Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 3

Mark Algee-Hewitt

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

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

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

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

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 3

Katherine Bode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 3

 

Lauren F. Klein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 2

 

Ted Underwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 2

 

Katherine Bode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 2

 

Argument

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

Nan Z Da

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses, Day 2

 

Errors

Nan Z. Da

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

Ted Underwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

The Select

Andrew Piper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

Trust in Numbers

Hoyt Long and Richard Jean So

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

What the New Computational Rigor Should Be

Lauren F. Klein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

What Is Literary Studies?

Ed Finn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

Sarah Brouillette

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

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

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

Katherine Bode

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Computational Literary Studies: Participant Forum Responses

 

Criticism, Augmented

Mark Algee-Hewitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[3]McGuire, William J. A perspectivist approach to the strategic planning of programmatic scientific research.” In Psychology of Science: Contributions to Metascience ed. B. Gholson et al. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 214-245. See also Frederick Hartwig and Brian Dearling on the need to not rely exclusively on CDA (Exploratory Data Analysis, Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1979) and John Behrens on the “hypothesis testing myth.” (“Principles and Procedures of Exploratory Data Analysis.” Psychological Methods, 2(2): 1997, 131-160.

[4]Da, Nan Z. “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Analysis.” Critical Inquiry 45(3): 2019. 601-639.

[5]See, for example, Gemma, Marissa, et al. “Operationalizing the Colloquial Style: Repetition in 19th-Century American Fiction” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, 32(2): 2017. 312-335; or Laura B. McGrath et al. “Measuring Modernist Novelty” The Journal of Cultural Analytics (2018).

[6]See, for example, our argument about the “modularity of criticism” in Algee-Hewitt, Mark, Fredner, Erik, and Walser, Hannah. “The Novel As Data.” Cambridge Companion to the Noveled. Eric Bulson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2018. 189-215.

[7]Absent the two books, which have a different relationship to length, Da extracts visualizations or numbers from 13 articles totaling 133,685 words (including notes and captions).

[8]Da (2019), 634; Piper and Algee-Hewitt, (“The Werther Effect I” Distant Readings: Topologies of German Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century Ed Matt Erlin and Lynn Tatlock. Rochester: Camden House, 2014), 156-157.

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Computational Literary Studies: A Critical Inquiry Online Forum

Beginning on 1 April, this Critical Inquiry online forum will feature responses to and discussion about Nan Z. Da’s “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies.”  This essay raises a number of challenges for the field of computational literary studies. As Da observes in the first sentence of this piece:

This essay works at the empirical level to isolate a series of technical problems, logical fallacies, and conceptual flaws in an increasingly popular subfield in literary studies variously known as cultural analytics, literary data mining, quantitative formalism, literary text mining, computational textual analysis, computational criticism, algorithmic literary studies, social computing for literary studies, and computational literary studies (the phrase I use here).

Since its publication in Critical Inquiry on 14 March 2019, this essay has already prompted numerous responses online. For instance, in The Chronicle of Higher Education on 27 March 2019, Da published a companion piece to the Critical Inquiry essay, “The Digital Humanities Debacle,” and Ted Underwood published a defense of the digital humanities and cultural analytics, “Dear Humanists: Fear Not the Digital Revolution.” Other responses have emerged across social media.

In order to continue this conversation, in a shared space, Critical Inquiry has invited several practitioners and critics in the digital humanities and the computational literary studies to respond. This group of participants includes several of the scholars discussed in Da’s essay, as well as a few additional contributors to and critics of the field.

CONTRIBUTORS

RESPONDENT

AFTERWORD

  • Stanley Fish (Yeshiva University). Response

This forum begins with a series of short responses from participants. It then continues for several days with an open-ended discussion. We invite you to follow along and return to this page, as the blog will be updated several times a day to incorporate new posts. In order to enable mutual responses, we have limited the number of primary contributors. However, the comments will be available for responses for others from outside of this group, so readers should feel free to contribute with their own thoughts. We look forward to a generative discussion.

Patrick Jagoda (Executive Editor, Critical Inquiry, University of Chicago)

 


DAY 1 RESPONSES 


Criticism, Augmented

Mark Algee-Hewitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[3]McGuire, William J. A perspectivist approach to the strategic planning of programmatic scientific research.” In Psychology of Science: Contributions to Metascience ed. B. Gholson et al. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 214-245. See also Frederick Hartwig and Brian Dearling on the need to not rely exclusively on CDA (Exploratory Data Analysis. Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1979) and John Behrens on the “hypothesis testing myth.” (“Principles and Procedures of Exploratory Data Analysis.” Psychological Methods. 2(2): 1997, 131-160.

[4]Da, Nan Z. “The Computational Case against Computational Literary Analysis.” Critical Inquiry 45 (3): 2019. 601-639.

[5]See, for example, Gemma, Marissa, et al. “Operationalizing the Colloquial Style: Repetition in 19th-Century American Fiction” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, 32(2): 2017. 312-335; or Laura B. McGrath et al. “Measuring Modernist Novelty” The Journal of Cultural Analytics (2018).

[6]See, for example, our argument about the “modularity of criticism” in Algee-Hewitt, Mark, Fredner, Erik, and Walser, Hannah. “The Novel As Data.” Cambridge Companion to the Noveled. Eric Bulson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2018. 189-215.

[7]Absent the two books, which have a different relationship to length, Da extracts visualizations or numbers from 13 articles totaling 133,685 words (including notes and captions).

[8]Da (2019), 634; Piper and Algee-Hewitt, (“The Werther Effect I” Distant Readings: Topologies of German Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century, Ed Matt Erlin and Lynn Tatlock. Rochester: Camden House, 2014), 156-157.


Katherine Bode

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


 

Sarah Brouillette

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

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


What Is Literary Studies?

Ed Finn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What the New Computational Rigor Should Be

Lauren F. Klein

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

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

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

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

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

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


Trust in Numbers

Hoyt Long and Richard Jean So

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


The Select

Andrew Piper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7]For reflections on literary modeling, see Andrew Piper, “Think Small: On Literary Modeling.” PMLA132.3 (2017): 651-658; Richard Jean So, “All Models Are Wrong,” PMLA132.3 (2017); Ted Underwood, “Algorithmic Modeling: Or, Modeling Data We Do Not Yet Understand,” The Shape of Data in Digital Humanities: Modeling Texts and Text-based Resources, eds. J. Flanders and F. Jannidis (New York: Routledge, 2018).

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

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

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

 


Ted Underwood

In the humanities, as elsewhere, researchers who work with numbers often reproduce and test each other’s claims.1Nan Z. Da’s contribution to this growing genre differs from previous examples mainly in moving more rapidly. For instance, my coauthors and I spent 5,800 words describing, reproducing,and partially criticizing one article about popular music.2By contrast, Da dismisses fourteen publications that use different methods in thirty-eight pages. The article’s energy is impressive, and its long-term effects will be positive.

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, “The Computational Case” performs some crucial misdirection at the outset by implying that cultural analytics is based purely on linguistic evidence and mainly diction. It is true that diction can reveal a great deal, but this is a misleading account of contemporary trends. Quantitative approaches are making waves partly because researchers have learned to extract social relations from literature and partly because they pair language with external social testimony—for instance the judgments of reviewers.5Some articles, like my own on narrative pace, use numbers entirely to describe the interpretations of human readers.6Once again, Da’s polemical strategy is to isolate one strand in a braid, and critique it as if it were the whole.

A more inquisitive approach to cultural analytics might have revealed that it is not a monolith but an unfolding debate between several projects that frequently criticize each other. Katherine Bode, for instance, has critiqued other researchers’ data (including mine), in an exemplary argument that starts by precisely describing different approaches to historical representation.7Da could have made a similarly productive intervention—explaining, for instance, how researchers should report uncertainty in exploratory analysis. Her essay falls short of that achievement because a rush to condemn as many examples as possible has prevented it from taking time to describe and genuinely understand its objects of critique.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


DAY 2 RESPONSES 


Argument

Nan Z Da

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Errors

Nan Z. Da

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Katherine Bode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ted Underwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


DAY 3 RESPONSES


Lauren F. Klein

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

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

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

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

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

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


Katherine Bode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mark Algee-Hewitt

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

To read the Summer 2020 journal responses by Leif Weatherby, Ted Underwood, and Nan Da, click the links below:

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

 

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Progressive Surge Propels Turning Point in US Policy on Yemen

Screenshot 2019-03-26 15.27.55

Protesters call for an end to US involvement in the war in Yemen, November 2018 in Chicago. The blue backpacks stand for the 40 children killed in an air strike on a school bus that used an American-made bomb. CHARLES EDWARD MILLER [CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE BY SA 2.0]

By Danny Postel

This article was originally published in Middle East Report.

The US House of Representatives passed a potentially historic resolution on February 13, 2019, calling for an end to US military support for the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen that began in 2015. Although the US government has never formally declared its involvement in the war, it assists the coalition with intelligence and munitions and supports the aerial campaign with refueling and targeting. The United States is therefore complicit in the myriad atrocities the coalition has committed against Yemeni civilians, which Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have characterized as war crimes.1

What is already historic about the resolution (introduced by Democratic Representatives Ro Khanna of California and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin) and its Senate counterpart (introduced by Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Republican Mike Lee of Utah and Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut) is their invocation of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which restrains a president’s capacity to commit forces abroad. Aimed to prevent “future Vietnams,” the act gives Congress the authority to compel the removal of US military forces engaged in hostilities absent a formal declaration of war.

The House resolution was the first time Congress flexed its War Powers muscle in the 45 years since that resolution’s passage. The Senate passed a parallel resolution in December, but the measure died when the Republican leadership refused to bring it to a vote. These congressional moves not only register opposition to US involvement in this war but also strike a major blow against unlimited executive power when it comes to launching war.

This long overdue Congressional action to constrain executive war-making, however, would not have been possible without a tremendous grassroots mobilization against US involvement in this disastrous war and the surging progressive tide that is raising deeper questions about US foreign policy.

Anti-war activists in the United States have been organizing against US support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen since2015. While these efforts made an impact on the public debate about Yemen, they failed to move the policy needle—until an unexpected chain of events in late 2018 gave the campaign new traction and occasioned a momentous grassroots mobilization. The national organizing campaign is led by a combination of Yemen-oriented groups (the Yemen Peace Project, the Yemeni Alliance Committee and others) along with more established anti-war organizations like Just Foreign Policy, Win Without War, Code Pink and Peace Action. The addition of the ascendant Democratic Socialists of America contributed to the momentum. Yet it was the confluence of events outside the control of these groups—but to which these groups were well-positioned to rapidly respond—that propelled the campaign into broad Congressional support for War Powers resolutions in early 2019.

This campaign is poised to change not only US policy on Yemen, but possibly the longstanding US-Saudi relation- ship. To be sure, major obstacles stand in the way of such a shift—notably, the Israel lobby and the swampy Donald Trump-Jared Kushner ties with Gulf monarchs. But the tide is now turning, and the 2020 presidential election could change the equation even more dramatically.

Game-Changers

The Barack Obama administration gave the green light for the Saudi bombing campaign in 2015, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, as a way to placate Saudi Arabia’s furious opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, which they viewed as betrayal and a sign that Washington was pivoting to Tehran.2Some commentators retrospectively regard the Iran deal as wrongheaded given the catastrophe that has unfolded in Yemen.3 But this imagines that Obama’s decision to sign off on the kingdom’s military campaign was automatic or inevitable. It was neither. The problem was not the Iran deal itself, but rather the decision to appease the Saudis in Yemen.

The Saudis viewed Trump’s election as a godsend. Here was someone who embraced their assertion that Iran was the source of most of the region’s problems and shared their determination to isolate and confront Tehran.4 Trump’s first foreign visit as president was to Riyadh, where he told the ensemble of autocrats, monarchs and thugs what they wanted to hear: They have US support. Immediately after the May 2017 gathering, the Saudis stepped up their aerial assault on Yemen, and Trump announced a massive new weapons deal with the kingdom.

As the war intensified and the humanitarian crisis deep- ened, a broad coalition of US anti-war activists emerged and shifted their attention to Yemen, initiating a variety of educational events, protests and meetings to pressure congressional leaders. Despite their efforts, it took two events in the summer of 2018—one a horrific act of violence in Yemen that illuminated all that was wrong with US involvement, and the other a horrific act of violence in Istanbul not directly related to the war itself—to spark a major opening in public consciousness and on Capitol Hill.

On August 9, 2018, a Saudi-led coalition warplane bombed a school bus in Saada, northern Yemen, killing several dozen children between the ages of six and 11. Mainstream media coverage of this event was unusually extensive and graphic, with CNN airing chilling video footage of the final moments inside the bus before the bomb struck. The video found itself in heavy rotation and went viral on social media. The visceral imagery of children on a school bus struck a deep nerve among many Americans who otherwise had not been following events in Yemen.

Reports that the warplane in question was sold to Riyadh by Washington, and that the bomb was manufactured in the United States, began to materialize. The Yemen-based human rights organization Mwatana played an important role by providing CNN access to a cache of documents showing fragments of American-made bombs at the scene of multiple attacks in which civilians were killed and injured, going back to 2015.5 Mwatana’s engagement with the US media also drew upon the knowledge and connections of US-based organizations that had long been working to draw attention to the direct role of the United States in the little-understood war. The horror of the school bus bombing, followed by this investigative surge, had a palpable effect on public opinion as Washington’s direct role in the suffering of Yemeni civilians came into public focus.6

The second event, the October 2, 2018 assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was the game-changer. When it was revealed that the Washington Post contributor was dismembered with a bone saw in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and that Khashoggi’s murder was directed by the highest levels of the Saudi regime, virtually the entire Washington foreign policy world condemned Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his brazen brutality.

“The Khashoggi killing shocked official Washington, which was forced to overcompensate for having endorsed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as an enlightened reformer,” Yasmine Farouk observes. “The humanitarian consequences of the war in Yemen added to that, so that the kingdom in its entirety has become entangled in the current polarization of US politics.”7

Many Yemenis are ambivalent about what might be called the Khashoggi effect—the ways in which the Saudi journal- ist’s brutal murder has drawn attention to the injustices of the war in Yemen. Abdulrasheed Alfaqih, Executive Director of Mwatana, conveys this ambivalence in his observation that “Yemen is one big Saudi consulate.” “All Yemenis are like Khashoggi,” he notes, “but without the Washington Post.”

But Khashoggi’s murder proved pivotal on the legisla- tive front, when a handful of Republican senators joined Democrats in their support for Senate Joint Resolution54, the War Powers measure to end US support for the coalition’s military operations in Yemen. Just a few months earlier, in March 2018, this resolution had been rejected by the Senate. But following the school bus bombing, revelations of Washington’s complicity in such atrocities and the Khashoggi affair, the Senate passed the Sanders- Lee-Murphy resolution in December 2018. While outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan blocked the House resolution on his way out of office, a new version, House Joint Resolution 37, passed the Democratic-controlled House in February 2019. Euphoria was widespread in progressive circles: Anti-war activists celebrated not just the passage of the resolution, but the critical role they played in bringing it about.

Mobilizing a Coalition

Since the beginning of 2018, a coalition of organizations have worked around the clock mobilizing grassroots support for congressional action. Groups like Win Without War, Just Foreign Policy, the Yemen Peace Project, Code Pink, Peace Action, the Yemeni Alliance Committee, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Action Corps and the Fellowship of Reconciliation have worked closely with congressional allies, providing policy expertise and helping draft resolutions (both Senate and House versions). These organizations have mobilized their members and supporters around the country to pressure their congressional representatives to co-sponsor and vote for the resolutions. They organized rallies at US Senate offices in Nevada, Arizona, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Maine (as well as on Capitol Hill), resulting in grassroots and media pressure on every Democrat who voted against the Yemen resolution in March 2018, which had a direct impact on the historic Senate vote in December.

While many efforts were coordinated, the mobilization was broad and diffuse enough to pressure congressional representatives across the country. In November, the Yemeni Alliance Committee, Just Foreign Policy and Action Corps organized rallies at the San Francisco and Los Angeles offices of two key House Democrats, Nancy Pelosi (then House Minority Leader, now Speaker) and Adam Schiff. Until then, Pelosi’s position on Yemen was unclear.8 Yemeni and Yemeni-American activists figured prominently in both actions. Within 24 hours of the rallies, both Pelosi and Schiff agreed to co-sponsor the original House resolution.

Employing creative means, Chicago activists in November2018 led by Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Just Foreign Policy and the Chicago chapter of Peace Action held a powerful demonstration at Chicago’s Federal Building, placing 40 blue backpacks on the ground with the names of the children killed by the Saudi missile fired at their school bus. A teach-in on US involvement in the Yemen war held the next day at a packed auditorium at Loyola University featured the Yemeni-Canadian activist and Michigan State professor Shireen Al-Adeimi, who has emerged as one of the key voices on Yemen. Students at Loyola, DePaul and the University of Chicago have made Yemen a central focus of their activism.

Democratic Socialists of America, which now has more than 55,000 members nationally, has also played an important role. In November 2018 the organization issued a forceful statement on Yemen. In January 2019, it held a national video conference to educate and spark its members to participate in the National Day of Action for Yemen on February 4, 2019, which mobilized support for the current House and Senate resolutions to end US support for the Saudi military intervention.

A Left-Right Alliance on Yemen?

Yemen has become an important subplot in a larger story: the development of a new progressive foreign policy vision in Congress. A central figure in this story is Rep. Ro Khanna, who was first elected to Congress in 2016 and has emerged as a leading member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. With his frequent appearances on such shows as All In with Chris Hayes, Democracy Now! and the Intercepted podcasts, Khanna has become a prominent voice in progressive and anti-war circles. Khanna goes beyond advocating simply for the end of US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen: He wants to stop all US military assistance to Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, Khanna is part of a disconcerting trend in certain quarters of the anti-war left, sometimes expressing affinity with right-wing reactionaries whose opposition to neoconservatism overlaps with their own. In February 2019, Khanna tweeted about an article by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson in The American Conservative magazine: “Tucker Carlson offers a devastating critique of interventionism and shows how much of the foreign policy establishment has failed the American people. There is an emerging, left-right coalition of common sense for a foreign policy of restraint.”9

Carlson may be a critic of neoconservatism, but he is also a defender of white nationalism and a purveyor of demonizing rhetoric about immigrants and Muslims. Praising someone like Carlson—especially without offering this caveat—risks rendering Khanna’s anti-war position hostile to Yemeni-Americans and many other allies in the progressive push to end the war in Yemen.

Talk of a left-right coalition has been gaining traction in some anti-war circles, particularly since Trump’s election. To be sure, the War Powers resolution could not have made progress without making common cause with some conservatives. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, for example, has been an instrumental ally on Yemen. But to speak of a broad left-right coalition, as Khanna and others do, risks alienating many progressives who fiercely oppose “America First” nationalism (read: white nationalism).

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is also frequently quoted and retweeted in anti-war circles despite her well-documented Islamophobia, her enthusiastic support for the chauvinistic Hindu nationalism of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, her praise for brutal dictators like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and her cooperation with the right-wing organization that arranged her trip to Syria to meet with the war criminal Bashar al-Assad.10

The troubling politics of this left-right coalition did not originate in Congress. Many progressives and anti-war activists, for example, contributed to the virality of this tweet from Sen. Rand Paul: “Sunnis have been killing Shia since the massacre at Karbala in 680 AD. If we wait until they stop killing each other, we will stay for a thousand years or more. I agree with @realDonaldTrump. Bring the troops home.”11 Many progressives, however, oppose building a left-right coalition that overlooks Orientalist and racist distortions about the Middle East and Muslims on the basis of shared support for a smaller US military footprint.12 Such a coalition would be hostile, if not unrecognizable, to many of the people in whose name progressive activists often claim to speak.

Bernie, the Democratic Party and US-Saudi Relations

Unlike in 2016, when Bernie Sanders seemed to shy away from foreign policy issues, foreign policy has become a major focus as he enters the presidential race for 2020.13 In recent months he has issued an internationalist manifesto and delivered a major foreign policy address at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.14 With Sanders’ timely leadership on ending US involvement in the war in Yemen, his increasingly critical views on US-Saudi relations and his broader anti- authoritarian internationalist vision, the contours of a Sanders-administration foreign policy are taking shape and could become a reality: Every poll shows Sanders beating Trump in a general election. As with domestic issues, Sanders’ influence over the terms of the Democrats’ foreign policy debate will be significant.

Moreover, every Democratic senator running for presi- dent is on board as a co-sponsor of the Sanders-Lee-Murphy resolution on Yemen. This development is remarkable and may portend a major shift in US foreign policy—at least toward Saudi Arabia. Resetting US relations with the Saudi kingdom, which Gilbert Achcar has felicitously called “the most reactionary state on earth,” would go well beyond the Obama-Clinton-Kerry legacy—indeed, well beyond any previous Democratic administration—and have far-reaching repercussions in the Middle East.15

If US policy moves in this progressive direction, the grassroots mobilization to end US involvement in the war in Yemen—particularly the surge of 2018 and 2019—will be a key reason.

 

 

Danny Postel is assistant director of the Middle East and North African Studies Program at Northwestern University. He is involved in the activist mobilization to end US support for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen.

 

 

Endnotes

1 Human Rights Watch, “Yemen: Civilians Bombed, Shelled, Starved,” January 17, 2019; Amnesty International, “Yemen: The forgotten war,” September 2015.

2 John M. Willis “Operation Decisive Storm and the Expanding Counter-Revolution,” Middle East Report Online, March 30, 2015.

3 See Joshua Keating, “What if the Iran Deal Was a Mistake?” Slate, February 6, 2018.

4 See Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi, “Playing with Fire: Trump, the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry, and the Geopolitics of Sectarianization in the Middle East,” Mediterranean Yearbook 2018(Institut Europeu de la Mediterrània, 2018).

5 Nima Elbagir, Salma Abdelaziz, Ryan Browne, Barbara Arvanitidis and Laura Smith-Spark, “Bomb that killed 40 children in Yemen was supplied by the US,” CNN, August 17, 2018; and Nima Elbagir, Salma Abdelaziz and Laura Smith-Spark, “Made in America: Shrapnel found in Yemen ties US bombs to string of civilian deaths over course of bloody civil war,” CNN, September 2019.

6 Borzou Daragahi, “Majority of Americans want congress to cut arms sales to Saudi Arabia over Yemen war, survey finds,” The Independent, November 26, 2018.

7 Yasmine Farouk, “Guilt by Association,” Diwan, February 15, 2019.
8 Sarah Lazare, “Nancy Pelosi Finds Time for War Hawks—But Not Yemeni-American Peace Advocates,” In These Times, December 7, 2018.

9 The tweet is available at https://twitter.com/i/web/status/1096467708831510530

10 Branko Marcetic, “Tulsi Gabbard Is Not Your Friend,” Jacobin, May 26, 2017; Soumya Shankar, “Tulsi Gabbard Is a Rising Progressive Star, Despite Her Support for Hindu Nationalists,” The Intercept, January 5, 2019; Alex Rowell, Tim Mak and Michael Weiss, “Tulsi Gabbard’s Fascist Escorts to Syria,” Daily Beast, January 26, 2017; Evan Hill, “Tulsi Gabbard’s Deceptive Foreign Policy,” The Nation, January 17, 2019.

11 The tweet is available at https://twitter.com/randpaul/status/1085600177682071552?lang=en

12 For a critique of this Orientalist narrative about ancient sectarian hatreds, see Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, eds., Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (Oxford, 2017).

13 Peter Beinart, “It’s Foreign Policy That Distinguishes Bernie This Time,” The Atlantic, February 21, 2019.

14 Bernie Sanders, “A new authoritarian axis demands an international progressive front,”The Guardian, September 13, 2018.

15 Nada Matta, “What Happened to the Arab Spring? An Interview with Gilbert Achcar,”Jacobin, December 17, 2015.

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Icarus High and Low: Yaron Ezrahi and the Fate of the Israeli Political Imaginary

Daniel Bertrand Monk

 

“Today, we should have to add: it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.”

Theodor W. Adorno. Mínima Moralia.

 

Theodor Adorno’s famous adage that a “wrong life cannot be lived rightly” appeared at the end of an aphorism entitled “Refuge for the Homeless.” It explored how the predicament of “private life”—its impossible necessity—could be derived from the repertoire of possible attitudes one might take towards “its arena”: our homes. “Dwelling, in the proper sense, is now impossible,” Adorno explained, because the immanent development of technology—including things like the invention of concentration camps and the carpet bombing of cities—had killed houses altogether. He was suggesting that the “possibility of residence” implies a distinction—however minimal—between the private sphere (our own place) and the place assigned it by the social order. Under present circumstances, then, to make oneself at home is to deny knowledge of the conditions that have exterminated the possibility of a refuge at all. On the other hand, to live like a refugee—that is, to make a fetish of one’s lack of attachment to home—is no alternative: “a loveless disregard for things . . . necessarily turns against people too.”[1]

 

 

One could say much the same thing for a homeland. Recognizing the important distinction to be preserved between an extinguished private existence and an equally lifeless public sphere in Adorno’s aphorism, it may be productive—just for a moment—to squint one’s eyes, extrapolate to different level of analysis, and think of his “Refuge for the Homeless” as an invitation to analyze the corresponding relation between guilt and knowledge in a people’s efforts to make itself at home.  This, indeed, was the entire intellectual project of Yaron Ezrahi, for whom the rationalization of national and collective existence was the principal political question underlying modern political history, practice, and thought.  A political scientist by training and a brilliant historian of science by grit, Ezrahi transformed himself into his own experiment.  As he sought to lay claim to the way that his own status as a citizen of Israel exhumed contrarieties at the level of thought, and not just ethics, he raised generalizable questions about the place of the rightless in the domain of those who enjoy “the right to have rights.”[2]

For Ezrahi, one’s polity is always in question—irreducibly, and without romanticism—and, its forms are, by extension, necessarily contingent. Democracy, in particular, is a perpetual referendum on its own possibility and little more.  In fact, by the end of his life Ezrahi concluded that democracy “must be imagined and performed” in order to exist at all.[3] The “inhabitants” of an order “regulated by the imaginary of self-government by the people” find it difficult to “recognize the fictive-performative foundations of . . . [their] . . . world,” even as that same imaginary appeals in flawed, but important, ways to something beyond these normative foundations.[4]  Under these circumstances, the adjudication of political meaning may now be closer to aesthetic criticism, as we both practice and assess collective and intersubjective performances of legitimacy, Ezrahi seemed to suggest in his last works. (This affective turn in his political thought was developed, in part, in partnership with the musicologist and his wife Ruth HaCohen [Pinczower].)[5]

Ezrahi’s best-known work of public scholarship, Rubber Bullets (1997), demonstrates the fate of any argument that would seek to stand critically between a conflict and its imaginary. An indictment of Israeli self-talk concerning the first Palestinian Intifada, the work presents the eponymous ammunition then used by the IDF against stone-throwing Arab youths, as a shortcut for the way that the nation sought to reconcile its repression of the Palestinian people with Israel’s self-conception as a liberal democratic state. (The rubber bullet, so the conventional argument went, responds with superior force without breaking the bounds of proportionality demanded by justice.) Smashing this kind of chatter to bits, Ezrahi exposed the contradiction between force and law suspended in the rubber bullet: it was at once affirmative (in the sense that it was a perverse excuse for a perverse condition), and at the same time, rubber bullet talk—in all its permutations—was potentially critical: the palpable lack of reconciliation between norms and reason it laid bare by virtue of its own existence necessarily appealed to a different standard of politics.[6]

The standstill captured in Ezrahi’s account of a political imaginary was sometimes experienced as a betrayal of thought. Nationalist critics accused him of being a fifth columnist, while security hawks accused him of prioritizing abstractions like justice over the protection of civilians. Conversely, some academic interlocutors treated Ezrahi as an apologist for the state. As one review phrased it, Ezrahi’s critique of the rubber bullet revealed the limits of “Liberal Zionist Angst.”[7] Moreover, in a phenomenon referred to in Hebrew slang as “hafuch al-hafuch“—a metacritical “inverse of the inverse”—Ezrahi’s own criticism of Israeli military policy was itself treated as evidence of the way the same self-talk he analyzed could be drafted into a second-order legitimacy. (In other words, here, political analysis became the intellectuals’ contribution to a form of Intifada-era Israeli cultural production commonly known as the shoot’n’cry genre.  (“If we can grieve about the injury we cause, we must still be just.”)

The reception of Ezrahi’s public scholarship is an allegory of the fate of any argument that would refuse to make itself too much at home in the realm of given positions. Eschewing communitarian rationalizations of the state, Ezrahi could also not adopt valorizations of exile as an Archimedean lever on thought.  As a result, his intellectual project sometimes ran afoul of established interpretations of the Israel/Palestine conflict, which has tended to disqualify arguments that fail to ratify an either-or logic of recrimination.[8]  (Conflating interpretations of the structure of contention with the moral judgments embedded in its moments, this logic of recrimination requires one to fall on one side or the other of the rubber bullet, or risk appearing as the custodian of a phony middle ground.)  To the extent that the rubber bullet was understood solely as a trope for millennial Israeli politics per se, the critical force of Ezrahi’s thought went unnoticed or was willfully set aside.

In fact, Ezrahi’s interlocutors were right and wrong.  Right, because as a metonymy the rubber bullet connoted a fully-realized politics. Its temporality was implicitly retrospective inasmuch as the trope pointed to a political truth that was presumably already in existence. As a result, the moral job of the critic was to call that political truth by its proper name. Wrong, because Ezrahi—whose academic researches had focused primarily on the relation between scientific rationality and politics—also understood the rubber bullet as a technology.[9] Anticipating a new materialist turn in political thought (and, particularly, its concern with the agentic capacities of entire classes of objects), Ezrahi understood technologies to be form-constitutive in the socio-political sphere.  As artefacts of a fictive “escape” from politics, in Ezrahi’s terms, technologies can be part of new political imaginaries that their very existence may help conjure into being.[10] Pointing towards the future, the valuations of the political associated with them are tinged by a generalizable indeterminacy. In his last work, Ezrahi presented this finding succinctly: “political order has no basis other than an unstable, ungrounded, elusive and inherently debatable human authority.”[11]

A “lay epistemology” of coherence once premised on the existence of god, nature, or reason as our image of the universal has now “disintegrated,” Ezrahi argued, leaving humanity with a politics premised upon nothing but the same “debatable human authority.” In this context, the given dynamics of contention concerning the Israel/Palestine conflict have themselves become a “refuge” from indeterminacy among those who might otherwise have to take responsibility for reimagining the political order.

And this is no way to live. Those who would treat the realities of this very human conflict as exceptional by reducing them to the certainties of a reified politics of blame—”the ‘truths’ and ‘lies” that reassert the power of given dichotomies—were, and are, constructing for themselves a regressive utopia, Ezrahi seemed to suggest.  The way we talk about this conflict is itself evidence of a species of thinking that cannot make itself at home in a present where legitimation crises are irreducible.   It is this exceptionalization of thinking about Israel/Palestine in relation to our thinking about conflicts in general that Ezrahi challenged; precisely by rejecting the given alternatives, and, in the process, opening himself up to charges of betrayal and complicity alike.

 

Daniel Bertrand Monk is the George R. and Myra T. Cooley Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies and Professor of Geography and Middle-East Studies

Colgate University

 

[1]Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Notes on a Damaged Life (New York, 1978), p. 39.

[2]Hannah Arendt, “The Perplexities of the Rights of Man,” Headline Series; New York 318 (Winter 1998): 88, search.proquest.com/docview/228271571/citation/E8F4234B1C334242PQ/1; and “‘The Rights of Man’: What are They,” Modern Review 3, no. 1 (1949): 24-37.

[3]“A democratic society cannot fully or at every moment be a democracy. Its precarious existence depends upon mutually reinforcing democratic ideas, political culture, political imaginaries, institutions, and practices. These very elements, which make a system of government democratic, almost never fully coexist in any society” (Yaron Ezrahi, Imagined Democracies: Necessary Political Fictions [New York, 2012], p. 1).

[4]Ibid., p. 3.

[5]See Ruth HaCohen Pinczower and Ezrahi,  Lehalchin Koach, Lashir Herut [Composing Power, Singing Freedom] (Jerusalem, 2017).

[6]Ezrahi, Rubber Bullets: Power and Conscience in Modern Israel  (New York, 1997).

[7]Ilan Pappe, “Liberal Zionist Angst. Review of Yaron Ezrahi, Rubber Bullets,” Journal of Palestine Studies 29, no. 1 (1999): 95–96, doi.org/10.2307/2676438.

[8]Daniel Bertrand Monk, “The Intractability Lobby: Material Culture and the Interpretation of the Israel/Palestine Conflict,” Critical Inquiry 36 (Spring 2010): 601–8, doi.org/10.1086/653415.

[9]Ezrahi, The Descent of Icarus: Science and the Transformation Of contemporary Democracy (New York, 1990).

[10]Ezrahi, “Technology and the Illusion of the Escape from Politics,” in Technology, Pessimism, and Postmodernism, ed. Ezrahi, E. Mendelsohn, and H. Segal (Amherst, Mass., 1995), pp. 29-38

[11]Ezrahi. Can Democracy Recover? (Unpublished MS, excerpt)

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Catherine Malabou on Life: A Critical Inquiry Interview

Catherine Malabou stopped by the office of Critical Inquiry for a short and informal audio interview during her visit to the University of Chicago two years ago. We talked about her two CI essays, her book Before Tomorrow: Epigenesis and Rationality (2017), and her work in progress.

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Davidson and His Interlocutors, Part 2: An Interview with Arnold I. Davidson

Coeditor Richard Neer interviews Arnold Davidson about, among other things, his writing on music. This interview expands on the work featured in “Davidson and His Interlocutors,” a Winter 2019 special issue of Critical Inquiry. This is the second part of a two-part interview.

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Davidson and His Interlocutors, Part 1: An Interview with Arnold I. Davidson

Coeditor Richard Neer interviews Arnold Davidson about the history of his scholarship and research (including a fortuitous encounter with Michel Foucault). This interview expands on the work featured in “Davidson and His Interlocutors,” a Winter 2019 special issue of Critical Inquiry. This is the first part of a two-part interview.

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In Memory of Robert Morris, 1931-2018

W. J. T. Mitchell

 

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

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

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

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

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

Other:  “Maybe. Why?”

One: “What do you think it means?”

Other:  “Metaphors don’t have meanings.”

One: “Really?”

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

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

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

One:  “There is more.”

Other:  “Oh, no.”

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

Other:  “Let’s hear it.”

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

Other:  “Well, that changes everything.”

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

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

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

Robert Morris, Untitled, 1984.

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

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

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

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

Cartoon by Robert Morris and the author.

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

Robert Morris.

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

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

12 December 2008

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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Dipesh Chakrabarty: Looking Back to “The Climate of History: Four Theses”

Consulting Editor Dipesh Chakrabarty stopped by the office to discuss his 2009 Critical Inquiry essay, the emergence of the Anthropocene, the end of the world, and the future of theory. Listen to the podcast and visit our website to read “The Climate of History: Four Theses” (Winter 2009).

 

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Saidiya Hartman: An Interview with Adrienne Brown and Adom Getachew

Adrienne Brown and Adom Getachew met with Saidiya Hartman in the offices of Critical Inquiry to discuss the varieties of unfreedom that Hartman continues to explore in her work. Hartman was the 2018 Critical Inquiry Visiting Professor. She is the author of Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (1997) and Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007). Her University of Chicago seminar last spring examined the sociological, literary, and historical work of W. E. B. Du Bois from The Philadelphia Negro (1899) to Dusk of Dawn (1940).

 

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Experiments in Critical Practice: Coeditor Lauren Berlant Interviews Conference Participants

Lauren Berlant asks participants of “The Soup Is On” about their engagement with theory and optimism for what writing can do. The June 2018 conference launched Berlant and Katie Stewart’s The Hundreds (2018), their forthcoming experiment in form, attention, and generative worlding. Apart from Stewart and Berlant, every conference experimenter wrote an index for the book, reorganizing it in their own register and mode. Their collaborative effort aspires to jumpstart a community conversation about what critical thinking can look like, sound like, and be for.

 

To read more about the conference and its participants, visit the 3CT website.

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

W. J. T. Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Defining the Digital: Patrick Jagoda Interviews Alexander Galloway

Executive Editor Patrick Jagoda interviews Alexander Galloway about his past and current work. To read Galloway’s Winter 2013 Critical Inquiry essay, visit our website

 

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The Birth of Critical Inquiry: An Interview with W.J.T Mitchell

Editor W. J. T. Mitchell shares his story about the journal’s beginnings and early history. 

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October 9, 2018 · 12:53 pm

Wet Humor

 

 

 

Kyle Stevens

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

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

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wh_2

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

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

wh_8
wh_9

wh_10 wh_11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu’s Rejoinder

We appreciate Michael Bérubé’s engagement with our resignation letter. But we would like to provide three key clarifications to his response.

First, Professor Bérubé’s representation of Resolution 2017-4 (the “Bérubé Resolution”) omits crucial information. He admits with some regret that the AAUP definition of academic freedom used in Resolution 2017-4 is “US-centric” and thus does not extend to Palestinian academics. But he fails to recount that there was actually an opportunity to expand that definition presented at the Delegate Assembly debate so that the proposed resolution would, in fact, include the right to academic freedom for Palestinian, and indeed all other non-US academics. Former MLA member and past President Margaret Ferguson proposed to include language from the United Nations’ definition of academic freedom. Using the UN’s definition was more appropriate for the MLA, she argued, than the AAUP definition because the MLA is, by its own definition, an international organization. That proposal was shot down, purely on the argument that we could and would not be beholden to the United Nations’ definition. Hence our comment that this resolution smacked of the US-centric and anti-international character of the Trump administration.

While Professor Bérubé protests that the AAUP has no jurisdiction outside of the US and that changing the definition to the UN definition would have weakened the resolution, this is a moot point since MLA resolutions are expressions of sentiment and not action; it is further mooted by the obvious fact that as supposed masters of language we could have easily crafted a statement on academic freedom that did not simply mimic preexisting ones but that rather reflected most accurately the sentiment of our own organization. To default to others’ definition of our sense of freedom is patently contradictory, no?

Instead of revising the language, Bérubé and others argued against it. The result was that the Delegate Assembly passed one resolution affirming the academic freedom of scholars in the US and the other affirming the academic freedom of Israeli scholars, even though the academic boycott is aimed against institutions, not individuals, and despite the fact that what was proposed by the proboycott resolution was simply a nonbinding expression of support.  But even that was sufficient to motivate Israeli organizations to leap to aid the antiboycott faction, tip the process by violating MLA procedure, and for antiboycott advocates to spread misinformation and stifle any expression of support for academic freedom that does not make US and Israel the arbiters of its “ideal.”

Let us not argue about intent, here, but only about effects. While it may not have been Bérubé’s intention to carve up the territory of academic rights between the US and Israel, the maintenance of the nation-specific limitations of the AAUP definition did, indeed, have that effect, and that was not an unavoidable consequence but, we assert, a calculated one.

Two other clarifications are in order. First, when we referred to the version of academic freedom offered in Professor Bérubé’s resolution as “ahistorical,” we did not mean that it violated the AAUP’s definition as it has existed since 1940. But the insistent reiteration of institutional precedent at all costs is itself a problem of historical interpretation we take up throughout our letter.  Circumstances change, and it is well within our duties as scholars to test out whether time-honored traditions continue to be useful, or if modification is necessitated by contemporary moral and ethical concerns.  Need we mention the voting and housing rights that did not exist for black citizens in 1940?  What notion of “freedom” should we employ today?

While the chance to modify our definition of academic freedom to suit the demands of the present was presented by Professor Ferguson and others, Professor Bérubé and others voted instead to preserve the AAUP definition as if nothing of historical importance—say the Nakba of 1948 that ethnically cleansed 750,000 Palestinians from their homes–had occurred.  Much less the military regime that replaced civil juridical institutions in the new, Zionist state of Israel. In contrast to this decidedly selective version of history, we tried to articulate another one in our resignation letter. We argued for the use of the past—that of prior definitions of academic freedom and free speech—for the exigent purposes of the present, but only insofar as they were open to critical reassessment–something again that is foundational to any intellectual or academic enterprise. Our description of Resolution 2017-4 as “ahistoricist” was not meant to suggest that it was inconsistent with the history of the AAUP’s definition but rather that it failed to adapt that definition for the demands of the present.

Second, Professor Bérubé disregards our use of the term “deracinated” as “one that is not doing” what it meant to do well. For clarification, we refer Professor Bérubé to the latter portion of our letter, in which we suggest that the political struggle within higher education must be based in solidarity with those populations that are most vulnerable within it. We write 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.” The fact that adjunct instructors in the US and Palestinian academics in the Occupied Territories are subject to the violence of racialization, as well as gendering, are facts that need to ground our definitions of academic freedom, not be erased by them so that the most general, and yet most partial, definition hold. In contrast, an “ideal” of academic freedom that cannot be extended to international scholars in an international organization is entirely consistent with the label “deracinated.” The form of Resolution 2017-4 that passed the Delegate Assembly and the membership resolutely fails to provide a vision of academic freedom that adequately responds to international instances of racialized violence that deny Palestinian academics their right to academic freedom.

We are not the first to call attention to the fact that systemic violence affects equal access to academic freedom. Nor are we the first scholars to suggest that the AAUP definition of academic freedom has had disempowering effects for dealing with structural problems in institutions of higher education.[1] To say this is not to say that we are ungrateful or forgetful of the history of academic freedom, for which Bérubé chides us. It is, however, to say that academic freedom is a concept subject to uses and abuses, one that, no matter the “safeguarding” by the AAUP, is subject to interpretation and must be open to critical scrutiny.  Again, need we mention that the world of 1940 thought little of homophobia, misogyny, racism, sexism, as things that needed to be accounted for and addressed?  Since these injustices were not mentioned by the AAUP in 1940, does that mean we should not mention them now? Of course not. But somehow, the moralistic indignation of those who feel as Professor Bérubé does, about such decidedly important issues as adjunct labor, does not extend to a group whose denial of academic, educational, and other freedoms the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Israeli human rights organizations such as B’Tselem and others have pointed out. Our fundamental question is—why do we rush to protect our academic freedom when the historical record shows the deprivation of educational rights to Palestinians and others has much more dire consequences?  Do we need academic freedom to improve the life chances of the members of the MLA as much as certain populations in Asia, Africa, Latin American, the Middle East, and elsewhere need the right to education?

Our use of the term deracinated to describe Resolution 2017-4 was meant to describe the ways in which a version of academic freedom that is at once nationalist and idealist fails to consider racialization, in this case, that of Palestinian scholars by the state of Israel, as a limit to the right of academic freedom. The passage of Resolution 2017-1 only further compounded this limit by affirming a non-internationalist and quietist version of academic freedom on the heels of Resolution 2017-1 passing. In our view, any version of academic freedom that cannot attend to the structural conditions of racism, here and abroad, that make that right available or not available to faculty is, indeed, deracinated. Lastly, we close simply by emphasizing, as we did in our resignation letter, that the simultaneous defeat of a BDS resolution and passage of the Resolution 2017-4 highlights the contradictions of academic freedom that are elsewhere now being fought over the meaning of free speech on campuses across the US.

The questions Fred Moten asked in his statement of support for BDS are appropriate as critical points by which to move the discussion about academic freedom forward: should “Israeli academic freedom—or, for that matter, any state-sanctioned, state-protected academic freedom but also the very idea of academic freedom insofar as it must be state-sanctioned and state-protected if it is to exist—should be subject to constraint. What if academic freedom is defined precisely by the fact that it is a thing that can be enjoyed by peoples such as the Israelis and not by peoples such as the Palestinians? What is academic freedom that it can be exercised by Israelis and not by Palestinians and why would Palestinians, and those in solidarity with them, want it? . . . What does academic freedom cost those who are said to enjoy it?”

Ultimately, the question is not one of Palestinian rights being excluded but of a humanistic organization that acquiesces to such a narrow set of concerns masquerading as “global.”  To do so simply sharpens the hypocrisy that is a malignancy on the academy. Why should we deserve academic freedom if we use it so poorly, or not at all?

[1] See Christopher Newfield, Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University, 1880–1980 (Durham, N.C., 2004), where he cites the AAUP definition of academic freedom in his discussion of the uses of that protection to develop anti-democratic modes of faculty governance.

 

Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu

 

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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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Margaret Ferguson’s MLA Letter of Resignation

9 January 2018

To Paula Krebs, Executive Director of the MLA, and to the Officers and other members of the MLA Executive Council

 

Dear Colleagues,

I write with great regret to tell you that I have decided to resign from the MLA. My decision was long and hard in the making. No other past president has taken such a step, to the best of my knowledge, and I am not at all sure it is a step that will bear fruit. Please let me explain why I am leaving.

By passing Resolution 2017-1, which closed the door in a constitutionally unprecedented way on future debate about the Palestinian call for boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the Association has sent a message to the world that it wants protests about the conditions of teaching and learning in Palestinian universities off the table. Because the resolution misrepresents the MLA’s purpose in its opening clause, leaving out the Association’s long-standing efforts to advocate for humanities educators’ rights; and because the resolution prohibits future discussion of an issue of public concern, eleven past presidents with different views on boycott asked the Council not to treat the resolution as business as usual at its meeting last February. The decision to do just that means that the Association has gone on record as wishing to prevent further discussion of  infringements of educators’ rights in the Occupied Territories; instead, the Association agrees that its proper business is with more pressing matters closer to home—home evidently defined as the United States that gives massive financial aid to Israel.  But the MLA’s multilingual members, both teachers and students, come from at least 104 nations; and MLA members of Palestinian descent have testified repeatedly to losing their freedom of expression and movement when they seek to enter the Occupied Territories in order to teach and do research.

As a member of a small, unofficial group of MLA members who visited West Bank universities in the summer of 2016, at the invitation of a member who works at the University of Bethlehem, I saw firsthand how teachers and students are prevented daily from doing their work of teaching and learning.  My experience in Israel-Palestine, detailed in this report, is one of the many reasons I am giving up my membership in an organization I have participated in and learned from for over 40 years—long enough to acquire the privileges of “life membership.” Those privileges are now a burden to me. I relinquish them to give myself a chance to speak out through a symbolic gesture of separation after having exhausted the means of protest available to me as a member.

My decision to resign is painful for many reasons. One is that my mother, Mary Anne Ferguson, served on the MLA’s Commission on the Status of Women in the late 60s and early 70s. She saw the Association, as I did then too, as a site in and from which humanities educators could work to effect social change, including improvements in what the current mission statement calls “workplace equity.” The question is whether “equity” will be interpreted narrowly or broadly. With the passing of Resolution 2017-1, the Association has opted for an interpretation eerily consonant with President Trump’s doctrine of “America First.”

In the years when I first joined the MLA and my mother was working on the Commission, the Association did vote after “divisive” debate to intervene in a public arena that was both national and international by making a statement against the U.S. Government’s conduct of  its war in Vietnam (for a discussion of this historical statement, see my  Presidential Address of 2014). Those were the years when the Delegate Assembly itself was created as a “voice for members” and as a structure that would enable the Association to become more representative (although that remains a difficult concept in the MLA’s documents and election practices). Since the Assembly was formed, the MLA has certainly become more open than it had previously been to the scholarly, pedagogical, political, geographical, and economic concerns of its members, most of whom do not work at the elite, East Coast American institutions from which the Association’s founders hailed in 1883. But the Association has evidently not become more open to discussing what I, and many others, consider to be one of the major assaults on access to education and academic freedom in our time. If the Association could amend its bylaws to affirm its commitment to allowing debate on all issues of public concern to members, I would eagerly rejoin.

For the time being, the MLA has taken an extreme and ethically untenable position by endorsing the idea, promoted by a group of members who were openly “assisted” by outside groups, that it is illegitimate for professional groups to protest Israel’s policies towards its Palestinian subjects. This despite the fact that the Executive Council clearly does not accept the narrow definition of the Association’s mission given in Resolution 2017-1 when it comes to speaking out about other communities of educators whose academic freedom and freedom of movement are threatened, whether in Trump’s America (see Resolution 2017-2) or in Erdogan’s Turkey.  Having spent part of the last year in a university in South Africa, I am acutely aware that the organization I was honored to serve was dishonorably silent about the South African regime’s apartheid policies.  At a watershed moment when even the mainstream press in the U.S. describes the creation of apartheid “bantustans” in Jerusalem neighborhoods just outside the “separation” wall, I find that I must leave an Association that has chosen again to remain silent, this time by actively proscribing debate.

Torn as I have been about what to do in the wake of Resolution 2017-1, I have found myself thinking hard about how another former MLA President, Edward Said, might have viewed these matters as he pursued his long effort to balance pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will. Because he is dead, I cannot ask him for counsel. But I can ask you to consider some words from his book After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives: “Memory adds to the unrelieved intensity of Palestinian exile. Palestine is central to the cultures of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism . . . . There is no forgetting it, no way of overlooking it.” The Palestinian call for justice will keep coming, and the MLA resolution enjoining deafness to it will be questioned from within and from outside in the coming years.

As the MLA’s elected leaders resume work after the 2018 Convention, where members in many sessions engaged with President Diana Taylor’s theme (#States of Insecurity) by exploring its premise that “the academy cannot be separate from the political, economic, and ideological turmoil of our time,” I hope that there will be robust discussion in your meetings about how, why, and to whose benefit the Palestinian call for boycott was deemed officially unspeakable by the world’s largest association of teachers of the humanities.

Yours sincerely,

Margaret Ferguson

Distinguished Professor of English Emerita, University of California at Davis

 

Read more letters to the MLA here and here

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Letters to the MLA

Dr. Paula Krebs, Executive Director

10 October, 2017

 

Dear Dr. Krebs,

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

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

Yours Sincerely,

 

David Simpson

Distinguished Professor of English

U.C. Davis

 

 

August 10, 2017

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

Dear MLA Leadership,

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

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

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

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

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

Respectfully,

Timothy J. Reiss,
Emeritus Professor,
New York University

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Colin Dayan

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

 

 

 

Dear MLA Leadership,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Respectfully,

Cynthia Franklin

Professor of English

University of Hawai’i

 

 

 

Dear MLA Membership Office,

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Rajini Srikanth, Professor, English, University of Massachusetts Boston

 

June 26, 2017

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

 

Dear MLA Leadership:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your time.

Regards,

Julie Rak
Professor of English
University of Alberta
Canada

 

June 26, 2017

 

To:

 

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

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

Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President sgikandi@princeton.edu

Rosemary Feal, Executive Director rfeal@mla.org

Carolyn Zuses, Staff Liaison governance@mla.org

 

Dear MLA Leaders,

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Respectfully,

 

 

Bill V. Mullen

Professor of American Studies

Purdue University

 

 

October 3, 2017

Paula Krebs, Executive Director

Modern Language Association

85 Broad Street, suite 500

New York, NY 10004-2434

 

Dear Ms. Krebs,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sincerely,

David Lloyd

Distinguished Professor of English

University of California, Riverside

 

Cc: Diana Taylor, President

Anne Ruggles Gere, First Vice President

Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President

Carol Zuses, MLA Governance

 

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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.”

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

Michael Maizels and Thomas Ray Willis

With special thanks to Clio Rom

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

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

–Jorges Luis Borges, 1939.

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

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

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

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

Desiigning A Future (From Scratch)

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

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

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

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

Panda & Dada

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Who is this “Pablo” Anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

Coda, Disowning Desiigner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Terror” at the University of Chicago

W. J. T. MItchell

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

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

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

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

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A Case for Neurohumanities

Ana Hedberg Olenina

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

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

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

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

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

2. What Can We Learn from History?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Conclusion

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

[4] See Ibid., viii.

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

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

[7] See ibid., p. 226.

[8] See ibid., p. 226.

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

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

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

[12] See ibid.

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

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

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

[16] Ibid.

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

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Hurricanes!

Bill Ayers

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

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

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

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Boycott Dossier

There follows a series of three short papers delivered at the 2016 conference of the Modern Language Association, along with three letters written by individuals, discussing and explaining their support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign (BDS) called for by a number of Palestinian organizations. The papers are authored by three former presidents of other scholarly organizations that did, unlike the MLA, pass resolutions in support of boycott: Mark Rifkin (Native American and Indigenous Studies Association); Curtis Marez (American Studies Association); and Cathy Schlund-Vials (Association for Asian American Studies). They describe aspects of the debates within their organizations about who gets to speak (and vote) for whom (and what), and how appropriate it is for such bodies to express political opinions. The three letters by individuals  (Tim Reiss, Jacques Lezra, Bruce Robbins) were originally written for the website “MLA Members for Justice in Palestine” (April, July 2016).

David Simpson

 

 

The Process of Indigenous Alliance Building: NAISA Joins the Boycott

Mark Rifkin, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

What does it mean for an academic association to join the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel?  In the case of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), the organization itself does not engage in institutional relations with particular universities, except in terms of the committees that apply to host the annual meeting.  Since the chances of receiving such a request from a university in Israel were and are quite slim, what’s at stake in NAISA committing itself to the boycott?  The issue, actually, is even more focused: the governing council of NAISA can speak for the organization, but it’s statements are in no way binding on the activities of members.  With respect to something like the BDS movement in its various manifestations, NAISA Council could only offer a suggestion to the membership, could only state what the Council took to be the principles and ethical considerations at play in the question of boycotting Israeli cultural and academic institutions.  Again, then, why would NAISA “join” the boycott when the apparent material effects of doing so seem so minimal?  That question, though, does not really capture the stakes for me, nor I think for the other members of NAISA Council who voted unanimously to support the boycott.  The question guiding our actions was something more like, What does it mean not to declare ourselves in favor of the boycott (and implicitly of BDS more broadly)?

Before addressing this question, let me give you some background on how we came to endorse the boycott and what followed.  We received a petition in mid-August 2013 from a substantial portion of the membership asking the council officially to declare for the boycott.  According to the association bylaws, “The NAISA Council is empowered to speak for the association on public issues where these directly affect our work as scholars and educators. Such issues include, but are not restricted to, academic freedom and freedom of access to information.”  The governing council meets once a month via skype, and we addressed the issue of supporting the boycott in several meetings that fall.  Once we had decided to express council’s support for the boycott, we were left with the task of drafting a public statement, since we wanted to craft something that captured council members’ sense of the questions and issues at play rather than simply signing onto a statement written by someone else.  A subcommittee drafted a statement, which we discussed and edited at length; we approved that final statement in early-December, and it was emailed out to the membership and posted on the NAISA website about a week later.  The then-President and Secretary, Chad Allen and David Chang, received a good deal of nasty email in response, with the rest of us getting some but substantially less than they did.  (Someone did donate money in my name to the Israeli Defense Forces, so I periodically would receive thank-you letters from the IDF.)  The biggest consequence we faced was that the University of Texas at Austin, which was providing a large amount toward subsidizing the cost of our annual meeting that coming May, threatened to pull their funds, but in the end they did not (thanks to the excellent work of our host committee cochairs, Shannon Speed and Jim Cox).  While some members may have been upset, there was little in the way of public condemnation and no interest in discussing the matter during the association’s regular business meeting during the annual conference that May.  NAISA has continued to grow steadily since that time, continuing the pattern of increase from before the boycott.  Whether we lost or picked up members from endorsing the boycott, I’m not sure, but it certainly has not been a negative factor in the well-being or scholarly reputation of the association.

Now to return to the question I posed before: What does it mean not to declare ourselves in favor of the boycott (and implicitly of BDS more broadly)?  The call by Palestinian Civil Society for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel states:

These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

  1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

This is a call to recognize the self-determination of a people whose lands are illegally and colonially occupied by a government whose authority they do not recognize.  It is a demand that the mass displacements that began with the Nakba and that continue to this day within the Occupied Territories and pre-1967 borders (including those of the Bedouin peoples of the Naqab) end and that those lands be returned.  Like in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the BDS call combines a demand for recognition of a people’s (or multiple peoples’) traditional territories with acknowledging their full rights to citizenship within the state that has claimed authority over them and their lands, a right which Israel has never provided except in the most hollow, cynical, and tenuous ways.  The issue, as understood by NAISA Council, was that of a settler-state that continued to exert illegitimate authority over indigenous homelands.  To remain silent, then, was to condone this violence in the face of an active request for aid by those so occupied.  Although not all Palestinians may understand themselves, their desired forms of political life, and their collective modes of placemaking as falling under the category indigenous as it has emerged within international movements, such articulations certainly have been offered in the past, are part of contemporary public and political discourses, and provide a legitimate framework through which to approach Palestinian histories and aspirations.  What, then, is solidarity if not the refusal to turn away?  What do our expressed principles and analyses mean if we are unwilling to put them into practice when called on to do so?

Here, I would like to print the NAISA statement in full:

The council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) declares its support for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

A broad coalition of Palestinian non-governmental organizations, acting in concert to represent the Palestinian people, formed the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Their call was taken up in the United States by the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. A NAISA member-initiated petition brought this issue to NAISA Council. After extensive deliberation on the merits of the petition, the NAISA Council decided by unanimous vote to encourage members of NAISA and all who support its mission to honor the boycott.

NAISA is dedicated to free academic inquiry about, with, and by Indigenous communities. The NAISA Council protests the infringement of the academic freedom of Indigenous Palestinian academics and intellectuals in the Occupied Territories and Israel who are denied fundamental freedoms of movement, expression, and assembly, which we uphold.

As the elected council of an international community of Indigenous and allied non-Indigenous scholars, students, and public intellectuals who have studied and resisted the colonization and domination of Indigenous lands via settler state structures throughout the world, we strongly protest the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the legal structures of the Israeli state that systematically discriminate against Palestinians and other Indigenous peoples.

NAISA is committed to the robust intellectual and ethical engagement of difficult and often highly charged issues of land, identity, and belonging. Our members will have varying opinions on the issue of the boycott, and we encourage generous dialogue that affirms respectful disagreement as a vital scholarly principle. We reject shaming or personal attacks as counter to humane understanding and the greater goals of justice, peace, and decolonization.

As scholars dedicated to the rights of Indigenous peoples, we affirm that our efforts are directed specifically at the Israeli state, not at Israeli individuals. The NAISA Council encourages NAISA members to boycott Israeli academic institutions because they are imbricated with the Israeli state and we wish to place pressure on that state to change its policies. We champion and defend intellectual and academic freedom, and we recognize that conversation and collaboration with individuals and organizations in Israel/Palestine can make an important contribution to the cause of justice. In recognition of the profound social and political obstacles facing Palestinians in such dialogues, however, we urge our members and supporters to engage in such actions outside the aegis of Israeli educational institutions, honoring this boycott until such time as the rights of the Palestinian people are respected and discriminatory policies are ended.

While I cannot speak for the entire council, I can say something more about my own reasons for agreeing that NAISA should endorse the boycott.  As many others before me have said, a certain exceptionalism haunts discussions of violence in Palestine and against Palestinians.  In much public discourse, such violence doesn’t quite get to count as organized state violence, or an intensifying system of racism, or the expansionist aggressions of a settler colonial regime.  Instead, it appears as national defense, or bringing civilization to the wilderness, or part of a tit-for-tat among putatively ancient enemies.  All of these stories are colonial fictions.  All of these ways of minimizing, dismissing, and forgetting the eliminatory project of the Israeli state with respect to Palestinian people/peoples leave aside the asymmetry of force employed among the parties, the dependence of the existence of the Israeli state on ongoing and proliferating Palestinian dispossession, and the sanctioning (if not active incitement) of Israeli violence through the various kinds of aid provided within extant imperial networks (of which the US is most culpable).  To be for indigenous self-determination and to stand against empire in the present moment and not to take part in BDS seems to me incomprehensible.

With that being said, there’s one last thing that I should note.  One of the questions that emerged among indigenous scholars based in the US in the discussion surrounding the boycott was, why Israel?  Or, more specifically, why Israel and not here?  Why is settler colonialism by Israel unacceptable and a site of proper international outrage and action, while the theft of indigenous lands in/as the US is unremarkable, or unremarked upon, or implicitly envisioned as somehow already completed such that Palestinians should be spared the extinction to which American Indians have been subjected.  What does it mean to understand the ongoing violence there as related to the ongoing violence here, to put a commitment to indigenous self-determination in that instance in the service of commitment to it on these still very much occupied lands?  When does the struggle against the colonial politics of Zionism open on to engagement with the colonial politics of US existence, and when does the visibility of the one collude in the other’s erasure?

 

The ASA’s Academic Boycott and the Right to Education

Curtis Marez, University of California, San Diego

In 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA), responding to a call from Palestinian civil society, endorsed a resolution boycotting Israeli academic institutions. According to its web site, the ASA

promotes the development and dissemination of interdisciplinary research on U.S. culture and history in a global context. Its purpose is to support scholars and scholarship committed to original research, critical thinking, and public dialogue. We are researchers, teachers, students, writers, curators, community organizers, and activists from around the world committed to the study and teaching of U.S. history and culture from multiple perspectives.

The ASA website goes on to say that the association advances and participates in public discussions relevant to the field. Indeed, the ASA has a long history of public engagement with pressing questions about the United States and its historic and ongoing relations with the world.

The ASA has made numerous public statements on contemporary issues, as in its support for women’s rights movements, its 2006 call for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, its statement in solidarity with the Occupy movement, and, more recently, a statement opposing violations of academic freedom in Turkey and a statement in support of the Standing Rock Lakota Nation. When selecting sites for its annual convention, the ASA also has a history of boycotting hotels with bad labor practices.

Since opponents of the ASA resolution questioned the democratic processes that resulted in its passage, it is worth rehearsing that history in some detail.[1] In 2013, the Community Activist Caucus of the ASA submitted a boycott resolution to the ASA Executive Committee (an elected body), which could have passed it or one of its own but decided it was an issue that should be discussed and voted on by the larger National Council (also an elected body) and the membership at large. So at the November 2013 national convention in Washington DC, the Executive Committee organized an open discussion attended by about 745 ASA members. Members distributed information about the boycott in advance and filled the hall with leaflets representing different perspectives. The moderators clearly explained the different actions that could be taken and the process for deliberation. To guarantee a fair and orderly discussion members who wished to speak put their name in a box from which speakers were randomly selected. Speakers were limited to 2 minutes, providing the opportunity to hear from forty-four different speakers during the session’s allotted time. The discussion was passionate but respectful. Speakers included students, faculty, past ASA Presidents, former members of the National Council, former and current members of the American Quarterly editorial staff, American Studies department chairs, the editor of the AAUP journal Academe, and an ASA member also representing the organization Jewish Voice for Peace. While speakers voiced different opinions, the vast majority spoke in support of the ASA endorsing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.[2]

After the convention, the ASA National Council remained in session for the next eight days to draft a resolution. The result reflects the history and present state of conversations within the ASA, providing a principled position for the Association’s participation in the academic boycott while respecting the different positions of our membership on this issue. Which is to say that the resolution is directed at institutions and not individuals, so has no effect on individual scholarly exchanges; nor is it binding for ASA members. The ASA boycott is thus a largely symbolic gesture but one with real consequences in terms of breaking “America’s Last Taboo” on critical discussions of US support for the Israeli occupation.[3] Finally, the council’s resolution was submitted to the members for a vote, and with an unprecedented voter turnout, it passed by a two thirds majority.

In the last several decades, the ASA has welcomed critical analyses of the US that reach beyond national borders and and that include US foreign policy. The association’s commitment to the “transnational turn” has been accompanied by the comparative study of borders, migration, and citizenship. The ASA also has a history of critical engagements with Native American and indigenous studies that has increasingly come to shape and influence the field, and the ASA resolution thus emerged in relationship to the comparative study of Israeli and US settler colonialism. Finally, the resolution is in keeping with the ASA’s continuing support for ethical research, the right of scholars to dissent and to take public positions, and the right to education.

The resolution, for example, places particular emphasis on the educational consequences of the occupation. Its third clause reads:

Whereas there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation, and Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students.

In its statement on the resolution, the National council emphasized “the impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; [and] the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights.”

In terms of the right to education, the ASA’s boycott resolution resonated with the 2013 ASA conference theme, “Beyond the Logic of Debt: Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent.” My presidential address, subsequently published in American Quarterly under the title “Seeing in the Red,” focused on student debt, which among other things helps pay for US university collaborations with Israeli institutions.[4] In my talk I asked what is the relationship between the policing of campus dissent on the one hand, and the disciplinary force of student debt, on the other? In distinct yet related ways, both student debt and the occupation of Palestinian territories imperil the right to education, or what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten call “study,” a practice of collective thought and social activity irreducible to and in fact antagonistic to market logics. This point was suggested by a recent contribution to AQ by Rana Sharif titled “The Right to Education: La Frontera to Gaza.” Sharif’s essay was part of a forum based on a teach-in at University of Southern California (USC) organized by David Lloyd and Laura Pulido about “the connections and differences between the struggles of the Chicana/o and Palestinian peoples.” Sharif notes that the “cartography” of the Israeli occupation, with its “fragmentation of land due to borders, checkpoints, barricades, and the apartheid wall,” limits Palestinian students’ access to school. For instance, the wall blocks the path of 36 percent of students at Al-Quds University and prevents about 15,740 students from reaching their schools, while over 90 percent of An-Najah University students report missing classes because of checkpoint delays. Palestinian students are also frequently detained and harassed in response to their campus organizing efforts. Finally, Sharif argues that the educational system in the occupied territories often excludes knowledge about Palestinian history and culture: “The systematic denial by Israel of the histories of the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, the fate of the refugees, and the destruction of Palestinian villages, amounts to an attempt at eradicating any cohesive Palestinian identity.” In this way, the educational erasure of Palestinian history and culture thus complements the material obliteration of Palestine.[5] Sharif builds on the work of Birzeit University’s “Right to Education Campaign,” and a recent review of stories on their website details the different ways that the occupation endangers Palestinian education: “Students in Detention”; “Closure of Educational Institutions”; “The Wall’s Impact on Education”; and “Incursions and Attacks” on Palestinian schools and universities. Their website also reports on how the Israeli blockade of Gaza has financially devastated both universities and students, who have increasingly gone into debt. Finally, Birzeit’s website features notices of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) endorsements from non-Palestinian student groups focused on the abolition of student debt. As I concluded in my ASA presidential address, the student-led BDS movement on college campuses could thus also be described as part of a larger movement to take some control over the student debt financing of settler colonial violence.

The ASA’s critics predicted that if passed the resolution would splinter the membership and destroy the association, but the opposite happened: in the wake of the boycott the ASA experienced a significant increase in members and fundraising. The ASA is now bigger and better than it has ever been. Although critics also charged that the boycott would limit dialogue, transnational discussions of Palestine, Israel, and the United States have significantly increased at the ASA national convention, including scholars from Israel/Palestine. At the same time, ASA members are increasingly active participants in important national discussions. While not alone in this regard, the ASA helped open up an unprecedented discussion of US policies with regard to Israel/Palestine, and in particular the state of education there. The ASA is well situated to help us understand the challenges faced by education under a Trump administration that has been partly modeled on Netanyahu’s Israel.[6]

In terms of education, Trump stands on the shoulders of decades of rightwing work to discredit critical thinking about race, gender, sexuality, and empire. His blasting of “political correctness” can be traced to the early 1990s when conservative intellectuals and think tanks used the concept to help defund university education focused on problems of inequality, especially racial inequality.[7] Similar logics were at play in attacks on Ethnic Studies in Arizona and elsewhere, as well as in the conservative, state-level gutting of public education, from colleges to K-12. Trump’s anti-PC rhetoric has drawn upon this longer history in order to shout down critical accounts of structural inequalities, while increasingly making schools spaces hostile to critical thinking and traumatizing and unsafe for children and youth of color. All the news stories of Trump-inspired hate speech in colleges, high schools and elementary schools feels like the culmination of a long reactionary march though the public school system aimed at reproducing exclusionary nationalist constituencies.[8] Which is to say we may be witnessing the “Israelization” of US education.

For their part, far right Israeli politicians see their interests and desires mirrored in the Trump administration. In the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, the Israeli cabinet approved 7,000 new settlement housing units in Jerusalem that had been frozen for years because of opposition from the Obama administration.[9] Israel’s leaders have been emboldened by Trump to push a new bill that would retroactively legalize illegal settlements. The bill is supported by far right politician Naftali Bennett, a Trump supporter and head of the far right Jewish Home Party. One of Israel’s most ardent and influential advocates of expanding illegal settlements, Bennett responded to the outcome of the US election by proclaiming that “the era of the Palestinian state is over.” He argues that Israel should annex 60 percent of the West Bank, effectively making a Palestinian state impossible.[10]

As education minister, Bennett’s budgets have favored religious over secular schools and religious studies over math and science.[11] He has also limited academic freedom by barring schools from hosting speakers critical of the Israeli Defense Forces. Perhaps most infamously, Bennett endorsed the banning from high schools of Boderlife, a novel by Dorit Rabinyan about a lover affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. According to Haaretz, among the reasons cited for the novel’s ban “is the need to maintain what was referred to as ‘the identity and the heritage of students in every sector,’ and the belief that ‘intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity.’ The Education Ministry also expressed concern that ‘young people of adolescent age don’t have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation.’”[12] According to Haaretz columnist Or Kashti, the banning of Borderlife reinforces “the separation between the two peoples that lies at the heart of the Israeli school system. One of the most tangible expressions of this division, aside from separate school systems, is the institutionalized and official disparity in the Education Ministry’s funding for Arab students in comparison to their Jewish peers – which in high school is about 30 percent greater for Jews.”[13] With the rise of Trump, I thus project that the postboycott ASA will unfortunately find many new opportunities for the comparative study of racial inequality in US and Israeli education.

 

Third World Solidarities: The BDS Movement and Asian American Studies

Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, University of Connecticut

On 16 May 2013, Jonathan Marks (Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at Ursinus College) penned an open letter titled, “To Professors of Asian-American Studies.”[14] Published in Inside Higher Ed, Marks’s critical dispatch focused on the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS)’s 20 April 2013 “Resolution to Support the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions,” wherein he quickly took to task the organization’s resolution process. Expressly, Marks negatively reviewed the resolution vote (which was “problematically” done by secret ballot); he then shifted his censure to encapsulate what he deemed a profoundly distressing silence involving both membership and interdiscipline. Averring that “not one Asian Americanist has voiced dissent” since the resolution vote, Marks wondered if those in the Association “knew about the BDS movement,” given that “one has to ignore the fact that not one person in your field has thought the resolution controversial enough to question.”[15] This assertion of nonknowledge and ignorance foregrounded an admittedly puzzling citation of blogger Byron Wong, a self-proclaimed expert on “Asian American intellectualism, activism, and literature.”[16] Acknowledging that Marks had contacted him after the AAAS passed its historic resolution, Wong proceeded to “clarify” the field’s “problem.” “Because the whole notion of “Asian American” was created by hippies (unlike the concept of “African American which probably extended back past the Civil War), its primary foundation is deconstruction and doubt.” Wong added, “Asian Americans often distrust Asian American professors – fair or not, many of them feel that these are the people who forced Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, and David Henry Hwang on us.”[17]

Notwithstanding Wong’s confessedly sophomoric dismissal of Asian American literary studies (which, by the way, has been less than kind to Amy Tan), this perplexing reliance on the blogger, whose only “credential” appears to be the “racial” fact that he is Asian American, was rhetorically matched by Marks’s convenient utilization of curated anti-BDS quotes from the likes of Norman Finkelstein, Eric Alterman, and Noam Chomsky, who to varying degrees and ends decried the efficacy of such boycotts (though each supports the politics that animate them).[18] In concluding, Marks indignantly questioned the veracity of AAAS’s mission/vision statement and directed his ire at Asian Americanists, maintaining that the organization, “which claims to ‘act as an advocate for the interests and welfare of Asian-American studies,’ and consequently to act as an advocate for your interests and welfare, has hitched your wagon to a single deeply controversial strand of Israel criticism. Even if you do not agree with Alterman, Finkelstein, or Chomsky, don’t you think that unanimous agreement on the matter about which even Israel critics disagree vociferously is a sign of your field’s ill health?” Marks’s dire diagnosis of Asian American Studies was affectively matched by what he termed an irresistible question to field and practitioners: “Are you at all embarrassed?”[19]

David Palumbo-Liu quickly responded via a short yet powerful piece to Marks, published in Inside Higher Ed on 20 May 2013; as Palumbo-Liu succinctly noted, Marks’s “letter moves out from a critique of a single vote to a broad indictment of many fine scholars and teachers, indeed all of those in the field, impugning their moral character simply because their judgment did not coincide with your own.”[20] To be sure, Palumbo-Liu’s response in many ways offers a compelling “last word” on Marks’s inflammatory letter. And, if this presentation was concerned with “last words,” I could draw upon my intimate experience with the BDS movement: as one of the original twenty-nine signatories to the AAAS resolution to support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, which not coincidentally occurred a AAAS conference in Seattle focused on the “Afterlives of Empire,” as a participant at that conference, and as an attendee at the resolution meeting, I could easily counter – by way of firsthand account and on-the-scene witnessing – Marks’s unsubstantiated appraisals of nonprocess, nonknowledge, and nonprotest.

Rather than focus on matters of procedure, however, and instead of concentrating on topics of resistance, I want to draw attention to Marks’ indiscriminate disavowal of field via ignorance, which directly accesses my current role as the president of the Association for Asian American Studies. Such dismissals manifest the ways in which the AAAS was attacked by those on the other side of the BDS movement. Accordingly, while the AAAS boycott was declared an anathema, the organization was nonetheless “small,” irrelevant, and easily contained “threat.” Such diminutive characterizations extended to the organization’s resolution process, which was time and again misreported as only involving twenty-nine signatories; such administrative categorizations conveniently disremembered the 800 other academics and/or Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies scholars who, at that time, had endorsed and/or are involved in the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (as an aside, we as an association have, since the 2013 resolution, shifted our resolution policy to render more transparent our respective processes). Marks redirected the careful deliberations that led to the resolution’s specific focus on Israel and Palestine to human rights violations in other places (the “why not boycott China” argument and the “why not boycott Sri Lanka” conundrum). Even more damning, the very worthwhileness of Asian American studies as a comparative, critical, and transnational interdiscipline – along with the worthiness of its practitioners – was in wholesale fashion suspected, distrusted, and dismissed.

Some – if not all — of these arguments may sound familiar. I would likewise maintain that such repudiations are quite familiar to those who study Asian American history, culture, and politics; these renunciations are equally recognizable to those of us in higher education. Co-opted by conservatives as a flexible solution to a black/white “race problem” and divisively utilized as “evidence” against the perpetual reality of systemic racism, Asian Americans have historically occupied a binaried position as “model minorities” and “perpetual foreigners.” Regarding the former, many higher education institutions (such as my own, the University of Connecticut), Asian Americans – due to an absence of disaggregated census data and an unspoken belief in model minoritization – are not considered an underrepresented population. And in terms of the latter, there are multiple examples of xenophobic violence and anti-immigrant sentiment to access: from the 1885 Rock Springs massacre to the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, from Japanese American incarceration to Muslim American racial profiling, from state-sanctioned exclusions of Asian immigrants to state-authorized deportations of Asian American refugees, such foreign-hood has – more often than not – translated into civil rights struggle and human rights transgression.

While it is apparent from my presentation thus far that I am quite critical of Marks’s argument, I do think that the willful forgetfulness via the specificities of Asian America as a political formation alongside an intellectual unwillingness to seriously engage Asian American studies distressingly obscure the profound rights violations which animate the BDS movement: the illegal occupation of Palestine, the infringement of the right to education of Palestinian students, and the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. This is not to suggest an alternative strategy in terms of the larger BDS movement; rather, my intent here is to recollect, remember, and remind us of the past/present political stakes of Asian American Studies as an interdiscpline; such memory work purposefully combats historical amnesias via a recuperative assessment of analogous histories and well-established solidarities.

Incontrovertibly, Asian American Studies as identifiable interdiscipline was born out of mid-century civil rights movements and emerged within the context of US war making abroad (most immediately the second Indochina War) and third world liberation at home. While this “field staking” may seem a bit of a digression from the overall focus of this panel – “association presidential perspectives on the BDS movement” – it is telling that Marks’s critique of Asian American Studies as a viable field of inquiry pivots on a problematic conflation of demographics (emblematized by the slippage between “Asian Americans” and “Asian American Studies”) and troubling abjuration of intellectual rigor. And, while Marks implicitly alleges to “chart new ground” via his attack on the AAAS vis-à-vis boycott, this disparagement is by no means unfamiliar to those in Asian American studies, ethnic studies, indigenous studies, and women’s, gender, sexualities studies; as practitioners in these interdisciplinary “identity” fields, we are more than accustomed – within a neoliberal higher education imaginary marked by increasingly corporatized “diversity management” – to accusations of nonrelevance, administratively driven planned obsolescence (via soft funding lines, joint appointments, and budget cuts), tenure/promotion denials, and shifting programmatic/departmental metrics. In sum, while the argument may seem new insofar as it converges on the BDS movement, the attacks against these fields is, quite frankly old hat.

To return to the stakes of Asian American studies vis-à-vis this contemporaneous BDS movement moment, and in the interest of laying bare the racialized (and I would stress racist) dimensions of Marks’ critique (particularly in terms of model minoritized silence and conformist thinking), one must necessarily delve into the very notion of Asian American as politically inflected identity category. From the outset, this category – despite Wong’s attribution that it emerges from a “hippie” think tank – was envisioned by activists as an open-ended panethnic, pan Asian idiom. Such open-endedness is quite lost on those who contend  that Palestine and Palestinians fall outside the geopolitical rubric of Asian American studies as a field; this observation – replicated in Wong’s denial of “Asian American” as a real political identity – was reiterated in aforementioned criticisms of the AAAS that appeared in the days, weeks, and months after the boycott resolution. Such allegations of nonrelevance strike a strange chord when situated adjacent the larger history of AAAS resolutions, which consistently involved protests against militarization, imperialism, and mass violence. Like the MLA, the AAAS, issued resolutions opposing the war in Iraq; similarly, the AAAS expression of solidarity concerning Palestinian academic freedom at least carries some echoes with a previous MLA call by the delegate assembly to express solidarity with scholars of Palestinian literary scholars.

I purposefully end with the title of this presentation, which harnesses the solidarity-driven politics responsible for bring Asian American studies “into being.” Denotative of “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest,” and suggestive of “mutual support within a group,” “solidarity” as political noun is predicated on the identification of activist commonality. Notwithstanding – as Lisa Lowe fruitfully characterized – the “heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity” of Asian America, and despite divergent histories with war, imperialism, migration, what undergirds “Asian American” as identarian category is a necessarily politicized understanding of solidarity.   The term connects Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Indian, Pakastani, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao/Hmong, Burmese, Taiwanese, Thai, and Bangladeshi Americans (among others) and has expanded to include East Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian American subjectivities.  It connects through a shared but nonidentical, long durée histories of immigration, citizenship denial, de jure discrimination, forced relocation (internment, incarceration, and refugeeism), colonialism, imperialism, and militarization

Last, but certainly not least, “solidarity” as political noun also figures keenly in the institutional history of Asian American studies (and ethnic studies). It was, after all, due to the activist efforts of the Third World Liberation Front (a coalition of the Black Students Union, the Latin American Students Organization, the Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor, the Filipino American Students Organization, the Asian American Political Alliance, and El Rancimiento) at San Francisco State College in the late 1960s that we are arguably even here. To further illustrate this coalitional point, and by way of conclusion, what follows is a preamble excerpt from the Third World Liberation Front’s list of demands:

We offer a positive program. We are not anti-white; we are anti-white-racist oppression and it is this powerful and just determinant that is the genesis of our movement but the growth of the movement is affirmative; an affirmation of our humanity, our strength, our beauty, our dignity, and our pride. Our programs are working programs. Our direction is revolutionary. Our method is organization. Our goal is Third World Power. Our essence is a New World Consciousness of oppressed peoples.[21]

 

Statement in Support of a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Timothy J. Reiss

Concerning the MLA, Israel, and BDS, I have more than once been told that the issue is not one for a language and literature professional association that is not a political organization. To take a Kantian aesthetic autonomy stance in this case is of course hypocritically selective, as we have taken many political positions over the years (not least over South African apartheid), when the issues pertained to our professional concerns. Apropos of BDS, these concerns are deep indeed, even could we ignore the daily tortures Israel inflicts on Palestinians, ongoing theft of land, orchards and other property and the often increased individual and collective military and civil assaults. But we cry about academic freedom as our particular (professional) realm, we cry about intellectual freedom more broadly, as do Israelis—for themselves (not least against BDS). We readily ignore the fact that Israel has forever restricted Palestinian rights to those freedoms and continues to do so. Everything we study touches how people think, how we act, morality, speech, worldly and spiritual acts, events, thoughts, deeds. These are, however we define it, what literature and the arts are about—who, what, why humans are—all humans. Israel has for decades been trying to prevent Palestinians from such expression. And while I believe those of us from “First World” cultures, above all European, to be responsible to a past for which we may not be responsible but from whose oppressions we benefit, silence on ongoing oppressions against which collectively raised voices can have a beneficent effect does make us responsible, now, for those oppressions.

Coming from a family associated with modern Israel from far before its start, I write this in great pain of spirit. My grandfather (born in the grand 1848) settled in Manchester from Heidelberg in his twenties or thirties to establish an English branch of a family textile business that prospered so well before World War I, that even when I went up to Manchester in 1960 and opened an account at the main Lloyds Bank for my student loan, an elderly manager called me in to offer all the “help” he could. Since the 1922 crash had destroyed the firm, and I knew nothing of this erstwhile wealth, my father had to resolve the mystery. My grandfather must have been quite enlightened. Having said he would pay for whichever of his children first wanted to go to University and could get in, he did not blink at this being his firstborn, a girl. She went on to become a quite well-known suffragette in the north, author of The Rights and Duties of Englishwomen, the first woman barrister in Manchester (and second in England) and a judge on the Northern Circuit Court. She took all her degrees at the University of Manchester, so I must think it there that she first met and became friends with Chaim Weizmann, a lecturer at the University from 1904 and living in the city for thirty years before going to Israel to become its president in 1949. I’m not sure when Erna went to London to study for the bar, but as Weizmann moved there too for a while during the war, perhaps they further solidified their friendship there. Certainly, during the Versailles conference she worked often with Weizmann as his assistant. I assume these ties continued during their years living in Manchester proximity, my aunts in Didsbury at the end of the Palatine Road out of the city centre, still known to the bus conductors of my student days as Yidsbury and the Palestine Road.

Meantime, my father, five years younger than she (with two siblings in between) and twenty-one at the war’s outbreak, was sent first to the Dardenelles before returning to the Western Front in 1916, where he remained at least until the first months of Paschendaele in July-August 1917. But he had joined what became the Jewish Legion early enough to march into Jerusalem with Allenby and his troops in December. Through the following year, my father led a company in the Legion, with both Ben Zvi and Ben Gurion under his command, promoting the former to sergeant—that, at least, was my understanding; my sister recalls it as the latter. What is certain is that in the late fifties and sixties, when my father had at least once and at times twice a year lengthy business in Tel Aviv, he would lunch with Ben Gurion, as old comrades in arms. (I have no idea what happened to any ties with Ben Zvi.) Weizmann, Ben Zvi, and Ben Gurion (like Herzl) were secular Zionists, two of them at least not just open to living equally and at peace with Palestine’s Arabs but, in Ben Gurion’s case, pushing quite hard for it. My own family, believing throughout those years in the right to a Jewish homeland, were never the fervid Zionists that these future leaders were, maybe because they had not known the pogroms of Central and Eastern Europe. But all believed strongly in a secular state and hoped it able to accommodate as equals those peoples of Palestine who remained in and on the land. The Six Days War dealt that ideal a fatal blow, as did the growing influx of ultra- and Orthodox Jews from Central Europe and the Soviet Union. I remember my father growing ever more depressed by his visits and, as a man who had also fought in World War II, when being a German Jew meant something quite other than what it had during the First World War, horrified by conduct that increasingly smacked of that whose evil, after WWII, allowed Israel to assert in the world’s eyes its moral right to exist. I cannot imagine what he and so many coevals would be suffering now. I cannot think they would do so in silence.

For my own part, touching present issues, I had to take another small step in responsibility eighteen months ago. The following letter to the Royal Society of Canada is self-explanatory and, I am told, bears repeating in the present circumstance [I omit its French doublet]:

To the Administration and Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada

I am proud to have been a Fellow of the Society since 1983, and a Life Fellow since 2007. I thank you all.

I am also a Jew.

And I learned a few days ago, after reading rather by chance the Society’s news, thanks to email, that in May the Society, with a ballyhoo signaled by the presence of Israel’s president and Canada’s governor general, has affiliated itself with its Israeli homologue. Was there any consultation with Fellows? My shame is nigh inexpressible.

The Society claims to represent academic freedom, of research, teaching, education in all its forms. I learn this affiliation at the very time when Israel has chosen to destroy yet again in Gaza more than 170 Palestinian schools, more than 90 schools “protected” by the UN, at least one University. Even if, as an academic Society, we claim to have nothing to say about the death and wounding of tens of thousands of civilians, of the destruction of their homes, mom-and-pops, factories, shops, parks, hospitals, of yesterday’s murder, without trial, of two of the people accused, up till now without public proof, of having abducted the three young men whom Israel used as an excuse for more than 50 days of attacks against Gaza, of the theft, towards the end of those attacks, of yet many more acres of Palestinian land, and of the collective punishment of the Palestinian people—all actions contravening international law, several UN Resolutions, and the most elementary morality, it is incumbent upon us to cry out against the deprivation of academic rights of which we claim to be protectors. Setting aside the recent, entirely deliberate, destruction (which, you may say, hadn’t yet happened in May), Palestinian teachers and research have always been oppressed by the Israeli government—difficulties or simple forbidding of travel, of participation in congresses, sharing in the same infrastructural and logistical benefits, quite simply, in the same academic freedom that Israel is constantly calling for for its Jewish citizens.

That our Society should have chosen to be affiliated with the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (!!) ties us all directly to these terrorist and illegal Israeli actions. Was there any effort, when this affiliation was undertaken, to guarantee Palestinian academic rights? Has there been the slightest protest now? To my great regret, I have no choice but to resign my Fellowship in the Society.

Timothy J. Reiss

I need not say more on this topic. The outright, open military assault on Gaza may be paused. The rest continues in one form or another. This is why another topic needs addressing: the effort to suppress critical outcry by the utterly dishonest elision of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.

There are certainly those who identify as Jews and assert Israel to be acting in their name, whether Israeli or not. Doing so, they do help identify Israel and all Jews and repeat Israel’s prime minister’s claim to be speaking in the name of all Jews everywhere, as he did last year in Paris. He has no such right. Despite what such as Senator Feinstein and others in this country want to claim, to be a Jew is not to be an Israeli, just as to be an Israeli is not—unless Netanyahu and his cohorts have their final way—to be a Jew. This position stated by a Jew can elicit from the baying hounds of the JDL and its ilk cries that one is a “self-hating Jew.” I can but say that self-hatred should be the sentiment of those Jews who do identify with what Israel is doing in their name—and if I do not say “what Israel’s government is doing” that is because, tragically, such activities are far from just the government’s. To say all this is not to be anti-Semitic. It is to cry out at what a pariah nation is doing to another people, a people whose land and traditions it has stolen and continues to steal, a people all too many of whom it has killed, tortured, robbed, imprisoned and oppressed in countless ways and continues to kill, torture, rob and imprison—and for whom freedom of expression, freedom to meet, freedom to travel, freedom to engage in academic research and writing, freedom to teach that research and writing are mostly anguished dreams. The MLA owes them our voice.

23 April 2016

Statement in Support of a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Jacques Lezra

Dear Friends,

You’ve asked me to join other members of the Modern Language Association who have written statements about BDS.  I found it hard to take a public stand when the matter came up for me about two years ago: the fear of losing old, dear friendships weighed; of angering family.  Things in Israel/Palestine have changed since then, and here too, for me. Thank you for asking again.

I support the BDS movement, and I believe academic organizations like the MLA should vote to endorse the BDS motions that will come before them.  I support the movement for reasons similar to the ones that led me to support the boycott of South African goods during the years of apartheid.  Then advocates of sanctions were addressing in one way the scandal of an openly racist regime that sought legitimacy from and financial stability in the international community.  We hoped isolating, shaming, and to whatever extent we could manage financially constraining the apartheid regime would help bring about its end.  Matters in Israel/Palestine are different.  The dispossession of Palestinians and the juridical license to guarantee their subjection through any means necessary is not, with signal and repugnant exceptions, expressed or founded in explicitly racist terms.  The moral claim upon us, however, is not different from the claim made upon us by the violence of the apartheid regime.  Violence, systematic, structural and punctual, unceasingly exerted in every domain, supported economically and sheltered politically and militarily by the United States: this is the day-to-day experience of the Palestinian population under occupation.  I feel a special obligation to reject this state of affairs and to express my solidarity with the people of Palestine, because the country I live in and pay taxes in provides this support to the Israeli government.

I’m asked questions about my position.  Many of them are fruit of misinformation or fear. I answer them with some confidence and without claiming to speak for every supporter of BDS, a large, disaggregated movement with different tendencies and constituencies whose core principles and goals are routinely misunderstood and mischaracterized as eliminationist, anti-Semitic, naive, counterproductive, unfair, and so on.  Here are the questions I have the greatest trouble answering, for myself and for others.  Why would I, or any academic, support the boycott of academic institutions?  Surely we should encourage dialogue with colleagues who, after all, may be as repelled as we are by their government’s actions—more so, since they live with their consequences intimately.  Isn’t it exactly wrong, exactly counterproductive to close ourselves off to allies, or to the colleagues from whom we’d learn the most about the matter itself?  Let’s say we granted that an economic boycott would serve to isolate, shame, and financially constrain the Israeli state and its backers in the United States.  And let’s say that this might then have concrete political results.  Fine.  An economic boycott makes sense.  But why the universities?

Because it is in this domain that, as academics, we have some expertise, and thus the greatest responsibility.  Because the boycott may, as Lila Abu-Lughod has put it, push members of MLA “and their colleagues and friends in the US to think even harder about what else they might do about the relative privilege in which they work as academics and live as human beings. How could they help Palestinian colleagues achieve equality and dignity, not to mention helping other Palestinians?”  (Abu-Lughod has in mind anthropologists, but I see no reason to limit her argument to anthropologists.)  Because a boycott of Israeli academic institutions helps to bring into relief the role these institutions have in supporting everyday and structural violence in the Territories.  Finally, because the boycott and the discussion it provokes show up the role that academic institutions in Israel and in the United States—including professional organizations—have in normalizing that support: in making it a legitimate part of academic life.  It is not.

The answers don’t entirely satisfy.  It doesn’t satisfy me, for instance, nor do I think it’s fully possible, to draw a distinction between individuals—colleagues I’d collaborate with outside of institutional frames—and the institutions to which they and I belong, which pay our salaries and furnish us with the material wherewithal to carry on these extra-institutional contacts.  But distinctions don’t have to be drawn fully or categorically to be effective under particular circumstances.  Not all answers will satisfy us fully.  We bear this in mind; we acknowledge the provisionality and friability of our distinctions and the partiality of some of our answers; we hew to them as best we can.  They’re enough for me.

Dear friends, I find it discouraging and enraging that I feel the need now to lay out my bona fides—I feel shame: as if my background, the religion that my parents and sisters and I practiced, the company I’ve kept and sought over the years, my politics, where I’ve lived and how I’ve brought up my children—as if any or all of this could serve to explain my support for BDS, or make my support appear more legitimate or excusable, or could shelter me from gross accusations of anti-Semitism, of ignorance, of naiveté, or should help to persuade others somehow to adopt my position.  The situation in Israel/Palestine is on its face so clamorously wrong—the harm being done so clear, the imbalance of power so manifest, the complicity of many in the United States so brazen—that any such justification, any explanation that brings my life in particular into consideration, seems to trivialize my condemning that wrong.

So I won’t reach for those explanations; I won’t lean on my stories.  The means available to those of us in the United States—individual academics and our professional organizations—who are repelled by the policies of the Israeli government and who wish to support the Palestinian population are few and likely to become fewer.  BDS is one tool; it isn’t the only one, and it shouldn’t be imagined as an alternative, but as a complement, to the sorts of tools US citizens have, have used, and should marshal to seek change and redress in the US: the tools of democratic process, protest, information, education.  I support the BDS movement because I believe that it, in combination with other means, will help to isolate the Israeli government internationally; to shame those in the United States and elsewhere who support Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories; to help disclose the role of academic institutions in making possible and palatable to some the Occupation; to apply some small, but perhaps increasing, economic pressure; and thereby help bring about a just solution to the conflict.

All my best,

Jacques Lezra

28 April 2016

 

Statement in Support of a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Bruce Robbins

27 March 2016 marked the eighty-third anniversary of a mass rally at Macy’s in New York City to boycott German goods.  Subtracting 1933 from 2016 does not yield a round or otherwise important number, but it’s an opportunity for an edifying moment of retrospect.  The Nazis had just come to power, and the rally had been called in response to the steps they immediately took—steps we now see as prophetic– against Jews in the universities and against Jewish businesses.  What’s amazing to discover (I found it in D.D. Guttenplan’s compulsively readable biography of I. F. Stone, which has become even more fascinating in the miraculous months of the Bernie Sanders campaign) is how many Jewish leaders back then refused to get involved in the anti-Nazi boycott. After all, they complained, why single out Germany?  Won’t innocent people, including Jews, be harmed by such a boycott?  And so on.

All political action has some quotient of unpleasantness attached to it.  All political action is divisive.  But if you manage to step back and consider what will be most meaningful when time has gone by, meaningful to oneself and to others, it may come to seem mean-spirited to have let those up-front disadvantages make your ultimate decision for you.  Demonstrating against the Nazis was worth some inconvenience.  One wonders what the people who said no to that boycott came to think of their position afterwards.

Reasons for saying “no” to BDS seem to me similarly shortsighted, but that is not to say they have no merits whatsoever or that all the arguments in favor are well-chosen or watertight.  “The academy is firmly planted within the structures of power and domination in Israel,” one supporter of BDS wrote recently.  This is true, of course. (One thinks of the Dahiya Doctrine of disproportionate force, which premeditates the committing of war crimes against Palestinian civilians, one representative product of Israeli academic brainpower.)  But leading with it may be counter-productive.  Some Americans, especially those with a weakness for the “people in glass houses” objection, will immediately say that the same holds for the American academy.  This is unfortunately also true.  They will then conclude that what the opponents of BDS are saying is true as well: that Israel has been unfairly singled out.  I don’t believe that Israel has been unfairly singled out, but in order to avoid the appearance of unfairness it is necessary to admit something that many Americans will not want to admit: that Israel is guilty of doing certain things that the United States is not doing.  There are plenty of such things.  Talking about them does not let America off the hook for the things it is doing.  You can’t weasel out of this by implying (as other supporters of BDS do) that the only reason we are not asking for a boycott of the US as well is that the boycott would not be effective because the US is too big to boycott.  Especially after 2008, we don’t want to encourage the making of “too big to” arguments.

Racism has of course not disappeared from the United States.  Far from it.  But racism is not explicit government policy here, as it is in Israel.  One of the problems with the overuse of the epithet “racist” by the pro-BDS side is that it severely discourages any effort to compare better and worse situations.  If X is racist, it’s racist, and that’s all that needs to or indeed can be said.  Like being pregnant, degrees are ruled out.  But this is a fight that can’t be won without allowing for a discrimination of degrees. It is a fight whose center is Israel’s greatest economic, military, and political supporter, the United States.  If this fight is going to be won, it must be won by arguing that Israel, while not unique in the world, contravenes values that Americans hold dear, like human rights, values that Americans insist on, even if not always successfully, in the conduct of their own government.  It is necessary to say that the government of the United States is less racist than the government of Israel and that (along with US funding, of course) is an important reason why, for all our own faults and flaws, Americans should be engaging in a boycott of Israeli institutions.

Today, all but the most stalwart of Israel’s defenders have given up on the project of actually defending Israel’s misconduct.  How do you defend the ongoing theft of land for settlements, the periodic butchery of children in Gaza, the refusal to allow Palestinians on the West Bank to use the water that lies under their houses and fields?  Little remains for those who (however appalled they may be in private) refuse to speak up against such things except to attack the political forms and the vocabulary in which others do speak up.  Like BDS. Or like the more general idea that the conduct of states can be judged by universal principles.

Elevated to the level of the nation, “people in glass houses” becomes the post-poststructuralist common sense that on matters like Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians, there are no principles, only exceptions.  All nations are founded on acts of violence for which there is no room or justification in the legal and ethical code that violence establishes.  Everyone does it, in short, so why pick on Israel?  In any case, Israel’s very survival is at stake, so all rules are off.  Of course what they present as a matter of life or death is really only a matter of survival as a preferred and indeed privileged identity– “as a Jewish state,” meaning a state where Jews have special privileges and non-Jews can be treated not just as second-class citizens but as if they were not there at all.  It is probably not the self-conscious espousal of Carl Schmitt’s philosophy that sponsors most cries of anti-Semitism (and how ironic would that be?), but I would bet that a closet Schmittianism is operating silently and potently in many of those who can’t quite articulate their resistance to BDS but don’t mind acting as if they didn’t have a horse in the race.

This is not to say that the anti-BDS side never appeals to principle.  Whenever the subject of academics’ reluctance to engage in boycotts comes up, as it will, someone will mention academic freedom and our principled investment in the free circulation of ideas. Equally characteristic of us academics, however, is a still stronger disinclination to look into the material circumstances on which academic life depends, including the injustices of access that we know are there but would much prefer not to think about.  The fear is that if we did think about them, the whole enterprise would suddenly start to look untenable.  It’s these material circumstances that have to be contemplated, however, if we are going to understand why academic freedom is not a good argument against BDS.  Yes, there is a legitimate anxiety that, in spite of the distinction between individuals and institutions, some hypothetical Israeli scholars might be harmed by BDS.  That is possible.  What is certain, on the other hand, is that Palestinian scholars are already massively and systematically being boycotted.  The material circumstances of their work lives are such, what with checkpoints, visa delays and denials, and campus closures lasting weeks or months or even years, not to speak of university buildings bombed into ruins, that for them academic freedom is a joke.  There is nothing to stand in the way of us doing something to stop it from being a joke.  BDS is currently the best option we have.

14 July 2016

 

 

NOTES

[1] Edward Said’s experiences in another professional association provides a revealing framework for such procedural questions. In 1999 he was elected President of the Modern Language Association (MLA). In reaction, MLA’s official journal, PMLA, published a long letter to the editor from an Israeli professor calling for people to resign from the association because of Said’s supposed incivility in answering his critics. Said responded that the letter was “an extension of the Israel/Palestine conflict masked as an argument against public misbehaving; it is drenched in the usual hypocrisy about norms of conduct, a tactic employed by publicists who try to hide their real agenda” (Edward Said, letter to the editor, PMLA 114 [Jan. 1999]: 107). Said’s remarks have their parallel in the recent history of the ASA, where its critics raised numerous procedural questions despite the association’s scrupulously democratic process.

[2] This is in seeming contrast with the recent discussion of an academic boycott resolution at the 2017 MLA convention in Philadelphia. The MLA set up three microphones, one for pro-boycott speakers, another for antiboycott speakers and a third for the undecided. Yet witnesses report that antiboycott speakers spoke at both the anti-boycott and undecided microphones.

[3] Edward Said, “America’s Last Taboo,” New Left Review 6 (Nov.-Dec. 2000): 45-53.

[4] Curtis Marez, “Seeing in the Red: Looking at Student Debt,” American Quarterly 66 (June, 2014): 261-81.

[5] Rana Sharif, The Right to Education: La Frontera to Gaza, American Quarterly 62 (Dec. 2010): 855-60.

[6] For this reason, David Lloyd recently pointed out the irony of the MLA Delegate Assembly passing a resolution barring the association from endorsing an academic boycott of Israeli institutions at the same 2017 meeting where it passed another resolution condemning in advance Trump administration attacks on academic freedom:

During his campaign, it was Israel that Trump invoked as his model for successful racial profiling. It was Israel that he praised for having built a wall that denies freedom of movement on the basis of national origin, race and ethnic identity. Trump praised Israel’s discriminatory immigration policies that arbitrarily deny entry to Muslims and people of Arab origin. And under the Trump administration, there is no doubt that conditions for Palestinians will deteriorate with unprecedented rapidity. [David Lloyd, “’Progressive’ Defenders of the Racial State: Reflections on the Modern Language Association BDS Vote,” Mondoweiss, 9 Jan. 2017, mondoweiss.net/2017/01/progressive-reflections-association/ressive-reflections-association]

[7] See Christopher Newfield, “Inventing PC: The War on Equality,” Unmaking the Public University: The Forty Year Assault on the Middle Class (Cambridge, Mass., 2011), pp. 51-124.

[8] See two reports by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election,” and “The Trump Effect: The Impact of The 2016 Presidential Election on Our Nation’s Schools,”www.splcenter.org/news/2016/11/29/new-splc-reports-reveal-alarming-pattern-hate-incidents-and-bullying-across-country

[9] Isra Saleh El-Namy, “Analyst: If Trump Gives Netanyahu a Green Light ‘Palestinians Will Detonate in the Face of Israel,’” Mondoweiss, 11 Nov. 2016, mondoweiss.net/2016/11/netanyahu-palestinians-detonate/#sthash.DHrhpn80.dpuf

[10] Quoted in The Editorial Board, “Israel’s Alarming Settlement Bill,” The New York Times, 17  Nov. 2016, mobile.nytimes.com/2016/11/17/opinion/israels-alarming-settlement-bill.html?ref=opinion&referer. And see  Isabel Kershner, “Israel’s Right, Cheering Donald Trump’s Win, Renews Calls to Abandon 2-State Solution,” 14 Nov. 2016 www.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/world/middleeast/israel-netanyahu-trump-palestinian-settlements.html

[11] Akiva Eldar, “Is Israel’s Education Minister Abandoning Secular Schools?,” Al-Monitor, 8 Dec. 2016,  www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/12/israel-education-minister-bennett-ultra-orthodox-democracy.html.

[12] Or Kashti “Israel Bans Novel on Arab-Jewish Romance From Schools for ‘Threatening Jewish Identity,’” Haaretz, 13 Dec.2015 http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.694620

[13] Ibid.

[14] Jonathan Marks, “To Professors of Asian-American Studies,”  Inside Higher Ed, 16 May 2013, www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/05/16/open-letter-about-israel-boycott-professors-asian-american-studies.

 

[15] Ibid. See also Rajini Srikanth, “Asian American Studies and Palestine: The Accidental and Reluctant Pioneer,” in Flashpoints for Asian American Studies, ed. Cathy J Schlund-Vials (New York, 2017), pp. 132-49.

[16] See Byron Wong,  “The Association of Asian American Studies and the boycott of Israeli Institutions.” 6 May 2013, www.bigwowo.com/2013/05/the-association-of-asian-american-studies-and-the-boycott-of-israeli-institutions/

[17] Ibid.

[18] To clarify, Marks issued the following assessment, which bears quoting at length:  “Do you know about the BDS movement? Are you aware that the movement stands not only for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza but also for “respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands from which they were ethnically cleansed during the 1948 Nakba”? As Eric Alterman, who decries the “brutal treatment of the Palestinian people,” argues, the demand for the reintegration of “six or seven million Palestinians” amounts to the “demand that Israel, as currently constituted, commit suicide.” Norman Finklestein, one of Israel’s best known and harshest critics, has said that the BDS movement is dishonest on this score: “They think they’re being very clever. They call it their three tiers. . . . We want the end of the occupation, we want the right of return, and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel. . . . They know the result. . . . You know and I know what’s the result: there’s no Israel.” Finally, Noam Chomsky, a supporter of BDS tactics properly applied, nonetheless thinks the “call of Palestinian society” to which the AAAS refers is “a gift to Israeli and U.S. hardliners” not only because it implicitly calls for the “destruction of Israel” but also because it targets only Israel and lets the United States, England, and other countries “where it is a hundred times worse,” off the hook” (Marks, “To Professors of Asian-American Studies”).

[19] Ibid.

[20] See David Palumbo-Liu, “An Asian-American Studies Professor Responds.” 20 May 2013, Inside Higher Ed. www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/05/20/asian-american-studies-professor-responds-israel-boycott

[21] Quoted in Gary Okihiro. “Third World Studies” in Theater and Cultural Politics for a New World, Ed. Chinua Thelwell (New York, 2016), pp. 48-49.

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New Texts Out Now: Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, eds. Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East

[This post originally appeared on Jadaliyya —Ed.]

 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi (DP and NH): Over the last several years, a narrative has taken root in Western media and policy circles that attributes the turmoil and violence engulfing the Middle East to supposedly ancient sectarian hatreds. “Sectarianism” has become a catchall explanation for virtually all of the region’s problems. Thomas Friedman, for instance, claims that in Yemen today “the main issue is the seventh century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis.” Barack Obama has been one the biggest proponents of this thesis. On several occasions, he has invoked “ancient sectarian differences” to explain the turmoil in the region. In his final State of the Union address, he asserted that the issues plaguing the Middle East today are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” A more vulgar version of this view prevails among right-wing commentators. But in one form or another, this new sectarian essentialism, which is lazy and convenient — and deeply Orientalist — has become the new conventional wisdom in the West.

Our book forcefully challenges this narrative and offers an alternative set of explanations for the rise in sectarian conflict in the Middle East in recent years. Emphasis on recent: the book demonstrates that the sharp sectarian turn in the region’s politics is largely a phenomenon of the last few decades — really since 1979 — and that pundits who imagine it as an eternal or fixed feature of the Middle East are reading history backwards. So the book is an exercise in refutation and ideology critique on the one hand, while also offering a set of rigorous social scientific arguments about what exactly is driving the intensification of sectarian conflict in the Middle East today. Our contributors come from political science, history, anthropology, and religious studies, and it is from this range of disciplines that we present a social and political theory as well as a critical history of sectarianism.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

(DP and NH): The first section of the book offers big-picture historical, theoretical, and geopolitical perspectives on the sectarianization process — that is, the escalation of sectarian conflict in recent years. The second section dives into a series of case studies, examining how the sectarianization process has played out in Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and Kuwait. The concluding chapter explores the prospects of reversing the sectarianization process.

The book addresses a range of literatures: in the introduction, we draw on the literature on ethno-nationalist mobilization and evaluate the primordialist, instrumentalist, and constructivist schools of thought; in his chapter, Adam Gaiser revisits debates among sociologists of religion about the nature of sects and engages with theories of narrative identity; Fanar Haddad applies critical race theory to the politics of sectarianism in Iraq; Paulo Gabriel Hilu Pinto draws on the anthropologist Robert Weller’s concepts of saturation and precipitation to illuminate the sectarianization of the Syrian conflict; Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi draws on international relations theory — specifically Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Raymond A. Hinnebusch’s concept of “middle powers” in a “penetrated regional system” — to make sense of Iran’s role in the sectarianization process; drawing from the literature on republicanism, Islamism, and post-Islamism, Stacey Philbrick Yadav develops her original concept of “Islamist republicanism” and explores what she calls “convergent republicanism” among adversarial Islamists in Yemen; Toby Matthiesen deploys the concept of “securitization” associated with the Copenhagen school of critical security studies to examine the sectarianization process in Bahrain; Bassel Salloukh draws on Foucault, Gramsci, and James Tully in his analysis of what he calls the disciplinary logic of the sectarian system in Lebanon; Timothy D. Sisk draws on the growing body of research on ethnic and religious violence and post-conflict peacebuilding in search of lessons for de-sectarianization.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

(DP and NH): In 2013 and 2014 we were deeply engaged in the literature and the debate on the Syrian conflict. We organized two international conferences — one at the University of Denver, one at SOAS in London — and co-edited a book on the subject. It struck us that all sorts of journalists, activists, and even some scholars, across the ideological spectrum, characterized the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms. Prominent Syria commentators referred to the protests that began in March 2011 as a “Sunni uprising.” Diplomats cautioned against the West taking sides in “ancient” blood feuds. Some left-wing journalists and activists unwittingly echoed these essentialist, Orientalist tropes. This narrative of course belied the decidedly non-sectarian origins of the Syrian uprising. The slogans and demands of Syrian protesters throughout the spring and summer of 2011 were exactly those of the other Arab uprisings: dignity, social justice, democratic rights, an end to dictatorship. The Syrians making these demands came from various backgrounds and represented a cross-section of the society: Alawis, Christians, Druze, Ismailis, and Sunnis (Kurds, Armenians, and Arabs alike) took to the streets and demonstrated together, along with secular Syrians.

This history had been erased, and very quickly, in the sectarian narrative that took hold. We wanted to push back on that distorted narrative, but we also wanted to make sense of how exactly the Syrian conflict became sectarianized. So our interest in the sectarianization process emerged very directly out of our work on Syria. But we saw a pattern across the region: uprisings that began as non-sectarian/cross-sectarian but morphed into sectarian battles. In Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and beyond, the sectarianization process took different forms in different countries, but the underlying dynamic was remarkably consistent. We thus set out to assemble the case studies, drawing on the leading experts on those countries, but also to theorize the phenomenon as a whole.

Our longstanding interest in democratic theory and social movements also animated this project. Nader Hashemi’s book Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societiesmakes a case for democratic pluralism in the Islamic world. The sectarianization process has undermined the struggle for democracy in Muslim societies by sowing division and cultivating hatred, to borrow Peter Gay’s felicitous phrase. Danny Postel worked in the US labor movement for several years (for the organization Interfaith Worker Justice, and for a coalition of labor unions and community organizations). His interest in labor movements in the MENA region (and progressive political mobilization more generally) is related to the issue of sectarianization insofar as the former is an example of people organizing around issues of shared interests and aims that transcend religious identity. It’s vital to remember that there have been all kinds of labor movements and other forms of political mobilization in the region and that the politics of the Middle East have not always revolved around sectarianism — nor must they forever.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

(DP and NH): Our aims are ambitious: we want to change the very terms of the public conversation about sectarianism and to put a major dent in the currently ascendant narrative about why the Middle East is awash in violence today. We want to put the term sectarianization into general circulation and see it become part of the vocabulary of political debate.

We hope all sorts of people will read the book — scholars, journalists, researchers, policymakers, diplomats, religious leaders, and practitioners in the world of conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and human development. The book will soon be translated into Arabic, which is hugely important to us. We would love to see the Arabic edition reach not only scholars but people on the ground in the societies the book examines, especially religious leaders and activists engaged in cross-sectarian organizing. Those are the efforts that will chart the path beyond the maelstrom of sectarianization.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

(DP and NH): We’ve been developing a project on cross-ideological coalition building in deeply divided societies focused mainly on Tunisia and Egypt, but also drawing on cases outside the region. Nader is working on an intellectual and political history of Iran’s Green movement, and a volume on Islam and human rights. Danny is writing something on Syria and tragedy. Down the road he hopes to do something on the role of labor movements in the MENA region.

Excerpt from “The Sectarianization Thesis: A Social Theory of Sectarianism”:

This book forcefully challenges the lazy and Orientalist reliance on “sectarianism” as a catch-all explanation for the ills afflicting the Middle East today. We propose to shift the discussion of sectarianism by providing analternative interpretation of this subject that can better explain the various conflicts in the Middle East and why they have morphed from nonsectarian or cross-sectarian (and nonviolent) uprisings/movements intosectarianized battles and civil wars. The contributors to this volume—who include political scientists, historians, anthropologists, and religious studies scholars—examine this phenomenon as it has unfolded over a definite period of time via specific mechanisms. Through multiple case studies (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran) and with historical and theoretical chapters exploring the nature and evolution of sectarianization, they analyze and map this process, exploring not only how but why it has happened.

Conflict between sectarian Muslim groups has intensified dramatically in recent years. But why? What explains the upsurge in sectarian conflict at this particular moment in multiple Muslim societies? How can we best understand this phenomenon?

To answer this question, we propose the term sectarianization: a process shaped by political actors operating within specific contexts, pursuing political goals that involve popular mobilization around particular (religious) identity markers. Class dynamics, fragile states, and geopolitical rivalries also shape the sectarianization process. The term sectarianism is typically devoid of such reference points. It tends to imply a static given, a trans-historical force—an enduring and immutable characteristic of the Arab Islamic world from the seventh century until today.

The theme of political authoritarianism is central to the sectarianization thesis. This form of political rule has long dominated the politics of the Middle East, and its corrosive legacy has deeply sullied the polities and societies of the region. Authoritarianism, not theology, is the critical factor that shapes the sectarianization process. Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have deliberately manipulated sectarian identities in various ways as a strategy for deflecting demands for political change and perpetuating their power. This anti-democratic political context is essential for understanding sectarian conflict in Muslim societies today, especially in those societies that contain a mix of Sunni and Shi‘a populations. To paraphrase the famous Clausewitz aphorism about war as a continuation of politics by other means, sectarian conflict in the Middle East today is the perpetuation of political rule via identity mobilization.

[W]hy are these conflicts intensifying now; and why in this particular region of the world? In other words, what explains the flaring of sectarian conflict at specific moments in time and in some places rather than others? Sunni–Shi‘a relations, for example, were not always conflict-ridden, nor was sectarianism a strong political force in modern Muslim politics until recently. How did Syrians and Iraqis with different sectarian identities manage to coexist for centuries without mass bloodshed? How did these pluralistic mosaics come unglued so precipitously? What are the key forces driving sectarianization?

The Geopolitics of Sectarianism: 1979, 2003, 2011

The key regional development that shaped the rise of sectarianism was the 1979 revolution in Iran. Western-backed dictatorships in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, feared that the spread of revolutionary Islam could cross the Persian Gulf and sweep them from power in the same manner as the Pahlavi monarchy had been toppled. In response, the Saudi kingdom and other Sunni authoritarian regimes invested significant resources in undermining the power and appeal of the Iranian revolution, seeking to portray it as a distinctly Shi‘a/Persian phenomenon based on a corruption of the Islamic tradition.32 Sunni Muslims, they argued, should not be duped by this distortion of the Prophet Muhammad’s message. Anti-Shi‘a polemics in the Sunni world increased dramatically during this period, fueled by significant sums of Arab Gulf money. Sunni–Shi‘a relations were deeply affected by this development, and Pakistan was an early battleground where this conflict played out.

 

The key international event at this time was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Western support for the Afghan Mujahedeen, backed by Saudi petrodollars, produced a Sunni militant movement that attracted radical Islamists from around the world, most notably Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. This constellation of forces eventually morphed into al-Qaeda. The ideological orientation of these Salafist–jihadi groups was decidedly anti-Shi‘a, both in theory and practice, buttressed as it was by a neo-Wahhabi reading of the world.

The Saudi–Iranian rivalry is critical to understanding the rise of sectarianism in Muslim societies at the end of the twentieth century. Both Tehran and Riyadh lay claim to leadership of the Islamic world, and since 1979 they have battled for hearts and minds across the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Asia.

[T]he 2003 US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq marked a turning point in Saudi–Iranian relations, and subsequently in sectarian relations across the region.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein dramatically affected the regional balance of power. The rise of Shi‘a Islamist parties in Iraq allied with Iran set off alarm bells in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The subsequent Iraqi civil war, which after 2006 had a clear sectarian dimension to it, further inflamed Sunni–Shi‘a relations across the Middle East. The rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon was also a factor during this period. Its ability to expel Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000 and its perceived victory against Israel in the summer of 2006 increased the popularity and prestige of this Shi‘a militant group as a revolutionary force on the Sunni “Arab street.” An opinion poll at this time listed the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, as the most popular leader in the region, a fact that highlights both the chasm between state and society in the Arab world and explains how anti-imperialism trumped sectarian identity at the grassroots level during this period.

Around this time, King Abdullah II of Jordan reflected a common concern among Sunni Arab regimes when he invoked the specter of a new “Shi‘a Crescent.” Linking Beirut with Tehran and running through Damascus and Baghdad, this perceived rolling thunder threatened to dominate the politics of the region in the name of a new brand of transnational Shi‘a solidarity.

The “Arab Spring” of 2011 marked another turning point in Saudi–Iran relations and, consequently, in Sunni–Shi‘a relations more broadly. The Arab uprisings shook the foundations of Middle East authoritarianism. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia relied on sectarianism to deflect attention from popular demands for political change and to advance their influence in the region. The Saudi case is easier to diagnose and is better known. The Saudi regime blamed protests in Bahrain and in eastern Saudi Arabia on a Shi‘a conspiracy allegedly orchestrated from Tehran, while the Assad regime and its Iranian backers attributed the (nonviolent) Syrian protests of 2011 to Salafist “terrorists” supported by Riyadh and hell-bent on toppling Iran’s key regional ally in Damascus. The Iranian case of sectarianization is more subtle and less well known.

In the case of Syria, Iran has utilized a distinct sectarian narrative, albeit a subtle one, to mobilize support for the Assad regime, as Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi explains in his chapter in this volume. While officially Tehran claims that it is supporting the “legitimate” government in Damascus and fighting ISIS, all Syrian rebels are depicted as Salafi–jihadis who are bent on exterminating minorities should Assad be toppled. As the war in Syria has dragged on, Iran has organized a transnational Shi‘a militia movement from among the poor and devout Shi‘a communities of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. These militias are recruited through an explicitly sectarian narrative that draws on classic Shi‘a themes of persecution, martyrdom, and sacrifice. The imminent threat of the destruction of Shi‘a shrines in Syria is invoked, and financial compensation, educational opportunities, and Iranian citizenship are offered as an incentive package.

The key claim of this book is that sectarianism fails to explain the current disorder in the Middle East. Viewing the region through a sectarian prism clouds rather than illuminates the complex realities of the region’s politics. The current instability is more accurately seen as rooted in a series of developmental crises stemming from the collapse of state authority. At the dawn of the twenty-first century a series of UN Arab Human Development Reports forecast and predicted that this region was headed for a deep crisis unless these problems were addressed. The foreign policies of leading Western states toward the Arab-Islamic world have only made matters worse.

While it is true that religious identities are more salient in the politics of the Middle East today than they were in previous periods, it is also true that these identities have been politicized by state actors in pursuit of political gain. Authoritarianism is the key context for understanding this problem. In other words, there is a symbiotic relationship between social pressure from below—demands for greater inclusion, rights, recognition, and representation—and the refusal by the state from above to share or relinquish power. This produces a crisis of legitimacy that ruling elites must carefully manage to retain power. The result of this political dynamic is sectarianization.

[Excerpted from Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, with author permission, (c) 2017.]

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A Response That Isn’t

Chad Wellmon, Andrew Piper, and Yuancheng Zhu

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

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

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

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

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

1. Who Gets to Police Disciplinary Boundaries?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

3. When Is Error a Problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

                                                                       Before                         After

Gini coefficient

PhD institution.                                       0.816                           0.816

Author institution                                   0.746                           0.743

Diversity over time (since 1990)

#cases of decrease                                   3                                  3

#cases of no change                                5                                  5

#cases of increase                                   0                                  0

Journal Diversity Ranking                             PMLA                         PMLA

NLH                           NLH

      CI                               CI

                                                                            Rep                              Rep

Gender Bias (% Women)

4 Journal Yearly Mean                        30.4%                          30.7%

4 Journal Yearly Mean Since 2010   39.4%                          39.5%

 

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

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

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

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

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

4. Is Quality Measurable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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One Finch, Two Finch, Red Finch, Blue Finch: Measuring Concentration and Diversity in the Humanities, A Response to Wellmon and Piper

Jordan Brower and Scott Ganz

 

Introduction

In “Publication, Power, and Patronage: On Inequality and Academic Publishing,” Chad Wellmon and Andrew Piper motivate their study in a laudable spirit: they seek to expose and root out elitism in the name of a more egalitarian and truly meritocratic academy.[1] That the study at the same time makes a claim for more studies of its kind— “What we need in our view is not less quantification but more” (“P”)—seems justifiable based on the results it found. We find, then, an argument for the continued practice of the digital humanities (DH).

But this study is not DH as we typically understand the term. Wellmon and Piper are not producing new software or a digital archive, or offering an interpretation of a large corpus of books using quantitative methods. Rather, they are humanists making a claim about social organization, where the organization in question is their own field. This is an important distinction to make. Rather than holding their study to a research standard held by other digital humanists, we ought instead to evaluate their work using the rubrics of disciplines that answer similar kinds of questions.

Specifically, Wellmon and Piper assess the heterogeneity of university representation in top humanities journals as an indicator of the extent to which publication practices in the humanities are corrupted by “patterns and practices of patronage and patrimony and the tight circulation of cultural capital” (“P”). Perhaps unknowingly, the authors find themselves a part of a long and contentious literature in the social sciences[2] and natural sciences[3] over the creation and interpretation of metrics for diversity (and its opposite, concentration) that continues through the current decade.[4] The authors put themselves into the shoes of ecologists seeking novel data in unexplored terrain. Traditional bibliometric indicators of status and concentration in the sciences that rely on citation and coauthorship lose traction in the humanities.[5] As such, the authors seek to do what any good ecologist might: they go out into the field and count species.

In their analysis, the field is represented by articles published in four prominent humanities journals, and observations are individual articles. Observations are grouped into species by examining their university affiliation: is that finch Harvard crimson or Yale blue? Then the raw counts are aggregated into summary metrics that try to capture the concept of heterogeneity. The latter half of their paper presents conclusions drawn from their expedition.

The first two parts of this essay examine a pair of questions associated with this effort. First, how closely does Wellmon and Piper’s constructed measure of heterogeneity reflect what is usually meant by heterogeneity? Second, are the data collected representative of the field of the humanities that they seek to analyze? In our final section, we turn to a brief consideration of the broader cultural and political motivations for and implications of this study.

We conclude that the heterogeneity metric is inappropriate. We also worry that the data may not be representative of the field of the humanities due to numerous recording errors and a lack of conceptual clarity about what constitutes a publication. As two pillars of statistical analysis are the representativeness of the sample and the consistency of measure, we believe the study fails to achieve the level of methodological rigor demanded in other fields. There are many aspects of Wellmon and Piper’s study that live up to the highest standards of scientific method. Our criticism would not have been possible had the authors’ data and methods not been transparent or had the authors not willingly engaged in lengthy correspondence. However, the shortcomings of their quantitative analysis corrupt the foundations of their study’s conclusions.

Our essay is also a call for digital humanists to take seriously the multidisciplinary nature of their project. At a time when universities are clamoring to produce DH scholarship, it is imperative that humanities scholars subject that work to the same level of rigorous criticism that they apply to other types of arguments. At the same time, DH scholars must admit that the criticism they seek is different in kind. This is to say that in order to take DH work seriously, scholars must take the methods seriously, which means an investment in learning statistical methods and a push towards coauthorship with others willing to lend their expertise.

 

Measuring Heterogeneity

The latter half of Wellmon and Piper’s analysis measures the heterogeneity in the data they collect. Their “heterogeneity score,” which is the total number of unique universities divided by the total number of articles, seeks to capture a spectrum from “institutional homogeneity” to “institutional difference” (“P”). They justify their metric through reference to the similar type-token ratio metric of vocabulary richness.

There are two serious problems with Wellmon and Piper’s measure. The first is that heterogeneity is not synonymous with richness. Heterogeneity instead is associated with both richness and evenness.[6] In the present context, richness refers to the number of unique universities represented in each journal. Evenness refers to the extent to which articles are equally distributed among the institutions represented. A good metric for heterogeneity should therefore increase with the number of universities represented and increase with evenness of representation across universities. Wellmon and Piper treat a journal that publishes authors from one university eleven times and authors from nine other universities one time each the same as a journal that publishes authors from ten universities two times each.

Another useful property of a heterogeneity metric is that it should not decline as the total number of observations increases. Whether the ecologist spends a day or a month counting species on a tropical island should not affect the assessed level of heterogeneity, on average. (That said, if an ecologist spends one month each on two different islands and records more observations on the first than the second, that might well indicate greater ecological diversity on the first island.) In this respect, the Wellmon-Piper heterogeneity metric also fails, because larger observation counts will mechanically produce lower scores indicating more homogeneity. (As Brian Richards notes, the type-token ratio, too, faces this shortcoming, which is why linguists assign their subjects a fixed number of tokens.[7]) The probability of observing a first-time publisher decreases with each additional article recorded. Journals that publish more articles (such as PMLA) will therefore tend to have lower heterogeneity scores than those that publish fewer articles (like Representations).

The following thought experiment demonstrates this troubling property of Wellmon and Piper’s heterogeneity score. We take one thousand random samples of sixty articles from PMLA and Representations, journals that are indicated to be approximately equal in their heterogeneity score with respect to PhD institution. We then calculate the mean of Wellmon and Piper’s heterogeneity score across the samples as the number of articles grows from ten to sixty. Figure 1 displays the trend of the mean heterogeneity score for PMLA (black solid line) and Representations (red solid line) (fig. 1). For all article counts, PMLA is identified as considerably more heterogeneous than Representations. However, when evaluated at the average number of articles per year (represented for PMLA and Representations by the black and red dotted lines, respectively), Representations receives a higher mark for diversity (indicated by the fact that the dashed red line exceeds the dashed black line). This is the type of perverse outcome a metric for heterogeneity should seek to avoid.

Standard measures of diversity and concentration avoid these pitfalls. They decompose into a function of the equality of the shares across the groups represented and the total number of groups. They are not mechanically tied to the number of observations. One metric of concentration that has both of these characteristics is the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI). Use of the HHI and similar indices is widespread. For example, the HHI is used by the US Department of Justice when considering the competitiveness implications of potential mergers. The HHI is one of a class of metrics that are a function of the weighted sum of the shares of overall resources allocated to each group that is observed in a population.[8] The standard HHI equals the sum of the squared market shares of each firm in an industry or, in our setting, the share of the number of articles published in a journal by authors from each university. The range of the HHI thus spans from 1/N to 1, where N is the number of firms in an industry. The inverse of the HHI (in other words, 1/HHI) is a commonly used measure of diversity (in ecology, the inverse of the HHI is referred to as a “Hill number”). This metric corresponds to the number of firms in an industry in which all firms have equal market share with the equivalent HHI as the one under observation. As such, it is often called the “effective number” of firms. Imagine an industry with four firms, one with half of the market share and the others with one sixth each. The HHI equals 1/22 +3· 1/62 = 1/3, which is the same as the HHI in an industry with three firms with equal market share. The effective number of firms is, therefore, three.
 Figure 2 recreates figure 1 using the effective number of universities metric (fig. 2). PMLA remains considerably more diverse with respect to PhD affiliation than Representations for all sample sizes. However, now the difference in the number of articles published per year creates a larger divergence between the estimated level of institutional diversity across the two journals.


Heterogeneity Comparisons Over Time and Across Journals

Using the effective number of universities metric changes many of the quantitative conclusions in the study. The trend toward journals publishing more articles over time and the differences between the count of articles published annually across the four journals leads Wellmon and Piper to mistakenly identify more recent and larger journals as less heterogeneous. For example, we reproduce Wellmon and Piper’s Figure 4, which examines the trend in heterogeneity across the four journals over time, using the effective number of universities metric in figure 3 (fig. 3). In the figure, the black line indicates the heterogeneity with respect to the authors’ current institution and the red line indicates heterogeneity with respect to the authors’ PhD institution. Wellmon and Piper’s graph indicates a long-term decline in heterogeneity, but little change since 1990. While we also observe little change since 1990, the “effective number of firms” metric indicates a longer-term trend towards greater diversity.

Similarly, we come to different conclusions about the relative level of heterogeneity across the four journals.[9] 
In table 1, we present the effective number of universities for each journal both in terms of the current and PhD university affiliations of the authors, along with 95 percent confidence intervals, using the methodology in Chao and Jost.[10]

We find that New Literary History (NLH) and PMLA are the most heterogeneous, both in terms of the author’s current and PhD affiliations. Representations is the least heterogeneous. Critical Inquiry (CI) falls in the middle. Unlike Wellmon and Piper, we find this ranking to be consistent across the types of author affiliation. The journals with more diverse institutional representation in terms of current author affiliation are also more diverse in terms of where the author received their PhD. However, we do observe that there is greater disparity across journals when examining the diversity of the authors’ current affiliation than the PhD affiliation.

 

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Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

Françoise Meltzer

 

Tzvetan Todorov—the literary theorist, historian, philosopher, structuralist and essayist—died in Paris at the age of seventy-seven in February of this year. His importance to every one of these disciplines and subjects to which he turned his attention is enormous. A Bulgarian born in 1939, Todorov emigrated to Paris to do graduate work and was the student of Roland Barthes. His Bulgarian experience under Soviet communism gave him a mistrust of “everything the state defends or that is related to the public sphere.”[1] But the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 changed that mistrust: “I felt like I was no longer conditioned by those childhood and teenage years living in a totalitarian world.” Thus it is unsurprising that Todorov’s intellectual trajectory took a strong turn toward ethics and politics beginning in the early eighties (as if sensing the end of Soviet communism) and continued until his death.

tzvetan-todorov-150-g

Todorov famously began as a structuralist, well-schooled in the Russian formalism of the twenties and the Prague School of Linguistics of the thirties. Early in his career, he translated the Russian formalists into French, Théorie de la littérature. Textes des formalistes russes (1965). One might say that his form of structuralism is politically “safe” to a certain extent, searching as it does for repetitive patterns and deep meanings that are frequently unrelated to their manifestations (plot events and narrative systems, for example) and certainly unconcerned—at least overtly—with the hegemony of the state. Literature and Signification (1969) continued in this vein and also put him on the map as the scholar who created a renaissance in rhetoric.

Todorov continued with structuralist analyses, which he combined with semiotics and a study of narrative systems (along with Gérard Genette, Barthes and the early Fredric Jameson). For this approach to narrative, in collaboration with Algirdas Julien Greimas and Barthes, Todorov coined the term narratology. All types of narrative, he wrote, “pertain less to poetics than to a discipline which seems to me to have solid claim to the right of existence, and which could be called narratology.[2] The sentence is taken from an article, “The 2 Principles of Narrative,” which analyzed what Vladimir Propp had called “functions” (in Russian fairy tales)— the succession of recurring plot elements that Propp showed could be mapped, or listed, in succession. Todorov added, contra Propp’s system, that the relationship between the units (or functions) cannot be only one of succession, but must “also be one of transformation.”[3] For example, a narrative may present events at the beginning of its récit, but the reader will see them differently if the same events return at the end. And yet even this syntactical power of transformations is not what is to be valued most in a narrative, adds Todorov. Narratives can be further broken down into the gnoseological type or of the mythological type; more layers need to be added to parsing any given plot events. Even in the early seventies, then, he was already drifting away from structuralism and its ancestors, the Russian formalists. Though Todorov continued in semiotics, structuralist approaches and narratology—for example, his 1971 The Poetics of Prose, which continues to analyze narrative (récit) on which the article in question draws— something else was brewing.

Well-known and much admired in France, by 1970 Todorov had authored many books and had helped to found, with Genette, the journal Poétique. In the same year, shortly before the Poetics of Prose, one of Todorov’s works was so immediately important and successful, that it was added to the French school curriculum the year after the book’s appearance, and is still there today. That book is The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. This is not the place to summarize Todorov’s famous argument. Suffice it to say that to this day, no student or scholar can write on the fantastic without alluding to Todorov’s seminal work on the subject.

But, to repeat, something else was brewing. Todorov’s early life under communism had profoundly marked him: “Today I believe,” he said in a late interview, “that my initial interest in questions of form and structure in literature . . . was closely linked to the fact that debating ideas was impossible in a totalitarian country.” If you wanted to say anything about literature in that context, he continued, you had the choice “between serving the purposes of official propaganda and focusing on the formal aspects of the text alone.” So he concentrated solely on the formal aspects of texts. By the early eighties, however, as Soviet communism was collapsing, Todorov was changing. In 1982 The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other appeared in France (the English translation two years later). The book, a type of echo and counter-response to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, examines the Mesoamerican Indian population confronting the Spanish conquistadors of the sixteenth century. Tocqueville, curiously enough, had written that while the Spanish had been horrible in their treatment of native populations, they were nonetheless unable to eradicate the native populations of North America. The United States succeeded in doing this, continues Tocqueville, “with felicity” and “without shedding any blood.” This appalling and absurd conclusion notwithstanding, Todorov writes his study with a different question: to what extent did the fact that the Aztecs had no notion of the Other, and that the Spaniards had a very clear and (let us say) xenophobic and racist one, contribute to the destruction of the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico and the Caribbean? Could it explain the Aztec passivity in the face of the brutal conquerors? Todorov mainly consulted the archives of Columbus and “then of his contemporaries and companions.” Todorov concludes his work with the following: “For Cortés, the conquest of knowledge leads to the conquest of power. I take the conquest of knowledge from his example, even if I do so in order to resist power.”

As of Conquest, Todorov will deeply engage in the issues of ethics in the political realm. He does not believe that history obeys a system, he writes in conclusion, but believes rather that “to become conscious of the relativity . . . of any feature of our culture is already to shift it a little, and that history (not the science but its object) is nothing other than a series of such imperceptible shifts.”[4] If Michel Foucault explored the tectonic shifts that occurred and caused changes in varying power structures in varying eras and discourses, Todorov is more optimistic; he believes that uncovering historical “shifts” can create a shift in itself, such that an event can be wrested from its underpinnings and historical behaviors can be somewhat modified in turn. “I myself,” says Todorov in another interview, “aspire less today than in the past to produce a text reducible to its theses; I try to enrich it with stories, other people’s or my own, and, as we know, stories give rise to interpretations, not refutations.” As one reader of Todorov puts it, he teaches us to eradicate, or deeply to question, the binary of “them and us.” What will follow will be rooted in ethics: On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism and Exoticism in French Thought (1989); Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (on the “social schizophrenia specific to totalitarian regimes,” 1991); A French Tragedy: Scenes of Civil War, Summer ’44 (on the French Resistance’s killing of thirteen pro-Nazi militia and the Nazi revenge murder of thirty-eight Jews in Saint-Armand, 1994); The Fragility of Goodness (on the rescue of Bulgarian Jews, 1999); A New World Disorder: Reflections of a European (2003, two years after September 11 and on the eve of the Iraq war); Duties and Delights: The Life of a Go-Between (his intellectual autobiography, 2002)—and too many other books and articles to mention here.[5] “Only totalitarianism,” writes Todorov, “makes it obligatory to love one’s country” (a statement we would do well, at present in the United States, to keep in mind).

“From now on,” writes Todorov in 2007, “I will stick by and large to the humanist family. This unique perspective prohibits me from any claim to an evenhanded clarification of the other families: I shall systematically privilege one of the voices in the dialogue of the past.”

This, from a man who had, in the first half of his career, carefully avoided polemics. The same year, he published Literature in Danger, a manifesto that argues that current trends in criticism have made it an “object of closed, self-sufficient, absolute language,” a “smothering corset” enclosed by “factual formal games, nihilistic whining and solipsistic egotism.” Literature must be freed from the “formalist ghetto that is of interest only to other critics.” Formalism, nihilism and solipsism are endangering the literary enterprise, he wrote.

Todorov’s greatest influence was Raymond Aron, but also, again just to name a few, Michel de Montaigne, Benjamin Constant, Jean-JacquesRousseau, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mikhail Bakhtin, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva (whom Todorov translated), and Edward Said. Human rights, Islam, the question of Europe, economic conditions, racism, genocide, the Holocaust, humanism, colonization, fanaticism, ethics and moral philosophy—these were, to name the most salient, Todorov’s passionate concerns as of the early eighties. Rather than attacking other critics, “who are not there to contradict you and you can ridicule the person to your heart’s delight,” Todorov came to prefer a more measured and solitary approach: “Asserting your conception of the world without worrying too much about other people’s conceptions seems to me at once more difficult and more interesting.” As his friend Thomas Pavel put it recently, what Todorov wished to express above all in his writings was “his simple and sincere friendship for humanity and its cultures.”

After the murder of a French priest last year in France, Todorov remarked, “To systematically bomb a town in the Middle East is no less barbaric than to slit somebody’s throat in a French church. Actually, it destroys more lives.” He was against all forms of fanaticism, from the left or the right: “Certain ideological stances could be defined as the simple refusal to recognize this or that boundary,” he wrote, as if anticipating contemporary arguments about borders. His approach to history was ethical; his concern was with how to treat the representation of other cultures; he believed that self-knowledge develops through knowledge of the Other; and he held that goodness can exist even in the evilest of contexts.

In his eulogy to his teacher, “The Last Barthes,” Todorov noted that he owed his mentor a great deal. And now, after Barthes’s death, writes Todorov, “I will owe him more every day.” Todorov opened his Barthes encomium with these words: “He belonged, in France, to that small group at the top of the intellectual pyramid; he was one of those writers whose books you were always supposed to have read, books which could become the subject of conversation among strangers.”[6] The same may be said of Todorov, and a great many of us will continue to owe him more every day.

 

[1] Sewell Chan, “Tzvetan Todorov, Literary Theorist and Historian of Evil, Dies at 77,” New York Times, 7 Feb. 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/world/europe/tzvetan-todorov-dead.html

[2] Tzvetan Todorov, “The 2 Principles of Narrative,” Diacritics 1 (Autumn 1971): p.44.

[3] Ibid., p. 39.

[4] Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, trans. Richard Howard (Norman, Okla., 1999), p. 254.

[5] All dates refer to the original French publication.

[6] Todorov, “The Last Barthes,” trans. Howard, Critical Inquiry 7 (Spring 1981): 454, 449.

 

TODOROV and CRITICAL INQUIRY

The following essays (and interview) by Todorov were published in past issues of the journal.

“The Verbal Age,” trans. Patricia Martin Gibby, Critical Inquiry 4 (Winter 1977): 351-71.

“The Last Barthes,” trans. Howard, Critical Inquiry 7 (Spring 1981): 449-54.

“Critical Response: ‘Race,’ Writing, and Culture,” trans. Loulou Mack, Critical Inquiry 13 (Autumn 1986): 171-81.

Interview with Danny Postel, “Moving Targets,” trans. Gila Walker, Critical Inquiry 34 (Winter 2008): 249-73

(Danny Postel’s interview is available to read for free on our website http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu)

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Reports of Its Death Were Pre-mature: A Response to Gabriel Noah Brahm

David Palumbo-Liu

In “The End of Identity Liberalism at MLA: The End of Identity Liberalism at MLA: Saying ‘No’ to Discrimination on the Basis of Nationality,” an essay derived from his op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, Gabriel Noah Brahm makes a number of pronouncements regarding the death of this and the lack of value of that. One core element of his essay regards a concern we share—the new presidency of Donald Trump and the notion of a posttruth and indeed even postreason age. However, we differ in terms of what or who might be responsible for this state of affairs. Brahm argues that disdain for the truth began with postmodernism and other associated intellectual ills. Happily, according to him, the academy has now been delivered from such evils by a historical shift evident in the recent votes in Philadelphia at the meeting of the Modern Language Association.

Brahm’s argument is that the votes at the Modern Language Association help us understand a fundamental shift away from political correctness, which Brahm describes as:

The self-righteous politics of selective outrage associated with “p.c.” makes vacuous expressions of indignation over abstractions like White Privilege, Western Colonialism, Neoliberalism or Global Capitalism more important than concrete scholarship rooted in reasons and evidence. Where p.c. prevails in the humanities, careful attention to complex works of literary merit worth reading is jettisoned in favor of simplistic moralizing, always harping on the same monotonous litany of concerns.

He declares “a victory for facts over trendy ‘post-truth’ epistemology” based on the fact that the Delegate Assembly voted down a resolution to endorse Palestinian civil society’s call for an academic boycott of Israel. As coeditor, with Cary Nelson, of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, Brahm has more than a passing interest in the topic.

To seriously address the issue of Brahm’s assertion that Israel is a “progressive cause” would take more space than allotted here, but readers interested in pursuing that line of reasoning, as expounded by Brahm and others, can refer to the volume just cited. Part of what I would say in response can be found in my review of that book, published in Symploké.

Instead of getting involved in what Brahm himself argues is a “complex” issue—Israel-Palestine—I will use this opportunity to focus specifically on what actually happened at the MLA, as those events occasioned Brahm’s op-ed.

I argue that much of what transpired at MLA smacked of the white-supremacist tactics and thematics we associate with Trump (amongst them his signature attacks on “political correctness,” which indeed sound a lot like Brahm’s), and that, pace Brahm, it is precisely the fields Brahm associates with “p.c.” that provide us with the tools we need to understand what happened in Philadelphia and also what is going on with our new presidential administration.

Let us thus turn to “the facts” and not Brahm’s opinions. Let’s look at two public debates which took place on the floor of the Delegate Assembly of the MLA that show the use of Trumpist tactics and thematics—in both cases the truths and facts that Brahm wishes to rescue were explicitly suppressed by the so-called MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, which trampled on precisely those rights. Rather than, as Brahm glosses the events, “effectively vindicat[ing] both academic freedom and academic responsibility, over the pseudo-academic license to indoctrinate at will,” the antiboycott vote exhibited the antiboycott side’s political will precisely to abrogate academic freedom and academic responsibility, to shut down dialogue and is so doing violate the basic premises of academic inquiry.

First, a resolution was put forward that decried the denials of academic freedom to Palestinians, and placed the blame for that on the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Now the Palestinians themselves and various international human rights groups have indeed borne witness to both these groups impinging on their rights—I have no argument there. But conspicuous in its absence was any mention whatsoever of the state of Israel and its own responsibilities in this area.

That resolution, put forward by the antiboycotters, is completely of a piece with the argument voiced by the white supremacist Trump campaign that “black on black” killing is more to blame for black deaths than police violence, which is in turn of a piece with the violence of the US state as exemplified in the so-called justice system and the prison industrial complex. In much the same way, denials of academic freedom to Palestinians are an essential part of the virtual apartheid system that exists in Israel and indeed preserves Israel in its current form.

Resolution proposer Russell Berman’s disingenuous offer to table the resolution in a spirit of “reconciliation” was seen by many for what it was—a desire to prevent even discussing the question of whether or not Israeli state policies might play any role in the suffering of the Palestinians. Debate of the issue would inevitably have exposed facts about Israel’s constant violations of academic freedom that its supporters are eager to keep concealed. The bad faith of Berman’s offer of “reconciliation” was made patently clear when, despite the calls to allow debate, he refused to withdraw his motion to table the resolution and discussion of it indefinitely.  At that moment of silencing, the bad faith behind the claim that we should not boycott institutions because we want to preserve “dialogue” was exposed; at that point a free inquiry into the “truth” was terminated by those attesting to argue “for scholars’ rights.”

In removing the possibility of discussing such a fundamental issue, Berman and those who voted for his motion violated one of the basic principles of something they always hold out to be our beacon: liberalism. As John Stuart Mill wrote, “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Those mounting analyses of political and cultural phenomena from the standpoints of postcolonial studies, studies in race and ethnicity, and others Brahm associates with “political correctness” are not “expressing” “indignation” when they see such blatant acts of hypocrisy emanate from self-anointed guardians of the liberal west—they are issuing an indispensable analytical critique that, among other things, helps shed light on how the rhetoric of “reconciliation” may be used to cover the tracks of exertions of raw power.

Second, the antiboycott resolution that, having been passed by the same assembly, must now be voted on by the general membership, demands that the MLA “refrain from endorsing the boycott.” This resolution amounts to a prohibition of a mode of protest the United States Supreme Court has declared a constitutionally protected form of free speech (NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware, 1982). The resolution makes even the act of endorsing, in a nonbinding manner, a boycott of Israel impossible—the MLA would be acquiescing to the same kind of silencing we saw in Russell Berman’s motion to table discussion on Resolution 3 indefinitely.

Given that Trump has vowed to destroy BDS, if it passes that resolution, the MLA will be doing Trump’s work for him, and at the expense of its own members and of their right to deliberate the issue. But beyond that, passing that resolution would also set a terrible and destructive precedent—it would mean that it is permissible to deny MLA members the right to comment on what the United States Supreme Court holds to be a basic right.

In both of these cases and many others during the convention, scholars engaged in critiques of colonial knowledge, of gender epistemologies, of privilege and power and race had more than enough material upon which to shine a light. In numerous other scholarly associations that do not regard histories of race and colonialism merely as matters of “trendy ‘post-truth’ epistemology,” the logic and justice of the boycott has made itself felt. These associations not only engage with the facts of racial discrimination and injustice that the Trump administration is likely to make all the more urgent in both Israel and the US but also recognize that the study of these facts requires scholars also to take action for justice. In this, they represent not the past, nor a “trend,” but an indispensable and permanent element of both current and future scholarship.

Indeed, no matter what the general membership decides in the spring, it’s hard to imagine that even if the antiboycott measure is passed this will be a sign of the “end” of anything—the Modern Language Association voted down a resolution to support the anti-apartheid boycott after all. With truth comes power, and the more this issue is debated, the stronger the case for BDS appears. This is why opponents of the boycott resolution felt debate had to be tabled and a resolution to deprive scholars of their right to free speech introduced.

While the move to table the resolution placing the blame for Palestinian suffering solely on them was voted passed by the Delegate Assembly, one should note that the margin of that vote was exceedingly slim: eighty-three “yes,” seventy-eight “no” to table—it passed by the narrowest margin of any of the resolutions, five votes.   The antiboycott resolution also won by a very small margin—eight votes out of a total of 194 vote cast. The vote against the resolution to endorse the BDS call was the widest, seventy-nine “yes” ; 113 “no.” However, it is important to put this in perspective. That a small handful of volunteers could muster a 40 percent vote in favor—with both presidential candidates, the governor of New York, numerous state legislatures, two hundred college presidents, twelve past presidents of the MLA, and major Israeli organizations aiding indirectly or directly the other side—is remarkable. And with the Trump administration bent on endorsing more settlement building, and more violations of human rights, it is highly likely that the pro-boycott side will grow in strength.

 

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The End of Identity Liberalism at MLA: Saying “No” to Discrimination on the Basis of Nationality

Gabriel Noah Brahm

In Philadelphia recently (7 January 2017), Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement activists failed by a wide margin in their attempt to hijack the Modern Language Association (MLA) for an extreme fringe anti-Israel agenda. Only seventy-nine delegate assembly members voted for a resolution to support academic boycotts of the Jewish state, while a solid majority of 113 voted against. It was a big blow to BDS at MLA, if not a mortal wound. The coup de grace comes in June, with ratification by the full MLA membership of another proposal—which passed in the delegate assembly, 101 to ninety-three—to reject academic and cultural boycotts altogether for the foreseeable future as a tactic at odds with the fundamental purposes of the organization.

And what do we learn from this? First, it was a victory for scholarship over political correctness.

Second, it was a victory for facts over trendy “post-truth” epistemology—a rejection of the “alternative facts” put forward by MLA Members for Justice in Palestine, in their trumped up charges against the Jewish state.

And third, it signaled the waning of “identity liberalism” in American life more broadly—as a new and exciting trend toward affirming Western civilization’s universal values takes hold, both in the academy and at large, among citizens appalled equally by alt-right and alt-left cultural relativism.

P.C. and BDS Are Dead Letters

Political correctness in academia puts knee-jerk support for certain preferred “victim groups” over everything else. The self-righteous politics of selective outrage associated with “p. c.” makes vacuous expressions of indignation over abstractions like white privilege, Western colonialism, neoliberalism, or global capitalism more important than concrete scholarship rooted in reasons and evidence. Where p. c. prevails in the humanities, careful attention to complex works of literary merit worth reading is jettisoned in favor of simplistic moralizing, always harping on the same monotonous litany of concerns.

Moreover, instead of learning to tolerate diversity of opinion and embrace ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty as inherent to the human condition, students are hectored by “activist” teachers into holding a handful of approved positions on “race, class, and gender.” That there is more to life, no student thus inoculated against independent thought is meant to dream.

So, it is important to recognize that BDS as a “movement” on American college campuses feeds off this anti-intellectual environment. It doesn’t come out of a vacuum—or rather it comes out of precisely the kind of vacuum of informed judgment that p. c. labors to produce.

It aims to make the complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict into another one of those “simple” issues with only one “right” (ultra-left) side to take. Opponents of the MLA anti-Israel resolution who emphasized in debate the narrowness, imprecision, and injustice of this Manichean myth-making, therefore, took a stand against boycotts of Israel by standing, more broadly—in effect if not in intent—against scapegoating of the West in general as the source of all the world’s problems.

Perceived as an “outpost of the West,” Israel came in for criticism by BDS at MLA. By the same token, putting a stop to BDS meant putting the brakes on postcolonial theory’s radical-chic opposition to universal Western values basic to liberal democracy around the world.

The anti-BDS vote thus effectively vindicated both academic freedom and academic responsibility, over the pseudoacademic license to indoctrinate at will. Where p. c. everywhere mau-maus its enemies (those who insist on thinking for themselves), at this year’s MLA a majority of those debating the issue refused to be shouted down into submission by those who wanted to put the association’s imprimatur on a dishonest slander campaign dedicated to smearing Israel.

Twitter Politics: The Alt-Left Learns from the Alt-Right that Learned from the Alt-Left

It wasn’t just Trump voters who invented the idea of the “post-truth” universe in which anything goes and wishing makes it so. That fictional universe, one in which everybody’s preferred “narrative” all by itself (cut loose from actual states of affairs) competes to convince the credulous, was imagined long ago at places like Yale, Duke, and University of California, Santa Cruz in the 1980s. Postmodernist academics anticipated the move from truth to “post-truth” decades ago, with what were then au courant doctrines of simulation, deconstruction, discourse and social construction of reality.

Now that these theories are passé in the academy, they’re reappearing in practice on Fox News, BuzzFeed, Twitter, and in the blogosphere. At a time when both presidential candidates and scholar-activists, like Steven Salaita and his supporters, make names for themselves with ribald tweets and vulgar blog posts, serious scholars seem to be over this junk. Fortunately for both Israel and the MLA, a return to common sense, common decency, reason, and evidence was all the rage at the scholars’ convention this year. Perhaps one might even call it a recoil.

For there at the illustrious confab, a group of anti-BDS faculty calling themselves, significantly, MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, showed up to debate the BDSniks.

They came armed with little more than truthful statements about the Jewish state, the discriminatory nature of the anti-Israel activists’ agenda, and a healthy appreciation for the authentic purposes of research and teaching in the humanities.

It worked! The majority vote affirmed both that there is no basis in fact for singling out Israel for boycotts and no ethical basis for cultural and academic boycotts, period. Thus, the hardcore BDS fanatics were revealed as a marginal group, unrepresentative of the organization much less the profession as a whole.

R. I. P. Identity Liberalism, Long Live the MLA!

So, is this the end of business as usual for the past twenty-five years in the humanities, during which time politically correct dogma has tended to crowd out free inquiry, while the task of inculcating settled beliefs about the nature of “liberation” from “oppression” displaced all other issues?

Writing in shock and awe after Trump’s dumbfounding upset victory at the polls in November, Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla mused, in a much-discussed op-ed, that perhaps one good thing could come of it, if only real liberals—in the broad sense of those who support universal values, like freedom of speech and equality under the law—took stock and reevaluated what went wrong. If such people faced up to the fact that “identity liberalism” (as he called it, referring to p. c. identity politics coupled with neglect of class-based concerns) had failed them, then maybe they (we) could find a way forward to a better future,one in which an outdated faux radicalism that has only ever appealed to a tiny minority of citizens no longer drives our American politics into a ditch, maybe!

I would say the same about our colleges and universities, in relation to this highly symbolic victory at the MLA. MLA is the largest professional organization of its kind, so it is a bellwether. And just as many voters on the left, in the last presidential election, didn’t seem to find stale identity-politics-as-usual very inspiring (the real “identity” energy had shifted to the far right, proper home of illiberal cultural relativism anyway), so too at MLA the majority appears tired of beating up on “the West” as the sole item on its list of “Fun Things I Gotta Do Today.”

Israel is a Progressive Cause: Put on Your Pussy Hats and Stand With Us

As a “Western” democracy and standard-bearer of a flawed liberal humanism, in a region not known for it, Israel attracts more than its share of critics. But as leading French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy, has lately reminded, it is in many ways a “model democracy,” in fact. A place where minority rights, women’s rights and gay rights are respected as equal under the law, and freedom of speech flourishes even under daily threat from terrorism. As a defender of civilization against barbarism on the front lines of the war with Islamic State, al-Qaida and the totalitarian ideology they represent, Israel should attract admirers.

While MLA members might not all be quite ready for that, there is hope. As this win over anti-Semitic boycotts demonstrates, there is light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. One sees more clearly than ever that BDS—understood as a symptom of a floundering p. c. agenda—is not primarily a “left versus right issue” but rather an occasion for people of integrity, across the board, to stand together for basic intellectual liberty and fundamental pedagogic, professional, and civilizational ethics. This will be key, in the years ahead, to a robust defense of the humanities in terms of the meaning and value of a “liberal education.”

That I personally canvassed for Hillary Clinton in my community (a tiny blue dot in a sea of red) may not be relevant (so did a lot of other people, it wasn’t enough). However, that I also signed a petition to help bring up for a vote at the MLA an emergency resolution—in solidarity with a similar AAUP statement, wary of the new administration vis–à–vis the humanities and supportive of diversity in education—serves as another indication of what I, for one, see as at stake in this discussion.

Perhaps, too, it gives a sense of where the other side is coming from. For, when in Philadelphia I spoke to the urgency of opposing “discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religion or national origin,” several of the leaders of BDS stood up to speak dismissively—with contempt, even—of the measure. Indeed, it is fair to say they addressed its principled stand with derision. One BDS supporter, sounding a bit like Trump in tone, even mocked it as “namby-pamby.” At least they didn’t say it was for pussies, in spite of their tough-guy rhetoric.

Just Say No to Discrimination on the Basis of Nationality

Now that the President on the United States has instituted a policy of discrimination against refugees and other immigrants on the basis of nationality, the only consistent position is to oppose such discrimination in all its forms.

In this regard, the MLA membership as a whole has the opportunity to send a message, while finally closing the door on distracting debates aimed at singling out one small nation-state as the sole object of a scholarly organization’s ill-informed foreign policy. As Cary Nelson has shown, in an article aptly titled “The BDS Disinformation Campaign at the MLA,” a tendentious case for smashing the Zionist Entity was riddled with false claims from the start. The tissue of “alternative facts” presented in support of the pro-boycott proposal, submitted by Rebecca Comay and David Lloyd, thus also helped sink BDS in Philadelphia.

Over the summer, as fair-minded MLA members at large prepare to vote on the (antiboycott) measure that did pass the DA—Resolution 2017-1, proposed by Russell Berman and Martin Shichtman—some will want to go back and peruse Nelson’s detailed article for themselves, comparing it to the shoddy materials the BDSniks proffered. Others will simply conclude that in principle judging this sort of thing is not the business of the MLA—and so will vote a priori to endorse the antiboycott resolution, for that reason alone.

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American Psychosis

mitchell_psych

For a psycho-social analysis of the Trump election, see W. J. T. MItchell’s lecture, “American Psychosis,” delivered at the University of Geneva on January 18, 2017.

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The Election of Aristophanes

Jonathan Doering

 

As if swept up by a sinister, laughing wind, the characters of Aristophanes scattered across the American election. Sophists, sycophants, demagogues, and tyrants—all Greek figures employed by the Athenian “Father of Comedy”—blew across the political and media landscape. Swap Donald Trump and his caballing acolytes with the pseudopopulist heroes and villains of Aristophanes and few would notice. “The Theatre,” Trump declared, “must always be a safe and special place”: if only he knew the Aristophanic arsenal amassed for ridiculing his “ancient Trumps” like Cleon and Alcibiades. The comedian coined demagogue and devised its comic archetype, an eel-fisher who catches nothing in clear waters but reaps bounties by stirring slime. Thus if Trump never existed, Aristophanes would be forced to invent him. Mere decades after democracy’s inception in Athens, the playwright yoked it to comedy; when democracy mires itself in the mud, we spot him on the scene. From carnivalesque populism to debates over political correctness, Aristophanes whispers his stage directions to the political order. No one else so effortlessly captures the careening hypocrisies of born elites who pursue populism. No one else understood that the populist farce, in the repetitions of history, comes before the tragedy—the reverse quip of Karl Marx. The winds blow Aristophanic.

trump_birds

Peisetaerus of Birds becomes the best backbone for Trumpian flesh. A bombastic sophist, fancying himself a developer for the tremendous new city of Cloudcuckooland—to be surrounded by a great wall—Peisetaerus means “persuader of his comrades” in Greek. Disillusioned with Athenian (American) life, he quarrels with the gods (Washington elites) after pitching his increasingly grandiose schemes to the birds (American people). Peisetaerus bests the Olympians (Rubio, Bush, Kasich), eventually being crowned tyrannos: a buffoonish sophist-god-tyrant. The apotheosis of Peisetaerus—god of the gods—marks the finale of Birds, ending its prophecy for 2016.

There was no sequel, but a great many Trumpian motifs: a scam university in Clouds, an assault on the judiciary in Wasps, a meat salesman’s campaign for power in Knights (sausages, not steaks). Right out of Trump supporters’ nightmares, Praxagora of Assemblywomen wins the election and encourages her fellow women to implement a socialist regime. Yet Aristophanes was no Marx; intractable ironies stifle these political programs. The quasi-feminist sex strike in Lysistrata leaves critics wondering whether Aristophanes—like Trump says of himself—“is the best for women” or simply practices classic Athenian misogyny. Aristophanes believed in democracy more strongly than Trump, but in both we find a kind of comedic realpolitik. Winning the Dionysia festival, like winning business or votes, was paramount. “Vote for us,” cry the titular creatures of Birds, “or we’ll shit on you.” Scholars interrogate the playwright’s politics as the Aristophanic question par excellence; now its uncertainty is itself Trumpian.

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Lysistrata re-imagined in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq

Aristophanes’ cornucopia of churlish wit belongs mostly to the left these days, but electing a “pussy-grabber” represents a dubious right-wing victory against “political correctness”—of all political terms, the most incoherent. Though often used against left identity politics, this linguistic policing classically belonged to the right, protecting authority and the state. Its logic is patriotism; civil language was civic. Even the irreverent Aristophanes offered a “safe space” for certain conservative elements in Athens. Classical Greek obscenity did not recognize tainted words, argues Jeffrey Henderson, only a concept of bringing shame (crucial in Trumpian rhetoric). In Henderson’s fine translation—the first unexpurgated one in English— Peisetaerus decrees that if the gods trespass (through the fabled wall) “then clap a seal on their boners, so they can’t fuck those women anymore.” Yet obscene language in Aristophanes and Trump conceals reactionary political prohibition. The first “politically incorrect” comedian was sometimes a hypocrite, a term whose meaning was aptly embroidered by ancient drama, whose mantle robes Trump so extravagantly today.

The spirit of 2016 was a carnival of sinister comedy rejecting policy-politics-polis as serious inquiry. Mikhail Bakhtin understood carnivalesque literature as turning the world upside down; each play of Aristophanes indeed turns Athens inside out. Bakhtin wed the carnivalesque with the grotesque: the openings and protrusions of the body, elements that are “disgusting”— Trump’s favourite word. Trump injected the grotesque into politics in an Aristophanic throwback. He made politics bodily again: about menstruation (Megyn Kelly), his small, germophobic hands (the “short-fingered vulgarian”), and his histrionic hair (Aristophanes, famously bald, lacked Trumpian technologies). The penile exchange between Trump and Marco Rubio was ripped right out of Birds with its cocks of many feathers. If Straussians fancy robing naked power with decorum, then Trumpians dress it in the costumes of old comedy, padded outfits affixed with giant leather phalluses.

The notion that jesting statements are harmless first ran aground when Aristophanes lampooned Socrates in Clouds, influencing the jurors who later sentenced him to death. This literary-political relationship haunts G. W. F. Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, and Leo Strauss. Aristophanes’ engagement with the real inhabitants of Athens, however, is inseparable from his rhapsodic imaginings of the polis undergoing sexual and socialist revolutions. His comedies are neither utopias nor dystopias, yet each reveals the contingency of the political order. Some escape Athens, others return to an older Athens, each rips through the status quo like the thunderous flatulence in Clouds—the “winds” of revolution and deviance. Already recognized as the “prince” of comedy, he should be hailed as patron of dissent and political imagination.

Western democracies claim and clamour over their Greek heritage. Yet they repressed Aristophanes—who insists he is among the greatest comedians of all time—and now his spirit returns, demanding exaltation. If greatness demands relevance, then Trump vindicates Aristophanes. A superlative satirist before satire even had a name, Aristophanes coined spoudaiogeloion, or the seriocomic. Tragedy seems apt for the terrifying state of the world today, but hearing the raucous, knowing laughter of Aristophanes, we must study how comedy arms and disarms; laughter can be both virtuous and vicious. Post-truth may be the word of year, but we are not postcomedy—as dire as this seriocomedy proves to be. Trump claims the world is “laughing at us”: as always, the questions are who to laugh with, who to laugh at, and when there must be no laughter at all.

Working between rhetoric and philosophy, Jonathan Doering studies the reception and presence of classical and modern rhetoric in French thought, and examines sophists both ancient and modern. He is finishing his PhD at the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism in London, Ontario.

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