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Archive for the 'Literary Studies' Category

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.


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.


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.


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.


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?”


Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Between Men at 30

Between Men, Eve Sedgwick

We’re very excited to be participating in an event today at the Graduate Center at CUNY to celebrate the 30th anniversary edition of Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

The Conference will be live streamed from the 10 am start through 5:30 pm. The Center for Humanities at CUNY will be live tweeting the event at @HumanitiesGC; and the hashtag for the conference is #BetweenMen30

The one-day, interdisciplinary and international conference will address both the singular impact of Sedgwick’s ground-breaking work and its multiple and on-going ramifications. the symposium features a series of short papers engaging with the text, its reception, and its relevance to the evolving field of queer studies. Additionally, a panel of editors, including our own Jennifer Crewe, who have published, and continue to publish, Sedgwick’s writing will discuss working with her and the nature of her authorship as its image or significance changed over the decades.

In addition to our thirtieth anniversary edition of Sedgwick’s Between Men, with a new foreword by Wayne Koestenbaum, the conference will also celebrate the publication of and a chapbook by Guillotine Press of a previously unpublished 1990 essay of Sedgwick’s, Censorship & Homophobia, with a foreword and notes by Sarah McCarry.

Other participants include: Wayne Koestenbaum, CUNY Graduate Center; Michael Moon, Emory University; William Germano, Cooper Union; Nancy K. Miller, CUNY Graduate Center; Ken Wissoker, Duke University Press and CUNY Graduate Center; Carolyn Williams, Rutgers University; Cathy Davidson, CUNY Graduate Center; Sharon Marcus, Columbia University; and Jonathan Goldberg, Emory University.

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

Sebald’s “Air War and Literature”

Sebald's Vision, Carol Jacobs

“Sebald demands a language that closely follows upon the events of destruction and brings them into our memory … Sebald calls for a language that makes one see.”—Carol Jacobs

In the following excerpt from Sebald’s Vision, Carol Jacobs discusses Sebald’s controversial “Air War and Literature,” and his call to remember German victims of the allied bombing:

Five years after the first publication of The Emigrants in 1992, Sebald gives a series of lectures entitled “Air War and Literature” (“Luftkrieg und Literatur”). The Emigrants closed with the judgment of Genewein, the would-be documentarian of the Lódz Ghetto who imagined, no doubt, he was fixing reality in place. “Air War and Lit­erature,” as it opens, demands an aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) that turns that suspicion of the documentary on its head. It sets us up for a theory and practice of “concrete memory.” Representation is clearly called upon to serve reality. Still, the shift from the earlier prose fiction to the “Air War” lectures is no symmetrical displace­ment, no difference as extreme or easy to grasp as that between night and day. It is no move, say, from the frivolities of art to the gravity of history. Sebald’s ultimate refusal to be the vehicle of a déjà vu, the writer’s fundamental skepticism by the end of the lectures with regard to what has been seen, establishes a kinship between his commentary on German postwar literature and his earlier liter­ary publication. And yet this is hardly evident at the outset of those lectures.

In 1997 Sebald holds forth from the other side of the German bor­der, from that no-man’s-land of what is, from a certain geopolitical viewpoint, regarded as Swiss neutrality. With his two lectures deliv­ered in Zurich, Sebald drops something of a bomb. What he ostensi­bly speaks of is literature—literature of a particular historical place and time. “Air War and Literature” castigates the failure of a genera­tion of German writers “for their incapacity to record and bring into our memory that which they had seen.” He dreams of a language of immediacy that unproblemati­cally names the experience of the observer, which then, somewhat magically, might become that of the reader as well. Sebald writes of an aesthetic imperative arising out of a “moral imperative,” imposed, in turn, by the particular object to be portrayed: in this case the utter destruction of the German cities by the Allied bombing attacks in the late years of World War II. But here, already, lies something of the well-recognized scandal of his text. The au­thor of those genre-bending volumes about (and yet not always quite about) the Holocaust—The Emigrants and Austerlitz, to name those now most familiar to Sebald’s audi­ence, came to Switzerland in the name of another, the other victim. It is no longer the murdered and expatriated victims of European his­tory and the Third Reich in the thirties and forties, both Jews and non-Jews, but those who by choice or fate remained on German soil. What would they, could they, have to say for themselves, of them­selves? How does their speech or silence relate to their particular po­litical and (thus) moral position and to the more generalizable situa­tion of trauma?


Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

“In Sebald one encounters an ethics of melancholy outrage” — Carol Jacobs on W. G. Sebald

Sebald's Vision, Carol Jacobs

“In Sebald one encounters an ethics of melancholy outrage, but he also sets forth his moral position with an astonishing sense of self-certitude.”—Carol Jacobs

In the following excerpt from the preface to Sebald’s Vision, Carol Jacobs details some of the distinctive features of W. G. Sebald’s fiction:

Three aspects of Sebald’s writing must inevitably strike every reader. To begin with, it is a question of a postwar German author addressing the Holocaust (and other historico-political and ecologi­cal disasters) in a manner the reading public had never before wit­nessed. In Sebald one encounters an ethics of melancholy outrage, but he also sets forth his moral position with an astonishing sense of self-certitude.

Second: every reader is struck by the visual oddity of literary and essayistic works peppered with images: photographs, documents, diagrams, sketches, and reproductions of artworks. The temptation, of course, is to assume that, given the ethical stance, the visual materials are there as illustrations. In Sebald’s writings one soon notices that this assumption is particularly vexed, since he openly plays with the purposeful uncertainty of what he places be­fore our eyes. The visual materials, as Sebald admits in an interview, often serve the purpose of readerly disorientation. And then one en­counters in each of his writings an astonishingly innovative writing style. Given his performances of meandering detours, his shatter­ing of frames, crossing borders, writing tangentially, disintegrating the name, surreptitiously citing, and announcing blindness, what is called for is a careful analysis of the highly unusual literary practices of his texts. How to reconcile such a radical stylistics with moral cer­titude? This is the question. How to understand, as Sebald will assert in interviews, that he can only speak indirectly? The task in reading Sebald, then, is to account for a whole range of concepts: what Sebald called our moral capacity alongside the vagaries of perception and, more generally, how representation in art and literature relates to the epistemological crises that he shows us arising out of the juxtaposi­tion of all these.

That his writings are about vision as the ability to see can escape no reader. Alongside the unusual, interspersed visual materials that rightfully engage so many Sebald scholars a theme of sight is oft en woven into the text. In “Air War and Literature” Sebald reproves those writers who directly witnessed the Allied bombings. What was called for was a steady gaze at what was before them (“Air War”) rendered in a concrete prose that might make the reader see. Still in The Rings of Saturn the narrator will celebrate not only Rembrandt’s verisimilitude but also his rebellion against mimesis. That refusal to copy nature emerges as Rembrandt’s social commentary. Sebald also writes of the remark­able realism of the art of Jan Peter Tripp, while nevertheless insisting that it is less its identity with reality that is worth considering than the “far less apparent points of divergence and difference”. In a late interview, Sebald will go on to insist that the Holocaust, which so concerned him, can only be spoken of indirectly: “So the only way in which one can approach these things, in my view, is obliquely, tangentially, by reference rather than by di­rect confrontation.” These are atrocities, he often takes the opportu­nity to remind us, that he himself, in any case, born in 1944, could not possibly have experienced head-on.

The degree to which written texts are called upon to see and report a factual or historical world of the artist’s experience fluctuates wildly in Sebald’s works and, more crucially, also within each individual work. In the texts we are about to read, neat conclusions about vision-of-the-eye are impossible. And then we encounter the prolific acts of citation, both visual and verbal, that are bound to seem twenty-twenty from a certain point of view. As we all know, however—and no one better than Sebald—the play of montage alters the incorporated material and puts it into new relations that cause us to see and read otherwise.

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

Interview with Carol Jacobs, author of “Sebald’s Vision”

Sebald's Vision, Carol Jacobs

“In many of [Sebald's] works one is drawn along in elaborate sentences that get you to a destination with only the remotest connections to where they began. It’s like traveling on a train whose tracks are constantly encountering a switch, so there is no predicting where one will end up, and almost no remembering how one could have gotten there.”—Carol Jacobs

The following is an interview with Carol Jacobs, author of Sebald’s Vision:

Question: W. G. Sebald is a vastly popular literary figure. Can you say something about the kind of audience he has drawn?

Carol Jacobs: Writing in 2000 Susan Sontag had this to say of the contemporary literary scene: “Is literary greatness still possible? . . . One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.” J. M. Coetzee, too, recognized and eloquently celebrated his work. The New York Times, the New Yorker, The Guardian, The Telegraph—all hinted at what had seemed the inevitability of his becoming a Nobel laureate prior to his tragic death. There is no question that he is a writer’s writer. His work has elicited an astonishing critical response from academics on both sides of the Atlantic. But he is no less a writer who appeals to a very wide range of devoted readers. I have seen them in the New York subway, on planes, and (this has its ironies, given a scene in Austerlitz in which the narrator visits an ophthalmologist) also at my eye doctor’s.

Q: Why the title Sebald’s Vision?

CJ: The awe that Sebald’s writing inspires is no doubt linked to his singular ethical stance, his moral vision. This commitment comes to us by way of a pained melancholy concerning the Holocaust, in Austerlitz and The Emigrants and also in After Nature and Rings of Saturn where he turns to a host of other historical and natural disasters.That commitment comes to us as righteous outrage in “Air War and Literature” in which Sebald had challenged not only the German nation for its failure to deal with its past but also post-war German writers for their refusal to document the bombings of German cities. He also had the courage to expose the military uselessness of that violence. So his is a voice that calls us to attention, that stops us in our tracks with its factual materials and yet sweeps us along with a remarkably compelling narrative at the same time, a narrative that Sebald often insisted on calling fiction.


Monday, October 19th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Sebald’s Vision, by Carol Jacobs

This week our featured book is Sebald’s Vision by Carol Jacobs.

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 Sebald’s Vision to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, October 23 at 1:00 pm.

Sebald’s Vision is meticulously researched, beautifully written, and certain to become the standard by which future work on this important writer is measured.” — Michael G. Levine, Rutgers University

For more on the book you can read the preface: