The Polemics of Andrew Piper’s ENUMERATIONS

This is in response to Andrew Piper’s new book Enumerations: Data and Literary Study (Univ of Chicago Press, Aug 2018).

Piper’s characterization of literary studies does not hold up to contemporary literary studies (of which he is a part). He only uses examples from Auerbach and Barthes. While both of these are mammoth names in literary criticism, there are many useful counterexamples to Piper’s claims about modeling, which he places in a false binary against literary criticism. What Piper seems to say is that literary criticism is bad at doing what it sets out to do because it fails to “foreground the constructedness of knowledge and the observer’s place within it,” which is something he suggests models do inherently (9). However, I’m not sure this is so. An important counterexample to this inherent quality of modeling can be found in the critical genre of new historicism, which Piper particularly damns as failing its own premises, a “great [paradox] of intellectual history” (8). Susan Sontag is one critic who comes to mind that would remind Piper that models, like images and other cultural creations, only reveal their processes/biases of creation when they are presented with this in mind. In other words, models will only “implicate us within them” if they make explicit these means of presentation (11).

Models, though, are tricky because, as Piper points out, “much of the language of empiricism that has surrounded the initial rise of the field” centers a notion of equivalence between numerating and objectivity (ibid). This is to say that modeling may actually be a place at the bottom of a steep hill where each step is marred by the weight of the societal perception that when something is in a graph it is scientifically proven and thus objectively true. Models, therefore, do not fundamentally make explicit their biases or constructedness because they are also produced in a culture that associates modeling with objective truth. This critique of modeling is, of course, a new historicist one. I am obviously skeptical that modeling inherently prompts a hermeneutic analysis of the data it models. On the contrary, I think the perception is that when data is modeled, its conclusions are fixed truths. In the same way Piper argues against Auerbach’s misuse of anecdotal evidence, models can be and are used as anecdotal proof of ideological claims. This is what I mean when I say he sets up modeling and literary criticism (particularly new historicism) into a false binary. They need not be battling. A better argument for Piper’s book would be that modeling and new historicist methodologies ought to be employed to “foreground the constructedness of knowledge and the observer’s place within it” by disassociating societal claims that models showcase objective truth.

Piper thinks criticism is “magic,” whereby “the imperious pronouncements of the literary critic who is only ever right” disseminates knowledge but this is not inherently so (11). Many critics, including those who study gender and sexuality and those who do cultural studies, seek as their onus the revealing of the proliferation of structures of power like that of the “magic” “imperious” critic. Critical University Studies does so within academia itself. Piper caricatures criticism as a big bad wolf-type villain, which frames his intervention as a vive la revolution stick-it-to-the-man. But neither of these things are true. Critical processes are developed over decades and centuries, are constantly reflexive, and are thus not fixed truths. They can make “the study of literature more architectonic and less agonistic, more social and collective” (11). For examples, a critic interested in doing cultural studies must first understand the precedent methodologies of critics like Grascmi, Althusser, Leclau, and even Marx because cultural studies did not up-and-go like the Big Bang. On the contrary, it was developed out of many questions posed by different critics using different methods and data as well as out of the critiques of previous systems of criticism in much the same way empirical science developed. The glaring difference, of course, is that only one of these things is ripped to shreds by Piper.

Piper does acknowledge that his processes are “in many ways no different from the critic’s approach,” though this is only after setting up a polemic against criticism (17). I actually agree with much of Piper’s conclusions about the ways digital computation modeling can reveal how “context is never fixed, but always perspectival” (ibid). My friction is in suggesting that modeling inherently does this without first making it an explicit goal, acknowledging that modeling exists in a system of empirical-centrist dogma that frames the conclusions of numerating methodologies as objective truth. “Focusing on the implicatedness of modeling,” in Piper’s words, “helps us see the intersections…rather than the mutual exclusivity” of “nascent empiricism or residual subjectivity surrounding reading” (19). Piper’s presentation of repetitive, implicated, distributed, and diagrammatic reading may shift contemporary studies away from binaries like “distant/close, deep/shallow, critical attached” reading. His book may, indeed, “[mark] out an end of a particular tradition, in which the technologies of the book and the photograph have been used as the exclusive tools of understanding those very same media” (21). Why, though, does Piper begin the book with a polemic against the very criticism he wishes to employ via computation modeling? In other words, Enumerations may actually be the most recent formulation of new historicism, not its enemy.

Explaining A PARADISE BUILT IN HELL by Rebecca Solnit

Solnit begins her 2009 book discussing the essential nature of humanity. Not an easy task, Solnit’s argument is framed around critical disaster theory and personal experience and interviews that Solnit herself did while visiting the ad hoc disaster relief agencies after the Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Solnit argues that, despite the moral touchstones within Western society that demand humans are inherently self-serving or selfish beings, something arises that looks like altruism when disaster strikes. In her Prelude, Solnit discusses disaster’s ability to level any socioeconomic divide by quite literally leveling any property or means of centralized aid. Where altruism arises, Solnit argues, is between neighbors–no matter how diverse.

Mainstream media portrayals of selfish violence in times of disaster appear, Solnit argues, as early as Genesis. Solnit points out, “when God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain asks back ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’” (3). Cain calls to mind one of the most important questions about human nature: “Are we beholden to each other, must we take care of each other, or is it every man for himself?” (3). What Solnit argues, of course, is that the question of taking care of one another is fundamentally tied to situations of disaster. What disaster shows is not a commitment to one’s own desires, beliefs, or economic circumstance but rather the ability to find common ground and shape a future that is beautiful, safe, and sturdy. The rupture of everyday life causes community enjoyment, “an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive” (5).

Disaster can even help facilitate something like assimilation, Solnit argues, offering a story about a Native American who was trapped by dense tule fogs that overtook California’s Central Valley had ended up feeling for the first time “a sense of belonging” (4). It is disaster that forms a different touchstone–one of community, Solnit argues. Out of the ashes and dust of mourning and grief comes new relationships with those who participate in disaster relief and between different organizations that may have been founded on adversarial belief systems (or at least partly made-up of people who have adversarial belief systems). The grief and tragedy surrounding connotations of the word disaster are not in their intrinsic or immediate manifestation but rather in what follows. In other words, one can (and perhaps must) decide to change the grief into solidarity, beauty, and love. From this, Solnit arrives at her title: A Paradise Built in Hell. The paradise arises out of the hell of disaster–both in its material tragedy and in the denial of its representation in media that insists humans’ selfish nature. This concept of disaster, Solnit notes, can be revolutionary.

Recent history has blocked solidarity and moves toward communal paradise through intense privatization, something Solnit addresses early to discuss the fallout of W. Bush’s popularity but takes up more specifically in her discussion of New Orleans mayor post-Katrina. Though privatization has an economic connotation, Solnit notes, no “consignment of jurisdictions, goods, services, and powers–railways, water rights, policing, education–to the private sector” (9) can happen without also privatizing imagination and desire. The operation of disasters is in undoing this privatization, sending decision-making and impromptu life-saving to community, giving each citizen (which she defines) of that community “participation, agency, purposefulness, and freedom” (9). These “flashes,” as she calls them, of altruism and community building occur through disaster.

In her chapter named after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theory of “beloved community,” Solnit goes through several different organizations that begin post-Katrina disaster relief uniquely, fit in with each particular community uniquely, and then follows them through to their afterlives. Her first example of happiness from grief is provided by the mother of an American soldier killed in the Iraq War, Cindy Sheheen, who moved herself to protest the war at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas to create Camp Casey (named after her son). In the improvised protest camp, Sheheen said it was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to her, something which Solnit notes seemed to prove “grief had hollowed out all usual needs and left her nothing but a purity of purpose” (285). King’s “beloved community” accomplishes just this: an emptying out of adversity that is filled with good social change.

Solnit argues what is so perfect about King’s “beloved community” is King’s commitment not only to vast systemic change, the end of apartheid in America, but in community-building based on breaking down adversarial barriers, something perhaps much more difficult to accomplish. The disaster provides the perfect environment for the “beloved community” to come into fruition because it requires that centralized institutions work well in tandem with grassroots relief organizations, that each side is utilized for its different strengths and that in their cooperation, their nature as adversaries take a backseat. “Antiwar, environmental, social justice, human rights, and other movements generate new communities, often transcending old divides, and in the process bringing something of that urgency, purposefulness, suspension of everyday concerns, fellowship, and social joy also found in disaster,” Solnit says (286). Thus, communities are built by the neighbors that run grassroots organizations and with the wide-encompassing scope of more centralized institutions. This, Solnit’s book argues, is most capable after disasters– when the fundamental human nature is discovered as being compassionate, loving, and neighborly. We are, indeed, our brother’s keeper.

Different organizations that may have been built around opposing ideologies, who may have in everyday life become enemies of one another accomplish solidarity in times of disaster, Solnit argues. She lists two very good examples of these between organizations like Common Ground, whose founding came out of the same message as well as at least one member of the Black Panthers militant group of the 1960s, and the Rainbow Family, which derived from the hippie counterculture and LGBT rights advocacy movements. Common Ground found solidarity amid the huge socioeconomic racial divide in New Orleans and amid the racist portrayals of looters and criminals in the Katrina aftermath on news media worldwide. The Rainbow Family likewise found solidarity with evangelical Christians in the disaster relief community. Barriers break down and adversarial drawbacks dissolve in the service of fellow citizens when disaster strikes.

Decentralized decision-making and democratic community-building arrive to us, Solnit argues, through the material devastation of disaster. By providing disruption to everyday life, the ruins of disaster have revolutionary potential to thwart privatization and elitist fear. Joy from disaster, love from desperation, paradise from hell has been the major preface to what Solnit throws back out to the readers in her Epilogue. Solnit leaves us with this: “it is poverty and powerlessness that make people vulnerable” (308). As climate change accelerates and inflates disaster, the elites will panic and try to privatize. One’s job, then, as moral citizen is to see disaster as an opportunity rather than a damnation.

Explaining “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)” by Fred Moten

Fred Moten begins his “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)” by praising Afro-pessimism in the work of Frank B. Wilderson III and Jared Sexton. He moves to agree that scholarship cannot be divorced from a hatred of blackness, yet acknowledges tension remains in his love for Sexton and Wilderson’s work. Moten says he plans to stage his position not in opposition to Sexton and Wilderson’s, but alongside them.

Given critical attention to the ship hold, Moten argues that a point of view from the hold is no point of view or standpoint at all, but is rather “refusal of standpoint” (738). Moten says he plans to explore how blackness precedes ontology and thus is not lived in social death as Sexton would have it, but is irreducibly social. To deny sociality exists within the hold of the ship would be, Moten says, to deny value to the terror of that position (a position which, in being a refusal of standpoint is also not a position). Given this, the black, individual standpoint is impossible and thus blackness, Moten asserts, is nothing—not even social death, as Sexton and Wilderson would have it.

Moten, as if to perform his own relation to the work of Sexton and Wilderson and their relation to Du Bois and Fanon, brings up Orlando Patterson’s work as a bridging piece (an image Moten later picks up) between Arendt, Moten, and the Afro-pessimists. This is to say that while Moten’s diction is closely concerned with the subtleties of word difference—like “social poetics” and “aesthetic sociology” (742), “fugue” and “fugitive” (743), “afro-pessimism” and “optimism” (742), “present” and “unmade in presence” (743), “inside” and “outside” (740), “elsewhere” and “elsewhen” (746), “on hold but not in the hold” (750)—his syntax argues that blackness is not a dialectic, but rather it opens up into a constellation: “I plan to stay a believer in blackness, even as thingliness, even as (absolute) nothingness, even as imprisonment in passage on the most open road of all, even as…fantasy in the hold” (742-3). This substitutive nature of subtly different—or vastly different—words pushes Moten’s argument for sociality further: namely, in suggesting that words in their Derridean form (which is to say, meaning nothing while signifying something) are also social: “What is the nothingness, which is to say the blackness, of the slave that it is not reducible to what they did, though what they did is irreducible in it?” (744). In what Moten explains Sexton and Wilderson see as difference between his argument and theirs is, and this is his term, “apposition.” In other words, their theories are subtly different yet have an inherently social relationship between one another in the same valence that the words themselves in his form have sociality.

Moten points out that by maintaining a position of both non-relationality and non-communicability, Wilderson creates a contradiction in terms, for it is only through acknowledging a possible communicability can its negative (non-communicability) be present. Thus, non-relationality is simultaneously impossible, because communicability (or its negative) recognizes intersubjectivity (748-9). Moten later poses this as the key to understanding the difference between pessimism and optimism, namely that the gap between “an assertion of the relative nothingness of blackness and black people in the face, literally, of substantive (anti-black) subjectivity and of an inhabitation of appositionality, its internal social relations, which remain unstructured by the protocols of subjectivity” (750). Moten, again, distinguishes his own theory and that of Wilderson and Sexton not as oppositional but appositional.

Moten agrees with Wilderson’s seemingly paradoxical notion that between blackness and antiblackness is “the unbridgeable gap between Black being and Human life” (749). However, he says what remains is the divorce of blackness from blacks and vice versa: “the necessity of an attempt to index black existence by way of … paraontological, rather than politico-ontological, means” (749). Blackness is required to “serially commit” this act of detachment (749). In this detached state, blackness (rather than blacks) is “unsettlement” (750). Moten makes use of Nathaniel Mackey’s mu from Splay Anthem to serially perform the centrifugal and spiral nature of returning to the sociality of the ship hold. The detachment, then, is a repetitive dissociation from subjectivity “so that what’s at stake … is a certain black incapacity to desire sovereignty and ontological relationality” (750). This incapacity either enables or is itself the stage for sovereignty’s brutal materiality, which Moten brings forth after quoting Kitarō Nishida’s “echoing [of] a traditional Buddhist teaching” (750). Nishida helps Moten to argue also that blackness is a place which has no place. This recalls his earlier figure of nothingness, “the rich materiality of … emptiness” (745), but takes it a step further in the direction of the dialectic: “Things are in, but they do not have, a world, a place, but it is precisely both the specificity of having neither world nor place and the generality of not having that we explore at the nexus of openness and confinement, internment and flight” (751). Moten argues that the hold, in being the place which is a no-place, dissolves sovereignty, and in being “the social life of black things, which passeth understanding” allows for blackness and imagination within the hold to become one (752).

After assessing blackness, Moten turns to nothing, which in its fullness (and thus in its relation to blackness) can be called “fantasy in the hold” (752). Before this, though, he returns to mu, from which issues concentration to the “social materiality of no place, of Having No Place,” in the hold (752). Within the hold remains sociality, even via physical touching, but Moten, in reading Foucault and Deleuze-reading-Foucault, understands the inside of the hold as also a fold of the outside of the hold, the no-place that is also a place. Moten insists this rhetorical move is not a dialectic one, but one which opens up the in-betweenness of the passage, of the in-and-outness of the hold. This brings Moten back to the Afro-pessimists and the question of nothing being with nothing again, a question asked to be unasked, he says. This unasking, Moten argues, “is mu … because nothing (this para-ontological interplay of blackness and nothingness, this aesthetic sociality) remains to be explored” (755-6). Thus, Moten is serially performing, almost spirally within his text, the very thing for which he argues: mu, or “repeatedly circling or cycling back” (747). In returning to the question of nothing, Moten also returns to the notion of standpoint or position. He questions whether the sharing of life within and out of the hold can create sociality for the sake of “extra-phenomenological poetics of social life” (756). Out of the emptiness and nothingness comes, in exhaustion, friendship. This life is derived outside of being (given the detachment of blackness from being or the para-ontology of blackness).

Storytelling and Distortion in Kanafani and Gaza

For this reading (in my Literature of the Middle East and North Africa course), we read Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian StoriesMen in the Sun, his novella in this collection is not addressed here.

The group of stories we had to read this weekend was all concerned with storytelling itself. One of the things I find interesting is narratology—it’s just something I really enjoy. One of the things that kept striking me in each of these stories was the focus on the way information gets told to us. Kanafani’s stories avoid direct narration in favor of round-about ways to tell us information.

In “The Falcon,” a lot of the information told to us by Jadaan (particularly at the end) is recognized as “weak and scarcely audible” (107). In the excerpt from Umm Saad, the information on young Saad is all given to us via his mother – and in turn, her advice to the narrator is for him to go and tell the general, not her. “A Hand in the Grave” has characters who are all concerned with the potentiality of the story – Nabil is concerned with being a part of the “in-crowd” if he has a skeleton to bring and Suhail wants the opportunity (and then cashes in on this opportunity) to talk about the experience of digging up a skeleton. Even in the peripheral storylines of “A Hand in the Grave,” the father is concerned with what is not being told to him (whether Nabil got enough rest). Finally, in “Letter from Gaza,” the story is epistolary and we are told that Nadia had previously also written letters to her uncle about what she wanted.

What does this all mean? I’m not exactly sure. What I’m curious to discuss in class is how information gets told to us and what relevance that holds. I gather that Jadaan’s voice is particularly distorted in “The Falcon,” but I’m left wondering why Kanifani mentions this if he goes on to tell us what Jadaan says anyway. Are we to question whether our narrator heard Jadaan’s advice? Are we to question whether to trust the advice if it sounds like it’s coming through a tunnel? When Mubarak is whispering to the narrator, are we to understand this as intimacy or distrust it because he’s seemingly tattling on Jadaan. I know these are a lot of questions without seemingly any sort of thesis to answer them, but I’m just curious with why the way information is told to us is relevant – what are we to think of the information itself if the presentation is altered? That’s my concern.

To zoom out, it makes me think about the media focus that Zionist western sources have taken – on Israel. And even when Palestinian stories are told or used, it seems hopeless – like there is no helping a people who are so hurt and down that they have no sense to lead (when that is in fact not true – there is leadership in the Palestinian fight for independence). But to me, as I was looking through Jadaliyya, I came across a photo set called “Gaza in the dark” from Aljazeera (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2016/08/gaza-dark-160801143748969.html (Links to an external site.)).

Depicted in the photos is the life of many Palestinians living their lives mostly in the dark, as the Egyptian-Israeli blockade renders electricity rationed. How does this relate? Well, the basis of the series is to illustrate how life looks quote-unquote ‘in the dark.’ This concerns the distortions of imagery and storytelling visually whereas “The Falcon” focuses on the auditory distortions of information delivery and “Letter from Gaza” focuses on the formal procedures of epistolary and “A Hand in the Grave” focuses on the ramifications of telling a ‘good’ story or a ‘bad’ story.

The Prince of Dust: Saadi Youssef and Modern Poetics in The Occupied Arab World

This is a blogpost written for my class “Literature of the Middle East and North Africa” taught by Dr. Angela Naimou in Fall 2016. Our assignment every week is to write 500 words on our reading assignment. This week we were instructed to pick one or two lines from one of Saadi Youssef’s poetry (trans. by Khaled Mattawa), which we read alongside Mattawa’s introduction to his volume of translated Youssef poetry Without an Alphabet, Without a Face

 

I do not want your hand. Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.

— “Reception,” Saadi Youssef (trans. Khaled Mattawa)

 

I. Punctuation

The punctuation is simple, predictable. Just two periods annotating the end of each statement. The first sentence seems more open than the second, not only because the first is declarative while the second is imperative but also because quite literally the first sentence requires open-mouth to form the vowel for “I do not…” while the second sentence begins with a consonant — which are verbally more assertive. Thus, we go from the open (perhaps more amiable) “I do not want your hand” to the critical, more essential “Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.” However, while the second sentence may seem to be more explosive, it is still punctuated by a period. So while it may begin with a slightly more explosive sound with the consonant and its feeling as an imperative may begin as a louder tone, the sentence as a whole feels more instructive with a subdued, offended anger rather than a fed-up revolutionary or war-like anger.

This reminds me of Mattawa’s introduction of the material when he talks about Youssef’s preference of the whisper over a declamation, “as it captures both the intimacy and the urgency of an utterance.” I think that seems to be what we see here in this quotation from “Reception.” This is not a shout. It begins with the intimacy of both image (a hand) and sound (open vowel sound of “I” and first-person) and then arrives at the more-urgent “Do not” with the consonant and (in the second sentence more abruptly) with the imperative.

 

II. POV and rhetorical position & function

The first sentence is in first-person POV and the second sentence has an implied second-person POV. Together, these two also create a close intimacy – that of the (implied) “you” and the “I.” While this may seem like a short and simple explanation without excitement, in the context of the poem itself, which is a meditation on all of life, this is extremely intimate.

The speaker is juxtaposing several images (in a single line even) that may line-by-line not hold much correlation but that wholly become an essence or microcosm of a greater identity. By this, I mean while one or two lines may not give us any sort of lead about what a poem quote-unquote “is about,” reading several lines and indeed the entire poem gathers into this wider essence that itself is a microcosm of some memory, location, event, and/or people.

The poem features these intimate moments in different POVs – some are in third-person, some in first-person. The only imperative sentence in the entire poem is in my quotation: “Do not toss me your rope made of tatters.” Plus, it is one of only two sentences in the whole poem in second-person. What does this do for the poem? Well, it means our most intimate moment is an imperative, a command. The other second-person sentence is “They are chanting for you, girl of the harbor tavern.” Because the “you” is named in the appositive at the end of the sentence, the sentence does not have as close intimacy as second-person normally has. Thus, again, the most intimate moment in the entire poem (between “you” and “I”) is these two sentences, the first a repudiation of help and the second a command.

 

III. [I don’t know what to title this section…Conclusion, maybe?]

I’ve already reached my word-count talking about the functions of the specific mechanics of these two lines in the poem so I won’t spend much more time here, but I haven’t even talked about why I chose these two lines. What interests me most about this material specifically is what Mattawa calls Youssef’s “greatest contribution to contemporary Arabic poetry [: …] to preserve the dignity of personal experience, despite and within a context of difficult socio-political realities in his native Iraq and in the Arab world at large.” My quotation shows and intimate moment that does emanate personal dignity: I will not take your help; I did not ask for it; Do not pretend to care for me by giving me your second-rate “help.”

If indeed “the creation of personal freedom was the third frontier for Arab poetry” after (1) wrestling stagnant traditions and (2) wrestling the forces of colonialism, then that freedom also includes the freedom to say no. I think what we’ll encounter (especially once we get to the Lila Abu-Lughod piece) is that no genuine intimacy is ever established between the West and its colonial subjects in the Middle East, no intimacy that would allow for the freedom to say “No, we don’t want your help;” because while we become a part of our own self-rendered colonial narrative of granting Freedom, we do not seem to wonder (1) why we have the right to ‘grant’ it at all and (2) whether those to whom we grant it actually asked for it.

Western Narcissistic Highground and Narratology

Here, I am talking about the Frantz Fanon chapter entitled “Concerning Violence” from his book The Wretched of the Earth and the Abu-Lughod piece is her essay from American Anthropologist 2002 entitled “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.”

For much of the beginning of the essay, Fanon talks about this notion of compartmentalizing of colonialism. Obviously, as everyone else has mentioned (and as anyone who has actually read the piece will mention), he is outlining the impact of the colonist on the colonized–in every facet and chiefly in violence. I confess I haven’t finished the entire reading (and hopefully judging by its length we will spend more time discussing this on Thursday having by that time also watched the film), but I see this heading in the direction of validating violent decolonization and violent revolution/rebellion (like that of Saint-Domingue and Cuba and much of Latin America and Africa) for the colonized.

Another interesting tangent he goes on in the beginning that I see coming back is the Marxist idea of the uneducated or non-intellectual colonized (who I think Marx called like limproletariat or something like that) who bring the ultra-despair that compartmentalized defeat in battle (p 50) or the deafening isolation of the compartmentalizing bureaucracy in setting up a nationalized-decolonized state (p 50), mostly because his whole thesis seems to be this idea that decolonization is not liberation, just substitution (something I find extremely relevant given Fidel Castro’s statement about Pres. Obama visiting Cuba and wishing for better future relations).

Nonetheless, as my title outlines, I am mostly concerned and interested in the argument Fanon is making that the colonist (and by proxy the West) takes a narcissistic highground of (A) geographical, (B) economic, (C) ethical, (D) linguistic, (E) biological, and (F) historical narratives. He (the colonist), in compartmentalizing the structure of everything surrounding the life of the colonized, has forced a dominance over it all not only in a physical, tactile way but in the way of narrative. Thus, it is not only a physical domination by the colonist that anticipates the last becoming first, but the colonist’s control over a narrative of a Manichean forever-battle that breeds nationalist fascism following and as a direct result of the process of decolonization.

 

Fanon says–

A—p 39-40 “The look that the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possession–all in manner of possession: to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible. The colonized man is an envious man. And this the settler knows very well…This world divided into compartments, this world cut in two is inhabited by two different species.”

Here we have this idea of a geographical dominance over the colonized. This is a very physical, tactile dominance, of course, but I am more interested in the interaction between the way this ties to an overlying idea of claim — the narrative of claim. He talks in the essay too about the dignity of owning one’s own land–in the philosophical tradition a very Western ideal (Anglo even, via Locke). So my question here is who has access to the narrative of geographical claim? Who has access to the language, to the rhetoric of claiming land–you see this is different from who has right to land, something much less able to be substantiated.

B—p 40 “In the colonies the economic substructure is also superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”

This one is also about access to narrative. Economics, especially in a Marxist and therefore anti-capitalist essay, may seem to be a centerpiece of a tactile argument about colonialism, but I am still yet more concerned with who has access to a narrative of economics. If the very domination of the colonized by the colonists is in imposing these compartmentalized sectors, including economic pressure and exploitation and more significantly for me the Western economic narrative, then the argument is made for the colonists before the question gets asked. What I simply mean is that the very economics we are to call into question (in the tactile evaluation of economics) are already in the very language of the West, part of the Western economic narrative, not the economic narrative of the native. Thus, a cause-as-consequence narrative dominance for the colonist.

C—p 41 “Native society is not simply described as a society lacking in values. It is not enough for the colonist to affirm that those values have disappeared from, or still better never existed in, the colonial world. The naive is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values.”

For the native, the ethical narrative to which he will never be allowed access is that of the colonists. This point I think Fanon goes into deeper quite nicely. It reminds me of the AbuLughod essay when she pointed out the fact that there are already narratives and practices and people and ideas on the ground prior to the colonist’s imposition. The self-gratifying nature of the colonist is also in denying the mere existence of an already in-place ethical system (which Fanon brings up in the African institution of a society that endorses self-shaming). Again, the denial of access to the ethical narrative for the native.

D—p 42 “At times this Manicheism goes to its logical conclusion and dehumanizes the native, or to speak plainly, it turns him into an animal…When the settler seeks to describe the native fully in exact terms he constantly refers to the bestiary.”

This is perhaps the most straightforward of the denial of narrative just because it is linguistic. The very language used to describe (even in poetry and fiction–think “fiery tropical eyes” and the eroticism/over-sexualization of the native female by the colonists) native is only decided by the colonists. The access or control in narrative itself is compartmentalized and dominated by the colonist.

E—p 43 “The native knows all this, and laughs to himself every time he spots an allusion to the animal world in the other’s words. For he knows that he is not an animal; and it is precisely at the moment he realizes his humanity that he begins to sharpen the weapons with which he will secure its victory.”

This quote interests me the most–there is something here about the fact that a biological narrative of dominance is from the point of view in the essay of the native: here we see the rhetorical function flipped from colonist-centered to native-centered. I don’t know what to make of this or whether it matters, but I’m certain it does. Perhaps something about the notion of imposing dominance through violence becomes a biologically-distinct reaction of violence.

F—p 51 “The settler makes history and is conscious of making it. And because he constantly refers to the history of his mother country, he clearly indicates that he himself is the extension of that mother country. Thus the history which he writes is not the history of the country which he plunders but the history of his own nation in regard to all that she skims off, all that she violates and starves.”

This one is the the one that really set it off for me, the one that made me go back through what I had read and find where we have the narrative dominance. As the saying goes, the victors write history. Colonists are the victors every time and, as Fanon’s argument perfects, de-colonists still do not write the history. There is a narrative dominance in history that the colonist will always have if even just because of chronology–but moreover, I think what is much more thesis-driven is access to a historical narrative. This quotation sums it up perfectly–as the domination of the capitalist-colonist continues its raid, the access to historical narrative is simultaneously compartmentalized and unified into one common narrative that the victor and only the victor dictates.

 

So, yea I know this post is long but I’m most concerned with this idea of access to narrative and the western narcissistic high-ground (narcissistic because of its paradoxical setup: cause as consequence and consequence as cause) and high-ground itself a paradox, leaving out any low-ground because the low-ground was destroyed and dominated. I didn’t really get into the narratology part of my argument, but basically I think it’s just really awesome when form and content mesh well and precisely what Fanon is arguing has destroyed the colonized–Manichean compartmentalizing is exactly how his essay is set up: it’s compartmentalized (as any essay is) that follows from the visceral, more tactile-favored compartmentalizing to the philosophical and cultural compartmentalizing that ultimately itself leads us to the climax of his own thesis at which point he decolonizes his own argument. I don’t have the wordcount to explain, so disregard it if that made no sense.

Poetic Form and Subtextual Connection

For my critical theory class, we read Dunya Mikhail‘s THE WAR WORKS HARD, a collection of poems by the Iraqi poet. Specifically in this post, I talk about the poems “The Cup,” “The Theory of Absence” and “Transformations of the Child and the Moon.”

I think what she’s doing here with form is the most intriguing thing for me. It’s like the saying that goes “There are rules but the best writers always break them.” She’s certainly gained notoriety doing something people like here.

I would say Mikhail’s war poetry is certainly concerning the homefront and that she denies the need for a specific form and abandons the ‘rules’ (if there are any) for form. As the introduction of my book notes, she weaves together the poetic and the folkloric as a means of metaphorical discernment or understanding for what she’s been there.

In “The Cup,” we don’t quite at first get that the speaker is using a ouija board, but once we understand, the speaker begins to trust us with the rules that she sets up. For example, at the beginning of the poem, she says “the cup moved to the right for YES” we know from previous lines that all caps is the dialogue from the spirit itself. We’re also told there that the cup moves to the right. Later in the poem, when the spirit answers yes, the poem will just say “she cup moved to the right” or left for YES and NO. The reader intuits the rules naturally because they’re set up at the beginning of the poem. This is a perfect example of how she’s using form here to create a new place — a place where ouija boards actually work, which isn’t necessarily altogether unfamiliar given that we know what a ouija board is even though it is never called that in the poem. Nonetheless, it is the subliminal communication between reader and speaker in the poem that creates an underlying connection there through observation and then intuition in “The Cup.”

In “The Theory of Absence,” the speaker is using a predetermined setup of proofs in math or logic to prove the absence of a beloved. There’s a hypothesis, a desired result, and a proof to get from the hypothesis to the result. There are, of course, huge logical leaps and this is no logically sound equation, but the conceit works. And it’s poetic. There’s something very visceral in poetry about using something familiar–like a ouija board or a proof– and then modifying it just slightly so that it becomes useful for the poet to do what s/he wants. It doesn’t particularly bother me that we have different rules for ouija boards or proofs in these poems — I actually enjoy discovering the rules each time and I think that’s what she does best in these form choices, she’s subtly subverting our expectation and it feels like creation or connection — like an inside joke we have with the poet and even in third-person, there’s something that can do which vastly diminishes the distance between speaker and reader.

Finally, just one last poem, I think she does a marvelous job too in “Transformations of the Child and the Moon” of using the device of an image and having these small stanzas about the frozen frame to still express an action. These are images, they are frozen, and yet the verbs she uses (though past tense and therefore fixed in a timely preterit past) are action verbs — “the child went to the river” and “the child sank” all in the same poem as if there was a passage of time within the image itself, even given the image’s fixedness. Like this tiny little frozen image was more than that — a human is more than a frozen frame.

Post-9/11 American Terror: An Assault on Subjective Phenomena

For one of my critical theory classes, we read Art Spiegelman’s In The Shadow of No Towers. The references to (Melani) McAlister are from “A Cultural History of the War without End,” published in The Journal for American History in Sept. 2002 and the references to (Ernest) Renan are to his “What is a nation?” lecture, delivered 11 March 1882, translated by Martin Thom. This blogpost is one submitted to our class forum on Tuesday, Feb. 9 2015 for class credit.

In his opening two pages about the process of getting these images to paper and print, Spiegelman talks about how 9/11 becomes a disaster that marks a collision for him of world history and personal history (Spiegelman 1-A). The unfolding of his next eight pages is his experience, as a liberal GenX American Jew witnessing–experiencing, forever–that disaster, noting, “Disaster is my muse!” (Spiegelman 1-B).

It makes me think about my own life, my own collision, as a millennial, of world history and personal history.

The September 11th attack was not a quote-unquote ‘defining’ moment for me because it happened so early in my childhood. I was in first grade when 9/11 happened. All of my views about the event, about the terror, about the survivors and the loss (the #NeverForget coinage) have been disassociated from their original phenomena and from their original phenomenees, the feelers of those phenomena, in much the same way McAlister talks about the folkloric JFK-assassination-isms that this event creates, containing its own new oral histories (McAlister 439).

This Spiegelman piece, though, put in place a more subjective, a more real, experience for me of 9/11 in ways other things have not and, really, could not, by refusing (or at least grappling with the trouble of) any sort of consolidation of national identity caused by terror, which McAlister quotes Benedict Anderson as saying will happen like amnesia (McAlister 440).

For one, I feel betrayed — by my history teachers, by growing up in what Spiegelman might call “The United Red Zone of America” (Spiegelman 7), by my parents (GenXers themselves who never told me about this deafening, perception-shattering event in any more than a 150-character spoken tweet or blurb about the evils of the world and the trust we must have in “leadership”).

I was robbed, and maybe this is my own fault for remaining so ignorant all these years, of knowing about all of the controversy surrounding this war when what was told to me was that it was a no-brainer, retaliation and justice served in honor of the validated “he did it first”-ers, itself a sort of American identity.

In “Weapons of Mass Displacement” on #9, Spiegelman notes, “Remember how we demolished Iraq instead of Al-Quaeda.” Given that knowledge and the notion of a collision of personal and world history, this piece seems to be, at least in part, in conversation too with the Renan “What is a nation?” piece and his thesis that a nation is a union based on forgetfulness and even of historical error (Renan 11).

And I feel robbed again, not knowing any of this we-attacked-the-wrong-people story until extremely recently (as in winter break of this year). I almost feel like a despicable millennial — my generation, we value/prefer/require fuller, more complex narratives. Because we are more secular, we prefer truth and inclusion to any mythologies of uneven or negotiated history, which even Spiegelman seems to have contradicted when he says “disaster was my muse!” (1-B).

However, what I notice as much in that phrase as ‘disaster’ and ‘muse’ is the word ‘my,’ a reclaiming of his subjective phenomena from the hands of name-makers, those political poets that confirm a “culture is a crucial site for the negotiation of political and moral values for an often uneven and contested public understanding of history” (McAlister 441).

And as Spiegelman notes, 9/11 had become just that — a public understanding. He says, “My subconscious is drowning in newspaper headlines” and “The killer apes learned nothing from the twin towers of Auschwitz and Hiroshima” (Spiegelman #8).

I think that’s what’s so beautiful and real about this piece. Our narrator, whether this is memoiric for Spiegelman or not, is shedding light on a truer (or at least longer-running) terror that is inflicted on subjective phenomena in times of crisis.