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Archive for the 'Literary Studies' Category

Friday, February 26th, 2016

Images from “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?

We conclude our week-long feature on “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs,” by Tahneer Oksman by sharing some of the extraordinary images from her book:

Aline Kominsky Crumb
Aline Kominsky Crumb, top of title panel from “Nose Job,” 1989

Lauren Weinstein
Lauren Weinstein, “The Best We Can Hope For,” 2008

Aline Kominsky Crumb
Aline Kominsky Crumb, untitled cartoon. In Need More Love

Vanessa Davis
Vanessa Davis, full-page color drawing. In Make Me a Woman


Thursday, February 25th, 2016

Tahneer Oksman on Writing a Jewish Book

“Why did I write a Jewish book? Because I was trying to reclaim my Jewish self, however unfamiliar its now ragged shape.”—Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

When Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs, first began as PhD. student in literature, focusing on Jewish women’s comics was not on the horizon As she explains in a recent essay in Lilith, while women’s literature was of great interest to her, she had decided to put her Jewish upbringing behind her:

Somewhere between my upbringing in a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in the Bronx, and the years of slowly replacing that orthodoxy with new modes of belief and practice — feminism, writing, literature and, yes, yoga — I decided that my Jewish history would never figure, could never figure, in my life as it — as I — had been remade. It would certainly never become a centerpiece.

However, as she pursued her studies, she found herself drawn to the lives of such Jewish writers as Anzia Yezierska, Sara Smolinsky, and Grace Paley. This shift to concentrating Jewish women writers was not necessarily the best career move. Oksman explains:

Writing about a Jewish topic also meant transforming myself into the very worst thing you could become as a graduate student: unmarketable. I was now too Jewish for English Literature programs, and I would never be Jewish enough for jobs in Jewish programs. This left me, as usual, between worlds; if you write your first book on a Jewish topic, after all, you’ve pigeonholed yourself: you’re a Jewish writer. Haven’t you seen how so many of those popular “canonical” Jewish writers (and actors, and painters, and critics) reject that title? Write about something else; take the word Jewish out of your title, for heaven’s sake!


Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

Tahneer Oksman Recommends Recent Graphic Memoirs

Turning Japanese

The following is a post by Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs

In “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” I examine the complex and exciting ways identity can be mapped out and pictured on the comics page. I chose to focus on autobiographical Jewish women cartoonists in particular because I found their ambivalence about Jewish identity—their desire to often simultaneously identify as insiders and outsiders—a captivating example of how comics can help visualize incongruity, paradox, and conflict alongside connection, acceptance, and recognition.

One of the (happy) frustrations I encountered in writing this book was that I kept stumbling across powerful works of graphic memoir that didn’t necessarily fit into the set of themes I was grappling with in the book. In other words, they weren’t particularly Jewish. Here I offer a brief glance at four works, three recently published and one forthcoming, that caught my attention and merit a closer look.

Jennifer’s Journal: The Life of a Suburban Girl, Volume 1
Jennifer Cruté
(Rosarium Publishing, 2015)
From its bubbly and enticing cover, which pictures a young girl playing with dolls in her room as a devil smoking a cigarette grins in the corner, to its sincere depictions of a serious artist focused on painting and creating, Jennifer Cruté’s Jennifer’s Journals is often startling in its unexpected juxtapositions. The book is partly the story of becoming an adult and artist and partly a family history, with amusingly jarring interludes featuring moments in the childhood of the author/artist’s friends. Cruté offers her readers a motley of such unusual narrative techniques, including punch lines, an adult translator who occasionally appears, and sometimes the simple but forceful confusion of a sequence of painful memories offered without explanation. Her characters are cartoonish, bubbly; but that doesn’t lessen the sting when, for example, in a sequence recalling distant family history (“Georgia, circa 1915″), her great-grandfather matter-of-factly tells her grandma Faye, “Aww, don’t worry, baby. Dead people can’t lynch us.” If anything, the book’s style catches its readers off-guard, offering an unpredictable, open-ended self portrait of a life still unfolding.

Turning Japanese: A Graphic Memoir
(2d Cloud, forthcoming in spring 2016)
I’ve long been a fan of MariNaomi’s autobiographical comics, from her early collection Kiss & Tell, which documents a range of romantic (mis)adventures, to Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories, an episodic compilation on family, work, and love. In Turning Japanese, MariNaomi brings her understated, often deadpan narrative voice to life with spare, fluid lines. On the surface, the book traces two seemingly unrelated threads: a new relationship weathering the ins-and-outs of everyday life; and the search for connection with a place and culture that the protagonist, who calls herself a “mutt,” has been distanced from. Born to a Japanese mother who fled home to marry and raise a family in America, MariNaomi reveals, over the course of the narrative, how the search for a future, with or without a partner, is inevitably, if sometimes vaguely, tied to one’s personal history, one’s past. Like the texts that I write about in How Come Boys?, this book reflects the complicated nature of identification and disidentification, of the ways we can paradoxically come to find who we are through our rejections and rebellions.


Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

An Interview with Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

Tahneer Oksman,

“What’s interesting about comics is that you have artists drawing versions of themselves over and over on the same page. You can actually see their serial selves, their past, present, and future self-portraits in relation to one another.”—Tahneer Oksman

The following is an interview with Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”" Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs:

Question: The graphic memoirists you write about in your book have complicated relationships to Jewish identity. What are some of the ways they express or articulate their ambivalence?

Tahneer Oksman: For someone like Aline Kominsky Crumb, her reflections on Jewish identity read, at least initially, like a general distaste for the Jewish Long Island community that she grew up in. Her memoir is saturated with visual and verbal stereotypes about Jews, and Jewish women in particular. But the more closely you examine her work, the more you recognize its complex push-pull: she incorporates those stereotypes in order to fully explore her own sense of self. In a way, she is continually mocking her own mockery.

Some of the other cartoonists I write about tend to be more overtly ambivalent. Vanessa Davis, for instance, expresses a clear adoration for various tenets of her Jewish identity, many of these associated with childhood and family. But within images portraying precious memories—of her Bat Mitzvah, for example—she incorporates words or body language that contradict the celebratory, engaged atmosphere depicted around her. Other artists, like Lauren Weinstein, express ambivalence indirectly, as when her young persona writes a letter to Mattel, complaining about how “All your Barbies look like Aryans!,” and then later laments her own so-called Jewish looks (including her nose).

Q: How does this differ from the ways in which Jewish male graphic artists might grapple with these questions in their own work?

TO: I don’t believe there’s any essential difference in the ways that Jewish women and men—or women and men more generally—portray identity in comics. In the book, I selected seven memoirists who, to my mind, successfully model this ambivalent Jewish identity that I set out to explore. There are plenty of other Jewish cartoonists who didn’t make it into the book, not because they don’t fit into this model but because I had to set limitations in order to effectively develop my ideas. The book is meant to introduce a way to start thinking about how identity functions in comics, and not as any kind of end point.

To my mind, crucial differences emerge when it comes to how different kinds of comics (and artistic and literary works more generally) are perceived. Certain subjects and styles are still considered amateur or frivolous both in and out of academic contexts. It’s still a very male-dominated medium in this way, no matter how many women skillfully assert themselves in various forms of print and online. This reception ultimately influences the ways that comics get made. In other words, there’s going to be an awareness, for artists and writers who have been marginalized, of certain critical tones, and that will inevitably find its way into the work, for better or worse.


Monday, February 22nd, 2016

Umberto Eco on Language and Lunacy and the Force of Falsity

Umberto Eco

We were very saddened to learn of the recent passing of noted linguist and novelist Umberto Eco. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to publish Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, one of Eco’s works, which The Atlantic called “Erudite, wide-ranging, and slyly humorous…. The literary examples Eco employs range from Dante to Dumas, from Sterne to Spillane. His text is thought-provoking, often outright funny, and full of surprising juxtapositions.”

In the book, Eco unlocks the riddles of history in an exploration of the “linguistics of the lunatic,” stories told by scholars, scientists, poets, fanatics, and ordinary people in order to make sense of the world. Exploring the “Force of the False,” Eco uncovers layers of mistakes that have shaped human history, such as Columbus’s assumption that the world was much smaller than it is, leading him to seek out a quick route to the East via the West and thus fortuitously “discovering” America. Like his other other works, Serendipities is a masterful combination of erudition and wit, bewildering anecdotes and scholarly rigor.

Below is the book’s first chapter, “The Force of Falsity”:

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

Book Giveaway! “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

This week we are featuring “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs, by Tahneer Oksman.

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 “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” 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, February 26th at 1:00 pm.

Jeremy Dauber, Director, Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, Columbia University, writes:

“A careful and nuanced exploration of the complexities of identity and identification, “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” is an excellent and ground-breaking work.”

Below is the introduction, “To Unaffiliate Jewishly”:

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.


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.