The b2 Review, which is part of boundary2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture’s popular website, is featuring my review of Robert T. Tally Jr.’s book Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography (2011) as part of its “Literature & Politics” section. Henry Veggian, who edits that section of the website, solicited the review a long time ago, and he was remarkably patient with me as I settled into a new job abroad and repeatedly delayed my submission. I learned a lot about what makes a good editor from working with him.
Sitting in my office this afternoon, only the second (or maybe third) rainy day since I moved to Dubai in August 2014, I’m surprised to read this remarkable passage from Margaret Ferguson’s 2015 MLA Presidential Address:
“Looking back once more to the MLA’s past, I move toward my conclusion by noticing that among the seldom remembered documents of the 1970 convention was a resolution urging the MLA’s officers to set up a Commission on Faculty Unions. The commission was to present a report to the membership on such topics as ‘the role of the university teacher as worker–i.e., one who sells his or her skills on the open market’ and ‘arguments for and against teacher unions or collective bargaining units as distinct from professional organizations.’ The resolution’s proposers begin by stating, ‘In the light of the increasing economic insecurity of college teachers, reflecting the overall economic crisis, . . . we recognize the need to explore the possibilities of organizing collective action by college teachers’ (‘1970 Business Meeting Actions’ 597). I’m not sure what happened to this resolution; although it was approved by a majority of the members who voted on it, I haven’t been able to find the commission’s report, which was supposed to build on data gathered with the help of newly hired staff members. The commission was to include members from several organizations that served as bargaining agents for college teachers and teaching assistants. Whatever the commission’s fate, perhaps it’s now time to return to the negotiating table of institutional memory and ask that the ideas motivating that old resolution be dusted off and reexamined” (563).
A brief reflection on teaching in the Middle East during troubled times…
We live in a paradoxical time vis-à-vis democracy. While democratic reforms have recently taken hold in places as diverse as Tunisia and Sri Lanka (Tunisia through revolution; Sri Lanka through the ballot), and Greece has turned to the demos as a frontline against its predatory creditors, leading democracies such as the US and the UK continue to suffer economic and political malaise. The developed democracies’ declining influence concentrates a growing skepticism toward democratic governance, especially among the populist right wing and neoliberal elites that constitute such powerful political blocs in the West. It is not uncommon for well-known public figures to openly question—and sometimes even dismiss—democracy’s desirability, and they often do so in the pages of the most widely read and respected publications. Consider, for example, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s provocatively titled editorial published in the New York Times this past December: “Is Democracy Dead?” Blair’s op-ed indicts the core political institutions of the US, the UK and other European democracies as “dysfunctional,” and he openly declares democracy to be “failing its citizens.” These are strongly pessimistic words, yet I suspect they resonate with many people who, nurtured on the Cold War promise that democracy will deliver everything from unlimited economic growth to global political dominance, find themselves disillusioned as the West enters a period of potentially irreversible decline. What’s most concerning about this loss of faith in democracy is not that it reflects a failure of democracy, but rather that it reflects the success of an ongoing effort to redefine democracy as a tool for advancing economic development rather than as the irreducible means of achieving and preserving political self-determination.
Neel Mukherjee’s second novel, The Lives of Others (2014), begins and ends with acts of extreme violence. The first is a murder-suicide committed in the mid-1960s by a West Bengal sharecropper who, ruined by drought and usury, sees in death a welcome escape from what he calls a “world of misery, of endless, endless misery” (Mukherjee 2). The second is a terrorist attack perpetrated more than forty years later by a group of armed insurrectionists who intentionally target some 1,500 commuters as they travel by rail between Ajmer and Kolkata. These militants—members of a largely Maoist guerrilla army fighting against the multinational mining operations and development projects that have coordinated with the Indian state to forcibly expel Dalit and Adivasi communities (i.e., so-called ‘untouchables’ and the heterogeneous tribal groups that make up India’s indigenous population) from their traditional, resource-rich homelands—see in spectacular violence an alternative to suicide’s self-inflicted oblivion. Taken together, these acts frame a critique of how India’s neoliberal economic turn in the decades following the Cold War has exacerbated the rift between the subcontinent’s rural poor and the social, legal, and economic power that has historically consolidated around the issue of land rights. By bracketing his novel with scenes depicting violent acts of resistance against such exploitative socioeconomic practices, Mukherjee draws a straight line between the notorious Naxalbari uprising of the late 1960s, which aimed to restore some semblance of equality—economic and political—between landowners and their debtor tenants, and the much more widespread Maoist insurgency that continues to spread throughout India’s vast hinterlands. The Lives of Others thus encourages its readers to think through the pervasive ideology of developmentalism to its core political problems, namely its corrosive effect on local sites of power and self-determination, and it’s systematic production of economic and political inequality.
In his introduction to American graphic novelist Joe Sacco’s comic-book series Palestine (1993-1995), Edward Said recalls how “liberated and subversive” he felt upon first encountering the comics medium, with its extravagant illustrations and fantastic, unconstrained narratives of conflict and adventure (i). He attributes his initial enthusiasm to adolescence, but he also admits how, after reading Sacco’s graphic narrative, he was “plunged directly back into the world of the first great intifada and, with even greater effect, back into the animated, enlivening world of the comics [he] had read so long ago” (iii). The graphic novel’s subversive, liberating potential to tell the sorts of stories that are largely ignored by popular media has not been lost on a new generation of storytellers who are working within the comics medium to re-read the contemporary Middle East. Writer-illustrators such as Magdy El-Shafee, Amir Soltani and Khalil Bendib, and Leila Abdelrazaq have seized on the comic form’s radical heteroglossia to interrogate topics ranging from religion to politics to sexuality in increasingly novel and challenging ways. Indeed, rescuing these aspects from the margins of representation is one of the comic medium’s principle strengths. Here again, Said articulates the principle in his introduction to Sacco’s work: “As we live in a media-saturated world in which a huge preponderance of the world’s news images are controlled and diffused by a handful of men sitting in places like London and New York, a stream of comic-book images and words, assertively etched, at times grotesquely emphatic and distended to match the extreme situations they depict, provide a remarkable antidote” (iii).
Over three beautiful early-summer days here on the edge of the Arabian Gulf, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) joined with the American University in Dubai’s Middle Eastern Studies Program to host the outstanding “Re-Locating Middle East Studies: New Geographies of Discourse” conference. With eight scholarly panels, featuring over thirty papers, and keynote addresses by Joseph Massad and Gary Bunt, “Re-locating Middle East Studies” was one of the most enlightened, informative meetings I’ve attended in some time. One of the reasons I found the conference so interesting is that by dabbling in Middle Eastern Studies I’m crossing disciplinary boundaries (a crossing that makes a certain amount of sense considering the field’s interdisciplinary nature, to mention nothing of the academic post I hold in Dubai), and I was naturally intrigued by the different theories and methodologies that inform academic work in this area. But the real reason that I found the conference so rewarding is that I was genuinely impressed by the quality of the scholarship on display at the various panels and plenary sessions.
The Hellenic Association for the Study of English’s “Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language & Culture” conference is just two weeks off, and the full program is now available at the conference website, as are abstracts and related events. With panels ranging from “Language and Democratic Community Building” to “Democratic Utopias/Dystopias” to “Human Rights in Literature and Culture” (and much, much more), the program is flush with scholars from around the world who are working on issues related to democratic theory and praxis. I’m duly impressed by the variety of papers represented here, and I very much look forward to engaging in lively discussions regarding democracy in the early years of this new century.
During the penultimate year of my graduate studies, I had the good fortune to join a group of outstanding scholars for a three-day conference at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, where I presented my thoughts on satirical representations of Richard Nixon in the 1960s-era underground press. The paper was well-received, and editors James L. Baughman, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, and James P. Danky later selected a revised and expanded version of my remarks for inclusion in this newly released collection of essays, Protest on the Page: Essays on Print and the Culture of Dissent since 1865 (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015). The book takes up a variety of dissident discourses—from early twentieth-century vegetarianism and anarchism, to mid-century evangelicalism and comic book fandom, to anti-war GIs activism and radical feminism in the 1970s and ’80s—in order to expand and revise our understanding of the modern American press. I’m thrilled to have my work included in what is truly an exemplary collection of essays!
Since arriving in Dubai, I’ve taken a fairly aggressive approach to studying non-Western literature, particularly contemporary Middle Eastern and South Asian fiction and long-form journalism. I’ve also been looking at Middle Eastern graphic novels in preparation for the Graphic Novel seminar I’m teaching in the Fall, and I continue to discover many wonderful graphic narratives being produced throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Incorporating this body of literature into my research agenda has been personally rewarding, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to share my thoughts on these texts in a formal setting.