Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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).

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

8 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.  

1 Comment

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

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

You can also listen and subscribe to WB202 at:

iTunes

Google Play

TuneIn

Leave a comment

Filed under Podcast, Uncategorized

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

CC.jpg

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).

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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

 


 

Leave a comment

Filed under The Trump Election: Night Thoughts, Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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).

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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

 

12 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In Memory of Robert Morris, 1931-2018

W. J. T. Mitchell

 

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

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

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

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

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

Other:  “Maybe. Why?”

One: “What do you think it means?”

Other:  “Metaphors don’t have meanings.”

One: “Really?”

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

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

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

One:  “There is more.”

Other:  “Oh, no.”

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

Other:  “Let’s hear it.”

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

Other:  “Well, that changes everything.”

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

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

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

Robert Morris, Untitled, 1984.

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

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

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

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

Cartoon by Robert Morris and the author.

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

Robert Morris.

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

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

12 December 2008

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Arts, Critical Inquiry, Media, Uncategorized, WJT Report

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

W. J. T. Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 Comments

Filed under The Trump Election: Night Thoughts, Uncategorized, WJT Report

Wet Humor

 

 

 

Kyle Stevens

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

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

wh_1

wh_2

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

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

wh_8
wh_9

wh_10 wh_11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 2016 election, Arts, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

___________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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

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

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Michael Bérubé Responds to Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Bérubé
Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature
Pennsylvania State University

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Letters to the MLA

Dr. Paula Krebs, Executive Director

10 October, 2017

 

Dear Dr. Krebs,

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

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

Yours Sincerely,

 

David Simpson

Distinguished Professor of English

U.C. Davis

 

 

August 10, 2017

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

Dear MLA Leadership,

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

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

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

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

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

Respectfully,

Timothy J. Reiss,
Emeritus Professor,
New York University

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Colin Dayan

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

 

 

 

Dear MLA Leadership,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Respectfully,

Cynthia Franklin

Professor of English

University of Hawai’i

 

 

 

Dear MLA Membership Office,

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Rajini Srikanth, Professor, English, University of Massachusetts Boston

 

June 26, 2017

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

 

Dear MLA Leadership:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your time.

Regards,

Julie Rak
Professor of English
University of Alberta
Canada

 

June 26, 2017

 

To:

 

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

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

Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President sgikandi@princeton.edu

Rosemary Feal, Executive Director rfeal@mla.org

Carolyn Zuses, Staff Liaison governance@mla.org

 

Dear MLA Leaders,

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Respectfully,

 

 

Bill V. Mullen

Professor of American Studies

Purdue University

 

 

October 3, 2017

Paula Krebs, Executive Director

Modern Language Association

85 Broad Street, suite 500

New York, NY 10004-2434

 

Dear Ms. Krebs,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sincerely,

David Lloyd

Distinguished Professor of English

University of California, Riverside

 

Cc: Diana Taylor, President

Anne Ruggles Gere, First Vice President

Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President

Carol Zuses, MLA Governance

 

13 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu: Why We Resigned from the MLA Executive Council

Statement  of Resignation

Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu

That things are “status quo” is the catastrophe.

—Walter Benjamin

Within the past two years, we were both elected to the MLA Executive Council on platforms that  highlighted structural and ethical concerns such as labor and wages, race and state violence, and boycotts in the service of universal human rights and academic freedom. Our statements as candidates for the EC declared such issues to be inseparable from the history and materiality of institutions of higher education. The fact that we were elected on the basis of our platforms was a sign that a significant number of MLA members supported our commitments and convictions. We both entered the Council believing that the MLA constituency was, like us, convinced that such issues matter to the MLA, and that they cannot be addressed in isolation from one another, or in a way where it is possible to address one set of structural crises facing teachers and scholars today at the cost of excluding others.

Despite our continued belief in the value of much of the work the MLA has done and could still do, particularly around contingent labor and academic freedom, we feel that the recent vote on the boycott resolution by the MLA membership unfortunately demonstrates that a majority of MLA members believe such issues can, in fact, be separated from their international and material contexts.

Most importantly, we find that the manner in which the Executive Council handled the anti-boycott resolution indicates a troubling fetishization of process with little sensitivity or critical attention to the historical moment  in which we are operating. When resolution 2017-1 came to the Executive Council for review, our charge was to review it as fiduciaries of the association, and to ensure that it posed no legal or reputational threat to it. Broadly speaking, this meant that we were charged with the care and stewardship of the association. From our perspective, the Council’s acceptance of the resolution indicated a  foregrounding of procedure over meaningful civic engagement, and persuades us that the MLA is more concerned about its own internal protocols than in being an active advocate for  academic rights and freedoms, especially when such advocacy may appear risky because it breaks with precedent.  We believe precisely the opposite: we assert this political moment calls upon scholars to engage with the specific challenges of our current historical situation rather than withdraw into safe norms and procedures.

For these reasons, we are both resigning from the Executive Council.

In regards to the process by which this resolution was passed, we have to note the parallels between it and concurrent political events. The Israeli press documented that a number of organizations in Israel had aided and abetted the anti-boycott effort. Scholars routinely  seem to be troubled by Russia influencing our national elections and many MLA members are rightly appalled by Citizens United and the Koch brothers influencing state elections from without. And yet, when it came to the process by which the anti-boycott resolution came and passed through the Council, we acquiesced to external organizations placing pressure on our association to make sure it did  not in any consequential way take on Israeli injustices towards our Palestinian colleagues. Indeed, the Council was  largely nonchalant about Israeli institutions helping to unbalance the scales of our own vote, even after there was a clear attempt to sow misinformation about the Executive Council’s position on the resolution by the anti-boycott side. To this day, we do not know how many members voted for Resolution 2017-1 after receiving an email from the anti-boycott side that was made to look as if the Council endorsed it. To try to remedy this misleading messaging and imbalance of access, we asked simply that we place on the ballot one paragraph from each side so that MLA members would understand the arguments from both sides, to redress an imbalance of information in which powerful organizations had the chance to publicize their positions in a manner impossible for the opposing side.  In response, we were told that was procedurally improper.

When the Executive Council took up the question as to whether or not we would be acting as responsible and careful fiduciaries by passing resolution 2017-1 onto the membership for a vote, we both argued that action was an  abrogation of those duties. The Council’s standard practice of readily passing on resolutions presented by the DA was, as we argued then, not justifiable given the ethical and political context of February 2017. Indeed, doing so presented a real risk to our reputation as an organization, given that we would be passing this resolution onto our membership in the context of Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban, and increased pressure by the Israeli government to clamp down on dissent and protest–intent on continuing its illegal settlement building unimpeded, and with the Trump administration’s approval. This context presented a serious question as to whether or not our decision required an unusual amount of critical thought and care–in the deeper sense of the fiduciary–on our part. It was not a matter of “bending the rules,” it was a matter of interpreting our fiduciary duties in accordance with the critical historical moment we live in. Sadly, the Council ultimately decided to privilege precedent at all costs, making it impossible for us as a body to incorporate the contingencies of our context into our decision-making processes.

The Executive Council refused to recognize within the scope of our fiduciary responsibilities–those responsibilities of care for the organization–the anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, context in which we were making a decision to represent the organization to a broader public sphere.  In addition, it refused to acknowledge the radically uneven playing field that made it possible for this resolution to come to the EC in the first place.  One of the more egregious reminders of that uneven field occurred only one week before the EC met, in  a membership-wide email outreach that misrepresented the EC’s position on the resolution, and which was made possible through an improperly fabricated membership email list that violates the MLA privacy policy. With this final violation, proponents of Resolution 2017-1 significantly weighted the odds in favor of its passing. Wanting to preserve the by-laws of the general resolution process to the most bureaucratic letter, the Executive Council set aside the contingencies of both the international context of this resolution and numerous infringements of the MLA’s own democratic processes  and forwarded a resolution to membership that, quite literally, mandated a constraint on our members’ thought and action.

The EC forwarded the resolution with more concern for the metaphysics of policy than for our role as critical readers of our social and political world. And in so doing, what amounted to a Kafkaesque self-imposed gag order, enacted through the language of non-action and refraining, will have and has had real-world effects in aligning the MLA with the state of Israel and its illegal Occupation, the criminalization of boycotts, and with the far-right agenda of Donald Trump.

How could we at once rush to acknowledge Trump’s potential threat to US academics and protect ourselves, while ignoring the fact that his administration has created a world

Where an attorney who supports BDs is not allowed to defend inmates;

Where children’s book—(P is for Palestine)—is being censored for daring to present a positive vision of Palestinian children under Occupation;

Where Trump has removed the US from participating in UNESCO, all because of its supposed “anti-Israel bias”;

Where a 16-year old Palestinian girl is under the strictest Israeli military detention and her parents not allowed to visit her because she has been deemed a “security risk” for slapping an Israeli soldier, after her cousin had been shot in the face and killed by the IDF; and a noted Israeli journalist has suggested the proper punishment should be that the girl be raped, at night, “away from cameras,” for offending the honor of Israeli soldiers.

Finally, add to this growing list the fact that after the nations of world voted overwhelmingly to criticize the Trump administration for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, an act that goes against two fundamental UN resolutions with regard to the international status of Jerusalem, Trump has just announced a $286 million cut to our contribution to the UN—in retaliation for countries adhering to international human rights conventions.

It is in this climate of censorship, punishment, and international bullying that the EC passed on to the membership a resolution demanding that the MLA “refrain” from a symbolic show of support for a people whose oppression has gained worldwide recognition.

That the EC strove to maintain a blind eye to these sorts of real-world events showed once again its prioritization of the minutiae of procedure against a willingness to engage, as the largest organization of humanists in North America, with an ongoing repression of intellectual work and physical mobility.

Most disappointingly, especially if we were intent on adhering to strict process in other matters, the form of the resolution itself was improper–it directed the MLA to take an action (to refrain).  Based on the MLA’s distinction between a resolution as a statement of sentiment and a motion as “recommend[ing] actions to the Executive Council regarding the…association’s direction, goals, and structure,” Resolution 2017-1 should have been presented as a motion. As it is, those who pushed this forward as a resolution were able to have it both ways. This unprecedented resolution seeks to silence, once and for all, any acts of solidarity with Palestinians’ call for academic boycott. It even aims to suppress support that simply takes the form of an expression of sentiment for this non-violent, international campaign demanding only compliance with international law in order that Palestinians’ most basic human rights be recognized.

As many have pointed out, there was no need whatsoever for this draconian resolution. The boycott resolution failed, and those of us promoting it accepted that outcome. The anti-boycott resolution intends never to let such an effort even be considered, debated, or proposed again. In that sense it is an admission on the part of its advocates that they do not have the courage or strength to ever openly address this issue again.  What other academic organization in the United States has such a repressive measure constraining its members and locking them into a status quo of silence? It is both censorious and disrespectful of the intellectual and ethical capacities of the MLA membership into the future; its passage discloses a deeply troubling hypocrisy when it comes to the avowal of universal humanistic values.

The irony of passing the Bérubé resolution, protecting our members’ academic freedom from attack from the Trump regime, at the same time as passing a resolution telling our members that one and one issue alone was off the table and thereby violating their right to free speech, is manifest. To have done so in a document now enshrined in our institutional records offends every notion of the “humanities” we hold dear–including but not limited to free speech , open debate, and a critical understanding of these terms. The ahistorical, US-centric, anti-international and deracinated version of academic freedom that passed the Delegate Assembly could similarly have provided the basis for a MLA resolution that instructed its  members to refrain from expressing solidarity with the South African anti-apartheid boycott, or Cesar Chavez’s grape strike, or the Montgomery bus strike.  As we know from the MLA’s silence in the case of South African apartheid, refraining from struggles for justice has regrettably been the tradition of the MLA. Such silence reflects a tacit endorsement of the  position held by some in the organization,  that the MLA should forget about things like educational rights and academic freedom in Palestine. They say we should turn our attention to our “real” business, and not be “single issue” obstructionists.

But younger members of the profession have made clear that our real business is critically attending to the ways in which certain concerns have been marginalized in the academy so that others can appear universal or self-evident. Through the regular production of syllabi around racism and state violence, through critical and sustained reflections about the intersection of police violence in the U.S. and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and through attention to the material and embodied conditions upon which access to academic freedom depends, they are demonstrating that silence and proceduralism are not the future of the profession. While appeals to the association’s tradition of what appears to be disinterested scholarship drove much of the argument against the movement for justice in Palestine, young scholars are recognizing and applying the real intersections between injustices on a global scale in their professional practices.

Let us not forget that, not so long ago, such disinterest also cautioned against “political” interventions by the MLA into the labor conditions of adjuncts. Today we must recognize, against the anti-boycott side’s use of contingent and graduate labor as a “divide and conquer” tactic against the boycott, that we can no more treat the crisis of adjunct labor in the absence of the knowledge that particular bodies and populations are more likely to end up in those insecure forms of employment than we can treat the crisis in academic freedom as one in which certain bodies and populations are systematically denied access to it.

MLA past president Edward Said once wrote:

The Palestinian struggle for justice is especially something with which one expresses solidarity, rather than endless criticism and exasperated, frustrating discouragement, and crippling divisiveness.  Remember the solidarity here and everywhere in Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia and remember also that there is a cause to which many people have committed themselves, difficulties and terrible obstacles notwithstanding.  Why?  Because it is a just cause, a noble ideal, a moral quest for equality and human rights.

We wholeheartedly embrace this truly capacious and ethical vision of responsibility toward the world, not the selfish protection of the convenient, familiar, and particular that the Bérubé resolution embodies. Although our resignations will most likely be read as acts of protest, they are  intended as acts of solidarity with those members of the profession, both inside and outside Palestine, who understand that the production of meaningful and intersectional networks of support for the most vulnerable in our profession–and which must concern all of us– will be organized elsewhere than in this association.

While we are heartened by the fact that Judith Butler has won election to the Presidency, applaud her candidate’s statement, and wish her well in her endeavors, we personally feel that we can do more for her and other progressive causes in the MLA if we resign from the Executive Council and thereby are free to express in this document the kinds of challenges any progressive work faces. We insist that if the MLA is to become an organization able to truly serve the interests of teachers and scholars of language and literature, without exception, and form the kinds of lines of solidarity with those who are denied academic freedom and the material means with which to enjoy that freedom, then it must address the kinds of issues we disclose in this statement of resignation.

16 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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

Jacob Edmond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Comments

Filed under Criticsm, Humanities, Interdisciplinarity, Uncategorized

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

Michael Maizels and Thomas Ray Willis

With special thanks to Clio Rom

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

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

–Jorges Luis Borges, 1939.

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

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

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

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

Desiigning A Future (From Scratch)

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

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

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

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

Panda & Dada

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Who is this “Pablo” Anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

Coda, Disowning Desiigner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“Terror” at the University of Chicago

W. J. T. MItchell

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

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

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

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

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A Case for Neurohumanities

Ana Hedberg Olenina

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

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

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

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

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

2. What Can We Learn from History?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Conclusion

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

[4] See Ibid., viii.

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

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

[7] See ibid., p. 226.

[8] See ibid., p. 226.

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

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

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

[12] See ibid.

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

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

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

[16] Ibid.

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Hurricanes!

Bill Ayers

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Critical Inquiry, Poetic Justice, Uncategorized

A Response That Isn’t

Chad Wellmon, Andrew Piper, and Yuancheng Zhu

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

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

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

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

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

1. Who Gets to Police Disciplinary Boundaries?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

3. When Is Error a Problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

                                                                       Before                         After

Gini coefficient

PhD institution.                                       0.816                           0.816

Author institution                                   0.746                           0.743

Diversity over time (since 1990)

#cases of decrease                                   3                                  3

#cases of no change                                5                                  5

#cases of increase                                   0                                  0

Journal Diversity Ranking                             PMLA                         PMLA

NLH                           NLH

      CI                               CI

                                                                            Rep                              Rep

Gender Bias (% Women)

4 Journal Yearly Mean                        30.4%                          30.7%

4 Journal Yearly Mean Since 2010   39.4%                          39.5%

 

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

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

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

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

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

4. Is Quality Measurable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized