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.

On the Through-line of Violence from Slavery to Present

This was submitted in response to an essay question for the final exam of a survey of American Literature from 1850-present.

Charles Chesnutt, who only receives an education because of the Freedman’s Bureau, writes in the Reconstruction Era America, fables of dispossession. The exploitation of blacks in America, we learn from these stories, does not end with slavery. His two characters John and Annie are created, I argue, as critiques of the Northern white capitalists come down to the South to take advantage of the economic destruction that was caused by the war. Slavery transforms into sharecropping whereby the economically wealthy class remains on top while the poor freed blacks are damned to tell their stories for amusement, joy, or if they’re lucky, publication. In Chesnutt’s case, publication only exists as playing into the stereotype of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (as we see from the cover of the original edition of The Conjure Woman) or the minstrel shows that came out of these fables of dispossession. The stories Chesnutt presents are stories of witness, witness to the disenfranchisement of blacks by the white capitalists. Instead of the slave master, the white capitalists of the north move in an notice the land is “neglected” as John says in one of the stories. What John notices as neglect is actually Julius’ owning the land. What John calls neglect is no white person owning the land and it is what gives John permission to recolonize the land for his own gain. Julius receives a job out of it as ‘consolation.’ It is in this way that slavery becomes expropriation to make sure blacks stay at the bottom rung of the economic strata.

Hurston’s female character Janie represents the triple exploitation of poor black women in the rural south of the early 20th century. Janie, in an attempt to find her ‘self,’ looks from husband to husband until she finally realizes in retelling her story to Phoebe that the self can only exist after such devastation within one’s own story. Even when she is with Jody, Janie talks about taking her self and putting replacing it with furniture. Or setting her self on a shelf inside herself. This dissociation of the self is, in my argument, Hurston’s attempt to represent what Marx calls our alienation from the self. What capitalism renders is people who have social relations with things and economic relations with people. After Jody opens up a story is when their relationship begins to deteriorate in the novel. At every marriage, it is the financial dependence or the financial insecurity that Janie has that ultimately, I argue, forces further divorce from herself. This is Hurston’s representation of the triple oppression of a poor black woman in the rural south.

What Walt calls Faulkner’s only reflective moment is at the end of Go Down, Moses with the character of Gavin Stevens. There is no reconciliation for the ultimate destruction and complete violation that is slavery. That seems to be the true tragedy of Faulkner’s novel. No matter what Stevens decides to do, obituary or not, money or not, funeral or not, there is no amount of present reparation that can create penance for slavery. This is to say that the economic structure of today is predicated on the economy created by the system of slavery, which means there is only one economic structure that has ever existed in America — capitalist slavery. It is only transformed from chattel slavery to another form of economic immobility.

The biggest moment in Brooks’ poetry that stands out is at the end of “The Last Quatrain Of The Ballad of Emmett Till” when the complete horror that is the grief of Emmett Till’s mother just empties out onto a landscape, as if such horror can only be understood as being outside of oneself. It makes me emotional even to type this, because one can only imagine that the biggest tragedy is something that divorces oneself from even being able to look into its direction, the only option being to turn away and look out into a landscape. Emmett Till, the boy beaten for allegedly catcalling at a girl–something she has since admitted never happened–had been beaten so bad, almost beyond recognition. His mother wanted him to have an open casket, to show the world that the horrific violence committed against blacks in America had not stopped at slavery. For every progression, there is a steady response of retaliatory violence.

This transforms into the hoodie on the cover of Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. What the hoodie represents is a complete identification, or rather a stripping of individual identity, emptying out onto a landscape of racial slurs, racial stereotypes, and ultimately violence. This violence, in 2017, is protested but not condemned in court as unjust. Michael Slager received a plea deal just this week. He will not have to receive a lifetime prison sentence for shooting Michael Scott at a traffic stop in North Charleston, South Carolina. What may seem as isolated incidents from slavery until now is actually one throughline of violence. The subjection of black people to violence in America has only transformed in nature and name. It is still violence. Literature presents an opportunity to imagine a world that could be better, to call a world that is unjust what it is. Until true democracy is realized, the representation of violence will persist. What Rankine did is considered a political act. It is, therefore, a political act to represent reality. That is what is at stake in the “alternative fact” America.

The Development of Consciousness from James to Robinson

This was submitted in response to an essay question for the final exam of a survey of American Literature from 1850-present.

Henry James, as we read in Washington Square, is a student of the French Realist school of thought. This is to say, according to Standhal, the job of the novel is as a mirror that walks along the road, reflecting back whatever exists in the world. It is only then that criticism can be made. In other words, the project of the novel is in mimesis, or in a performance of a reality. Instead of a plotted reality, James is interested in the representation of consciousness. Instead of the first-person narrative, though, James chooses instead to acknowledge the narrator as an outside entity thinking in on Catherine, who has her own thoughts. This is to say that while we never have access to Catherine’s thoughts (except one brief moment toward the end of the novel), we do have access to the thoughts of the narrator. This access to the thoughts of the narrator means we have an outsider’s view of what Catherine represents within the tapestry of American life at the time. Catherine does not exist as a subjective being in a universe by herself, she exists having been defined by those around here, particularly by her father who is constantly obsessed with finding someone who is worthy of her value — her dowry, her economic value. So, when James sits down to ask himself how he can represent the reality of consciousness for a character, the operation of consciousness seems to be an attempt to represent a subject within the trellis of the economics, which is to say the operation is to call forth economics or social class and history in his representation of reality and of “real” consciousness. This leaves two possible functions for consciousness: If the social classes do not exist, then his representation is generative of the representation of subjectivity within the American economy. If the social classes do exist, then his representation is perhaps an early critique on the reduction of anything or anyone (especially gendered things and ones) to their economic value.

This shifts when we read Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. With modernism, the narrator partakes in the action of the story. The only access to reality is through consciousness instead of standing on the outside, as if to stand on the (economic) structure itself like with James. Knowledge about the world is only verifiable for the modernist, for Cather, through a subjective perspective. The critique of one’s complete innerness being reduced to an economic value becomes complete submersion into subjectivity, an outright rejection of an objective understanding of meaning. In other words, there is no other Ántonia other than “my” Ántonia. The narrator’s relationship with the titular character is what brings her into reality. More specifically, it is Ántonia’s existence in the consciousness of the Jim, the narrator, that makes Ántonia “real.” Indeed, Jim Burden’s “burden” is that of the observer, the position from which one can call forth Ántonia’s story, as if without his story–the novel itself–there is no Ántonia. This is obviously a much more heightened version of what consciousness does for Cather’s writing. However, what we gather is the way subjective consciousness can either create–to the nth degree–or fail. There is nothing reliable about subjectivity and there is nothing objective about the representation of reality. That is how consciousness changes with Cather.

With Faulkner–still modernism–the focus is still on submersion into subjective consciousness. However, while Cather (and in many ways Hurston, as well) is interested in the ways naming things from a subjective point of view makes them real or somewhat real (flawed in that there is no objective naming, only naming that exists within the preconceptions of a single consciousness); Faulkner, on the other hand, is focused on the syntactical performance of consciousness itself. Faulkner is interested in the ways sentences are like thoughts. The project of the novel seems to instead of creating a plotted reality or a representation of reality, the representation of the performance of consciousness. Under Faulkner’s model, the reader does not simply understand that everything is subjective, but that subjectivity is so submersive that it is in reading a novel or chapter in its entirety that one gets the feeling that one has thought what is happening. In other words, only after reading the first chapter of Go Down, Moses does one have a sort of feeling of what is happening. Each sentence alone does not itself create story, it is the submersion into each thought, each sentence or as Pound calls the lines “flashing impressions”, into the performance of thought–altogether–that we understand plot or reality. Consciousness, then, is not represented just in its perspective as a subjective point of view, but as performed, as something which itself involves action. That is Faulkner’s innovation.

With Pynchon, we almost return full-circle to Standhal’s mirror from the Jamesian innovation. However, whereas the modernists tried to defamiliarize the process of consciousness (like Faulkner’s syntactical performances), the postmodernists use the over-familiarized commodity to commodify consciousness. In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas gets caught up in the dendritic mesh of global capitalism. At every stage, she questions whether it is all real or whether the will is a hoax. We never get an answer to this, left to wonder whether consciousness itself has been commodified and sold and rebranded and resold, which is to say whether consciousness itself can be manipulated or is manipulated by global capitalism or deindustrialization.

Finally, with Robinson, consciousness circles back in a repeated spiral, constantly within both past and present. The first two sentences of the novel tell what the rest of the novel explains, first begging the question “why continue to read?” Walter Benjamin reminds us that everything in the present owes something to the past, the past owns part of the present. This is to say that consciousness does not only take place in the present. The final innovation of consciousness is its awareness in both a present moment and a fixed or unfixed past. As the surface action unfolds, it is both indebted to the past itself and the way the past exists in the consciousness of the self.

Distance in Hassan Blasim’s “The Killers and the Compass”

There is no such thing as diversity in Arab America; there are diversities. We do not adhere to a singular body politic: we engage in all sorts of politics. We do not occupy an Arab American culture: we belong to numerous cultures housed, somewhat reductively but usefully as intellectual shorthand, under the rubric of an Arab American ethnic community. We do not produce a particular style of literary fiction: like all good authors, we write literary fictions spanning the available range of aesthetic and structural paradigms – sometimes we alter them to better exhibit cultural flavor, and sometimes we transcend them and create new ones.

Steven Salaita, p 2

Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics

 

The simultaneity of remoteness and intimacy gives distance a plural status in literature. One can be both near to something because of empathetic experience and far from it relative to its physical subject as a reader. If I relate to a character I am emotionally intimate with him or her while simultaneously distant from him or her, as I exist outside the fictional story-world, beyond the pages of the book. But how does this simultaneity help us understand plurality in world literatures? In this essay, I will explore how Hassan Blasim’s “The Killers and the Compass” takes up the simultaneity and relationality of distance by invoking the very act of storytelling and making rhetorical shifts in tense sequence. It is my argument that by so doing, Blasim’s story accomplishes the “ethic of plurality” Salaita says exists for Arab (American) literature and affirms Al-Ali and Al-Najjar’s claim that “Iraqis exist in the plural as any other population” (Salaita 2, Al-Ali and Al-Najjar 32). While Blasim is not himself Arab-American, the translation into English of his stories in The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq presents an important space to further problematize the dangerous us/them binary narrative that exists between what is represented as a dominant U.S. culture, which is itself self-actualizing and patriotic, and what is simply represented as “Arab” culture, which in its creation must oppose and threaten the former and thus must be un-patriotic and non-dominant and which becomes ultimately racialized. In an effort to explain what Carol Fadda-Conrey calls a post-9/11 resurgence of portraying Arab people “through an antihomogonous lens,” I will argue that by invoking distance in the very act of storytelling in “The Killers and the Compass,” Blasim’s characters inhabit a plurality in themselves because of their plural story-world (Fadda-Conrey 534). I will then move on to how the relational function of distance operates to break down or problematize non-plural representations of any peoples and simultaneously re-establishes the artificial boundaries that prevent yet necessitate different realities.

As his older brother, Abu Hadid, trots Mahdi around the neighborhood, each encounter invokes storytelling as a means to understand character. This is to say that for Mahdi, every relation he has to where and whom they visit is tied to a story. The muddy lanes are muddy because of a storm, the smell of fried fish becomes about Majid the traffic policeman’s being drunk, even Abu Hadid’s picking up a stone and throwing it at cats becomes a story about Abu Rihab and his daughter (Blasim 14-15). Blasim’s invocation of storytelling within his story aesthetically creates community within the story. It takes little narrative space to create a sense of a larger community within the neighborhood. Beyond this, it also creates minor structures of storytelling that are then echoed and expanded in the story-within-the-story of the Palestinian kid and the compass.

For example, the shirt as a device travels. Abu Hadid orders Mahdi to take his off then orders the mechanic to fetch a new one. The clean one is from mechanic’s son who is a student at medical college. This is to say the shirt is the article of relation – who wears it, where does it come from, what does it smell like. Associations between the shirt and those who wear it are also in tandem with the way the shirt encounters distances: literally from one person to the next and figuratively based on the experience of the shirt, the shirt “smelled of soap” and was that of the student’s (16). It also inhabits a space of surprise when it fits Mahdi. By invoking this sense that beyond every geographic location in the neighborhood, beyond every article of clothing even, is an infinite number of characters, stories, or memories relationally connected, Blasim is affirming the plurality of these characters. The narrator does not exist in one storyline or even two, but in any infinite number of storylines.

A bit later, there is a brief interlude within the story about Abu Hadid that makes shifts in tense between past, present, and future. What is so special about Abu Hadid that his story can operate both in a past tense that contains a future interlude? This only lasts one paragraph and then the story continues in the past tense. Beyond the paragraph, the story shifts from just past-tense to a future tense: “I would never understand what the man [who Abu Hadid sexually assaulted with a cucumber] had to do with my brother” (18). The interlude creates another circle of distance outside of the story. This is different from the earlier moment when Mahdi questions what his brother whispered to the gerbil: “All along the way I was wondering what Abu Hadid had whispered in the gerbil’s ear” (16). The latter happens within the story-world while the former is outside it. This shift with the interlude allows for the story-world to have another layer within itself. In other words, it’s a story within a story within a story, endlessly. In a story about storytelling, this device may also be a way to remind the reader that he is still reading a story. Nonetheless, the effect is that within each story is itself another story and so on forever.

The narrative distance seems to again affirm the plurality of the universe Blasim creates or is referencing. If there are an infinite number of stories within stories, the more realistic his world remains. While his darker more experimental style seems to toggle into the fantastical, the world Blasim creates is as real as it gets. It is this aesthetic of narrative distance that complicates each character’s life. In a story that seems to be about establishing one’s own god-ness through fear and violence, distance is also unequivocally tied to this relationship.

Distance is relational; it requires at least two parties. It is defined as the observable or felt space between two or more things (OED Online). Understanding something as inhabiting multiple valences of location – being relational, needing more than one part – is another way of saying it operates plurally. Salaita’s monograph, quoted as an epigraph to this essay, aims to take up different sociopolitical contexts for in-depth literary analysis of Arab-American writing, giving due acknowledgement to the frequently misrepresented peoples of Arab America in what self-manifests as a more-dominant American ‘mainstream’ culture. His impetus for this analysis is in establishing what he calls an “ethic of plurality” (Salaita 2). What does this plurality look like? One of the answers to this question may be in the relational quality of distance.

Distance can be far or near, long or short. Intimacy may be accomplished through a short distance while remoteness may be accomplished through a longer one. The plurality of distance exists in its relational quality. As Dara N. Byrne points out in her essay “The Future of (The) ‘Race’: Identity, discourse and the rise of computer-mediated public spheres,” social networking websites like AsianAvenue, BlackPlanet, and Naijanet can function to facilitate “diasporan interconnectivity” (Lane 439). The plurality that exists in distance’s relational qualities exists because of its simultaneous use toward intimacy and remoteness. One may find intimacy from a remote location by using the Internet. One can be both near to something and far from it because of the remote connection the Internet offers. Even the phrase “remote connection” seems almost oxymoronic given the context that remoteness requires vast distance. Remoteness, in fact, requires connection, for its very understanding lies in its relation to a different perspective.

In her review of Roy Scranton’s War Porn for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sarah Hoenicke says,

All of these characters, and all of us — we either face our realities or don’t, but they remain realities. The Iraqis are for the United States and against it; the people are religious but not always devout; there is intelligence on both sides, and ignorance.

It is the simultaneity of remoteness and intimacy that remains integral to understanding the complex underpinnings of any global landscape. The minutiae are doubly crucial and no local, simple view can suffice. It is by recognizing the vast complexities within each locale, the myriad of details in each character relationship, that we can begin to condense and collapse the orientalist binary that not only sets up West and East but ties them to an endless battle between one another. Further, it is also in recognizing that the binary exists for many people and that the orientalist west-east/us-them dichotomy is the dominant worldview that we can begin to find ways, like in analyzing Blasim’s fiction, to collapse this narrative. Before we can prove the boundaries we create between ourselves are artificial, we must first acknowledge the different power structures that create and benefit from these boundaries. I hope that this essay and other like it become a means to explore these issues further.

 

Works Cited

  • Al-Ali, Nadje and Deborah Al-Najjar, editors. We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War. Syracuse University Press, 2013.
  • Blasim, Hassan. The Corpse Washer and Other Stories of Iraq. 2014. Translated by Jonathan Wright, Penguin Books, 2014.
  • “distance, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Accessed 11 November 2016.
  • Fadda-Conrey, Carol. “Arab American Citizenship in Crisis: Destabilizing Representations of Arabs and Muslims in the US After 9/11.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 57, no. 3, 2011, pp. 532-555.
  • Hoenicke, Sarah. “When the Hurlyburly’s Done: Roy Scranton’s ‘War Porn’” LA Review of Books, August 16, 2015. Accessed 11 November 2016.
  • Lane, Richard, editor. Global Literary Theory: an anthology. Routledge, 2013.
  • Salaita, Steven. Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Perception and Performance Inherently Bonded To Action

For this post, I am reading Hassan Blasim’s story “The Reality and the Record” from his collection The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, which was translated by Jonathan Wright and published with Penguin Books. “The Reality and the Record” was first published by Comma Press in 2008 in Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East, edited by Joumana Haddad.

“We called him the Professor; my other colleagues hated him and called him mad.”

p 156, “The Reality and the Record”

“I don’t know exactly what details of my story matter to you for me to get the right of asylum”

p 161, “The Reality and the Record”

 

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how laws are called “acts” — as in the Affordable Care Act or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Questions surrounding the way that laws are inherently actions, they operate not only philosophically or legally or in some abstract realm, but in the most fundamental, semantic way, they are actions. And while I recognize that, unlike Remy and Laura, I’m not versed in law or legal language, I think this is still something that we, as connoisseurs of words, can discuss.

Now obviously each story has action — in fact, what is a story without it? (A tract? a theory?) The very form of narrative requires it. In other ways, the very form of our lives is narrative, and thus requires action. So I don’t want this to be too immersed in the notion of how “action” happens in the story (and out of the story) — of course it does. I want to instead focus on the ways perception and performance are inherently bonded to action.

Take the first quote above, “We called him the Professor; my other colleagues hated him and called him mad” (156). Perception begets action. The Professor is known as the professor — but then he is also mad because they hate him. He is both called professor and called mad. This is to say, again, that action derives from perception. This, too, gets us to a “so what?” question. So perception begets action. What does that do for us that we know it? Or Of course it does. Duh.

But take the second quote above, “I don’t know exactly what details of my story matter to you for me to get the right of asylum” (161). This complicates the notion of asylum because it is the very act of story-telling that gains one access to a “right.” It is the details of the narrator’s story that will allow him/her to receive “the right of asylum.” I want to pause here, too, on the word “right.” To (very) loosely quote Rachel Maddow (political correspondent/academic/badass), “[the point of having rights is that you don’t have to qualify them with any sort of voting or action. That’s why they’re rights!]” And yet, within this story we see the complications of seeking asylum — itself only realized if one does something to prove they deserve it (which by the way, does not make it a right — it makes it a privilege, a reward and as we all either know and/or must accept, those who have money or access to the higher tiers, or the people who run the higher tiers) of the hierarchical structure get their privileges first and foremost).

Access to one’s “right” to seeking asylum is itself tied to action. It is the performance of one’s story — in other words “what matters…is the horror” (167).

As we have also briefly discussed the work of Hannah Arendt, I think it relevant to mention that Arendt’s point that human rights do not exist in a vat — that guaranteeing human rights is dependent on the existence of a state that guarantees and protects those rights — is imperative to our understanding of this text and of the refugee crisis itself. Gaining access to an asylum from authoritarian governments that commit countless (with the aid of other governments — like the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China) human rights violations itself involves the admission of one’s own state’s inability or disinterest in preserving one’s human rights and seeking the preservation of those rights by another state. Thus, we have again come up to the inextricable link between action and law, between what is perceived to be true and what becomes so, between what can be done and what is done.

Abdulrazzak’s “Shadow of Their Former Selves”

For this, I am pulling from the Nadje Al-Ali and Deborah Al-Najjar collection entitled We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War. The image used here is also used as the jacket art for the book, entitled Iraqi Landscape 2005 by Hashim Al-Tawil.

 

“Father was whisked off in a black Mercedes,
Through a night hole hastily sprung,
Emerging on the other side to the warmth
Of an interrogation cell.”

“Shadow of their Former Selves”
Hassan Abdulrazzak

 

The first thing I notice about this stanza of the poem is the second line: “Through a night hole hastily sprung” where the predicate and subject in the syntax have been inverted in the sentence. It still grammatically makes sense, but it doesn’t take much to see the difference between “Father was whisked off in a black Mercedes” and “[Father was] through a night hole hastily sprung.” What does this syntactical inversion do?

For me, my experience reading this, that second line threw me out – I was confused and I didn’t really know what it was saying. I was forced to re-read the line so I could understand. So, there’s this pause then. A stop that interrupts the otherwise consistent syntax of the stanza and the poem. In the same way, the father in the poem’s being taken was a brief pause in the regular on-goings of the poem.

Most of the readings acknowledge that the experience of the Iran-Iraq War, the sanctions, and then the 2003 invasion and on-going occupation were all a slow cakewalk, each step different and more severe than the one before it. But most of them acknowledge a specific moment where it’s obvious there is no going back – a pause in the syntax of their ongoings where an inversion occurs.

I want to hastily resist pushing all of these pieces into a one-size-fits-all understanding of the obvious plurality that Iraqi art and experience showcases in We Are Iraqis, so I will digress on this point – with the acknowledgement that while Al-Ali and Al-Najjar demand the collection’s mosaicity, the very existence of this collection seems to be an attempt to invoke that collectivity while still demanding “collection”’s lack as a term.

Back to Abdulrazzak’s third stanza, second line: I’m also drawn into the words (whether it’s because in English the syllable stresses are on these) “night hole” and “hastily sprung.” The term night hole is not one I’m familiar with and after an extensive google search it seems to be an Abdulrazzak neologism, but I’m guessing from the fourth line of the stanza that the night hole is perhaps the keyhole? door of some sort? that leads into an interrogation cell. And yet it isn’t called a keyhole or door. It’s called a night hole. What is the effect of calling it a night hole? A hole is a hollow space in an otherwise solid body or surface. To call it a “night” hole, as if its very existence depends on the time of day seems to imply that the darkness (literal and figurative – invoked from the first line “black Mercedes”) of night is something the hole requires. A hole is also defined informally as a small unpleasant place. But this unpleasant-ness or this informal image of the hole seems to contrast the “warmth” in the third line. The whole both requires its night-ness and its warmth. Now I’m thinking of a damp, hollowed out place in the ground. The warmth from the dirt. But the warmth doesn’t come from the dirt in the poem, it comes from the interrogation cell, from the interrogation. “warmth of an interrogation cell” – So the interrogation is heated? Is what makes the hole warm and nightly the interrogation combined with the feeling of being whisked off in a black Mercedes.

 

Spring/sprung

To spring means to move or jump suddenly upward or forward. He was sprung into the interrogation cell’s warmth via the night hole. But to spring also means to originate from, as in “to spring forth from.” Thus, Father was not only hastily thrown into the warmth of the interrogation /interrogation cell, he has also come from that night hole. I don’t know that there could be a more perfect understanding of this piece than being both sprung into and sprung from. The speaker’s parents are simultaneously themselves and shadows of their former selves. As Sinan Antoon puts it “I am forced to return [home] every day, but not to a physical space … Thousands rot…selling their future after having been robbed of their present and past” (25). Father is both originated from the night hole and sprung into it the same way Antoon’s Barbarian is both forced to return home “as much as [he tries] not to” and home is the place from which he originated.

 

What does it mean to be the shadow of one’s former self?

Just briefly, displacement is where I want to move with this question. To say the speaker’s parents are not themselves, not their former selves, but shadows of their former selves. That’s three degrees of displacement. Refugee status is granted to those who apply and are accepted by the U.N. as people who have been physically displaced for fear of violence or death. But what about emotional displacement? Could a shadow of one’s former self be the definition of an emotional refugee? This relates to a notion of both being sprung into and sprung out of one’s home because the emotional refugee may not ever truly be ‘displaced’ the same way one can be physically displaced. Instead, in a muddled way, saying someone is a “shadow of their former self” still acknowledges the self in there. In other words, this emotional displacement – status as an emotional refugee – may be the experience of being both simultaneously sprung out of home and sprung into home.

However, again I want to be careful not to lump all refugees into any sort of box. Nor do I want to try and take this poem as an understanding of The Refugee, as in all refugees. So, while I’m beginning to reach for larger scaled understandings of the refugee experience, I want to acknowledge that making statements about the emotional status of a refugee neither acknowledges the complexity of humanness that exists in every refugee nor can it ever be complete in its definition in the same way the human experience can itself never be completely explained.

Continual War In Silence: Deixis in Sitt Marie-Rose

 

For this, I read PART II of James L. Gelvin’s The Modern Middle East: A History, Fourth Ed. from Oxford University Press as historical background and the first sixty pages of Sitt Marie-Rose by Etel Adnan, translated by Georgina Kleege from The Post-Apollo Press.

 

“There’s no noise in this world. That’s why the war doesn’t stop. Nobody wants to stop it.”

p. 43, Sitt Marie-Rose

 

The first thing that strikes me about these three lines is the deixis in the second sentence. The deictic “that’s” seems to refer back to the previous sentence, qualifying the phrase “why the war doesn’t stop” with “there’s no noise in this world;” however, the third sentence complicates this by seeming to be a different qualifier of “why the world doesn’t stop: “nobody wants to stop it.” In other words, the deixis in the second sentence functions for both the first and third sentences and I want to explore how each case is different from the other.

Case 1: reason why the war doesn’t stop is because there’s no noise in this world OR (as conditional) If there were no noise in this world, the war would stop.

Case 2: reason why the war doesn’t stop is because nobody wants to stop it OR (as conditional) If somebody wanted to stop the war, the war would stop.

Case 2 seems to be the more direct and yet it becomes the second case, as it chronologically comes last in the phrase. By ‘more direct,’ I mean the claim that nobody wants to stop the war and that’s why it continues is a much more useful, used, understandable, and straight-forward claim than Case 1. It is logical to say nobody wants to stop the war; therefore, the war doesn’t stop. Case 1’s two clauses seem to be unrelated: there is no noise in this world and therefore that means the war does not stop. What does noise have to do with continual war? Why would having noise make war stop?

Case 1 leads us to a subplot functioning in Sitt Marie-Rose: the deaf-mute students at the school where Marie-Rose teaches. We get to see, with the shifting points of view, what may be several or at least one student of hers. It is one of these students that says our chosen quote. So, again I ask: What does noise have to do with continual war? Why would having noise make war stop?

I think in many ways, these children understand the world to be noiseless and one of them comments on their ability to dance by feeling the beat rather than hearing it. In the same way, they can feel the drumming of the bombs. They are ostracized by their communities and families, beaten by their parents, and loved only by Marie-Rose. But this still doesn’t qualify that a silent world means the war doesn’t stop.

Nonetheless, the indirect connection between hearing and peace here is interesting. If we go on this connection further, in what ways does the ability to hear grant one the ability to make peace OR, to combine Case 2 into the discussion, in what ways would the ability to hear grant somebody the want to stop the war?

The figurative function of hearing in the text is thus: Marie-Rose seems to be claiming, in so many words, during her fight with Mounir that he (and the militia) are not hearing her argument or the argument of the Palestinians. She says

“our survival depends on theirs…The Arab world is infinitely large in terms of space and infinitely small in its vision.”

p. 56-57

Here, Marie-Rose invokes a different sense: sight. Literally speaking, she’s saying that of all the geography the Arab world takes up, there doesn’t seem to be much sight. Figuratively, though, she’s talking about vision: a perfect word the translator chose here. It comes with a connotation of the supernatural or of an optimistic future: as in “visionary.”

So, as clichéd kumbaya as this might sound, what Marie-Rose and Case 1 are alluding to is this notion that until we all listen to one another, until we see each other as people instead of as “sects and sub-sects, ghettos, communities, worked by envy, rotten, closed back on themselves like worms” – as enemies – then the war will not end.

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.