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Archive for the 'Literary Studies' Category

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

Shirley Hazzard’s Introduction to Geoffrey Scott’s THE PORTRAIT OF ZÉLIDE

We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think

“Zélide’s wit and beauty, her prodigious intelligence are not without arrogance. For most of her life, however, pride will be countered by a disarming honesty of self-appraisal. Her Gallic rationality is similarly moderated by cordiality. Among her finest attributes is simplicity of conduct: springing from people disposed to take themselves seriously, she has little taste for self-solemnity.” — Shirley Hazard

This week, our featured book is We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays, by Shirley Hazzard, edited with an introduction by Brigitta Olubas. For the final post of the feature, we have excerpted Hazzard’s introduction to Geoffrey Scott’s classic biography, The Portrait of Zélide.

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

Simon Waxman of the Boston Review recently wrote an excellent reaction/review to With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan, “Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason.” We have a short excerpt from his article here, and we can’t recommend the full article highly enough.

Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason
By Simon Waxman

Dayan, a longtime friend of Boston Review and valued contributor to the magazine, has explored related matters in our pages before. Her discussions and conclusions are often unsettling, questioning “the pretense of humane treatment” promoted by organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and humane societies, which routinely and systematically kills the animals of whom they market themselves as protectors. Dayan also is not a supporter of animal rights, which, like the human equivalents that inspire them, can foster in their bearers the quality most desired by the elites who seek to control and exploit them: docility. Meanwhile, the rights paradigm legalizes punishment of those animals that must be lived with, as opposed to above. In essence, the animal rights agenda has enshrined in law the social acceptability of the dumb, pocket-sized accessory who can only breathe and eat—and, then, only with a human hand to feed it—while subjecting to suspicion and penalty any animal of vigor, independence, intelligence, and, yes, capacity for danger.

Alongside her perhaps-surprising misgivings about rights, Dayan harbors sympathies that many abhor. One chapter of With Dogs at the Edge of Life traces the life, legal struggle, and philosophy of Bob Stevens. A downhome pit bull breeder, Stevens has been prosecuted by the state of Louisiana for distributing dogfighting films and earned the enmity of preening urban pet owners who like to dress up their twelve-pound toys and parade them at parties. These owners lack something that Stevens, for all his hard edges, does not: “admiration and respect for an animal’s sheer bodily strength, fierce intelligence, and courage,” which “promise a reciprocal engagement that has been lost in most human experience.”

Dayan’s goal is not just to scrutinize the pieties of animal rights activists, however. Doing so is an element of a larger project in which the boundary between human and non-, between reason and simply being together with other beings, becomes unstable. Following displaced and disdained dogs, purged from increasingly genteel cities everywhere, Dayan pursues a critique of enlightenment itself, particularly that version on which capitalism is founded. “Through the dogs’ eyes, we sense a world devoid of spirit, ravaged of communion,” she writes, inspired by films shot from the standpoint of dogs. These animals who once owned the city alongside human residents are no longer welcome among “the high-rise developments, the spruced-up neighborhoods of the neo-Western globalized citizen.”

There are no answers, easy or hard, in With Dogs at the Edge of Life, and this, finally, may be the point. “The bold enmeshing of humans and dogs—and the seagulls, pigeons, chickens, and cats in their midst—requires that we suspend our beliefs and put aside our craving for final answers.” The answers are themselves the problem. We have—by force, persuasion, and trickery—been drawn to a single answer: money and the comforts it buys. Call it progress in the capitalist mode. The issue of this progress is visible everywhere, from the comfort of killing law never seen in action, to the comfort of gleaming cities devoid of untamed life, to the comfort of faith in a human reason that eradicates all ambiguity and mystery. Indeed, one of the starkest, most material visions of this progress is the puny, slavish body of the dog lived above rather than with.

The full article can be read at the Boston Review website.

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Shirley Hazzard’s Introduction to Iris Origo’s LEOPARDI: A STUDY IN SOLITUDE

We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think

“Great sensibilities are born into exile. As he came to an understanding of his powers, and of the cruel seclusion of his existence at Recanati, Leopardi was not the first to feel homesickness for a setting he had never known—for the stimulus and sympathy of kindred spirits to whom art and thought, and the heart’s affections, were supreme: a country that he had inhabited in books.” — Shirley Hazard

This week, our featured book is We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays, by Shirley Hazzard, edited with an introduction by Brigitta Olubas. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from Hazzard’s introduction to Iris Origo’s study of Italian lyric poet Giacomo Leopardi.

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016

Energy’s Image

Chaos Imagined

“Turner’s ambitions took him beyond his abiding interest in the unstable and ephemeral, the chaos of impermanence and the vast disruptions of unimaginable forces. It drove him to attempt to see and unveil the underpinnings, the living energy, even in scenes where water, earth, and air virtually dissolve not in turmoil but in tranquil luminosity.” — Martin Meisel

This week, our featured book is Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science, by Martin Meisel. In the final post of the feature, we are happy to present an excerpt from the book’s chapter on the art of J.M.W. Turner, “Energy’s Image.”

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016

Book Giveaway! We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays, by Shirley Hazzard

We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think

“In these essays there is a lovely sense of witnessing a brilliant and judicious mind at work. Shirley Hazard has a way of finding the right phrase, and capturing a tone and a rhythm, that offer a sort of sensuous pleasure to the reader. She cares passionately about writing, the life of the mind but also the public realm. As in her novels, her essays display the quality of her sympathy, her ability to make distinctions as well as connections, and her acute analysis. She is an inspiring presence in our literary life, and having these essays is both a gift and a revelation.” — Colm Tóibín

This week, our featured book is We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays, by Shirley Hazzard, edited with an introduction by Brigitta Olubas. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address.

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

A Reflection, by Martin Meisel

Chaos Imagined

This week, our featured book is Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science, by Martin Meisel. Today, we are happy to present a guest post from Meisel in which he discusses the origins of the massive undertaking of researching and writing Chaos Imagined.

A Reflection
By Martin Meisel

Sometimes I am asked how I came to write this book, one that strays so far from the umbrella of my credentialed competence. It happened after publication of an earlier book called Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England. My editors, the formidable Miriam Brokaw and Jerry Sherwood, then with the Princeton University Press, asked me, “Well, what’s next?” I really didn’t know. But like most scholars I had a file of bright ideas that I might want to follow up one year or another, and I offered some of those: a book on Dickens, about whose imaginative superabundance and uses of plot as symbolic instrument I had a lot to say (“Yes, go on.”). One on Ben Jonson’s plays, whose comedic brilliance delighted me. Something on prediction in literary studies (“Interesting.”). A book on the theater of professions—journalism, medicine, law, politics, the clergy, theater, the military. A book on Sean O’Casey’s plays, which I had been teaching (and acting, from the podium) with great relish (“Uh huh. And?”). A book on the idea of “chaos” and its attempted representations—the obverse, so to speak, of the usual premise in the history of ideas, not to say the study of cultures and societies, where an investigator typically sought to elicit “cosmos,” that is, ideas of order, as in the Elizabethan (or Tobriand Islander) “World Picture.” It had struck me, moreover, that imagining and representing the extreme of disorder—chaos—had a history. The “shape” of chaos varied, not only from place to place, but, even in our own evolving culture, over time. “Do that!” said my editors in chorus. “All right,” I replied, being of indecisive character and grateful for firm guidance, though tenacious, indeed stubborn, once I had come to decision. A decision is too valuable an achievement to forego.

The trouble—which turned out to be the reward—was that this project demanded at least some competence in areas where I might have general knowledge, but neither depth nor expertise. So it embroiled me, not just in research, but in education—educating myself in myriad matters, like mathematical notation in ancient Greece, rival schools in ancient philosophy, subjects and approaches in art history, thermodynamic theory and its development, history of warfare, philosophy of science, literature in languages I couldn’t read. As a scholar, I have always had a fear—a sort of death’s-head presence in my preconscious—of turning into a version of the Reverend Mr. Casaubon, the dry-as-dust scholar in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, engaged in a work called “The Key to All Mythologies,” designed to prove that all mythologies were corruptions of the true nature and history of things to be found in the Holy Bible. The trouble in his case, apart from the hubristic ambition of his project, was that he was ignorant of the language and scholarship of contemporary philology and biblical criticism, not to say archaeology, much of it in German. And here was I, with a project of similar scope and ambition, and with any number of manifest deficiencies. And then in the end—even if I were to rise to the challenge—there was the threat of what one might call the imitative fallacy: writing a book about chaos that was itself chaotic. For with so uncontainable a subject, where so much that seemed relevant turned up around every corner, the end result could be hash, a potpourri with neither structure nor standpoint, rhyme nor reason. In that case, thought I—as time passed, and I detoured sporadically into other projects, but always came back to this one—I will have had the pleasure of nosing about in so many fascinating, exotic, and sometimes forbidding locales, the pleasure I hoped to bring to my students every day: of learning.

And so here is the result—Chaos Imagined—only made possible, I suspect, by what I have managed to leave out. I hope its readers will also find some pleasure in it, and some enrichment of the kind it gave so abundantly to me.

Monday, January 18th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science, by Martin Meisel

Chaos Imagined

“Martin Meisel’s magnum opus is a heroic act of defiance against its own subject matter: an enlightening, judicious, cohesive history of three millennia of thought about the terrors and attractions of chaos. The book moves with steady confidence through literature, science, art, and philosophy, illuminating many varieties of darkness, finding convincing and original connections across centuries and continents. With authority and energy, it creates a whole new field of study.” — Edward Mendelson, Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University

This week, our featured book is Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science, by Martin Meisel. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Chaos Imagined. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, January 8th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word! Below the giveaway form, you can also read an excerpt from the first chapter, “Shaping Chaos.”

Shaping Chaos

Monday, January 11th, 2016

Donald Trump and the Destruction of the American Century — Brian Edwards

Brian Edwards, After the American Century

In a recent article in Salon, They’ve destroyed us worldwide: Donald Trump, George W. Bush and the destruction of the American century, Brian Edwards, author of After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East, examines what has happened to the more hopeful version of America that the country once exported. While acknowledging that the idea of “The American Century,” always had the ulterior motive to strengthen the United States militarily, economically, and politically, there was also a sense that American culture was infused with a sense of hope and innovation that could be taken up by others. Edwards writes, “The American century was built on a positive aura, not hate. From the romantic comedies of classic Hollywood to Coke’s ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing,’ America exported the promise of love.”

Even during the “American Century,” anti-Americanism, of course existed, but the recent events surrounding Donald Trump’s comments about Muslims coupled with recent U.S. policies have presented a very different portrait of the United Stated, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. As Edwards suggests, “Trump’s bearing is all swagger, but he and his zealous supporters project a weak and defensive stance to the world. They have redefined the United States as hostile and fearful.”

Recent developments also represent a shift from the post-9/11 period Edwards explores in his book. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, many advocated for and implemented initiatives that resurrected the cultural cold war policies:

So, Hillary Clinton could be found championing the hip-hop initiatives that looked a lot like the jazz tours of a half-century earlier. In 2011, commenting on a state-sponsored trip of a hip-hop artist to Damascus, she said: ‘Hip-hop is America. . . . I think we have to use every tool at our disposal.’ As secretary of state, she was early to embrace what was called digital diplomacy, with young staffers leading the charge.

Over the past decade and a half, I have been charting the fate of American cultural products in the Middle East and North Africa, with extensive research in the region during a remarkable time. From Fez to Tehran, young Arabs and Iranians are intimately familiar with American popular culture. As I argue in my new book, After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East, a newer generation across the Middle East and North Africa made a distinction between America as a creator of cultural products and the United States as a geopolitical entity. That meant that through the 1990s and 2000s, they could continue to enjoy and consume our attractive culture without contradicting their increasing dismay regarding our policies in their region.

(more…)

Friday, January 8th, 2016

Pariah Dogs

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“Something about death and dogs makes us think and teaches us about how we come to know and when we ought to care.” — Colin Dayan

This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. For the final post of the week’s feature, we have an excerpt from the introduction to “Pariah Dogs,” part three of With Dogs at the Edge of Life. In this excerpt, Dayan examines how the suffering of dogs has been represented in literature from the Odyssey to Coetzee’s Disgrace.

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

In Touch and Feeling with Dogs

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“Can we engage our feelings without appropriation? Can we think through human and non-human mutuality without abstracting animals into what can be packaged and consumed—either as objects of moral concern or as literary device? Can we really think with dogs?” — Colin Dayan

Happy New Year! This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. In today’s post, Dayan discusses the difficulty and the value of thinking and feeling with dogs.

In Touch and Feeling with Dogs
By Colin Dayan

     It is myself,
            Not the poor beast lying there

                    yelping with pain

     that brings me to myself with a start—

–William Carlos Williams, “To a Dog Injured in the Street”

Our greatest poets struggle with their response to and feeling with dogs. Elizabeth Bishop calls a stray, crippled, “depilated dog” to carnival as she laments a world that disallows and disposes of “anyone who begs, drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,” in “Pink Dog.” John Berryman in the great ennui of “Dream Song 14” finds his tedium interrupted by a dog:

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

Out of the wear and tear of life comes the surprise. Something as ordinary as the wagging tail of a dog generates a miracle of transubstantiation. The dog and its tail take flight into “mountains or sea or sky,” while the poet remains. He inhabits and takes on what is left behind. The self turns into what a tail does. A nonhuman subjectivity is born in the conflation of the poetic I with the lilting, uplifting swish, sway, and shake of the canine hindquarters.

The vicissitudes, gaps, and blurring that these poets find in the sentience of dogs promise a renewal of self, as well as of language. To be “sensible” is to make meaning in its materiality: to think with the body. Yet it is a fine line between feeling for or with dogs and turning the non-human into source of inspiration or grist for academic argumentation—nothing less than yet another prompt to our poetic or moral thought or inquiry.

Can we engage our feelings without appropriation? Can we think through human and non-human mutuality without abstracting animals into what can be packaged and consumed—either as objects of moral concern or as literary device? Can we really think with dogs? This terrain of mutual adaptability puts us in the thick of what we are not. It asks that we step back and ask how we can know feeling that is not tied to our assumptions. Such a transforming regard also changes how we treat our fellow humans.

As our world becomes obscene in its greed and violence, I wonder if through the route of the dog we might find a practical and embodied way of being with others that doesn’t entail dominance and subordination. I do not advise that we lose sight of how brutality in the non-human world is part and parcel of the disregard and harm so pronounced in the human. But rather through a minded and felt—as well as “attentive” — empathy in all relations, I want to consider how we might dismantle individual preferment.

The route is not easy. Again, animality is what I want us to think about, not claims for humanity. The knowledge that matters has everything to do with perception, an attentiveness that might unleash another kind of intelligibility. Facing what is not our own or what we cannot know, in this bafflement we might relate most fully to what lies within, beside, and beyond ourselves.

Can we live in a world of contestation and entanglement? Such intimacy promises to lead us out of thought and into a feeling that renews another sense of the political. When William Carlos Williams died in 1963, Kenneth Burke wrote a moving reminiscence in The New York Review of Books.

Burke recalled that a few years after Williams, crippled with ailments, had stopped treating patients, they both walked “slowly on a beach in Florida.” Burke’s recollection affirms the meaning of empathy: a sentience that draws together two beings in a manner of experience that heals. It is tactile. It is a demanding reciprocity, a being together in a pain that can be healed if shared. In becoming acquainted with what lies outside the self, we enter into another kind of knowing.

For Burke, who felt sympathy for the dog—a feeling that did not help—this exchange captures what Williams called “contact.” The impetus for both his medical and poetic technique, this practice of discernment is not the precondition for uniqueness but rather an imperative to seek a more voracious if always provisional communion.

A neighbor’s dog decided to accompany us, but was limping. I leaned down, aimlessly hoping to help the dog (which became suddenly frightened, and nearly bit me). Then Williams took the paw in his left hand (the right was now less agile) and started probing for the source of the trouble. It was a gesture at once expert and imaginative, something in which to have perfect confidence, as both the cur and I saw in a flash. Feeling between the toes lightly, quickly, and above all surely, he spotted a burr, removed it without the slightest cringe on the dog’s part—and the three of us were again on our way along the beach.

Such contact demands a radical change in perspective. Not only does it complicate our understanding of the political, but it also escapes humanistic or morality-based assumptions.

Questioning the prescriptive force of morality—and its familiar companions, civility and reason, is crucial, it seems to me, in these times of exclusion and disposal. The radical inclusivity of such an appeal matters now more than ever. At the edge of a cherished humanism, what if we summoned instead a remote and uncertain reservoir on which all creatures might draw but from which most humans have learned to cut themselves off completely?

Early one morning last week I walked my dog Stella down the main street of the neighborhood. A white pick-up truck was waiting in a drive to enter the street. The dog ran up, as she sometimes does when white men in trucks, those I grew up knowing as “crackers” or “red necks,” look out at her. This is an inclination that I’m still trying to understand. She jumped, one paw on the seat of the man’s car, and another on his leg, and began to greet him powerfully with licks and nudges. He welcomed her and said in answer to my wonder: “She knows I’m sick, and that’s why she’s trying to help me. I’m dying.” Then he gently beat his chest, adding, “She can smell it. She wants to give me some relief.”

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

By Way of Beginning

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“How can I seize on dog life in words? Dogs live on the track between the mental and the physical and sometimes seem to tease out a near-mystical disintegration of the bounds between them. What would it mean to become more like a dog? How might we come up against life as a sensory but not sensible experience?” — Colin Dayan

This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. To begin the week’s feature, we are happy to present an excerpt from Dayan’s first chapter, “By Way of Beginning,” in which she tells the moving story of Leon Rosby’s Rottweiler, Max, and explains what she hopes to accomplish in her book.

Monday, January 4th, 2016

Book Giveaway! With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“In three lively and beautifully written movements, Colin Dayan offers a memorable tour de force that threads together memoir and an analysis of the deprivations of life, human and nonhuman and human with nonhuman, that so pervasively characterize our neoliberal world-historical moment. Intelligent and moving, With Dogs at the Edge of Life is an extraordinary book, a courageous and compelling intermingling of arresting cultural critique and autobiographical reflections of a life lived in the company of canines.” — David L. Clark, McMaster University

This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of With Dogs at the Edge of Life. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, January 8th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, December 11th, 2015

Mary Helen Washington Receives Honorable Mention for MLA Award

Congratulations to Mary Helen Washington, whose book The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, received an honorable mention for the competition for the Modern Language Association’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize for an Outstanding Scholarly Study of Black American Literature.

In praising the book, the prize committee wrote:

Elegantly written and richly historical, The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s is Mary Helen Washington’s long-awaited study of the left’s impact on the intellectual and political lives of African American writers during the 1950s. Washington eloquently reconstitutes the Black Popular Front, a fascinating case of how the Communist Party and other leftist associations informed literary and political discourses on race relations in the United States. She probes the aesthetic strategies and racial-political networks belonging to canonical authors such as Gwendolyn Brooks and to lesser-known writers such as Lloyd L. Brown, Alice Childress, and Frank London Brown. The Other Blacklist is a crowning achievement in Washington’s long-standing quest to put the black left at the center of African American literary history.

And for more on the book, here is a video of a talk between Mary Helen Washington and Farah Jasmine Griffin from earlier this year at the Schomburg Center:

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

The Legacy of Eve Sedgwick

Eve Sedgwick, Between Men

On the heels of the recent publication of the Thirtieth Anniversary edition of Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, The New Yorker‘s blog, The Page Turner, posted a piece on the book and Eve Sedgwick’s legacy.

The article by Jane Hu, “Between Us: A Queer Theorist’s Devoted Husband and Enduring Legacy,” begins by describing how her husband, Hal, is preserving Sedgwick’s archive to insure that her work endures. As the piece points out, at least in the immediate future there is little danger that Sedgwick’s ideas and influence fading away. Scholarly journals continue to devote issues to her and there are or have been multiple conferences dedicated to her book, including a recent one at the CUNY Grad Center on Between Men.

In addition to citing Sedgwick’s scholarly impact, Hu also describes Sedgwick’s intellectual and personal bravery. Critics from all directions — feminists, gay men, etc. — asked her to account for herself. Her writing, unlike much academic work, would often be very personal and even confessional, and has served as an inspiration to other scholars and critics.

In describing the influence of Between Men and the recent conference on Between Men, Jane Hu writes:

Hal [Eve Sedgwick's husband] showed me around Eve’s archives the day after the most recent of these conferences, celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of “Between Men,” a groundbreaking book that popularized the term “homosocial.” At the conference, Jennifer Crewe, the president of Columbia University Press, recalled how typists working on it constantly rendered the word as “homosexual” because of just how unusual the term was in 1985.

“Between Men” not only put Sedgwick on the map as a queer theorist, it helped to establish the field of queer literary analysis. Sedgwick became, as Rolling Stone once put it, “the soft-spoken queen of the constructionists.” (A speaker at the conference noted the shocking disjunction between Sedgwick’s quiet speaking voice and the bold statements she made in print.) The book was published during a heated period of the gay liberation movement; as Wayne Koestenbaum notes in his forward to a new edition, the H.I.V. retrovirus had been isolated a year before, and ACT UP was formed just two years afterward.

Friday, December 4th, 2015

The Resurgence of American Orientalism — Brian T. Edwards

After the American Century, Brian Edwards

“The persistence of Orientalist patterns of representing the Middle East and North Africa is visible in a staggering quantity of representations of the region in contemporary U.S. literature, television serials, comedy, and consumer culture … American Orientalism has been not only renewed but also extended and exaggerated.”—Brian T. Edwards

In After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East, Brian Edwards considers what happens to American culture as it circulates in the Middle East. In the book’s epilogue, “Embracing Orientalism in the Homeland,” Edwards discusses the ways in which Middle Eastern and North African culture is received in the United States, and how they reflect a renewal of Orientalism.:

So what does make it back to the United States? What works do U.S. publishers and distributors circulate? The sad truth is that when creative works by authors from the Middle East and North Africa have reached larger audiences in the United States during the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century, they have tended to confirm prevailing and debilitating stereotypes about the region. As noted in earlier chapters, Ali Behdad and Juliet Williams identify a recent phenomenon they call “neo-Orientalism”: texts about the Middle East published in English by writers with origins in the region whose “self-proclaimed authenticity sanctions and authorizes their discourse.” In their important essay, Behdad and Williams focus on the high number of memoirs by Iranian women published in English in the first decade of the twenty-first century, such as the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) by Azar Nafisi and Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran (2004) by Roya Hakakian. Such works are explicitly political in their intent and either explicitly or implicitly justify U.S. intervention in the region through what Behdad and Williams call their “ahistorical historicism.” Namely, these authors purport to teach American readers the history of some aspect of the region that has gone wrong while at the same time making historical errors or misleading statements—say, Nafisi’s inaccurate history of veiling in Iran before the revolution—and suggest that outside assistance is required to set Iran back on its correct course.

For Behdad and Williams, Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful graphic novel Persepolis—written and first published in Paris in 2000—was the excep­tion that proved the rule in large part (in their analysis) because of the ways in which Satrapi refused a New York Times reporter’s attempt to essentialize her as a Muslim invested in “denounc[ing] Islamic fanaticism.” (In her interview with Deborah Solomon in the New York Times Magazine, Satrapi turned Solomon’s questions on themselves. Solomon disagreed with Satrapi when the latter claimed that Iranian veiling and Western unveiling of women are “equally reductive” of women. Satrapi then called out the West­ern hypocrisy around body image and plastic surgery: “If in Muslim coun­tries they try to cover the woman, in America they try to make them look like a piece of meat.”) One might go further and note that within her comics themselves, Satrapi is able efficiently to critique both Iranian contradictions in the obsession with the dangers of American culture and the shallow ways in which the West regards Iran. Her simple, even naive style of draw­ing allows her, via her autobiographical character Marji, to reveal the par­adoxes inherent in both Iran’s and the West’s regard of each other.

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Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

Why Culture? — Brian Edwards, Author of “After the American Century”

After the American Century, Brian T. Edwards

“Analysts of foreign affairs tend to relegate understanding culture as irrelevant to the hard work of political science and international relations…. I am increasingly convinced that this is an error—and a costly one. Cultural products and debates over them help to explain the world we live in.”—Brian T. Edwards

The following is a post by Brian T. Edwards, author of After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East:

The devastating acts of murder and violence in France last month targeted a rock concert, a soccer match, and cafés in Paris’s dynamic 10th arrondissement. This past January, a satirical magazine most famous for its cartoons was attacked. The sites where these terrible crimes took place were not simply gathering places. They were locations where people go to consume or produce “culture.”

In the general hysteria of our times, we tend to reduce cultural products and their consumption to simple rather than complex things. Rushing to keep up with an ever more dire geopolitical landscape, an easy binarism prevails: us versus them, civilization versus barbarism. Paris becomes simply the romantic city of lights under attack, the debate over Charlie Hebdo a simple question of freedom of speech.

But this replaces a more nuanced sense of how culture is both contested and how cultural products can offer a window onto the complexities of life in various parts of the planet during a time of global transformation.

Many analysts of foreign affairs tend to relegate understanding culture as irrelevant to the hard work of political science and international relations. The humanities and humanistic social sciences (such as cultural anthropology) are all well and good, from this perspective, but secondary when it comes to understanding or negotiating international relations.

I am increasingly convinced that this is an error—and a costly one. Cultural products and debates over them help to explain the world we live in with a nuance that is missing from social science formulas or the distant perspective that media talking heads take.

When I read or listen to accounts of the great and ancient tensions between Sunni and Shia, or analysts who chart the national rivalries between states like a giant game of Risk, I feel that the discussion is too abstract and fails to reflect the realities as I have come to understand them based on more than two decades of discussions with people in the Middle East and North Africa.

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Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

Interview with Brian T. Edwards, author of “After the American Century”

Brian T. Edwards, After the American Century

“Culture jumps publics all the time in the digital age, and what it means and where it goes is completely unpredictable. Diplomats are well aware of the technologies by which to spread culture in the twentieth-first century, but they have not yet caught up with the logics of the circulation of culture in the digital age.”—Brian Edwards

The following is an interview with Brian T. Edwards, author of After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East

Question: Is that a real photo on the cover or is it photoshopped?

I took the cover photograph in Isfahan, about 200 miles south of Tehran. Isfahan was once one of the major cities of the world, twice the capital of Persia, and is filled with architectural masterpieces from the Safavid dynasty with a city square that is simply breathtaking in its scale. So when I turned a corner and came across this mural, with Mickey Mouse popping out of a jack-o-lantern and Walt Disney birds, it struck me that America was another empire that had left its mark on this city—part of the urban landscape now, with people passing by going about their daily business. Maybe it was the pumpkin, but there was something autumnal in that fading mural that hinted at the passing of the American empire.

I showed the photo to one of my Iranian students. He said it reminded him of the walls in the kindergartens and nursery schools when he was growing up, where pictures of Mickey Mouse were painted everywhere. The Simpsons were popular too, he said. It was expensive to buy notebooks and school supplies with these American cartoon characters, while the walls were free. Later in the book (page 117), I include a photo I took of a food court in a Tehran shopping mall, where you can see a similar phenomenon with Shrek, another American cartoon character who has had a profound impact in Iran.

Q: What does the book’s subtitle mean? Why “ends”? Do you mean to suggest that American culture is no longer present in the Middle East?

BE: Quite the opposite! By using the plural of the word “end,” I meant to evoke its multiple meanings—endpoints, uses, meanings, aims. I did also mean to nod at the meaning evoked by “end” in the singular (that something might come after the end of the American century). What I’m interested in discovering in this book is what it means that US culture is popular in the Middle East, almost part of the fabric of life, even while the United States as a political entity is increasingly unpopular. But unlike during the Cold War, or the so-called “American century,” when people like Henry Luce and the US State Department wanted to leverage the popularity of US culture, it now means a lot more than Coca Cola, jeans, or jazz music. Of course American culture still refers to Hollywood movies and hip hop, both of which are popular in the Middle East and have inspired local artists. But American cultural products in the digital age also include platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and cultural forms that are recognized by people in different parts of the world as “American”—say a movie formula, like the teen romance, or action-hero comic books, or cyberpunk. All of these end up in popular culture in the Middle East and North Africa, where they become new things, ultimately unrecognizable to American culture itself. So I’m really interested in what this all means, what the “ends” of these versions of American culture are, where they “end” up.

Q: What’s the deal with Shrek?

BE: Shrek makes two extended appearances in the book and shows different routes a particular cultural object can take in the digital age. In Tehran, I was startled to keep coming across images of the green ogre, from the food court at the shopping mall in the north part of the city to 2-by-3 foot Persian-language books retelling the Shrek story. Most interesting were the competing dubbed versions of the different Shrek movies—some of them more illegal than others—about which people had very strong feelings. I had come to Iran in part to try to understand the debate over the film director Abbas Kiarostami, but instead became obsessed with figuring out what one of my informants meant when she said that Shrek was really an Iranian movie.

I came across a very different Shrek in Morocco, where a hugely popular Moroccan video pirate artist used it in his most famous work. The video pirate, named Hamada, took a dance scene from Shrek and dubbed a popular Moroccan song over the soundtrack. The work that resulted, which became known as Miloudi after the singer whose work was dubbed over a clip of Donkey singing, started a phenomenon in Morocco in the mid 2000s and launched Hamada’s underground career.

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Monday, November 30th, 2015

Book Giveaway! After the American Century, by Brian Edwards

This week one of our featured books is After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East by Brian T. Edwards.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of After the American Century to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Wednesday, December 4th at 1:00 pm.

After the American Century offers a fascinating tour of the appropriation and deployment of American popular culture in a globalized, restless Middle East.” — Marc Lynch, author of The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East

After the American Century is a book of exquisite audacity.” — Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Videos: Celebrating “Between Men” and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Between Men, Eve Sedgwick

The Center for the Humanities at CUNY has very graciously put up videos from the four different panels that convened around the publication of the Thirtieth Anniversary Edition of Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Click on this link and scroll down to the bottom where you can view the videos from the event.

Highlights of papers include, “The Eve Effect,” Wayne Koestenbaum; “Between Men’s Bodies,” Michael Moon; Beyond Between Men: Eve Sedgwick’s The Warm Decembers,” Carolyn Williams; “Between Men in 30 Years,” Cathy Davidson; “Gen/Ten,” Sharon Marcus; and a special panel on publishing Eve Sedgwick.

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Carol Jacobs on the Style of W. G. Sebald

W. G. Sebald

“Sebald insistently refuses to call his works nov­els. Prose book, prose text, prose literature: just not novel.”—Carol Jacobs

In the following excerpt from Sebald’s Vision, Carol Jacobs examines Sebald’s distinct style, his famous use of photographs, and his mixing of fact and fiction:

Yet even before he embarked on his literary path in the mid eight­ies, Sebald will insist, he was already on the path from science or scholarship to fiction. “Yes, it was about the middle of the 80’s. And one needs to mention first that already as a literary scholar actually I was working in an unorthodox manner and I always went to the limits of what was possible or acceptable in literary schol­arship. This rather essayistic procedure moved then, I believe, more or less naturally in the direction of the more fictive.” To be sure, he explains, while frequently calling into play the same image, his current work, it too, requires research; but this research is hardly academic. It never goes straight forward, its path can never be retraced, and it places him in the role of a dog.

When I do research for my books, I don’t do it according to academic methods. One follows rather a diffused instinct; the trajectory of the research can then no longer be replicated because it looks like the way a dog runs across a field to follow a scent. That is a rather primi­tive form of research, always with the nose or muzzle on the ground.

In this way one always finds very peculiar things which one would never have reckoned on, things which you can never find in a ratio­nal way, that is when you do research as you learned to do it at the university, always straight ahead, right, left, right angles, and so on. One has to search in a diffuse way. It should be a matter of discovering precisely in the manner that a dog seeks, back and forth, coming out and going back down, sometimes slowly, sometimes fast.

If Sebald’s manner of research isn’t precisely rational, if it is a bit all over the place, we, his readers, know at least what he collects: photos, documents, citations. Their function, however, Sebald readily admits, is ambiguous. Photographs, he says, are the “true documents,” they make it possible to hold onto things. “It’s necessary to hold onto these things somehow or other. Of course you can do that by writing, but the written is no true document. The photograph is the true document par excellence. People let themselves be convinced by a photograph.” And yet holding onto things and convincing the reader is not quite or not all that Sebald is after. For what interests him more than a document that seems incontrovert­ibly “true” is the suggestion of the faint, the dim, the indistinct. “I don’t want to mount pictures of high photographic quality into the texts, rather they are simply documents of found material, something secondary. It is actually very nice when this lack of clarity enters into the photos” Photographs are there­fore at once “the true document par excellence” that convinces the onlooker, and yet they are also there to unnerve the reader: they right­fully introduce irritation and insecurity. “Thus many of these docu­ments are in fact documents. . . . On the other hand there is the one or the other of the photographs, one or other of the documents that is put in with another end in view, where, really . . . that is the falsi. ca­tion theme, which is to say: it is also a matter of making the reader uncertain. The reader should indeed think about: what is true in these stories, no?”

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