the particular challenges that men, women and children who live in asylum and detention centers encountered during successive periods of lockdown in Ireland (known as Direct Provision Centers) and Europe more widely.

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Out There

Mikko Tuhkanen

One of the first things I recall Leo telling me, as I was querying him about his intellectual influences, was the lesson he said he had learned from a Harvard professor as an undergrad: how remarkable it was that the seventeenth-century French theater gave us such smoldering tragedies as Racine’s Andromaque, where the crimes of past generations weigh heavily on the living, but also the tragicomedy of Corneille’s Le Cid and the giddy merriment of his Le Menteur. This was a forked opening to literary modernity: the combination of trauma intensities with the frivolous dismissal of all such anguished seriousness. It struck me some time later that this doubleness marks everything Leo ever produced. Early on, he found it in Proust. The Proustian subject desires unfathomable difference: his gaze is riveted to the beloved’s enigma, which it is his task to crack, a revelation that, he thinks, will enable his self-relation. But then, still in Proust, we have the buttercups: the field of yellow that, even though the flowers look like egg yolks, cannot be “known” through the consumption that is the fate of Marcel’s beloveds; rather, they can be merely contemplated with a dazed aesthetic pleasure. We cannot but be enthralled by the world’s fateful messages; but having been thus fascinated, different interests can distract us from our interrogative projects, our will to know.

The Freudian text carries the same doubleness. Leo agreed with Foucault that psychoanalysis was one of the discourses that have trained us into Proustian subjects: we seek hidden knowledge about our selves in the world; we are ready to pull this world apart to get our hands on the treasure. Yet Freud’s rhetorical performance also suggested that our aggression is stymied by other—dissipative, masochistic—pleasures. Freud theorized our loving hatred of the world, but he also exemplified the movements where the inquisitorial self is dismissed in favor of shared frivolities.

***

Leo sought in such frivolities the possibility of—in the phrase he borrowed from Foucault—“new relational modes.” Like many a true thinker, he only ever thought about one thing. He knew that time is short. I admired his ability to cut through the bullshit, to pay no deference to whatever were the moment’s pieties: he refused to regurgitate what an instant earlier may have been a delightful provocation but had already ossified into yet another phantasm in our dogmatic slumber.

***

At a dinner, Leo told me of his earliest memory: his family fleeing the Bronx in the night because the father, a restaurateur, had run afoul of the local mafia. Is this why he often repeats in his writing that, rather than submitting to (what Adam Phillips might call) protection rackets—by, say, “subversively reiterating” their demands—we “simply leave” the family or “simply desert” the fortress or “simply disappear” from the scene of our subjection?

***

From the social-media tributes to Leo I happily gleaned that the days when he was interpellated as the daddy of “the antisocial thesis in queer theory” are behind us. In the “debate club paradigm” of queer theorizing, his arguments in “Is the Rectum a Grave?” and Homos were frequently contrasted with those of various “queer utopianisms.” As is inevitably the case in such models, the juxtaposition is neither incorrect nor adequate. Leo’s thought was always, from its beginnings sixty years ago, invested in the two seemingly incompatible orientations he found in Proust and Freud: our “intractable” antagonism to the world and the ways in which we are greeted by the world’s forms upon our arrival. Riffing on Baudelaire’s horizontalized Swedenborgianism, he suggests that we are, before we are, already out there; the world waits for our arrival with its network of correspondences.

***

Just as Thoughts and Things had been published, I attended a reading group at the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division, the one remaining gay bookstore in New York City. There were perhaps six of us, and I was preparing to enlighten the crowd (I mean, I was obviously the most widely read) concerning the Cartesian complexities of the book’s title. Before I could do so, a dashing young man said that he found it interesting how, at some point of their career, a writer can begin to title his books however, calling them, you know, like, “thoughts and things.” It struck me immediately: Leo would have loved this.

***

For many of us, Leo Bersani was a foundational figure not in terms of foci of interests but in terms of how thinking can move. He showed us what is available to thought.

***

I wish Leo had had time to write about Ingmar Bergman. Or Woody Allen’s and Pedro Almodóvar’s later work, the saturated melodrama of Café Society and the boisterous silliness of I’m So Excited. He really should have written about late ABBA, the darkness of The Visitors and “The Day Before You Came.” It wasn’t to be. Long-awaited darkness fell.

***

The last time I saw Leo, he couldn’t take his eyes off the sky. “What an astonishing day,” he kept saying, riveted to the cloudless Arizona expanses, as we—he and Sam and I—were having a wet lunch outside. I think he was, as he would have put it in his analysis of Bruno Dumont’s film Humanité, staring: immobilized by a fascination with the irredeemable world. This was a fascination that did not seek to dismantle the object so as to plunder its secrets. It was an availability to a fathomable otherness, what on the last page of Thoughts and Things he calls “nonfamilial familiarity.” He was always throwing his arms around the world.


Mikko Tuhkanen is professor of English at Texas A&M University.

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Learning from Leo

Tim Dean

“Nothing is more ominous than the unanimous reverence with which Volumes 2 and 3 have been received in France, or the hagiographical industry already at work on—really against—Foucault’s life and writing.”  This sentence, written by Bersani following Foucault’s death as he reflected on the final installments of The History of Sexuality, came to mind when I heard that Leo himself had died.  The temptation of hagiography is never more beguiling than in the wake of a great thinker’s death.  What struck me when I first read that sentence over thirty years ago was the notion of a “hagiographical industry” gearing up to preserve—but only by reducing, embalming, and fossilizing—a profoundly recalcitrant body of thought.  The noble beneficence of the industry cloaks its destructiveness.  Bersani named, as if in anticipation, the risk of the present moment in which we seek to memorialize him and his work, spurred on by that relentless pressure to idealize the newly dead.

If one of the things I most admire about his writing stems from its resistance to all our idealizing impulses—impulses he analyzed under the rubric of “the culture of redemption”—then I also appreciated his characteristic irreverence in conversation.  Once, when running late for dinner with Leo in San Francisco, I made the mistake of trying to outpace California Highway Patrol on Route 101.  Relishing my tale of an encounter with the officer who caught me, Leo began to improvise a set of facetious remarks he’d deliver at my funeral, “because your speeding will surely send you to an early grave.”  For him, now as much as then, it was never the time for sentimentality, no matter how serious the subject.

His irreverence toward the orthodoxies of queer theory meant that he could be a part of that field of inquiry only by being permanently outside it.  In 1998, after reading one of my manuscripts, Leo remarked, “You’ve become very queer, haven’t you?”  It was not meant as a compliment.  We spoke on the phone while he was writing Homos, but I had no opportunity to read that book until it reached print.  With the subsequent book, Caravaggio’s Secrets, Leo began sending me the manuscripts of everything he wrote.  I was never his student, never his lover, and never his colleague; our friendship evolved independently of those relational structures, simply through the repeated exchange of writing and conversation.  Though he was older than my father, we somehow spoke as equals about sex, about psychoanalysis, about aesthetic subjectivity.  That ongoing exchange—some of which appeared in print but most of which occurred in restaurants or cafes and on park benches—has been my primary intellectual relationship of the past quarter century.  Does it go without saying that the conversation hasn’t ceased with his death, that the back-and-forth continues inside me?

Two days after Leo died, I received author copies of Hatred of Sex, the book I wrote with Oliver Davis.  As its title suggests, Hatred of Sex may be read as an elaboration, in different contexts and idioms, of the sentence that opens “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” Bersani’s famous essay from 1987 (“There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it.”).  It would be an understatement to say that my joy in the book’s publication is tinged with sadness that Leo will never be able to read it.  Yet the book remains part of my ongoing dialogue with him, even as it is also the result of dialogues with Oliver Davis, another intellectual whose home discipline is in French.  Hatred of Sex endeavors, in part, to historicize “Is the Rectum a Grave?” in the context of 1980s debates about sexuality—to put Bersani’s essay in its place, as it were—at the same time as it tries to reanimate his best insights for our contemporary political moment.  Beyond anything it says about his work, our book is inspired by Leo.  And there is comfort to be taken in the circumstance that I now have Oliver to assume Leo’s role of expressing exasperated amusement at my execrable French.  He lives on through his published work but also through the echoes of his voice in other conversations.  I continue to hear Leo, as well as to read him.

Now I think back to an afternoon in October 2016, when we sat in his Philadelphia living room discussing drafts of two chapters from what would become his final book, Receptive Bodies.  Later, in notebook pages containing my scribbled thoughts about “Staring” (that last book’s stunning final chapter), I found I’d written, in large capital letters, LEARN FROM LEO—a reminder to the part of myself which had yet to fully grasp that learning from Leo was what I’ve been doing all along (never his student, I am always his student).  From my notes I gather that what I was instructing myself to learn was the distinctive way in which he put an essay together, his mode of composition.  Yes, he wrote everything by hand in notebooks; and, yes, his prose style was always a singular pleasure to encounter.  But in that last chapter of what turned out to be his final book, he reflected explicitly on a style of thinking that he calls “essayistic” and “inconclusive.”  It is not only a style of writing and argumentation but embodies an ethical relation to the world, one less concerned with mastery.  Because the “essayistic” refuses the systematization that modern philosophy demands, it goes some way toward defeating the monumentalization of thought that hagiography produces once it sets to work on a major thinker.  For me Bersani’s thinking remains valuable precisely insofar as it resists memorialization.  So, what I want to say is: I love him, I miss him, I can’t believe he’s gone; but please let us not have, now or ever, Saint Leo. 


Tim Dean is the James M. Benson Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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Leo Bersani

Joan Copjec

In May 2010 my visit to the University of Chicago overlapped by chance with that of Leo Bersani. Told I was on campus, he emailed to ask if I’d like to have dinner with him. Profoundly flattered, I accepted almost immediately, for I had first to set aside a flutter of trepidation. Leo and I came to know each other professionally in the 1980s when I was an editor of October and he was one of the journal’s favorite and loyal contributors. Beyond this, however, I shared with him a commitment to psychoanalytic thinking. The trepidation that held me back was rooted in the enormous admiration I had for his work, which manifested itself most dramatically in a specific encounter with it.

I do not recall what month it was in 1987 when I walked into the tiny October “headquarters,” slightly late, expecting just another day at the office. The issue we were putting together was number 43, which was devoted to the AIDS crisis, a topic outside my intellectual expertise, or so I thought. It was Douglas Crimp who proposed the issue, and so it was he who was primarily responsible for it; all I had to do was assist him with the editing and layout. When I walked in, Douglas was absorbed in reading the most recently received contribution, Leo’s “Is the Rectum a Grave?” “That’s the title?,” I asked as I went into the enjoining cubicle to read the text myself. I do not feel adequate to describe my response to Leo’s essay. I had always in my own way fought back hard against those who dismissed Freud and psychoanalysis as irrelevant—or worse: pernicious—as if it were some ornate, antiquated machine with an excessive number of bells and whistles that served no purpose, or—worse—a Trojan horse sent in to undermine the polity. The unforgettable opening line of Leo’s essay, “There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it,” seemed to me to put paid to all the vague grumblings against psychoanalysis, which in this essay shows up—in the flesh, as it were—to grapple with the real world.[1]

Part of the fascination of the essay’s declarative opening is the way it accommodates the seemingly delicate “do not like.” The quotations that mark the essay’s threshold betray a much stronger reaction: a violent disgust or revulsion, which sex is capable of eliciting and must be swallowed, overcome, or made use of by those who engage in sex. The intent of Leo, however, is to leave no one off the hook. His choice of the word like, cannot be read as it were merely borrowed from the vocabulary of prudes or those who wish to hide their lasciviousness behind a prudish or proper facade. The reference to a milder form of reserve toward sex serves instead a blanketing function. It spreads itself over everyone. There is no one who likes sex, but this not due to a mere or occasional squeamishness. The AIDS crisis forces us finally to confront the fact that sex is something no one likes. Or: it is not something anyone can cozy up to.

The argument only appears to depart from Freud when it insists that the problem of sex is not merely that the discomfort we all—in large or small part—feel toward it leads to a subjective or cultural repression of it. At play here is what Freud called secondary repression, which reacts to what it wishes not to confront by pushing it out of consciousness, that is, by negating it psychically. Leo’s point is much more profound: the difficulty of sex stems from primary repression, that is from the fact that human existence is not propped up by any foundation or ground. The crucial negativity associated with sex is not the one that fends it off by pushing it away but the negativity of this primordially withdrawn ground. For, sex can be defined as the affirmation of this latter negativity. Sexual pleasure is directed not at persons or objects but at this breach in existence. This sounds, I know, like an abstract argument – and all the more so because it is impossible, and not my point, to flesh it out here. My point is that “Is the Rectum a Grave?” is unprecedented in the way it makes the case for this seemingly abstract argument by identifying the ways it was manifesting itself during the crisis AIDS. It is one thing to point out what many could already see, the way official policies and proper people fended off scenes of sexual debauchery conjured in their febrile imaginations, another to see what others could not. Namely, that a whole “culture of redemption” was more than happy to celebrate sex as long as sex—the negativity it affirms—is removed from it. If a multiplicity of sexes had begun to emerge it was to fend off the damage sex visits on identity.

“Is the Rectum a Grave?” forced me to reread all of Leo’s work. I had learned a great deal from it in my first reading, but this time I knew how to look for the “clinical” element in it, the way it approaches and responds to the world in which we live. In his work Leo accords sex an ontological dignity, not in some idealizing sense, of course, but insofar as he conceives it as an act of dispossession from which something unprecedented can be brought forth.

My Chicago dinner with Leo lasted hours. As our conversation ranged over various outrageous topics, I lost my trepidation but not my awe. Many more dinners followed, as well as a trip to the ballet, and a conference at which I obliged Leo to come up with a theory of fatigue (which he did). Like many others, I would have preferred that these delightful encounters continue indefinitely.


Joan Copjec is professor of modern culture and media at Brown University.


[1] Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?”: and Other Essays (Chicago, 2010).

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Speechless: On Leo Bersani

Lee Edelman

Leo Bersani’s thought was ill-served by its association with mine and its specious categorization as antisocial or antirelational.[1] Excepting our late friend, Lauren Berlant, no contemporary critic more brilliantly engaged relational possibilities or more thoroughly invested in the utopianism of the inaccurate replication that Leo registered in homoness. What Leo resisted was neither relation nor sociality per se but the differences policed by categories, knowledges, and communitarian norms.

Characterizing the aim of his writing as “a type of reflexiveness—a type of blocked thought, of speculative repetition—to which the notions of areas and boundaries are profoundly alien,”[2] Leo discerned a similar resistance at work in the aesthetic, which, as he wrote in The Freudian Body, “moves away from, or ‘back from’ the very capacity to institute the categorical as a relevant mode of differentiating and structuring our experience of reality” (F, p. 5). He returned to this figure of moving back in his essay “The Will to Know,” where the “aesthetic adventure” entails “moving backward” to the moment when the work of art exists as no more than a possibility, as “the Mallarmean page blanche that precedes and, more profoundly, defies all realized art.”[3] In this blankness he found a space of “experimental initiation” where forms of being would emerge as expressions of being’s multiplicity, giving shape to the unintelligibility of being’s infinite future potential (“W,” p 166).

If I linger on this backward movement in looking back on my bond with Leo, it’s to think its temporality with regard to his “emphasis on the future” and his investment, with Adam Phillips, in what they called an “impersonal intimacy” demanding, as Phillips put it, “the most inconceivable thing: to believe in the future without needing to personalize it.”[4] While this attachment to futurity might seem to put Leo at odds with the author of No Future, it actually sustains what Leo would call an “incongruous connectedness,” one where affirming and rejecting the future would differ less than one thinks.[5]

For Leo, moving backward meant eluding difference by retrieving the before of thought. He imagined this “before” as “impersonal intimacy,” like the mother-infant relation that Phillips adduces, citing Christopher Bollas, as a “‘being-with, as a form of dialogue’ that enables ‘the baby’s adequate processing of his existence prior to his ability to process it through thought.’”[6] Because language articulates thought through difference, this scene of utopic adequation stresses the infant’s exclusion from speech; but since the stake in the scene is relation, the infant must nonetheless enter what Bollas can only figure as “a form of dialogue.”

Does that phrase do more than pastoralize the incommensurability of two experiences? The mother, as subject of language, invariably personalizes the infant that, as yet, is not a subject, while the infant impersonalizes the mother it can’t, as yet, approach through thought. The aesthetic, for Leo, moves back toward the potential, always as yet unspoken, of that primal impersonalization, which can only touch infinity insofar as it’s infans.

For Leo, encountering this pure potential requires “a lessening of psychic subject-hood” and a “willingness not to be.[7] Unlike the infant, the subject “mov[es] backward” by submitting “to the dissolution of the self [,] . . . to the loss of the very grounds of self-knowledge” (“W,” p 161). Leo may argue that this “retreat from the seriousness of stable identities or settled being” (FB, p. 9), “far from negativizing or simply erasing the finished being it leaves, actually expands it by potentializing it,” he acknowledges, nonetheless, its implication in the negativity of dissolution (“W,” p 165).

The hope of returning to the blank page of sameness after language has codified difference—so that difference, as Leo wrote in Homos, would be a “nonthreatening supplement to sameness”—thus depends on a break from the world as we know it and from ourselves as subjects of knowledge.[8] Moving backward toward an “unripe, virtual being” replete with futural possibility requires the undoing of organization, the unbinding of our cathexes, with the following consequences: “What all the different stimuli mentioned by Freud have in common is their ability to set affect free from psychic organization; unbound affect produces the excitement of jouissance” (“W,” pp 167, 159). This unbinding, as Leo reminded us, is also called the death drive.

While continuing to affirm the death drive as the key contribution of psychoanalysis, Leo hoped to “play to the side” of itin an effort to think “how . . . the problem of evil [might] be defined—and, to a certain extent, perhaps even resolved” by turning away from “the destructive drive” (FB,  pp. 127, 128). Understood, however, as dissolving the differences required for categorical thought, as returning psychic energy to the mobility of the primary process, the death drive enacts the movement back to the blankness of pure potential that marks the impersonalization intended by Leo’s “emphasis on the future.”

With this the incongruous likeness of our projects comes into focus beyond their classification as antisocial theory. Leo’s “emphasis on the future,” like my rejection of futurity, opposes the fatality inherent in maintaining the identity-securing boundaries that let the world be “known” through difference. At the end of “Being and Notness,” an account of Pierre Bergounioux’s La Casse, Leo proposes the unlikeliest of social possibilities: that the narrator’s father takes on a role “analogous to maternity” and thus “help[s] to forestall the projection of dangerous difference into the world beyond the family, and the consequent temptation to return to the ambiguous protection of the family as retreat.”[9] This vision of unthreatened being before the introduction of “dangerous difference” leads Leo to conclude as follows: “If against all probabilities this did come to pass, much time will have gone by and, I suppose, like Bergounioux’s narrator—except that in disappearing he will have escaped from a world in which matter resists being different from itself, and I will have missed a utopic reality—I will no longer be here.”[10]

Were we equal to the aesthetic adventure of his texts, were we capable of “moving backward” to a future where we ceased to resist our self-difference, then the utopic reality to which Leo refers—inconceivable except at a cost whose statement must move us to mourn our loss of the Leo capable of writing, as if impersonally, “I will no longer be here”—that utopic reality would require this equally inconceivable predicate to regain the “promiscuous mobility” of being that, for Leo, is the infans: our not being here too (F, p. 54).


Lee Edelman is Fletcher Professor of English Literature at Tufts University.


[1] As I’ve argued elsewhere, these terms misname my own work’s engagement with a fundamental antagonism that might lead it to be seen, more precisely, as non-reparative or non-redemptive. But that’s a topic for another occasion; see Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable (Durham, N.C., 2014), pp. xii–xiii.

[2] Leo Bersani, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (New York, 1986), p. 5; hereafter abbreviated  F.

[3] Bersani, “The Will to Know,” in “Is the Rectum a Grave?” and Other Essays (Chicago, 2010), p. 164; hereafter abbreviated “W.”

[4] Bersani and Adam Phillips, Intimacies (Chicago, 2008), pp. 122, 27, 117.

[5] Bersani, “Illegitimacy,” in Thoughts and Things (Chicago, 2015), p. 29.

[6] Leo Bersani and Phillips, Intimacies, p.123; my emphasis.

[7] Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity (London, 2004), pp. 6, 165; hereafter abbreviated FB.

[8] Bersani. Homos (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), p. 7.

[9] Leo Bersani, “Being and Notness,” in Thoughts and Things, p. 114.

[10] Ibid.

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Leo Bersani

Jacqueline Rose

I have been reading, rereading, and teaching the writings of Leo Bersani for a very long time but never with the intensity with which I have returned to his work over this last while. It has been my silent tribute and a way of insisting I have a connection—as much to the words on the page as to who he was—that will never die.

In fact the separation of the two—his words and his person—was always well-nigh impossible. First, because I can think of no one else who was so loyal to his theoretical and political principles in his lived life. I am not referring here to time spent at the gay baths, seized on by one commentator over this past month as the sign of “aesthetic frivolity,” relegating him to the world of light entertainment (he was never more deadly serious). Nor am I alluding to the way his loving relationships, full of care and kindness, managed to escape the most proprietorial of bourgeois, family norms. Rather what I am describing is the way his writing endlessly circles around the same limit—or off-limit—zone of human subjectivity where the ego shatters, to use one of his favorite words, and the coherence of selfhood is utterly undone. The more I have read, the more it has struck me that tracking this moment was, for Leo, a theoretical task which implicated him at the deepest level of his being. I would say that this task was at the core of his life, provided we add that death was no less in the frame. Living your life at its most sexually intense and psychically risky, I now hear him saying, is a way—the only way—to be able, or allow yourself, to die (to die one’s own death, which is the aim of all life according to Freud.) He was a visionary. To relinquish narcissism, to challenge the pseudo fortifications of a violent social order, means going beyond the edges of the knowable world.

Over the past couple of weeks, one moment from his writing has struck me with almost overwhelming force in this regard. It comes in the middle of his book on Caravaggio. Discussing St John the Baptist with a Ram (1602), Leo points to the provocative erotics of St. John’s look and his body, only to insist—through his unique form of meticulous attention—that the painting invites and forestalls that very seduction by means of the “multiple fanlike” structures of the image which implicate each limb and gesture in shapes and a space beyond itself, “opening out centrifugally, countering the centripetal pull of the youth’s gaze.”[1] Ventriloquising the boy, he writes: “Join me, although where I am is somewhere between two realms of being, between my physical, individuated existence and my being as a disseminated connectedness throughout the universe.” We are talking about a “metaphysical fantasy” that leads this figure into a world beyond the world (C, p. 82). And then, in an unexpected gesture only Leo could have got away with, he grounds that otherworldly nature in the painterly detail and precision of the boy’s face or, rather, in one particular detail, the “anomalous creases under his eyes”—anomalous because he is a still a boy and he is perfect—which he reads as the sign of the time it has taken him to reach these other forms of metaphysical belonging. It is 1998, and this is one of his coauthored books, but, whether this is my metaphysical fantasy or not, I believe these to be Leo’s words. As I was reading them, a scene resurfaced in my mind. It is sometime in the 1990s and Leo and I are sitting in a café in Paris talking about eyes and aging (eyes being the giveaway), whereupon he pointed at the intense creases under his own eyes, creases that no one could miss, which indeed spoke of his age but which also accentuated his not inconsiderable beauty.

So, I find myself asking, might not this be one of the rare moments in his writing where, with all due equivocation, he is talking about himself? Is he not laying out the price, and value, of the struggle to go beyond oneself into more expansive and generous forms of affinity? Already in 1998, I see him as anticipating, if not embracing, his death. These are the last lines of the chapter: “The creases under the eyes of Caravaggio’s youth are the anticipatory effect of the time it would take him to join his metaphysical being, a journey to which he must sacrifice his youth, and perhaps even his very life” (C, p. 83). I think Leo knew exactly what, in his writing and his life, he was asking of himself. Just as he knew that the casual encounter in the bath house, far from being glib or merely pleasurable, was freighted with death (the very point of his most infamous essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?”).[2] To put it another way, he was always on the journey that would end but that would also begin—while refusing any glimmer of denial or false comfort—with his own death. Or perhaps, this idea just helps me to think that he had always been preparing for the day he would head off into the far distance, leaving the rest of us grief-stricken on the shore.


Jacqueline Rose is professor of humanities at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities.


[1] Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Caravaggio’s Secrets (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), p. 81; hereafter abbreviated C.

[2] See Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?”: and Other Essays (Chicago, 2010).

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Leo Bersani (1931-2022)

On hearing of the death of Leo Bersani (1931-2022) we asked the University of Chicago Press to provide free access to the essays that he published in Critical Inquiry, which began with “‘The Culture of Redemption’: Marcel Proust and Melanie Klein” (1986). We are also hosting a small number of tributes to him.

We hope that these memorial tributes, along with ready access to Leo Bersani’s Critical Inquiry essays, will prompt our readers to revisit his work and renew their sense of his contributions to their understanding of the critical project.

TRIBUTES:

Jacqueline Rose’s “Leo Bersani”

Lee Edelman’s “Speechless: On Leo Bersani”

Joan Copjec’s “Leo Bersani”

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Time Redivided

Jacques Rancière

Part 1

“Time Redivided”: the title sounds enigmatic. And the enigma can hardly be cleared up by the image that I choose as a point of departure: it is a detail from Jean-Baptiste-SiméonChardin’s La Ratisseuse de navets (“the turnip scraper,” also known as The Kitchen Maid), first exhibited at the Salon of 1739 in Paris (fig. 1). It seems hard to find a relationship of any kind between turnips and time, less alone between the scraping of turnips and a mysterious operation of the redivision of time. I would like to show, however, not only that the relationship exists but that it illustrates a crucial knot between aesthetics and politics.

To conduct an orderly investigation, let us start from the very first relationship involved in our problem: the relationship between the scraping of turnips and the art of painting. This painting belongs to a series of genre scenes that Chardin made during the 1730s. The series includes a maid drawing water from a fountain, a cellar boy cleaning a jar (fig. 2), a scullery maid scouring a pan (fig. 3), a woman doing the laundry (fig. 4), and an embroiderer (fig. 5). This is a series of trivial scenes from domestic life. But the point is that triviality itself has its degrees. In the academic hierarchy of genres that ruled the world of art at that time, a genre scene that featured an action done by human beings was respected more than a representation of inanimate or lower beings, such as still lifes or pictures of plants and/or animals. This was the problem faced by the young Chardin; he had been admitted into the academy of arts as a painter of animals and flowers. As the story goes, a remark made by a friend made him realize that he risked being confined for his whole life in this low genre where he had serious rivals. That is why he set out to paint those genre scenes; he wanted to be taken more seriously as an artist.

Whether we believe the story or not, one thing is certain—the representation of the trivial activities of kitchen maids could upgrade a painter’s status. I would like to show that this link between high and low status is not merely a matter of an individual’s promotion. Instead, it is a turning point in the long historical process of destruction of the hierarchy of artistic genres that took place in the Western world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I assume that it is this destruction that created our idea of art and our idea of the relationship between art and politics. I also assume that time, its divisions and redivisions, play a major part in that process.

In order to understand the part that times plays in the relation between politics and aesthetics, we must question the two main interpretations of the link between artistic forms and social relationships: first, the sociological interpretation that is predicated on the content of those scenes; second the art-for-art’s-sake interpretation that claims, to the contrary, the insignificance of that content and the concentration of art on its own procedures.

The first interpretation emphasizes the signification of genre painting as a characteristic of the taste and ideals of the rising bourgeoisie in the age of the Enlightenment. In France, genre scenes, inspired by the Dutch and Flemish depictions of domestic life, had first popped up at the last Salon of the seventeenth century. During the first thirty years of the eighteenth century, Dutch and Flemish genre paintings depicting scenes from domestic life had been increasingly appreciated by French collectors and imitated by French painters despite the academic contempt for low subjects. Those scenes were pitted against the aristocratic ideals of grandeur. Such beauties appealed more particularly to the largely bourgeois audience of painters like Chardin. That audience, as is commonly held, associated the artistic truth of genre scenes with a simple, honest bourgeois mode of life, opposed to the lie of aristocratic grandeur. Chardin’s master and his closest friends were fans of Northern painting and may have encouraged him to imitate those scenes that had been popularized by engravings. Ellen Snoep-Reitsma argues that all of the scenes depicted by Chardin had their models in Dutch or Flemish painting: the scullery maid, she suggests, was inspired by Gottfried Schalken’s Old Woman Scouring a Pot (fig. 6), the embroiderer by Caspar Netcher’s Lace Maker (fig. 7), and even the turnip scraper had ancestors in works such as Nicolas Maes’s Woman Scraping Parsnips (fig. 8).[1] Chardin followed their lesson and depicted scenes destined to praise the “happy, salutary and virtuous life of sobriety and hard work.” The moral and social destination of these scenes was underscored by the captions of the engravings made after them for more modest patrons. For instance, Chardin’s friend Lépicié engraved The Turnip Scraper and accompanied it with the following caption: “When our ancestors plucked their vegetables from the hands of nature, that was a guarantee of their simplicity. The art of turning food into poison had not yet been invented.”

Admittedly, turnips evoke a simple and healthy way of life. But what about the servant who scrapes them? She is quite far from the concentration of her supposed model (fig. 9). Strangely, the turnip held in her left hand is hanging down along her right leg, as if it were about to fall onto the ground, while the knife held in her right hand is pointed in the opposite direction. A commentator has emphasized the relationship of this knife with the chopper and the red stain on the nearby block. I don’t think that the young maid is dreaming of butchering her masters. But one thing is certain; her eyes are focused neither on the vegetable nor on the knife. They look elsewhere (or nowhere?) and so do her thoughts. She seems to be lost in the contemplation of something the viewer will never know. This makes for a very strange illustration of an honest bourgeois life of hard work and even of the virtue of simplicity. Instead of the simplicity of bourgeois life, Chardin shows us the duplicity of domestic service. This duplicity is perceptible in the whole series; the eyes of the scullery maid or the cellar boy also look elsewhere, in perfect contrast to the Dutch models of attentive work. As for the embroiderer (fig. 10), her downward gaze may first seem to be intent on her work, but the ball hanging from her left hand quite in the same way as the turnip of the housemaid suggests that she has drifted off into sleep or reverie. And near the laundress, whose eyes look toward an invisible point outside (fig. 11), there is a young boy blowing soap bubbles (fig. 12).

This young boy leads us to another series and another interpretation of Chardin’s genre scenes. During the same period, he made another series of paintings exhibited at the same salons: the boy with the spinning top, the little girl with the racket and the shuttlecock (fig. 13), boys making houses of cards (fig. 14), the girl playing with knucklebones (or jacks) (fig.15), and the young man making soap bubbles (fig.16). All those figures pay to their playful activities the intense attention that is totally lacking in the serious activities of the servants. Their attention has been explored by Michael Fried in his famous theories of absorption. He argues that this attention questions the traditional interpretation of those pastimes as vanities, allegorizing the brevity of pleasure and the fragility of human life. Far from characterizing those activities as shallow pastimes, “Chardin appears,” he writes, “to have been struck by the depth of absorption which those activities tended naturally to elicit from those engaged in them.”[2] The figure’s obliviousness to everything but the operation he or she is intent upon performing distills, he says, “an unofficial morality according to which absorption emerges as good in and of itself, without regard to its occasion.”[3] That “unofficial morality “of the subject matter makes it an allegory of painting itself. The “obliviousness” of the players, absorbed in their game can be viewed as expressing the absorption of painting in itself. The painter does the same thing as his figures. He or she is only busy with his own affair. Painting does not deliver any message to the spectator. It does not even care for the spectator. Instead, the absorption of the figures in their game denies the very existence of a viewer. And so does painting, which is the antitheatrical art par excellence.

Chardin’s genre scenes then illustrate the so-called modernist theory of painting conceptualized by Clement Greenberg. But, to make his demonstration, Fried must ignore the other series of scenes exhibited at the same time. He must forget the distraction of the turnip scraper, the laundress, or the scullery maid. He must above all avoid asking the question: What kind of relationship can there be between that distraction and the attention of the builders of house cards? The absorption of the latter cannot be isolated from the very essence of play and from its social meaning: play is the activity that has its end in itself. As such, it is directly opposed to work, which is always the means for another end. That is why play had long been considered an aristocratic form of activity forbidden to those who cannot devote all their time to it. Plato already made the point about knucklebones in the Republic: “No one could become an expert player of backgammon or knucklebones who did not practice the game exclusively but played it only as a pastime.” This statement sounds like an exaggeration. But we must understand what this exaggeration means. Play is not simply an activity that demands much time if you want to become an expert. It is not a question of more or less time. It is a question of having or not having time.

Part 2

This is what is involved in the issue of the division of time. Time in fact has two dimensions. There is the horizontal dimension where time is a continuum that can be divided into longer or shorter moments. But there is also the vertical dimension, which is not a matter of short or long moments but a matter of separate occupations and forms of life, based on a quite simple division: there are those who have time and those who do not. In the hierarchical tradition, the first ones were called free men or active men: men who can either project before them the ends of action in the long term or enjoy this sort of inaction that is called leisure. The second ones were called passive or mechanical because they were confined to the realm of everyday necessity where they always performed the same activity—an activity that is only a means for an immediate end. For them time is not so much a matter of duration as it is a matter of location. They inhabit a specific time that is the time of the absence of time. Plato’s argument about the players of knucklebones or backgammon must be understood in its context. He used it in the Republic to bolster a previous statement about artisans: artisans can only be good at their craft if they practice it exclusively and stay all the time in their workshop because “work does not wait.” This is another exaggeration. It often happens that they do wait for it. But, again, the exaggeration shows us that the statement is not an empirical observation. It is a definition: being a worker means being an individual who has no time, an individual who must do always one and the same thing and nothing other. Of course, workers must make a pause sometimes to restore their workforce. But that pause on the horizontal dimension of time is still included in the vertical hierarchy separating those who have time from those who do not. Just as there are two opposite forms of activity, action and work, there are two opposite forms of inactivity, rest and leisure.

It is that hierarchical division that appears to be blurred, in opposite ways, by the attention of the young players or the distraction of the maids and the cellar boy. The attention of the first does not simply show absorption as “a good in itself without regard to its occasion.” It also shows that this “good in itself” can be shared by individuals who are not supposed to know of any “good in itself,” not supposed to ever act for the sole purpose of acting. Such are the young builder of houses of cards and the young girl playing with knucklebones who both wear the apron of the servants (figs. 14–15) or the young man blowing soap bubbles whose torn coat reveals a low condition (fig. 16). They play as a pastime, but they practice it with the intense engagement of those who have always done it exclusively. Their attention overturns the symbolic meaning of play: it was the activity that symbolized the separation between those who can act for the sole purpose of acting and those who cannot. It becomes the activity that erases that line of separation. This shift can be emblematized by the boy with the spinning top (fig. 17), the younger son of Chardin’s jeweler, dressed and combed like a little gentleman, who will later switch to the other side by becoming an art collector and collecting Chardin’s paintings. Rather than the self-containment of painting, the young players depicted by Chardin might point to the disruptive power of aesthetic experience, such as the one Schiller describes sixty years later in Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man.

 At the center of the aesthetic experience there is the power of the play drive that dismisses the hierarchical divisions between form and matter, intelligence and the sense or activity and passivity. Play is the activity that cancels the separation between those who live in the universe of ends and those who live in the universe of means because it cancels the very opposition between ends and means. For this reason, it is a wholly human capacity, which means two things: first, it is the capacity that expresses the human power at its best; second, it is a capacity that belongs to anyone at all. I remind you of Schiller’s words: “Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being and he is only a human being when he plays. This proposition, which at the moment may sound like a paradox . . . will, I promise you, prove capable of bearing the whole edifice of the art of the beautiful and of the still more difficult art of living.” The universal sharing of that capacity promises a new form of human community, where freedom and equality will be a sensible reality instead of being a political abstraction. Chardin was certainly not intent on revolutionizing either art or life. But his depictions of servants playing aristocratic games clearly convey different ideas and images of play and people than the Flemish representations of popular festivals and tavern scenes featuring bawling drunkards.

Now what about the distraction of the turnip scraper and her fellow servants? The first question is: How can we describe it? Most of the commentators tell us that they are “pausing from their work.” But this is not an accurate description. What we see is not the rest of a worker between two moments of activity. They are still at work. The servant still holds the turnip and the laundress’s hands are still soaping the clothes. The scullery maid and the cellar boy may look elsewhere or be immersed in an inner reverie, but their hands are still scouring the pan or cleaning the jar (figs. 18–19). Their hands are at work, but their eyes and their thoughts are not. This is the point: the activity of their eyes and their minds are dissociated from the work of their hands. This means that these seemingly innocuous characters are violating the rule of the platonic republic: they are doing two things at the same time. Even more, they show that anybody from the lower classes can do two things at the same time and do them without even disturbing the work process. They are not rebelling against their work. They don’t steal any moment of the time that they owe to their masters on the horizontal line. The pan is still being scoured, and we can presume that the vegetables will be ready for cooking on time. More seriously, more dangerously, they are subverting the hierarchy of human occupations by blurring the very line of separation between the time of mechanical work and the time of free activity. This blurring is best illustrated by The Laundress whose original title is Une petite femme s’occupant à savonner (a little woman busy with soaping clothes). The scene presents us with an eloquent distribution of four figures (fig. 20): behind the young woman who is doing the laundry while looking elsewhere there is another woman whose back is turned to us so that we see her doing just one thing—hanging the clothes. Near the laundress, there is the seated young boy in rags who is doing something else with the soap: blowing bubbles. On his left, there is a fourth figure: a cat, the symbol of lazy and voluptuous life. Let us start from the background and look at the distribution of the figures counterclockwise: the scene will then show us a whole cycle of transformations, which, at the end, will have turned work into just its contrary: mere laziness. Between the work sans phrase of the servant and the mere laziness of the cat, there are two intermediaries: the distracted work of the laundress and the play of the child. These two figures open a space in between that blurs the normal distribution of the occupations. I remind you of what is meant by that “normality”: an occupation is two things at once: it is a definite activity, and it is a way of experiencing time. In the platonic order, there is a strict coincidence between that activity and that experience. The trouble happens as soon as the smallest interstice opens between them. It is precisely the opening of that interstice that is represented in Chardin’s scenes. In a well-ordered society, workers are at their work, or they are not. They are good workers or lazy workers. But Chardin’s servants are not lazy. They are at their work. At the same time however they are not. It transpires as though the eye of the painter had perceived the emergence of new experiences of time—boredom, distraction, or reverie—that create a split that slightly distances the plebeian form of life from itself.

It might not seem like much. However, Chardin’s contemporaries vaguely felt that there was something disturbing with those eyes looking elsewhere. That anxiety might be the reason why they implemented a significant redistribution of the figures: they paired the cellar boy and the scullery maid. The first collector who bought them hung them side by side and so did the next collector (fig. 21). In that way, no gaze was lost in vagueness; the cellar boy looked at the scullery maid who looked back at him. That reciprocity anchored them in their identity. It annulled the twofold dissociation that threatened that identity: between the gesture of the hands and the direction of the eyes, between the activity of the workers and their experience of time.

Nevertheless, something had begun with those eyes lost in vagueness: a breach inside the hierarchy of times. In a way, the whole social movement in modern times may be seen as the deepening of that breach, its transformation into an effective redivision of time. The issue of time in relation to class conflict is well-known. But it has been mostly perceived, on the horizontal line, as a matter of quantity. Marx has commented at length on the efforts of capitalists to extend the time of work so as to extract still more and more surplus value and on the struggle of workers to limit the workday. It is not incidental that the biggest weapon used by workers against the capitalist appetite for unpaid work was the strike. The strike is not only an interruption of work on the horizontal line of time; it is the affirmation that work can wait or—which is the same—the affirmation that workers have time. This is the point: the quantitative struggle about the length of the workday is part of the assault against a more radical division of time: the vertical separation between those who have time and those who do not. The strike is the collective and spectacular refutation of that separation. But to affirm that you have time, you must already have acquired the perception and the feeling of that possession. You must already have started acting inside the workday—the time of those who have no time—as people who do have that time that they have not.

Part 3

In Proletarian Nights, I analyzed this process of redivision of time in the manuscripts left by a carpenter named Gauny. During the French Revolution in 1848, he published two articles in a workers’ newspaper: the first one describes the workday in a workshop, under the supervision of a boss or a foreman; the second describes the workday of a jobber, laying the floor of a rich house. As a matter of fact, that “description” is a redescription. At the heart of this redescription is the invention of a dramaturgy of time—the dramaturgy of a struggle against what is most unbearable in the condition of the worker, the simple fact of stolen time. The workday is not merely the fragment of the capitalist process of exploitation that can be divided into a time of reproduction of labor power and a time of production of surplus value. It is also the daily reproduction of the form of life and experience of those who do not have time. As such, it is a time when nothing is expected to happen, a continuum of moments all similar. That’s why the reconquest of stolen time is, first, a process of differentiation. Gauny’s narrative breaks the continuity—which means it breaks the identity of two times. The narrative transforms the succession of hours all similar to one another into a time broken by a multitude of events. Each hour becomes the scene of a singular event: a gesture of the hands that provokes a feeling of peace or revolt; a gaze that strays, causing thought to wander; a thought that arises unexpectedly and changes the rhythm of the body; a play of affects translated into a variety of gestures and contradictory sequences of thoughts. The success of a gesture can produce an irritation of the mind, which makes the worker better feel the injustice of its condition; conversely, a feeling of rage against that servitude may provoke an acceleration of his gestures, which makes him work more for the sole benefit of his boss. Those contradictory effects however are less important than the very process from which they originate: a process of dissociation that makes the gestures, looks, affects, and thoughts of the worker initiate a different way of inhabiting time, a different way of keeping a body and mind in motion, far from the homogeneity required by the servitude of the “work that does not wait.” It comes as no surprise that the core of that process is a dissociation between a hand and a gaze, which happens while he is laying the floor of a rich apartment. “Believing himself at home, he loves the arrangement of a room. . . . If the window opens out on a garden or commands a view of a picturesque horizon, he stops his arms a moment and glides in imagination toward the spacious view to enjoy it better than the possessors of the neighboring residences.”[4] The distraction of Chardin’s servants has become a conscious interruption of the worktime, a conscious redivision of time that creates, inside the very routine of exploited labor, the spiral of a process of emancipation. This redescription of the worktime must not be dissociated from the more radical redivision of time that allows the carpenter to write it; to do so, he must use the time of the night when workers are supposed to sleep and restore their forces. He must deny the most natural and the least escapable division of time, the one that separates day and night on the horizontal line and separates, by the same token, rest and leisure on the vertical one.

This is what emancipation means. Workers’ emancipation meant much more than the struggle of the workers against capitalist exploitation and for a better future. It meant a process of reconfiguration of a whole world of experience, the invention of a new way of inhabiting a common world. The core of this invention is the redivision of time. It is not incidental that the carpenter’s chronicles of the workday came out in 1848 during the French revolutionary spring, a few days before a great worker’s insurrection; it was also the time of an intense movement toward the creation of workers’ associations, which were thought of as the cells of a new world, a new workers’ republic. His “individual” chronicles show us in nucleo the elements of a collective reinvention of the time and space within which work can be perceived, thought, and lived. They show us that a social revolution first starts as an aesthetic revolution.

Let us be clear; an aesthetic revolution is not a revolution in artistic practice. It is a revolution in the coordinates of sensible experience that determine the distribution—and the hierarchy—of human “occupations.” The first coordinates that command that distribution are the divisions of time. Modest as it may seem, the reconstruction of the workday made by Gauny belongs to such an aesthetic revolution. It is not an artwork, nor is it an operation that can be expressed by the brush of a painter. The fact is that the artists committed to the cause of the proletariat usually depicted either their hard work and sufferings or their glorious struggles. (This is best illustrated by two images proposed by my English publisher for the cover of Proletarian Nights [fig. 22]. I was obliged to answer that both were totally off target. The fact is that no painter has represented the forms of reappropriation of time that are the subject of my book.)

Part 4

The expression of the redivision of time seems to be the privilege of the art of time; literature is the art of words that tell without showing. It seems that painting could just grasp the process at its very origin: in the enigma of those gazes that go astray from the work of the hands, without ever being able to tell us either what they are looking at or what thought is reflected in them. Painters were not encouraged to go deeper because the collapse of the hierarchy of genres allowed them to make high art by depicting baskets of fruit or vegetables with no need of maids peeling them. They left to literature the privilege of exploring and deepening the small breach that they had seized—an exploration of the states of boredom and reverie that reached its acme in the narration of another emblematic day: the dull day of the housewife Emma Bovary. But that exploration itself seems to have accompanied, only from afar, the collective reconquest of time initiated in the workday of the carpenter. It stayed, as it were, on the other side of the aesthetic revolution, where the expression of the new experiences of time is an end in itself instead of being a step in the invention of a new sense of humanity.

Two conditions seemed to be required to plug the gap between the forms of artistic exploration and the collective production of a new world. The first condition was an innovation inside the realm of art, namely the invention of a visual art of time. This is what happened with the art of the moving image called cinema. The second condition was the institution of a new form of community. This is what was proclaimed in 1917 by the Soviet Revolution. When the new art of cinema met the new communist world, the field seemed open for a full identification between the invention of new artistic procedures and the invention of the new world of free and equal workers. However, the meaning of this encounter must be clarified. Cinema is not only the art of movement that puts time into the images. It is also the art of “mechanical reproduction,” which abolishes the separation between the free ends of art and the utilitarian ends of technique. Communism, for its part, is not only the collectivization of the means of production and the state planning of the economy. It is the abolition of the separation between the time of the free human beings, devoted to action and leisure, and the time of the mechanical ones, devoted to work and rest. This abolition rests itself on a more radical one: the abolition of the very separation between ends and means. This is how communism was conceptualized by the young Marx: Communism is the state where work that is a manifestation of the generic essence of humankind is an end in itself instead of being only a means for the reproduction of individual existence. It is that aesthetic definition of communism that cinema could identify with its own task.

To do so, cinema had not only the privilege of movement; it also had a specific weapon, montage. Montage is much more than editing. Editing is a technique. Montage is the use of that technique to create a new sensorium. The principle of montage is a philosophical and political one: All activities—noble or vile, serious or playful—can be reduced to equal units of movement. Cinema is the art that carries out that equalization. It is the art of the new communist world because it makes the classical task of art—unity among diversity—identical to the task of communism: the collective construction of a sensible world where all activities are not only equal units of movement but also equal manifestations of a full humanity. Marx could only imagine, as a joke, a future world where the same individual could be hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, breeding in the evening, and doing critical philosophy after dinner. The communist filmmaker Dziga Vertov makes a film in which each moment of the day and each gesture are the expression of a time continuum that has absorbed all activities and made them all equivalent expressions of a free human capacity.

Such is the workday depicted by Man with a Movie Camera (1929)—a workday that I think is interesting to compare with Gauny’s. It is also composed of a multiplicity of little scenes. But Gauny’s scenes were scenes of dissociation, creating the spiral of a free time inside the very time of exploitation. Instead, the workday described by Vertov is a homogeneous time. The hierarchical division of time is supposed to have been abolished along with capitalist exploitation. As a result, the workday is no longer a succession of hours. It is a simultaneous time, a pure present when all gestures are similar manifestations of a unique collective movement. To show this, Vertov’s montage makes all those gestures get into each other at full speed so as to compose the unique sensorium of a new world where work is no more a constrained activity but the manifestation of the generic essence of a free humankind. Ends and means seem to have become identical and so do work and play. This is what is expressed by a significant episode featuring a woman manufacturing packets in a cigarette factory. However, this episode—evidence of an entirely homogeneous time—discretely reopens the breach (mov. 1)

Part 5

Here, the happy workers of the new communist factory are mostly female workers, as is illustrated by several other episodes (fig. 23). The most striking evidence of the new world is given by the figure of the emancipated woman, now released from the ancestral servitude of domestic life that left to housewives and maids the only escape of distraction and reverie. In the factory, women enjoy the pure experience of speed. So far, speed had been identified with intensified work and exploitation. Now it becomes just the contrary: the manifestation of a free and equal flow of time that has swallowed any differentiation and any constraint—we might be tempted to say a time of mere play. But the female worker is far from expressing the “absorption” required by play. Instead, she seems to pay no attention to the work of her hands, as if their product counted less than the rhythm of their movement. This indifference to the object is emphasized by the negligence with which she throws the packets over her shoulder while chatting with an invisible colleague. This lack of attention may be interpreted in two opposite ways. On the one hand, it shows us that, with the collectivization of work and the division of tasks, work has become so easy and the hands so expert that you do not even need to look at what you are doing. It is that easiness that is expressed by the negligence of her attitude, the smile on her face, and the jokes she seems to be exchanging with her colleagues. But it is not in that way that the communist apparatus wants the workers to express the happiness of communist work. For them this happiness must be expressed by a concentration of the whole body and the whole mind on the work of the hands. This is clearly not what the filmmaker shows us. The harmony between the work of the hands and the state of mind of the worker is expressed by just its opposite: a radical divorce; we never see in the same frame the hands of the female worker and her face (figs. 24–27).

You can say that this divorce is just the artifice of montage. The cameraman could have put the eyes and the hands in the same frame, as the painter did. But this objection would miss the point. A communist filmmaker is not a painter of genre scenes. In the communist world there are no longer genre scenes because there are no longer housewives or servants. Instead, there is the weaving of a new egalitarian sensorium. This process is a construction and must be represented as such. This is the principle of dialectics, and this is also the principle of montage: one divides into two. The artist must present the elements of the new communist work separately, so that the viewer makes the connection and takes part in the collective process. The focus must be put alternately on the technical gesture of the worker and on her blissful face to intensify the effect of each of them and the effect of their connection. It seems to be a good principle of efficiency. But this “efficiency” soon proves to hide a duplicity. The structure of the film is supposed to follow and intensify the perfect unity of the new form of life where the workers’ feelings and thoughts exactly fit the work of their hands. But that unity can only be expressed by means of a new dissociation. The active hands and the blissful faces stay side by side. The female worker of the communist factory is like the servant of the old bourgeois home: she is at her work and she is not, all at once. We could not know what the servants looked at nor what they had in mind. In the same way, we can’t know whether the smile of the female worker expresses the pleasure of her work or the pleasure of not having to care for it. The dialectical decomposition of the movement and its frantic rhythm are complicit with the way in which the emancipated female workers of the communist factory reaffirm the capacity of the servants of old times: the capacity of doing two things at the same time, of both being and not being at their work. That’s why the members of the communist apparatus felt the same disturbance as eighteenth-century art collectors: there was something wrong in the portrait of the woman at work. But that “something wrong” was of a new kind: it was produced by the modern art of time, the art of movement that purported to be entirely homogeneous with the movement of the new communist life. This is why those within the communist apparatus made a radical decision to dismiss the modernist duplicity that they stigmatize under the name of formalism. The communist apparatus asked filmmakers to give up their favorite activity—expressing the speedy rhythms of communist work—and instead make musical comedies in the Hollywood manner to entertain the workers after their workday. As for the task of representing the new communist life, they left it to the old representative art of painting: not the bourgeois genre of genre scenes, but the monarchical genre of history painting. By redistributing in that way the hierarchies of the arts, they also put an end to the aesthetic redivision of time that had been at the heart of workers’ emancipation.


Jacques Rancière is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Paris-VIII, St. Denis.


[1] Ella Snoep-Reitsma, “Chardin and the Bourgeois Ideals of His Time,” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch laarboek 24 (1973): 147–243.

[2] Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago, 1987), p. 47.

[3] Ibid., p. 51.

[4] Quoted in Jacques Rancière, Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France, trans. John Drury (New York, 2012), p. 81.

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Ocular Truth and the Irreparable [Veil]

Charles Bernstein

Charles Bernstein is the Donald T. Regan Professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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Monumental Fugitivity: The Aesthetics of #BlackLivesMatter Defacement

John Brooks

Defacement’s engine is the excessive, the disorderly, the disquieting, and any other sort of radical exclamation that troubles the state of things. It is not simply an act of destruction but rather a process of rupturing the surface of social normativity to create the conditions in which the public can confront that which it thinks it knows. This is to say that defacement is first and foremost a critique of Western epistemology, which is why it does not resolve into the kinds of meaning that the dominant culture considers to be intelligible or legitimate.

The disfigurement of the J. E. B. Stuart Monument in Richmond, Virginia, exemplifies defacement’s troubling affect. This monument, comprised of a fifteen-foot-tall bronze statue and a seven-and-a-half-foot granite pedestal, depicted Confederate General James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart in equestrian pose.[1]

Beginning on 29 May 2020, the J. E. B. Stuart Monument served as a rallying point for #BlackLivesMatter protesters, who climbed its plinth to display signs, chant, and listen to speakers. As a form of publicly staged defiance that cut into the normative surface of racial discourse, these demonstrations aimed to upend received ideas about race and rehearse new terms for Black life.

During the demonstrations, protesters pulled down the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the site and covered the monument in graffiti. The messages included “BLM” and “Black Lives Matter” but also antipolice slogans like “ACAB,” “Police are Creepy,” and “Fuck 12.” Amplifying these familiar political phrases were calls to action like “Justice 4 George Floyd” and “Stop White Supremacy” along with statements of grief like “We Lost a Life for Nothing.” In a country where “rules are rules,” “heritage not hate,” and “all lives matter” have become common refrains, these radical transformations of public space raise provocative questions about the function and value of disruptive social energy.

In this post, I use the term re-curation to delineate such acts of defacement. Conventionally, the curator develops the context in which objects can be encountered and understood. Yet, even when curatorial processes seem to impart their own meaning, the aesthetic value the curator creates serves the institutionalized knowledge of the museum. The re-curator is not bound by such parameters. Re-curation denotes an unsolicited, unapproved, and undesired adjustment to the context in which something is exhibited, one that challenges the authority of institutionalized knowledge in controlling how it should be encountered and understood. These kinds of unauthorized performance gestures share a fugitive relation to Western normativity because their very enactment challenges the status quo as the arbiter of aesthetic taste politics.

During the #BlackLivesMatter protests in the summer of 2020, defacers wholly re-curated the J. E. B. Stuart Monument. Originally, the statue had lionized Stuart as a hero with an inscription that emphasized, “He gave his life for his country and saved his city from capture.” These kinds of curated inscriptions serve the New South’s social order by bulwarking the “Lost Cause” nationalist ideology, which sought to vindicate the Confederacy while assuaging white anxieties during—and since—Reconstruction. Protesters re-curated the monument’s eulogy when they spray painted “BLM” and a bold graffiti label identifying Stuart as “RACIST.” The new label overturned the representation of Stuart’s valor and produced, in its stead, an image of a disfigured supremacist who appears inconsistent with the fictive heroes of the Lost Cause narrative.

As an act of re-curation, protesters also bent Stuart’s cavalry saber comically and masochistically backward, and splashed him with red paint reminiscent of blood. The blood-red paint draws attention to both the routine murders of enslaved Africans in the antebellum period and also the continuing racial violence that modern American policing routinizes in the present. It calls to mind the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s martyrs, including but not limited to George Floyd, which organizes revolutionary consciousness around a shared understanding of injustice.

Moreover, demonstrators symbolically lynched Stuart, inverting the conventional master-slave power structure. They draped two nooses around his neck and, on 22 June, pulled on them in an attempt to topple the statue. This action would have completed the death cycle that they had initiated the previous month, but they were unable to unseat the six-ton effigy before police broke up the crowd with teargas.

To consider defacement as an aesthetic act is to recognize these re-curations as creative responses to the racial contract that underwrites social normativity. By disputing the context in which Confederate statuary has been encountered and understood, re-curations also disturb mainstream perspectives about how monuments should be regarded (as neutral historical artifacts or heritage sites, for instance). As a re-curative practice, defacement transgresses the comfort of conceptual familiarity to render visible the everyday racism that the status quo preserves, as well as the public’s complicity with that racism. Defacers use a statue’s surface as material for generating new meaning and thus furnish a confrontation with society’s “public secret,” the term Michael Taussig uses to describe the truths a society is unwilling—or unable—to acknowledge because doing so threatens that society’s unmaking.[2]

Logical reasoning and objective judgment cannot be the end goal of defacement because society already knows its public secrets (even as it also knows not to know them). Instead of appealing to logos, defacement’s strategic violations aim to provoke affective responses—like shock and anger; or relief and pleasure—that might spark an embodied mode of critical inquiry in which spectators can negotiate the tension between society’s professed beliefs and its racial contract. If the body acts as a prism through which the world is experienced, meaning it and its sensations are constitutive of all that can be known, then this immediate sensory experience might be a more significant means for confronting the reach of the racial episteme than abstract rationalism alone.

Defacement’s critical momentum is apparent in the reactions that it provokes. When images of the re-curated J. E. B. Stuart Monument began circulating on Instagram, some users called demonstrators “Left wing thugs” and described their actions as “utterly disgusting” or “Terrible atrocious and criminal.” These attempts to construe protesters’ actions as evidence for the failure—or even absence—of moral reasoning spring of a certain nervousness over the forces that defacement unleashes. Such socio-moral appeals to the law reflect a desire for the stability of the racial order, both a commitment to social normativity and a preservation concern for the racial discourse that safeguards it. Like the paternalistic voice these Instagram users adopt to render defacement juvenile, accusations of criminality and incivility aim to preserve Western perspectives about moral reasoning, modern subjectivity, and respectability, all of which are predicated on the rationality of whiteness.

Other Instagram users accused protesters of vandalism. Some wrote, “Sad to see a debate, whatever it is, expressed in graffiti vandalism of public spaces” and “Sad they had to revert to vandalism and destruction of property.” Like defacement, vandalism describes acts that visibly mar an object. But, as Vernon L. Allen and David B. Greenberger have argued, for the vandalizer the destruction of property serves no purpose other than the pleasure of property’s destruction.[3] More significantly, vandalism’s preoccupation with property ownership and value implies a hierarchy of concern in the service of racial capitalism. Vandalism denotes “ruthless destruction or spoiling of anything beautiful or venerable,”[4] presuming an unequal differentiation of property-human value in which objects like Confederate monuments are worth more—or, at least, worthy of more protection—than the Black lives they disparage. The charge of vandalism (much like “rioters,” “looters,” or “thugs”) is racially coded language deployed to vilify communities of color while affirming the assumed civility of whiteness.

Reducing #BlackLivesMatter defacement to vandalism erases its disruptive social energy. For example, the demonstrations at the J. E. B. Stuart Monument effectively re-curated Richmond’s “white space”[5] by turning Monument Avenue into an impromptu skatepark. As a conscious, indexical act intended to support #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations, hundreds of skateboarders gathered at the statue under the hashtag #SkateInSolidarity on 31 May 2020. One of them could be seen waving a Rastafarian flag, which combines the conquering lion of Judah (a symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy from Haile Selassie’s reign) with green, gold, and red. The flag represents kingship, pride, and African sovereignty. It brings a visible sign of Black empowerment to the scene and disputes the de facto whiteness of the US nation-state.

Fugitivity is an essential feature of re-curation and the critical force that gives defacement its aesthetic value. When cultural arbiters authorize #BlackLivesMatter messages, their apparent “legitimacy” hollows out their impact. Consider the “Black Lives Matter Plaza” in Washington, D.C. Its thirty-five-foot-long street mural seems to echo protesters’ calls for inclusion, diversity, and equality, but because a spirit of white supremacy tacitly (and explicitly) underwrites the long tradition of liberal thought, the US Capitol’s advocacy amounts to empty mimicry of #BlackLivesMatter dissent. The mural cannot be interpreted as an unruly and irruptive refusal of Western civilization’s social norms or ethical values, but it might be perceived as a mode of performative appeasement intended to placate protesters while preserving the status quo.

In August 2020, after the defaced J. E. B. Stuart Monument had been removed, city officials commissioned pressure washing and repainting of the site where it previously stood. Undiscouraged, protesters returned to reenact their dissent. When Richmond whitewashed the plinth of the monumentwith a chalky, pale paint the week of 10 August, activists re-curated it with tags of “BLM,” “ACAB,” “Fuck 12,” and “Fuck the Confederacy.” This restoration/re-curation process continued over subsequent months. New messages included “You Can’t Stop the Movement” (20 August), “Marcus David Peters” (22 August), “Justice for Breonna!!! Black Lives Matter!!!” (24 September), “Fuck U Proud boys,” (3 October), “Fuck Trump” (5 October), and “ELECTION NIGHT BECOME UNGOVERNABLE” (8 October).[6]

As an ongoing return to the scene of subjection and a continuing rejection of white hegemony, the reenactment of defacement unfolds as a kind of “rehearsal” of Black liberation. Connected to a theoretical paradigm that I developed with Laura Partain,[7] this sense of rehearsal is double natured. It describes the coordination of a Black liberation ensemble in preparation for a liberated future, something akin to goal-oriented practicing or reciting; however, it also suggests that the processual reenactment of defacement is itself a creative process of liberation, rehearsal being coextensive with the performance that participants plan to produce. I mean that the anticipatory logic of the Black radical imagination infuses and inspires the reenactment of defacement and that this anticipatory logic both imagines new terms for Black life in the United States and, by insisting on agency in the face of subjugation, also creates the conditions in which those new terms can be realized. This is to say that defacement opens onto an experimental exercise of freedom in which radical acts of refusal signal the becoming of a critical Blackness.

The re-curation enacted at the former site of the J. E. B. Stuart Monument on 27 September 2020 shows how defacement rehearses new terms for Black life. On the plinth’s eastern face, a protester painted “Blackness is beauty, patience, love, grace. / We are ART. / I hope this disturbs you.”

The rear of the pedestal was tagged “Blackness is forced / strength / sorrow, pain, suffering.”

The smaller sides were similarly re-curated, one declaring “We Matter” and the other urging spectators to “look / listen / learn.”

This defacement enlivens critical Blackness as an aesthetic response to racialization in the West that expands, synthesizes, and comments on historically entrenched ideas about race. Such a reimagining of Blackness is significant not only because it constitutes an abrupt and turbulent refusal of reason but also because its actors, in the act of refusing, are claiming the authority to refuse, meaning they gain an antagonistic agency that argues with the Blackness-as-slaveness subjectivity posited by racial discourse. As an insurrection against the social codes and customs that aim to make Blackness culturally legible as slaveness, we might even read the defacement as an expression of ontogeny, a coming into being of a mode of consciousness that is distinct from that with which protesters had heretofore navigated the white space reconstituted by the J. E. B. Stuart Monument. Indeed, this defacement expresses what Blackness is—a vehicle for querying the West’s racial order—that is known only by its irruptive, rupturing power: “I hope this disturbs you.”


John Brooks is visiting assistant professor of English at Boston College. His research draws on performance studies and phenomenological inquiry to examine the role of abstraction in rendering discourses of race unintelligible. In his forthcoming book, The Racial Unfamiliar: Encountering Illegibility in Contemporary African American Literature and Culture (Columbia University Press, 2022), he argues that a group of twenty-first-century artists refute established racial discourse by disregarding and defying the conventions that govern Black aesthetic practices. His published research includes essays in PMLAAfrican American Review, and J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists.


[1] Stuart (6 February 1833 – 12 May 1864) was a slave owner and Confederate cavalry commander who died from a gunshot wound sustained during the Battle of Yellow Tavern.

[2] Michael T. Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (Stanford, Calif., 1999), p. 5.

[3] See Vernon L. Allen and David B. Greenberger, “An Aesthetic Theory of Vandalism,” Crime & Delinquency 24, no. 3 (1978): 309-21.

[4] Oxford English Dictionary, online ed., s.v. “Vandalism.”

[5] Elijah Anderson, “The White Space,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 1, no. 1 (2015): 10-21.

[6] And later, “Vote Racism Out” (21 October); a large red heart (October 24); spray-painted penises surrounding “Cops are Dicks,” “ACAB,” and “Fuck J. E. B” (30 November).

[7] See “preservation” in Laura Partain, “Dynamic Exchanges: A Mixed Method Analysis of Palestinians and Syrians in US News Media Cycles” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 2021), p. 258. 

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Notes on Late Eurocentrism

Achille Mbembe

Translated by Carolyn Shread

When considering the recent history of critical thought, two major events invite reflection today. First, Europe is no longer the center of gravity of the world. As I wrote in the introduction to Critique of Black Reason, this is “the fundamental experience of our era.”[1] This change does not mean that Europe no longer has any influence on the workings of the world, nor that we should now discount it. But Europe can no longer harbor the illusion that it alone has the power to dictate the course of the world. This is the case not only for the economy or for military and technological power; it is also true in the field of culture, arts, and ideas.

Second, there is a clear danger that in response to this historical downgrading, this eclipse, some people from the extreme right to the extreme left have been drawn either to nihilism or to ideological excess (or both), that is, by what I call late Eurocentrism, a Eurocentrism that is still more rancid and aggressive, even more deaf, blind, and vindictive than in the past. It is, indeed, a form of folly.

Chronologically, late Eurocentrism is the direct heritage of two earlier manifestations, each as reactionary as the other. Originally, there was primitive Eurocentrism, the type associated with imperial conquests, military occupation, and exploitation of colonial territories.[2] Then, from the 1950s, an anti-third-world Eurocentrism arose in opposition to anticolonial nationalisms. It reached its apogee in the 1970s in the critique of dependence and unequal development theories and the attempts to establish a more just international economic order.[3] All this occurred before the advent of neoliberalism, of which late Eurocentrism is, so to speak, the offshoot.

With the arrival of China on the world stage, the illusion of supremacy seemingly ran up against its ultimate limits.[4] The question now is to assess the full consequences of this situation: first it requires the creation of new paths for art and thought; second, bridges and byways must be built to facilitate encounters, so that together we can finally free ourselves of singular visions of history, and even more than that, the constant colonial temptation to hierarchize beings and objects.

What our present moment in fact demands is a welcoming of other ways of experiencing time and space. In the era of the combustion of the planet, as “radioactive contamination is constantly growing and expanding its reach across the planet beyond national borders,” we must invent other ways of inhabiting Earth, envisaging it as a true refuge not just for some, but for all—human and nonhuman.[5]

1.

In this context, how can we forget that in the Atlantic Basin from 1619 onward the greatest obstacle to the project of a common inhabiting of Earth was race?

Originally, race is an entirely fantastical reality. It has never existed as a natural fact. At the beginning of the modern period, perhaps for the first time, it was discovered that as a spectral reality, race offers an inexhaustible resource, that it is, a formidable technology of power. To achieve this effect, race must be constantly produced, manufactured and circulated. This historical process is what we call racializing.

Racializing refers to the conscious seizing and deployment of a set of techniques of power (legal, instrumental and representational techniques, social conventions, mores, customs and habits) in order to produce a reality (race) and to naturalize it as quickly as possible. To achieve this goal, its manufactured nature must be masked, precisely in order to represent the result as a natural fact, even though it is no such thing.

In the Atlantic Triangle, this production of reality according to the principle of partition, differentiation, separation and hierarchization has been operational since the seventeenth century.[6] Moreover, the long axis that ties Europe to Africa, Africa to the Americas, and the Americas to Europe in what is called the age of Enlightenment, culminated with the production of the Black Codes (Codes Noirs). Via these Black Codes, race—now a hypostatized fantastical category—lodged itself in many legal apparati, notably in colonial and enslavement regimes.[7] These regimes formed a space that was essentially outside of time in which, as a technique of power, racism (actually a historically datable power dynamic) now found within itself both the principle and end of its functioning.

In legal terms, the Black Codes transformed people of African descent into “Blacks,” that is, into an exploitable raw material, the matter of wealth. As the product of a power dynamic and a dominating relation, the raced person, the “Black,” was simultaneously an exchange value and a use value. This person had the value of personal property or a good. The person was related to the use of a thing. At the same time, the person was the creator of things and value. However, unlike the proletariat per se, neither their labor power nor the energy resource they offered nor the product of their labor are exchanged for a salary.[8]

This form of originary expropriation cannot be reduced objectively to the class alienation at the heart of orthodox Marxism. It certainly shares with wage earners the experience of an operation capturing time, energy and labor power but it is fundamentally different in that racial alienation is a form of native alienation that cannot be quantified and has no objective equivalent.[9] In conjunction with the capturing of bodies, energies, and even vital flows, there is an originary discrediting and shaming, a hereditary debasement and abjection that is transmitted from one generation to the next and that is therefore, by its very definition, insurmountable. This effect is what sociologist Orlando Patterson terms “social death.”[10]

2.

There is no shadow of a doubt that race and the principle of racial hierarchy were the preferred motors of colonial thinking.[11] The fact that as a result colonial thinking was one of the primary matrices of Eurocentrism has been demonstrated many times over. But let us not forget that colonial thinking does not comprise the entirety of European thought since throughout the centuries it also developed the terms of its own critique at its very core.

Colonial thinking should thus be understood as the set of techniques and sciences, myths, knowledge and skills that, from the fifteenth century onwards, made possible the destruction of the conditions of renewal of life on Earth. The deployment of this assemblage (myths, science, knowledge, skills) over the course of more than four centuries has, moreover, led to a profound destabilization in both many distant societies and natural processes in general.[12] In Afro-diasporic thought, the colonial gesture reflects the capturing of autonomous power and bodies, vital flows that are subdivided, expended, recoded (racialization) in an attempt to transform them into immediately manipulable, sellable and buyable energy.

One of the major characteristics of colonial thinking—and Eurocentrism—thus understood is the place granted to abstraction. Indeed, from the colonial point of view, knowing does not necessarily consist in a staying with things in themselves, let alone with Others. Knowing essentially amounts to shaping and quantifying relations at a distance—the relations of distance between units, each of which is grasped in isolation. These units are held separate from one another in what, in another context, Bartoli and Gosselin term “a relation of mutual distancing.”[13]

But this capacity to shape, codify, and institutionalize separation relations is not simply a mental affair. In many cases, it leads to the destruction of the conditions of sensible experience, an experience that, as we are realizing more and more today, is absolutely necessary for any ethic of cohabitation, whether it be the coexistence of humans or between species.

Alongside techniques and sciences, knowledge and skills, there were also, of course, infrastructures. Contrary to what orthodox Marxists believe, race was one of these. Who can deny the extent to which colonial racism was consubstantial with liberalism and racial violence necessary to the constitution of the global order?[14] Who can deny the role race has played in the dynamics of dispossession and exploitation on a global scale and in the mechanisms instituting power and society in Western societies?[15]

With the demise of the Eurocentrist illusion, the possibility thus arises for us to turn our backs once and for all on what Stuart Hall called “racial fundamentalism”—a phenomenon that has also served as a pillar for capitalism in as much as capitalism itself constantly leans on what are, in effect, racial subsidies to further its planetary expansion.[16]

In the current moment almost everything points, if not to a rupture, then at least to a renewed contestation of the sort of virulent, nativist Eurocentrism that adopts eradication as its goal and whose manifestations we witness in the regular attempts at stigmatization of thought that is supposedly non-native, both in France and elsewhere.

As the offshoot of neoliberalism in its authoritarian phase, late Eurocentrism is a deceitful ideology that claims to defend science, secularism, the Republic, Enlightenment, and universalism, even as it knows next to nothing about the universe, other worlds, and other histories. In fact, it seeks above all else to make everything that eludes it vanish from the surface of the Earth. What it is, in truth, is both a corrupt and nihilist response to European loss of social privilege. Clinging to a fictive past and ignoring traditions of dissidence within the European canon itself, it fools itself with a mortal melancholy while what the world actually needs now is new thinking about life.[17]

Where primitive Eurocentrism sought to establish European conquest and domination of the world, the late Eurocentrism of the twenty-first century seeks to justify the battening down of Europe on itself, its withdrawal from the world (askêsis) and its eclipse, calling for a extirpating violence against currents of thought that contest it and individuals who bear these ideas, starting with nonwhite women thinkers.

3.

Contrary to common assumptions, critique of Eurocentrism in its various forms is not new. The fact that it is appearing today under the guise of decolonial theories, postcolonial studies, or the critiques of race, gender, and intersectional approaches will be news only to those who, walled off in their local visions, willingly cut themselves off from voyages in planetary thought.

Despite what is frequently claimed, the critique of Eurocentrism never sought to replace class warfare with race warfare; rather, it has always sought to bring together race, class, and gender conflict. In afro-diasporic traditions in particular, the critique crystallized around several key concepts, notably abolition and decolonization, which have always been the subject of fierce debates among afro-centrists, afro-pessimists and afro-futurists.

It is safe to say that abolitionism not only preceded the Enlightenment but is precisely what guarantees its universality. So long as Enlightenment has not integrated abolitionism, it remains fundamentally tribal. This vast multinational and multiracial intellectual movement spanned three centuries. Prefiguring what we now call intersectionality, it brought together in a single knot both racial and gender issues (the race of classes and their gender), questions linked to the history of capitalism itself (the class of races and their gender) and concerns about universal justice (Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice. The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, Edited by Alfreda M. Duster, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970).[18]

Abolitionism experienced two significant moments. The first was the growing criticism of the slave trade and the enslavement system in the Americas from the sixteenth century onwards (Bartolomeo de las Casas). This movement reached its apogee among the Quakers and other Protestant dissidents and in revolutionary and anticolonial groups between 1770 and 1820.[19]

This abolitionist moment fostered the emergence of generations of Black intellectuals who, in the pathogenic context of today no doubt appear on the lists drawn up by the Observatoire du décolonialisme and regularly appear in publications—William Wells Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederik Douglass, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, William Hamilton, Martin Delany and others.[20] The Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804 was the high point of the antienslavement cause. The second abolitionist wave, demanding the immediate end of the enslavement system, took place from the 1820s to the time of the American civil war.[21]

While the concept of abolition is opposed on principle to all and any regime of capture and represents a radical demand for justice in the face of everything that endangers the conditions of renewal of life, anticolonialism is no less demanding. In fact, the anticolonialist movement extends the originary intuitions of the abolitionist movement. Anticolonialism seeks self-determination on principle, that is, it calls for the liberation of power, the power of those who are reduced to raw materials in the colonial paradigm.[22] Similarly to the abolitionist project, anticolonialism seeks to reinvent communal forms and support new phenomena.[23]

During the Négritude period, which coincided with the end of the war against fascism and Hitlerism, anticolonialism identified with the quest for a self-founding logos.[24] Today, far more than a cry of protest, decolonize has become an injunction, an unstoppable movement. Of course, this quest has always involved it its own ambiguities and contradictions.[25] Simultaneously an act of defiance, a coup, and a taking of power via the power to self-institute, the decolonial summons captivated as many minds in the North as in the Souths of the world.

4.

The injunction to decolonize would, however, be of limited interest if it did not lead to a truly radical cultural agenda, one such as the much regretted Édouard Glissant continued to propose up until recently. This agenda focused on the idea of Whole World.

The concept of Whole World has three distinctive features. First, it is committed to a total break with all forms of closing in on the self, whether in the form of a territorial, national, ethno-racial, or religious enclosure. Second, it is opposed to the sort of authoritarian universalism upon which the colonial enterprise is founded—a universalism based on conquest that sought to achieve its goals not through a multiplicity of bodies and beings but within a single body arbitrarily held as the one and only truly significant body. Thirdly, in the Whole-World conception, the drive to know is first and foremost an invitation to emerge from willing ignorance and discover our own limits. More than anything, it is about learning to be-born-with-others, that is, an uncompromising break up of all the mirrors expected to faithfully return an image of the self.

In Glissant’s thought, the world of Whole World twists and weaves itself in tangled relations between a multiplicity of centers. The greatest obstacle to its accession is an ignorance that is so self-unaware that it ultimately transforms into a pure nativism that tries to pass as both science and universalism.

The battle against this self-interested form of ignorance requires a departure from the self, a deliberate opening up the possibility of multiple passages and multiple crossings for only the trial of passage and crossing allows us to not talk constantly either about ourselves or about other worlds, in their place, as if they did not already exist for themselves. It is instead to look together and see, but each time starting from several worlds.

The same might be said, mutatis mutandis, of decolonization proper. To decolonize knowledge, arts, and thinking is to try to listen, look, and see reality starting from several worlds or centers at once; to read and interpret history from a multiplicity of archives.

A project of this sort urgently requires a fresh critique of difference and segregation. For without a resolute critique of difference what V.Y. Mudimbe called “the colonial library” that is the cornerstone of Eurocentrism will never be dismantled.[26] To decolonize is to learn to be born together (cobirth). Being born together is the only way to overcome the two-fold desire for abstraction and segregation that typifies colonial thinking—both the separation of humans amongst themselves and the separation of humans from other species, from nature and the multiple forces of life.

5.

Ultimately, the Eurocentrist illusion failed. From its ashes, in the North, South and East, we see emerging new ways of thinking, thinking that is truly planetary. This thought not only takes humans as its object but also earth, fire, air, water, and winds, in short, life itself.[27] These modes of thinking are all anticolonial by definition, if by colonial we mean the refusal to be “born together,” the determination to separate, put up walls, all sorts of walls and fortresses, transforming pathways into borders, identity into enclosure and freedom into private property.[28]

These anti-colonial and post-Eurocentric modes of thought highlight not essences or compact and homogenous blocks, but instead porosities. They do not depend on the flying buttresses of a nationalistic heritage. Where Eurocentrism habitually cut up time, space, and history into discrete parts, marked by supposedly irreducible and unassimilable differences, these ways of thinking deal in tangled skeins. In art, music, cinema, and other forms of writing, they seek to multiply byways and build bridges. While late Eurocentrism sees nothing but lines of occupation, bridges to cut, walls to raise, prisons to build, points of arrival never connected to points of departure, Whole-World thinking valorizes the fact that we are all traversed through and through by multiple genealogies, forged by sinuous, interconnected lines.

Today we are witnessing the take-off of these anticolonial and postEurocentric ways of thinking, and not just in the Souths of the world. They are blooming everywhere, including in the heart of Europe. But in the current withdrawal into often fantastical identities, in the era of conspiracy theories and the deliberate production of fakes and disharmony, their thriving and resonance among new generations give rise to anxiety, fear and panic, especially in the old centers of the world but not exclusively.[29]

This is the case because a new war with a quasi-religious appearance has taken hold of the world. Waged in all corners of the earth scale by the global alt-right against a selection of real and imaginary enemies (liberals, leftists, Marxists, activists for minority, immigration, queer, decolonial feminists, islamo-leftists), its goal is to overturn the very terms of reality along with its modes of appearance and revelation.

Studying the way in which this war is waged allows us to shine a harsh light on some of the great fantasies of our epoch.[30] The first is the fantasy of closure and its corollary, eradicating and extirpating violence. This desire for brutality, especially against those who have lost out, the weakest and most vulnerable amongst us, particularly those who were formerly subjected, feeds off of the rise in theologies of necrosis. It presents feeble fables that preach impossibility and incompatibility—impossible encounters, impossible sharing, in short, the impossibility of a multiplicity of worlds. Here there is a drive towards totalization everywhere.[31]

The second is the fantasy of extinction and replacement.[32] In this war of demonization and delegitimization, which combines fundamentally incompatible narratives, it is claimed that the white race is under siege, threatened with extinction, the victim of pernicious counter-racism.

The West and its “civilization” are presented as having all the features of a full and self-sufficient body, developed throughout the centuries from its own cloth. It owes a debt to no one, still less any reparation. Meanwhile, it is the recipient of serious internal threats from groups that are themselves inside, but that are ready to ally themselves with ungrateful and malevolent enemies.[33]  Hence the obligation to mount a massive self-defense.[34]

The necrosis theology used to justify this war distinguishes two antagonistic categories of human beings: the good and the bad, enemies and friends, the majority and the minority. Dualistic and Manichean, it excludes any possibility of common inhabiting on principle.[35]

The necrosis theology used to justify this war distinguishes two antagonistic categories of human beings: the good and the bad, enemies and friends, the majority and the minority. Dualistic and Manichean, it excludes any possibility of common inhabiting on principle (Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumbler to Trump and the Alt-Right, John Hunt Publishing, 2017).

Meanwhile, from every corner of the earth cries that cannot be stifled rise up constantly towards the heavens. The old problem of knowing how to think the singularity of other people, along with the irreducibility of their suffering, returns once again with acuity, even as the planet is caught up in a movement of accelerated combustion and the call for thinking that is not local or regional, but truly planetary, has never been heard so urgently.

6.

The elements of just such a planetary mode of thinking can be found in the archives of Whole World. Indeed, we should recall, there was a time when the critique of racial enslavement and colonialism, along with the denunciation of anti-Semitism, were established preconditions for the adoption of any position on universal battles for equality, justice ,and human emancipation.[36]

At that time it was a matter of proving that there were not two types of humanity; rather, spread all across the globe, it was thought that the innumerable mass of living beings converged towards a single humanity open to all the forces of life.[37] Far from referring solely to a relative, a compatriot, or a member of the clan, a fellow human being was, by definition, whoever had a human face, whether or not that face had the features of one’s own ethnic group, religion, or nationality.[38]

In the end, it was through revolts by enslaved peoples, such as the revolution in Haiti, the great abolitionist campaigns of the nineteenth century, and the anticolonial insurrections that categories such as freedom, alterity, universality, the right to self-determination “became flesh” for all, eventually acquiring a political and philosophical density, reaffirming the reality of our common participation in humanity. The hope was that through this “community of participation” the human adventure on Earth would eventually find its meaning. Each face taken in its singularity would finally be protected from inhumanity, and the suffering of those who made up the majority of humankind would finally come to an end.[39]

7.

In our time it is clear that ultra-nationalism as a social force and cultural sensibility, along with ideologies of racial supremacy, are experiencing a global renaissance. This renewal is accompanied by the rise of a hard, xenophobic, and openly racist extreme right, which is in power in many Western democratic institutions and whose influence can be felt even within the various strata of the techno-structure itself. In an environment marked by the segregation of memories and their privatization, as well as by discourses on incommensurability and the incomparable nature of suffering, the strictly ethical concept of the fellow human being as another self no longer holds.

The idea of an essential human resemblance has been replaced by the notion of difference, taken as both anathema and prohibition. As a result, it has become extremely difficult to determine the way in which each of the innumerable sites of defeat and dispossession, the trauma and abandon that modern history has bequeathed us, bear the face of the whole of humanity, torn asunder in every instance. Concepts such as the human, the human race, humankind, or humanity barely mean anything at all even if contemporary pandemics and the consequences of the ongoing combustion of the planet keep imbuing them with weight and significance.

In the West, but also in other parts of the world, we are witnessing the rise of new forms of racism that might be described as paroxysms. The nature of paroxysmal racism is that, in a metabolic manner, it can infiltrate the functioning of power, technology, culture, language, and even the air we breathe. The dual turn of racism towards a techno-algorithmic and eco-atmospheric variety is making it an increasingly lethal weapon, a virus.

This form of racism is termed viral because it goes hand in hand with the exacerbation of fears, including and especially the fear of extinction, which appears to have become one of the driving engines of white supremacy in the world. However, the virulence of contemporary racism is equaled only by its denial. Late Eurocentrism is a malignant form of this denial.

In a spectacular reversal, anti-racist efforts are held responsible for the rise in racism. The most invidious historical crimes in the heart of Europe by Europe are now blamed on others, starting with the descendants of the victims of European imperialism. Such is the case with anti-Semitism. At the same time, with the help of the escalation of technology and the crisis of neoliberalism, the illiberal turn of liberal democracies is hardening.

Perhaps the time will come when the regeneration of the forces of life so necessary to our survival on the plant will come from the global North. While we wait, a good part of Europe continues to wall itself up behind the darkest of ramparts. There is absolutely nothing to concede to this part of Europe, or to late Eurocentrism.

[This text was read virtually at the Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac Museum on the occasion of the “September Summit” organized in Paris during Saison Africa 2020.


Achille Mbembe is the author of Brutalisme (Paris, 2020). He is the cofounder with Felwine Sarr of Ateliers de la pensée in Dakar.


[After translating “The Universal Right to Breathe” as the world went into lockdown in 2020, I return here to Achille Mbembe’s thought as some places seemingly emerge from the pandemic – thereby revealing local and global disparities all the more forcefully. Has the virus changed us? Perhaps not, for while this was translated over the first federally recognized Juneteenth holiday in the United States, this translation also coincides with a doomed voting rights bill. These Notes offer the clarity and uncompromising historical account upon which the only possible futures for all can be built. Taking Celia Britton’s translation of Édouard Glissant’s Traité du Tout-Monde (Treatise on the Whole World, 2020), I called that world, rather than One or All, Whole World in English. Mbembe’s reflections on the centuries long effects of the fabrication of race via processes of racialization, pointed the way when it came to the “Nègre” of the Codes noirs: it is enough to refer to “Black” rather than any more offensive racial term. Late eurocentrism is a potent conceptual tool for showing the way forward, understanding the place for steely refusal of the newly emerging mechanisms of hate. I hope that my contribution to the linguistic crossings and encounters we need for planetary healing will offer a tiny reparation amidst all the work we have ahead to make our world whole—Carolyn Shread, translator]


[1] Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason (2017).

[2] See Edward Said, Orientalism (New York, 1978), and Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity. Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham, N.C., 2011)

[3] See André Gunder Frank, “Le développement du sous-développement”, Cahiers Vilfredo Pareto 6, nos. 16–17 (1968), and Samir Amin, L’accumulation à l’échelle mondiale (Paris, 1970). See also Samir Amin, L’eurocentrisme. Critique d’une idéologie (Paris, 1988), and Immanuel Wallerstein, “Eurocentrism and its Avatars: The Dilemmas of Social Science,”Sociological Bulletin, 1 Mar. 1997.

[4] See Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing. Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (New York, 2007).

[5] Sabu Kohso, Radiations et révolution. Capitalisme apocalyptique et luttes pour la vie au Japon (Paris, 2021). See also Kohso, “Radiation, Pandemic, Insurrection”, The New Inquiry, 14 Dec. 2020.

[6] See Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619–1877 (New York, 1993), and Thomas D. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619–1860 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996).

[7] See Phillip J. Schwarz, Twice Condemned. Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705–1865 (Union, N.J., 1998), and Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols. Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge, Mass., 2001).

[8] See W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America. An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (New York, 1935).

[9] See Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism. The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1983).

[10] See Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death. A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1982).

[11] In the French context, see Elsa Dorlin, La matrice de la race. Généalogie sexuelle et coloniale de la nation française (Paris, 2006).

[12] See David Bartoli and Sophie Gosselin, Le toucher du monde. Techniques du naturer (Paris, 2020), p. 15.

[13] Ibid.

[14] See Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire. A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago, 1999), and Duncan Bell, Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire (Princeton, N.J., 2016).

[15] See Stuart Hall, Selected Writings on Race and Difference (Durham, N.C, 2021), and Simon Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton, N.J., 2011).

[16] On these debates and critiques, see Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Cambridge, Mass., 2016); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York, 2014); Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, Mass,, 2016); and Trevor Burnard and Giorgio Riello, “Slavery and the New History of Capitalism,” Journal of Global History 15, no. 2 (2020).

[17] See Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York, 2004).

[18] See Bronwen Everill, Not Made by Slaves. Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition (Cambridge, Mass., 2020). See also

[19] See Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Charlottesville, N.C., 1996).

[20] See Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause. A History of Abolition (New Haven, Conn., 2008).

[21] See Black Soldiers in Blue. African-American Troops in the Civil War Era, ed. John David Smith(Charlottesville, N.C.,2004).

[22] See Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton, N.J., 2019).

[23] See Aric Putnam, The Insistent Call. Rhetorical Moments in Black Anticolonialism, 1929–1927 (Amherst, Mass., 2012); Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (New York, 2015); and Chad L. Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African-American Soldiers in World War I Era (Charlottesville, N.C., 2010).

[24] See Donna V. Jones, The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy. Négritude, Vitalism, and Modernity (New York, 2011).

[25] See Mbembe, Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization (New York, 2021) and “Thoughts on the Planetary: An Interview with Achille Mbembe,” 5 Sept. 2019.

[26] V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa (Bloomington, Ind., 1998).

[27] See Édouard Glissant, La terre, le feu, l’eau et les vents: Une anthologie de la poésie du Tout-Monde (Paris, 2010).

[28] See Tim Ingold, Une brève histoire des lignes (Paris, 2013).

[29] See Arjun Appadurai, “Fear of Small Disciplines: India’s Battle against Creative Thought”, Postcolonial Studies (2021).

[30]  See Nick Land, The Dark Enlightenment, and Olivia Goldhill, “The Neo-Fascist Philosophy that Underpins Both the Alt-Right and Silicon Valley Technophiles”, Science Reporter, 18 June 2017.

[31] See Scott F. Alkin, “Deep Disagreement, the Dark Enlightenment, and the Rhetoric of the Red Pill,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 36, no 3 (2018).

[32] See Chetan Bhatt, “White Extinction: Metaphysical Elements of Contemporary Western Fascism,” Theory, Culture and Society, 23 June 2020.

[33] See Ilan E. Strauss, “The Dark Reality of Betting Against QAnon,” The Atlantic, 1 Jan. 2021; Clive Thompson, “QAnon Is Like a Game—A  Most Dangerous Game,” Wired, 22 Sept. 2020; and David Goldberg, “On Civil War,” Critical Times, 9 Sept. 2020.

[34] See Roger Burrows, “On Neoreaction,” The Sociological Review, 28 Mar. 2019, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy. The God That Failed: The Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy, and Natural Order (2001).

[35] See Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumbler to Trump and the Alt-Right (2017).

[36] See Manu Goswami, “Imaginary Futures and Colonial Internationalisms,” The American Historical Review 117, no. 5 (2012): 1461–85.

[37] See  Helen Tilley, “Racial Science, Geopolitics, and Empires,” Isis 105 (2014): 773–81.

[38] See Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis. Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (New York, 2015).

[39] See Simone Weil, Écrits historiques et politiques (Paris, 1960), pp. 331–78.

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The Fragility of Democracy: Now Everywhere and Anywhere

Homi Bhabha

During the presidential election, Joe Biden made frequent references to the fragility of democracy. In his inaugural address, Biden returned to the subject. In the days between these repeated warnings of the perilous state of democracy, all Americans, and much of the rest of the world, witnessed the pageantry of the vandalism of the US Capitol on 6 January. Is the fragility of democracy any different from our ongoing apprehensions about the fate of democracy or the future of democracy? Does the phrase “the fragility of democracy” strike a different note of alarm?

I believe it does. The value of words lies in using them cautiously and reading them carefully. Phrases like the “future of democracy” anticipate the next chapter of the democratic experiment, however dark and difficult it may be. It may not be business as usual, but there is little doubt that our view of democracy is still in business. “The fragility of democracy” expresses the anxiety that, for the present moment at least, democracy, as a political idea and a repertoire of normative practices may not only be losing ground but losing the plot altogether. Well into February, three quarters of Republican voters still believed the lie that the election was stolen.

This has, of course, happened before, but each time it happens we have to rethink it in the moment by holding on to the shock of its iteration and interruption, rather than relegating the short moment to the long-known lessons of history.

There are moments in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life where Friedrich Nietzsche suggests something similar. Our reverence for monumental history and its longue durée, he argues, might prevent us from taking our place on “threshold of the moment,” standing on a single “point,” and hence recovering a necessary feeling of strangeness and “astonish[ment]” in confronting and conceptualizing the history of the present.[1] Without occupying the temporal threshold of strangeness and astonishment, contemporary history is in danger of becoming presentist, while monumental history is vulnerable to celebrating the archaic and the anticipated.

On 6 January, the Make America Great Again mob mounted an assault on electoral rights and democratic institutions in the name of “all Americans”—threatening to hang the vice-president in the process. They were responding, as the case for Donald Trump’s impeachment made plain, to a carefully crafted call to arms: “we fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Trump beat the war-drums to egg his followers on to fight the courts with frivolous petitions, to fight the constitution with fraudulent actions, to fight the election with insurrection.

The story doesn’t end there. Trump’s 6 January speech contains a dark racial conceit that suggests that America is now in danger of sinking to the status of a “third world country”—those nations that he had once called “shit-hole” countries: “It’s a disgrace. There’s never been anything like that.” Trump hollers: “You could take third-world countries. Just take a look. Take third-world countries. Their elections are more honest than what we’ve been going through in this country. It’s a disgrace. It’s a disgrace.” After ranting against his bêtes noires—Biden, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton—Trump turns on those Black Americans, faux Americans to a person, as he sees it, who are most responsible for America’s impending “Third World” doom: “And then I had to beat Stacey Abrams with this guy, Brian Kemp. I had to beat Stacey Abrams. And I had to beat Oprah, used to be a friend of mine. . . . And I had a campaign against Michelle Obama and Barack Hussein Obama.”

The devil lurks in the details. You can almost hear Trump’s disdain: Are Black Americans really American citizens at all, or are they more like Third World peoples? Does Barack Hussein . . . Hussein . . .Hussein . . .even sound American to you? Trump never tires of asking. As I watched the insurrection in real time, the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer were never far from my mind. Why? Because the MAGA mob had chosen as their totemic symbol—their monument—the lynching gallows. The gallows and the Confederate flag were the standards they raised against the election result; it was the gallows and the confederacy that they associated with Trump’s restoration.

While the attention of the world was focused on the violent break-in at the Capitol, it was the gallows with its twisted, hanging noose, and its dire history of racial death, that caught my eye. “Hang them” and “Stop the Steal” were meant for Senate Democrats and Republican “Never Trumpers”; but the dire reality of American racial death haunted the MAGA monument of gallows and noose.

Black death by lynching or police chokeholds or shots in the back; and Native American death by genocide and territorial dispossession. Trump protesters mockingly appropriated “I can’t breathe”—Floyd’s dying words—to express their discomfort at being teargassed as they broke into the Capitol. In a tableau macabre, two MAGA members enacted Floyd’s death beneath a Black Lives Matter banner displayed at the National City Christian Church in D.C. before participating in the storming of the Capitol. “The racism structured into every aspect of the coup attempt is a call to heed our own history,” Timothy Snyder writes in The American Abyss, his remarkable account of that January day.

The United States of America is by no means the only country vulnerable to the fragility of democracy. The insurrection at the Capitol signals the fragility of democracy in other ethnonationalist regimes across the world—most recently in Myanmar and repeatedly in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, Israel, and Brazil. There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all model for authoritarian regimes, but what they share are tyrannical leaders whose principal line of attack is an assault on minorities, migrants, and dissidents—a world of enemies. These leaders, populist narcissists to a man, share a political ideology that Hannah Arendt once described as “tribal nationalism”:

Tribal nationalism is introverted, concentrates on the individual’s own soul which is considered as the embodiment of general national qualities. . . . Tribalism . . . starts from non-existent pseudo-mystical elements which it proposes to realize fully in the future. It can be easily recognized by the tremendous arrogance, inherent in its self-concentration, which dares to measure a people, its past and present, by the yardstick of exalted inner qualities and inevitably rejects its visible existence, tradition, institutions, and culture.

Politically speaking, tribal nationalism always insists that its own people is surrounded by “a world of enemies,” “one against all,” that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man.[2]

While the world’s press was counting Trump’s lies—30,573 “misleading claims” in four years, The Washington Post reports—Trump’s rhetoric of untruth was loudly and restlessly doing its work. The untruths uttered by tribal nationalists—to whom majoritarian ethnonationalists bear a striking family likeness—have no real epistemic stakes in making a political argument; their ambitions are more performative than epistemic. To describe a public discourse as generating untruth or post-truth (Snyder’s term) does not mean that you affirm, in contrast to it, an absolute or universal realm of the truth. To shortcut this complex argument, let me resort to a common phrase—“to arrive at the truth”—that catches something of what I mean. To arrive at the truth is to acknowledge the long and hard journey of judgment: map reading; consulting a GPS, making decisions en route, starting the journey all over again. To arrive at the truth is as much duration as destination: a process of arguing, reflecting and judging on the grounds of evidence, facts, interpretations, and interventions. Self-doubt and epistemic uncertainty are essential parts of the process. Arriving at the truth is to subscribe to the verifiability of a framework of facts and values that commits you to making up your mind and to standing your ground. This is as true of the judicial process as it is of philological procedures and psychoanalytic practices. Untruth resists this difficult journey; its unverified end point exclusively serves its own interests; it rushes to allege and accuse because it refuses the duration that it takes to arrive at the truth.

To accuse tribal nationalists of not telling the truth is to miss the point that their arrogant self-concentration is only committed to selling themselves. Their public images and political brands are constructed to transgress party systems and transcend national interests. This, I think, is what Arendt means when she considers tribal nationalist leaders to be “introverted,” elevating themselves as “embodiments of general national qualities” at the cost of the multiethnic, interfaith traditions of a people’s “visible existence, tradition, institutions, and culture.”

Leaders who resist press conferences, who demand lofty platforms to rally the people as massed bodies, seek to turn citizens into sycophants and the people into partisan mobs. These leaders are arbiters of power who thrive on the arbitrariness of governance to keep citizens and residents in states of anxiety and unpreparedness in times of emergency. The Chinese government concealed the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan for weeks, leaving vulnerable inhabitants exposed to the virus, unprepared for the pandemic. The Indian government gave migrant workers and wage laborers four hours between 8 p.m. and midnight on 24 March to de-densify cities and head to their hometowns and villages to be locked down without any provision of food, money, or transport. Ethnonationalist rhetoric, in its rabble-rousing recruiting mode, is based on “non-existent pseudo-mystical elements”: COVID-19 will disappear like a miracle in April, Trump prophesied; Light a lamp for nine minutes on 5 April to ward off the pandemic, India’s Prime Minister Modi advised, and join in Vedic prayer: “Lead us from unreal to real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.” Death, be not proud, just be untruthful, is the tribalist leaders’ adage.

When truths and facts are pitted against untruths and conspiracies, populist leaders and their followers brazen it out. Untruth disregards evidence, science, deliberation, and due process, because the tribalist promise to its own unique people—one against all—is the achievement of a racially pure and culturally homogenous nation in the future. Populist power, articulated in the language of untruth, wagers the perils of the present against a promised, yet provisional, future. There is always a political and psychic risk involved in such a promissory bet on an uncertain future—like Trump’s loss in the 2020 election— so the anxiety associated with future risk requires a blind belief in untruths uttered in the present moment. Time is as much an instrument of the tyranny of tribalism as it is the political manipulation of place and people. When the promise of the present doesn’t come to pass, then all hell breaks loose, and the intimidatory maneuvers of the police force assume a directly political role. In some countries the army is called in at this point and democracy dies. In others, the violence of electoral autocracy makes its symbolic presence felt in the hanging gallows and the swinging noose.

Make America great again; make India Hindu again; take back control and make Britain a sovereign nation again—it is the futurity of the again and the yet to come that drives tyrannical leaders to take risks with inflationary cycles of untruth and that put the lives and livelihoods of their followers at risk—over 315 members of the MAGA Capitol mob are facing criminal charges to date; over 500,000 Americans have died of the little flu that Trump insisted would not, and should not, change the way we live. This is to say nothing of the everyday risks faced by ethnic minorities, whom White supremacists see as a “world of enemies.” The January riot does not reveal the sudden fragility of American democracy; it is symptomatic of structural failures within American democracy. This is the American nightmare from which the American dream never fully wakes.

The shadow of death does not enter the corridors of power uninvited. When a political system hinders the people’s right to speak truth to power by alleging that dissent is sedition and protest is antinational—and that peaceful demonstrators are antipatriotic anarchists—then dogmatism and demagoguery destroy the checks and balances of representative democracy. The silencing of public voices and the devaluing of public reason open the door to untruths and conspiracy theories. Snyder puts his finger on the dangers of “pre-fascism” that lurks within ethnonationalist “tribal” democracies: In Snyder’s view:

Post-truth is pre-fascism. . . . A joint statement Ted Cruz issued about the senators’ challenge to the vote nicely captured the post-truth aspect of the whole: It never alleged that there was fraud, only that there were allegations of fraud. Allegations of allegations, allegations all the way.

Allegations of allegations, allegations all the way. . . . Allegations define the lifeworlds of minorities mauled by indignity, inequality, and psychic injury. Allegations attached to skin color and race; allegations exploiting inequalities of caste and class; allegations against religious and political affiliations; allegations related to the embodiments of gender and sexuality. The content of conspiracist allegations may seem outrageously out of touch with negotiated realities, but conspiracists, amongst whom I include racists, set their clocks by these “facts”; they read the weather by these facts; they interpret causes and consequences in the light of these facts. To oppose conspiracy theory with the ballast of reason serves only as a foil for its own game of denial and victimhood, which is wired into the repetitive logic of allegation, allegations, allegations all the way. The content of allegations of allegations may seem outrageously untruthful but, as the poet Claudia Rankine writes, these “fantasies cost lives” as the American record of recent police killing of Black people attests:[3]

From Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, 2014), p. 134.

Systemic racism leans heavily on legal justice and policy reform, but the phenomenology of everyday traumatic racism—violent, iterative, interruptive, erratic—plays out on streets and neighborhoods: the quick stab of hate speech; the precarious moments of “stop and search”; the eight minutes and forty-six seconds it takes to kill George Floyd on the side of a public throughfare in Minnesota. These risky moments in which life and death hang by a thread—these risks to minority living that end up as a risk to minority life itself—find their voice in the haunting evocations of Rankine’s call to poetic justice. Because white policemen, protected by the legal doctrine of qualified immunity, cannot police their imaginations, Black people are dying. Black Lives do not Matter. This is a condition we might conceptualize as the burdened life, not Giorgio Agamben’s bare life.

Short measures of traumatic time, as the lyric form demonstrates, have an intense and encrypted existence. Institutional incidents of systemic racism are recorded in linear or evolutionary narratives of the progress of policy or the failure of political will—or vice versa. The risky uncertainty of traumatic racism takes a different form of time and place, which was perfectly captured by W. E. B. Du Bois over a century ago: “Now seldom, now, sudden; now after a week, now in a chain of awful minutes; not everywhere, but anywhere—in Boston, in Atlanta. That’s the hell of it.”[4]

Rankine’s poetic enactment of a Black encounter with the police is narrated in the temporality of the traumatic “chain of awful minutes; not everywhere, but anywhere—in Boston, in Atlanta.” It happens in that brief, sudden moment of stop-and-frisk, before the police statement is written, before the union intervenes and the judge accepts the plea of reasonable doubt. Generations of cases filed against police officers accused of unlawful killings of Black men and women fail because of the legal provision of qualified immunity,  which inevitably determines the “truth” in favor of the police. Qualified immunity, granted by the courts and protected by police unions, has led to a situation that Noah Feldman makes no bones about: “The Supreme Court wants few lawsuits against the police to go forward”:[5]

A force within whiteness is forcing the whiteness

What is the feeling that pulls, that is pulling, that pulls it out, what sensation uncivilized the utterance. . .

Then the black person is asked to leave to vacate to prove to validate to authorize to legalize their right to be in the air in air in here and then the police help help the police is called help help

. . .

“NYPD Union Lawyers Argue That Eric Garner Would Have died Because He Was Obese,” New York magazine. . . . “Were he not overweight and asthmatic, they argue, he would have survived the violence to which he was subjected.”[6]

Post-truth kills: Allegations of allegations, allegations all the way.

Traumatic racism keeps you anxious and uncertain, but it also keeps you vigilant in the cause of freedom and the witness of justice. James Baldwin knew this only too well, which is why his life and work were built around psychic and social risk. This is how he saw it:

[If] we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements and transform them. The price of this transformation is the unconditional freedom of the Negro; it’s not too much to say that he … must now be embraced, and at no matter what psychic or social risk. He is the key figure in this country, and the American future is precisely as bright or dark as his. And the Negro recognizes this, in a negative way. Hence the question: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?[7]

James Baldwin’s ethic of psychic and social risk is a mode of repair and reparation across races and ethnicities; it is picked up as much on the suddenness of the street as from narratives of literature and history. Whatever the psychic or social risk, White Americans must pay the price of giving Blacks unconditional freedom, now anywhere and everywhere, today in Boston, tomorrow in Atlanta, for that’s the price of the ticket. And Black Americans, as Baldwin says, must take the psychic and political risk of learning how to use the past, not drown in it—”to accept the fact . . . that the Negro has been formed by this nation, for better or for worse, and does not belong to any other.”[8]


Homi K. Bhabha is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the English and Comparative Literature Departments at Harvard University.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis, 1980), pp. 9, 8.

[2]Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, 1976), p. 227.

[3] Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation (Minneapolis, 2020), p. 329.

[4] W. E. B. Du Bois, “On Being Black,” The New Republic, newrepublic.com/article/130290/black

[5] Joanna C. Schwartz, Yale Law Journal 127, no. 2 (2017): 6.

[6] Rankine, Just Us.

[7]James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York, 1993), p. 94.

[8] Ibid., p. 81.

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The Revolution Was Televised

W. J. T. Mitchell

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials, because
The revolution will not be televised.

–Gil Scott-Heron (1971)

The Trump-inspired insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 was a made for television event. In contrast to the revolution that Gil Scott-Heron was urging in 1971, it did not involve a change of heart or mind, much less a change of behavior. Showing up for a “wild time” was enough. Sticking to your guns, and better yet, bringing them along. Acting out and dressing up for a selfie was enough. Waving a flag and shouting slogans was plenty. Breaking a window, sitting on a dais, stomping on a fallen policeman was a bit extra. Scouring the office spaces for a member of Congress to kidnap or kill was more than enough, and setting up a gallows for Mike Pence was excellent theater.

The thirteen minute “supercut” of the video archive assembled by the House of Representatives’ impeachment managers condensed the entire spectacle, cross-cutting three distinct, simultaneous lines of place and time: (1) Trump’s speech near the White House with its incendiary call to march on the Capitol and “stop the steal” known as the peaceful transfer of power; (2) the main spectacle of the mob surging into the Capitol carrying the American flag along with banners of the Confederacy, QAnon, and Trump; (3) the quiet scenes of mounting anxiety inside the Capitol as the Congress realized that its defenses were crumbling. If an eighteen minute “gap” in an Oval Office tape recording spelled the end of the Nixon presidency, this thirteen minute video played the same role for Trump. His defense lawyers recognized this when they accused the house managers of employing professional film editors to manipulate and manufacture evidence.[1] 

The Trump epoch, gestated by reality TV and birthed by a popular vote defeat and an electoral college victory in 2016 ended with a spectacular bang not a whimper. Hopes that the defeated coward would slink away into retirement faded when he turned out to be the authentic psychopath and malignant narcissist that the American Psychiatric Association had been describing since before his election. Psychiatrist Jerrold Post’s final public appearance to promote his book about Trump, Dangerous Charisma, included precise descriptions of what would happen during the transition period between the election and the inauguration: not merely a refusal of the results but a manic spree of lawsuits, rallies, conspiracy theories, and threats of a military coup. Post‘s theory of charisma involves what he calls a “mirror psychosis” endemic to leader-follower relations. It is clearly one bridge (there are surely others) between individual and collective forms of madness. Charismatic individuals tend to be narcissistic in the first place, but when their wounded narcissism becomes malevolent, coupled with paranoia and grandiosity, they can become dangerous.  Especially when acted out with the powers of the American presidency. 

6 January 2021 exposed those dangers for all to see in the most completely televised revolution in human history. It will continue to resonate as more details surface from the archive and the time line is reconstructed down to the minute. The subgroups, lost souls, tourists, militants, and voyeurs will be exposed. Were you there to see or be seen? What did you really think would happen? What was the outcome you were hoping for? 

The behavior of the First Spectator of the event, bathing in enjoyment in the Oval Office will begin to fill in. We might learn how he felt about the gallows; we already know about his affection for monuments of the Confederacy. All his darkest desires were made manifest, bringing to the surface what had been lurking in his language all along, and in the specific American psychoses (racism, white supremacy, predatory capitalism). All the hints, metaphors of violence, and sly provocations suddenly became literal and spectacular; Trump’s lawyers tried in vain to remetaphorize the “fighting words” by creating a counter-montage of Democratic politicians using the word, as if context of utterance, speech as action, was irrelevant. 

We can hope that 6 January 2021 be the final spectacle of the Trump regime, its obscene underside finally exposed completely to view. The big question remains: What sort of beginning did it threaten? What did this unmasking of an endemic pathology in American national culture accomplish? Did it reveal an awful truth that has the capacity to awaken a nation to its own madness? Or will it (as many of the insurrectionists hope) stand as a historic triumph for White supremacy and fascistic nationalism? The very idea that a nation, much less an individual, could awaken from a collective psychosis may be impossible. The fact that the word woke has now become a sneer to chide anxious liberals is a sure sign of steadfast resistance and disavowal. The American dream, always a comforting delusion of an exceptional destiny, has become the American nightmare.

The television coverage created an unrivaled spectacle, emphasizing both the “big picture,” provided by the iconic architecture and landscape of the Capitol invaded by an overwhelming mob, and the innumerable little pictures, the closeups of agonized cops being stomped and crushed, the faces of frenzied rioters, the absurd images of militia members rifling through Senators desks and arguing about the meaning of the papers found there. Dozens of journalists armed with cameras accompanied the invaders, and the mob members themselves carried enough cell phone cameras to ensure that not a moment went unrecorded. Meanwhile, outside the building, rioters set about destroying the equipment of the main stream media (the “fake news”), blissfully unaware that the most comprehensive audio-visual archive ever made of an insurrection was being assembled in real time by their own traceable cell phones. 

How can we grasp the choreography of the masses that gathered to perform at a sacred national temple whose symbolism dates back to the founding of the “USA”? The crowd chanted those letters (and other three-syllable slogans coined by Trump—“Stop the Steal,” “Hang Mike Pence”) as the rhythmic accompaniment to its movements. Superficially, the crowd was a chaotic mob, in sharp contrast to the geometries of Siegried Kracauer’s “mass ornament” of the Tiller Girls’s precision line dancing, an emblem of capitalist rationalism. Or the massed dancers of George M. Cohan’s “It’s a Grand Old Flag”:

Trump’s mob was an exact inversion of Cohan’s dancers, following a more archaic choreography, complete with a charismatic cult figure (already being compared to a Golden Calf), a gathering, parading, and demonstrating the vulnerability of American democracy to a premodern style of military siege and sacrilegious ritual. Wall climbers and columns of militias snaking through the crowd led it toward access points of the sacred space, where sacrilege and the instruments of public execution were put on display.[2] Most notable was the relation of the Trump insurrection to the landscaping and architectural form of the Capitol. The crowd’s movements followed the geometric laws of political power as expressed in built space and the radial lines of force indicated in the Washington, D.C. street plan. The Capitol sits on a hill, the highest point in the city, visible from everywhere. It sits at the center of the enormous geometric web of radiating lines and concentric circles that emanate from it. If there is a symbolic center to American power, it is there, not the relatively modest White House or the Supreme Court.[3] The route of the crowd, from its starting point on the ellipse near the White House, precisely mapped the narrative of an insurrection incited and inspired by the executive branch against the legislative, reversing the normal direction of the inaugural parade. Abraham Lincoln insisted on continuing work on the great dome as a symbol of American unity during the Civil War, and the presence of Confederate flags waving under that dome gave the whole scene a sense of uncanny reenactment or of an alternate history and a possible future.[4] 

If the Capitol is primarily a place of assembly, the building itself is a kind of “assemblage” of the generic conventions of neoclassicism. No single architect of any note can be assigned as its “author.” Its history is one of constant renovation, expansion, and remodeling, often delayed or stymied by the contentions of the legislators assembled under its roof. All the same, the overall impression remains one of monumental unity, the central dome and two wings symbolizing the rational balancing of powers within the deliberative branch of the government, the House of Representatives standing for the rapid fluctuations of public opinion, the Senate symbolizing the more settled, “older” branch, resistant to the passions of the moment. As an architectural allegory of the nation and its constitution, it is the “first” and most important branch of the government, the place where the nation does its thinking––and therefore, where it periodically goes undergoes a “change of mind” induced by an election.

The analogy of architecture with the human body goes back at least as far as Vitruvius.[5] Exterior walls are the skin, the supporting structure is the skeleton, rooms are internal organs, the windows are eyes, the porches and doors are orifices for hearing/speaking, and the façade is the face. But the analogy does not stop with the individual body. In governmental structures, the metaphor extends to the “body politic,” a collective entity that, like an individual organic body, possesses a constitution that is more or less healthy, a structure that can endure and survive stress, just like a well-made building or a healthy body. The “framers” of the US Constitution regarded themselves as just that––architects of both structures and landscapes, and as designers of a mentally healthy body politic, constituted with a “balance of powers.” 

The dome is thus the most conspicuously readable feature in the analogy of building and body. It is the head, the skull under which the collective “brain” of the nation takes shelter. The circular row of columns that supports the dome are the “thousand eyes” of a panopticon, admitting light and scanning the horizon in all directions. The association of domes with sovereignty and the heavens goes back to ancient times, and in its modern, secularized form becomes a symbol of popular sovereignty by the demos, the rule of the people as contrasted with the (temporary) head of state in the White House.[6] The Capitol, therefore, is deliberately an open, rather porous structure at ground level. Just the opposite of a citadel or fortress, it is vulnerable to invasion by design, and radiates its power and attraction outward in all directions.

So the mass ornament of 6 January 2021 derived its meaning from the backdrop against which it occurred, the stage set, as it were. Despite the chaotic and random appearance of the crowd, it rapidly became clear that significant numbers of the mob were following a choreographed plan, namely to penetrate to the center of the building and seize by force the power it symbolizes on behalf of one man. The threats to “hang Mike Pence” and the efforts to locate various Democratic legislators and take them hostage or murder them were designed to literalize the metaphoric relations of building and bodies.  

Once inside the Capitol, the spectacle’s strange combination of absurdity and menace became evident. While some invaders were furiously searching through the offices for potential human targets, pounding on doors, others were like awestricken tourists, strolling through the Rotunda, carefully respecting the roped-off pathways across the open space. In the Senate chambers, rioters began quarreling among themselves about whether they should vandalize the space or respect its sacred character. One authoritative elder draped in military garb admonished his comrades that this was strictly an “informational mission,” and nothing should be damaged. A lone cop pleaded with the group to leave. And the QAnon Shaman howled like a banshee from the gallery above, then descended to arrange a photo op of himself occupying the chair of the President of the Senate. 

The historic character of this spectacle was rendered instantly legible, with the comparisons to the British invasion of Washington in 1812 leading the way on the nightly news, while the rioters themselves (and their media allies) presented their activity as a replay of 1776.[7] In the made for TV spectacle, members of the intoxicated mob posed for selfies, while masked stage managers lurked around the edges, coordinating siege routes for the masses. Many members of a crowd that would ordinarily refuse to mask themselves in recognition of the contagious virus, masked up to preserve anonymity like ordinary criminals. Others, recognizing the historical importance of the spectacle, wanted to brag about their presence at the overthrow of American democracy, and posed brazenly next to statues of presidents or stationed themselves in positions of symbolic authority, feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk.

Another aspect of the spectacle has to be acknowledged, one that might not occur to someone who is steeped (as is this author) in the aura of the Capitol.[8] What about those viewers who see that building, not as an allegory of democratic openness and freedom, but as itself a monument to American imperialism and white supremacy? The easiest way to reframe the spectacle in this way would be to image an alternate scenario. What if it had been Black Lives Matter marching down Pennsylvania Avenue? Does anyone think that a demonstration by people of color, Latinx immigrants, or Muslims would have penetrated the Capitol’s defenses so easily? Would the “optics” have been so accommodating?[9] Would some Capitol police officers have taken selfies with the protestors and ushered them into the building? The bizarre irony of a White supremacist mob overwhelming a citadel of white power takes the spectacle beyond mere shock into a surreal fantasy of some very dangerous chickens coming home to roost, clearly feeling that they had every right to be there. 

What will stick in memory? The mass against the backdrop of the Capitol? Or the individual portraits and the banners? What does it mean that Jacob Chansley, the QAnon Shaman, with his horns and Coyote pelt, has become the iconic figure? Was he there to personify the “mana” or magic of the mass?[10] 

Even for the most devoted insurrectionists, it put the whole spectacle in danger of becoming a clown show. In many ways this was the final Trump Carnival-as-Carnage, where Lords of Misrule and Anarchy have always been tolerated. The Shaman presents himself as an avatar of “native Americanism,” as a composite of animal attributes, elaborate Nordic tattoos associated with white supremacy, face painted with national colors. He is evidently a compulsive performance artist who has been showing up at Trump rallies for some time. But I wonder how welcome he was among the more serious insurrectionists, the ones who came for violence. It must have made them uneasy, as if he were presenting a satirical caricature of the event, rendering it not only a tactical military failure, but a symbolic fiasco.[11] The QAnon Shaman is also the Fool or Clown at the carnival, the “licensed Fool” who personifies the mad magical thinking of the tribe. One of Trump’s ex-lawyers tried to circulate a rumor that he was a member of antifa, carrying out a “false flag” operation.[12] But the flags––Trump and Confederate most notably––made it clear that this carnival was a symbolic reenactment of the American carnage of the Civil War that Trump invoked four years earlier at his inauguration. Has Trump come full circle?  Back to the clownish one-man band of his apprenticeship? Or are these images of a possible future, a rehearsal of sorts?

One issue that haunts this entire argument: What is the status of psychiatric language in diagnosing the American psychosis? The unleashing of psychiatric discourse into the public sphere is not without its dangers, a reduction of the language of mental illness too little more than polemic and accusation. On the other hand, as Jerrold Post argues, psychiatric understanding of anti-democratic, authoritarian leader-follower relations includes an ethical “duty to warn.” The Goldwater Rule, which protects the privacy of individual mental disorders from public exposure, clearly has to be revised for dangerous public figures. Those who are “woke” to the madness of the moment will have to adopt a politics of care for the enemy, and recognize that they too are inside the nightmare. We may want to put the dangerous leader in jail or at least keep him out of office. But we must try to understand his followers, to see the world through their madness. 

In short, it looks as if liberals have to find a way to care for our deluded fellow citizens with patience and firmness. There is something deeply rotten in the USA at this moment, reminiscent of the onset of the American Civil War. The daily news of families and long friendships falling apart over political differences, of shunning and censuring those few Republicans who stray from fealty to Trump is deeply alarming. Even more ominous is the strong majority of Republican legislators who, in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, actually voted to ratify the goals of the mob by nullifying the election. The election of Joe Biden to the presidency, supported by a narrow and fragile majority in Congress seems to signal a return to normal after the madness of the Trump epoch and its final episodes of plague and insurrection. But “normal times” are a comforting delusion we will have to move beyond if the republic, not to mention the planet, is to survive. After all, the status quo is a state of emergency for millions around the world.

A state of emergency is the new normal.


[1] See defense attorney David Schoen‘s speech to the Senate, “WATCH: David Schoen Defends Trump in Senate Impeachment Trial,” Youtube, 12 Feb. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKkHeLQXwBw

[2] The Oath Keepers used a military tactic known as the “stack,” where a line of soldiers with arms on the shoulder in front of them penetrated to the front of the guard and led the break-in (Alan Feuer, “Oath Keepers Plotting Before Capitol Riot Awaited ‘Direction’ From Trump, Prosecutors Say,” New York Times, 11 Feb. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/02/11/us/politics/oath-keepers-trump-investigation.html).

[3] The symbolism of Pierre L’Enfant’s “sacred design” for the layout of Washington D.C. has been documented exhaustively in Nicholas Mann’s The Sacred Geometry of Washington, D.C. (Somerset, 2006).

[4] See Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (Cambridge, Mass., 1995). 

[5] See Philip D. Plowright, “Extending Skin: Architecture Theory and Conceptual Metaphors,” ARCC Conference Repository (Sept. 2018): www.arcc-journal.org/index.php/repository/article/download/552/441/

[6] See Earl Baldwin Smith, The Dome: A Study in the History of Ideas (Princeton, N.J., 1950).

[7] The British actually set fire to the Capitol in 1814. A timely rainstorm prevented its from burning down. See The US Capitol Building website, www.nps.gov/nr/travel/wash/dc76.htm

[8] I want to acknowledge the timely advice of Omar Kholeif in thinking through the final drafts of this very provisional essay.

[9] Paul Irving, Sergeant of Arms of the House of Representatives said he wasn’t comfortable with the “optics” of treating this as an emergency (Laurel Wamsley, “What We Know So Far: A Timeline Of Security Response At The Capitol On Jan. 6,” NPR, 15 Jan. 2021, www.npr.org/2021/01/15/956842958/what-we-know-so-far-a-timeline-of-security-at-the-capitol-on-january-6

[10] For an account of the link between ancient ritual and revolutionary crowds, see William Mazarella, The Mana of Mass Society (Chicago, 2017).

[11] The QAnon Shaman was later accused of being an agent of antifa. The charge is false, and he has since expressed regret for being part of this.

[12] Trump defense lawyer Lin Wood appears to be the source of the “false flag” attribution of the insurrection to antifa moles.  The lie has been repeated across the right-wing media, including Fox News. See Spencer Sunshine, “I’ve Been Tracking the Far Right for Years. Then Lin Wood ‘Exposed’ Me as the QAnon Shaman,” The Daily Beast, 3 Feb. 2021, www.thedailybeast.com/how-the-far-right-made-me-the-false-face-of-the-dc-insurrection. In the video documentation of the police being crushed by the mob in a tight corridor, the black clad Proud Boys (they dressed especially for the occasion) started chanting  “we are antifa,” as they pressed against the police. For the video track, see twitter.com/exposingterror1

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In Memoriam: J. Hillis Miller and the Hospitality of Criticism

W. J. T. Mitchell

J. Hillis Miller, a massively influential literary critic and theorist, passed away at his home in Maine on 9 February 2021.  Miller was the author of dozens of important scholarly books on American and English literature, including The Disappearance of God, Poets of Reality, The Linguistic Moment, and The Ethics of Reading. Miller was generally associated with the renowned Yale School of Deconstruction, along with Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and Jacques Derrida.  His work was central to a “golden age of theory” in the 1970s and ’80s that transformed teaching and research, not just in literary study, but across the humanities and social sciences.  During his long and storied career, Miller taught at Johns Hopkins University, then at Yale, and finally at the University of California, Irvine.  He was a cherished mentor and friend to numerous students, notable for his vast learning, serene patience with apprentice scholars, and irrepressible humor.

Hillis was the second reader of my dissertation on William Blake, which I defended in 1968.  After the passing of my director, the formidable Earl Wasserman, Hillis moved readily into the position of mentor and friend to me for the next half century.  I have met a lot of smart, even brilliant people in my long career in academia, but Hillis stands out above them all as the wisest man I have ever known.  His generosity was legion.  He could be a formidable debater, and his mastery of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature in both English and French was remarkable.  But he was always happy to return to the text alongside apprentice scholars and lead them into that marvelous labyrinth known as reading where he guided our searches for both the monsters and the hidden treasures.

I want to recall just one episode from that dark night of the soul known as graduate school.  I had arrived as a student in the Johns Hopkins English PhD program in 1964, exactly when Hillis was moving from his own long apprenticeship as a “phenomenological” reader toward the linguistic orientation of deconstruction—in short from a reader of minds to a reader of texts.  We were all learning the mantra of Georges Poulet, who taught a generation of critics to identify the cogito of the author:  “For Thomas Hardy the world is….[fill in the blank].”  In order to find this cogito it was of course necessary to read “every word that the author ever wrote,” a feat that I only accomplished once in my life, but Hillis must have done many times.  In his seminar on modern poetry we were discussing T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and one of my fellow students filled an awkward silence with the observation that Prufrock’s name, with its first name replace by a single letter, was an obvious sign of pomposity and class snobbery.  There was a long silence around the seminar table as we took in the implications of saying this in front of a distinguished professor with the name of “J. Hillis Miller.”   The student began to blush furiously and the rest of us buried ourselves in our books and notes, afraid to look up.  Suddenly a deep booming laugh broke the silence, and we looked up to see Hillis convulsed in laughter.  “You know,” he said, “I wonder why that never occurred to me before.”

This episode may help to explain why, many years later, a symposium at Irvine in Miller’s honor was organized around the permutations of the letter J.   Much of the symposium consisted of elaborate jokes and speculations about Hillis’s enigmatic initial, and what might have become of him if he had gone through life as plain “Joe Miller.”   My job as an iconologist was obvious.  I had to write about the shape of the letter J.  And so I wrote a paper for the symposium entitled “The Serpent in the Wilderness”[1] building upon Hillis’s observation about narrative design:   

Retrospective narration is then the retracing of a spatial design already there. That spatial design has been left as remnant after the events are over.   The meaning of such remnants is created magically, after the fact, when the results of an action that marked the world are seen.

–-J. Hillis Miller

What then, is the “shape of J”?  I argued that it was the trace of Miller’s own itinerary through texts, an incomplete U-turn that, when grafted to a second J would result in the familiar S-curve that is an invariable feature of British landscape painting and architecture, famously reinterpreted by Hogarth as the line of beauty, curiosity, and the shape of the devil’s pathway in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Hillis greeted this over-reading of his initial with characteristic generosity, noting that it could have been worse.  The juncture of a double J could have led to an image of circular race track where narrative progression would have been impossible.

Hillis was a long-time supporter of Critical Inquiry, both as a member of our editorial board and as an author.  His most famous essay, The Critic as Host” appeared in CI’s pages in 1977 as the opening salvo in what was to become a central debate in the coming decades.  The debate was launched at a famous session at the Modern Language Association pitting him against M. H. Abrams, whose magnum opus on British Romanticism, Natural Supernaturalism, had recently been published.  Many versions of the stakes in this debate have been proposed:  was it about the possibility of truth and certainty in literary interpretation?  The relation between critical frameworks and interpretive results?  The status of “obvious” and “univocal” meanings?  The relation of speech, writing, and consciousness?  The ethical relation of authors and readers?  Of readers and those who write about reading (critics, scholars, and interpreters)?  About language as a tool for communication, or as the environment in which human life is located? 

M. H. Abrams critique of Miller was entitled “The Deconstructive Angel,” a title that drew upon an allegorical dialogue in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where Devil and Angel argue over their respective visions of the world.  Each accuses the other of imposing their metaphysics on the other.  The Angel’s vision of the Devil’s lot is of an “infinite abyss” with a burning city, “vast spiders,” and a fierce Leviathan “advancing toward us with all the fury of a spiritual existence.”  When the Angel withdraws from the argument, however, the Devil finds himself “sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river by moon light hearing a harper who sung to the harp. & his theme was, The Man who never alters his opinion is like standing water & breeds reptiles of the mind.”

As a Blake scholar, I always thought that Abrams had made a fatal mistake by labeling Miller the deconstructive Angel.  Everyone knew that Miller (along with every competent reader of Blake) was on the side of the Devil.  In fact, Blake ends the dialogue with a conversion experience:  “Note.  This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend:  we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense.”   Abrams and Miller remained particular friends for the rest of their days

I don’t know what contemporary readers will make of the Miller/Abrams debate from 1976, or Hillis’s tour de force of transforming the role of criticism from that of a parasite on literature into an expression of boundless hospitality to innovative readings, and new paradigms.  What I know for certain is that “The Critic as Host,” was published in Critical Inquiry in only its second year of existence, and helped to launch this journal as the critical host for numerous memorable debates and explosive new critical movements over the next half century.  Hillis continued to guide and inspire us well into the twenty-first century.  His life as a scholar, mentor, and friend will endure long beyond his passing.


W. J. T. Mitchell is senior editor of Critical Inquiry.


[1]Later published in the proceedings of the conference as “The Serpent in the Wilderness,” in Acts of Narrative, ed. Carol Jacobs and Henry Sussman (Stanford, Calif., 2003), pp. 146-56.

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The Plastic Controversy

Ranjan Ghosh

In June 1833, Charles Darwin asked the captain of the HMS Beagle to delay the departure from Tierra del Fuego because a “strange group of granite boulders” had stirred his investigative and imaginative energy – “One of these, shaped somewhat like a barn, was forty-seven feet in circumference and projected five feet above the sand beach,” he later wrote.1 In his accounts of the voyage, Darwin described crystalline boulders of notable size and abundance near Bahía San Sebastian, south of the Strait of Magellan. Darwin was curious about the shape of the boulders and could not understand how they got there and this intense interest in granite is an expression of his geological and romantic imagination.

Surprise. Those large masses of rock were later called Darwin’s Boulders – erratic and enigmatic, speculative and romantic.  Geologically, Darwin attributed the “erratic to ice rafting,”2 but their enormity and strangeness added to their wild beauty, and they ignited Darwin’s post-Lyell geological temper and imagination.

Bizarre. Granite has its own complicated formations – unstable and not simple in its petrological origin as the granite controversy attests – “consisting of known materials yet combined in a secret manner, it is impossible to determine whether its origin is from fire or water. Extremely variable in the greatest simplicity, its mixture presents innumerable combinations.”3

Becoming. The granite genesis has its competing explanations: “magmatic (granites are igneous rocks resulting from the crystallisation of magma) and metamorphic (granites are the result of a dry or wet granitisation process that transformed sialic sedimentary rocks into granite), because granites are the result of ultra-metamorphism involving melting (anatexis) of crustal rocks.”4 When H. H. Read suggested that “there are granites and granites,”5 he was referring to an overwhelmingly variegated schematic emergence – something that stares back at us as a prospect for a petri-becoming.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “On Granite” (1784) speaks about the antiquity of earth, a nearly unfathomable processual build-up within the Earth’s crust—the romantic and scientific imagination in a becoming earth. He observes that “composed of familiar materials, formed in mysterious ways, its origins are as little to be found in fire as they are in water. Extremely diverse in the greatest simplicity, its mixtures are compounded in numberless variety.”6 Granite has its own mix of quartz, feldspar, and mica, as Goethe observed in “On Geology,” particularly the Bohemian, in which he tried to analyse the mysterious trinity of Dreieinheit. The solidity, interestingly, conceals a fluidity of coming together, a kinesis in mineralization.

Conglomerate.  The “word Granitgeschiebe indicates,” argues Jason Groves, that “these ‘granite boulders’ are neither conceived in terms of static form nor in terms of the anteriority of ruins but rather in terms of an ongoing movement of ruination; rather than as a substance, granite is presented as a thing in motion.”7 Goethe’s sensitivity to earth formations is revealed in his principle of incongruence, in which the earth is left to transform and transit in a complex geoerotics. Reflecting on such “mineral actants,” Groves observes further that “stones and rock formations present themselves, express themselves, transform themselves, let themselves be seen, produce themselves, spread themselves out, alter themselves, and conceal themselves [zeigensich, sprechensichaus, verwandelnsich, lassensichsehen, erzeugensich, verbreitensich, verändernsich, verbergensich]. In this drama of things, mineral agents take humans as accusative objects: they direct our attention, they address us, they come together to make formations.”8

But the fascination and fetish, imagination and indignation today, is with plastic, and an aggrieved and aggressive turn to plastic has brought us not before granite or Darwin’s boulders but a strange petri-kin in “plastiglomerate.” It is a mixture of plastic-intermateriality – surprising, bizarre, becoming, erratic, and aberrant. Like granite, it is the “plastic-controversy.” Granite and the plastiglomerates are deeply embedded each in their own way – poesis in petrology and the petrochemical. Plastic was formed a little more than a hundred years ago; it was made formative and formable; finally, it forms itself. Today, like Darwin’s and Goethe’s granite, plastiglomerate comes through as a romantic rock, speculative and spectacular, with its distinct geological aesthetic.9 Like Goethe’s erratic granite (umherliegendeGranitblöcke, and Granitgeschiebe) and Darwin’s errant boulders, plastiglomerate – as an idiorhythmic emergence – signals a fresh poesis in geopoetical thought and the lithospheric imaginary. Living through inhuman time, we are attuned to a nonhuman surge and profusion both on land and in water. Humans had their event with plastic and now the whole of Earth is an event itself. If granite is the Ur-stone, plastiglomerate is the novice stone, the controversial stone. One demonstrates geological plasticity, the other a kind of plastic materialization – both attesting to an extraordinary geological becoming.

Plastiglomerate, this new-found geo-reality, is a product of hardened molten plastic holding sediment, basaltic lava fragments, and organic debris, natural debris, and sedimentary grains. If sedimentary or igneous rock speaks about the impact that a changing earth had on its own formations, plastiglomerate leaves behind the traces of a predatory human species and what it did to extinguish itself through an invention that ensured an eventual ruin. Patricia Concoron and Charles Moore admit that plastic melts beyond recognition in some plastiglomerates and in some it is still visible and recognizable as “netting/ropes, pellets, partial containers/packaging, lids, tubes/pipes, and confetti.”10 Embrittled remains– in the form of containers and lids, ropes, nylon fishing line, and parts of oyster spacer tubes– countenance the rock identity.

If granite grew out of a blend of quartz, feldspar, and mica – building its own mineralization with certainty and mystery– then the materials identified in the formation of the plastiglomerate speak of a larger story of civilization and its discontents and of a febrile controversy in the making:  a “kind of junkyard Frankenstein.”11 In the spirit of transcendental geology, standing on ground that has always been a dynamic ungrounding, we are left to ask: What legacy will humans leave in the rocks?12 As plastic is made to sieve through into the remotest nonhuman corners of this planet, the subterranean infiltration is no less emphatic – call it plastiturbation. Within anthropogenic morphostratigraphy, we have human inputs influencing sedimentation and the lithoscape. Imagine reading in a future textbook:

The history of the Earth can be read in the pages of geologic layers, built up sediments, igneous volcanic flows, rock stacked and folded until strata are formed. Each layer deciphered is an understanding of a past moment of natural history. In the year 2855 CE, a startling discovery was made that unfolded the mystery of what happened over 10,000 years ago, revealing clues of what happened in a time our popular press has come to call “The Age of Grease.” It was a time when fossil fuels were sucked out of the earth, dug out of the earth to drive a civilization towards its demise. A layer of brilliantly colored substances was found sandwiched between layers of rock: substances that civilization called “plastic”. The layer which is so distinctive that our geologists and archaeologists have come to call it a discontinuity, a term used to describe nonconforming conditions. Hence, “The Plasticene Discontinuity” is aptly named. 13

The interesting part of this development is in seeing how rocks that signaled inhuman time come to be humanized through the material remnants of a particular species. If geological imagination aspires to make the scalar and stratigraphic developments comprehensible to us, plastiglomerate evokes a new imagination that projects its own post-anthropocenic potentials – a future that will talk only about the past. “Plastifossilization” is a relentless and inexorable process that recharacterizes an already unstable earth that is a “compilation machine, an assembly line,” where “trash, construction debris, coal ash, dredged sediments, petroleum contamination, green lawns, decomposing bodies, and rock ballast not only alter the formation of soil but themselves form soil bodies, and in this respect are taxonomically indistinguishable from soil.”14 Plastic seepage and sedimentation keep changing the soil’s character and habit – plasticization of the soil-ego – to create a deterritorialized Earth weighed down by irrevocable plastic sink. Earth’s deep time, hence, is increasingly invaded by plastic time. Besides its nonplasticity and decay-resistant trajectory, this time includes forces that are global, capitalist, economic, and political. The processes that make the Earth’s crust chemicalize differently involve a temporality of a different order as soil organisms, including plants, face a different order of existence and expiry. When other fossilizations generated interest in the earth depths, tele-plastic fossilization has left us frozen in options: deposition as depravity, consequences as controversy. Plastiglomerate, however, announces no abrupt collapse of time and historical distance in understanding; it speaks of a clear trajectory of evolution even in the last sixty years, wedging the subject and the object together – the antiromantic formulation of reversal of subjectivity where the object formation has its own precise scientific understanding and clear heuristic discourse on the relational map with a transforming object. Plastic geolayering has its own telematic genealogy. It is here that a controversial parallelism builds between the plastic materiality and biological plasticity, where running away from plastic is always already a running into plastic. The plastic hardwaring of Earth develops its own vanishing and expiry moments, points of sustainability, composite fractures – a kind of ‘variantology.’15

The plastic objects swept up and unearthed reveal the threshold points of anthropogenic understanding of Earth and its elementality and phenomenality. It is in the exceeding of the scope of human knowledge and systems of representation that Amanda Boetzkes finds an “excess of the earth.”16 The elemental in artwork encourages a fresh sense generation where nature comes to create its own forms of representation that challenges our limits of understanding about what makes an intelligible form. Plastic nature never returns to itself, it merely re-turns. It is strange to itself and has become its own alterity. The plastic stones and the geo-sea profile come to reinforce our sheltering within the elemental. John Sallis points out that “fleeing to one’s home as a storm approaches does not allow one to escape from the storm but only to shelter oneself from its force. Cultivating the field, fishing in the sea, and cutting wood in the forest do not open a path beyond the field, the sea, or the forest but rather constitute certain kinds of human comportment to these elementals in which one is encompassed.”17 Fleeing and staying away from plastic is to dwell in the plastic elemental.

The plastic controversy questions: How could a toothbrush or nylon rope get into a particular rock? What force and instant synergized with the melting of the rock, the temperature gradient, the flow, the molecularity, the seepage and the conjugation? The interlocking of matter is unstable, unpredictable, and dynamic. If plastic clams its way into the digestive system of a fish and clanks out a space in the human body, it clings to rocks in exquisitely esoteric forms too. The earth delivers the unknown – plastiglomerate, in that sense, is a controversial event. Plastic at large, in its nonlaboratory avatar, is not limited to hylomorphic materialism. The turn to plastic has become a turn to composite plastic, dynamic multiform plastic, and nonstructural plastic in the sense of exceeding forms beyond human cognition and imagination. Where do we identify the connectors between a plastic toy and the degraded ghost of its own form after unknown periods of forcible weathering? How does the toothbrush we use relationalize with the frayed and frumpy toothbrush in the body of the plastiglomerate? Jeremy Skrzypek points out that in hyloenergeism “a material object is not itself an activity or process; it is something composed of matter, which comes into existence when that matter is engaged in a certain activity or process. Understood mereologically, a material object is composed of both its matter and the activity or process that is occurring in that matter.”18 Plasticofutures, through synchronic mineralization, reveal altplastics that infuse each other through substructural changes and processual energy. The figurality of plastic as an event (in the sense of a formation) and as an occurrence (as a state of occurring) emphasizes the “endurantist account of the persistence of material objects.” There is a chance in the indifference of altplastics, the hasard objectif (objective chance) – a sudden confluence point of contrasting objects. It’s the random in a process, causality not without probability. Mark the nylon-inscribed plastiglomerate.

Here is a displacement of agency that the invention of plastic a hundred years ago had never envisaged. The nylon-stamped rock announces a distant human hand to it. It’s both about how the Earth separates from its inmates and from itself; altplastics remind Earth how it can surprise itself and be its own cause of wonder. Isn’t that controversial enough?


Ranjan Ghosh teaches in the Department of English, University of North Bengal. His forthcoming book The Plastic Turn will be published by Cornell University Press in 2022.

Website: http://www.ranjanghosh.com


1 Richard A. Lovett, “Darwin’s Geological Mystery Solved,” Nature, 20 Oct. 2009.

2 Edward B. Evenson et al., “Enigmatic Boulder Trains, Supraglacial Rock Avalanches, and the Origin of ‘Darwin’s Boulders,’ Tierra del Fuego,” GSA Today 19 (Dec. 2009):  4-10.

3 See Heather I. Sullivan, “Collecting the Rocks of Time: Goethe, the Romantics and Early Geology,” European Romantic Review 10, nos. 1-4 (1999): 346.

4 Guo-Neng Chen and Rodney Grapes, Granite Genesis: In Situ Melting and Crustal Evolution (New York, 2007), p. 4

5 Guo-Neng Chen and Rodney Grapes, Granite Genesis: In Situ Melting and Crustal Evolution (Berlin, 2007), p. 4.

6 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “On Granite (1784),” in The Essential Goethe, trans. pub., ed. Matthew Bell (Princeton, N.J., 2016), p. 913; my emphasis.

7 Jason Groves, “Goethe’s Petrofiction: Reading the Wanderjahre in the Anthropocene,” Goethe Yearbook 22 (Rochester, N.Y., 2015): 95-113.

8 Ibid.

9 See Noah Heringman, Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Ideology (Ithaca, N.Y., 2010). See also Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology (New York, 1997). 

10 Patricia L. Corcoran, Charles J. Moore, and Kelly Jazvac, “An Anthropogenic Marker Horizon in the Future Rock Record,” GSA TODAY 24 (June 2014): 4-8.

11 Angus Chen Jun, “Rocks Made of Plastic Found on Hawaiian Beach,” Science, 4 June 2014.

12 See Jan Zalasiewicz, The Earth after Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks? (New York, 2008). See also The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth’s Deep History (New York, 2010).

13 Judith Selby and Richard Lang, “Plasticene Discontinuity.” Plastic Forever.

14 Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media (Minneapolis, 2015), p. 110.

15 Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, trans. Gloria Custance (Cambridge, Mass., 2006), p. 7.

16 Amanda Boetzkes, The Ethics of Earth Art (Minneapolis, 2010), p. 3.

17 John Sallis, Elemental Discourses (Bloomington, Ind., 2018), p. 95.

18 Jeremy W. Skrzypek, “From Potency to Act: Hyloenergeism,” Synthese , 21 Jan. 2019, p. 28.

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It Could Be So Much Worse

Pato Hebert and Alexandra Juhasz

From: Patrick Hebert

Sent: Saturday, December 12, 2020 2:29 PM
To: Alexandra Juhasz
Subject: Re: some prompts

Hi Alex,

Sorry for slow reply. School has been extremely difficult and I’m having 1-2 medical appointments daily, including rescheduled endoscopy and colonoscopy on Mon for ongoing GI challenges.

In terms of your prompts, for me, the photos I’ve been making are the embodiments of many of the questions you are asking.

What is a COVID body? Who is a COVID person? What is the value of COVID disclosure? They are less literal and textural, and very ambivalent. Is the body always human or can it be land? What do living relations and public space (parks) have to teach us about time, access, endurance, cycles, the human (and therefore dis-ease) in perspective?

I see the PPE as embodiments of care. When in touch with the ground or shrub growth they become something else, somewhere between fallen (accident) and abandoned (agency). No longer of practical use, now of environmental destruction, they slide between the titles of the two series—Disembodies and Lingering. They have many attendant feelings and states. Sadness, wonder, gratitude, concern, hope, fear, appreciation, curiosity, attentiveness, doubt, loneliness, connectedness. And as my friend Reid Gómez so astutely observed early on in the work, the land is very present. The human body (COVID or otherwise) is absented in the most obvious, representational forms but ever implied. The virus and pandemic are at once abstract and visceral, everywhere and nowhere, immediate and endless. And, of course, isolation. Ghosting. Care that is essential and not enough. The limits of the human.

I’ve attached but a few images. I continue to make more. Or maybe they, and COVID, make me. Saw gastroenterologist, neurologist and acupuncturist this week. The lingering is exhausting. 

From: Alexandra Juhasz
Sent: Saturday, December 13, 2020 2:29 PM
To: Patrick Hebert
Subject: Re: some prompts

I’m sad about all your appts, but glad you are being seen.

I get to see hives dr. at long last on Tuesday.

I’m attaching a response to and enlargement of the writing you sent to me.

In this experiment, I’ve used our email exchange as a format for socially distanced attention, respect, and learning.

Since March, our interactions over text, email, phone, Zoom, PowerPoint, and shared Word docs, have been places of ongoing comfort for me. 

I have found in you a wise and attentive ally who brings your new experiences of the body to long-learned interpretations of the body politic.

It has been startling, frustrating, and saddening to see how knowledge hard-won through AIDS activism does not simply carry over into our struggles with another virus.

I am most curious, today, to think alongside you about COVID-19 stigma.

We have both been practicing disclosure since the first weeks of the US pandemic.

And yet, each and every time I do it—come out with COVID in a Zoom room, express that I am sure that others have or have had COVID, have suffered and lost loved ones—it stays equally, or perhaps even more taboo, and yet always somehow also experienced as a relief.

At a recent event with the What Would an HIV Doula Do? collective, I expressed to those in the Zoom room that I was becoming increasingly perplexed by COVID stigma and a related lack of disclosure.

The pressure not to tell is definitive. 

The sense that I am dirty or have done something wrong is palpable.

It is clear that my words of disclosure will muddle an unstated and shared contract rooted in hygienic fear and oozing control.

But why? Where does this come from?

This is not the same as AIDS stigma, given that virus’s close connections to sex and drugs.

With COVID—while real-time reporting has made clear that the poor, the worker, the brown, the aged are suffering and dying disproportionately—we also see the most powerful contract the illness.

Fellow-Doula, Nick D’Avella suggested that COVID stigma is generated by a neo-liberal commitment to and investment in self-care and regulation.

I think this is true.

You and I, the COVID body, are asked to be ashamed of not managing properly; we must close the spread.

We are requested to repress contagion’s symptoms: its sores, fevers, fears.

And, oddly, we are also pressed to tell and show all, as part of a mystical act of warding off.

As if our revelations can hold the space for all future violations.

Why should I be ashamed of having COVID?

I caught it in early March on a train, or in a store, or at an expensive restaurant, or in my living room, or in bed with my partner. At a movie?

Maybe I didn’t catch it: I was never tested. In March, only the ill suffered this verification.

I am not ashamed of having COVID. I am an AIDS activist and viral shame’s mandate is racist, homophobic bullshit with a history of destruction, pain, and indifference I know too well to re-engage. My defiant pivot into disclosure is a podium that starts from privilege: that I “got better,” have a job, am white, like to write (with you.)

Our writing is a privilege: a public, inter-active disclosure that might be holding a place and promise for more.

Thinking with you is part of what keeps me most alive,

and yet this runs aside your enduring illness.

Your images help me see your pain, and also healing.

Your fear, and also calming.

Your isolation, and also connection.

But I’d rather you were well.

I look forward to your thoughts.

Love

Alex

From: Patrick Hebert
Sent: Tuesday, December 22, 2020 1:05 AM
To: Alexandra Juhasz
Subject: Re: some prompts

From: Patrick Hebert
Sent: Saturday, December 12, 2020 2:29 PM
To: Alexandra Juhasz
Subject: Re: some prompts

Dear Alex,

I’d rather I was well too. I wish I could undo my own ableist underpinnings therein, even as I also wish that some combination of rest, mindfulness, acupuncture, naturopathic supplements, Western pharmacology and countless care from beloveds could undo all that COVID continues to unravel in this body.

Buddhism teaches me to make room, to cultivate spaciousness for the uncertainty, discomfort and many feelings that arise on the ronacoaster.

I am reminded not to cling to outcomes like getting “well,” to not be averse to the nasty flare-ups I still experience. I practice sitting (or slumping, or stumbling, or striding—and weeping) with this COVID body in its many shifting states. I recall old urban slang for the remarkable: “That’s sick!” It makes me laugh, and heed that inversions hold open the prospect of something else arising from the here and unwanted.

Still, I wish I trusted our words and images to be enough, because thinking and feeling with you is part of what keeps me alive too. “And yet this runs aside your enduring illness,” you write. Yes. And what comes to me as I read your caring wisdom is that it also runs inside my enduring illness as well as the broader pandemic. Lingering is the name I have come to use for one of these photographic series.

I might also call it a body, a body of work. Like my (this) body, it is a series of uncertainties, a series of possibilities.

Living with COVID is not only about discomfort, frustration, impatience, yearning, or concern. There can also be enduring, healing, revelation, learning, and pleasure. But so much is disorienting and unknown. Long COVID is a dispiriting and confusing lingering. This reveals my temporal and spatial preoccupations. I have been living somewhere between the unpredictable, the possibly chronic, and an inverted now. But I am living, as fully as I can and then some.

A few weeks ago, my students gave each other a lovely prompt for their weekly writing reflection: “Has there ever been a time when you felt like a part of your body was not yours?”

I do not feel that this body is mine, in the sense of being anything I possess or control. But I also don’t feel that it is COVID’s. We now belong to each other and to something more. This is a bit like the way that we are fortunate to steward land (not own or extract or vanquish it), and perhaps even belong to a place with time and care.

I am trying to sit with the longing and belonging, the bodies and disembodiments that come with COVID. A lover once told me that he wanted to own his HIV. He meant that he didn’t want it to get the best of him, didn’t want being poz to be the primary determinant of his life. This was in the mid-late 1990s, and I think he also meant that he did not want to die.

I often think about his agency and resolve, even as I desire no ownership over COVID. When I walk the park and pay attention to the things that can be found there, the land helps me to feel connected to another kind of enduring, seasonal cycles and geologic time, things much larger than this moment. And then the PPE bring me back. Masks, soil, shimmering light, a COVID body.

Where does the COVID body belong? What is it that COVID undoes? What is undue on this never-ending timeline of lingering? I want vaccines and relief packages and universal healthcare. These political and structural necessities are vital. Yet I have learned to stop grasping at I will be healthier if, things will be different when, we will be better because …

COVID feels like an endless sky of uncertainty. Perhaps this is the COVID body. In the parlance of the day, our bodies got receipts. Our bodies are receipts.

Of course, there is nothing uncertain about 318,000 COVID deaths in the United States alone. Any talk of the COVID body must contend with these COVID bodies. Our dead, disproportionately brown, Black, Indigenous, elderly, poor. Devastating. Yet we don’t all die. 76.8 million people are infected worldwide, and it is estimated that at least 10% of us are COVID long haulers. How will we get ready for a few more years or a decade or generation or lifetime of the recovering COVID body? Are we ready?

We cannot get there, without being here.

A colleague recently commented on what she sees as my tenacity and grace. I told her that I don’t feel that way at all. I was tired that day. I was asked how I’m doing while on camera in a 1:1 breakout room. I could barely stop from crying in the face of the question, my condition, and my utter exhaustion. My not crying was not about tenacity or grace. It felt more banal, an effort to simply stay on (the) call, manage the basics.

If I expressed the fuller truth, if I cried, all those frightened non-COVID bodies might collapse under the details, our density and duration, the intensity and the agony. They just want to be reassured. But some days I don’t have any reassurance to offer. Only resilience.

I am not dead. I am profoundly uncertain. I have moments of hope amid deep ambivalence. I am curious. I have no idea what to prioritize, or even when or how to return this message. Sometimes I don’t give a damn about anything. Whole hours disappear and I have no idea why or what has happened.

The fog.

When I disclose, as I often do in Zoomed group settings, I find that the uninfected sit back and go quiet or offer murmured condolences, while the infected lean forward into their own imminent disclosures and a desire to connect. We survivors are often restrained and weary, yet also stretching and eager. It seems many haven’t had the space to reveal their experiences with COVID. They ask if we can talk 1:1, later, compare notes, exchange strategies and resources. There is a sharing, a solidarity, that pushes against the loneliness, hurt, and angst. It can help to know someone else is going through something similar. To be believed from jump. To meet someone who’s had it longer than you and is still going. To not have to translate.

The stigma you write about is real, the shunning that so many people experience, the shame. The “How did you catch it …” tinged with “How could you?” The virus’ threat and people’s fears converge in our infected flesh, a flesh that to others feels neither warm nor cold because it is mediated by the screen. COVID’s constant disembodiment cum abstraction.

I have been thinking a lot about the paradox of the screen as a form of care. If we cannot gather or travel or touch as we’d like, the screen becomes as important as masks, and just as normalized yet alienating.

I’m trying to understand the isolation that is endemic to COVID, and how little the needs of the infected are foregrounded when media and public health talk of quarantine. Isolation and control are the structure of the plot and the protocols—protection of the uninfected—not consideration, connection, and care of the recovering. No wonder stigma is produced on endless loops. We hear far too little about the nuances of harm reduction, the dangers of shaming and fear as strategies of safety.

The voices of the coronavirus that do get featured too often bounce between the tropes of pitiful, lucky, or heroic. Mostly we are seen as vectors of infection and a risk to others, not agents of and partners in change. And for the long-haulers, we disrupt the dichotomy of dead or recovered, sick or well, risky or safe.

You and I often talk about people’s voracious fascination with the parading of symptoms. Perhaps this cataloguing animates in part because it makes COVID more real. The detailing or worrying or reciting through the screen brings the “it” that is COVID back into the body. But I think this is also part of why stigma persists. People’s fear and collective suffering are brought to bear on the individual body. The COVID body. We don’t see or experience people infected with COVID spending time and space with one another. Nary a long hauler march, or even a small gathering. Isolation. Beyond the specter of the ER’s triage is the mirage of long hauling.

If I can stigmatize that body—over there, on the other side of the screen—then COVID can’t be me, and I have no accountability or reciprocity, just the Corona Games of survival, la COVIDa loca.

Are narcissism, stigma and greed the COVID body? Isolation, worry, distance? Diligence and fierceness, instability and porosity, beauty and persistence? The body of best intentions. The body as shared aerosol. The body of amalgamations. The body as plural, ecological, lyrical, vulnerable, incidental, magical, speculative, tentative, developmental. The COVID body of becoming.

My neurologist offered me a new medicine that used to be prescribed in large doses in psychiatric treatments but was later discontinued. It’s now being used in the COVID care clinic as part of an experimental approach to headaches, insomnia, and brain fog. Check, check, check. For some patients it seems to help, for reasons that aren’t yet understood. I’ve only been on it a week. We’ve doubled my dosage and will continue to add 10 mg in exploratory stages. I can’t yet tell if it’s working.

The neurologist also mentioned another med that can help with my bouts of crying. But it can conflict with and counteract the first med so she says we should hold off for now.

Then she reminded me that anxiety and depression are very common in COVID long haulers. This, too, is the COVID body. Anxious and depressed. Not only, but typically. She asked if I have a therapist.

For months I’ve had a GI surgery scheduled for tomorrow. But it’s just been postponed due to the COVID surge that has left Southern California’s ICU capacity hovering dangerously close to 0%. All non-essential surgeries cancelled. Los Angeles has become COVID’s epicenter, a cauldron of accelerating suffering. The gastroenterologist counters the surgeon, says that maybe I don’t need the surgery after all, that perhaps my guts are just experiencing the lingering effects of COVID and things will improve with time. “You’re doing all the right things. Keep exercising and adjusting your diet, and let’s see how things are in a few more months.” Inflammation. Confusion. Lower abdominal rumbles playing hide-and-seek.

These, too, are the COVID body, as are the blood draws and endless bills, the future appointments with the pulmonologist and acupuncturist. Follow-ups.

How are your rashes?

Un abrazo,

Pato

To: Patrick Hebert
Sent: Tuesday, December 28, 2020 1:05 AM
From: Alexandra Juhasz
Subject: Re: The COVID Body poem-list and other notes

Dear Pato:

Can you believe it? My hives appointment has been cancelled and rescheduled yet again.

I realize I’ve had these grotesque, flowering, burning eruptions of skin, everywhere multiplying, since summer. So macho am I, that for months I simply overlooked them, naming them as bug bites. Then, over more months: I endured. They will and do pass.

Perhaps they—like the after-menopause bleeding that also began this summer, which I’ve monitored and treated with sonograms, pelvic exams, a DNC in a surgery ward, visits to a gynecological oncologist, hormones, late-life maxi-pads, and ever more COVID-aware follow-up visits—are an enduring symptom of the undiagnosed COVID that no one, let alone me, understands.

And yet, it could be so much worse. 

I endure these real indignities, threats, symptoms in the small gratitude and niggling embarrassment of my privilege: aware that for others, for you, for the dead, for the intubated, for the poor, for the families, for the uninsured, my COVID body is an easy price to pay.

I am learning that this calculus—it could be so much worse—is the logic and lifeblood of the sick and shameful COVID body. Words as a talisman; as a way of not having to see the self; as a method to honor and acknowledge the other; as a tactic, when so few are available, to name the structural imbalances of race, class, health, and education that make our distinct COVID bodies.

But as your work and words reminds me: the earth, time enduring, the trees, the sky, the colors and textures of pleasure and solace, all meet us through great imbalances. Their unequal scales create horizons by which humans can also make sense of our pain, our place, our commitments—by embracing them.

And as crazy as this dissymmetry is: I am so appreciative each time you ask after my lowly, silly hives; in turn, I ask back about your bones, surgeries, brain. I learn with you how to hold the particularities of pain, the possibilities of power, the certainties of oppression, and the joys of life, in one shared unequal embrace; a different logic for COVID bodies; one I hope we can pursue as a COVID politics, also unfolding. 

with love, alex


NOTE: Second to last image is by Alexandra Juhasz, 2021. All other images are by Pato Hebert, from the Lingering and Disembodies series, 2020.


Pato Hebert is an artist, teacher, and organizer. His work explores the aesthetics, ethics, and poetics of interconnectedness. He has exhibited in galleries, museums, and community spaces around the world. He is currently working on projects about nuclear energy, American football and resistance to colonialism. He has also worked in grassroots HIV prevention initiatives with queer communities of color since 1994. He serves as Chair of the Department of Art and Public Policy at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. You can follow him on Instagram @volandito.

Dr. Alexandra Juhasz is Distinguished Professor of Film at Brooklyn College, CUNY. Author and/or editor since 1995 of scholarly books on activist media in light of AIDS, black lesbian and queer representation, feminism, and digital culture, she also makes videotapes on feminist issues from AIDS to teen pregnancy as well as producing the fake documentaries The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1997) and The Owls (Cheryl Dunye, 2010). Her current work is on and about feminist internet culture and AIDS with two recent books: AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, co-edited with Jih-Fei Cheng and Nishant Shahani (Duke University Press, 2020), and We Are Having This Conversation Now: The Times of AIDS Cultural Production, with Ted Kerr (forthcoming from Duke University Press in 2021).

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An Era of Pandemics? What is Global and What is Planetary About COVID-19

Dipesh Chakrabarty

Let me state at the outset the point that I wish to get across in this short essay.

The current moment of the COVID-19 pandemic belongs not only to the global history of capitalism and its destructive impact on human life, but it also represents a moment in the history of biological life on this planet when humans are acting as the amplifiers of a virus whose host reservoir may have been some bats in China for millions of years. Bats are an old species, they have been around for about fifty million years—viruses for much, much longer. In the Darwinian history of life, all forms of life seek to increase their chances of survival. The novel coronavirus has, thanks to the demand for exotic meat in China, jumped species and has now found a wonderful agent in humans that allows it spread worldwide. Why? Because humans, very social creatures, now exist in very large numbers in big urban concentrations on a planet that is crowded with them, and most of them are extremely mobile in pursuit of their life opportunities. Our history in recent decades has been that of the Great Acceleration and expansion of the global economy in the emancipatory hope that this will pull millions of humans out of poverty. Or at least that has been the moral justification behind the rapid economic growth in certain nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. From the point of view of the virus, however, the environmental disturbance this has caused and the fact of human global mobility have been welcome developments. Humans may win their battle against the virus––I really hope they do––but the virus has already won the war. This is no doubt an episode in the Darwinian history of life. And the changes it causes will be momentous both in our global history and in the planetary history of biological life.

The Global: Great Acceleration and the Emerging Era of Pandemics

That we did not have this tragic global pandemic a decade or so ago now appears to have been purely a matter of human luck. A team of scientists in Hong Kong warned the scientific community some thirteen years ago, in 2007, that because coronaviruses were “well known to undergo genetic recombination” that could lead to “new genotypes and outbreaks,” the “presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored.”[1] The warning was not heeded.[2] The “most crucial factor” about SARS-CoV, remarked David Quammen in Spillover (2012), was the way it affected the human body: “Symptoms tend to appear in a person before, rather than after, that person becomes highly infectious.”[3] “The much darker story,” Quammen observed, “remains to be told” (S, p. 207). Scientists were guessing that when the “Next Big One” came, it would likely conform to the opposite pattern: “high infectivity preceding notable symptoms” (S, p. 207). The “moral” is his finding, Quammen thought, was this: “If you are a thriving population, living at high density but exposed to new bugs, it’s just a matter of time until the Next Big One arrives” (S, p. 290). Prophetic words, but nobody was listening in either 2007 or in 2012.

Pandemics and epidemics have accompanied humans ever since the invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Hunter-gatherer communities also suffered some infectious diseases, but, “like the sparse populations of our primate relatives, they suffered infectious diseases with characteristics permitting them to persist in small populations, unlike crowd epidemic diseases.”[4] Agriculture with the concomitant domestication of animals played “multiple roles in the evolution of animal pathogens into human pathogens.”[5] Humans have seen many epidemics and pandemics since the rise of agriculture. But the difference today is this: These crises of the past “were once separated by centuries, or at least many decades,” write the infectious-diseases specialist David Morens and his coauthors in a recent paper, but the emergence of these diseases is now becoming more frequent.[6] Beginning from 2003, Morens and his colleagues recount the outbreak in seventeen years of at least five pandemics or potential pandemics in the world: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS, 2003), “a near pandemic;” an influenza pandemic (H1N1 pdm, 2009), a chikungunya pandemic (2014), a Zika pandemic (2015), and a “pandemic-like extension of Ebola over five African countries” (2014–2015) (“P,” p. 1). They grant that “the meaning of the word ‘pandemic’ has recently been reinterpreted according to differing agendas,” and yet conclude with words that stare us in the face: “It seems clear that we now live in an era of pandemics, newly emerging infectious diseases, and the return of old contagious foes” (“P,” p. 1). A more recent paper by Morens and Anthony Fauci comes to the same conclusion:

Newly emerging (and re-emerging) infectious diseases have been threatening humans since the Neolithic revolution, 12,000 years ago, when human hunter-gatherers settled into villages to domesticate animals and cultivate crops. . . . Ancient emerging zoonotic diseases with deadly consequences include smallpox, falciparum malaria, measles, and bubonic/pneumonic plague. . . . [But] the past decade has witnessed unprecedented pandemic explosions: H1N1 “swine” influenza (2009), chikungunya (2014), and Zika (2015), as well as pandemic-like emergence of Ebola fever over large parts of Africa (2014 to the present) . . . . One can conclude from this recent experience that we have entered a pandemic era.[7]

All of the pandemics named here, and Middle East respiratory syndrome MERS that emerged into humans from dromedary camels in 2012, are zoonotic in origin––they are infections that have resulted from viruses and bacteria switching hosts from wild animals to humans, sometimes via other animals. A 2005 inquiry found that “zoonotic bugs accounted for 58 percent” of 1,407 “recognized species of human pathogen” (S, p. 44). A 2012 review of the sixth International Conference on Emerging Zoonoses, held in Cancun, Mexico, on 24–27 February 2011 with eighty-four participants from eighteen countries noted that “some 75 percent of emerging zoonoses worldwide” were of “wildlife origins.”[8] It further remarked: “With 1.5 billion animals being imported into the United States each year, as well as an extensive international illegal animal exports . . . EcoHealth has become a necessity, not an optional policy goal.”[9] The majority (92 percent) of imports of animals into the US, we learn from another study of 2009, “were designated for commercial purposes, largely the pet trade.”[10] Nearly 80 per cent of shipments contained wild animals, the majority of which had had “no mandatory testing for pathogens before or after shipment,” and nearly 70 percent of imported live animals “originated in Southeast Asia . . . a hotspot for emerging zoonotic diseases.”[11]

 What causes pandemics? Morens and his colleagues could not have been more blunt in their answer to this question: “Human beings are the ultimate causes of pandemics.” They point out that it is “deforestation, agricultural intensification, urbanization, and ecosystem disruption” that “bring people into contact with wildlife and their potentially zoonotic pathogens” (“P,” p. 4). This opinion is not exceptional by any chance. Most studies of pandemics underline this conclusion. Quammen writes: “To put the matter in its starkest form: Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly. . . . There are three elements to the situation,” he explains––humans are

causing the disintegration . . . of natural ecosystems at a cataclysmic rate. Logging, road building, slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting and eating of wild animals . . . clearing forest to create cattle pasture, mineral extraction, urban settlement, suburban sprawl, chemical pollution, nutrient runoff to the oceans, mining the oceans unsustainably for seafood, climate change . . . and other “civilizing” incursions upon natural landscape––by all such means, we are tearing ecosystems apart. [S, pp. 40–41]

Second, “millions of unknown creatures” that inhabit such ecosystems­­––including “viruses, bacteria, fungi, protists”––constitute what virologists call the “’virosphere,’ a vast realm of organisms that probably dwarfs every other group” (S, p. 41). And finally, “the disruption of natural ecosystems seems more and more to be unloosing such microbes into the wider world” (S, p. 41). “Spillover” is indeed the term used by “disease ecologists . . . to denote the moment when a pathogen passes from members of one species, as host, into members of another” (S, p. 43).

This understanding of the frequent emergence of zoonotic infectious diseases is backed up by several other publications: The United Nation’s Environment Programme’s Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission (2020) and The Loss of Nature and the Rise of Pandemics (2020) published by Word Wide Fund for Nature.[12] The first publication highlights “seven major anthropogenic drivers of zoonotic disease emergence”: (1) increasing demand for animal protein particularly in Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa where “per capita increase in animal protein consumption has been accompanied in many low- and middle-income countries by significant growth in population;” (2) unsustainable agricultural intensification, in particular of domestic livestock farming that “results in large numbers of genetically similar animals” more vulnerable to infection (swine flu being a case in point); (3) increased use and exploitation of wildlife; (4) unsustainable use of natural resources accelerated by urbanization, land use change and extractive industries that include mining, oil and gas extraction, logging, and encouraging “new or expanded interactions between people and wildlife:” (5) the increasing amount of human travel and trade; (6) changes in food supply chains driven by “increased demand for animal source food, new markets [including “wet” markets] for wildlife food, and poorly regulated agricultural intensification;” (7) climate change as “many zoonoses are climate sensitive and a number of them will thrive in a warmer, wetter, and more disaster-prone world foreseen in future scenarios.”[13]

The publication by the World Wide Fund for Nature, The Loss of Nature and the Rise of Pandemics, puts forward very similar propositions:

Human activities are causing cataclysmic changes to our planet. The growing human population and rapid increases in consumption have led to profound changes in land cover, rivers and oceans, the climate system, biogeochemical cycles and the way ecosystems function – with major implications for our own health and well-being. According to the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), three-quarters of land and two-thirds of the marine environment have been modified in a significant way, and around 1 million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction. WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018 charts a 60% average decline in abundance of vertebrate populations across the globe in just over 40 years. . . . Land-use change, including deforestation and the modification of natural habitats, are responsible for nearly half of emerging zoonoses.[14]

A study sponsored in the early 2000s by the Johns Hopkins University and the Cameroon Ministries of Health and Defense of Cameroon investigated in detail the impact of deforestation on traditional wildlife hunters. Authors of the study observed that “selective cutting” of high-value timber species––the chosen method of logging in Central Africa for reasons of costs of extraction and transportation––involved “constructing roads and transporting workers into relatively pristine forest regions.”[15] This in turn affected both hunting patterns and the reservoir hosts for pathogens. Building logging roads led to habitat fragmentation for wildlife. In some cases, it resulted in a loss of the “richness” of the “vertebrate reservoir host species” (“B,” p. 1823). This loss of diversity in the host species leads to an “increased abundance of highly competent reservoir of some zoonotic agents, increasing the risk for transmission to humans” (“B,” p. 1823). This fragmentation could also increase the zone of contact between human populations and reservoir hosts. The authors of the study write: “Historically, hunting activities radiated in a circular fashion from isolated villages, with decreasing impact at the periphery of the hunting range. . . . Roadside transport means that hunters can lay traps and hunt at the same distance from roads. This [shift] . . . from a circular pattern to a banded pattern [of human-animal contact] surrounding developed roads” increased the area of hunting and the risk for microbial emergence (“B,” p. 1823).

All this makes the pandemic a part of the phase of globalization that we equate with the Great Acceleration: the exponential increase, since the 1950s, in all parameters of growth of human presence on the planet, of economies, of travel, of population numbers, of greenhouse gas emissions, of human consumption, of human mobility, and so on. A recent (2017) report from the Brookings Institution informs us that:

It was only around 1985 that the middle class [with capacity for purchasing consumer gadgets] reached 1 billion people, about 150 years after the start of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. It then took 21 years, until 2006, for the middle class to add a second billion; much of this reflects the extraordinary growth of China. The third billion was added to the global middle class in nine years. Today we are on pace to add another billion in seven years and a fifth billion in six more years, by 2028.[16]

This is indeed the story of the intensification the process of globalization has undergone at the beginning of this century with China emerging as an industrial-military powerhouse of the world. Deforestation, loss wildlife habitat and biodiversity, factors that contributed majorly to the rise of this “era of pandemics” are thus critical parts of the story of the Great Acceleration of the global regime of capital.

But there is another aspect to the pandemic that points to the process that Bruno Latour and I discussed elsewhere under the heading, “The Global Reveals the Planetary.”[17] This emerges clearly when we read how virologists and specialists of infectious diseases understand the role of viruses in stories to do with pandemics. Understanding the emergence of this new era of pandemics actually requires us to look not only at the Great Acceleration of the process of globalization but also into the deep history of the evolution of life on this planet and how the current pandemic constitutes an episode in that history as well. This is what I briefly consider in the next section before concluding this essay.

The Pandemic and the Planetary

In a 2004 article examining “the challenge of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” Morens, Gregory Folkers, and Fauci opened their essay with a discussion of the only natural predators humans had failed to conquer in their technological and evolutionary history: microbial forms of life. They remembered the warning that Richard Krause, the Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases from 1975 to 1984, issued in The Persistent Tide (1981), that “microbial diversity and evolutionary vigor were still dynamic forces threatening mankind.”[18] They ended their article by referring to the role that the evolution of microbes played in the history of infectious diseases. “Underlying disease emergence are evolutionary conflicts between rapidly evolving and adapting infectious agents and their slowly evolving hosts,” they wrote (“C,” p. 248). “These are fought out,” they added, “in the context of accelerating environmental and human behavioral alterations that provide new ecological niches into which evolving microbes can readily fit” (“C,” p. 248). This is an ongoing, unending battle in which humans are forced constantly to improve and upgrade their technology while the microbes evolve and manage, in particular situations often created by humans themselves, to switch hosts. In concluding their essay, Morens and Fauci observe:

The challenge presented by the ongoing conflict between pathogenic microorganisms and man has been well summarized by a noted champion of the war on EIs [emerging infections], [the Nobel Laureate] Joshua Lederberg, “The future of microbes and mankind will probably unfold as episodes of a suspense thriller that could be entitled Our Wits Versus Their Genes.” [“C,” p. 248]

Morens and Fauci return to this theme in their recent reflections on the current pandemic: “In the ancient ongoing struggle between microbes and man,” they write, “genetically adapted microbes have the upper hand in consistently surprising us and often catching us unprepared” (“E,” p. 1078). Even the technologies we create to fight microbes to ensure human flourishing generally open up new pathways of infection and evolution. This point was very clearly made in another paper on infectious diseases by Nathan Wolfe, Claire Dunavan, and Jared Diamond:

The emergence of novel pathogens is now being facilitated by modern developments exposing more potential human victims and/or making transmission between humans more efficient than before. These developments include blood transfusion (hepatitis C), the commercial bushmeat trade (retroviruses), industrial food production (bovine spongiform encephalitis, BSE), international travel (cholera), intravenous drug use (HIV), vaccine production (Simian virus 40), and susceptible pools of elderly, antibiotic-treated, immunosuppressed patients.[19]

A particular evolutionary advantage that coronaviruses––one strain of which is currently a pain in the backside of humanity (if we could imagine a body-social for this abstract entity!)––have over humans is the “genetic instability of microorganisms allowing rapid microbial evolution to adapt to ever-changing ecologic niches” (“E,” p. 1080). This, Morens and Fauci say:

is particularly true of RNA viruses such as influenza virus, flaviviruses, enteroviruses, and coronaviruses, which have an inherently deficient or absent polymerase error-correction mechanisms [no proofreading capacity, in other words, as they reproduce themselves] and are transmitted as quasispecies or swarms of many, often hundreds or thousands of, genetic variants [which makes it difficult to humans to fight them]. [“E,” p. 1080]

This is fundamentally an evolutionary struggle that reminds us that humans, the species called Homo sapiens, for all their mastery of technology, are not outside of the Darwinian history of life and evolution that unfolds on this planet. Infectious diseases in humans are about microbial survival “by [their] co-opting certain of our genetic, cellular, and immune mechanisms to ensure their continuing transmission” (“E,” p. 1078). Morens and Fauci refer to Richard Dawkins on this point: “Evolution occurs on the level of gene competition and we, phenotypic humans, are merely genetic ‘survival machines’ in the competition between microbes and humans” (“E,” p. 1078). As human degradation of the environment creates opportunities for coronaviruses of various strains to switch hosts by moving from their reservoir hosts to various mammalian species, they get preadapted to human cells by working inside other mammalian bodies. Morens and Fauci write: “Viruses have deep evolutionary roots in the cellular world. This is exemplified by the SARS-like bat b-coronavirus, or sarbecoronavirus, whose receptor binding domains appear to be hyper-evolving by sampling a variety of mammalian receptors” (“E,” p. 1980). And they go on to add: “Evidence suggests that there are many bat coronaviruses pre-adapted to emerge, and possibly to emerge pandemically” (“E,” p. 1081).

Ultimately, these infectious diseases remind us of the deep evolutionary connections that exist between our bodies and other bodily forms of life (one reason why we can develop vaccines by testing them first on other animals). Quammen makes the point in a telling fashion:

By a strict definition, zoonotic pathogens (accounting for about 60 percent of our infectious diseases) are those that presently and repeatedly pass between humans and other animals, whereas the other group of infections (40 percent, including smallpox, measles, and polio) are caused by pathogens descended from forms that must have made the leap to human ancestors sometime in the past. It might be going too far to say that all our diseases are ultimately zoonotic, but zoonoses do stand as evidence of the infernal, aboriginal connectedness between us and other kinds of host. [S, p. 137]

What is planetary then about the current pandemic is that, for all the human tragedy it has already caused and will cause (partly due to the failures of political leadership), it is an episode in the evolutionary history of life on this planet. In the struggle between microbes and humans, made more acute by factors that have contributed to the Great Acceleration of processes of globalization, “it may be a matter of perspectives [as to] who is in the evolutionary driver’s seat,” comment Morens and Fauci––microbes or humans (“E,” p. 1078). Microbial forms of life have persisted on this planet for 3.8 billion years. Homo sapiens have been around for 300,000 years. “This perspective, say Morens and Fauci, “has implications for how we think about and react to emerging infectious disease threats” (“E,” p. 1078).


Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History and South Asian Studies at the University of Chicago. He is the author of, most recently, “The Planet: An Emergent Humanist Category,” in the Autumn 2019 issue of Critical Inquiry. He is also a consulting editor for the journal.


Thanks are due to Fredrik A. Jonsson for discussing some of these ideas with me.

[1] Vincent C. C. Cheng et al., “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection,” Clinical Microbiology Reviews 20 (Oct. 2007): 683.

[2] See David M. Morens et al., “Prespective Piece: The Origin of COVID-19 and Why It Matters,” American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 103, no. 3 (2020): 955.

[3] David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (New York, 2012), pp. 207–208; hereafter abbreviated S.

[4] Nathan Wolfe, Claire Panosian Dunavan, and Jared Diamond, “Origins of Major Human Infectious Diseases,” Nature, 17 May 2007, p. 281

[5] Ibid.

[6] David M. Morens et al., “Pandemic COVID-19 Joins History’s Pandemic Legion,” mBio 11 (May/June 2020): 1; hereafter abbreviated “P.” 

[7] Morens and Anthony S. Fauci, “Emerging Pandemic Diseases: How We Got to COVID-19,” Cell, 3 Sept. 2020, p. 1077; hereafter abbreviated “E.”

[8] R. E. Kahn et al., “Meeting Review: 6th International Conference on Emerging Zoonoses,” Zoonoses and Public Health 59 (2012), p. 6.

[9] Ibid., p. 7.

[10] Katherine F. Smith et al., “Reducing the Risks of the Wildlife Trade,” Science, 1 May 2009, p. 594.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See The United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute, Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission (Nairobi, 2020); World Wide Fund for Nature, The Loss of Nature and the Rise of Pandemics (Gland, 2020).

[13] Preventing the Next Pandemic, pp. 15–17.

[14] The Loss of Nature, p. 14.

[15] Wolfe et al., “Bushmeat Hunting, Deforestation, and Prediction of Zoonotic Disease Emergence,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 11 (Dec. 2005):1823; hereafter abbreviated “B.”

[16] Hannes Bergthaller, “Thoughts on Asia and the Anthropocene,” in The Anthropocenic Turn: The Interplay Between Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Responses to a New Age, ed. Gabriele Dürbeck and Phillip Hüpkes(New York, 2020), pp. 78–79.

[17] See Bruno Latour and Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Global Reveals the Planetary,” in Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, ed. Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, Mass., 2020), pp. 24­–31.

[18] Morens, Gregory K. Folkers, and Fauci, “The Challenge of Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases,” Nature 430, 8 July 2004, p. 242; hereafter abbreviated “C.” The full title of Richard Krause’s book is The Restless Tide: The Persistent Challenge of the Microbial World (Washington, D.C., 1981). For biographical details on Richard Krause (1925–2015), see Morens, “Richard M. Krause: The Avancular Avatar of Microbial Science,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) 113 (Feb. 2016): 1681–683.

[19] Wolfe, Dunavan, and Diamond, “Origins,” p. 282.

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Robert Bird (1969–2020): A Remembrance

Zachary Cahill

From left to right: Robert Bird, Christina Kiaer, and Zachary Cahill. Image Michael Christiano.

Robert Bird, a scholar of vast erudition of film and Russian literature, passed away on 7 September 2020, after a prolonged struggle with cancer. His book Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema is considered a landmark contribution to the scholarship on the Russian film director. Professor Bird was a storied teacher in the Departments of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.  Bird also curated major exhibitions of Soviet art at the university’s Smart Museum including: Vision and Communism: Viktor Koretsky and Dissident Public Visual Culture (with Christopher P. Heuer, Matthew Jesse Jackson, Tumelo Masaka, and Stephanie Smith) and Revolution Every Day (with Christina Kiaer, Diane Miliotes, and the author).

Words

As many of those close to Robert have expressed in the past few days—there are no words. No words and too many memories flooding in. Still, there is one word that keeps coming to mind as I remember Robert Bird: comrade.

This word, especially as applied to him, means something deeper, and conveys a relationship that is broader, than perhaps the more familiar word, friend.  I think it has something to do with a common cause, a cause worth devoting one’s life to. To be comrades with Robert Bird meant to be a witness to, and to share, his passion. It was a passion marked by a deep intellect, grace, gentleness, wit, and a poetic soul. It is one of the great fortunes of my life to share in some of his passions; it meant I would be one of the many beneficiaries of his genius and insight.

Debts

In my experience of academia, when folks are talking about art, the discussion tends to dwell on how artists affect scholarship. How artists lead thinking—that artists are the seers of knowledge production and culture. Less frequently do we hear the stories of how scholars impact artists and their work.  This latter perspective is the vantage point from where I write. So maybe this is a remembrance and an acknowledgment of a debt.

For the past decade, my time with Robert has had an enormous impact on my artwork. Always supportive and inquisitive, his energy and intellectual generosity buoyed my spirits as well as enlarged my mind and my art. For any artist knowing that there is even one person out in the world who not only understands but cares about your work is the ultimate life-line. Whether he knew it or not Robert was that lifeline to many artists, not just myself.

We met at the first birthday party of the daughter of our mutual comrade, Matthew Jesse Jackson. To my amazement, during casual party chit-chat, I had stumbled into talking with one of the world’s foremost scholars of Andrei Tarkovsky, a filmmaker whose work I was in awe of. But more than that, he also was a scholar of some of my favorite writers, Soviet authors like Andrei Platonov and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. It was at this first meeting that I would start to accrue my many debts to Robert Bird. Fanboy enthusiastic, I blurted out something to the effect that Memories of The Future collected some of Krzhizhanovsky’s “real” writing (distinct from his work on say, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia—or so that was what I had thought I had read), to which Robert graciously pointed out that this claim was unclear and that, in fact, the author did not necessarily make such distinctions between his work on the encyclopedia, editorial work, and his novels—it was all his writing. For the Soviet writer there was no such divide between art and life. It was a casual thunderbolt, as was Robert’s way. This observation was both inspiring and liberating for me as an artist because I no longer felt hemmed in by a profession, or role, that my art wasn’t dependent on being claimed as such by other people, nor could anyone ever pay me enough in a job to stop being an artist: artist in the studio and artist in the office. Robert gave me that and so many more insights.

Time and Art

The metaphysical study of time was one of Robert Bird’s great passions. This is evidenced not only by the fact that he was a keen observer and interpreter of the time-based art of film, not only because he was a prolific writer on revolution and memory. His passion for time culminated, I believe, in the Soviet-style tear-off calendar-cum-exhibition catalog for Revolution Every Day. This little 800-page brick-shaped machine for art and primary research on what it was like to live everyday life in the Soviet Union was his invention for the exhibition. In it, Robert had essays about the Soviets early attempt to create a new sense of time through changing the workweek to changing the annual calendar from the Julian to the Gregorian (where 25 October became 7 November). These essays were placed alongside reproductions of the wildly creative soviet calendars, numerous diary entries that he translated at an unbelievable rate. The book and the exhibition Revolution Every Day had an ecstatic quality to it, not simply due to the revolutionary subject matter, but because he was working alongside his life comrade and wife, the renowned art historian Christina Kiaer. Two giants of Soviet art scholarship engaged in a true labor of love, and this labor was a gift to the city of Chicago that drew rock-star writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard (one of Robert’s favorite contemporary novelists) and real rock-and-roll stars like Ian Svenonius to the museum.

Robert Bird will surely be remembered for his scholarly work, but he also was a great curator. He had a discerning feel for space and vision for what would make an exhibition interesting. Robert was a wonderful collaborator (an essential ingredient for successful curation) open to other people’s ideas, he possessed a genuine desire to hear from people some beside himself (this no doubt was one of the things that made him such an excellent teacher.) Yet one key reason for his adeptness at curating had everything to do with his reverence for art and his enduring belief that, in fact, art could change the world. Standing beside him and Christina in this photo I definitely believed it could and, because of everything Robert gave to us, I still do.

Thank you, my comrade.

May you rest in peace and in art.

___________________________________________________________________________

Zachary Cahill is an interdisciplinary artist. Since 2010, he has worked on his artistic project the USSA a fictitious nation-state, which has taken the form of discreet artworks, exhibitions, performances, and a novel. He is the Director of Programs and Fellowships at the University of Chicago’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry and editor-in-chief of Portable Gray, the center’s journal published twice yearly by the University of Chicago Press

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COVID-19 / EXPOSE

Jenny Holzer

8 June 2020


For more than forty years, Jenny Holzer has presented her astringent ideas, arguments, and sorrows in public places and international exhibitions, including 7 World Trade Center, the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Her medium, whether formulated as a T-shirt, a plaque, or an LED sign, is writing, and the public dimension is integral to the delivery of her work. Starting in the 1970s with the New York City posters, and continuing through her recent light projections on landscape and architecture, her practice has rivaled ignorance and violence with humor, kindness, and courage. Holzer received the Leone d’Oro at the Venice Biennale in 1990, the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award in 1996, and the Barnard Medal of Distinction in 2011. She holds honorary degrees from Williams College, the Rhode Island School of Design, The New School, and Smith College. She lives and works in New York.  

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June 8, 2020 · 12:58 pm

Recoding Relations: Dispatches from the Symposium for Indigenous New Media

David Gaertner and Melissa Haberl

In June 2018, scholars, developers, artists, and community members from over twenty institutions and three continents gathered on the ancestral and unceded territory of the WSÁNEĆ, Lkwungen, and Wyomilth peoples to participate in the inaugural Symposium for Indigenous New Media (SINM). As part of the University of Victoria’s annual Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI), #SINM2018 sought to highlight Indigenous innovation with digital technology and new media and to create a space for relationshipbuilding between the digital humanities (DH) and Indigenous studies. Scholars from across the social sciences and the humanities presented research on topics ranging from Indigenous video games and virtual reality, to communications technology, language revitalization, and new media, to digital texts, social media analytics, and archival digitization. Our specific intent was to interrogate the critical relationship between DH and Indigenous studies, namely generating more robust ways to consider how key concepts in Indigenous studies—namely, land, language, sovereignty, and self-determination—translated (or failed to translate) into digital spaces and practices.

IMG_7987

There is an urgent need to decolonize DH theory and practice. Many Indigenous scholars and community members resist the digital humanities because of concerns raised by their communities about the expropriation of data. These concerns are not unfounded. Indeed, just after our symposium ended, the translation company Lionbridge was accused of mining Facebook for access to Te reo Māori (the Māori language), which, in turn, they were mobilizing for profit: “Data sovereignty has become a real issue,” Peter-Lucas Jones (Te Aupōuri, Ngāi Takoto, Ngāti Kahu) told interviewers about this incident, “now we have a situation where there is economic gain for our reo and if there is economic gain, it should be for our own Māori people, not an American company.”[1] The Lionbridge incident illustrates how digital technologies reproduce and amplify ongoing histories of settler colonialism, which exploit Indigenous resources and knowledges for non-Indigenous cultural and financial gain. We argue that digital extraction is not simply symptomatic of settler colonialism, it is a constitutive piece of terra nullius: the erasure of Indigenous peoples as peoples, with inherent rights and millennia-long histories of research, science, and knowledge mobilization. If DH cannot, or will not recognize Indigenous data sovereignty—that is Indigenous peoples inherent right to steward and mobilize their own knowledges without interference—it will remain, even when mobilized with the best of intentions, part of the problem. If it is able to grapple with the legacies of colonialism embedded in technology and knowledge mobilization schematics, however, we argue that DH has the potential to meaningfully contribute to decolonization. This is the balance on which the symposium operated.

“Recoding Relations,” the title of this blog post and the podcast series that preceded it, means shifting our perspective on the objectives of DH: from data extraction to relationship building; from settler state-based perspectives to anticolonial methodologies; from saviour narratives to reciprocal knowledge exchanges. In other words, “recoding relations” is a call to be attentive to the “how” of DH or, more specifically, the relationality of DH as a practice. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes that “ultimately we access knowledge through the quality of our relationships and the personalized context we collectively create—the meaning comes from the context and the process, not the content.”[2] In this sense, “recoding relations,” as informed by Simpson, means being attentive to the relationships we cultivate in DH—not just those that are amplified through our projects and publications but also those that go unheard or are rendered unheard (intentionally or not) through our work. It means assessing the contexts through which we inherit DH (academia, settler colonialism, Western technology) and using those contexts to interpret the processes through which we enact digital research (data scraping, visualization, textual encoding, and others). It means putting people before platforms and consent before code.

SINM was informed by Indigenous interventions into technology. Our goal was to build technical and cultural capacity through the symposium and to articulate our conclusions via open access knowledge mobilization, in the form of blog posts, newspaper articles, and podcasts.[3] Our findings were broad in scope but address a number of key intersecting takeaways: (1) emphasize relationships over tools: that is, rather than  engaging DH as a means to collect, analyze, and visualize data, we argue for imagining it as a site of activation for community building and knowledge sharing. We look towards a DH that is willing to build meaningful relationships with community and individuals in ways that exceed the boundaries of what is typically understood as  the digital Emphasizing relationships also means overcoming the deficit model, which has historically framed Indigenous peoples as inherently lacking and therefore in need of (Euro-Christian) support. Building reciprocal relationships based in equality means reaching out to communities before, during, and after a project and lending support and resources, as well as providing training, so that they can continue to build digital projects without the P. I. or the initial research team; it means shifting the critical gaze away from Indigenous communities and towards the colonial systems that produce deficit (2) affirmed, ongoing consent: settler colonialism (colonialism, as seen in settler states such as Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, that is premised on the displacement and erasure of Indigenous people) is already built out of a nonconsensual relationship. We argue that DH can help to make nonconsent visible via big data and immersive, geospecific visualizations. We also argue that we must hold the DH community accountable to the highest standards of informed, ongoing, relational, and reciprocal consensual research. This includes, but is not limited to data sovereignty and the OCAP® principles.[4] (3) Include Indigenous thinkers, programmers in your syllabi: The settler colonial project functions, historically and presently, by simplifying Indigeneity and relegating it to the past. Foregrounding Western models of “progress” and technology fundamentally contributes to the erasure of Indigenous innovation. As such, we argue for DH research and pedagogy that holds up Indigenous technologies in the past, present, and future. A huge part of this means training the next generation of DH scholars, from all backgrounds, to read with Indigenous technologies and towards decolonial methodologies, as developed by Indigenous scholars and activists.

In what follows, we summarize the major themes of SINM as they arose out of presentations, workshops, and discussion groups as a means to build on the above three points. We’ve organized those themes into five categories: (1) (re)worlding through new media; (2) the digital divide and Indigenous technological tradition; (3) historicizing Indigenous new media; (4) challenges, relationships and suggested practices; and (5) decolonizing the digital humanities. Overall, we argue that Indigenous new media is not tangential to DH but that it is in fact foundational to how we understand digital scholarship as a community-oriented practice and relationship. It is our hope that the details shared in this blog post contribute to a deeper relational engagement with Indigenous studies in DH and leads to further work between and across the two fields. Working together, we are hopeful that DH and Indigenous studies can produce significant decolonial digital interventions at a moment when more of this work is desperately needed.[5]

(Re)Worlding through New Media

While barriers to Indigenous participation in DH persist, SINM participants spoke to the powerful ways in which Indigenous peoples are harnessing and repurposing digital technology as a means of self-representation and storytelling, decolonial education, and relationship building. They also attested to the power of digital technologies as potential tools for political mobilization and expressions of sovereignty. During a panel on gaming and animation, Mohawk Communications Studies MA candidate Maize Longboat shared his work on Indigenous video-game development. Longboat argued that video games offer “a narrative medium for Indigenous peoples to tell their stories in ways that other media simply can’t.”[6] His presentation focused on his experience developing his own video game (Terra Nova) as part of a research-creation project for his MA. He posed the question, “What makes Indigenous video games?” and noted that he is still exploring how his game will be informed by his experience as a Mohawk person.[7] Longboat explained that Indigenous video games have a unique narrative quality and are grounded in direct cultural connections to a territory’s original inhabitants. Yet at the same time, the development process and mechanics of the medium are traditionally Western. “How do we contend with that tension?” he asked, and, most importantly, “How do experiential forms of media expand our ways of knowing?” He positioned video games as a means to express long-standing Indigenous knowledges, identities, and cultures but also indicated that gaming offers a way to build on intellectual and cultural traditions by creating new stories and storytelling platforms for and by Indigenous peoples. “Ongoing systems of colonization,” explained Longboat, “seek to relegate Indigenous peoples and identity to a past time that is separate from our contemporary era of digital technology.” Longboat pushes back against that narrative by recognizing Indigenous peoples as “present and active participants in the technological world” and his work contributes to a growing movement of Indigenous developers who are world-making and decolonizing through video games.[8] Terra Nova, a two-player, cooperative puzzle platformer, illustrates how Indigenous epistemologies translate into game play and mechanics while holding up videogame development as an extension of Indigenous storytelling.

Virtual and augmented reality developers Caroline and Michael Running Wolf had a similar message about the power of Indigenous new media and its capacity to connect people across distance, language, and culture. Caroline, of the Crow Nation, and Michael, of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, hail from what is currently known as Montana. In 2016 they travelled to neighbouring North Dakota to join thousands of Indigenous and allied people gathered at Oceti Sakowin, commonly known as the Standing Rock water protector camp. The Running Wolfs created a virtual reality (VR) platform based on their experiences at the gathering and later brought it to a conference on language conservation in Hawai’i. There, they showed it to a Siberian grandmother who chose to watch the victory song that erupted after then President Obama announced that the US government would halt the North Dakota Access pipeline efforts for a time. As Michael explained,

she didn’t speak a lick of English, she didn’t speak any native language outside her home country, and yet she got it. She understood the power of this event that we had captured through technology and transported. So I think that’s the power of this technology — that we can take video from this alien place, North Dakota, and show it to someone from Siberia, in Hawai’i. And it transported her, and she just got it emotionally, what was going on [at] this event of joy.

This story elucidates the power of Indigenous VR to create spaces for understanding and decolonial education all rooted in an ethic of relationship building. The capacity of the app to connect someone from the other side of the world, with no knowledge of the language being spoken, to the people, struggles, and triumphs at Standing Rock is particularly significant in a colonial system designed to segregate and disassociate Indigenous peoples from settler society while alienating individual struggles as a means of control. The Standing Rock VR app, along with other VR and augmented reality (AR) projects developed by the Running Wolfs, works to not only hold up Indigenous experiences and resistance but to forge new social realities and decolonial futures by facilitating learning and building empathy and community through virtual worlds.[9]

Gaming and social media are two spaces in which we are witnessing Indigenous resurgence. According to Métis scholar Aubrey Hanson, “resurgence is an Indigenizing impulse; it acknowledges colonialism and domination through resistance but it does not focus solely on colonialism as the most important concern. Instead, resurgence insistently focuses on Indigenous communities as sites of power and regeneration.”[10] Social media, and in particular #NativeTwitter, represents a critical space where Indigenous resurgence is taking place. Understanding the labour that Indigenous peoples put into making Twitter an effective platform for anti-racist and anti-white supremacist work is key to unpacking and reconfiguring the DH/Indigenous studies relationship.[11]  During the SINM panel on digital ecologies, Nehiyaw (Cree) Applied Psychology scholar Jeffrey Ansloos presented on his current research with Twitter, where he uses social media analytics as a means of analyzing social and political dimensions of Indigenous mental health as they’re expressed online. In particular, his research aims to strengthen a qualitative understanding of decolonial efforts on Twitter and to “explicate the polity of cultural revitalization activities” happening on the site. He spoke about how #NativeTwitter is repurposing the platform to not only revitalize Indigenous cultures, but to mobilize politically and to assert sovereignty. His research into language revitalization on the site found that “the [Twitter] ecology is producing an opportunity where there is language learning, but not in the way we have understood it — not merely to indigenize, but also to speak politically . . . and to strategically engage systems of the settler state.” Ansloos argued that while cultural revitalization online can indeed support Indigenous mental health, this cannot be achieved through “a neoliberal framing of indigenization or cherry-picking culture.” Rather, he explained that the Indigenous community’s relationship with these social media projects is fundamentally “renegotiating Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty with the settler state.” Ansloos’s findings and political orientation push us to think beyond the sometimes-limited framework of cultural revitalization. Instead of “indigenizing,” his work highlights the necessity of decolonizing, and of productively engaging with the ways in which the Indigenous Twitter community is already doing this work. That is to say, in order to decolonize DH, it is not enough to simply invite more Indigenous peoples into the field. Rather, allied scholars must first work to make the field safe and viable for Indigenous peoples and Indigenous knowledges. Ansloos’s research speaks to the richness of data in online environments like #NativeTwitter and how analyzing these ecologies can in turn inform and encourage resurgence in social policy and practice.

The Digital Divide and Indigenous Technological Tradition

More than presenting on the ways in which Indigenous communities are taking up technology, SINM participants also explained that Indigenous new media engagement is not novel but a continuation of a long history of Indigenous technological innovation. At the same time, the symposium grappled with how that history exists in tension with current realities of ongoing colonization, material inequality, and systemic barriers to information and communication technologies (ICTs). The historical and ongoing exclusion of Indigenous communities and reserves from these rapidly evolving industries and technologies presents a major problem, and as Jasmin Winters put it, “challenging the digital divide is no small feat.” Winters presented on her involvement with the First Nations Technology Council — an Indigenous-led organization in BC working to ensure that Indigenous peoples have “equal access to the tools, training, and support required to maximize the opportunities presented by technology and innovation.”[12] She explained that the council aims to address practical issues “like the actual building of digital infrastructure such as fibre optics, increasing supplies of hardware and software in communities, and creating more opportunities for careers in existing tech industries.” The council also does advocacy work around “the potential of digital tools for the pursuit of Indigenous rights to self-determination and sovereignty.” In this way, the Council fills a much-needed gap in respect to offering services and support that practically address the material impacts and injustices of the digital divide while providing infrastructural support that can be levied towards the proliferation of Indigenous resurgence.

Systems of oppression and digital inequality, however, must not belie the ways in which Indigenous peoples have technologically innovated since time immemorial. Winters noted that the Technology Council “first and foremost recognizes Indigenous peoples as always having been innovators in science and technology.” She stressed that we “need to position Indigenous peoples as the original innovators on these territories” and cited Cheryl L’Hirondelle, who writes “that to be truly free and self-governing, [Indigenous peoples] must also acknowledge and be aware of [their] pre-contact ingenuity as inventors and technologists — experts in new media and avatars of innovation.”[13] Sara Humphreys furthered this argument during her talk on the Cogewea Project.[14] According to Humphreys, “Indigenous ontology and epistemology expressed ideals of cyberspace before cyberspace was thought of as technology.” As evidence to this claim, she cited the centrality of interconnectedness within Indigenous worldviews, the storing of data via sign systems, and uses of multilayered, multimedia communication systems. In turn, Ashley Caranto Morford presented on one such example of precolonial Indigenous digital technology. Morford’s presentation built out of the foundational work of Cherokee scholar Angela Haas, who writes that the wampum belts made by Woodlands Indigenous peoples “extend human memory . . . via interconnected, nonlinear designs and associative message storage and retrieval methods” and have thereby functioned as hypertextual digital technology for over a thousand years — long before the invention of Western hypertext in the 20th century.[15] According to Morford, Haas “calls on us to rethink the digital” as not only that which involves computers and computer technology, but as that “which relies on the intricate work of the fingers, or digits, to create complex code.” Morford then turned to her own research on pre-colonial and ongoing Philippine tattooing practices: “These practices rely on the fingers to code significant aspects of our cultures through an intimate hand tapping technique that requires a bamboo stick and lemon tree thorn, water and soot,” and as such, are also “forms of decolonial digital technology.” In sum, Winters, Humphreys and Morford all demonstrated the long-standing genealogies of Indigenous technology while illustrating how those technologies translate into contemporary platforms and practices. At stake for all of these scholars were expressions of Indigenous technologies that informed and expanded contemporary definitions of the digital, namely through advanced cataloguing and representational techniques.

Considering these perspectives and traditions, we need to reject deficit- and damage-based approaches when moving towards the creation of a more just and equitable digital future. Deficit- and damage-based narratives look towards documenting exploitation and colonial oppression to elucidate the contemporary issues faced by Indigenous peoples and leverage redress. As Eve Tuck puts it, “common sense tells us this is a good thing, but the danger . . . is that it is a pathologizing approach in which the oppression singularly defines the community.”[16] Winters argues that “decolonizing the technology sector means first challenging deficit-based notions of the digital divide and understanding the impact and legacy of colonization on Indigenous knowledge,” as well as “challenging linear worldviews of development and innovation.” This is to say that beginning from the idea that DH or technology can “save” Indigenous peoples reproduces deficit-based narratives while eliding Indigenous innovation. In the Q&A for their panel, Mark Turin added that while Indigenous peoples have always engaged technology in deep and insightful ways, this does not mean that state structures have been supporting or facilitating that work. The DH and tech communities must hold up both of these realities by first recognizing the Indigenous histories at play, while also working to end digital inequality through strengths-based approaches, for instance supporting the work already being done by organizations like the First Nations Technology Council.

Historicizing Indigenous New Media

While histories of Indigenous creation with technology go back millennia, the now constantly evolving field of Indigenous new media developed more recently and specifically through the leadership of Indigenous women. During his symposium keynote, David Gaertner traced the emergence of the field to 1996 and to two key interventions: Loretta Todd’s essay critiquing the colonial underpinnings of the internet, “Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace,” and Skawennati CyberPowWow, which Gaertner argues was “the first Indigenous territory in cyberspace.”[17] Gaertner explained that “it was no small feat” that these women made these interventions at a time and in an environment that was (and often still is) openly hostile towards women and Indigenous peoples. Since their emergence, online spaces have been, and continue to be, disproportionately violent toward black and Indigenous peoples, other people of color, as well as women, queer, trans and Two-Spirit individuals and communities. This is particularly true in respect to Indigenous women, who frequently face a combined force of racist, sexist, and colonial harassment and abuse online. Despite this, Gaertner noted, it also continues to be Indigenous women, like Anishinaabe video-game developer Elizabeth LaPensée, who “do the heavy lifting” in respect to confronting this behaviour and calling out violence, such as when LaPensée “intervened to stop the 2014 rerelease of the Atari platformer Custer’s Revenge — a game in which the objective is the rape of Pocahontas.” Indigenous women have in this way led the charge in building safer, more just and more equitable digital worlds, and their intellectual and creative contributions form the backbone of Indigenous new media and, in some ways new media itself. Indeed, some of the most cited new media and digital technology scholars at SINM were Todd, Skawennati, Angela Haas, and Marisa Duarte — all Indigenous women whose digital innovations and critical interventions have helped shape the field from the onset. Scholars and developers currently working in DH and new media need to hold up this labour and do far better in respect to supporting Indigenous women and addressing colonial and patriarchal violence when it occurs both online and offline.

Challenges, Relationships and Suggested Practices

Closing his talk during the SINM Indigitization workshop, Cultural Coordinator of Cowichan Tribes Chuck Seymour remarked that: “[Indigenous peoples] are the most studied people, but the least understood.” “Why are we not understood?” he asked. “You don’t speak our language.” Seymour was presenting on his work with the Cowichan Tribes Cultural Education Department and their process of digitizing cultural heritage materials so that their history and language can be kept alive and accessible for future generations. His words threw into sharp relief a larger truth that was discussed by other presenters at the symposium: that while non-Indigenous scholars continue to pursue research and projects in Indigenous contexts, there remains a significant gap in understanding and lived experience between these academics and the Indigenous communities they seek to work with. The material challenges and demands communities face as a result of ongoing settler colonial occupation are often missed or ignored by academics working in the digital humanities and the academy more broadly and thus the colonial dynamic to research goes largely unchanged. Addressing these gaps through ongoing relationship building, community-led research, and cultural sensitivity training, while not traditionally thought off as “digital” are thus key innovating ethical and meaningful relationships between DH and Indigenous studies.

Sarah Dupont, program manager at Indigitization — a collaborative initiative that works to support Indigenous communities and organizations with the conservation, digitization and management of community knowledge — dedicated most of her time at SINM to discussing issues of capacity for Indigenous digital initiatives. In particular, she outlined how Canadian government and industry demands on Indigenous nations, handed down in the form of thousands of annual referrals, often make doing archival digitization or other digital projects a difficult trade-off for communities.[18] Committing time and resources to this work is a substantial challenge in a colonial context where nations are constantly faced with proposals for natural resource development on their territories, or other threats to land, sovereignty, and culture. Dupont explained that nations are also often working with extremely limited resources, small staff numbers, and technical constraints, especially in more remote First Nations that may not have access to IT departments or up-to-date communications technology. Cultural heritage work, for instance, often operates on contingent funding, she explained, which leads to difficult cycles of “startup and collapse” for many communities. These are some of the challenges communities are facing, and Dupont argues that when academics make a commitment to work with a nation, they need to understand the resources and demands that community is dealing with and adjust their practice and objectives accordingly.

Settler students and scholars interested in or already working in Indigenous contexts also need to appreciate the living history of academic appropriation, misrepresentation, and exploitation. Linda Tuhiwai Smith writes that, “from the vantage point of the colonized, the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism,” and the ways that academic research has been used to subjugate and dehumanize Indigenous peoples remains a “powerful remembered history for many of the worlds colonized peoples.”[19] Dupont explains that “colonial organizations have historically worked against Indigenous control of Indigenous information,” while Gaertner noted that universities have been complicit in the theft of Indigenous land and knowledge since the onset of colonization. These histories and their ongoing effects on Indigenous communities extend critical responsibilities. DH and new media scholars, and academics in general, need to recognize that they are working out of a space that is deeply implicated in colonial violence and in turn make visible and resist that legacy in the ways they carry out their work. As Gaertner argued in his keynote, “settler colonialism is already premised off a non-consensual relationship” and thus “we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard as DH researchers working in Indigenous studies.”

Bearing in mind the historical connection between research and colonization, several SINM participants also offered helpful guidelines for engaging Indigenous communities. The Running Wolfs suggested “6Rs” for nonexploitative data collection and research: respect, relevance, responsibility, reciprocity, relationality, and representation. They emphasized that research must be done with communities, which involves researchers building respectful and reciprocal relationships. Caroline explained that scholars need to ask themselves what and how they can give back to the communities they work with and that they also need to be aware of the forms of representation they create through their work. Drawing on the words of Deanna Reder, Gaertner offered similar suggestions and argued that researchers need to be better relations to Indigenous peoples. “Being a good relation,” he explained, involves forming “meaningful relationships with communities and individuals, which requires time and emotional labour.” Gaertner stressed the importance of free, prior, informed, and ongoing consent, and insisted that Indigenous buy-in cannot be an afterthought but must be secured before and throughout a project. “A yes at the beginning,” he said, “is not a yes at the middle, nor is it a yes at the end.” Citing the First Nations Principles of OCAP®, Gaertner also noted that scholars and developers in the digital humanities need to “take data sovereignty seriously” and that while it may be legal to use data in a certain way, Indigenous communities may have different rules for data stewardship that must be respected and followed.[20]

Decolonizing the Digital Humanities  

More than being good relations and ethical researchers, the digital humanities need to carve space for Indigenous knowledge, worldviews, and ways of being, and better attend to colonial legacies in the field. DH scholars need to recognize how mainstream ways of engaging with digital spaces, for instance with trends regarding open access and open education, often work against the values, concerns, and rights of Indigenous peoples. As Kimberly Christen explains, for the past two decades, demands for increased information freedom by the free and open source software community have combined with debates about open access, digital rights management, and intellectual property rights. Yet, those pushing to resist private control over digital spaces often do not consider—or actively deny—Indigenous rights to managing their information and knowledge online.[21] “The celebration of openness, something that began as a reaction to corporate greed and the legal straightjacketing of creative works,” writes Christen, “has resulted in a limited vocabulary with which to discuss the ethical and cultural parameters of information circulation and access in the digital realm.”[22] The open access and Creative Commons movements in this way fail to recognize or respond to culturally-specific contexts and social realities, such as the rights of Indigenous communities to uphold protocols for who, how, and when their digital heritage materials can be accessed, used, and disseminated. Morford in turn argued at SINM that “Creative Commons licensing and the public domain are not necessarily ethical, and often are a means of benefiting and protecting the colonialist and the colonial system.” She gave an example of historical photos of Philippine Indigenous peoples taken by early colonial zoologists and asked: “Did the ancestors whose photos were taken by white researchers with malicious colonial intents, and whose photos are now in the public domain, consent to have their images taken and used in such a way?” The DH community, and indeed all people involved in the broad scope of the open access movement, have a responsibility to address these concerns and to build space for discussing issues like Indigenous consent, protocol, and sovereignty within larger debates regarding open access.

The digital humanities and technology sectors also need to acknowledge the ways in which whiteness, colonialism, and harmful Western ideologies have shaped the internet. “Since its beginning,” explain Jason Lewis and Skawennati, “cyberspace has been imagined as a free and open space, much like the New World was imagined by the Europeans.”[23] Indeed, as Loretta Todd wrote in 1996, the internet was built as an extension of millenia of Western and colonial philosophy and “has in fact been under construction for at least the past two thousand years.”[24] Todd argues that “a fear of the body, aversion to nature, a desire for salvation and transcendence of the earthly plane created a need for cyberspace,” and that the “tension [in Western culture] between the need to know all . . . and the limitations of the body and the senses, of the physical world, [extended] a need for a new site for the ‘heart and mind’ of man.”[25] During her presentation in the symposium, Humphreys argued that “there are limits to knowledge” and that, despite its depiction in literature, “cyberspace is not limitless and utopic” and cannot be treated as such. We remain accountable to people and place when we contribute to and engage in the digital world, and Humphreys stressed that we must be responsible to the communities we represent when we use these spaces. Deciphering what this looks like is thus a key component of what decolonial DH is and should be.

Power is an essential consideration in a DH/Indigenous studies relationship. According to Treena Chambers, “too often we see the politics of the powerful as the norm” in the digital humanities. That is to say that technology, as a tool of power, carries with it particular sets of ideologies that are often elided via its application. Chambers notes that, in this sense, technology itself is political, speaking to the need to apply critical analysis to the tools we use, not just the results they produce. Other presenters stressed similar points and offered different perspectives on how to improve and decolonize DH. Symposium co-organizer and Nisga’a writer Jordan Abel further argued during his SINM keynote that “DH needs to be a space . . . with generative, porous borders” — that it needs to be an “interdisciplinary and intersectional” community that encourages work that can in turn “engender understanding across forms of difference.” Finally, more than address the realities of ongoing colonization and invite critical scholarship, Ansloos argued that the digital humanities must not simply seek to “indigenize” or treat Indigenous peoples as “sprinkles on the academic cupcake” but that the DH community needs to support decolonization and Indigenous sovereignty in practical, material ways, be that through funding opportunities, training, resourcing, reciprocal research, and/or MOUs.

Conclusion

Throughout the many presentations at SINM 2018 there lingered a constant notion that digital technologies themselves cannot achieve the goals of Indigenous communities or dismantle colonization. Participants noted that it is not technology alone but people and relationships that have the power to support Indigenous and decolonial futures, and while SINM was itself an important space for people to connect, share ideas, and discuss common challenges, there remains much work to be done in terms of community building and supporting the relationships necessary for decolonial digital innovation in DH. It is our hope that this blog post furthers those conversations and leads to continued capacity-building across DH and Indigenous studies.

For more on SINM, including audio excerpts from the above described presentations, please download our four-part podcast miniseries Recoding Relations, which you can find here: https://www.recodingrelations.org  

David Gaertner is an Assistant Professor in the Institute of Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia. He has published broadly on Indigenous literature, Indigenous new media, and the digital humanities. His articles have appeared in Canadian Literature, American Indian Cultural and Research Journal, and Bioethical Inquiry, amongst others. He is the editor of Sôhkêyihta: The Poetry of Sky Dancer Louise Bernice Halfe and the co-editor of Read, Listen, Tell: Indigenous Stories from Turtle Island. His monograph, The Theatre of Regret: Objecting to Reconciliation with Indigenous Arts and Literatures is forthcoming from UBC Press.

Melissa Haberl  is a BA graduate of History and First Nations and Indienous Studies at the University of British Columbia and a creator of the 2018 Symposium for Indigenous New Media’s Recoding Relations podcast series. She currently lives in Berlin, Germany.


[1] “Indigenous Data Theft,” te hiku media, 10 Aug. 2018, https://tehiku.nz/te-hiku-tv/haukainga/8037/indigenous-data-theft

[2] Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Bubbling Like a Beating Heart: Reflections on Nishnaabeg Poetic and Narrative Consciousness,” in Indigenous Poetics in Canada,  ed. Neal McLeod  (Ontario, 2014), p. 112.

[3] Aside from our four-part podcast miniseries, Symposium RA, Autumn Schnell, also produced the essay “It’s Time to Queer the Digital Humanities,” The Talon, 29 Jan. 2019, https://thetalon.ca/its-time-to-queer-the-digital-humanities/

[4] See Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor, Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward an Agenda (2016), p. xxii. See also OCAP (Ownership, Control, Access, Permission), https://fnigc.ca/ocap

[5] Miriam Posner writes that, “DH needs scholarly expertise in critical race theory, feminist and queer theory, and other interrogations of structures of power in order to develop models of the world that have any relevance to people’s lived experience. Truly, it is the most complicated, challenging computing problem I can imagine, and DH hasn’t even begun yet to take it on” (Miriam Posner, “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities,” Miriam Posner’s Blog, 27 July 2015, https://miriamposner.com/blog/whats-next-the-radical-unrealized-potential-of-digital-humanities/). While this claim is five years old now, we believe that issues race, gender, and indigeneity are just as pressing now in 2020 as they were in 2015. DH still has an enormous amount of work to do.

[6] Maize Longboat, presentation, Symposium for Indigenous New Media, Victoria B.C., June 2018. Unless otherwise indicated, all subsequent references to content from presentations, keynotes and related discussions are from the Symposium for Indigenous New Media held as part of the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria on 10–11 June 2018.

[7] You can download and play Terra Nova at https://maizelongboat.itch.io/terra-nova

[8] For other key projects, see the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTec) research-creation network, http://abtec.org/; Achimostawinan Games, http://abtec.org/iif/residencies/achimostawinan-games/; Skins 5.0, http://skins.abtec.org/skins5.0/; and work by Skawennati, http://www.skawennati.com/ and Elizabeth LaPensée, http://www.elizabethlapensee.com/.

[9] For more virtual and augmented reality projects developed by the Running Wolfs, see Buffalo Tongue Inc., http://buffalotongue.org/, and Madison Buffalo Jump and others at http://runningwolf.io/vr.html.

[10] Aubrey Hanson, “Reading for Reconciliation? Indigenous Literatures in a Post-TRC Canada,” ESC: English Studies in Canada 43, nos. 2-3 (2017): 74.

[11] Here, we bear in mind Lisa Nakamara’s work on social media labour; see Lisa Nakamara, “The Unwanted Labour of Social Media: Women of Colour Call out Culture As Venture Community Management.” new formations: a journal of culture/theory/politics 86 (2016): 106–12.

[12] For more information on their objectives, projects, and current opportunities, see the First Nations Technology Council website, http://www.technologycouncil.ca/

[13] Cheryl L’Hirondelle,”Codetalkers Recounting Signals of Survival,” in Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways in New Media Art, ed. Steven Loft and Kerry Swanson (Calgary, 2014), p. 147.

[14] To learn about the Cogewea Project, see http://www.philome.la/smhumphreys/the-cogewea-project

[15] Angela M. Haas, “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice,” Studies in American Indian Literatures 19, no. 4 (2008): 80–81.

[16] Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities,” Harvard Educational Review 79, no. 3 (2009): 413.

[17] Cyberpowwow was an Indigenous online gallery, live chat space and mixed-reality event active between 1997–2004. To learn more about the space, see CyberPowWow, http://www.cyberpowwow.net/.

[18] Dupont explained during her presentation that “referral” is a generic term used by the Crown, First Nations, or both when referencing a potential statutory or policy decision that may adversely affect or impact the Aboriginal or treaty rights of a nation. Referrals typically relate to the land, water, and natural resources of a nation and typically include consultation requests from industries such as oil and gas, wind energy, hydro, forestry, and mining.

[19] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London, 2012), p. 1

[20] The First Nations Principles of OCAP® stand for ownership, control, access, and possession. To learn more about OCAP®, see the First Nations Information Governance Centre, https://fnigc.ca/ocapr.html.

[21] Kimberly Christen, “Does Information Really Want to Be Free? Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the Question of Openness,” International Journal of Communication 6 (2012): 2870.

[22] Ibid., p. 2874.

[23] Jason Lewis and Skawennati Tricia Fragnito, “Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace,” Cultural Survival Quarterly 29, no. 2 (2005).

[24] Loretta Todd, “Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace,” in Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments, ed. Mary Anne Moser and Douglas MacLeod (Cambridge, Mass., 1996), p. 155.

[25] Ibid

 

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Cosmology and Class: An Interview with Bruno Latour by Nikolaj Schultz

In this conversation with the sociologist Nikolaj Schultz, Bruno Latour elaborates his analysis of our new climatic regime and presents new ideas on its consequences for political and social theory. With the earth reacting to our actions, we face a cosmological shift that leaves us all divided and lost in space. The quintessential political question of our times is finding a place to land. Globalists continue to believe in the project of modernization, populists flee back to the land of the old while a few escapists simply try to take off to other planets. How to respond? According to Latour, the task becomes reinventing the old socialist tradition beyond the system of production, something we can only do if we retheorize the concept of social class to include a wider array of material conditions of existences than Marx’ definition of class alluded to.      

 

NS-CRITICAL INQUIRY

Cosmology and Division

Nikolaj Schultz (NS): In Facing Gaia you try to historically situate our present encounter with an earth suddenly reacting to our actions by comparing two different scientific discoveries.[1] In the seventeenth century, Galileo Galilei raises his telescope to the moon and shortly after concludes that our earth is similar to all the other planets of the universe. Some 350 years later, James Lovelock instead concludes that our earth is dissimilar to all the other planets. What are the symmetries and asymmetries of these two discoveries and what do they tell us about where we are in history?

Bruno Latour (BL): Galileo and Lovelock both try to cope with moving earths but two different kinds. Galileo discovered that the earth was moving around the sun and disturbed everybody by saying so. First, there was the quarrel with the church and, secondly, there were the major consequences his discoveries had on social order. This is well-known from the history of science and because of Bertolt Brecht’s extraordinary play The Life of Galileo. People believed they were in one cosmos before suddenly learning that the earth was moving. They did not know where they were in space and they felt lost—even if the practical consequences of Galileo’s discovery for daily life was close to zero. So, at hand we have a famous discovery with major impacts for physics and astronomy that simultaneously disturbs the whole establishment of the church and the social world.

Now, I contrast this with Lovelock’s similar but different discovery of another kind of moving earth. What Lovelock and Lynn Margulis discover is not simply that the earth is moving but that earth is being moved, to use Michel Serres’s expression.[2] The earth is reacting to the actions of humans. This new sort of movement of the earth is immensely more important, not least in terms of consequences for the social order and thus also more disputed. So, with a gap of three hundred years, we have two discoveries of moving earths and what interests me is that they both bring along extraordinary changes in cosmology and in understanding of space. It is another powerful example of a question which has interested me for forty years, namely the link between science and society, between cosmology and social order. While Galileo’s discovery marked the beginning of modern cosmology, I see Lovelock’s and Margulis’s discoveries as marking the end of modern cosmology. Right now, when we here about their discovery that the earth is being moved, we find ourselves in the same shoes as the people who in 1610 were worried about Galileo messing up their cosmology by proving that the earth was moving. We are as lost as they were.

NS: So, to talk with Alexandre Koyré, if Galileo took us from the “Closed Cosmos to the Infinite Universe,” then Lovelock is bringing us back from the infinite universe to a closed cosmos on earth.[3] Why has the figure of this return to earth, Gaia, been so misunderstood?

BL: Most importantly because it was understood trough a wrong idea of space. Gaia was immediately associated with the idea of the globe and with the idea of the earth as an organism. This meant it was quickly used by biologists and New Age people to return to the old, Greek idea of earth considered as one big animal. But this was not what Lovelock was interested in. Instead, he was interested in how life forms—including bacteria, vegetation, insects, and others—had provided so many changes in the chemical circulation of the atmosphere that it became impossible to understand air, water, mountains, or plate tectonics without taking into consideration the dynamic agencies of these life forms. With the help of his instruments, Lovelock was studying pollution and had realized that pollutants were able to spread everywhere on Earth. This made him intuit that what modern industry was doing perhaps had been done for billions of years by all life forms on Earth. He meets Margulis who studied the consequences bacteria had on the atmosphere, climate, rivers, mountains, and together they arrive at this extraordinary entity called Gaia. An entity with nothing in common with the idea of the earth being alive as an organism. Instead, it is an argument about the ways life forms continue to transform their own conditions of existence to the point where they engineer the whole surface of the earth.

NS: So, the fundamental consequence of Gaia is that entities make up their own environments. This not only means that climate is the historical result of agencies, it also means that space itself is the offspring of time. With Gaia, space is not in the background, space is continuously constructed by dynamic life forms. Why is this difficult to understand cosmologically?

BL: Not least because of the cartographic tradition, invented at the time of Galileo. Cartography gave us a sort of taken-for-granted definition of space as a frame inside which objects and people reside. With this definition of space, you cannot see how space itself is constructed by the agencies of life forms. With this gaze, you miss how life forms are not in space but that they make space. One example is how bacteria produce the oxygen of the atmosphere that all life forms breathe. Bacteria are not in the frame, they make the frame. This you cannot see if you approach space cartographically. If you approach space from the view of the globe, or as a map, you remain stuck inside a frame, with difficulties understanding what life is. These difficulties have burdened biology and ecology since the seventeenth century.

With Gaia the situation is reversed. The trick of Lovelock and Margulis is to say, “If there is an earth, soil, and sea, it is because life forms are producing their own environment.” Life forms are not sitting in the environment, they produce the environment. In biology, Margulis’s ideas and her notion of holobionts are becoming mainstream now. Today, everybody knows that our bodies are made of microbes, for example. So, the idea that we are seized and maintained by the agencies of life forms is beginning to become common sense. The amusing thing is that this idea of space as the product of agencies is an old actor-network theory argument that we developed completely separately in sociology.

NS: What are the political consequences of this concept of space? Previously, you have conceptualized this spatial or cosmological shift with the notion of a new climatic regime.

BL: Like Galileo, Lovelock is not interesting for his politics. What I am nonetheless interested in is the political consequences of being lost in space after the discovery of Gaia. This is somehow what I try to map very grossly in Down to Earth.[4] My argument is that what we all have in common is no longer moving forward trough progress but that we are lost in space. What we all have in common is no longer having an exact idea of where we are in space or on what soil or land we reside. And I think this shows clearly in the political disputes of today.

First, by what is normally referred to as populist movements and their questions of “What are our borders and what are the people inside our borders?” Questions posed all over Europe and, of course, most vividly with Brexit. Secondly, it shows with those who say “Let’s go on,” “Business as usual,” “Let’s maintain the modernist tradition of progress.” The ideal of globalization, if you want. Both these positions are simply affects asking where we are, on what soil or land we reside. Now, the problem is that both these positions are too abstract in terms of material existence. The land the populists wants to go back to—The England of Johnson, The Italy of Salvini, The France of Front National—are not real countries. They are imaginary versions of what would have been the land years ago. But the land of the globalists is just as imaginary, as they imagine that the earth will accept infinite modernization. So, we are lost in space.

NS: So, politics is now ordered by the question of land, but we are all lost in space because none of the political territories that modernity offers us have any ecological or economical fundament.

BL: Exactly. Look at the example of Brexit, for me a great experimentation of territorial redescription. It started with an imaginary space based on ideas of identity and borders. Three years later it is a complete mess. The English learned day by day, bit by bit, what they were actually depending on as a territory—dependencies always transcending the nation state. If you leave the EU, you will be in trouble getting medicine, fresh food, then your labor force will have bad protection of rights and so on. So, one talks about identity and about walls, but slowly you realize that you do not only depend on identity but more importantly on a long list of other conditions of existences. Our ignorance about what makes our countries thrive is immense. This is what I try to allude to when I say that we are spatially lost.

NS: Yesterday in Paris, you attended the defense of French philosopher Pierre Charbonnier’s habilitation.[5] One of his arguments is that there is a disconnect between where the moderns think they live and the territory they actually live off. How is this connected to the current spatial confusion? Why the difficulty of understanding that to have politics you need to have a land and a people corresponding?

BL: Yes, there is a disconnect between the two sorts of land that we inhabit. On the one hand, there is the land from where we have our rights—the nation state—which is territory that we understand ourselves as living in. On the other hand, there is the land we live from, which is the territory where we get our resources. We sort of know these two territories are connected, but because of the material history of the Moderns—first the colonies, then the discovery of coal and later oil—they have divorced. So, if people have lost their sense of space, it is because of this divorce that has made it difficult for people to describe the world out of which they get their prosperity and the entities that allow them to subsist. And what Charbonnier investigates is simply how this disconnect becomes bigger and bigger ever since the “discovery” of America.

In one chapter, there is an interesting simile to understand the argument and its relevance for political ecology. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, Johann Gottlieb Fichte wrote a book answering to the English project of liberalism, arguing that in inventing the global world the English were completely hypocritical.[6] They pretended to be civilized and tolerant while simultaneously exploiting the whole planet. If Germany wanted to be tolerant, Fichte said, they would need to close down their borders, forbid commerce, and instead juxtapose the land out of which they lived with the land that gives rights to their citizens. Fichte probably did not imagine this to be possible even in the nineteenth century, but it is a fine description of a sort of utopia, where the legal country is reconciled with the material country.

I think this is a good way of grasping our current situation. Because, in fact, political ecology has nothing to do with green stuff or nature. It is about how the new, moving earth forces everybody to ask again the question of what to subsist on. This question of subsistence is a main feature of what I call the new climatic regime. Everyone is simply trying to find out which land to live off and live in. This is also why the Trumpists are climate deniers. You study that yourself, namely the question on how some are saying: “We don’t share the same earth as you.”[7] Something impossible to reconcile with modernism because modernism was supposed to be the progress of all—even if it really wasn’t.

NS: Yes. It is difficult to believe in modernism when you see a picture of Elon Musk’s Tesla sports car floating around in outer space. This did not look like the progress for all—this was progress or emancipation for the wealthy few. And when you look at how other Silicon Valley tech billionaires are trying colonize Mars, then it certainly does not look like modernism either, as the classic question “Is there life on Mars?” is rephrased from a civilizational question into a question for the one percent who try to escape Earth. This is the ideological essence of what you have previously called offshore politics or planet exit: the escapism of the earthly, material limits by the few.

BL: With a lot of money put into it . . .

NS: Lots of money and lots of technology. For these elites it is a case of deus ex machina, and as techsters they are God’s chosen few. It is definitely not a coincidence that the wildfires in California never reached Silicon Valley—and with the prospect of ecological, civilizational collapse they take off and go to Mars. The problem is that you rather quickly find out that Mars is uninhabitable. It is not a very nice up there. So, the tech billionaires shift from planet B to plan B and invest in luxury climate-secured escape bunkers in places like New Zealand, so they can escape civilizational collapse. It sounds anecdotal, but it has been studied in detail by investigative journalists.[8]

BL: So, they hedge their bets, one on Mars and one in New Zealand. How many people are we talking about?

NS: Exactly. Crushed under the weight of the new moving earth, they choose to escape and leave the rest of us behind. They do not live in the Anthropocene they live in the Misanthropocene. Steve Hoffman, the billionaire founder of Reddit, estimates that around fifty percent of the Silicon Valley tech elites have bought escape property around the world. Escape bunker property for the ultrarich has become a billion dollar business.[9] The interesting thing is that it is not even secret, even if it sounds like a neo-Balzacian conspiracy theory when one says that the rich are escaping the planet during nighttime. They actually say so themselves. Yet, it is not an unproblematic move for the rich. A lot of things could go wrong: How do you make sure that your security guards do not turn their weapons against you? Are you supposed to bring the family of the pilot of your private jet when you escape? A lot of questions arise, but it is still better than “staying with the trouble,” as your friend Donna Haraway would say.[10]

BL: But they are not climate skeptics; they are deniers, right? They recognize that there is a planetary danger?

NS: Yes, that is exactly why they take off. Again, climate denial arises not despite the fact that the climatic mutations are real, it arises because the climatic mutations are real and because the price of solidarity is too high to pay. It is the same with Trumpism. These are just the people that take the extreme consequences and choose to leave.

BL: But how do they cope with the fact of being alone and not following the old logic of modernism? How do they cope morally with leaving behind the rest of us? They must sort of reinvent themselves as atomized agents.

NS: That is what should to be studied now. If we could describe the material conditions of existence and the moral economies of these exiters and compare them with those who are stuck behind deprived of habitable territory, we would probably have a better grasp on tomorrow’s class struggle, a struggle over territory and not over the means of production.

BL: When Musk sent his Tesla into space, he said that it was “silly but fun.” The space adventures of the twentieth century were certainly not silly and fun, they were  part of a progressive modernity. Seeing space adventure becoming a caricature for just a few people is very shocking. So, at this moment, I think we are exactly at a place where we are literally living on different planets. One of these is the modernist, globalist planet; the other one is the identity, localist planet; and the third is the escapist or exit planet that you study. We are completely divided about which planet or which land on which we live. This is what I try to show in Down to Earth.

NS: Yes, when Musk said that it was “silly but fun” it was good proof that modernity was dead. But we only capture the dividedness you speak about if we remember that these people are very serious about escaping. They put billions of dollars into it. And, somehow, this move of escapist ideology was not a big surprise. Only a few months before, Donald Trump took America out of the COP21 Agreement. What did he do just after? He announced that he was going to “Make America Great again . . . on Mars.”

Class and Description

BL: The question is how to respond to this division of space. Here, I want to go back to what we spoke about before. As Charbonnier shows, the question is now about how to restart the socialist tradition. A tradition that was in fact always interested in the question of the divide between the land, the industry, and the legal framework in which people live. One can even say that socialism was about this disconnect. Yet, it is also true that socialism never succeeded in connecting with ecology. For this reason, Charbonnier’s hero is the same as mine. Karl Polanyi was one of the few in the socialist tradition who articulated the the idea that both the labor force and the land resists production. In The Great Transformation he maintains that it is not a question of production but of what I call a processes of engendering, the ways in which things are brought to the world.[11]

This is the connection I am interested in. Can we, within the socialist tradition, rearticulate the questions concerning ecology as questions of existence, of survival, of generation, of reproducing, of giving birth and of losing territory? As a philosopher, I see the first contours of what we have been calling geosocial classes, a notion that would perhaps allow us to redo for the present situation what the socialist did fairly well until the 1950s and the beginning of The Great Acceleration. This would allow us to reconnect the land that we live in and the land we live from, as well as to connect ecology with socialism within the framework of politics as usual. But I gave you the task of finding these classes. How would you approach the question? What would be a good definition of geosocial classes?

NS: I think your intuition in Down to Earth is correct. These are not classes defined by their position in the production system; they are classes defined by their territorial conditions of survival, their material conditions of existence or reproduction. Defining geosocial classes means taking the cosmology of our new moving earth serious when approaching the social question and use it to redescribe social classes in a way that extends their Marxist definition. While social classes were defined by their ownership over the means of production, geosocial classes are defined by their dependence on a wider array of material conditions of existence that allows social groups to survive or thrive. If we had such a definition of classes, we could delineate a people corresponding to the new climatic question of the twenty-first century, and to geohistory, in the same way Marx made a people correspond to the social question of the nineteenth century and to social history.[12]

The terribly difficult question is how to map this empirically. First, it would be necessary to define the territory on which different collectives live, by describing what entities or actors different social collectives depend on to reproduce. If we did this, we would first see that the networks of existences that allow different social groups to survive and reproduce would look very heterogeneous. But what would also be clear is how some social groups would share means of reproduction with some more than others—similarities and dissimilarities that would allow us to reclassify social groups on the basis of material conditions of existence. Perhaps this would even allow us to redefine exploitation as the surplus of existence that some social groups profit from, by describing how the livelihoods of some collectives prevents the access to a habitable territory for others. I think that the Yellow Vests in France perhaps showed us the urgency of the geosocial question. Would you agree?

BL: I think the Yellow Vest affairs started with an interesting moment of geosocial inquiry, as it was a matter of salary, taxation, gas, landscape, and social justice. So you are right; initially, the connection was made. But you cannot have a political position if you cannot describe your own territory. So nothing came out of it precisely because they did not have the vocabulary, tools, or political movement to help them articulate this link. We are extraordinarily bad at describing what allows people to subsist. We talk a lot about identity, we have a lot of discussions about values, but please describe to me the territory in which you survive, in which you invest, and might want to defend. I think the lack of such descriptions is what renders the political scene so interesting but also so violent today. We begin to realize that this is the real question, but we do not know how to answer it. This is also why I am interested in the episode of the Cahiers de Doleances, because it was exactly an initiative directed towards territorial descriptions and questions of social justice in one and same breath. The Yellow Vests did not manage to maintain this link.

So if the question of geosocial classes is difficult to answer, it is because we all have very little idea about where we get our subsistence from. We have simply lost the habit of describing what we are attached to, what we are connected to, and what allows us to survive. In a way, Marxism used to be a vocabulary that allowed such descriptions of our conditions of subsistence, which we could use to locate ourselves inside the system of production. Can we do the same thing today with what I call the processes of engendering? From Proudhon to Marx, socialism described the practical and material realities of industrial society. They described where people within this society got their subsistence from, which allowed people to position themselves in the system of production. But today, we live in a different world. Today, if one would have to describe the practical, material world in which one lives it would not only be about industry, we would furthermore have to add entities like the climate, carbon dioxide, water, bugs, earth worms, soil, and others—the wider array of material conditions of existences that you spoke about before. And this is what ecologists never managed to bring to the attention of socialists. It is still the question of inequality, of justice, and of the material world out of which we get our subsistence; it is simply that the world has changed form.

NS: Yes. The interesting thing is that in the first period of the Yellow Vests, when there was a moment of geosocial description, they actually enjoyed support and were able to mobilize affects internally and externally. When they lost their territorial descriptions, it turned violent. It seems that in some situations, violence does not occur when indignation reaches a certain level; it occurs when you are no longer able to describe who you are, what you are attached to, and with whom you fight.

BL: Yes, they lost completely their territorial descriptions, and instead went on to ask for the head of the president. . . . Macron then offered them a grand debate, but we learned nothing from it because people simply gave their opinions. But the opinions of people who have no land nor a world to describe is useless. A million and a half answers to the debate and not one single description of where we reside and with whom. Values? Yes. Identity? Yes. But no territories. If you have lost the ability of describing the land or the territory on which you reside—understood in the etiological sense as the lists of entities you rely on to subsists—then you simply cannot do politics. If you have no territory, you have no politics.

NS: So to restart politics, we need to redescribe our territories, our lands, and our people. How come we lost the ability of doing so? Were we atomized by neoliberalism, which is  fundamentally an ideology and politics of disattachments?

BL: Of course, this is one of the reasons. But you can simply also just loose the habit and culture of doing politics, if it is not constantly maintained. Redescription is a general rule of the social sciences, but today I would say that this is the political question. Let us not forget that ecological mutations are unprecedented. We have never before had a moment where we had to reengineer the whole system of reproduction piece by piece, house by house, mobility by mobility, food by food. We have the experience of production and modernization, but we do not have any experience of reproduction and remodernization. Eight billion people and every single material entity that binds their societies together and make them live are controversial. Meat is controversial, clothes are controversial, transport is controversial. In this situation, we cannot skip the phase of description of territory, unless you want to end up in an abstract world of identity or values. This is what happened in England. If we do not do the work of description, we cannot go forward.

NS: This leads me to my next question. Forty years ago, you started your career by following natural scientists in the laboratory. Now, you are interested in a new sort of science and a new sort of scientist. In Down to Earth you dedicate a chapter to critical zone’ and critical-zone scientists, and you are currently doing an exhibition on the topic. Why are you interested in these topics and how are they related to the task of description?

BL: First, critical zones and critical-zone scientists are words used in geoscience, hydrology, geomorphology, geochemistry, and in soil sciences to denote the thin crust or skin of the Earth and the scientists that are studying it. And, yes, when I have been following and studying these scientists for five years now, it is exactly because I think they help with the redescription of territories in a very practical way. First, because they are not global. They are not working with the Earth as the globe. Rather, it is the Earth as a thin skin. Everything on which life forms live exists only here, on a few kilometers thick pellicule of the earth, reaching from the atmosphere and a few kilometers down in the rocks. So, what they study is comparable to Lovelock’s discoveries. It is another tool to get away from the idea of nature, which is simply too big, abstract, and imprecise. When you study critical zones, you study a series of things or connections on the crust of the Earth, so it has a modest reach. It is about very limited entities; it is not the whole cosmos. The second interesting thing about these sciences is that they explicitly study the differences between what they see in the laboratory and what they see in the field. Again, there is this modesty, it is a boots-on-the-ground type of science—a bit like natural history or like Alexander von Humboldt’s natural science.

NS: It is another epistemology.

BL: Yes. Epistemologically, they are far from the other sciences that I have been following for many years. And since they underline the discrepancies between their observations and the chemical reactions, it means that they are redescribing and rematerializing the question of territory, which we simultaneously try to redescribe and rematerialize in political and social theory. This is also where there is a link between Lovelock’s discovery, the political question of geosocial classes and critical zones. This is why I am interested in them and why I am also doing an exhibition on the topic.

NS: Why an exhibition? What are the role of the artists in it?

BL: Exhibitions allow you to do a thought experiment in a limited space that cannot be done in any other way. Every time I have done an exhibition, the question at hand was completely impossible to raise in a book but possible to raise in a space. Why? Because you are able to submit people to an experiment. This is what I mean by thought exhibitions. It is a way to use limited space, art, and artists to bombard visitors with expressions and then see what happens with them. The last one I did in 2016 Reset Modernity,[13] bombarded visitors with objects, asking if they could reset their vision of modernity.[14] The current exhibition—simply called Critical Zones: Landing on Earth—is somehow easier. It basically offers a lot of scientific facts and arts from which the visitors can learn to redescribe and revisualize the Earth’s surface in which they live but which they are not conscious about, in large part because of the cartographic imaginary we spoke about before. The problem remains the same. We always think of the Earth, seen from the outside. If you say “Earth,” what typicaly comes to peoples’ mind is the globe. But despite all the talk  about the Blue Planet, only the people who are out of space, out in space, experience the Earth like that. We are not out in space; we are inside critical zones. And this is what we need to visualize. Here, the importance of artists is that they help us multiply the visions of the Earth, viewed from the inside and not from the outside. It sounds simple, but it is absolutely crucial not to imagine the planet as the globe if we want to land on Earth. The globe is too big and too abstract. So, what we simply try to do is to invent with scientists and artists a vocabulary for this landing. In a way, it is surprising that we even have to do so. Why should we have to land? Are we not on Earth? In a way no, because Moderns took off on an interesting and somehow beautiful journey, as visualized by Musk and his Tesla, but now we realize that we have to land again without crashing. As I say in Facing Gaia (2017), we are exactly in the same position as when we “discovered” the New World and when the cartographers had to redraw their maps. Four centuries later, we discover a new, moving earth. Not in extensity but in intensity, an earth which is reacting to our actions. For that you need new descriptions, and you need new visualizations.

 

Notes

This conversation between Bruno Latour and Nikolaj Schultz took place at The Queens Hall, Royal Danish Library on 29 May 2019. It has since been edited and substantially revised. Selections of the conversation were first published as an audio file by the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information for their podcast series “European Ideas.”

 

Nikolaj Schultz, sociologist, is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen. He is currently a visiting scholar in Paris, where he is working with cosupervisor of his PhD thesis, Bruno Latour, on developing the concept of geosocial classes. Bruno Latour, sociologist and philosopher, is Professor Emeritus at Sciences Po, Paris. He is currently preparing the Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics exhibition, cocurated with Martin Guinard, Peter Weibel, and Bettina Korintenberg, set to open 8 May 2020 at the ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe.                                                                

[1] See Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (London, 2017).

[2] See Michel Serres, The Natural Contract (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1995), p. 86.

[3] See Alexandre Koyré, From the Closed Cosmos to the Infinite Universe (Baltimore, 1957).

[4] See Latour, Down To Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (London, 2017).

[5] See Pierre Charbonnier,. Abondance et liberté. De la revolution industrielle au changement climatique (Habilitation thesis, L’École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, 2019).

[6] See Johann Gottlieb Fichte, The Closed Commercial State, trans. Anthony Curtis Adler (New York, 2012).

[7] See Nikolaj Schultz, “Life as Exodus,” in Critical Zones: Observatories for Earthly Politics, ed. Latour (forthcoming).

[8] See Evan Osnos, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” New Yorker, 22 Jan. 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/doomsday-prep-for-the-super-rich

[9] See Julie Turkewitz, “A Boom Time for the Bunker Business and Doomsday Capitalists,” The New York Times, 13 Aug. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/08/13/us/apocalypse-doomsday-capitalists.html?searchResultPosition=9

[10] See Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N.C., 2016).

[11] See Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, 2001).

[12] See Schultz, “Geo-Social Classes: Stratifications in the System of Engendering,” in Critical Zones.

[13] See Latour, Reset Modernity (Cambridge, Mass., 2016).

[14] See Latour,  Reset Modernity.

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Tales of the 1940s: A Conversation between Werner Sollors and Françoise Meltzer

Coeditor Françoise Meltzer and Werner Sollors discuss Sollors’s The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s (2014). Read Sollors’s “‘Better to Die by Them than for Them'”: Carl Schmitt Reads ‘Benito Cereno'” in the Winter 2020 issue of Critical Inquiry.

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ON OKWUI ENWEZOR (1963-2019)

 

Terry Smith

I first met Okwui Enwezor in 1997, at Bard College in upstate New York, when the curatorial team for the Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s was assembled by the project organizers: the artist Luis Camnitzer, the scholar Rachel Weiss, and the curator Jane Farver. The exhibition opened at the Queens Museum, New York, in April 1999, and traveled elsewhere in the US. The aim was to show New Yorkers and other Americans that conceptualist practices from elsewhere were not pale imitations of European and US models. Instead, they had originated throughout the world in response to local conditions; and were usually more political in intention and effect. At the Bard workshop, each curator was challenged to prove that “our” artists—the artists from the region we represented—met these criteria. Okwui and I were provoked by this: me to show that, in Australia and New Zealand, there were both imitators and originators, but more importantly to demonstrate that conceptualism was more an “art in transit” than an art locked into local settings. Okwui’s answer was better. Fresh from curating the 2nd Johannesburg Biennial, he boomed “Of course, there are some artists who are clearly international conceptualists, yet work in unique ways.” He showed South African Willem Boshoff’s braille text pieces. “But,” he continued, “the point is that, as Yoruba knowledge tells us, in Africa, artists emerge from a long tradition of ideas, language, and performance.” Thus, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. African art, he was saying, has always been conceptual and political—on a broader scale, and in deeper, more embedded ways than anything you can imagine.

ENWEZOR

Global Conceptualism was reviled at the time; it is now regarded as a landmark exhibition, a harbinger of the “global exhibitions” to come, that are now almost a norm for exhibitions that aim to be seriously consequential. Okwui was not only a pioneer of this form, he quickly became its leading exponent. What drove him to take on such ambitious projects? What enabled him to succeed, so often, over more than two decades?

His personal qualities were evident to all who knew him. A love of life. A large laugh. A generosity of spirit. High intelligence. A constant quest for more knowledge; an incessant self-education. A gift for friendship. He was a demanding companion and a challenging colleague. Of course, he had unlimited ambition—for himself and for his projects. His natural inclination to leadership was tempered by an instinct towards collective action. True grit. Unbending integrity. Impatience with stupidity; hatred of cupidity. An instinctive educator; a great teacher (he was much loved at the University of Pittsburgh, where I brought him to teach, straight after Documenta 11). He was an inspiring, indefatigable collaborator, as I found out when he and Nancy Condee and I worked together in Pittsburgh to stage the conference that led to Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Duke, 2008). Above all, he was a visionary, a dreamer.

He possessed a love of art that encompassed continents and centuries, thus making a random stroll through the Metropolitan Museum, New York, his greatest happiness as a private visitor to an art gallery. It is one of the world’s losses that we never got to see Okwui in the role as director of that museum, or an equivalent institution. While the United States, to its great credit, was able to elect, and reelect, a black president (for whom we both voted), black directors of major museums are few and far between. The situation in Europe is no better. We talked about this structural exclusion, which he felt keenly. The world’s geopolitical turning would, we dared to hope, eventually lead to change, despite the current reactionary regressions. It is a matter of deep regret that his life cut short—he died in Munich on 15 March 2019—means that we will never see him break through that wall, as he did so many others.

But Okwui Enwezor amounted to much more than the sum of his personal qualities, and a lot more than the list of his formal identities. This became truly clear when I visited Documenta 11, the fifth platform of which was at Kassel in June 2002. For me, a defining moment occurred in the Documenta Halle, in the installation From/To by Fareed Armaly and Rashid Masharawi. Armaly, an artist of Lebanese-Palestinian descent, born in the US and resident in Stuttgart, designed a floor grid of orientations based on territories claimed by Palestine. Masharawi, a Palestinian filmmaker, born in the Shati refugee camp and resident of Ramallah, presented an engrossing program of Palestinian film. The projection space included an illuminated wall map showing the actual locations of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. It became obvious at a glance that Israel was establishing “facts on the ground” that would make the two-state solution supposedly desired by all parties a practical impossibility.

An informed, free press would have made this known to all, but these were the months after 9/11. The War on Terror had been declared by the oligarchs who were then, as now, in command of nations. Information inimical to their interests was systematically eclipsed, even in “free” societies. In the United States, where we were living, opposition was rare, and when exceptional intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag raised their voices against the tide of misinformation, mindless patriotism, and fearful retreat from critique, they were pilloried. Okwui and his team, and the artists in the exhibition, did not fear such criticism. They had a larger duty: to show the world to us as it was, and to imagine the world as it might be, after the legacies of colonialism are finally overcome.

Okwui called this: opening “The Black Box.” Not just creating spaces for photography, video, and documentary, but also exposing the world’s unconscious, its centuries of repression. Under his guidance, the exhibition became a space of liberation.

A certain trajectory emerges in the series of his exhibitions that began at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1996, with In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present, and continued with Trade Routes: History and Geography, 2nd Johannesburg Biennial (1977); Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994 (2001-2002); Documenta 11 (2002); and then through several others, up to and including his recent major achievements. It was no accident that he located the continuous reading of undervalued yet essential texts at the core of most of his exhibitions. Nor that, at Venice in 2015, it was Karl Marx’s Capital. Thomas Pikkety’s globalized version, Capital for the Twenty-first Century, had been published the year before. Okwui wanted us to remember the real thing, to help us imagine All the World’s Futures more clearly.

No curator working today matches the scope of Okwui’s vision. I see him as the Karl Marx of contemporary curating. I say this with full awareness that each of us is a clutch of contradictions, as was Marx himself. Okwui’s deep understanding of the kinds of work that art does in the world parallels Marx’s grasp of the importance of modes of production, and how when they change, the world changes. These are not abstractions. They are insights into how things are, and how they might get worse, or better, or both. Compare any of his exhibitions, with their world-historical sweep, to the mainstream surveys of contemporary art, vaguely shaped according to a generalizing, pluralistic theme—for example, most editions of the Venice Biennale. In contrast, Okwui became the master of what we might call the contemporary, historical, and critical exhibition. Magnificent Scale was a great title for the El Anatsui exhibition at the Haus der Kunst, Munich: it describes Okwui’s achievements equally well.

In a conversation that we had in Munich in 2013, that was published two years later in my book Talking Contemporary Curating, he said this:

To me the fundamental challenges that a curator faces today are how to provoke an engaged confrontation with works of art, how to make that experience legible, and how to use it to open up forms of engagement with the world. Exhibitions, in this sense, open up the surplus value of art. They create value of many kinds, simply because each time artworks are exhibited they accrue new meaning, new force, and open out new possibilities, while not necessarily changing their shape. In turn, art changes the perceptions of those it engages—so, to make an exhibition is to theorize the place of art not only in institutions, but also in public spaces, and, if you will, in the world.

To truly value the surplus value of art, and to never use it for its exchange value—that was what Okwui believed that contemporary curating should do.

In the week before he died, on 15 March 12019, I spent many hours each day by his hospital bed in Munich, as the vast complexities of his life converged upon us. It was a privilege to be there with him then, as it had been, so often but never often enough, since 1997.

 


TERRY SMITH is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, and Professor in the Division of Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought at the European Graduate School. In 2010, he became Australia Council Visual Arts Laureate and the received the Franklin Jewett Mather Award from the College Art Association (USA). Books include What is Contemporary Art? (2009), Contemporary Art: World Currents (2011), Thinking Contemporary Curating (2012), Talking Contemporary Curating (2015), The Contemporary Composition (2016), One and Five Ideas: On Conceptual Art and Conceptualism (2107), and Art to Come: Histories of Contemporary Art (2019). See http://www.terryesmith.net/web

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The Palestinian Shoah?

The Palestinian Shoah?

David Simpson

First, note the italics. I mean the film, not the event. We have all been well schooled in the moral orthodoxy whereby nothing can or should be compared to the Shoah, which was indeed a genocide of staggering and exceptional proportions, one whose millions of dead indeed deserve not to be jumbled together as simply one set of victims among many in modern history. Speaking about the Shoah has generated a unique level of attentiveness and deference; some feel that nothing can be said by way of explanation, or that no restorative gesture can be adequately imagined, or that any comparison with anything else is an outrage. Some say that it is best remembered as an instance of absolute evil, one that will forever stand as the limit case of human cruelty and depravity. All explanations soon seem to come to the point where something irrational must be confronted. The disturbances generated by any attempt at explanation are not likely to disappear. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) has a good deal to do with this situation.

Lanzmann’s film generated an uncommonly intense set of responses, all now part of the record. Whether out of choice or necessity, Lanzmann barely interviewed the Nazi perpetrators: figures like the Polish train driver at Treblinka had to do most of the work of accounting for the agents. Lanzmann was a Zionist, and historical complexity is no part of his film. But the testimony of the victim survivors is unforgettable. Above all it is suffused by the melancholic passage of time; these are among the last who will speak from personal experience, who saw and felt the culture of the death camps. The Palestinian survivors of the Nakba (catastrophe) are also reaching old age; they too have little time left to be recognized and recorded.

Shoah had worldwide distribution and massive publicity. It has become an unignorable centerpiece of film history, both for its topic and its methods, and at over nine hours in length it demands a serious commitment from its audiences, one commensurate, no doubt, with the gravity of its subject. It is unlikely that Andy Trimlett and Ahlam Muhtaseb’s 1948: Catastrophe and Creation, produced largely by community funding (it was twice refused NEH support), released in late 2017 and running for not much more than an hour, will get anywhere near this level of attention.[1] Indeed at least one city council in the US actively sought to prevent its being shown. The current weaponization of anti-Semitism, which seeks to identify any critique (or even historical analysis) of Israel or Zionism as an ethno-racial attack on all Jews, will ensure that many of us who see this film will see it in the way I saw it, at a one-off showing in a Unitarian church attended by persons already sympathetic to the cause of Palestinian rights. Alternatively, we can resort to Amazon Prime. It is worth doing so.

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These limits on public circulation are to be regretted, for the film deserves the widest distribution. It is the outcome of much research and some ninety interviews with those who lived through 1948 in Palestine as it was becoming Israel, interspersed with the comments of modern historians of the Middle East. It offers more or less equal time to members of the Jewish militias and to their victims, and in this sense it records both sides; but equal time does not imply moral equivalence, nor does it pretend that there is no agreement about the harsh facts of what occurred.  As I am writing, things are going rapidly from bad to worse for the Palestinians, and it is unlikely that we have reached bottom. 1948 does not claim that what happened was a Shoah equivalent; the film is modest in its documentation of actual deaths (on both sides) and is scrupulously sensitive to the anguish of those who felt or now feel terrible about their role in the “cleansing” of Arab villages and neighborhoods. Even when we are told the story of a baker and his son who were thrown alive into an oven by Jewish soldiers, there is a remarkable lack of melodrama or coercive emotionalism. On the contrary, we are made to see how absolutely normal such events are among those who feel that being at war justifies the rapes, tortures, and murders committed. The Deir Yassin massacre figures in, of course, but only as one among many other stories of violent expulsions all over Palestine.

Absent here is any reference to the obfuscating question as to whether Israel has a “right to exist,” as if any state anywhere has ever had such a right, or has been innocent of founding violence. The old canard about the two-state solution that was supposedly on offer only to be refused by the Palestinians is shown for what it was: a massively uneven division of the land that gave more than half of the land, and the best land, to what was then a Jewish minority. Muhtaseb and Trimlett have done for film what Thomas Suárez’s State of Terror (2016)—also probably destined to remain a hard-to-find book—did for the print record: they bring to life the exhaustive evidence from the archive (or what the author has been allowed to see of it) that carefully planned terrorism and violence were the foundations of Israel both before and after it achieved statehood.[2]

If the film is not “even-handed” in the habitual American sense whereby one position is set against the opposite position, whatever the issue, and no one raises awkward questions about facts, it is because the history being remembered is itself not even-handed. One side had the weapons, the training and the violent ethno-nationalist motivation, and the other did not. In the present day, the winners are taking more and more of the land, and look as if they might take it all. In so doing they are bound to confirm and compound by more and more violence their own status as unwelcome occupiers, and enact more and more punitive legislation, all the while trying to persuade the world that they are an inclusive, nonracial democracy. Many of the old Irgun and Palmach fighters report what they did and what they saw without excessive sentiment and without explicit apology, but their discomfort and occasional distress are palpable, and they share with their victims, however reluctantly, a dignified commitment to establishing the record, to witnessing. They are neither vindicated nor excused, but there are no denials. The concluding voiceover in 1948 does not ask what degree of right and wrong exists here, but whether it has been worth it; and if it has not been worth it, then what happens next? In the face of the militant triumphalism and historical misrepresentation enacted by the current Israeli government and its apologists, this new way of asking an all-too old question should be welcomed and circulated as widely as possible.

David Simpson is Distinguished Professor and G. B. Needham Chair Emeritus at the University of California–Davis. His most recent book is States of Terror: History, Theory, Literature (2019).

Footnotes

[1] Andy Trimlett and Ahlam Muhtaseb, dir. 1948: Catastrophe and Creation (Portland, OR: Collective Eye, 2017), 85 min. http://www.1948movie.com

[2] See Thomas Suárez, State of Terror: How Terrorism Created Modern Israel (Bloxham, 2016).

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Reading the Mueller Report

The textual icon of our moment is surely the Mueller Report. It is the most discussed and least read books in many years. It must rank among the most eagerly anticipated and anticlimactic publications in the modern history of the book. How important is it? Or rather, what, precisely is its importance? Does it matter that is boring, especially for people who have watched the entire narrative unfold publicly over the last two years. Will it come alive (as some hope) when the movie version of the report is produced by the author’s testimony before Congress in the coming weeks?

Critical Inquiry is interested in the question of the Mueller Report as both a text and an iconic event. We hope to publish a few brief (1500 word) invited essays that assess the significance of the report, along with its reception. If you have an idea for such an essay, please send a letter with a brief precis of your idea to the editors at cisubmissions@gmail.com.

We inaugurate this forum with an essay by Richard H. Weisberg, professor at Cardozo Law School and the author of When Lawyers Write (1987).

W. J. T. Mitchell

Editor

 


 

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Seventy Into ’48: The State as a Scandal

Khaled Furani

A state, is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people’…where all are poison-drinkers, the good and the bad: the state, where all lose themselves, the good and the bad: the state, where the slow suicide of all—is called ‘life.’ —Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1883

We are summoned today to reflect on the seventieth anniversary of 1948. On this occasion, I present a certain “gift” to my conqueror. It is in a sense an absurd gift. In a “birthday card,” I extend a gift of truth, or rather regions of truth that may come with an effort towards self-recognition. These are regions that both conqueror and conquered—inhabiting discrepant conditions of fear due to discrepant power at their disposal—may rarely visit, just as one may rarely plunge into one’s own darkness. It is a gift of recognition that 1948 is a truth of a darkness unfolding. That year—and probably a further past—lives with us still, not behind us in the past. We are seventy years into 1948, not simply since 1948. What does it mean to be seventy years into the darkness of 1948?

I do not claim 1948 as ongoing merely due to the ongoing conquest of land, by means both legal and extra-legal. Rather, 1948 stands for unfinished business, by which I mean the variegated business of finishing off the Palestinian body, one-by-one and collectively. The Palestinian’s language, home, memory, land, water, and physical and political body must be cleared away, must vanish, for purity to be attained, for victory to be declared, for death itself to be conquered, for security to be achieved. Or so runs the illusion.

So long as purity stands for security then we ought to be on the alert for a “genocidal desire” at work. This is a desire for massive death for the sake of purity of the Jewish state (meaning composed purely of Jewish bodies) whose symptoms include: erasure of the Arabic language, destruction of historic and living homes, excision and criminalization of native memory, confiscation of lands, pollution of fields, obliteration and ghettoization of villages and towns, theft and contamination of water supplies, withholding of medicine and medical care, experimentation and weapons testing on populations, and elimination of bodies, directly and by proxy.

This genocidal desire seems to find nourishment in fear, fear that lives, for example, in the hoary but protean slogan promising a people said to be without a land a land said to have no people. That is, the Palestinian must not be so that the Israeli can be, just as wild nature must be extirpated from civilization. This genocidal desire has a traceable frequency of appearances, as well as effects. A common alarmist call maligns even Palestinian eggs and sperm going about their work. I am talking about the refrain of “demographic threat.” Then there is the frequent appearance of inciteful graffiti under bridges, on highways, and in streets and alleys throughout the country—“death to the Arabs” and “Kahane was right”—etched with apparent impunity. For tracing some of this desire’s effects, consider all those uprooted from the land. Read their poets. Fadwa Tuqan inscribed their unmet wish on her tomb: “It is enough for me to die on her and be buried in her, under her soil, melt and vanish, and come back to life as weed in her soil, as a flower.” Her wish to escape dying in exile, a wish to return to life in her own soil, even if only as a weed, should perhaps be enough to recognize the destruction wrought by this genocidal desire. In case it is not, I offer some numbers.

Photo by Mohamad Badarne

Traces of a Genocidal Desire

One woman each month. Two children each month. One man each day last month, and perhaps every month since 2000. I am citing a rough but rather probable “slow trickle” of hidden murder: a generally unreported rate of destroyed Palestinian bodies under Israel’s many hands, not including mass killings as in declared military “operations,” also known as “mowing the lawn.” Some bodies are murdered by “on duty” weapons and others by rampant “off duty” weapons. Some bodies are eradicated by soldiers or police in Jerusalem, the West Bank, or Gaza. Other bodies are annihilated in a carefully managed self-destruction of Palestinian citizenry of Israel. Via its selective surveillance and “law enforcement,” one eye of the state never sleeps—it watches for and prosecutes words, even poems in cyberspace—while the other eye “turns blind” when it comes to the influx of weapons for killing ourselves. As one hand tracks weapons and words across the physical and virtual earth, the other appears paralyzed to act against them in this very land.

This destruction of physical bodies is perhaps the most brutal of lenses through which to see how we are seventy years now into an abyss that is ‘48, seventy years into the unfinished business of finishing off the Palestinian body, multifariously, collectively, and yes, corporally. Seventy years, but actually longer, of not only wanting more land but also less and less Palestinians. Thus, by no means a deviation, the “Nationality Law,” like the “Law of Return,” is but one law in a battery of legislation for fulfilling the principle of purity.

This protean principle stems from the fear of impurity and can even be found at work every time fear lives in uttering “Arab” as a way not to see or say “Palestinian,” and “minorities” or “the sector” to see neither. But who is really a minority in this landscape? What enables a powerful minority of immigrants not to recognize a majority in whose midst it keeps bulldozing its way to a fortress? Who pays for this fortress and its enabling landscape that is the modern “Middle East”? At what price?

Photo by Razan Shalabi

The Price of Traps

Trap 1: Cement

In its relentless quest for purity, I see Israel caught in a kind of scandal, from the Greek skandalon, in the sense of a trap, one that can be typified by “cement and weeds.” Clearly, like any metaphor, it has its limits, but it helps me express the recurring drama of an Israel as a prevailing culture of cement and a peasants’ verdant and fecund Palestine, now destroyed and buried over, remaining only as weeds that grow through cracks, to pollinate and spread out through the air. The debacle for Israel is that despite all efforts at purification and eradication, “the weeds” never really go away. Israel is doomed to pour ever-sprawling cement and spew ever-toxic pesticides, to ultimately no avail. I am not sure what degree of obtuseness is required to not recognize where life, any life, is or is not viable: in the thorny, undesired, yet green of the weeds or in the cold, hard, grey of cement.

Trap 2: The Ghetto Incarnate

While Jews coming from Europe aspired for a kind of freedom when colonizing Palestine, it is unfreedom that they have built with their own hands. This kind of unfreedom is the same kind that comes with models like the shtetl or crusader’s castle, crisscrossed by all sorts of ramparts, immediately visible and less so. Aspiring for rootedness at “home,” rather than grow amidst the age-old olive trees, they sought to uproot them and plant instead fast-growing, concealing, highly flammable pines imported from their xenophobic oppressors. Loyal to its European baggage, the more Israel purges the roots of Palestine the more it plunges into its own grave. Through a coursing river, it planted a mikveh, a still pool for purification. And the river in this case would be the Arab-Muslim “civilizational space”—historically a home for flourishing Jewish traditions, among others—reduced to a fragmented, faltering complex of nation-states. Caught in a pendulum between Jewish and democratic, Israel fails to wonder if it should be a state or something better than a state. Fleeing from the diseases of purificatory Europe with its plaguing “cures,” Israel brings putrefication to the entire body of the “Middle East,” by which I mean modern sovereignty’s aseptic powers.

Trap 3: Vitality and Vitiation

The cage of the Ghetto Incarnate is ensnared by other cages, peculiar to Israel being a state, and being a state here, making the Jews’ “homecoming” very impiously unbecoming. As a state, and like any state, Israel is so worried about its death that it suffocates the possibility of its citizens coming into an authentic relation with theirs. And it so venerates “life,” that is, its life, that it vitiates access to a genuine life that recognizes life’s companion: death. It calls upon God only to end up acting like one. And on its altar, its citizenry is requested to surrender and sacrifice a basic sense of humility, a basic recognition of interdependence and fragility in themselves and in the universe. Israel thereby doubles down on its zarut, that is, its foreignness, as a kind of avodah zarah (idol worship), which should be a stranger to Abrahamic tradition and strange to take root in the land from which this very tradition grew.

In the meantime, we as autochthones of this place, descendants of its fellaheen and Bedouin, as organic guardians of the land’s evolving consciousness, including the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Pharaonic, Persian, Phoenician, Philistine, Nabatean, Canaanite, Syriac, Aramaic, Hebraic, Hellenic, and Latin, among others to be sure that make up Palestine, attempt to thrive among their remains or risk our own calcification. Doing so means recognizing and confronting the cages first erected seventy years ago, but maybe much earlier. Perhaps we should be asking what does it mean to be 102 years into the darkness of Sykes-Picot and 370 years into the darkness of the Peace of Westphalia, the peace that pacified us by waging a fatal war on our sense of life and above all on life’s precariousness?

Photo by Razan Shalabi

[This paper originated as a talk given at a panel on “70 to ‘48: Reflections on Local Time,” held by the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Tel Aviv University on December 27, 2018.

Khaled Furani is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tel Aviv University.

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More Responses to “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies” 

Earlier this month, Critical Inquiry hosted an online forum featuring responses to and discussion about Nan Z. Da’s “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies.”  To accommodate further commentary to Da’s article and to the forum itself, we have created a new page for responses.

RESPONSES

  • Taylor Arnold (University of Richmond).
  • Duncan Buell (University of South Carolina, Columbia).

 


Taylor Arnold

As a statistician who has worked and published extensively within the fields of digital humanities (DH) and computational linguistics over the past decade, I have been closely following Nan Z. Da’s article “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies” and the ensuing conversations in the online forum. It has been repeatedly pointed out that the article contains numerous errors and misunderstandings about statistical inference, Bayesian inference, and mathematical topology. It is not my intention here to restate these same objections. I want to focus instead on an aspect of the work that has gone relatively undiscussed: the larger role to be played by statistics and statisticians within computational DH.

Da correctly points out that computational literary studies, and computational DH more generally, takes a large proportion of its methods, theories, and tools from the field of statistics. And yet, she also notes, scholars have had only limited collaborations with statisticians. It is easy to produce quantitative evidence of this fact. There are a total of zero trained statisticians (having either a Ph.D. or an academic position with the title of statistics) amongst: the 25 members on the editorial board of Cultural Analytics, 11 editors of Digital Humanities Quarterly, 22 members of the editorial board for Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, 10 members of the executive committee for the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities, 9 members of the executive committee for the Association for Computers and the Humanities, 9 members of the executive committee for the European Association for Digital Humanities, and the 4 executive council members in the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities.[1]While I do have great respect for these organizations and many of the people involved with them, the total of absence of any professional statisticians—and in many of the cited examples, lack of scholars with a terminal degree in any technical field—is a problem for a field grounded, at least in part, by the analysis of data.

In the last line of her response “Final Comments,” Da calls for a peer-review process “in which many people,” meaning statisticians and computer scientists, “are brought into peer review.” That is a good place to start but not nearly sufficient. I, and likely many other computationally trained scholars, am already frequently asked to review papers and abstract proposals for the aforementioned journals and professional societies. Da as well has claimed that her Critical Inquiry article was also vetted by a computational reviewer. The actual problem is instead that statisticians need to be involved in computational analyses from the start. To only use computational scholars at the level of peer-review risks falling into the classic trap famously described by Sir Ronald Fisher: consulting a statistician after already having collected data is nothing more than “a post mortem examination.”[2]

To see the potential for working closely with statisticians, one must look no further than Da’s own essay. She critiques the overuse and misinterpretation of term frequencies, latent Dirichlet allocation, and network analysis within computational literary studies. Without a solid background in these methods, however, the article opens itself up to the obvious (at least to a statistician) counterarguments offered in the forum by scholars such as Lauren Klein, Andrew Piper, and Ted Underwood. Had Da cowritten the article with someone with a background in statistics—she even admits that she is “far from being the ideal candidate for assessing this work,”[3] so why she would undertake this task alone in the first place is a mystery—these mistakes could have been avoided and replaced with stronger arguments. As a statistician, I also agree with many of her stated concerns over the particular methods listed in the article.[4]However, the empty critiques of what not to do could and should have been replaced with alternative methods that address some of Da’s concerns over reproducibility and multiple hypothesis testing. These corrections and additions would have been possible if she had heeded her own advice about engaging with statisticians.

My research in computational digital humanities has been a mostly productive and enjoyable experience. I have been fortunate to have colleagues who treat me as an equal within our joint research and I believe this has been the primary reason for the success of these projects. These relationships are unfortunately far from the norm. Collaborations with statisticians and computer scientists are too frequently either unattributed or avoided altogether. The field of DH often sees itself as challenging epistemological constraints towards the study of the humanities and transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries. These lofty goals are attainable only if scholars from other intellectual traditions are fully welcomed into the conversation as equal collaborators.

[1]I apologize in advance if I have missed anyone in the tally. I did my best to be diligent, but not every website provided easily checked contact information.

[2]Presidential Address to the First Indian Statistical Congress, 1938. Sankhya 4, 14-17.

[3]https://critinq.wordpress.com/2019/04/03/computational-literary-studies-participant-forum-responses-day-3-4/

[4]As a case in point, just last week I had a paper accepted for publication in which we lay out an argument and methodologies for moving beyond word counting methods in DH. See: Arnold, T., Baillier, N., Lissón, P., and Tilton, L. “Beyond lexical frequencies: Using R for text analysis in the digital humanities.” Linguistic Resources and Evaluation. To Appear.

TAYLOR ARNOLD is an assistant professor of statistics at the University of Richmond. He codirects the distant viewing lab with Lauren Tilton, an NEH-funded project that develops computational techniques to analyze visual culture on a large scale. He is the co-author the books Humanities Data in R and Computational Approach to Statistical Learning.

 


Duncan Buell

As a computer scientist who has been collaborating in the digital humanities for ten years now, I found Da’s article both well-written and dead on in its arguments about the shallow use of computation. I am teaching a course in text analysis this semester, and I find myself discussing repeatedly with my students the fact that they can computationally find patterns which are almost certainly not causal.

The purpose of computing being insight and not numbers (to quote Richard Hamming), computation in any area that looks like data mining is an iterative process. The first couple of iterations can be used to suggest directions for further study. That further study requires more careful analysis and computation. And at the end one comes back to analysis by scholars to determine if there’s really anything there. This can be especially true of text, more so than with scientific data, because text as data is so inherently messy; many of the most important features of text are almost impossible to quantify statistically and almost impossible to set rules for a priori.

Those first few iterations are the fun 90 percent of the work because new things show up that might only be seen by computation. It’s the next 90 percent of the work that isn’t so much fun and that often doesn’t get done. Da argues that scholars should step back from their perhaps too-easy conclusions and dig deeper. Unlike with much scientific data, we don’t have natural laws and equations to fall back on with which the data must be consistent. Ground truth is much harder to tease out, and skeptical calibration of numerical results is crucial.

Part of Da’s criticism, which seems to have been echoed by one respondent (Piper), is that scholars are perhaps too quick to conclude a “why” for the numbers they observe. Although for the purpose of making things seem more intuitive scientists often speak as if there were a “why,” there is in fact none of that.  Physics, as I learned in my freshman class at university, describes “what”; it does not explain “why.” The pull of gravity is 9.8 meters per second per second, as described by Newton’s equations. The empirical scientist will not ask why this is but will use the fact to provide models for physical interactions. It is the job of the theorist to provide a justification for the equations.

There is a need for more of this in the digital humanities. One can perform all kinds of computations (my collaborators and I, for example, have twenty thousand first-year-composition essays collected over several years). But to really provide value to scholarship one needs to frame quantitative questions that might correlate with ideas of scholarly interest, do the computations, calibrate the results, and verify that there is causation behind the results. This can be done and has been done in the digital humanities, but it isn’t as common as it should be, and Da is only pointing out this unfortunate fact.

DUNCAN BUELL is the NCR Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 3

 

Stanley Fish

Some commentators to this forum object to my inclusion in it in part because I have no real credentials in the field. They are correct. Although I have now written five pieces on the Digital Humanities—three brief op-eds in the New York Times, an essay entitled “The Interpretive Poverty of Data” published in the blog Balkinization, and a forthcoming contribution to the New York University Journal of Law & Liberty with the title “If You Count It They Will Come”—in none of these do I display any real knowledge of statistical methods. My only possible claim to expertise, and it is a spurious one, is that my daughter is a statistician. I recently heard her give an address on some issue in bio-medical statistics and I barely understood 20 percent of it. Nevertheless, I would contend that this confessed ignorance is no bar to my pronouncing on the Digital Humanities because my objections to it are lodged on a theoretical level in relation to which actual statistical work in the field is beside the point. I don’t care what form these analyses take. I know in advance that they will fail (at least in relation to the claims made from them) in two ways: either they crank up a huge amount of machinery in order to produce something that was obvious from the get go—they just dress up garden variety literary intuition in numbers—or the interpretive conclusions they draw from the assembled data are entirely arbitrary, without motivation except the motivation to have their labors yield something, yield anything. Either their herculean efforts do nothing or when something is done with them, it is entirely illegitimate. This is so (or so I argue) because the underlying claim of the Digital Humanities (and of its legal variant Corpus Linguistics) that formal features––anything from sentence length, to image clusters, to word frequencies, to collocations of words, to passive constructions, to you name it—carry meaning is uncashable. They don’t unless all of the factors the Digital Humanities procedures leave out—including, but not limited to, context, intention, literary history, the idea of literature itself—are put back in. I was pleased therefore to find that Professor Da, possessed of a detailed knowledge infinitely greater than mine, supports my relatively untutored critique. When she says that work in Computational Studies comes in two categories—“papers that present a statistical no result finding as a finding” and “papers that draw conclusions from its finding that are wrong”—I can only cheer. When she declares “CLS as it currently exists has very little explanatory power,” I think that she gives too much credit to the project with the words “very little”; it has no explanatory power. And then there is this sentence, which to my mind, absolutely clinches the case: “there are many different ways of extracting factors and loads of new techniques for odd data sets, but these are atheoretical approaches, meaning, strictly, that you can’t use them with the hope that they will work magic for you in producing interpretations that are intentional” and “have meaning and insight.” For me the word intentional is the key. The excavation of verbal patterns must remain an inert activity until added to it is the purpose of some intentional agent whose project gives those patterns significance. Once you detach the numbers from the intention that generated them, there is absolutely nothing you can do with them, or, rather (it is the same thing) you can do with them anything you like. At bottom CLS or Digital Humanities is a project dedicated to irresponsibility masked by diagrams and massive data mining. The antidote to the whole puffed-up thing is nicely identified by Professor Da in her final paragraph: “just read the texts.”

 

STANLEY FISH is a professor of law at Florida International University and a visiting professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He is also a member of the extended Critical Inquiry editorial board.

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 3

Final Comments

Nan Z. Da

(This is the last of three responses to the online forum. The others are “Errors” and “Argument.”)

I want to state that nothing about this forum has been unbalanced or unfair. I wrote the article. Those who may not agree with it (in part or in its entirety) have every right to critique it in an academic forum.

What my critics and neutral parties on this forum seem to want from “The Computational Case” is nothing short of: (1) an across-the-board reproducibility check (qua OSC, as Piper suggests), plus (2) careful analyses of CLS work in which even the “suppression” of tiny hedges would count as misrepresentation, plus (3) a state-of-the-field for computational literary studies and related areas of the digital humanities, past and emergent. To them, that’s the kind of intellectual labor that would make my efforts valid.

Ted Underwood’s suggestion that my article and this forum have in effect been stunts designed to attract attention does a disservice to a mode of scholarship that we may simply call critical inquiry. He is right that this might be a function of the times. The demand, across social media and elsewhere, that I must answer for myself right away for critiquing CLS in a noncelebratory manner is a symptom of the social and institutional power computational studies and the digital humanities have garnered to themselves.

Yes, “field-killing” is a term that doesn’t belong in scholarship, and one more indication that certain kinds of academic discourse should only take place in certain contexts. That said, an unrooted rhetoric of solidarity and “moreness”—we’re all in this together—is a poor way to argue. Consider what Sarah Brouillette has powerfully underscored about the institutional and financial politics of this subfield: it is time, as I’ve said, to ask some questions.

Underwood condemns social media and other public responses. He has left out the equally pernicious efforts on social media and in other circles to invalidate my article by whispering—or rather, publically publishing doubts—about Critical Inquiry’s peer review process. It has been suggested, by Underwood and many other critics of this article, that it was not properly peer-reviewed by someone out-of-field. This is untrue—my paper was reviewed by an expert in quantitative analysis and mathematical modeling—and it is damaging. It suggests that anyone who dares to check the work of leading figures in CLS will be tried by gossip.

Does my article make empirical mistakes? Yes, a few, mostly in section 3. I will list them in time, but they do not bear on the macro-claims in that section. With the exception of a misunderstanding in the discussion of Underwood’s essay none of the rebuttals presented in this forum made on empirical grounds have any substance. Piper’s evidence that I “failed at basic math” refers to a simple rhetorical example in which I rounded down to the nearest thousand for the sake of legibility.

Anyone who does serious quantitative analysis will see that I am far from being the ideal candidate for assessing this work. Still, I think the fundamental conflict of interest at issue here should be obvious to all. People who can do this work on a high level tend not to care to critique it, or else they tend not to question how quantitative methods intersect with the distinctiveness of literary criticism, in all its forms and modes of argumentation. In the interest of full disclosure: after assessing the validity of my empirical claims, my out-of-field peer reviewer did not finally agree with me that computational methods works poorly on literary objects. This is the crux of the issue. Statisticians or computer scientists can check for empirical mistakes and errors in implementation; they do not understand what would constitute a weak or conceptually-confused argument in literary scholarship. This is why the guidelines I lay out in my appendix, in which many people are brought into peer review, should be considered.

NAN Z. DA teaches literature at the University of Notre Dame.

 

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 3

Mark Algee-Hewitt

In 2010, as a new postdoctoral fellow, I presented a paper on James Thomson’s 1730 poem The Seasons to a group of senior scholars. The argument was modest: I used close readings to suggest that in each section of the poem Thomson simulated an aesthetic experience for his readers before teaching them how to interpret it. The response was mild and mostly positive. Six months later, having gained slightly more confidence, I presented the same project with a twist: I included a graph that revealed my readings to be based on a pattern of repeated discourse throughout the poem. The response was swift and polarizing: while some in the room thought that the quantitative methods deepened the argument, others argued strongly that I was undermining the whole field. For me, the experience was formative: the simple presence of numbers was enough to enrage scholars many years my senior, long before Digital Humanities gained any prestige, funding, or institutional support.

My experience suggests that this project passed what Da calls the “smell test”: the critical results remained valid, even without the supporting apparatus of the quantitative analysis. And while Da might argue that this proves that the quantitative aspect of the project was unnecessary in the first place, I would respectfully disagree. The pattern I found was the basis for my reading and to present it as if I had discovered it through reading alone was, at best, disingenuous. The quantitative aspect to my argument also allowed me to connect the poem to a larger pattern of poetics throughout the eighteenth century.  And I would go further to contend that just as introduction of quantification into a field changes the field, so too does the field change the method to suit its own ends; and that confirming a statistical result through its agreement with conclusions derived from literary historical methods is just as powerful as a null hypothesis test. In other words, Da’s “smell test” suggests a potential way forward in synthesizing these methods.

But the lesson I learned remains as powerful as ever: regardless of how they are embedded in research, regardless of who uses them, computational methods provoke an immediate, often negative, response in many humanities scholars. And it is worth asking why. Just as it is always worth reexamining the institutional, political, and gendered history of methods such as new history, formalism, and even close reading, so too is it important, as Katherine Bode suggests, to think through these same issues in Digital Humanities as a whole. And it is crucial that we do so without erasing the work of the new, emerging, and often structurally vulnerable members of the field that Lauren Klein highlights. These methods have a powerful appeal among emerging groups of students and young scholars. And to seek to shut down scholarship by asserting a blanket incompatibility between method and object is to do a disservice to the fascinating work of emerging scholars that is reshaping our critical practices and our understanding of literature.

MARK ALGEE-HEWITT is an assistant professor of English and Digital Humanities at Stanford University where he directs the Stanford Literary Lab. His current work combines computational methods with literary criticism to explore large scale changes in aesthetic concepts during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The projects that he leads at the Literary Lab include a study of racialized language in nineteenth-century American literature and a computational analysis of differences in disciplinary style. Mark’s work has appeared in New Literary History, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, as well as in edited volumes on the Enlightenment and the Digital Humanities.

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 3

Katherine Bode

Da’s is the first article (I’m aware of) to offer a statistical rejection of statistical approaches to literature. The exaggerated ideological agenda of earlier criticisms, which described the use of numbers or computers to analyze literature as neoliberal, neoimperialist, neoconservative, and more, made them easy to dismiss. Yet to some extent, this routinized dismissal instituted a binary in CLS, wherein numbers, statistics, and computers became distinct from ideology. If nothing else, this debate will hopefully demonstrate that no arguments––including statistical ones––are ideologically (or ethically) neutral.

But this realization doesn’t get us very far. If all arguments have ideological and ethical dimensions, then making and assessing them requires something more than proving their in/accuracy; more than establishing their reproducibility, replicability, or lack thereof. Da’s “Argument” response seemed to move us toward what is needed in describing the aim of her article as: “to empower literary scholars and editors to ask logical questions about computational and quantitative literary criticism should they suspect a conceptual mismatch between the result and the argument or perceive the literary-critical payoff to be extraordinarily low.” However, she closes that path down in allowing only one possible answer to such questions: “in practice” there can be no “payoff … [in terms of] literary-critical meaning, from these methods”; CLS “conclusions”––whether “corroborat[ing] or disprov[ing] existing knowledge”––are only ever “tautological at best, merely superficial at worse.”

Risking blatant self-promotion, I’d say I’ve often used quantification to show “something interesting that derives from measurements that are nonreductive.” For instance, A World of Fiction challenges the prevailing view that nineteenth-century Australian fiction replicates the legal lie of terra nullius by not representing Aboriginal characters, in establishing their widespread prevalence in such fiction; and contrary to the perception of the Australian colonies as separate literary cultures oriented toward their metropolitan centers, it demonstrates the existence of a largely separate, strongly interlinked, provincial literary culture.[1] To give just one other example from many possibilities, Ted Underwood’s “Why Literary Time is Measured in Minutes” uses hand-coded samples from three centuries of literature to indicate an acceleration in the pace of fiction.[2] Running the gauntlet from counting to predictive modelling, these arguments are all statistical, according to Da’s definition: “if numbers and their interpretation are involved, then statistics has come into play.” And as in this definition, they don’t stop with numerical results, but explore their literary critical and historical implications.

If what happens prior to arriving at a statistical finding cannot be justified, the argument is worthless; the same is true if what happens after that point is of no literary-critical interest. Ethical considerations are essential in justifying what is studied, why, and how. This is not––and should not be––a low bar. I’d hoped this forum would help build connections between literary and statistical ways of knowing. The idea that quantification and computation can only yield superficial or tautological literary arguments shows that we’re just replaying the same old arguments, even if both sides are now making them in statistical terms.

KATHERINE BODE is associate professor of literary and textual studies at the Australian National University. Her latest book, A World of Fiction: Digital Collections and the Future of Literary History (2018), offers a new approach to literary research with mass-digitized collections, based on the theory and technology of the scholarly edition. Applying this model, Bode investigates a transnational collection of around 10,000 novels and novellas, discovered in digitized nineteenth-century Australian newspapers, to offer new insights into phenomena ranging from literary anonymity and fiction syndication to the emergence and intersections of national literary traditions.

[1]Katherine Bode, A World of Fiction: Digital Collections and the Future of Literary History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018).

[2]Ted Underwood, “Why Literary Time is Measured in Minutes,” ELH 85.2 (2018): 341–365.

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 3

 

Lauren F. Klein

The knowledge that there are many important voices not represented in this forum has prompted me to think harder about the context for the lines I quoted at the outset of my previous remarks. Parham’s own model for “The New Rigor” comes from diversity work, and the multiple forms of labor—affective as much as intellectual—that are required of individuals, almost always women and people of color, in order to compensate for the structural deficiencies of the university. I should have provided that context at the outset, both to do justice to Parham’s original formulation, and because the same structural deficiencies are at work in this forum, as they are in the field of DH overall.

In her most recent response, Katherine Bode posed a series of crucial questions about why literary studies remains fixated on the “individualistic, masculinist mode of statistical criticism” that characterizes much of the work that Da takes on in her essay. Bode further asks why the field of literary studies has allowed this focus to overshadow so much of the transformative work that has been pursued alongside—and, at times, in direct support of––this particular form of computational literary studies.

But I think we also know the answers, and they point back to the same structural deficienciesthat Parham explores in her essay: a university structure that rewards certain forms of work and devalues others. In a general academic context, we might point to mentorship, advising, and community-building as clear examples of this devalued work. But in the context of the work discussed in this forum, we can align efforts to recover overlooked texts, compile new datasets, and preserve fragile archives, with the undervalued side of this equation as well. It’s not only that these forms of scholarship, like the “service” work described just above, are performed disproportionally by women and people of color. It is also that, because of the ways in which archives and canons are constructed, projects that focus on women and people of color require many more of these generous and generative scholarly acts. Without these acts, and the scholars who perform them, much of the formally-published work on these subjects could not begin to exist.

Consider Kenton Rambsy’s “Black Short Story Dataset,” a dataset creation effort that he undertook because his own research questions about the changing composition of African American fiction anthologies could not be answered by any existing corpus; Margaret Galvan’s project to create an archive of comics in social movements, which she has undertaken in order to support her own computational work as well as her students’ learning; or any number of the projects published with Small Axe Archipelagos, a born-digital journal edited and produced by a team of librarians and faculty that has been intentionally designed to be read by people who live in the Caribbean as well as for scholars who work on that region. These projects each involve sophisticated computational thinking—at the level of resource creation and platform development as well as of analytical method. They respond both to specific research questions and to larger scholarly need. They require work, and they require time.

It’s clear that these projects provide significant value to the field of literary studies, as they do to the digital humanities and to the communities to which their work is addressed. In the end, the absence of the voices of the scholars who lead these projects, both from this forum and from the scholarship it explores, offers the most convincing evidence of what—and who—is valued most by existing university structures; and what work—and what people—should be at the center of conversations to come.

LAUREN F. KLEIN is associate professor at the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, Georgia Institute of Technology.

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 2

 

Ted Underwood

More could be said about specific claims in “The Computational Case.” But frankly, this forum isn’t happening because literary critics were persuaded by (or repelled by) Da’s statistical arguments. The forum was planned before publication because the essay’s general strategy was expected to make waves. Social media fanfare at the roll-out made clear that rumors of a “field-killing” project had been circulating for months among scholars who might not yet have read the text but were already eager to believe that Da had found a way to hoist cultural analytics by its own petard—the irrefutable authority of mathematics.

That excitement is probably something we should be discussing. Da’s essay doesn’t actually reveal much about current trends in cultural analytics. But the excitement preceding its release does reveal what people fear about this field—and perhaps suggest how breaches could be healed.

While it is undeniably interesting to hear that colleagues have been anticipating your demise, I don’t take the rumored plans for field-murder literally. For one thing, there’s no motive: literary scholars have little to gain by eliminating other subfields. Even if quantitative work had cornered a large slice of grant funding in literary studies (which it hasn’t), the total sum of all grants in the discipline is too small to create a consequential zero-sum game.

The real currency of literary studies is not grant funding but attention, so I interpret excitement about “The Computational Case” mostly as a sign that a large group of scholars have felt left out of an important conversation. Da’s essay itself describes this frustration, if read suspiciously (and yes, I still do that). Scholars who tried to critique cultural analytics in a purely external way seem to have felt forced into an unrewarding posture—“after all, who would not want to appear reasonable, forward-looking, open-minded?” (p. 603). What was needed instead was a champion willing to venture into quantitative territory and borrow some of that forward-looking buzz.

Da was courageous enough to try, and I think the effects of her venture are likely to be positive for everyone. Literary scholars will see that engaging quantitative arguments quantitatively isn’t all that hard and does produce buzz. Other scholars will follow Da across the qualitative/quantitative divide, and the illusory sharpness of the field boundary will fade.

Da’s own argument remains limited by its assumption that statistics is an alien world, where humanistic guidelines like “acknowledge context” are replaced by rigid hypothesis-testing protocols. But the colleagues who follow her will recognize, I hope, that statistical reasoning is an extension of ordinary human activities like exploration and debate. Humanistic principles still apply here. Quantitative models can test theories, but they are also guided by theory, and they shouldn’t pretend to answer questions more precisely than our theories can frame them. In short, I am glad Da wrote “The Computational Case” because her argument has ended up demonstrating—as a social gesture—what its text denied: that questions about mathematical modeling are continuous with debates about interpretive theory.

TED UNDERWOOD is professor of information sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has published in venues ranging from PMLA to the IEEE International Conference on Big Data and is the author most recently of Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change (2019).

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 2

 

Katherine Bode

The opening statements were fairly critical of Da’s article, less so of CLS. To balance the scales, I want to suggest that Da’s idiosyncratic definition of CLS is partly a product of problematic divisions within digital literary studies.

Da omits what I’d call digital literary scholarship: philological, curatorial, and media archaeological approaches to digital collections and data. Researchers who pursue these approaches, far from reducing all digit(al)ized literature(s) to word counts, maintain––like Da––that analyses based purely or predominantly on such features tend to produce “conceptual fallacies from a literary, historical, or cultural-critical perspective” (p. 604). Omitting such research is part of the way in which Da operationalizes her critique of CLS: defining the field as research that focuses on word counts, then criticizing the field as limited because focused on word counts.

But Da’s perspective is mirrored by many of the researchers she cites. Ted Underwood, for instance, describes “otiose debates about corpus construction” as “well-intentioned red herrings” that detract attention from the proper focus of digital literary studies on statistical methods and inferences.[1] Da has been criticized for propagating a male-dominated version of CLS. But those who pursue the methods she criticizes are mostly men. By contrast, much digital literary scholarship is conducted by women and/or focused on marginalized literatures, peoples, or cultures. The tendency in CLS to privilege data modeling and analysis––and to minimize or dismiss the work of data construction and curation––is part of the culture that creates the male dominance of that field.

More broadly, both the focus on statistical modelling of word frequencies in found datasets, and the prominence accorded to such research in our discipline, puts literary studies out of step with digital research in other humanities fields. In digital history, for instance, researchers collaborate to construct rich datasets––for instance, of court proceedings (as in The Proceedings of the Old Bailey)[2] or social complexity (as reported in a recent Nature article)[3]––that can be used by multiple researchers, including for noncomputational analyses. Where such research is statistical, the methods are often simpler than machine learning models (for instance, trends over time; measures of relationships between select variables) because the questions are explicitly related to scale and the aggregation of well-defined scholarly phenomena, not to epistemologically-novel patterns discerned among thousands of variables.

Some things I want to know: Why is literary studies so hung up on (whether in favor of, or opposed to) this individualistic, masculinist mode of statistical criticism? Why is this focus allowed to marginalize earlier, and inhibit the development of new, large-scale, collaborative environments for both computational and noncomputational literary research? Why, in a field that is supposedly so attuned to identity and inequality, do we accept––and foreground––digital research that relies on platforms (Google Books, HathiTrust, EEBO, and others) that privilege dominant literatures and literary cultures? What would it take to bridge the scholarly and critical––the curatorial and statistical––dimensions of (digital) literary studies and what alternative, shared futures for our discipline could result?

KATHERINE BODE is associate professor of literary and textual studies at the Australian National University. Her latest book, A World of Fiction: Digital Collections and the Future of Literary History (2018), offers a new approach to literary research with mass-digitized collections, based on the theory and technology of the scholarly edition. Applying this model, Bode investigates a transnational collection of around 10,000 novels and novellas, discovered in digitized nineteenth-century Australian newspapers, to offer new insights into phenomena ranging from literary anonymity and fiction syndication to the emergence and intersections of national literary traditions.

[1]Ted Underwood, Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2019): 180; 176.

[2]Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, Clive Emsley, Sharon Howard and Jamie McLaughlin, et al., The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 8.0, March 2018).

[3]Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter François, Patrick E. Savage, Thomas E. Currie, Kevin C. Feeney, Enrico Cioni, Rosalind Purcell, et al., “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History,” Nature March 20 (2019): 1.

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 2

 

Argument

(This response follows Nan Da’s previous “Errors” response)

Nan Z Da

First, a qualification. Due to the time constraints of this forum, I can only address a portion of the issues raised by the forum participants and in ways still imprecise. I do plan to issue an additional response that addresses the more fine-grained technical issues.

“The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies” was not written for the purposes of refining CLS. The paper does not simply call for “more rigor” or for replicability across the board. It is not about figuring out which statistical mode of inquiry best suits computational literary analysis. It is not a method paper; as some of my respondents point out, those are widely available.

The article was written to empower literary scholars and editors to ask logical questions about computational and quantitative literary criticism should they suspect a conceptual mismatch between the result and the argument or perceive the literary-critical payoff to be extraordinarily low.

The paper, I hope, teaches us to recognize two types of CLS work. First, there is statistically rigorous work that cannot actually answer the question it sets out to answer or doesn’t ask an interesting question at all. Second, there is work that seems to deliver interesting results but is either nonrobust or logically confused. The confusion sometimes issues from something like user error, but it is more often the result of the suboptimal or unnecessary use of statistical and other machine-learning tools. The paper was an attempt to demystify the application of those tools to literary corpora and to explain why technical errors are amplified when your goal is literary interpretation or description.

My article is the culmination of a long investigation into whether computational methods and their modes of quantitative analyses can have purchase in literary studies. My answer is that what drives quantitative results and data patterns often has little to do with the literary critical or literary historical claims being made by scholars that claim to be finding such results and uncovering such patterns—though it sometimes looks like it. If the conclusions we find in CLS corroborate or disprove existing knowledge, this is not a sign that they are correct but that they are tautological at best, merely superficial at worst.

The article is agnostic on what literary criticism ought to be and makes no prescriptions about interpretive habits. The charge that it takes a “purist” position is pure projection. The article aims to describe what scholarship ought not to be. Even the appeal to reading books in the last pages of the article does not presume the inherent meaningfulness of “actually reading” but only serves as a rebuttal to the use of tools that wish to do simple classifications for which human decision would be immeasurably more accurate and much less expensive.

As to the question of Exploratory Data Analysis versus Confirmatory Data Analysis: I don’t prioritize one over the other. If numbers and their interpretation are involved, then statistics has to come into play; I don’t know any way around this. If you wish to simply describe your data, then you have to show something interesting that derives from measurements that are nonreductive. As to the appeal to exploratory tools: if your tool will never be able to explore the problem in question, because it lacks power or is overfitted to its object, your exploratory tool is not needed.

It seems unobjectionable that quantitative methods and nonquantitative methods might work in tandem.  My paper is simply saying: that may be true in theory but it falls short in practice. Andrew Piper points us to the problem of generalization, of how to move from local to global, probative to illustrative. This is precisely the gap my article interrogates because that’s where the collaborative ideal begins to break down. One may call the forcible closing of that gap any number of things—a new hermeneutics, epistemology, or modality—but in the end, the logic has to clear.

My critics are right to point out a bind. The bind is theirs, however, not mine. My point is also that, going forward, it is not for me or a very small group of people to decide what the value of this work is, nor how it should be done.

Ed Finn accuses me of subjecting CLS to a double standard: “Nobody is calling in economists to assess the validity of Marxist literary analysis, or cognitive psychologists to check applications of affect theory, and it’s hard to imagine that scholars would accept the disciplinary authority of those critics.”

This is faulty reasoning. For one thing, literary scholars ask for advice and assessment from scholars in other fields all the time. For another, the payoff of the psychoanalytic reading, even as it seeks extraliterary meaning and validity, is not for psychology but for literary-critical meaning, where it succeeds or fails on its own terms. CLS wants to say, “it’s okay that there isn’t much payoff in our work itself as literary criticism, whether at the level of prose or sophistication of insight; the payoff is in the use of these methods, the description of data, the generation of a predictive model, or the ability for someone else in the future to ask (maybe better) questions. The payoff is in the building of labs, the funding of students, the founding of new journals, the cases made for tenure lines and postdoctoral fellowships and staggeringly large grants. When these are the claims, more than one discipline needs to be called in to evaluate the methods, their applications, and their result. Because printed critique of certain literary scholarship is generally not refuted by pointing to things still in the wings, we are dealing with two different scholarly models. In this situation, then, we should be maximally cross-disciplinary.

NAN Z. DA teaches literature at the University of Notre Dame.

 

Nan Z. Da, Critical Response III. On EDA, Complexity, and Redundancy: A Response to Underwood and Weatherby

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 2

 

Errors

Nan Z. Da

This first of two responses addresses errors, real and imputed; the second response is the more substantive.

1. There is a significant mistake in footnote 39 (p. 622) of my paper. In it I attribute to Hugh Craig and Arthur F. Kinney the argument that Marlowe wrote parts of some late Shakespeare plays after his (Marlowe’s) death. The attribution is incorrect. What Craig asks in “The Three Parts of Henry VI” (pp. 40-77) is whether Marlowe wrote segments of these plays. I would like to extend my sincere apologies to Craig and to the readers of this essay for the misapprehension that it caused.

2. The statement “After all, statistics automatically assumes” (p. 608) is incorrect. A more correct statement would be: In standard hypothesis testing a 95 percent confidence level means that, when the null is true, you will correctly fail to reject 95 percent of the time.

3. The description of various applications of text-mining/machine-learning (p. 620) as “ethically neutral” is not worded carefully enough. I obviously do not believe that some of these applications, such as tracking terrorists using algorithms, is ethically neutral. I meant that there are myriad applications of these tools: for good, ill, and otherwise. On balance it’s hard to assign an ideological position to them.

4. Ted Underwood is correct that, in my discussion of his article on “The Life Cycle of Genres,” I confused the “ghastly stew” with the randomized control sets used in his predictive modeling. Underwood also does not make the elementary statistical mistake I suggest he has made in my article (“Underwood should train his model on pre-1941” [p. 608]).

As to the charge of misrepresentation: paraphrasing a paper whose “single central thesis … is that the things we call ‘genres’ may be entities of different kinds, with different life cycles and degrees of textual coherence” is difficult. Underwood’s thesis here refers to the relative coherence of detective fiction, gothic, and science fiction over time, with 1930 as the cutoff point.

The other things I say about the paper remain true. The paper cites various literary scholars’ definitions of genre change, but its implicit definition of genre is “consistency over time of 10,000 frequently used terms.” It cannot “reject Franco Moretti’s conjecture that genres have generational cycles” (a conjecture that most would already find too reductive) because it is not using the same testable definition of genre or change.

5. Topic Modeling: my point isn’t that topic models are non-replicable but that, in this particular application, they are non-robust. Among other evidence: if I remove one document out of one hundred, the topics change. That’s a problem.

6. As far as Long and So’s essay “Turbulent Flow” goes, I need a bit more time than this format allows to rerun the alternatives responsibly. So and Long have built a tool in which there are thirteen features for predicting the difference between two genres—Stream of Consciousness and Realism. They say: most of these features are not very predictive alone but together become very predictive, with that power being concentrated in just one feature. I show that that one feature isn’t robust. To revise their puzzling metaphor: it’s as if someone claims that a piano plays beautifully and that most of that sound comes from one key. I play that key; it doesn’t work.

7. So and Long argue that by proving that their classifier misclassifies nonhaikus—not only using English translations of Chinese poetry, as they suggest, but also Japanese poetry that existed long before the haiku—I’ve made a “misguided decision that smacks of Orientalism. . . . It completely erases context and history, suggesting an ontological relation where there is none.” This is worth getting straight. Their classifier lacks power because it can only classify haikus with reference to poems quite different from haikus; to be clear, it will classify equally short texts with overlapping keywords close to haikus as haikus. Overlapping keywords is their predictive feature, not mine. I’m not sure how pointing this out is Orientalist. As for their model, I would if pushed say it is only slightly Orientalist, if not determinatively so.

8. Long and So claim that my “numbers cannot be trusted,” that my “critique . . . is rife with technical and factual errors”; in a similar vein it ends with the assertion that my essay doesn’t “encourag[e] much trust.”  I’ll admit to making some errors in this article, though not in my analyses of Long and So’s papers (the errors mostly occur in section 3). I hope to list all of these errors in the more formal response that appears in print or else in an online appendix. That said, an error is not the same as a specious insinuation that the invalidation of someone’s model indicates Orientalism, pigheadedness, and so on. Nor is an error the same as the claim that “CI asked Da to widen her critique to include female scholars and she declined” recently made by So, which is not an error but a falsehood.

NAN Z. DA teaches literature at the University of Notre Dame.

 

Nan Z. Da, Critical Response III. On EDA, Complexity, and Redundancy: A Response to Underwood and Weatherby

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

Ted Underwood

In the humanities, as elsewhere, researchers who work with numbers often reproduce and test each other’s claims.Nan Z. Da’s contribution to this growing genre differs from previous examples mainly in moving more rapidly. For instance, my coauthors and I spent 5,800 words describing, reproducing, and partially criticizing one article about popular music.By contrast, Da dismisses fourteen publications that use different methods in thirty-eight pages. The article’s energy is impressive, and its long-term effects will be positive.

But this pace has a cost. Da’s argument may be dizzying if readers don’t already know the works summarized, as she rushes through explanation to get to condemnation. Readers who know these works will recognize that Da’s summaries are riddled with material omissions and errors. The time is ripe for a theoretical debate about computing in literary studies. But this article is unfortunately too misleading—even at the level of paraphrase—to provide a starting point for the debate.

For instance, Da suggests that my article “The Life Cycles of Genres”makes genres look stable only because it forgets to compare apples to apples: “Underwood should train his model on pre-1941 detective fiction (A) as compared to pre-1941 random stew and post-1941 detective fiction (B) as compared to post-1941 random stew, instead of one random stew for both” (p. 608).3

This perplexing critique tells me to do exactly what my article (and public code) make clear that I did: compare groups of works matched by publication date.4There is also no “random stew” in the article. Da’s odd phrase conflates a random contrast set with a ghastly “genre stew” that plays a different role in the argument.

More importantly, Da’s critique suppresses the article’s comparative thesis—which identifies detective fiction as more stable than several other genres—in order to create a straw man who argues that all genres “have in fact been more or less consistent from the 1820s to the present” (p. 609). Lacking any comparative yardstick to measure consistency, this straw thesis becomes unprovable. In other cases Da has ignored the significant results of an article, in order to pour scorn on a result the authors acknowledge as having limited significance—without ever mentioning that the authors acknowledge the limitation. This is how she proceeds with Jockers and Kirilloff (p. 610).

In short, this is not an article that works hard at holistic critique. Instead of describing the goals that organize a publication, Da often assumes that researchers were trying (and failing) to do something she believes they should have done. Topic modeling, for instance, identifies patterns in a corpus without pretending to find a uniquely correct description. Humanists use the method mostly for exploratory analysis. But Da begins from the assumption that topic modeling must be a confused attempt to prove hypotheses of some kind. So, she is shocked to discover (and spends a page proving) that different topics can emerge when the method is run multiple times. This is true. It is also a basic premise of the method, acknowledged by all the authors Da cites—who between them spend several pages discussing how results that vary can nevertheless be used for interpretive exploration. Da doesn’t acknowledge the discussion.

Finally, “The Computational Case” performs some crucial misdirection at the outset by implying that cultural analytics is based purely on linguistic evidence and mainly diction. It is true that diction can reveal a great deal, but this is a misleading account of contemporary trends. Quantitative approaches are making waves partly because researchers have learned to extract social relations from literature and partly because they pair language with external social testimony—for instance the judgments of reviewers.Some articles, like my own on narrative pace, use numbers entirely to describe the interpretations of human readers.Once again, Da’s polemical strategy is to isolate one strand in a braid, and critique it as if it were the whole.

A more inquisitive approach to cultural analytics might have revealed that it is not a monolith but an unfolding debate between several projects that frequently criticize each other. Katherine Bode, for instance, has critiqued other researchers’ data (including mine), in an exemplary argument that starts by precisely describing different approaches to historical representation.Da could have made a similarly productive intervention—explaining, for instance, how researchers should report uncertainty in exploratory analysis. Her essay falls short of that achievement because a rush to condemn as many examples as possible has prevented it from taking time to describe and genuinely understand its objects of critique.

TED UNDERWOOD is professor of information sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has published in venues ranging from PMLA to the IEEE International Conference on Big Data and is the author most recently of Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change (2019).

1.Andrew Goldstone, “Of Literary Standards and Logistic Regression: A Reproduction,” January 4, 2016, https://andrewgoldstone.com/blog/2016/01/04/standards/. Jonathan Goodwin, “Darko Suvin’s Genres of Victorian SF Revisited,” Oct 17, 2016, https://jgoodwin.net/blog/more-suvin/.

2. Ted Underwood, “Can We Date Revolutions in the History of Literature and Music?”, The Stone and the Shell, October 3, 2015, https://tedunderwood.com/2015/10/03/can-we-date-revolutions-in-the-history-of-literature-and-music/ Ted Underwood, Hoyt Long, Richard Jean So, and Yuancheng Zhu, “You Say You Found a Revolution,” The Stone and the Shell, February 7, 2016, https://tedunderwood.com/2016/02/07/you-say-you-found-a-revolution/.

3. Nan Z. Da, “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies,” Critical Inquiry 45 (Spring 2019): 601-39.

4. Ted Underwood, “The Life Cycles of Genres,” Journal of Cultural Analytics, May 23, 2016, http://culturalanalytics.org/2016/05/the-life-cycles-of-genres/.

5. Eve Kraicer and Andrew Piper, “Social Characters: The Hierarchy of Gender in Contemporary English-Language Fiction,” Journal of Cultural Analytics, January 30, 2019, http://culturalanalytics.org/2019/01/social-characters-the-hierarchy-of-gender-in-contemporary-english-language-fiction/

6. Ted Underwood, “Why Literary Time is Measured in Minutes,” ELH 25.2 (2018): 341-65.

7. Katherine Bode, “The Equivalence of ‘Close’ and ‘Distant’ Reading; or, Toward a New Object for Data-Rich Literary History,” MLQ 78.1 (2017): 77-106.

 

Ted Underwood, Critical Response II. The Theoretical Divide Driving Debates about Computation

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

The Select

Andrew Piper

Nan Z. Da’s study published in Critical Inquiry participates in an emerging trend across a number of disciplines that falls under the heading of “replication.”[1] In this, her work follows major efforts in other fields, such as the Open Science Collaboration’s “reproducibility project,” which sought to replicate past studies in the field of psychology.[2] As the authors of the OSC collaboration write, the value of replication, when done well, is that it can “increase certainty when findings are reproduced and promote innovation when they are not.”

And yet despite arriving at sweeping claims about an entire field, Da’s study fails to follow any of the procedures and practices established by projects like the OSC.[3] While invoking the epistemological framework of replication—that is, to prove or disprove the validity of both individual articles as well as an entire field—her practices follow instead the time-honoured traditions of selective reading from the field of literary criticism. Da’s work is ultimately valuable not because of the computational case it makes (that work still remains to be done), but the way it foregrounds so many of the problems that accompany traditional literary critical models when used to make large-scale evidentiary claims. The good news is that this article has made the problem of generalization, of how we combat the problem of selective reading, into a central issue facing the field.

Start with the evidence chosen. When undertaking their replication project, the OSC generated a sample of one hundred studies taken from three separate journals within a single year of publication to approximate a reasonable cross-section of the field. Da on the other hand chooses “a handful” of articles (fourteen by my count) from different years and different journals with no clear rationale of how these articles are meant to represent an entire field. The point is not the number chosen but that we have no way of knowing why these articles and not others were chosen and thus whether her findings extend to any work beyond her sample. Indeed, the only linkage appears to be that these studies all “fail” by her criteria. Imagine if the OSC had found that 100 percent of articles sampled failed to replicate. Would we find their results credible? Da by contrast is surprisingly only ever right.

Da’s focus within articles exhibits an even stronger degree of nonrepresentativeness. In their replication project, the OSC establishes clearly defined criteria through which a study can be declared not to replicate, while also acknowledging the difficulty of arriving at this conclusion. Da by contrast applies different criteria to every article, making debatable choices, as well as outright errors, that are clearly designed to foreground differences.[4] She misnames authors of articles, mis-cites editions, mis-attributes arguments to the wrong book, and fails at some basic math.[5] And yet each of these assertions always adds-up to the same certain conclusion: failed to replicate. In Da’s hands, part is always a perfect representation of whole.

Perhaps the greatest limitation of Da’s piece is her extremely narrow (that is, nonrepresentative) definition of statistical inference and computational modeling. In Da’s view, the only appropriate way to use data is to perform what is known as significance testing, where we use a statistical model to test whether a given hypothesis is “true.”[6] There is no room for exploratory data analysis, for theory building, or predictive modeling in her view of the field.[7] This is particularly ironic given that Da herself performs no such tests. She holds others to standards to which she herself is not accountable. Nor does she cite articles where authors explicitly undertake such tests[8] or research that calls into question the value of such tests[9] or research that explores the relationship between word frequency and human judgments that she finds so problematic.[10] The selectivity of Da’s work is deeply out of touch with the larger research landscape.

All of these practices highlight a more general problem that has for too long gone unexamined in the field of literary study. How are we to move reliably from individual observations to general beliefs about things in the world? Da’s article provides a tour de force of the problems of selective reading when it comes to generalizing about individual studies or entire fields. Addressing the problem of responsible and credible generalization will be one of the central challenges facing the field in the years to come. As with all other disciplines across the university, data and computational modeling will have an integral role to play in that process.

ANDREW PIPER is Professor and William Dawson Scholar in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University. He is the author most recently of Enumerations: Data and Literary Study (2018).

[1]Nan Z. Da, “The Computational Case Against Computational Literary Studies,” Critical Inquiry 45 (Spring 2019) 601-639. For accessible introductions to what has become known as the replication crisis in the sciences, see Ed Yong, “Psychology’s Replication Crisis Can’t Be Wished Away,” The Atlantic March 4, 2016.

[2]Open Science Collaboration, “Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science,” Science 28 Aug 2015: Vol. 349, Issue 6251, aac4716.DOI: 10.1126/science.aac4716.

[3]Compare Da’s sweeping claims with the more modest ones made by the OSC in Science even given their considerably larger sample and far more rigorous effort at replication, reproduced here. For a discussion of the practice of replication, see Brian D. Earp and David Trafimow, “Replication, Falsification, and the Crisis of Confidence in Social Psychology,” Frontiers in Psychology May 19, 2015: doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00621.

[4]For a list, see Ben Schmidt, “A computational critique of a computational critique of a computational critique.” I provide more examples in the scholarly response here: Andrew Piper, “Do We Know What We Are Doing?Journal of Cultural Analytics, April 1, 2019.

[5]She cites Mark Algee-Hewitt as Mark Hewitt, cites G. Casella as the author of Introduction to Statistical Learning when it was Gareth James, cites me and Andrew Goldstone as co-authors in the Appendix when we were not, claims that “the most famous example of CLS forensic stylometry” was Hugh Craig and Arthur F. Kinney’s book that advances a theory of Marlowe’s authorship of Shakespeare’s plays which they do not, and miscalculates the number of people it would take to read fifteen thousand novels in a year. The answer is 1250 not 1000 as she asserts. This statistic is also totally meaningless.

[6]Statements like the following also suggest that she is far from a credible guide to even this aspect of statistics: “After all, statistics automatically assumes that 95 percent of the time there is no difference and that only 5 percent of the time there is a difference. That is what it means to look for p-value less than 0.05.” This is not what it means to look for a p-value less than 0.05. A p-value is the estimated probability of getting our observed data assuming our null hypothesis is true. The smaller the p-value, the more unlikely it is to observe what we did assuming our initial hypothesis is true. The aforementioned 5% threshold says nothing about how often there will be a “difference” (in other words, how often the null hypothesis is false). Instead, it says: “if our data leads us to conclude that there is a difference, we estimate that we will be mistaken 5% of the time.” Nor does “statistics” “automatically” assume that .05 is the appropriate cut-off. It depends on the domain, the question and the aims of modeling. These are gross over-simplifications.

[7]For reflections on literary modeling, see Andrew Piper, “Think Small: On Literary Modeling.” PMLA 132.3 (2017): 651-658; Richard Jean So, “All Models Are Wrong,” PMLA 132.3 (2017); Ted Underwood, “Algorithmic Modeling: Or, Modeling Data We Do Not Yet Understand,” The Shape of Data in Digital Humanities: Modeling Texts and Text-based Resources, eds. J. Flanders and F. Jannidis (New York: Routledge, 2018).

[8]See Andrew Piper and Eva Portelance, “How Cultural Capital Works: Prizewinning Novels, Bestsellers, and the Time of Reading,” Post-45 (2016); Eve Kraicer and Andrew Piper, “Social Characters: The Hierarchy of Gender in Contemporary English-Language Fiction,” Journal of Cultural Analytics, January 30, 2019. DOI: 10.31235/osf.io/4kwrg; and Andrew Piper, “Fictionality,” Journal of Cultural Analytics, Dec. 20, 2016. DOI: 10.31235/osf.io/93mdj.

[9]The literature debating the values of significance testing is vast. See Simmons, Joseph P., Leif D. Nelson, and Uri Simonsohn. “False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant.” Psychological Science 22, no. 11 (November 2011): 1359–66. doi:10.1177/0956797611417632.

 [10]See Rens Bod, Jennifer Hay, and Stefanie Jannedy, Probabilistic Linguistics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003); Dan Jurafsky and James Martin, “Vector Semantics,” Speech and Language Processing, 3rd Edition (2018): https://web.stanford.edu/~jurafsky/slp3/6.pdf; for the relation of communication to information theory, M.W. Crocker, Demberg, V. & Teich, E. “Information Density and Linguistic Encoding,” Künstliche Intelligenz 30.1 (2016) 77-81. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13218-015-0391-y; and for the relation to language acquisition and learning, Erickson  LC, Thiessen  ED, “Statistical learning of language: theory, validity, and predictions of a statistical learning account of language acquisition,” Dev. Rev. 37 (2015): 66–108.doi:10.1016/j.dr.2015.05.002.

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

Trust in Numbers

Hoyt Long and Richard Jean So

 

Nan Da’s “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Criticism” stands out from past polemics against computational approaches to literature in that it purports to take computation seriously. It recognizes that a serious engagement with this kind of research means developing literacy of statistical and other concepts. Insofar as her essay promises to move the debate beyond a flat rejection of numbers, and towards something like a conversation about replication, it is a useful step forward.

This, however, is where its utility ends. “Don’t trust the numbers,” Da warns. Or rather, “Don’t trust their numbers, trust mine.” But should you? If you can’t trust their numbers, she implies, the entire case for computational approaches falls apart. Trust her numbers and you’ll see this. But her numbers cannot be trusted. Da’s critique of fourteen articles in the field of cultural analytics is rife with technical and factual errors. This is not merely quibbling over details. The errors reflect a basic lack of understanding of fundamental statistical concepts and are akin to an outsider to literary studies calling George Eliot a “famous male author.” Even more concerning, Da fails to understand statistical method as a contextual, historical, and interpretive project. The essay’s greatest error, to be blunt, is a humanist one.

Here we focus on Da’s errors related to predictive modeling. This is the core method used in the two essays of ours that she critiques. In “Turbulent Flow,” we built a model of stream-of-consciousness (SOC) narrative with thirteen linguistic features and found that ten of them, in combination, reliably distinguished passages that we identified as SOC (as compared with passages taken from a corpus of realist fiction). Type-token ratio (TTR), a measure of lexical diversity, was the most distinguishing of these, though uninformative on its own. The purpose of predictive modeling, as we carefully explain in the essay, is to understand how multiple features work in concert to identify stylistic patterns, not alone. Nothing in Da’s critique suggests she is aware of this fundamental principle.

Indeed, Da interrogates just one feature in our model (TTR) and argues that modifying it invalidates our modeling. Specifically, she tests whether the strong association of TTR with SOC holds after removing words in her “standard stopword list,” instead of in the stopword list we used. She finds it doesn’t. There are two problems with this. First, TTR and “TTR minus stopwords” are two separate features. We actually included both in our model and found the latter to be minimally distinctive. Second, while the intuition to test for feature robustness is appropriate, it is undercut by the assertion that there is a “standard” stopword list that should be universally applied. Ours was specifically curated for use with nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fiction. Even if there was good reason to adopt her “standard” list, one still must rerun the model to test if the remeasured “TTR minus stopwords” feature changes the overall predictive accuracy. Da doesn’t do this. It’s like fiddling with a single piano key and, without playing another note, declaring the whole instrument to be out of tune.

But the errors run deeper than this. In Da’s critique of “Literary Pattern Recognition,” she tries to invalidate the robustness of our model’s ability to classify English-language haiku poems from nonhaiku poems. She does so by creating a new corpus of “English translations of Chinese couplets” and tests our model on this corpus. Why do this? She suggests that it is because they are filled “with similar imagery” to English haiku and are similarly “Asian.” This is a misguided decision that smacks of Orientalism. It completely erases context and history, suggesting an ontological relation where there is none. This is why we spend over twelve pages delineating the English haiku form in both critical and historical terms.

These errors exemplify a consistent refusal to contextualize and historicize one’s interpretative practices (indeed to “read well”), whether statistically or humanistically. We do not believe there exist “objectively” good literary interpretations or that there is one “correct” way to do statistical analysis: Da’s is a position most historians of science, and most statisticians themselves, would reject.  Conventions in both literature and science are continuously debated and reinterpreted, not handed down from on high. And like literary studies, statistics is a body of knowledge formed from messy disciplinary histories, as well as diverse communities of practice. Da’s essay insists on a highly dogmatic, “objective,” black-and-white version of knowledge, a disposition totally antithetical to bothstatistics and literary studies. It is not a version that encourages much trust.

Hoyt Long is associate professor of Japanese literature at the University of Chicago. He publishes widely in the fields of Japanese literary studies, media history, and cultural analytics. His current book project is Figures of Difference: Quantitative Approaches to Modern Japanese Literature.

Richard Jean So is assistant professor of English and cultural analytics at McGill University. He works on computational approaches to literature and culture with a focus on contemporary American writing and race. His current book project is Redlining Culture: A Data History of Race and US Fiction.

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

What the New Computational Rigor Should Be

Lauren F. Klein

Writing about the difficulties of evaluating digital scholarship in a recent special issue of American Quarterlydevoted to DH, Marisa Parham proposes the concept of “The New Rigor” to account for the labor of digital scholarship as well as its seriousness: “It is the difference between what we say we want the world to look like and what we actually carry out in our smallest acts,” she states (p. 683). In “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies,” Nan Z. Da also makes the case for a new rigor, although hers is more narrowly scoped. It entails both a careful adherence to the methods of statistical inquiry and a concerted rejection of the application of those methods to domains—namely, literary studies—that fall beyond their purported use.

No one would argue with the former. But it is the latter claim that I will push back against. Several times in her essay, Da makes the case that “statistical tools are designed to do certain things and solve specific problems,” and for that reason, they should not be employed to “capture literature’s complexity” (pp. 619-20, 634). To be sure, there exists a richness of language and an array of ineffable—let alone quantifiable—qualities of literature that cannot be reduced to a single model or diagram. But the complexity of literature exceeds even that capaciousness, as most literary scholars would agree. And for that very reason, we must continue to explore new methods for expanding the significance of our objects of study. As literary scholars, we would almost certainly say that we want to look at—and live in—a world that embraces complexity. Given that vision, the test of rigor then becomes, to return to Parham’s formulation, how we usher that world into existence through each and every one of “our smallest acts” of scholarship, citation, and critique.

In point of fact, many scholars already exhibit this new computational rigor. Consider how Jim Casey, the national codirector of the Colored Conventions Project, is employing social network analysis—including the centrality scores and modularity measures that Da finds lacking in the example she cites—in order to detect changing geographic centers for this important nineteenth-century organizing movement. Or how Lisa Rhody has found an “interpretive space that is as vital as the weaving and unraveling at Penelope’s loom” in a topic model of a corpus of 4,500 poems. This interpretive space is one that Rhody creates in no small part by accounting for the same fluctuations of words in topics—the result of the sampling methods employed in almost all topic model implementations—that Da invokes, instead, in order to dismiss the technique out of hand. Or how Laura Estill, Dominic Klyve, and Kate Bridal have employed statistical analysis, including a discussion of the p-values that Da believes (contramany statisticians) are always required, in order to survey the state of Shakespeare studies as a field.

That these works are authored by scholars in a range of academic roles, including postdoctoral fellows and DH program coordinators as well as tenure-track faculty, and are published in a range of venues, including edited collections and online as well as domain-specific journals; further points to the range of extant work that embraces the complexity of literature in precisely the ways that Da describes. But these works to do more: they also embrace the complexity of the statistical methods that they employ. Each of these essays involve a creative repurposing of the methods they borrow from more computational fields, as well as a trenchant self-critique. Casey, for example, questions how applying techniques of social network analysis, which are premised on a conception of sociality as characterized by links between individual “nodes,” can do justice to a movement celebrated for its commitment to collective action. Rhody, for another, considers the limits of the utility of topic modeling, as a tool “designed to be used with texts that employ as little figurative language as possible,” for her research questions about ekphrasis. These essays each represent “small acts” and necessarily so. But taken alongside the many other examples of computational work that are methodologically sound, creatively conceived, and necessarily self-critical, they constitute the core of a field committed to complexity in both the texts they elucidate and the methods they employ.

In her formulation of the “The New Rigor,” Parham—herself a literary scholar—places her emphasis on a single word: “Carrying, how we carry ourselves in our relationships and how we carry each other, is the real place of transformation,” she writes. Da, the respondents collected in this forum, and all of us in literary studies—computational and not—might linger on that single word. If our goal remains to celebrate the complexity of literature—precisely because it helps to illuminate the complexity of the world—then we must carry ourselves, and each other, with intellectual generosity and goodwill. We must do so, moreover, with a commitment to honoring the scholarship, and the labor, that has cleared the path up to this point. Only then can we carry forward the field of computational literary studies into the transformative space of future inquiry.

LAUREN F. KLEIN is associate professor at the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, Georgia Institute of Technology.

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

What Is Literary Studies?

Ed Finn

This is the question that underpins Da’s takedown of what she calls computational literary studies (CLS). The animus with which she pursues this essay is like a search light that creates a shadow behind it. “The discipline is about reducing reductionism,” she writes (p. 638), which is a questionable assertion about a field that encompasses many kinds of reduction and contradictory epistemic positions, from thing theory to animal studies. Da offers no evidence or authority to back up her contention that CLS fails to validate its claims. Being charitable, what Da means, I think, is that literary scholars should always attend to context, to the particulars of the works they engage.

Da’s essay assails what she terms the false rigor of CLS: the obsession with reductive analyses of large datasets, the misapplied statistical methods, the failure to disentangle artifacts of measurement from significant results. And there may be validity to these claims: some researchers use black box tools they don’t understand, not just in the digital humanities but in fields from political science to medicine. The most helpful contribution of Da’s article is tucked away in the online appendix, where she suggests a very good set of peer review and publication guidelines for DH work. I can imagine a version of this essay that culminated with those guidelines rather than the suggestion that “reading literature well” is a bridge too far for computational approaches.

The problem with the spotlight Da shines on the rigor of CLS is that shadow looming behind it. What does rigor look like in “the discipline” of literary studies, which is defined so antagonistically to CLS here? What are the standards of peer review that ensure literary scholarship validates its methods, particularly when it draws those methods from other disciplines? Nobody is calling in economists to assess the validity of Marxist literary analysis, or cognitive psychologists to check applications of affect theory, and it’s hard to imagine that scholars would accept the disciplinary authority of those critics. I am willing to bet Critical Inquiry’s peer review process for Da’s article did not include federal grants program officers, university administrators, or scholars of public policy being asked to assess Da’s rhetorical—but central—question “of why we need ‘labs’ or the exorbitant funding that CLS has garnered” (p. 603).

I contend this is actually a good idea: literary studies can benefit from true dialog and collaboration with fields across the entire academy. Da clearly feels that this is justified in the case of CLS, where she calls for more statistical expertise (and brings in a statistician to guide her analysis in this paper). But why should CLS be singled out for this kind of treatment?

Either one accepts that rigor sometimes demands literary studies should embrace expertise from other fields—like Da bringing in a statistician to validate her findings for this paper—or one accepts that literary studies is made up of many contradictory methods and that “the discipline” is founded on borrowing methods from other fields without any obligation validate findings by the standards of those other fields. What would it look like to generalize Da’s proposals for peer review to other areas of literary studies? The contemporary research I find most compelling makes this more generous move: bringing scholars in the humanities together with researchers in the social sciences, the arts, medicine, and other arenas where people can actually learn from one another and do new kinds of work.

To me, literary studies is the practice of reading and writing in order to better understand the human condition. And the condition is changing. Most of what we read now comes to us on screens that are watching us as we watch them. Many of the things we think about have been curated and lobbed into our consciousness by algorithmic feeds and filters. I studied Amazon recommendation networks because they play an important role in contemporary American literary reception and the lived experience of fiction for millions of readers—at least circa 2010, when I wrote the article. My approach in that work hewed to math that I understand and a scale of information that I call small data because it approximates the headspace of actual readers thinking about particular books. Small data always leads back to the qualitative and to the particular, and it is a minor example of the contributions humanists can make beyond the boundaries of “the discipline.”

We desperately need the humanities to survive the next century, when so many of our species’ bad bets are coming home to roost. Text mining is not “ethically neutral,” as Da gobsmackingly argues (p. 620), any more than industrialization was ethically neutral, or the NSA using network analysis to track suspected terrorists (Da’s example of a presumably acceptable “operationalizable end” for social network analysis) (p. 632). The principle of charity would, I hope, preclude Da’s shortsighted framing of what matters in literary studies, and it would open doors to other fields like computer science where many researchers are, either unwittingly or uncaringly, deploying words like human and read and write with the same kind of facile dismissal of methods outside “the discipline” that are on display here. That is the context in which we read and think about literature now, and if we want to “read literature well,” we need to bring the insights of literary study to broader conversations where we participate, share, educate, and learn.

ED FINN is the founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University where he is an associate professor in the School of Arts, Media, and Engineering and the Department of English.

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

Sarah Brouillette

DH is here to stay, including in the CLS variant whose errors Nan Da studies. This variant is especially prevalent in English programs, and it will continue to gain force there. Even when those departments have closed or merged with other units, people with CLS capacities will continue to find positions—though likely contractually —when others no longer can. This is not to say that DH is somehow itself the demise of the English department. The case rather is that both the relative health of DH and the general decline in literary studies—measured via enrollments, number of tenured faculty, and university heads’ dispositions toward English—arise from the same underlying factors. The pressures that English departments face are grounded in the long economic downturn and rising government deficits, deep cuts to funding for higher education, rising tuition, and a turn by university administrators toward boosting business and STEM programs. We know this. There has been a foreclosure of futurity for students who are facing graduation with significant debt burdens and who doubt that they will find stable work paying a good wage. Who can afford the luxury of closely reading five hundred pages of dense prose? Harried anxious people accustomed to working across many screens, many open tabs, with constant pings from social media, often struggle with sustained reading. Myself included. DH is a way of doing literary studies without having to engage in long periods of sustained reading, while acquiring what might feel like job skills. It doesn’t really matter how meaningful CLS labs’ findings are. As Da points out, practitioners themselves often emphasize how tentative their findings are or stress flaws in the results or the method that become the occasion for future investment and development. That is the point: investment and development. The key to DH’s relative health is that it supports certain kinds of student training and the development of technologically enhanced learning environments. One of the only ways to get large sums of grant money from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) is to budget for equipment and for student training. Computer training is relatively easy to describe in a budget justification. Universities for their part often like DH labs because they attract these outside funders, and because grants don’t last forever, a campus doesn’t have to promise anything beyond short-term training and employment. As for the students: to be clear, those with DH skills don’t necessarily walk more easily into jobs than those without them. But DH labs, which at least in Canada need to be able to list training as a priority, offer an experience of education that has an affective appeal for many students—an appeal that universities work hard to cultivate and reinforce. This cultivation is there in the constant contrasts made between old fashioned and immersive learning, between traditional and project-based classrooms, between the dull droning lecture and the experiential . . . well, experience. (The government of Ontario has recently mandated that every student have an opportunity to experience “work-integrated learning” before graduation.) It is there also in the push to make these immersive experiences online ones, mediated by learning management systems such as Brightspace or Canvas, which store data via Amazon Web Services. Learning in universities increasingly occurs in data capturable forms. The experience of education, from level of participation to test performance, is cultivated, monitored, and tracked digitally. Students who have facility with digital technologies are, needless to say, at an advantage in this environment. Meanwhile the temptation to think that courses that include substantial digital components are more practical and professional – less merely academic – is pretty understandable, as universities are so busily cultivating and managing engagement in a context in which disengagement otherwise makes total sense. DH is simply far more compatible with all of these observable trends than many other styles of literary inquiry.

SARAH BROUILLETTE is a professor in the Department of English at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

Katherine Bode

Nan Z. Da’s statistical review of computational literary studies (CLS) takes issue with an approach I also have concerns about, but it is misconceived in its framing of the field and of statistical inquiry. Her definition of CLS—using statistics, predominantly machine learning, to investigate word patterns—excludes most of what I would categorize as computational literary studies, including research that: employs data construction and curation as forms of critical analysis; analyzes bibliographical and other metadata to explore literary trends; deploys machine-learning methods to identify literary phenomena for noncomputational interpretation; or theorizes the implications of methods such as data visualization and machine learning for literary studies. (Interested readers will find diverse forms of CLS in the work of Ryan Cordell, Anne DeWitt, Johanna Drucker, Lauren Klein, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Anouk Lang, Laura B. McGrath, Stephen Ramsay, and Glenn Roe, among others.)

Beyond its idiosyncratic and restrictive definition of CLS, what strikes me most about Da’s essay is its constrained and contradictory framing of statistical inquiry. For most of the researchers Da cites, the pivot to machine learning is explicitly conceived as rejecting a positivist view of literary data and computation in favor of modelling as a subjective practice. Da appears to argue, first, that this pivot has not occurred enough (CLS takes a mechanistic approach to literary interpretation) and, second, that it has gone too far (CLS takes too many liberties with statistical inference, such as “metaphor[izing] … coding and statistics” [p. 606 n. 9]). On the one hand, then, Da repeatedly implies that, if CLS took a slightly different path—that is, trained with more appropriate samples, demonstrated greater rigor in preparing textual data, avoided nonreproducible methods like topic modelling, used Natural Language Processing with the sophistication of corpus linguists—it could reach a tipping point at which the data used, methods employed, and questions asked became appropriate to statistical analysis. On the other, she precludes this possibility in identifying “reading literature well” as the “cut-off point” at which computational textual analysis ceases to have “utility” (p. 639). This limited conception of statistical inquiry also emerges in Da’s two claims about statistical tools for text mining: they are “ethically neutral”; and they must be used “in accordance with their true function” (p. 620), which Da defines as reducing information to enable quick decision making. Yet as with any intellectual inquiry, surely any measurements—let alone measurements with this particular aim—are interactions with the world that have ethical dimensions.

Statistical tests of statistical arguments are vital. And I agree with Da’s contention that applications of machine learning to identify word patterns in literature often simplify complex historical and critical issues. As Da argues, these simplifications include conceiving of models as “intentional interpretations” (p. 621) and of word patterns as signifying literary causation and influence. But there’s a large gap between identifying these problems and insisting that statistical tools have a “true function” that is inimical to literary studies. Our discipline has always drawn methods from other fields (history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and others). Perhaps it’s literary studies’ supposed lack of functional utility (something Da claims to defend) that has enabled these adaptations to be so productive; perhaps such adaptations have been productive because the meaning of literature is not singular but forged constitutively with a society where the prominence of particular paradigms (historical, philosophical, psychological, sociological, now statistical) at particular moments shapes what and how we know. In any case, disciplinary purity is no protection against poor methodology; and cross disciplinarity can increase methodological awareness.

Da’s rigid notion of a “true function” for statistics prevents her asking more “argumentatively meaningful” (p. 639) questions about possible encounters between literary studies and statistical methods. These might include: If not intentional or interpretive, what is the epistemological—and ontological and ethical—status of patterns discerned by machine learning? Are there ways of connecting word counts with other, literary and nonliterary, elements that might enhance the “explanatory power” (p. 604) and/or critical potential of such models and, if not, why not? As is occurring in fields such as philosophy, sociology, and science and technology studies, can literary studies apply theoretical perspectives (such as feminist empiricism or new materialism) to reimagine literary data and statistical inquiry? Without such methodological and epistemological reflection, Da’s statistical debunking of statistical models falls into the same trap she ascribes to those arguments: of confusing “what happens mechanistically with insight” (p. 639). We very much need critiques of mechanistic—positivist, reductive, and ahistorical—approaches to literary data, statistics, and machine learning. Unfortunately, Da’s critique demonstrates the problems it decries.

 

KATHERINE BODE is associate professor of literary and textual studies at the Australian National University. Her latest book, A World of Fiction: Digital Collections and the Future of Literary History (2018), offers a new approach to literary research with mass-digitized collections, based on the theory and technology of the scholarly edition. Applying this model, Bode investigates a transnational collection of around 10,000 novels and novellas, discovered in digitized nineteenth-century Australian newspapers, to offer new insights into phenomena ranging from literary anonymity and fiction syndication to the emergence and intersections of national literary traditions.

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

Criticism, Augmented

Mark Algee-Hewitt

A series of binaries permeates Nan Z. Da’s article “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies”: computation OR reading; numbers OR words; statistics OR critical thinking. Working from these false oppositions, the article conjures a conflict between computation and criticism. The field of cultural analytics, however rests on the discovery of compatibilities between these binaries: the ability of computation to work hand in hand with literary criticism and the use of critical interpretation by its practitioners to make sense of their statistics.

The oppositions she posits lead Da to focus exclusively on the null hypothesis testing of confirmatory data analysis (CDA): graphs are selected, hypotheses are proposed, and errors in significance are sought.[1]

But, for mathematician John Tukey, the founder of exploratory data analysis (EDA), allowing the data to speak for itself, visualizing it without an underlying hypothesis, allows researchers to avoid the pitfalls of confirmation bias.[2]This is what psychologist William McGuire (1989) calls “the hypothesis testing myth”: if a researcher begins by believing a hypothesis (for example, that literature is too complex for computational analysis), then, with a simple manipulation of statistics, she or he can prove herself or himself correct (by cherry-picking examples that support her argument).[3]Practitioners bound by the orthodoxy of their fields often miss the new patterns revealed when statistics are integrated into new areas of research.

In literary studies, the visualizations produced by EDA do not replace the act of reading but instead redirect it to new ends.[4]Each site of statistical significance reveals a new locus of reading: the act of quantification is no more a reduction than any interpretation.[5]Statistical rigor remains crucial, but equally as essential are the ways in which these data objects are embedded within a theoretical apparatus that draws on literary interpretation.[6]And yet, in her article, Da plucks single statistics from thirteen articles with an average length of about 10,250 words each.[7]It is only by ignoring these 10,000 words, by refusing to read the context of the graph, the arguments, justifications, and dissentions, that she can marshal her arguments.

In Da’s adherence to CDA, her critiques require a hypothesis: when one does not exist outside of the absent context, she is forced to invent one. Even a cursory reading of “The Werther Topologies” reveals that we are not interested in questions of the “influence of Werther on other texts”: rather we are interested in exploring the effect on the corpus when it is reorganized around the language of Werther.[8]The topology creates new adjacencies, prompting new readings: it does not prove or disprove, it is not right or wrong – to suggest otherwise is to make a category error.

Cultural analytics is not a virtual humanities that replaces the interpretive skills developed by scholars over centuries with mathematical rigor. It is an augmented humanities that, at its best, presents new kinds of evidence, often invisible to even the closest reader, alongside carefully considered theoretical arguments, both working in tandem to produce new critical work.

 

MARK ALGEE-HEWITT is an assistant professor of English and Digital Humanities at Stanford University where he directs the Stanford Literary Lab. His current work combines computational methods with literary criticism to explore large scale changes in aesthetic concepts during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The projects that he leads at the Literary Lab include a study of racialized language in nineteenth-century American literature and a computational analysis of differences in disciplinary style. Mark’s work has appeared in New Literary History, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, as well as in edited volumes on the Enlightenment and the Digital Humanities.

[1]Many of the articles cited by Da combine both CDA and EDA; a movement of the field noted by Ted Underwood in Distant Horizons (p. xii).

[2]Tukey, John. Exploratory Data Analysis New York, Pearson, 1977.

[3]McGuire, William J. A perspectivist approach to the strategic planning of programmatic scientific research.” In Psychology of Science: Contributions to Metascience ed. B. Gholson et al. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 214-245. See also Frederick Hartwig and Brian Dearling on the need to not rely exclusively on CDA (Exploratory Data Analysis, Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1979) and John Behrens on the “hypothesis testing myth.” (“Principles and Procedures of Exploratory Data Analysis.” Psychological Methods, 2(2): 1997, 131-160.

[4]Da, Nan Z. “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Analysis.” Critical Inquiry 45(3): 2019. 601-639.

[5]See, for example, Gemma, Marissa, et al. “Operationalizing the Colloquial Style: Repetition in 19th-Century American Fiction” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, 32(2): 2017. 312-335; or Laura B. McGrath et al. “Measuring Modernist Novelty” The Journal of Cultural Analytics (2018).

[6]See, for example, our argument about the “modularity of criticism” in Algee-Hewitt, Mark, Fredner, Erik, and Walser, Hannah. “The Novel As Data.” Cambridge Companion to the Noveled. Eric Bulson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2018. 189-215.

[7]Absent the two books, which have a different relationship to length, Da extracts visualizations or numbers from 13 articles totaling 133,685 words (including notes and captions).

[8]Da (2019), 634; Piper and Algee-Hewitt, (“The Werther Effect I” Distant Readings: Topologies of German Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century Ed Matt Erlin and Lynn Tatlock. Rochester: Camden House, 2014), 156-157.

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Computational Literary Studies: A Critical Inquiry Online Forum

Beginning on 1 April, this Critical Inquiry online forum will feature responses to and discussion about Nan Z. Da’s “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies.”  This essay raises a number of challenges for the field of computational literary studies. As Da observes in the first sentence of this piece:

This essay works at the empirical level to isolate a series of technical problems, logical fallacies, and conceptual flaws in an increasingly popular subfield in literary studies variously known as cultural analytics, literary data mining, quantitative formalism, literary text mining, computational textual analysis, computational criticism, algorithmic literary studies, social computing for literary studies, and computational literary studies (the phrase I use here).

Since its publication in Critical Inquiry on 14 March 2019, this essay has already prompted numerous responses online. For instance, in The Chronicle of Higher Education on 27 March 2019, Da published a companion piece to the Critical Inquiry essay, “The Digital Humanities Debacle,” and Ted Underwood published a defense of the digital humanities and cultural analytics, “Dear Humanists: Fear Not the Digital Revolution.” Other responses have emerged across social media.

In order to continue this conversation, in a shared space, Critical Inquiry has invited several practitioners and critics in the digital humanities and the computational literary studies to respond. This group of participants includes several of the scholars discussed in Da’s essay, as well as a few additional contributors to and critics of the field.

CONTRIBUTORS

RESPONDENT

AFTERWORD

  • Stanley Fish (Yeshiva University). Response

This forum begins with a series of short responses from participants. It then continues for several days with an open-ended discussion. We invite you to follow along and return to this page, as the blog will be updated several times a day to incorporate new posts. In order to enable mutual responses, we have limited the number of primary contributors. However, the comments will be available for responses for others from outside of this group, so readers should feel free to contribute with their own thoughts. We look forward to a generative discussion.

Patrick Jagoda (Executive Editor, Critical Inquiry, University of Chicago)

 


DAY 1 RESPONSES 


Criticism, Augmented

Mark Algee-Hewitt

A series of binaries permeates Nan Z. Da’s article “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies”: computation OR reading; numbers OR words; statistics OR critical thinking. Working from these false oppositions, the article conjures a conflict between computation and criticism. The field of cultural analytics, however rests on the discovery of compatibilities between these binaries: the ability of computation to work hand in hand with literary criticism and the use of critical interpretation by its practitioners to make sense of their statistics.

The oppositions she posits lead Da to focus exclusively on the null hypothesis testing of confirmatory data analysis (CDA): graphs are selected, hypotheses are proposed, and errors in significance are sought.[1]

But, for mathematician John Tukey, the founder of exploratory data analysis (EDA), allowing the data to speak for itself, visualizing it without an underlying hypothesis, allows researchers to avoid the pitfalls of confirmation bias.[2]This is what psychologist William McGuire (1989) calls “the hypothesis testing myth”: if a researcher begins by believing a hypothesis (for example, that literature is too complex for computational analysis), then, with a simple manipulation of statistics, she or he can prove herself or himself correct (by cherry-picking examples that support her argument).[3]Practitioners bound by the orthodoxy of their fields often miss the new patterns revealed when statistics are integrated into new areas of research.

In literary studies, the visualizations produced by EDA do not replace the act of reading but instead redirect it to new ends.[4]Each site of statistical significance reveals a new locus of reading: the act of quantification is no more a reduction than any interpretation.[5]Statistical rigor remains crucial, but equally as essential are the ways in which these data objects are embedded within a theoretical apparatus that draws on literary interpretation.[6]And yet, in her article, Da plucks single statistics from thirteen articles with an average length of about 10,250 words each.[7]It is only by ignoring these 10,000 words, by refusing to read the context of the graph, the arguments, justifications, and dissentions, that she can marshal her arguments.

In Da’s adherence to CDA, her critiques require a hypothesis: when one does not exist outside of the absent context, she is forced to invent one. Even a cursory reading of “The Werther Topologies” reveals that we are not interested in questions of the “influence of Werther on other texts”: rather we are interested in exploring the effect on the corpus when it is reorganized around the language of Werther.[8]The topology creates new adjacencies, prompting new readings: it does not prove or disprove, it is not right or wrong – to suggest otherwise is to make a category error.

Cultural analytics is not a virtual humanities that replaces the interpretive skills developed by scholars over centuries with mathematical rigor. It is an augmented humanities that, at its best, presents new kinds of evidence, often invisible to even the closest reader, alongside carefully considered theoretical arguments, both working in tandem to produce new critical work.

 

MARK ALGEE-HEWITT is an assistant professor of English and Digital Humanities at Stanford University where he directs the Stanford Literary Lab. His current work combines computational methods with literary criticism to explore large scale changes in aesthetic concepts during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The projects that he leads at the Literary Lab include a study of racialized language in nineteenth-century American literature and a computational analysis of differences in disciplinary style. Mark’s work has appeared in New Literary History, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, as well as in edited volumes on the Enlightenment and the Digital Humanities.

[1]Many of the articles cited by Da combine both CDA and EDA; a movement of the field noted by Ted Underwood in Distant Horizons (p. xii).

[2]Tukey, John. Exploratory Data Analysis, New York, Pearson, 1977.

[3]McGuire, William J. A perspectivist approach to the strategic planning of programmatic scientific research.” In Psychology of Science: Contributions to Metascience ed. B. Gholson et al. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 214-245. See also Frederick Hartwig and Brian Dearling on the need to not rely exclusively on CDA (Exploratory Data Analysis. Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1979) and John Behrens on the “hypothesis testing myth.” (“Principles and Procedures of Exploratory Data Analysis.” Psychological Methods. 2(2): 1997, 131-160.

[4]Da, Nan Z. “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Analysis.” Critical Inquiry 45 (3): 2019. 601-639.

[5]See, for example, Gemma, Marissa, et al. “Operationalizing the Colloquial Style: Repetition in 19th-Century American Fiction” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, 32(2): 2017. 312-335; or Laura B. McGrath et al. “Measuring Modernist Novelty” The Journal of Cultural Analytics (2018).

[6]See, for example, our argument about the “modularity of criticism” in Algee-Hewitt, Mark, Fredner, Erik, and Walser, Hannah. “The Novel As Data.” Cambridge Companion to the Noveled. Eric Bulson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2018. 189-215.

[7]Absent the two books, which have a different relationship to length, Da extracts visualizations or numbers from 13 articles totaling 133,685 words (including notes and captions).

[8]Da (2019), 634; Piper and Algee-Hewitt, (“The Werther Effect I” Distant Readings: Topologies of German Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century, Ed Matt Erlin and Lynn Tatlock. Rochester: Camden House, 2014), 156-157.


Katherine Bode

Nan Z. Da’s statistical review of computational literary studies (CLS) takes issue with an approach I also have concerns about, but it is misconceived in its framing of the field and of statistical inquiry. Her definition of CLS—using statistics, predominantly machine learning, to investigate word patterns—excludes most of what I would categorize as computational literary studies, including research that: employs data construction and curation as forms of critical analysis; analyzes bibliographical and other metadata to explore literary trends; deploys machine-learning methods to identify literary phenomena for noncomputational interpretation; or theorizes the implications of methods such as data visualization and machine learning for literary studies. (Interested readers will find diverse forms of CLS in the work of Ryan Cordell, Anne DeWitt, Johanna Drucker, Lauren Klein, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Anouk Lang, Laura B. McGrath, Stephen Ramsay, and Glenn Roe, among others.)

Beyond its idiosyncratic and restrictive definition of CLS, what strikes me most about Da’s essay is its constrained and contradictory framing of statistical inquiry. For most of the researchers Da cites, the pivot to machine learning is explicitly conceived as rejecting a positivist view of literary data and computation in favor of modelling as a subjective practice. Da appears to argue, first, that this pivot has not occurred enough (CLS takes a mechanistic approach to literary interpretation) and, second, that it has gone too far (CLS takes too many liberties with statistical inference, such as “metaphor[izing] … coding and statistics” [p. 606 n. 9]). On the one hand, then, Da repeatedly implies that, if CLS took a slightly different path—that is, trained with more appropriate samples, demonstrated greater rigor in preparing textual data, avoided nonreproducible methods like topic modelling, used Natural Language Processing with the sophistication of corpus linguists—it could reach a tipping point at which the data used, methods employed, and questions asked became appropriate to statistical analysis. On the other, she precludes this possibility in identifying “reading literature well” as the “cut-off point” at which computational textual analysis ceases to have “utility” (p. 639). This limited conception of statistical inquiry also emerges in Da’s two claims about statistical tools for text mining: they are “ethically neutral”; and they must be used “in accordance with their true function” (p. 620), which Da defines as reducing information to enable quick decision making. Yet as with any intellectual inquiry, surely any measurements—let alone measurements with this particular aim—are interactions with the world that have ethical dimensions.

Statistical tests of statistical arguments are vital. And I agree with Da’s contention that applications of machine learning to identify word patterns in literature often simplify complex historical and critical issues. As Da argues, these simplifications include conceiving of models as “intentional interpretations” (p. 621) and of word patterns as signifying literary causation and influence. But there’s a large gap between identifying these problems and insisting that statistical tools have a “true function” that is inimical to literary studies. Our discipline has always drawn methods from other fields (history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and others). Perhaps it’s literary studies’ supposed lack of functional utility (something Da claims to defend) that has enabled these adaptations to be so productive; perhaps such adaptations have been productive because the meaning of literature is not singular but forged constitutively with a society where the prominence of particular paradigms (historical, philosophical, psychological, sociological, now statistical) at particular moments shapes what and how we know. In any case, disciplinary purity is no protection against poor methodology; and cross disciplinarity can increase methodological awareness.

Da’s rigid notion of a “true function” for statistics prevents her asking more “argumentatively meaningful” (p. 639) questions about possible encounters between literary studies and statistical methods. These might include: If not intentional or interpretive, what is the epistemological—and ontological and ethical—status of patterns discerned by machine learning? Are there ways of connecting word counts with other, literary and nonliterary, elements that might enhance the “explanatory power” (p. 604) and/or critical potential of such models and, if not, why not? As is occurring in fields such as philosophy, sociology, and science and technology studies, can literary studies apply theoretical perspectives (such as feminist empiricism or new materialism) to reimagine literary data and statistical inquiry? Without such methodological and epistemological reflection, Da’s statistical debunking of statistical models falls into the same trap she ascribes to those arguments: of confusing “what happens mechanistically with insight” (p. 639). We very much need critiques of mechanistic—positivist, reductive, and ahistorical—approaches to literary data, statistics, and machine learning. Unfortunately, Da’s critique demonstrates the problems it decries.

 

KATHERINE BODE is associate professor of literary and textual studies at the Australian National University. Her latest book, A World of Fiction: Digital Collections and the Future of Literary History (2018), offers a new approach to literary research with mass-digitized collections, based on the theory and technology of the scholarly edition. Applying this model, Bode investigates a transnational collection of around 10,000 novels and novellas, discovered in digitized nineteenth-century Australian newspapers, to offer new insights into phenomena ranging from literary anonymity and fiction syndication to the emergence and intersections of national literary traditions.

 


 

Sarah Brouillette

DH is here to stay, including in the CLS variant whose errors Nan Da studies. This variant is especially prevalent in English programs, and it will continue to gain force there. Even when those departments have closed or merged with other units, people with CLS capacities will continue to find positions—though likely contractually —when others no longer can. This is not to say that DH is somehow itself the demise of the English department. The case rather is that both the relative health of DH and the general decline in literary studies—measured via enrollments, number of tenured faculty, and university heads’ dispositions toward English—arise from the same underlying factors. The pressures that English departments face are grounded in the long economic downturn and rising government deficits, deep cuts to funding for higher education, rising tuition, and a turn by university administrators toward boosting business and STEM programs. We know this. There has been a foreclosure of futurity for students who are facing graduation with significant debt burdens and who doubt that they will find stable work paying a good wage. Who can afford the luxury of closely reading five hundred pages of dense prose? Harried anxious people accustomed to working across many screens, many open tabs, with constant pings from social media, often struggle with sustained reading. Myself included. DH is a way of doing literary studies without having to engage in long periods of sustained reading, while acquiring what might feel like job skills. It doesn’t really matter how meaningful CLS labs’ findings are. As Da points out, practitioners themselves often emphasize how tentative their findings are or stress flaws in the results or the method that become the occasion for future investment and development. That is the point: investment and development. The key to DH’s relative health is that it supports certain kinds of student training and the development of technologically enhanced learning environments. One of the only ways to get large sums of grant money from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) is to budget for equipment and for student training. Computer training is relatively easy to describe in a budget justification. Universities for their part often like DH labs because they attract these outside funders, and because grants don’t last forever, a campus doesn’t have to promise anything beyond short-term training and employment. As for the students: to be clear, those with DH skills don’t necessarily walk more easily into jobs than those without them. But DH labs, which at least in Canada need to be able to list training as a priority, offer an experience of education that has an affective appeal for many students—an appeal that universities work hard to cultivate and reinforce. This cultivation is there in the constant contrasts made between old fashioned and immersive learning, between traditional and project-based classrooms, between the dull droning lecture and the experiential . . . well, experience. (The government of Ontario has recently mandated that every student have an opportunity to experience “work-integrated learning” before graduation.) It is there also in the push to make these immersive experiences online ones, mediated by learning management systems such as Brightspace or Canvas, which store data via Amazon Web Services. Learning in universities increasingly occurs in data capturable forms. The experience of education, from level of participation to test performance, is cultivated, monitored, and tracked digitally. Students who have facility with digital technologies are, needless to say, at an advantage in this environment. Meanwhile the temptation to think that courses that include substantial digital components are more practical and professional – less merely academic – is pretty understandable, as universities are so busily cultivating and managing engagement in a context in which disengagement otherwise makes total sense. DH is simply far more compatible with all of these observable trends than many other styles of literary inquiry.

SARAH BROUILLETTE is a professor in the Department of English at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.


What Is Literary Studies?

Ed Finn

This is the question that underpins Da’s takedown of what she calls computational literary studies (CLS). The animus with which she pursues this essay is like a search light that creates a shadow behind it. “The discipline is about reducing reductionism,” she writes (p. 638), which is a questionable assertion about a field that encompasses many kinds of reduction and contradictory epistemic positions, from thing theory to animal studies. Da offers no evidence or authority to back up her contention that CLS fails to validate its claims. Being charitable, what Da means, I think, is that literary scholars should always attend to context, to the particulars of the works they engage.

Da’s essay assails what she terms the false rigor of CLS: the obsession with reductive analyses of large datasets, the misapplied statistical methods, the failure to disentangle artifacts of measurement from significant results. And there may be validity to these claims: some researchers use black box tools they don’t understand, not just in the digital humanities but in fields from political science to medicine.  The most helpful contribution of Da’s article is tucked away in the online appendix, where she suggests a very good set of peer review and publication guidelines for DH work. I can imagine a version of this essay that culminated with those guidelines rather than the suggestion that “reading literature well” is a bridge too far for computational approaches.

The problem with the spotlight Da shines on the rigor of CLS is that shadow looming behind it. What does rigor look like in “the discipline” of literary studies, which is defined so antagonistically to CLS here? What are the standards of peer review that ensure literary scholarship validates its methods, particularly when it draws those methods from other disciplines? Nobody is calling in economists to assess the validity of Marxist literary analysis, or cognitive psychologists to check applications of affect theory, and it’s hard to imagine that scholars would accept the disciplinary authority of those critics. I am willing to bet Critical Inquiry’s peer review process for Da’s article did not include federal grants program officers, university administrators, or scholars of public policy being asked to assess Da’s rhetorical—but central—question “of why we need ‘labs’ or the exorbitant funding that CLS has garnered” (p. 603).

I contend this is actually a good idea: literary studies can benefit from true dialog and collaboration with fields across the entire academy. Da clearly feels that this is justified in the case of CLS, where she calls for more statistical expertise (and brings in a statistician to guide her analysis in this paper). But why should CLS be singled out for this kind of treatment?

Either one accepts that rigor sometimes demands literary studies should embrace expertise from other fields—like Da bringing in a statistician to validate her findings for this paper—or one accepts that literary studies is made up of many contradictory methods and that “the discipline” is founded on borrowing methods from other fields without any obligation validate findings by the standards of those other fields. What would it look like to generalize Da’s proposals for peer review to other areas of literary studies? The contemporary research I find most compelling makes this more generous move: bringing scholars in the humanities together with researchers in the social sciences, the arts, medicine, and other arenas where people can actually learn from one another and do new kinds of work.

To me, literary studies is the practice of reading and writing in order to better understand the human condition. And the condition is changing. Most of what we read now comes to us on screens that are watching us as we watch them. Many of the things we think about have been curated and lobbed into our consciousness by algorithmic feeds and filters. I studied Amazon recommendation networks because they play an important role in contemporary American literary reception and the lived experience of fiction for millions of readers—at least circa 2010, when I wrote the article. My approach in that work hewed to math that I understand and a scale of information that I call small data because it approximates the headspace of actual readers thinking about particular books. Small data always leads back to the qualitative and to the particular, and it is a minor example of the contributions humanists can make beyond the boundaries of “the discipline.”

We desperately need the humanities to survive the next century, when so many of our species’ bad bets are coming home to roost. Text mining is not “ethically neutral,” as Da gobsmackingly argues (p. 620), any more than industrialization was ethically neutral, or the NSA using network analysis to track suspected terrorists (Da’s example of a presumably acceptable “operationalizable end” for social network analysis) (p. 632). The principle of charity would, I hope, preclude Da’s shortsighted framing of what matters in literary studies, and it would open doors to other fields like computer science where many researchers are, either unwittingly or uncaringly, deploying words like human and read and write with the same kind of facile dismissal of methods outside “the discipline” that are on display here. That is the context in which we read and think about literature now, and if we want to “read literature well,” we need to bring the insights of literary study to broader conversations where we participate, share, educate, and learn.

ED FINN is the founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University where he is an associate professor in the School of Arts, Media, and Engineering and the Department of English.


What the New Computational Rigor Should Be

Lauren F. Klein

Writing about the difficulties of evaluating digital scholarship in a recent special issue of American Quarterlydevoted to DH, Marisa Parham proposes the concept of “The New Rigor” to account for the labor of digital scholarship as well as its seriousness: “It is the difference between what we say we want the world to look like and what we actually carry out in our smallest acts,” she states (p. 683). In “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies,” Nan Z. Da also makes the case for a new rigor, although hers is more narrowly scoped. It entails both a careful adherence to the methods of statistical inquiry and a concerted rejection of the application of those methods to domains—namely, literary studies—that fall beyond their purported use.

No one would argue with the former. But it is the latter claim that I will push back against. Several times in her essay, Da makes the case that “statistical tools are designed to do certain things and solve specific problems,” and for that reason, they should not be employed to “capture literature’s complexity” (pp. 619-20, 634). To be sure, there exists a richness of language and an array of ineffable—let alone quantifiable—qualities of literature that cannot be reduced to a single model or diagram. But the complexity of literature exceeds even that capaciousness, as most literary scholars would agree. And for that very reason, we must continue to explore new methods for expanding the significance of our objects of study. As literary scholars, we would almost certainly say that we want to look at—and live in—a world that embraces complexity. Given that vision, the test of rigor then becomes, to return to Parham’s formulation, how we usher that world into existence through each and every one of “our smallest acts” of scholarship, citation, and critique.

In point of fact, many scholars already exhibit this new computational rigor. Consider how Jim Casey, the national codirector of the Colored Conventions Project, is employing social network analysis—including the centrality scores and modularity measures that Da finds lacking in the example she cites—in order to detect changing geographic centers for this important nineteenth-century organizing movement. Or how Lisa Rhody has found an “interpretive space that is as vital as the weaving and unraveling at Penelope’s loom” in a topic model of a corpus of 4,500 poems. This interpretive space is one that Rhody creates in no small part by accounting for the same fluctuations of words in topics—the result of the sampling methods employed in almost all topic model implementations—that Da invokes, instead, in order to dismiss the technique out of hand. Or how Laura Estill, Dominic Klyve, and Kate Bridal have employed statistical analysis, including a discussion of the p-values that Da believes (contramany statisticians) are always required, in order to survey the state of Shakespeare studies as a field.

That these works are authored by scholars in a range of academic roles, including postdoctoral fellows and DH program coordinators as well as tenure-track faculty, and are published in a range of venues, including edited collections and online as well as domain-specific journals; further points to the range of extant work that embraces the complexity of literature in precisely the ways that Da describes. But these works to do more: they also embrace the complexity of the statistical methods that they employ. Each of these essays involve a creative repurposing of the methods they borrow from more computational fields, as well as a trenchant self-critique. Casey, for example, questions how applying techniques of social network analysis, which are premised on a conception of sociality as characterized by links between individual “nodes,” can do justice to a movement celebrated for its commitment to collective action. Rhody, for another, considers the limits of the utility of topic modeling, as a tool “designed to be used with texts that employ as little figurative language as possible,” for her research questions about ekphrasis. These essays each represent “small acts” and necessarily so. But taken alongside the many other examples of computational work that are methodologically sound, creatively conceived, and necessarily self-critical, they constitute the core of a field committed to complexity in boththe texts they elucidate andthe methods they employ.

In her formulation of the “The New Rigor,” Parham—herself a literary scholar—places her emphasis on a single word: “Carrying, how we carry ourselves in our relationships and how we carry each other, is the real place of transformation,” she writes. Da, the respondents collected in this forum, and all of us in literary studies—computational and not—might linger on that single word. If our goal remains to celebrate the complexity of literature—precisely because it helps to illuminate the complexity of the world—then we must carry ourselves, and each other, with intellectual generosity and goodwill. We must do so, moreover, with a commitment to honoring the scholarship, and the labor, that has cleared the path up to this point. Only then can we carry forward the field of computational literary studies into the transformative space of future inquiry.

LAUREN F. KLEIN is associate professor at the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, Georgia Institute of Technology.


Trust in Numbers

Hoyt Long and Richard Jean So

 

Nan Da’s “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Criticism” stands out from past polemics against computational approaches to literature in that it purports to take computation seriously. It recognizes that a serious engagement with this kind of research means developing literacy of statistical and other concepts. Insofar as her essay promises to move the debate beyond a flat rejection of numbers, and towards something like a conversation about replication, it is a useful step forward.

This, however, is where its utility ends. “Don’t trust the numbers,” Da warns. Or rather, “Don’t trust their numbers, trust mine.” But should you? If you can’t trust their numbers, she implies, the entire case for computational approaches falls apart. Trust her numbers and you’ll see this. But her numbers cannot be trusted. Da’s critique of fourteen articles in the field of cultural analytics is rife with technical and factual errors. This is not merely quibbling over details. The errors reflect a basic lack of understanding of fundamental statistical concepts and are akin to an outsider to literary studies calling George Eliot a “famous male author.” Even more concerning, Da fails to understand statistical method as a contextual, historical, and interpretive project. The essay’s greatest error, to be blunt, is a humanist one.

Here we focus on Da’s errors related to predictive modeling. This is the core method used in the two essays of ours that she critiques. In “Turbulent Flow,” we built a model of stream-of-consciousness (SOC) narrative with thirteen linguistic features and found that ten of them, in combination, reliably distinguished passages that we identified as SOC (as compared with passages taken from a corpus of realist fiction). Type-token ratio (TTR), a measure of lexical diversity, was the most distinguishing of these, though uninformative on its own. The purpose of predictive modeling, as we carefully explain in the essay, is to understand how multiple features work in concert to identify stylistic patterns, not alone. Nothing in Da’s critique suggests she is aware of this fundamental principle.

Indeed, Da interrogates just one feature in our model (TTR) and argues that modifying it invalidates our modeling. Specifically, she tests whether the strong association of TTR with SOC holds after removing words in her “standard stopword list,” instead of in the stopword list we used. She finds it doesn’t. There are two problems with this. First, TTR and “TTR minus stopwords” are two separate features. We actually included both in our model and found the latter to be minimally distinctive. Second, while the intuition to test for feature robustness is appropriate, it is undercut by the assertion that there is a “standard” stopword list that should be universally applied. Ours was specifically curated for use with nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fiction. Even if there was good reason to adopt her “standard” list, one still must rerun the model to test if the remeasured “TTR minus stopwords” feature changes the overall predictive accuracy. Da doesn’t do this. It’s like fiddling with a single piano key and, without playing another note, declaring the whole instrument to be out of tune.

But the errors run deeper than this. In Da’s critique of “Literary Pattern Recognition,” she tries to invalidate the robustness of our model’s ability to classify English-language haiku poems from nonhaiku poems. She does so by creating a new corpus of “English translations of Chinese couplets” and tests our model on this corpus. Why do this? She suggests that it is because they are filled “with similar imagery” to English haiku and are similarly “Asian.” This is a misguided decision that smacks of Orientalism. It completely erases context and history, suggesting an ontological relation where there is none. This is why we spend over twelve pages delineating the English haiku form in both critical and historical terms.

These errors exemplify a consistent refusal to contextualize and historicize one’s interpretative practices (indeed to “read well”), whether statistically or humanistically. We do not believe there exist “objectively” good literary interpretations or that there is one “correct” way to do statistical analysis: Da’s is a position most historians of science, and most statisticians themselves, would reject.  Conventions in both literature and science are continuously debated and reinterpreted, not handed down from on high. And like literary studies, statistics is a body of knowledge formed from messy disciplinary histories, as well as diverse communities of practice. Da’s essay insists on a highly dogmatic, “objective,” black-and-white version of knowledge, a disposition totally antithetical to both statistics and literary studies. It is not a version that encourages much trust.

Hoyt Long is associate professor of Japanese literature at the University of Chicago. He publishes widely in the fields of Japanese literary studies, media history, and cultural analytics. His current book project is Figures of Difference: Quantitative Approaches to Modern Japanese Literature.

Richard Jean So is assistant professor of English and cultural analytics at McGill University. He works on computational approaches to literature and culture with a focus on contemporary American writing and race. His current book project is Redlining Culture: A Data History of Race and US Fiction.

 


The Select

Andrew Piper

Nan Z. Da’s study published in Critical Inquiry participates in an emerging trend across a number of disciplines that falls under the heading of “replication.”[1]In this, her work follows major efforts in other fields, such as the Open Science Collaboration’s “reproducibility project,” which sought to replicate past studies in the field of psychology.[2]As the authors of the OSC collaboration write, the value of replication, when done well, is that it can “increase certainty when findings are reproduced and promote innovation when they are not.”

And yet despite arriving at sweeping claims about an entire field, Da’s study fails to follow any of the procedures and practices established by projects like the OSC.[3]While invoking the epistemological framework of replication—that is, to prove or disprove the validity of both individual articles as well as an entire field—her practices follow instead the time-honoured traditions of selective reading from the field of literary criticism. Da’s work is ultimately valuable not because of the computational case it makes (that work still remains to be done), but the way it foregrounds so many of the problems that accompany traditional literary critical models when used to make large-scale evidentiary claims. The good news is that this article has made the problem of generalization, of how we combat the problem of selective reading, into a central issue facing the field.

Start with the evidence chosen. When undertaking their replication project, the OSC generated a sample of one hundred studies taken from three separate journals within a single year of publication to approximate a reasonable cross-section of the field. Da on the other hand chooses “a handful” of articles (fourteen by my count) from different years and different journals with no clear rationale of how these articles are meant to represent an entire field. The point is not the number chosen but that we have no way of knowing why these articles and not others were chosen and thus whether her findings extend to any work beyond her sample. Indeed, the only linkage appears to be that these studies all “fail” by her criteria. Imagine if the OSC had found that 100 percent of articles sampled failed to replicate. Would we find their results credible? Da by contrast is surprisingly only ever right.

Da’s focus within articles exhibits an even stronger degree of nonrepresentativeness. In their replication project, the OSC establishes clearly defined criteria through which a study can be declared not to replicate, while also acknowledging the difficulty of arriving at this conclusion. Da by contrast applies different criteria to every article, making debatable choices, as well as outright errors, that are clearly designed to foreground differences.[4]She misnames authors of articles, mis-cites editions, mis-attributes arguments to the wrong book, and fails at some basic math.[5]And yet each of these assertions always adds-up to the same certain conclusion: failed to replicate. In Da’s hands, part is always a perfect representation of whole.

Perhaps the greatest limitation of Da’s piece is her extremely narrow (that is, nonrepresentative) definition of statistical inference and computational modeling. In Da’s view, the only appropriate way to use data is to perform what is known as significance testing, where we use a statistical model to test whether a given hypothesis is “true.”[6]There is no room for exploratory data analysis, for theory building, or predictive modeling in her view of the field.[7]This is particularly ironic given that Da herself performs no such tests. She holds others to standards to which she herself is not accountable. Nor does she cite articles where authors explicitly undertake such tests[8]or research that calls into question the value of such tests[9]or research that explores the relationship between word frequency and human judgments that she finds so problematic.[10]The selectivity of Da’s work is deeply out of touch with the larger research landscape.

All of these practices highlight a more general problem that has for too long gone unexamined in the field of literary study. How are we to move reliably from individual observations to general beliefs about things in the world? Da’s article provides a tour de forceof the problems of selective reading when it comes to generalizing about individual studies or entire fields. Addressing the problem of responsible and credible generalization will be one of the central challenges facing the field in the years to come. As with all other disciplines across the university, data and computational modeling will have an integral role to play in that process.

ANDREW PIPER is Professor and William Dawson Scholar in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University. He is the author most recently of Enumerations: Data and Literary Study (2018).

[1]Nan Z. Da, “The Computational Case Against Computational Literary Studies,” Critical Inquiry 45 (Spring 2019) 601-639. For accessible introductions to what has become known as the replication crisis in the sciences, see Ed Yong, “Psychology’s Replication Crisis Can’t Be Wished Away,” The Atlantic, March 4, 2016.

[2]Open Science Collaboration, “Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science,” Science 28 Aug 2015:Vol. 349, Issue 6251, aac4716.DOI: 10.1126/science.aac4716.

[3]Compare Da’s sweeping claims with the more modest ones made by the OSC in Science even given their considerably larger sample and far more rigorous effort at replication, reproduced here. For a discussion of the practice of replication, see Brian D. Earp and David Trafimow, “Replication, Falsification, and the Crisis of Confidence in Social Psychology,” Frontiers in Psychology May 19, 2015: doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00621.

[4]For a list, see Ben Schmidt, “A computational critique of a computational critique of a computational critique.” I provide more examples in the scholarly response here: Andrew Piper, “Do We Know What We Are Doing?Journal of Cultural Analytics, April 1, 2019.

[5]She cites Mark Algee-Hewitt as Mark Hewitt, cites G. Casella as the author of Introduction to Statistical Learning when it was Gareth James, cites me and Andrew Goldstone as co-authors in the Appendix when we were not, claims that “the most famous example of CLS forensic stylometry” was Hugh Craig and Arthur F. Kinney’s book that advances a theory of Marlowe’s authorship of Shakespeare’s plays which they do not, and miscalculates the number of people it would take to read fifteen thousand novels in a year. The answer is 1250 not 1000 as she asserts. This statistic is also totally meaningless.

[6]Statements like the following also suggest that she is far from a credible guide to even this aspect of statistics: “After all, statistics automatically assumes that 95 percent of the time there is no difference and that only 5 percent of the time there is a difference. That is what it means to look for p-value less than 0.05.” This is not what it means to look for a p-value less than 0.05. A p-value is the estimated probability of getting our observed data assuming our null hypothesis is true. The smaller the p-value, the more unlikely it is to observe what we did assuming our initial hypothesis is true. The aforementioned 5% threshold says nothing about how often there will be a “difference” (in other words, how often the null hypothesis is false). Instead, it says: “if our data leads us to conclude that there is a difference, we estimate that we will be mistaken 5% of the time.” Nor does “statistics” “automatically” assume that .05 is the appropriate cut-off. It depends on the domain, the question and the aims of modeling. These are gross over-simplifications.

[7]For reflections on literary modeling, see Andrew Piper, “Think Small: On Literary Modeling.” PMLA132.3 (2017): 651-658; Richard Jean So, “All Models Are Wrong,” PMLA132.3 (2017); Ted Underwood, “Algorithmic Modeling: Or, Modeling Data We Do Not Yet Understand,” The Shape of Data in Digital Humanities: Modeling Texts and Text-based Resources, eds. J. Flanders and F. Jannidis (New York: Routledge, 2018).

[8]See Andrew Piper and Eva Portelance, “How Cultural Capital Works: Prizewinning Novels, Bestsellers, and the Time of Reading,” Post-45(2016); Eve Kraicer and Andrew Piper, “Social Characters: The Hierarchy of Gender in Contemporary English-Language Fiction,” Journal of Cultural Analytics, January 30, 2019. DOI: 10.31235/osf.io/4kwrg; and Andrew Piper, “Fictionality,” Journal of Cultural Analytics, Dec. 20, 2016. DOI: 10.31235/osf.io/93mdj.

[9]The literature debating the values of significance testing is vast. See Simmons, Joseph P., Leif D. Nelson, and Uri Simonsohn. “False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant.” Psychological Science 22, no. 11 (November 2011): 1359–66. doi:10.1177/0956797611417632.

 [10]See Rens Bod, Jennifer Hay, and Stefanie Jannedy, Probabilistic Linguistics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003); Dan Jurafsky and James Martin, “Vector Semantics,” Speech and Language Processing, 3rd Edition (2018): https://web.stanford.edu/~jurafsky/slp3/6.pdf; for the relation of communication to information theory, M.W. Crocker, Demberg, V. & Teich, E. “Information Density and Linguistic Encoding,” Künstliche Intelligenz 30.1 (2016) 77-81. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13218-015-0391-y; and for the relation to language acquisition and learning, Erickson  LC, Thiessen  ED, “Statistical learning of language: theory, validity, and predictions of a statistical learning account of language acquisition,” Dev. Rev. 37 (2015): 66–108.doi:10.1016/j.dr.2015.05.002.

 


Ted Underwood

In the humanities, as elsewhere, researchers who work with numbers often reproduce and test each other’s claims.1Nan Z. Da’s contribution to this growing genre differs from previous examples mainly in moving more rapidly. For instance, my coauthors and I spent 5,800 words describing, reproducing,and partially criticizing one article about popular music.2By contrast, Da dismisses fourteen publications that use different methods in thirty-eight pages. The article’s energy is impressive, and its long-term effects will be positive.

But this pace has a cost. Da’s argument may be dizzying if readers don’t already know the works summarized, as she rushes through explanation to get to condemnation. Readers who know these works will recognize that Da’s summaries are riddled with material omissions and errors. The time is ripe for a theoretical debate about computing in literary studies. But this article is unfortunately too misleading—even at the level of paraphrase—to provide a starting point for the debate.

For instance, Da suggests that my article “The Life Cycles of Genres” makes genres look stable only because it forgets to compare apples to apples: “Underwood should train his model on pre-1941 detective fiction (A) as compared to pre-1941 random stew and post-1941 detective fiction (B) as compared to post-1941 random stew, instead of one random stew for both” (p. 608).3

This perplexing critique tells me to do exactly what my article (and public code) make clear that I did: compare groups of works matched by publication date.4There is also no “random stew” in the article. Da’s odd phrase conflates a random contrast set with a ghastly “genre stew” that plays a different role in the argument.

More importantly, Da’s critique suppresses the article’s comparative thesis—which identifies detective fiction as more stable than several other genres—in order to create a straw man who argues that all genres “have in fact been more or less consistent from the 1820s to the present” (p. 609). Lacking any comparative yardstick to measure consistency, this straw thesis becomes unprovable. In other cases Da has ignored the significant results of an article, in order to pour scorn on a result the authors acknowledge as having limited significance—without ever mentioning that the authors acknowledge the limitation. This is how she proceeds with Jockers and Kirilloff (p. 610).

In short, this is not an article that works hard at holistic critique. Instead of describing the goals that organize a publication, Da often assumes that researchers were trying (and failing) to do something she believes they should have done. Topic modeling, for instance, identifies patterns in a corpus without pretending to find a uniquely correct description. Humanists use the method mostly for exploratory analysis. But Da begins from the assumption that topic modeling must be a confused attempt to prove hypotheses of some kind. So, she is shocked to discover (and spends a page proving) that different topics can emerge when the method is run multiple times. This is true. It is also a basic premise of the method, acknowledged by all the authors Da cites—who between them spend several pages discussing how results that vary can nevertheless be used for interpretive exploration. Da doesn’t acknowledge the discussion.

Finally, “The Computational Case” performs some crucial misdirection at the outset by implying that cultural analytics is based purely on linguistic evidence and mainly diction. It is true that diction can reveal a great deal, but this is a misleading account of contemporary trends. Quantitative approaches are making waves partly because researchers have learned to extract social relations from literature and partly because they pair language with external social testimony—for instance the judgments of reviewers.5Some articles, like my own on narrative pace, use numbers entirely to describe the interpretations of human readers.6Once again, Da’s polemical strategy is to isolate one strand in a braid, and critique it as if it were the whole.

A more inquisitive approach to cultural analytics might have revealed that it is not a monolith but an unfolding debate between several projects that frequently criticize each other. Katherine Bode, for instance, has critiqued other researchers’ data (including mine), in an exemplary argument that starts by precisely describing different approaches to historical representation.7Da could have made a similarly productive intervention—explaining, for instance, how researchers should report uncertainty in exploratory analysis. Her essay falls short of that achievement because a rush to condemn as many examples as possible has prevented it from taking time to describe and genuinely understand its objects of critique.

TED UNDERWOODis professor of information sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has published in venues ranging from PMLA to the IEEE International Conference on Big Data and is the author most recently of Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change (2019).

1.Andrew Goldstone, “Of Literary Standards and Logistic Regression: A Reproduction,” January 4, 2016, https://andrewgoldstone.com/blog/2016/01/04/standards/. Jonathan Goodwin, “Darko Suvin’s Genres of Victorian SF Revisited,” Oct 17, 2016, https://jgoodwin.net/blog/more-suvin/.

2. Ted Underwood, “Can We Date Revolutions in the History of Literature and Music?”, The Stone and the Shell, October 3, 2015, https://tedunderwood.com/2015/10/03/can-we-date-revolutions-in-the-history-of-literature-and-music/ Ted Underwood, Hoyt Long, Richard Jean So, and Yuancheng Zhu, “You Say You Found a Revolution,” The Stone and the Shell, February 7, 2016, https://tedunderwood.com/2016/02/07/you-say-you-found-a-revolution/.

3. Nan Z. Da, “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies,” Critical Inquiry 45 (Spring 2019): 601-39.

4. Ted Underwood, “The Life Cycles of Genres,” Journal of Cultural Analytics, May 23, 2016, http://culturalanalytics.org/2016/05/the-life-cycles-of-genres/.

5. Eve Kraicer and Andrew Piper, “Social Characters: The Hierarchy of Gender in Contemporary English-Language Fiction,” Journal of Cultural Analytics, January 30, 2019, http://culturalanalytics.org/2019/01/social-characters-the-hierarchy-of-gender-in-contemporary-english-language-fiction/

6. Ted Underwood, “Why Literary Time is Measured in Minutes,” ELH 25.2 (2018): 341-65.

7. Katherine Bode, “The Equivalence of ‘Close’ and ‘Distant’ Reading; or, Toward a New Object for Data-Rich Literary History,” MLQ 78.1 (2017): 77-106.


DAY 2 RESPONSES 


Argument

Nan Z Da

First, a qualification. Due to the time constraints of this forum, I can only address a portion of the issues raised by the forum participants and in ways still imprecise. I do plan to issue an additional response that addresses the more fine-grained technical issues.

“The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies” was not written for the purposes of refining CLS. The paper does not simply call for “more rigor” or for replicability across the board. It is not about figuring out which statistical mode of inquiry best suits computational literary analysis. It is not a method paper; as some of my respondents point out, those are widely available.

The article was written to empower literary scholars and editors to ask logical questions about computational and quantitative literary criticism should they suspect a conceptual mismatch between the result and the argument or perceive the literary-critical payoff to be extraordinarily low.

The paper, I hope, teaches us to recognize two types of CLS work. First, there is statistically rigorous work that cannot actually answer the question it sets out to answer or doesn’t ask an interesting question at all. Second, there is work that seems to deliver interesting results but is either nonrobust or logically confused. The confusion sometimes issues from something like user error, but it is more often the result of the suboptimal or unnecessary use of statistical and other machine-learning tools. The paper was an attempt to demystify the application of those tools to literary corpora and to explain why technical errors are amplified when your goal is literary interpretation or description.

My article is the culmination of a long investigation into whether computational methods and their modes of quantitative analyses can have purchase in literary studies. My answer is that what drives quantitative results and data patterns often has little to do with the literary critical or literary historical claims being made by scholars that claim to be finding such results and uncovering such patterns—though it sometimes looks like it. If the conclusions we find in CLS corroborate or disprove existing knowledge, this is not a sign that they are correct but that they are tautological at best, merely superficial at worst.

The article is agnostic on what literary criticism ought to be and makes no prescriptions about interpretive habits. The charge that it takes a “purist” position is pure projection. The article aims to describe what scholarship ought not to be. Even the appeal to reading books in the last pages of the article does not presume the inherent meaningfulness of “actually reading” but only serves as a rebuttal to the use of tools that wish to do simple classifications for which human decision would be immeasurably more accurate and much less expensive.

As to the question of Exploratory Data Analysis versus Confirmatory Data Analysis: I don’t prioritize one over the other. If numbers and their interpretation are involved, then statistics has to come into play; I don’t know any way around this. If you wish to simply describe your data, then you have to show something interesting that derives from measurements that are nonreductive. As to the appeal to exploratory tools: if your tool will never be able to explore the problem in question, because it lacks power or is overfitted to its object, your exploratory tool is not needed.

It seems unobjectionable that quantitative methods and nonquantitative methods might work in tandem.  My paper is simply saying: that may be true in theory but it falls short in practice. Andrew Piper points us to the problem of generalization, of how to move from local to global, probative to illustrative. This is precisely the gap my article interrogates because that’s where the collaborative ideal begins to break down. One may call the forcible closing of that gap any number of things—a new hermeneutics, epistemology, or modality—but in the end, the logic has to clear.

My critics are right to point out a bind. The bind is theirs, however, not mine. My point is also that, going forward, it is not for me or a very small group of people to decide what the value of this work is, nor how it should be done.

Ed Finn accuses me of subjecting CLS to a double standard: “Nobody is calling in economists to assess the validity of Marxist literary analysis, or cognitive psychologists to check applications of affect theory, and it’s hard to imagine that scholars would accept the disciplinary authority of those critics.”

This is faulty reasoning. For one thing, literary scholars ask for advice and assessment from scholars in other fields all the time. For another, the payoff of the psychoanalytic reading, even as it seeks extraliterary meaning and validity, is not for psychology but for literary-critical meaning, where it succeeds or fails on its own terms. CLS wants to say, “it’s okay that there isn’t much payoff in our work itself as literary criticism, whether at the level of prose or sophistication of insight; the payoff is in the use of these methods, the description of data, the generation of a predictive model, or the ability for someone else in the future to ask (maybe better) questions. The payoff is in the building of labs, the funding of students, the founding of new journals, the cases made for tenure lines and postdoctoral fellowships and staggeringly large grants. When these are the claims, more than one discipline needs to be called in to evaluate the methods, their applications, and their result. Because printed critique of certain literary scholarship is generally not refuted by pointing to things still in the wings, we are dealing with two different scholarly models. In this situation, then, we should be maximally cross-disciplinary.

NAN Z. DA teaches literature at the University of Notre Dame.


Errors

Nan Z. Da

This first of two responses addresses errors, real and imputed; the second response is the more substantive.

1. There is a significant mistake in footnote 39 (p. 622) of my paper. In it I attribute to Hugh Craig and Arthur F. Kinney the argument that Marlowe wrote parts of some late Shakespeare plays after his (Marlowe’s) death. The attribution is incorrect. What Craig asks in “The Three Parts of Henry VI” (pp. 40-77) is whether Marlowe wrote segments of these plays. I would like to extend my sincere apologies to Craig and to the readers of this essay for the misapprehension that it caused.

2. The statement “After all, statistics automatically assumes” (p. 608) is incorrect. A more correct statement would be: In standard hypothesis testing a 95 percent confidence level means that, when the null is true, you will correctly fail to reject 95 percent of the time.

3. The description of various applications of text-mining/machine-learning (p. 620) as “ethically neutral” is not worded carefully enough. I obviously do not believe that some of these applications, such as tracking terrorists using algorithms, is ethically neutral. I meant that there are myriad applications of these tools: for good, ill, and otherwise. On balance it’s hard to assign an ideological position to them.

4. Ted Underwood is correct that, in my discussion of his article on “The Life Cycle of Genres,” I confused the “ghastly stew” with the randomized control sets used in his predictive modeling. Underwood also does not make the elementary statistical mistake I suggest he has made in my article (“Underwood should train his model on pre-1941” [p. 608]).

As to the charge of misrepresentation: paraphrasing a paper whose “single central thesis … is that the things we call ‘genres’ may be entities of different kinds, with different life cycles and degrees of textual coherence” is difficult. Underwood’s thesis here refers to the relative coherence of detective fiction, gothic, and science fiction over time, with 1930 as the cutoff point.

The other things I say about the paper remain true. The paper cites various literary scholars’ definitions of genre change, but its implicit definition of genre is “consistency over time of 10,000 frequently used terms.” It cannot “reject Franco Moretti’s conjecture that genres have generational cycles” (a conjecture that most would already find too reductive) because it is not using the same testable definition of genre or change.

5. Topic Modeling: my point isn’t that topic models are non-replicable but that, in this particular application, they are non-robust. Among other evidence: if I remove one document out of one hundred, the topics change. That’s a problem.

6. As far as Long and So’s essay “Turbulent Flow” goes, I need a bit more time than this format allows to rerun the alternatives responsibly. So and Long have built a tool in which there are thirteen features for predicting the difference between two genres—Stream of Consciousness and Realism. They say: most of these features are not very predictive alone but together become very predictive, with that power being concentrated in just one feature. I show that that one feature isn’t robust. To revise their puzzling metaphor: it’s as if someone claims that a piano plays beautifully and that most of that sound comes from one key. I play that key; it doesn’t work.

7. So and Long argue that by proving that their classifier misclassifies nonhaikus—not only using English translations of Chinese poetry, as they suggest, but also Japanese poetry that existed long before the haiku—I’ve made a “misguided decision that smacks of Orientalism. . . . It completely erases context and history, suggesting an ontological relation where there is none.” This is worth getting straight. Their classifier lacks power because it can only classify haikus with reference to poems quite different from haikus; to be clear, it will classify equally short texts with overlapping keywords close to haikus as haikus. Overlapping keywords is their predictive feature, not mine. I’m not sure how pointing this out is Orientalist. As for their model, I would if pushed say it is only slightly Orientalist, if not determinatively so.

8. Long and So claim that my “numbers cannot be trusted,” that my “critique . . . is rife with technical and factual errors”; in a similar vein it ends with the assertion that my essay doesn’t “encourag[e] much trust.”  I’ll admit to making some errors in this article, though not in my analyses of Long and So’s papers (the errors mostly occur in section 3). I hope to list all of these errors in the more formal response that appears in print or else in an online appendix. That said, an error is not the same as a specious insinuation that the invalidation of someone’s model indicates Orientalism, pigheadedness, and so on. Nor is an error the same as the claim that “CI asked Da to widen her critique to include female scholars and she declined” recently made by So, which is not an error but a falsehood.

NAN Z. DA teaches literature at the University of Notre Dame.


Katherine Bode

The opening statements were fairly critical of Da’s article, less so of CLS. To balance the scales, I want to suggest that Da’s idiosyncratic definition of CLS is partly a product of problematic divisions within digital literary studies.

Da omits what I’d call digital literary scholarship: philological, curatorial, and media archaeological approaches to digital collections and data. Researchers who pursue these approaches, far from reducing all digit(al)ized literature(s) to word counts, maintain––like Da––that analyses based purely or predominantly on such features tend to produce “conceptual fallacies from a literary, historical, or cultural-critical perspective” (p. 604). Omitting such research is part of the way in which Da operationalizes her critique of CLS: defining the field as research that focuses on word counts, then criticizing the field as limited because focused on word counts.

But Da’s perspective is mirrored by many of the researchers she cites. Ted Underwood, for instance, describes “otiose debates about corpus construction” as “well-intentioned red herrings” that detract attention from the proper focus of digital literary studies on statistical methods and inferences.[1] Da has been criticized for propagating a male-dominated version of CLS. But those who pursue the methods she criticizes are mostly men. By contrast, much digital literary scholarship is conducted by women and/or focused on marginalized literatures, peoples, or cultures. The tendency in CLS to privilege data modeling and analysis––and to minimize or dismiss the work of data construction and curation––is part of the culture that creates the male dominance of that field.

More broadly, both the focus on statistical modelling of word frequencies in found datasets, and the prominence accorded to such research in our discipline, puts literary studies out of step with digital research in other humanities fields. In digital history, for instance, researchers collaborate to construct rich datasets––for instance, of court proceedings (as in The Proceedings of the Old Bailey)[2] or social complexity (as reported in a recent Nature article)[3]––that can be used by multiple researchers, including for noncomputational analyses. Where such research is statistical, the methods are often simpler than machine learning models (for instance, trends over time; measures of relationships between select variables) because the questions are explicitly related to scale and the aggregation of well-defined scholarly phenomena, not to epistemologically-novel patterns discerned among thousands of variables.

Some things I want to know: Why is literary studies so hung up on (whether in favor of, or opposed to) this individualistic, masculinist mode of statistical criticism? Why is this focus allowed to marginalize earlier, and inhibit the development of new, large-scale, collaborative environments for both computational and noncomputational literary research? Why, in a field that is supposedly so attuned to identity and inequality, do we accept––and foreground––digital research that relies on platforms (Google Books, HathiTrust, EEBO, and others) that privilege dominant literatures and literary cultures? What would it take to bridge the scholarly and critical––the curatorial and statistical––dimensions of (digital) literary studies and what alternative, shared futures for our discipline could result?

KATHERINE BODE is associate professor of literary and textual studies at the Australian National University. Her latest book, A World of Fiction: Digital Collections and the Future of Literary History (2018), offers a new approach to literary research with mass-digitized collections, based on the theory and technology of the scholarly edition. Applying this model, Bode investigates a transnational collection of around 10,000 novels and novellas, discovered in digitized nineteenth-century Australian newspapers, to offer new insights into phenomena ranging from literary anonymity and fiction syndication to the emergence and intersections of national literary traditions.

[1]Ted Underwood, Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2019): 180; 176.

[2]Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, Clive Emsley, Sharon Howard and Jamie McLaughlin, et al., The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 8.0, March 2018).

[3]Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter François, Patrick E. Savage, Thomas E. Currie, Kevin C. Feeney, Enrico Cioni, Rosalind Purcell, et al., “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History,” Nature March 20 (2019): 1.


Ted Underwood

More could be said about specific claims in “The Computational Case.” But frankly, this forum isn’t happening because literary critics were persuaded by (or repelled by) Da’s statistical arguments. The forum was planned before publication because the essay’s general strategy was expected to make waves. Social media fanfare at the roll-out made clear that rumors of a “field-killing” project had been circulating for months among scholars who might not yet have read the text but were already eager to believe that Da had found a way to hoist cultural analytics by its own petard—the irrefutable authority of mathematics.

That excitement is probably something we should be discussing. Da’s essay doesn’t actually reveal much about current trends in cultural analytics. But the excitement preceding its release does reveal what people fear about this field—and perhaps suggest how breaches could be healed.

While it is undeniably interesting to hear that colleagues have been anticipating your demise, I don’t take the rumored plans for field-murder literally. For one thing, there’s no motive: literary scholars have little to gain by eliminating other subfields. Even if quantitative work had cornered a large slice of grant funding in literary studies (which it hasn’t), the total sum of all grants in the discipline is too small to create a consequential zero-sum game.

The real currency of literary studies is not grant funding but attention, so I interpret excitement about “The Computational Case” mostly as a sign that a large group of scholars have felt left out of an important conversation. Da’s essay itself describes this frustration, if read suspiciously (and yes, I still do that). Scholars who tried to critique cultural analytics in a purely external way seem to have felt forced into an unrewarding posture—“after all, who would not want to appear reasonable, forward-looking, open-minded?” (p. 603). What was needed instead was a champion willing to venture into quantitative territory and borrow some of that forward-looking buzz.

Da was courageous enough to try, and I think the effects of her venture are likely to be positive for everyone. Literary scholars will see that engaging quantitative arguments quantitatively isn’t all that hard and does produce buzz. Other scholars will follow Da across the qualitative/quantitative divide, and the illusory sharpness of the field boundary will fade.

Da’s own argument remains limited by its assumption that statistics is an alien world, where humanistic guidelines like “acknowledge context” are replaced by rigid hypothesis-testing protocols. But the colleagues who follow her will recognize, I hope, that statistical reasoning is an extension of ordinary human activities like exploration and debate. Humanistic principles still apply here. Quantitative models can test theories, but they are also guided by theory, and they shouldn’t pretend to answer questions more precisely than our theories can frame them. In short, I am glad Da wrote “The Computational Case” because her argument has ended up demonstrating—as a social gesture—what its text denied: that questions about mathematical modeling are continuous with debates about interpretive theory.

TED UNDERWOOD is professor of information sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has published in venues ranging from PMLA to the IEEE International Conference on Big Data and is the author most recently of Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change (2019).


DAY 3 RESPONSES


Lauren F. Klein

The knowledge that there are many important voices not represented in this forum has prompted me to think harder about the context for the lines I quoted at the outset of my previous remarks. Parham’s own model for “The New Rigor” comes from diversity work, and the multiple forms of labor—affective as much as intellectual—that are required of individuals, almost always women and people of color, in order to compensate for the structural deficiencies of the university. I should have provided that context at the outset, both to do justice to Parham’s original formulation, and because the same structural deficiencies are at work in this forum, as they are in the field of DH overall.

In her most recent response, Katherine Bode posed a series of crucial questions about why literary studies remains fixated on the “individualistic, masculinist mode of statistical criticism” that characterizes much of the work that Da takes on in her essay. Bode further asks why the field of literary studies has allowed this focus to overshadow so much of the transformative work that has been pursued alongside—and, at times, in direct support of––this particular form of computational literary studies.

But I think we also know the answers, and they point back to the same structural deficienciesthat Parham explores in her essay: a university structure that rewards certain forms of work and devalues others. In a general academic context, we might point to mentorship, advising, and community-building as clear examples of this devalued work. But in the context of the work discussed in this forum, we can align efforts to recover overlooked texts, compile new datasets, and preserve fragile archives, with the undervalued side of this equation as well. It’s not only that these forms of scholarship, like the “service” work described just above, are performed disproportionally by women and people of color. It is also that, because of the ways in which archives and canons are constructed, projects that focus on women and people of color require many more of these generous and generative scholarly acts. Without these acts, and the scholars who perform them, much of the formally-published work on these subjects could not begin to exist.

Consider Kenton Rambsy’s “Black Short Story Dataset,” a dataset creation effort that he undertook because his own research questions about the changing composition of African American fiction anthologies could not be answered by any existing corpus; Margaret Galvan’s project to create an archive of comics in social movements, which she has undertaken in order to support her own computational work as well as her students’ learning; or any number of the projects published with Small Axe Archipelagos, a born-digital journal edited and produced by a team of librarians and faculty that has been intentionally designed to be read by people who live in the Caribbean as well as for scholars who work on that region. These projects each involve sophisticated computational thinking—at the level of resource creation and platform development as well as of analytical method. They respond both to specific research questions and to larger scholarly need. They require work, and they require time.

It’s clear that these projects provide significant value to the field of literary studies, as they do to the digital humanities and to the communities to which their work is addressed. In the end, the absence of the voices of the scholars who lead these projects, both from this forum and from the scholarship it explores, offers the most convincing evidence of what—and who—is valued most by existing university structures; and what work—and what people—should be at the center of conversations to come.

LAUREN F. KLEIN is associate professor at the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, Georgia Institute of Technology.


Katherine Bode

Da’s is the first article (I’m aware of) to offer a statistical rejection of statistical approaches to literature. The exaggerated ideological agenda of earlier criticisms, which described the use of numbers or computers to analyze literature as neoliberal, neoimperialist, neoconservative, and more, made them easy to dismiss. Yet to some extent, this routinized dismissal instituted a binary in CLS, wherein numbers, statistics, and computers became distinct from ideology. If nothing else, this debate will hopefully demonstrate that no arguments––including statistical ones––are ideologically (or ethically) neutral.

But this realization doesn’t get us very far. If all arguments have ideological and ethical dimensions, then making and assessing them requires something more than proving their in/accuracy; more than establishing their reproducibility, replicability, or lack thereof. Da’s “Argument” response seemed to move us toward what is needed in describing the aim of her article as: “to empower literary scholars and editors to ask logical questions about computational and quantitative literary criticism should they suspect a conceptual mismatch between the result and the argument or perceive the literary-critical payoff to be extraordinarily low.” However, she closes that path down in allowing only one possible answer to such questions: “in practice” there can be no “payoff … [in terms of] literary-critical meaning, from these methods”; CLS “conclusions”––whether “corroborat[ing] or disprov[ing] existing knowledge”––are only ever “tautological at best, merely superficial at worse.”

Risking blatant self-promotion, I’d say I’ve often used quantification to show “something interesting that derives from measurements that are nonreductive.” For instance, A World of Fiction challenges the prevailing view that nineteenth-century Australian fiction replicates the legal lie of terra nullius by not representing Aboriginal characters, in establishing their widespread prevalence in such fiction; and contrary to the perception of the Australian colonies as separate literary cultures oriented toward their metropolitan centers, it demonstrates the existence of a largely separate, strongly interlinked, provincial literary culture.[1] To give just one other example from many possibilities, Ted Underwood’s “Why Literary Time is Measured in Minutes” uses hand-coded samples from three centuries of literature to indicate an acceleration in the pace of fiction.[2] Running the gauntlet from counting to predictive modelling, these arguments are all statistical, according to Da’s definition: “if numbers and their interpretation are involved, then statistics has come into play.” And as in this definition, they don’t stop with numerical results, but explore their literary critical and historical implications.

If what happens prior to arriving at a statistical finding cannot be justified, the argument is worthless; the same is true if what happens after that point is of no literary-critical interest. Ethical considerations are essential in justifying what is studied, why, and how. This is not––and should not be––a low bar. I’d hoped this forum would help build connections between literary and statistical ways of knowing. The idea that quantification and computation can only yield superficial or tautological literary arguments shows that we’re just replaying the same old arguments, even if both sides are now making them in statistical terms.

KATHERINE BODE is associate professor of literary and textual studies at the Australian National University. Her latest book, A World of Fiction: Digital Collections and the Future of Literary History (2018), offers a new approach to literary research with mass-digitized collections, based on the theory and technology of the scholarly edition. Applying this model, Bode investigates a transnational collection of around 10,000 novels and novellas, discovered in digitized nineteenth-century Australian newspapers, to offer new insights into phenomena ranging from literary anonymity and fiction syndication to the emergence and intersections of national literary traditions.

[1]Katherine Bode, A World of Fiction: Digital Collections and the Future of Literary History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018).

[2]Ted Underwood, “Why Literary Time is Measured in Minutes,” ELH 85.2 (2018): 341–365.


Mark Algee-Hewitt

In 2010, as a new postdoctoral fellow, I presented a paper on James Thomson’s 1730 poem The Seasons to a group of senior scholars. The argument was modest: I used close readings to suggest that in each section of the poem Thomson simulated an aesthetic experience for his readers before teaching them how to interpret it. The response was mild and mostly positive. Six months later, having gained slightly more confidence, I presented the same project with a twist: I included a graph that revealed my readings to be based on a pattern of repeated discourse throughout the poem. The response was swift and polarizing: while some in the room thought that the quantitative methods deepened the argument, others argued strongly that I was undermining the whole field. For me, the experience was formative: the simple presence of numbers was enough to enrage scholars many years my senior, long before Digital Humanities gained any prestige, funding, or institutional support.

My experience suggests that this project passed what Da calls the “smell test”: the critical results remained valid, even without the supporting apparatus of the quantitative analysis. And while Da might argue that this proves that the quantitative aspect of the project was unnecessary in the first place, I would respectfully disagree. The pattern I found was the basis for my reading and to present it as if I had discovered it through reading alone was, at best, disingenuous. The quantitative aspect to my argument also allowed me to connect the poem to a larger pattern of poetics throughout the eighteenth century.  And I would go further to contend that just as introduction of quantification into a field changes the field, so too does the field change the method to suit its own ends; and that confirming a statistical result through its agreement with conclusions derived from literary historical methods is just as powerful as a null hypothesis test. In other words, Da’s “smell test” suggests a potential way forward in synthesizing these methods.

But the lesson I learned remains as powerful as ever: regardless of how they are embedded in research, regardless of who uses them, computational methods provoke an immediate, often negative, response in many humanities scholars. And it is worth asking why. Just as it is always worth reexamining the institutional, political, and gendered history of methods such as new history, formalism, and even close reading, so too is it important, as Katherine Bode suggests, to think through these same issues in Digital Humanities as a whole. And it is crucial that we do so without erasing the work of the new, emerging, and often structurally vulnerable members of the field that Lauren Klein highlights. These methods have a powerful appeal among emerging groups of students and young scholars. And to seek to shut down scholarship by asserting a blanket incompatibility between method and object is to do a disservice to the fascinating work of emerging scholars that is reshaping our critical practices and our understanding of literature.

MARK ALGEE-HEWITT is an assistant professor of English and Digital Humanities at Stanford University where he directs the Stanford Literary Lab. His current work combines computational methods with literary criticism to explore large scale changes in aesthetic concepts during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The projects that he leads at the Literary Lab include a study of racialized language in nineteenth-century American literature and a computational analysis of differences in disciplinary style. Mark’s work has appeared in New Literary History, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, as well as in edited volumes on the Enlightenment and the Digital Humanities.

 

 

 

To read the Summer 2020 journal responses by Leif Weatherby, Ted Underwood, and Nan Da, click the links below:

Ted Underwood, Critical Response II. The Theoretical Divide Driving Debates about Computation

 

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Progressive Surge Propels Turning Point in US Policy on Yemen

Screenshot 2019-03-26 15.27.55

Protesters call for an end to US involvement in the war in Yemen, November 2018 in Chicago. The blue backpacks stand for the 40 children killed in an air strike on a school bus that used an American-made bomb. CHARLES EDWARD MILLER [CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE BY SA 2.0]

By Danny Postel

This article was originally published in Middle East Report.

The US House of Representatives passed a potentially historic resolution on February 13, 2019, calling for an end to US military support for the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen that began in 2015. Although the US government has never formally declared its involvement in the war, it assists the coalition with intelligence and munitions and supports the aerial campaign with refueling and targeting. The United States is therefore complicit in the myriad atrocities the coalition has committed against Yemeni civilians, which Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have characterized as war crimes.1

What is already historic about the resolution (introduced by Democratic Representatives Ro Khanna of California and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin) and its Senate counterpart (introduced by Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Republican Mike Lee of Utah and Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut) is their invocation of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which restrains a president’s capacity to commit forces abroad. Aimed to prevent “future Vietnams,” the act gives Congress the authority to compel the removal of US military forces engaged in hostilities absent a formal declaration of war.

The House resolution was the first time Congress flexed its War Powers muscle in the 45 years since that resolution’s passage. The Senate passed a parallel resolution in December, but the measure died when the Republican leadership refused to bring it to a vote. These congressional moves not only register opposition to US involvement in this war but also strike a major blow against unlimited executive power when it comes to launching war.

This long overdue Congressional action to constrain executive war-making, however, would not have been possible without a tremendous grassroots mobilization against US involvement in this disastrous war and the surging progressive tide that is raising deeper questions about US foreign policy.

Anti-war activists in the United States have been organizing against US support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen since2015. While these efforts made an impact on the public debate about Yemen, they failed to move the policy needle—until an unexpected chain of events in late 2018 gave the campaign new traction and occasioned a momentous grassroots mobilization. The national organizing campaign is led by a combination of Yemen-oriented groups (the Yemen Peace Project, the Yemeni Alliance Committee and others) along with more established anti-war organizations like Just Foreign Policy, Win Without War, Code Pink and Peace Action. The addition of the ascendant Democratic Socialists of America contributed to the momentum. Yet it was the confluence of events outside the control of these groups—but to which these groups were well-positioned to rapidly respond—that propelled the campaign into broad Congressional support for War Powers resolutions in early 2019.

This campaign is poised to change not only US policy on Yemen, but possibly the longstanding US-Saudi relation- ship. To be sure, major obstacles stand in the way of such a shift—notably, the Israel lobby and the swampy Donald Trump-Jared Kushner ties with Gulf monarchs. But the tide is now turning, and the 2020 presidential election could change the equation even more dramatically.

Game-Changers

The Barack Obama administration gave the green light for the Saudi bombing campaign in 2015, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, as a way to placate Saudi Arabia’s furious opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, which they viewed as betrayal and a sign that Washington was pivoting to Tehran.2Some commentators retrospectively regard the Iran deal as wrongheaded given the catastrophe that has unfolded in Yemen.3 But this imagines that Obama’s decision to sign off on the kingdom’s military campaign was automatic or inevitable. It was neither. The problem was not the Iran deal itself, but rather the decision to appease the Saudis in Yemen.

The Saudis viewed Trump’s election as a godsend. Here was someone who embraced their assertion that Iran was the source of most of the region’s problems and shared their determination to isolate and confront Tehran.4 Trump’s first foreign visit as president was to Riyadh, where he told the ensemble of autocrats, monarchs and thugs what they wanted to hear: They have US support. Immediately after the May 2017 gathering, the Saudis stepped up their aerial assault on Yemen, and Trump announced a massive new weapons deal with the kingdom.

As the war intensified and the humanitarian crisis deep- ened, a broad coalition of US anti-war activists emerged and shifted their attention to Yemen, initiating a variety of educational events, protests and meetings to pressure congressional leaders. Despite their efforts, it took two events in the summer of 2018—one a horrific act of violence in Yemen that illuminated all that was wrong with US involvement, and the other a horrific act of violence in Istanbul not directly related to the war itself—to spark a major opening in public consciousness and on Capitol Hill.

On August 9, 2018, a Saudi-led coalition warplane bombed a school bus in Saada, northern Yemen, killing several dozen children between the ages of six and 11. Mainstream media coverage of this event was unusually extensive and graphic, with CNN airing chilling video footage of the final moments inside the bus before the bomb struck. The video found itself in heavy rotation and went viral on social media. The visceral imagery of children on a school bus struck a deep nerve among many Americans who otherwise had not been following events in Yemen.

Reports that the warplane in question was sold to Riyadh by Washington, and that the bomb was manufactured in the United States, began to materialize. The Yemen-based human rights organization Mwatana played an important role by providing CNN access to a cache of documents showing fragments of American-made bombs at the scene of multiple attacks in which civilians were killed and injured, going back to 2015.5 Mwatana’s engagement with the US media also drew upon the knowledge and connections of US-based organizations that had long been working to draw attention to the direct role of the United States in the little-understood war. The horror of the school bus bombing, followed by this investigative surge, had a palpable effect on public opinion as Washington’s direct role in the suffering of Yemeni civilians came into public focus.6

The second event, the October 2, 2018 assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was the game-changer. When it was revealed that the Washington Post contributor was dismembered with a bone saw in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and that Khashoggi’s murder was directed by the highest levels of the Saudi regime, virtually the entire Washington foreign policy world condemned Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his brazen brutality.

“The Khashoggi killing shocked official Washington, which was forced to overcompensate for having endorsed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as an enlightened reformer,” Yasmine Farouk observes. “The humanitarian consequences of the war in Yemen added to that, so that the kingdom in its entirety has become entangled in the current polarization of US politics.”7

Many Yemenis are ambivalent about what might be called the Khashoggi effect—the ways in which the Saudi journal- ist’s brutal murder has drawn attention to the injustices of the war in Yemen. Abdulrasheed Alfaqih, Executive Director of Mwatana, conveys this ambivalence in his observation that “Yemen is one big Saudi consulate.” “All Yemenis are like Khashoggi,” he notes, “but without the Washington Post.”

But Khashoggi’s murder proved pivotal on the legisla- tive front, when a handful of Republican senators joined Democrats in their support for Senate Joint Resolution54, the War Powers measure to end US support for the coalition’s military operations in Yemen. Just a few months earlier, in March 2018, this resolution had been rejected by the Senate. But following the school bus bombing, revelations of Washington’s complicity in such atrocities and the Khashoggi affair, the Senate passed the Sanders- Lee-Murphy resolution in December 2018. While outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan blocked the House resolution on his way out of office, a new version, House Joint Resolution 37, passed the Democratic-controlled House in February 2019. Euphoria was widespread in progressive circles: Anti-war activists celebrated not just the passage of the resolution, but the critical role they played in bringing it about.

Mobilizing a Coalition

Since the beginning of 2018, a coalition of organizations have worked around the clock mobilizing grassroots support for congressional action. Groups like Win Without War, Just Foreign Policy, the Yemen Peace Project, Code Pink, Peace Action, the Yemeni Alliance Committee, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Action Corps and the Fellowship of Reconciliation have worked closely with congressional allies, providing policy expertise and helping draft resolutions (both Senate and House versions). These organizations have mobilized their members and supporters around the country to pressure their congressional representatives to co-sponsor and vote for the resolutions. They organized rallies at US Senate offices in Nevada, Arizona, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Maine (as well as on Capitol Hill), resulting in grassroots and media pressure on every Democrat who voted against the Yemen resolution in March 2018, which had a direct impact on the historic Senate vote in December.

While many efforts were coordinated, the mobilization was broad and diffuse enough to pressure congressional representatives across the country. In November, the Yemeni Alliance Committee, Just Foreign Policy and Action Corps organized rallies at the San Francisco and Los Angeles offices of two key House Democrats, Nancy Pelosi (then House Minority Leader, now Speaker) and Adam Schiff. Until then, Pelosi’s position on Yemen was unclear.8 Yemeni and Yemeni-American activists figured prominently in both actions. Within 24 hours of the rallies, both Pelosi and Schiff agreed to co-sponsor the original House resolution.

Employing creative means, Chicago activists in November2018 led by Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Just Foreign Policy and the Chicago chapter of Peace Action held a powerful demonstration at Chicago’s Federal Building, placing 40 blue backpacks on the ground with the names of the children killed by the Saudi missile fired at their school bus. A teach-in on US involvement in the Yemen war held the next day at a packed auditorium at Loyola University featured the Yemeni-Canadian activist and Michigan State professor Shireen Al-Adeimi, who has emerged as one of the key voices on Yemen. Students at Loyola, DePaul and the University of Chicago have made Yemen a central focus of their activism.

Democratic Socialists of America, which now has more than 55,000 members nationally, has also played an important role. In November 2018 the organization issued a forceful statement on Yemen. In January 2019, it held a national video conference to educate and spark its members to participate in the National Day of Action for Yemen on February 4, 2019, which mobilized support for the current House and Senate resolutions to end US support for the Saudi military intervention.

A Left-Right Alliance on Yemen?

Yemen has become an important subplot in a larger story: the development of a new progressive foreign policy vision in Congress. A central figure in this story is Rep. Ro Khanna, who was first elected to Congress in 2016 and has emerged as a leading member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. With his frequent appearances on such shows as All In with Chris Hayes, Democracy Now! and the Intercepted podcasts, Khanna has become a prominent voice in progressive and anti-war circles. Khanna goes beyond advocating simply for the end of US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen: He wants to stop all US military assistance to Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, Khanna is part of a disconcerting trend in certain quarters of the anti-war left, sometimes expressing affinity with right-wing reactionaries whose opposition to neoconservatism overlaps with their own. In February 2019, Khanna tweeted about an article by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson in The American Conservative magazine: “Tucker Carlson offers a devastating critique of interventionism and shows how much of the foreign policy establishment has failed the American people. There is an emerging, left-right coalition of common sense for a foreign policy of restraint.”9

Carlson may be a critic of neoconservatism, but he is also a defender of white nationalism and a purveyor of demonizing rhetoric about immigrants and Muslims. Praising someone like Carlson—especially without offering this caveat—risks rendering Khanna’s anti-war position hostile to Yemeni-Americans and many other allies in the progressive push to end the war in Yemen.

Talk of a left-right coalition has been gaining traction in some anti-war circles, particularly since Trump’s election. To be sure, the War Powers resolution could not have made progress without making common cause with some conservatives. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, for example, has been an instrumental ally on Yemen. But to speak of a broad left-right coalition, as Khanna and others do, risks alienating many progressives who fiercely oppose “America First” nationalism (read: white nationalism).

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is also frequently quoted and retweeted in anti-war circles despite her well-documented Islamophobia, her enthusiastic support for the chauvinistic Hindu nationalism of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, her praise for brutal dictators like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and her cooperation with the right-wing organization that arranged her trip to Syria to meet with the war criminal Bashar al-Assad.10

The troubling politics of this left-right coalition did not originate in Congress. Many progressives and anti-war activists, for example, contributed to the virality of this tweet from Sen. Rand Paul: “Sunnis have been killing Shia since the massacre at Karbala in 680 AD. If we wait until they stop killing each other, we will stay for a thousand years or more. I agree with @realDonaldTrump. Bring the troops home.”11 Many progressives, however, oppose building a left-right coalition that overlooks Orientalist and racist distortions about the Middle East and Muslims on the basis of shared support for a smaller US military footprint.12 Such a coalition would be hostile, if not unrecognizable, to many of the people in whose name progressive activists often claim to speak.

Bernie, the Democratic Party and US-Saudi Relations

Unlike in 2016, when Bernie Sanders seemed to shy away from foreign policy issues, foreign policy has become a major focus as he enters the presidential race for 2020.13 In recent months he has issued an internationalist manifesto and delivered a major foreign policy address at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.14 With Sanders’ timely leadership on ending US involvement in the war in Yemen, his increasingly critical views on US-Saudi relations and his broader anti- authoritarian internationalist vision, the contours of a Sanders-administration foreign policy are taking shape and could become a reality: Every poll shows Sanders beating Trump in a general election. As with domestic issues, Sanders’ influence over the terms of the Democrats’ foreign policy debate will be significant.

Moreover, every Democratic senator running for presi- dent is on board as a co-sponsor of the Sanders-Lee-Murphy resolution on Yemen. This development is remarkable and may portend a major shift in US foreign policy—at least toward Saudi Arabia. Resetting US relations with the Saudi kingdom, which Gilbert Achcar has felicitously called “the most reactionary state on earth,” would go well beyond the Obama-Clinton-Kerry legacy—indeed, well beyond any previous Democratic administration—and have far-reaching repercussions in the Middle East.15

If US policy moves in this progressive direction, the grassroots mobilization to end US involvement in the war in Yemen—particularly the surge of 2018 and 2019—will be a key reason.

 

 

Danny Postel is assistant director of the Middle East and North African Studies Program at Northwestern University. He is involved in the activist mobilization to end US support for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen.

 

 

Endnotes

1 Human Rights Watch, “Yemen: Civilians Bombed, Shelled, Starved,” January 17, 2019; Amnesty International, “Yemen: The forgotten war,” September 2015.

2 John M. Willis “Operation Decisive Storm and the Expanding Counter-Revolution,” Middle East Report Online, March 30, 2015.

3 See Joshua Keating, “What if the Iran Deal Was a Mistake?” Slate, February 6, 2018.

4 See Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi, “Playing with Fire: Trump, the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry, and the Geopolitics of Sectarianization in the Middle East,” Mediterranean Yearbook 2018(Institut Europeu de la Mediterrània, 2018).

5 Nima Elbagir, Salma Abdelaziz, Ryan Browne, Barbara Arvanitidis and Laura Smith-Spark, “Bomb that killed 40 children in Yemen was supplied by the US,” CNN, August 17, 2018; and Nima Elbagir, Salma Abdelaziz and Laura Smith-Spark, “Made in America: Shrapnel found in Yemen ties US bombs to string of civilian deaths over course of bloody civil war,” CNN, September 2019.

6 Borzou Daragahi, “Majority of Americans want congress to cut arms sales to Saudi Arabia over Yemen war, survey finds,” The Independent, November 26, 2018.

7 Yasmine Farouk, “Guilt by Association,” Diwan, February 15, 2019.
8 Sarah Lazare, “Nancy Pelosi Finds Time for War Hawks—But Not Yemeni-American Peace Advocates,” In These Times, December 7, 2018.

9 The tweet is available at https://twitter.com/i/web/status/1096467708831510530

10 Branko Marcetic, “Tulsi Gabbard Is Not Your Friend,” Jacobin, May 26, 2017; Soumya Shankar, “Tulsi Gabbard Is a Rising Progressive Star, Despite Her Support for Hindu Nationalists,” The Intercept, January 5, 2019; Alex Rowell, Tim Mak and Michael Weiss, “Tulsi Gabbard’s Fascist Escorts to Syria,” Daily Beast, January 26, 2017; Evan Hill, “Tulsi Gabbard’s Deceptive Foreign Policy,” The Nation, January 17, 2019.

11 The tweet is available at https://twitter.com/randpaul/status/1085600177682071552?lang=en

12 For a critique of this Orientalist narrative about ancient sectarian hatreds, see Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, eds., Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (Oxford, 2017).

13 Peter Beinart, “It’s Foreign Policy That Distinguishes Bernie This Time,” The Atlantic, February 21, 2019.

14 Bernie Sanders, “A new authoritarian axis demands an international progressive front,”The Guardian, September 13, 2018.

15 Nada Matta, “What Happened to the Arab Spring? An Interview with Gilbert Achcar,”Jacobin, December 17, 2015.

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Icarus High and Low: Yaron Ezrahi and the Fate of the Israeli Political Imaginary

Daniel Bertrand Monk

 

“Today, we should have to add: it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.”

Theodor W. Adorno. Mínima Moralia.

 

Theodor Adorno’s famous adage that a “wrong life cannot be lived rightly” appeared at the end of an aphorism entitled “Refuge for the Homeless.” It explored how the predicament of “private life”—its impossible necessity—could be derived from the repertoire of possible attitudes one might take towards “its arena”: our homes. “Dwelling, in the proper sense, is now impossible,” Adorno explained, because the immanent development of technology—including things like the invention of concentration camps and the carpet bombing of cities—had killed houses altogether. He was suggesting that the “possibility of residence” implies a distinction—however minimal—between the private sphere (our own place) and the place assigned it by the social order. Under present circumstances, then, to make oneself at home is to deny knowledge of the conditions that have exterminated the possibility of a refuge at all. On the other hand, to live like a refugee—that is, to make a fetish of one’s lack of attachment to home—is no alternative: “a loveless disregard for things . . . necessarily turns against people too.”[1]

 

 

One could say much the same thing for a homeland. Recognizing the important distinction to be preserved between an extinguished private existence and an equally lifeless public sphere in Adorno’s aphorism, it may be productive—just for a moment—to squint one’s eyes, extrapolate to different level of analysis, and think of his “Refuge for the Homeless” as an invitation to analyze the corresponding relation between guilt and knowledge in a people’s efforts to make itself at home.  This, indeed, was the entire intellectual project of Yaron Ezrahi, for whom the rationalization of national and collective existence was the principal political question underlying modern political history, practice, and thought.  A political scientist by training and a brilliant historian of science by grit, Ezrahi transformed himself into his own experiment.  As he sought to lay claim to the way that his own status as a citizen of Israel exhumed contrarieties at the level of thought, and not just ethics, he raised generalizable questions about the place of the rightless in the domain of those who enjoy “the right to have rights.”[2]

For Ezrahi, one’s polity is always in question—irreducibly, and without romanticism—and, its forms are, by extension, necessarily contingent. Democracy, in particular, is a perpetual referendum on its own possibility and little more.  In fact, by the end of his life Ezrahi concluded that democracy “must be imagined and performed” in order to exist at all.[3] The “inhabitants” of an order “regulated by the imaginary of self-government by the people” find it difficult to “recognize the fictive-performative foundations of . . . [their] . . . world,” even as that same imaginary appeals in flawed, but important, ways to something beyond these normative foundations.[4]  Under these circumstances, the adjudication of political meaning may now be closer to aesthetic criticism, as we both practice and assess collective and intersubjective performances of legitimacy, Ezrahi seemed to suggest in his last works. (This affective turn in his political thought was developed, in part, in partnership with the musicologist and his wife Ruth HaCohen [Pinczower].)[5]

Ezrahi’s best-known work of public scholarship, Rubber Bullets (1997), demonstrates the fate of any argument that would seek to stand critically between a conflict and its imaginary. An indictment of Israeli self-talk concerning the first Palestinian Intifada, the work presents the eponymous ammunition then used by the IDF against stone-throwing Arab youths, as a shortcut for the way that the nation sought to reconcile its repression of the Palestinian people with Israel’s self-conception as a liberal democratic state. (The rubber bullet, so the conventional argument went, responds with superior force without breaking the bounds of proportionality demanded by justice.) Smashing this kind of chatter to bits, Ezrahi exposed the contradiction between force and law suspended in the rubber bullet: it was at once affirmative (in the sense that it was a perverse excuse for a perverse condition), and at the same time, rubber bullet talk—in all its permutations—was potentially critical: the palpable lack of reconciliation between norms and reason it laid bare by virtue of its own existence necessarily appealed to a different standard of politics.[6]

The standstill captured in Ezrahi’s account of a political imaginary was sometimes experienced as a betrayal of thought. Nationalist critics accused him of being a fifth columnist, while security hawks accused him of prioritizing abstractions like justice over the protection of civilians. Conversely, some academic interlocutors treated Ezrahi as an apologist for the state. As one review phrased it, Ezrahi’s critique of the rubber bullet revealed the limits of “Liberal Zionist Angst.”[7] Moreover, in a phenomenon referred to in Hebrew slang as “hafuch al-hafuch“—a metacritical “inverse of the inverse”—Ezrahi’s own criticism of Israeli military policy was itself treated as evidence of the way the same self-talk he analyzed could be drafted into a second-order legitimacy. (In other words, here, political analysis became the intellectuals’ contribution to a form of Intifada-era Israeli cultural production commonly known as the shoot’n’cry genre.  (“If we can grieve about the injury we cause, we must still be just.”)

The reception of Ezrahi’s public scholarship is an allegory of the fate of any argument that would refuse to make itself too much at home in the realm of given positions. Eschewing communitarian rationalizations of the state, Ezrahi could also not adopt valorizations of exile as an Archimedean lever on thought.  As a result, his intellectual project sometimes ran afoul of established interpretations of the Israel/Palestine conflict, which has tended to disqualify arguments that fail to ratify an either-or logic of recrimination.[8]  (Conflating interpretations of the structure of contention with the moral judgments embedded in its moments, this logic of recrimination requires one to fall on one side or the other of the rubber bullet, or risk appearing as the custodian of a phony middle ground.)  To the extent that the rubber bullet was understood solely as a trope for millennial Israeli politics per se, the critical force of Ezrahi’s thought went unnoticed or was willfully set aside.

In fact, Ezrahi’s interlocutors were right and wrong.  Right, because as a metonymy the rubber bullet connoted a fully-realized politics. Its temporality was implicitly retrospective inasmuch as the trope pointed to a political truth that was presumably already in existence. As a result, the moral job of the critic was to call that political truth by its proper name. Wrong, because Ezrahi—whose academic researches had focused primarily on the relation between scientific rationality and politics—also understood the rubber bullet as a technology.[9] Anticipating a new materialist turn in political thought (and, particularly, its concern with the agentic capacities of entire classes of objects), Ezrahi understood technologies to be form-constitutive in the socio-political sphere.  As artefacts of a fictive “escape” from politics, in Ezrahi’s terms, technologies can be part of new political imaginaries that their very existence may help conjure into being.[10] Pointing towards the future, the valuations of the political associated with them are tinged by a generalizable indeterminacy. In his last work, Ezrahi presented this finding succinctly: “political order has no basis other than an unstable, ungrounded, elusive and inherently debatable human authority.”[11]

A “lay epistemology” of coherence once premised on the existence of god, nature, or reason as our image of the universal has now “disintegrated,” Ezrahi argued, leaving humanity with a politics premised upon nothing but the same “debatable human authority.” In this context, the given dynamics of contention concerning the Israel/Palestine conflict have themselves become a “refuge” from indeterminacy among those who might otherwise have to take responsibility for reimagining the political order.

And this is no way to live. Those who would treat the realities of this very human conflict as exceptional by reducing them to the certainties of a reified politics of blame—”the ‘truths’ and ‘lies” that reassert the power of given dichotomies—were, and are, constructing for themselves a regressive utopia, Ezrahi seemed to suggest.  The way we talk about this conflict is itself evidence of a species of thinking that cannot make itself at home in a present where legitimation crises are irreducible.   It is this exceptionalization of thinking about Israel/Palestine in relation to our thinking about conflicts in general that Ezrahi challenged; precisely by rejecting the given alternatives, and, in the process, opening himself up to charges of betrayal and complicity alike.

 

Daniel Bertrand Monk is the George R. and Myra T. Cooley Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies and Professor of Geography and Middle-East Studies

Colgate University

 

[1]Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Notes on a Damaged Life (New York, 1978), p. 39.

[2]Hannah Arendt, “The Perplexities of the Rights of Man,” Headline Series; New York 318 (Winter 1998): 88, search.proquest.com/docview/228271571/citation/E8F4234B1C334242PQ/1; and “‘The Rights of Man’: What are They,” Modern Review 3, no. 1 (1949): 24-37.

[3]“A democratic society cannot fully or at every moment be a democracy. Its precarious existence depends upon mutually reinforcing democratic ideas, political culture, political imaginaries, institutions, and practices. These very elements, which make a system of government democratic, almost never fully coexist in any society” (Yaron Ezrahi, Imagined Democracies: Necessary Political Fictions [New York, 2012], p. 1).

[4]Ibid., p. 3.

[5]See Ruth HaCohen Pinczower and Ezrahi,  Lehalchin Koach, Lashir Herut [Composing Power, Singing Freedom] (Jerusalem, 2017).

[6]Ezrahi, Rubber Bullets: Power and Conscience in Modern Israel  (New York, 1997).

[7]Ilan Pappe, “Liberal Zionist Angst. Review of Yaron Ezrahi, Rubber Bullets,” Journal of Palestine Studies 29, no. 1 (1999): 95–96, doi.org/10.2307/2676438.

[8]Daniel Bertrand Monk, “The Intractability Lobby: Material Culture and the Interpretation of the Israel/Palestine Conflict,” Critical Inquiry 36 (Spring 2010): 601–8, doi.org/10.1086/653415.

[9]Ezrahi, The Descent of Icarus: Science and the Transformation Of contemporary Democracy (New York, 1990).

[10]Ezrahi, “Technology and the Illusion of the Escape from Politics,” in Technology, Pessimism, and Postmodernism, ed. Ezrahi, E. Mendelsohn, and H. Segal (Amherst, Mass., 1995), pp. 29-38

[11]Ezrahi. Can Democracy Recover? (Unpublished MS, excerpt)

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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