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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[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;;; one can also search Facebook or Twitter using #TheoryRevolt.


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

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

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


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Michael Bérubé Responds to Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Bérubé
Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature
Pennsylvania State University


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Letters to the MLA

Dr. Paula Krebs, Executive Director

10 October, 2017


Dear Dr. Krebs,

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

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

Yours Sincerely,


David Simpson

Distinguished Professor of English

U.C. Davis



August 10, 2017

Diana Taylor, President, MLA
Anne Ruggles Gere, First Vice President
Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President
Paula Krebs, Executive Director
Carolyn Zuses, Staff Liaison

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.


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.


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.


Rajini Srikanth, Professor, English, University of Massachusetts Boston


June 26, 2017

Diana Taylor, President, MLA
Anne Ruggles Gere, First Vice President
Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President
Rosemary Feal, Executive Director
Carol  Zuses, Staff Liaison


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.


Julie Rak
Professor of English
University of Alberta


June 26, 2017




Diana Taylor, President, MLA

Anne Ruggles Gere, First Vice President

Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President

Rosemary Feal, Executive Director

Carolyn Zuses, Staff Liaison


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.





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.



David Lloyd

Distinguished Professor of English

University of California, Riverside


Cc: Diana Taylor, President

Anne Ruggles Gere, First Vice President

Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President

Carol Zuses, MLA Governance



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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.


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

Jacob Edmond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Criticsm, Humanities, Interdisciplinarity, Uncategorized

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.


[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, . 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,

[4] The Tweet is no longer available on Twitter.

[5] See upload dates on  and

[6] Joyce, “Desiigner Performs “Zombie Walk,” Shares Story of How Song Got Its Name,” Pigeons And Planes, 5 Oct. 2016,

[7] Danny Scwartz, “Desiigner Reveals Title Of His Debut Album,” Hot New Hip Hop, 24 May 2016,

[8]Eric Diep, “How Desiigner’s ‘Panda” Ended up on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo,”Genius, 16 Feb. 2016,

[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,

[14] Jay Knight, “Rick Ross: Kanye Played Y’all with Mental ‘Breakdown,’” TMZ, 12 Dec. 2016,

[15] Katy Waldman, “Donald’s Beautiful Dark Fascist Fantasy,” Slate, 14 Dec. 2016,

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