Misanthropic Humanism and the Politics of Comic Futility

Kurt Vonnegut owes a good measure of his popularity, both as novelist and public intellectual, to his gift for treating the most depressing aspects of postmodern American life with cheerful contempt. His steadfast good humor renders dissident fictions palatable for mainstream audiences, while also appealing to those more politically active readers who are convinced the core values animating contemporary American life must be revised if, as the most idealistic generation in recent memory warned, we are not to be “the last generation in the experiment with living” (Hayden). He is, in this regard, one of postwar America’s most politically savvy literary voices, a novelist perhaps uniquely suited to posit radical ideas within mainstream discourse. It is important to note, however, that while Vonnegut lends his voice to a number of “isms” well outside the bounds of popular American politics (socialism, pacifism, and atheism come immediately to mind), he does so while remaining conspicuously skeptical of political activism as a force for positive and lasting social change. He thus performs the paradoxical task of inculcating a progressive moralism that condemns the most troubling aspects of postmodern American life—most notably the twin forces of consumer capitalism and militarization—while at the same time insisting on the inability of progressive politics to set straight what he sees as having gone so obviously awry. At the core of his critique is a “Do-Nothing ethos,” a sort of hip resignation that suggests an inevitable descent into evermore cruel and calloused ways of being (Weisenburger 176). This ethos finds its most memorable expression in his famously fatalistic phrase, “So it goes,” which he utters like a mantra throughout Slaughterhouse-Five (1969); or, to put it differently, as he does in his less popular novel Bluebeard (1987), humankind is “doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive” (Slaughterhouse-Five 2; Bluebeard 91). It is around this fatalism that his oeuvre’s core contradiction develops. While Vonnegut’s novels may speak passionately against manifold forms of violence and oppression, they ultimately succumb to a playful nihilism that, though rich in irony and black humor, offers little by way of imagining a future beyond the sequence of traumas and disasters that characterizes our historical moment.

Irony and black humor are, to be sure, means of making the intolerable seem tolerable, as gallows humor surely attests, and in the hands of more radical satirists such as William S. Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, and Kathy Acker, to name just a few of Vonnegut’s contemporaries, they become discursive weapons against the violent, exploitative mentalities that continue to structure our world into the twenty-first century. But with Vonnegut, the gallows carry the day. This is not to deny that Vonnegut’s satire does much to shame prevailing sociopolitical mores. It does. It also raises a powerful alarm that something has gone horribly wrong in the world. But in the end, Vonnegut’s fiction eschews imagining acts of meaningful resistance—symbolic or actual. His work is, in this regard a surrender, for even his most politically effective novels advance an image of humanity as powerless to enact positive social change in the face of overwhelming biological and historical forces. In his well-known 1973 interview with Playboy magazine, Vonnegut goes so far as to explicitly position the political novelist as part of a biological process that functions independently of the writer’s strategic intentions, an explanation that illustrates the fatalistic paradox at the core of his politics. In response to a question regarding his motives for writing, he says, “My motives are political. I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society. I differ with the dictators as to how writers should serve. Mainly I think they should be—and biologically have to be—agents of change” [my emphasis]. Vonnegut imagines writers as “evolutionary cells” in the “social organism,” biologically determined agents that simultaneously introduce new ideas into society and function as a central “means of responding symbolically to life.” Yet immediately after articulating his progressive political commitments, Vonnegut turns notably pessimistic, stating, “I don’t think we’re in control of what we do,” before proceeding (in characteristically self-depreciatory fashion) to dismiss his theory of the writer as a force for evolutionary social change as “horseshit” (Vonnegut 76-77). He thus undermines, in a moment of what I read as impromptu candor, one of the foundational premises of political activism: that people can join in solidarity and organize around conscious acts of will to fashion a better future.

Robert T. Tally, Jr. takes up Vonnegut’s paradoxical politics in his ambitious study, Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography (2011). Ranging over Vonnegut’s nearly fifty-year career, and offering commentary on all fourteen of his novels, Tally develops a theory of Vonnegut as a leading iconographer of postmodern American society. This is not to say that Vonnegut is a leading postmodernist per se —Tally suggests the label “postmodern” doesn’t quite fit—but rather that he is a writer with deep-seated modernist sensibilities whose work attempts to capture a comprehensive vision of America at the height of its power. In ranging over Vonnegut’s novels, Tally touches on some crucial theoretical and generic concerns, both of which I’ll discuss in due course, but what stands out most impressively when considering Vonnegut’s effort to construct a thoroughgoing postmodern iconography is the way in which his modernist political sensibility—rooted in utopian ideals of social wholeness and moral intelligibility—gives way to the overwhelming uncertainty and fragmentation of the postmodern age. His iconography may aim for the “comprehensiveness and unity assayed by the most wide-eyed utopians of the early modernist period,” as Tally argues early in his study, “yet Vonnegut’s world remains more fragmentary and unfixed than the elegiac modernists imagined. Hence, Vonnegut makes a botch of things” (xxi). By tracking Vonnegut’s career-long attempt to negotiate the tensions between modernity and postmodernity, Tally offers a compelling literary-critical portrait of a significant (though largely neglected) American novelist grappling with the contradictions and crises of postwar American life, a portrait that helps clarify the paradoxical core of Vonnegut’s fatalistic political ethos.

Tally argues that Vonnegut’s postmodern iconography is a fundamentally modernist project in that it seeks through symbolic means to contain a cultural moment come unhinged through rapid technological development and the values associated with mass consumerism and unchecked militarization. In response to the pervasive fragmentation of American society, Vonnegut constructs an iconography intended to identify the roots of postmodern social disintegration and thus, by extension, illuminate traces of a prelapsarian integrated whole or idealized unity. We see in this effort what Tally regards as Vonnegut’s “thoroughgoing, elegiac modernism,” a perspective that leads him to revisit key modernist concerns, including “the effects of industrialization and technology, the breakup of traditional (so-called organic) communities, the relations between historical and psychological structures, between social totality and personal experience” (6-7). Yet because he does so within a postmodern framework, his efforts at identifying clearly defined social problems that fit within stable narrative structures are ultimately stymied by the very slippages and lack of coherence that his fiction attempts to contain. The result of this tension is a body of work that fails to effectively imagine utopian solutions precisely because it runs repeatedly into the limitations of a cultural-historical moment that denies utopian thinking as such. As Tally rightly notes, “the politics of postmodernism—by denying both an Edenic past to return to and a utopian future just over the horizon—often appears doomed to fall back into an apolitical position.” As a result of this denial, and surrounded everywhere by a breakdown in signification and its attendant political frustrations, Vonnegut’s “political forces have been driven deeply into an unconscious. A writer who desperately wants to support causes championed by a populist left, Vonnegut cannot help his general despondence over the impossibility of a genuinely political movement achieving success” (10). So while Vonnegut’s modernist sensibility may lead him to desire stable political solutions, he ultimately succumbs to a postmodern framework that all but forecloses on the utopian, redemptive promise that energizes the various “isms” I mentioned above. He thus becomes what Tally calls “a reluctant postmodernist” (7).

Although Tally makes the political dimensions of Vonnegut’s postmodern iconography clear, he tends away from situating Vonnegut within the rich and varied political discourses that shaped Cold War American society and its aftermath. He opts instead to engage literary-critical debates to argue for the significance of Vonnegut’s contribution to the development of American literature, even going so far as to suggest that Vonnegut is as good a candidate as any for having achieved some proximity to the ever-elusive “great American novel.” Indeed, Tally makes an extended claim that Vonnegut’s postmodern iconography is a noble yet failed attempt—a near miss, really—at achieving precisely such a deed. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, the book struggles to bear out Tally’s claim that Vonnegut’s iconography attempts the comprehensiveness associated with a project such as “the great American novel” precisely because it avoids a substantive engagement with specific sociopolitical developments in the decades following the end of the Second World War. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel is not a work of American studies, nor does it take advantage of sociohistorical methodologies that may, in the hands of some future scholar, help place Vonnegut’s work in relation to actual politics of world-historical significance—the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements, Nixon’s ouster and the rise of Reagan, the fall of Communism, etc. On the other hand, Tally’s emphasis on literary-critical debates allows him to construct an impressive survey of Vonnegut’s work, and he makes important strides toward understanding the extent of Vonnegut’s engagement with theoretical concerns developed by some of the twentieth century’s most important continental philosophers. Figures such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Theodore Adorno, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari loom large in his study, and while their presence at times softens what could be a sharper focus on the particularities of Cold War American society, they allow Tally to make a case for Vonnegut as something more than a popular novelist. The truth is that Vonnegut is not taken very seriously within the academy, and by showing how his novels are shaped by and/or fit in relation to key theoretical insights, Tally makes a strong argument for Vonnegut’s place within a lineage of great American novelists running from Herman Melville to Thomas Pynchon.

Yet even when Tally focuses on continental philosophy to make literary-critical claims about Vonnegut’s work, and particularly when he does so in relation to how Vonnegut negotiates the tension between modernist and postmodernist narrative techniques, he still manages to present important insights vis-à-vis Vonnegut’s paradoxical politics. For example, in his chapter on Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, Tally draws extensively on Nietzsche’s theory of the “eternal return”—the idea that a finite universe exists in infinite time and space and thus must recur ad infinitum—as a key to understanding the novel’s “Tralfamadorian style.” Named after the bizarre alien life forms that abduct the book’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, and display him in a sort of zoo/natural history museum on their home planet Tralfamador, Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorian style is rooted in a cosmological concept that, much like Nietzsche’s eternal return, asserts “all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist” (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 34). Tralfamadorians experience such simultaneity literally, seeing all time arrayed before them as if it were a mountain chain over which their consciousnesses may range at will. Billy also experiences something approaching this simultaneity after coming “unstuck in time,” and his subsequent and varied shifts between the past, present, and future allow Vonnegut to dispose of linear storytelling and engage in altogether more experimental narrative techniques (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 29). Armed with Nietzsche’s theory of the eternal return, Tally argues that these techniques, though relying on apparent narrative instability and its associated fragmentation of experience, are actually evidence of Vonnegut’s attempt to achieve a more rigorous realism than that which more conventional narrative forms allow. If reality is determined by an eternal recurrence, as Nietzsche asserts, and all moments in time exist simultaneously, than it only makes sense that Slaughterhouse-Five’s narrative structure move beyond representing the world as if “one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever” (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 34). The novel’s fragmented narrative form thus becomes an exercise in constructing a cosmological unity, with past, present, and future held simultaneously in view and nothing left to slip away beyond our reach. For Tally, this is wholly “characteristic of Vonnegut’s modernism: the need for experimental narrative techniques (such as stream-of-consciousness, collage, time-warps) to do justice to what is really real, something that the older modes of realism were seemingly unable to accomplish. This marks Vonnegut’s wholly modernist view of reality” (78).

Though questions regarding Vonnegut’s narrative techniques may seem to be of limited literary-critical interest, Tally shows how they prove reflective of Vonnegut’s “Tralfamadorian ethics,” an ethics infused with Nietzschean amor fati, or “love of fate,” and one that Tally argues is peculiarly “suited to Vonnegut’s modernist approach to the postmodern condition” (71). Billy’s disillusionment with time as linear phenomenon not only affects the novel’s narrative structure, but it also leads him to accept that which he has no power to change, namely the pervasive reality of death. Billy articulates this acceptance in a letter he writes to the editors of his local newspaper, an example Tally highlights as evidence of his peculiar ethics: “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes’” (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 34). The specific context of Billy’s struggle with death is the trauma he experiences after witnessing the American firebombing of Dresden, an event that Vonnegut also witnessed during his military service in World War Two. Hundreds of thousands of German civilians perished during the attack, and Billy’s postwar experiences—including the experience of seeing his son deploy to fight in Vietnam, a detail that provides the immediate political context of this self-professed anti-war novel—are haunted by his memories of the Dresden dead. Slaughterhouse-Five is, to a significant degree, an attempt to grapple with a world in which even those forces that seem most committed to liberty and justice engage in indiscriminate acts of mass murder. Nietzsche’s eternal return, a theory meant to liberate human psychology from the anxiety and resentment bound up in the wish to both alter the past and change an inevitable future, provides Tally with the theoretical means to figure the fatalism expressed in the phrase “So it goes” as the “appropriate response to death, as well as an affirmation of life” (75). It also allows him to synthesize Vonnegut’s style and ethics in such a way as to illuminate the paradox at the core of Vonnegut’s seemingly progressive politics, namely the belief that the world is as it is because it cannot be otherwise.

In what is his most significant contribution to our understanding of Vonnegut’s work, Tally proposes the term “misanthropic humanism” to describe Vonnegut’s cheerful fatalism. Misanthropic humanism is a useful term because it explains how a body of work can seem committed to a radical project for progressive sociopolitical change, while simultaneously holding forth a constant reminder that cruelty, injustice, stupidity, and death are inevitabilities that strike at all in the end. There can be no question that Vonnegut cared deeply about the fate of humanity; his best novels expose the sometimes subtle pathologies that produce unparalleled suffering in the contemporary world, and they do so in such a way as to stir lasting sympathies in his audience. But the humanity Vonnegut cared so deeply about is, in his view, a species with self-destructive tendencies written into its very biology. The notion that human beings function as cells in a social organism, and biologically have to be a certain way, as Vonnegut insists they must in his Playboy interview, underwrites his misanthropic humanism and infuses his fiction with the humor of those destined for the gallows without hope of escape. Indeed, there is no hope for escape precisely because we are human. Tally argues that Vonnegut’s work “shows how human beings themselves are the greatest, indeed perhaps the only, impediment to human freedom and happiness,” and that this circumstance cannot be otherwise because our most debilitating qualities emerge from the inevitable inner-failing of human nature itself (23). Tally has a keen eye for how Vonnegut’s misanthropic humanism manifests itself through nearly every one of his novels, and though his study cannot ultimately resolve the contradiction of a progressive politics that denies the possibility of progress (this is Vonnegut’s failure, not Tally’s), it goes a long way toward clarifying some of the more paradoxical aspects of Vonnegut’s politics.

Vonnegut stresses a pointed view of humanity as innately self-destructive throughout his oeuvre, beginning with his 1952 debut novel Player Piano, and extending into the late stages of his long career (his 1985 novel Galápagos is a good example). Indeed, in ranging over each of Vonnegut’s fourteen novels, Tally reveals the far-reaching ways in which Vonnegut’s work not only highlights humanity’s self-destructive tendencies, but also suggests that human beings lack basic free will. For example, he draws on Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, to illustrate how his fiction “blurs the lines between man and machine, showing not just how humans are being replaced by machines or how machines have dehumanized American society (the ostensible themes of Player Piano), but that humans are themselves machines” (21; my emphasis). Set in a dystopian America in which an automated economy has deprived most people of meaningful work, Player Piano expresses the pervasive sense of corporate, middle-class angst captured most famously by Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955). However, Vonnegut’s debut differs from most other 1950s novels of its sort by imagining a revolutionary movement that acts to restore power and dignity to a people dispossessed by a technocratic economic-political system. In this regard, Vonnegut’s fiction anticipates sociologist Theodore Roszak’s important study of the New Left’s opposition to technocratic values in his book The Making of a Counter Culture (1969). Yet unlike those New Left activists motivated by the belief that a better world is possible, Vonnegut has his revolution fail at the very moment of its success. Immediately after Vonnegut’s dissident neo-Luddite zealots smash all the machines, they begin testing their technical know-how by first explaining and then repairing the technology they have just destroyed, thus taking the first step toward reestablishing the technocratic regime that had dispossessed them in the first place. It’s as if they can’t help but undermine their own liberation. In other words, the revolution fails not because it runs up against an implacable, dehumanizing system, but rather because such failure is written into human nature itself.

Vonnegut’s work suggests that such failures are more than political; they are an innate part of human biology, which is hardwired for self-destructive behavior. This belief is what allows Vonnegut to care so deeply about humanity while simultaneously holding it squarely responsible for all of the world’s troubles. Tally makes this point clear when he writes, “Vonnegut sees most people as fundamentally flawed, petty, avaricious, and prone to acts of almost incredible cruelty. Yet, for all that, Vonnegut also cannot abandon humanity; he marvels at man’s folly, noting sadly or just curiously man’s absurd perseverance, as in the bittersweet image of the triumphant Luddites who, at the end of Player Piano, proudly put back together the very machines they had broken. In Galápagos, Vonnegut takes further pity on people, arguing that it was never their fault that they were silly, arrogant, and cruel. It was all due to their grotesquely oversized brains” (131). Absurd as this may sound, Vonnegut’s late novel Galápagos does indeed blame the evolutionary accident that led to our current brain size for everything from predatory economics and war to suicidal thoughts. In fact, the narrative fantasizes a world in which humans, through a dangerous mix of nuclear radiation and natural selection, evolve out of their debilitating brain size and into simpler brains incapable of advanced logical and/or moral reasoning. Only after humanity evolves into a species of seal-like creatures does the world achieve a sense of equilibrium. The joke is more-or-less transparent: we humans, with our advanced cognitive processes and opposable thumbs, our integrated economies and technologized wars, are a far baser lot than the simple-minded creatures splashing along the shores of the Galápagos islands. Better to be an animal than a human being when humans have done so much to degrade the world. But behind Vonnegut’s joke is a pathetic fatalism that holds forth biological evolution as the only feasible solution to the very real problems facing our world. According to this view, humanity will only be relieved of the destruction it visits upon itself and its environment when it ceases to be comprised of humans. A posthuman condition—or as Tally would have it, “a new humanism without the human”—thus becomes the only way to overcome the compelling, though ultimately frustrating misanthropy that infuses Vonnegut’s important body of work (132).

Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel does much to reposition Vonnegut as a major American writer. By approaching Vonnegut’s oeuvre as an integrated postmodern iconography, a strategic project bridging the gap between modernism and postmodernism, Tally reveals Vonnegut to be a serious, deeply imaginative writer whose fictions intervene in major intellectual debates—political and theoretical—that continue to impact contemporary social developments. Tally thus begins to correct the general paucity of scholarship on Vonnegut’s work, and he does so with a critical agility that not only allows him to touch on all of Vonnegut’s major fictions, but also to situate those fictions in relation to American literary history, continental philosophy, modernist and postmodernist aesthetics, and progressive politics. But what stands out most remarkably in this study is Tally’s theory of Vonnegut as misanthropic humanist. In bringing together these two seemingly oppositional terms, Tally lays bare the raison d’être of Vonnegut’s black humor, which is to find a way to embrace a self-degrading humanity that—through inevitable historical forces and biological determinism—cannot do otherwise but construct the mechanisms of its own destruction. Vonnegut’s black humor thus reveals the contours of what I now think of as a politics of comic futility. It’s important to note, however, that despite the fatalism that underwrites Vonnegut’s misanthropic humanism, his novels do struggle against seemingly insurmountable forms of violence and injustice, and they do so while maintaining a cheerful spirit that encourages political engagement even as they dismiss political activism as a quixotic pursuit of the impossible. As Tally notes at the conclusion of his illuminating study, Vonnegut “recognizes the demeanor and comportment best suited for engaging in a project such as he faces, and we face at the end of the American Century, and moving into another, as yet unknown, era. As Nietzsche put it, ‘Maintaining cheerfulness in the midst of a gloomy affair, fraught with immeasurable responsibility, is no small feat; and yet what is needed more than cheerfulness? Nothing succeeds without high spirits having a part in it’” (159).


This review essay was originally published in b2o, the online community of the boundary 2 editorial collective. It can be accessed at the following link: https://www.boundary2.org/2016/01/misanthropic-humanism-the-politics-of-comic-futility-robert-t-tally-jr-s-kurt-vonnegut-and-the-american-novel/.


Hayden, Tom et al. “Port Huron Statement.” H-Net, http://www.h-net.org/~hst306/documents/huron.html. Accessed 19 Aug. 2015.

Tally, Robert T. Jr. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography. Continuum, 2011.

Vonnegut, Kurt, interviewed by David Standish. “Playboy Interview.” Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, edited by William Rodney Allen, U P of Mississippi, 1988, 76-110.

Weisenburger, Steven. Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel, 1930-1980. University of Georgia Press, 1995.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2018 Micah Robbins

Singularity and Multitude in Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

The fraught relationship between global capitalism and cultural identity looms large in the work of contemporary Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid. His novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, for example, tells the story of Changez, a young Pakistani man who attends Princeton University on scholarship before going to work for Underwood Samson, a high-powered asset valuation firm in New York City. But when the United States responds to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center with a series of military invasions that throw the global power structure into high relief, Changez must confront the tensions within his personal identity as a transnational global subject. He soon recognizes that he “lacked a stable core,” and he confesses that he could no longer tell if he belonged “in New York, in Lahore, in both, in neither” (Hamid, Reluctant Fundamentalist, 168). As the narrative progresses, Changez grows a beard, resigns his post at Underwood Samson, and returns to Pakistan, where he helps organize a series of large scale protests against American involvement in the Middle East and South Asia. What makes Changez’s transformation from pro-American market fundamentalist to anti-American political activist so compelling is that he exists both inside and outside the logic of global capitalism. By embodying both sides of the contemporary conflict between cosmopolitanism and parochialism, his consciousness troubles any clear distinction between “us” and “them”—a key mentality and core contradiction within neoliberal globalization. Like much of Hamid’s work, The Reluctant Fundamentalist asks us to consider the limits of this mentality and to question the extent to which a distinction between inside and outside—or the global and the local—is possible at this point in history.

Hamid complicates this question in his novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Unlike Changez, who views the world through both Pakistani and American eyes, the unnamed protagonist in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia never leaves Pakistan. His journey is from an impoverished village in the Pakistani hinterlands to the developmental boom of contemporary Lahore. Hamid’s shift in emphasis from transnational to regional subject would seem to eschew the idea that globalization strips everyone of a “stable core.” Indeed, there is no reason to read Hamid’s unnamed protagonist as anything other than authentically Pakistani. Not only does he never experience the nostalgic longing for cultural authenticity that is evident in Changez’s split identity, but he is also repeatedly reminded that he does not belong to a global elite with the privileged mobility to exist in more than one place at a time, and this despite the fact that he earns a modest fortune bottling untreated tap water. One example of such a reminder is when he meets his childhood sweetheart (referred to throughout the novel as “the pretty girl,” who has since gone on to become an internationally recognized model) at the most exclusive hotel in the city. Having recently been damaged by a truck bomb, the hotel, which Hamid describes as an “outpost of a leading international chain, a bridge with lofty, illuminated blue signage to the outside world,” has made a concerted effort to “push the city away” and establish itself as “an island” unto itself (Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich, 104). The intense security surrounding the hotel marks a stark contrast between the transnational elite and the local residents of Lahore, a contrast that manifests itself in seething traffic jams and “looks of resignation, frustration, and not infrequently anger.” It is from this “snarled horde” that the unnamed protagonist attempts to “detach” himself and enter the transnational “citadel,” but his effort is interrupted by armed guards who summarily turn him away precisely because his identity is bound within the confines of the very city that hosts this corporate resort (Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich, 104). It is only when “the pretty girl,” who can move in and out of Lahore at will, vouches for him that he is permitted to enter into a space that is marked as the exclusive domain of well-heeled cosmopolitanism.

Yet Hamid never allows us, as readers, no matter where we are from or what our socioeconomic circumstances may be, to escape from a fundamental—and sometimes uncomfortable—identification with his novel’s hero. He accomplishes this by narrating How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, from beginning to end, in the second person. The protagonist’s experience being turned away at gunpoint from a hotel restaurant is your experience being turned away at gunpoint, thus opening within the novel a deterritorialization of identity that puts readers into close proximity with a radical otherness. For example, Hamid collapses the points of identification and differentiation between his unnamed hero and his readers when, in the novel’s opening pages, he writes:

This book is a self-help book. It’s objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since you’ve never in your life seen any of these things. (How to Get Filthy Rich 4)

Hamid’s ideal reader has, of course, seen all of these things, which is precisely why he needs to mention them, for without some basis of identification readers may close themselves off from the radical difference embodied by an impoverished and diseased child from an isolated rural village. At the same time, the narrative, focused as it is on how globalization comes to bear on local contexts, needs to maintain the integrity of its hero’s cultural identity, which is why it bears stating that “you” have not seen such luxuries (even though you have). In other words, even as Hamid creates points of identification between his readers and his story’s huddling child, the text reminds us that this protagonist is no Changez; on the contrary, this character is sealed off from the centers of global capital and fixed in a position of distant otherness, and yet he is shot through with the same forces that fix all of us within globalization’s mechanisms. This unrelenting collapse of the difference between his novel’s diverse global readership and its unique central character allows Hamid to develop a critique of identification and difference that may help us begin to understand how we, as singular individuals, exist within a global network, and how our shared position within this network unites us as a multitude of global subjectivities.

One reason Hamid needs to take such care to balance identification and difference in the first place has to do with the precarious systems used to disseminate difference throughout the world—the novel being one such system—and how those systems threaten to break down under the pressure of a radical influx of otherness. In his book The Deliverance of Others, David Palumbo-Liu argues that too much otherness can overwhelm those on the receiving end of delivery systems, thus leading to a further entrenchment of difference and, ultimately, alienation. He even goes so far as to make the seemingly paradoxical suggestion that increased exposure to otherness makes knowledge of difference all the more difficult to achieve. For example, he argues that “if by ‘globalization’ we mean a newly extensive and intensive connectedness between remote and disconnected peoples,” then we in the humanities and social sciences must address the implications of having lost “the luxury of focusing only on discrete and separate objects, phenomena, and behaviors, since these are now mingling and cross-referencing each other in unprecedented and sometimes discrepant manners.” This leads, in turn, to an ironic juncture where “knowledge of others appears to have become only more problematic in an age when the distance between others is continually shrinking” (Palumbo-Liu 30). One of the great virtues of literature is that it opens up possibilities for experiencing otherness through the exchange of our shared imaginations, and one may reasonably assert that literature is a vehicle for self-transcendence precisely because it brings complex, emotive representations of otherness close to readers. Yet even when the powers of the imagination are at work, there are deep challenges to our accessing an honest knowledge of intersubjective difference. Palumbo-Liu relates these challenges to

a number of imperatives: for example, how to displace (or at least “bracket”) oneself enough to allow for the imagining of an other that endows that other with his or her (or its) own sphere of action and choice, without mandating that the other has to act as we do? And yet how to make a bridge between their discrete acts and our realm of understanding . . . if we do not retain (as if we could truly give it up) our own particular sense of the real, the rational, the reasonable? (54)

What complicates these challenges even further is that any attempt to imagine the lives of others must include a reckoning with the external forces that impact those lives, and how those forces apply unevenly to individual subjects depending upon their positions within the global order. In other words, identification with otherness must expand upon “wider considerations of historical, political, ethical and social (rather than simply intersubjective) life” (Palumbo-Liu 73). When the degree of difference delivered through a literary text overwhelms its readers’ “sense of the real, the rational, the reasonable,” the work’s potential to transform its readership into something more than what it was when it first encountered the text is threatened.

It seems to me that Hamid’s use of the second person throughout How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is his attempt to answer the sorts of imperatives that Palumbo-Liu identifies as a challenge to reading literature in a global age, for the second person point-of-view is uniquely suited to integrate readers into the narrative vehicle. In his short essay “Enduring Love of the Second Person,” Hamid places his interest in the second person point-of-view within a literacy narrative that begins with role-playing games and Choose Your Own Adventure stories, both of which empower the reader/participant to determine the contours of the story, and ends with Albert Camus’s The Fall, a book that takes the form of a dramatic monologue, including frequent references to a reading/listening “you.” Hamid’s first two novels, Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, borrow from The Fall insofar as they too take the form of dramatic monologues with frequent appeals to “you.” Addressing his motive for structuring these novels as dramatic monologues, Hamid explains that he wanted to show “how feelings already present inside a reader—fear, anger, suspicion, loyalty—could color a narrative so that the reader, as much as or even more than the writer, is deciding what is really going on” (“Enduring Love” 78). This sentiment relates to Palumbo-Liu’s observation that readers can’t help but retain their own “sense of the real, the rational, the reasonable,” and that these feelings pose an obstacle to our ability to “bracket” ourselves enough to successfully imagine the lives of others (54). Yet it is worth considering the extent to which dramatic monologues do more to cultivate active self-consciousness in readers than they do to develop a productive consciousness of difference. It is only when we come to How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia that we see Hamid fully commit to the second person point-of-view as a means of propelling his readers out of their own and into someone else’s experience. So whereas The Reluctant Fundamentalist was designed to be “a kind of mirror, to let readers see how they are reading, and, therefore, how they are living and how they are deciding their politics,” How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia—with its unremitting “you” that fixes the reader within the subject position of the narrative’s central character, a narrative approach that Hamid calls “a kind of . . . self-transcendence”—becomes an explicit exercise in encouraging readers to recognize that we are more than singularities to be reflected back by a mirror (Hamid, “Enduring Love,” 79). We are part of a global process of identification and difference that both separates us and binds us together.

Theories of how globalization affects and/or produces intersubjective identification and difference tend to privilege the local as the site of heterogeneity, while disparaging the global as the site of coercive homogenization. But this view fails to consider the extent to which contemporary globalism subsumes the local into a systemic process that has as one of its key mechanisms the ongoing production of both identification and difference. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have usefully argued, what is needed now is a focus on “the production of locality, that is, the social machines that create and recreate the identities and differences that are understood as the local.” They similarly press for a more nuanced view of globalization, which they insist “should not be understood in terms of cultural, political, or economic homogenization. Globalization, like localization, should be understood instead as a regime of the production of identity and difference, or really of homogenization and heterogenization” (Hardt and Negri 45). In other words, the production of identity and difference are not mutually exclusive, and it is thus a mistake to think that some people are swept up in a process of homogenization, while others experience heterogenization. On the contrary, the dual move toward identification and difference can occur within a single subjectivity. Consider a key passage from How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia:

As you and your family dismount [the bus that has brought you from your village to Lahore], you embody one of the great changes of your time. Where once your clan was innumerable, not infinite but of a large number not readily known, now there are five of you. Five. The fingers on one hand, the toes on one foot, a minuscule aggregation when compared with shoals of fish or flocks of birds or indeed tribes of humans. In the history of the evolution of the family, you and the millions of other migrants like you represent an ongoing proliferation of the nuclear. It is an explosive transformation, the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential. (pp. 14-15)

What we have here is a narrative description that confounds a clean split between homogenization and heterogenization, and all the more so considering that it locates the split in “you”—a term that in this case signifies a closed singularity and a multitude of subjectivities. The language Hamid uses to describe his protagonist’s transformation from natural-born member of an expansive yet clearly localized clan into an atomized member of a deterritorialized global multitude forces a reconsideration of the heterogeneous/local vs. homogeneous/global conceptual divide. It is hardly clear that being part of a tightly-knit clan promotes authentic difference, and especially not among the clan members themselves. It seems to me that the rush to promote the local over and against the global sometimes fails to measure the extent to which localization is productive of communal identities that very well may be experienced as stifling and burdensome to those born into them. Hamid’s “you,” on the contrary, is individualized, and thus rendered diverse, to a degree hardly imaginable under any conventional definition of family or clan or community. And yet this hyper individuation is part of an explosive “proliferation” of singularity that cuts across the world’s increasingly mobile human population and gives way to a new form of intersubjective identification, a proliferation that matches, if not exceeds, the world’s “shoals of fish or flocks of birds or indeed tribes of humans.”

The takeaway here is that homogeneity and heterogeneity are undergoing a collapse in much the same way that Hamid collapses our collective “sense of the real, the rational, the reasonable” into his protagonist’s individual sensibility and geographically-bound set of experiences. Under the expanding regime of global capitalism, the inside/outside dichotomy has given way to an “explosive transformation” that renders this distinction increasingly irrelevant, and Hamid’s novels, beginning with The Reluctant Fundamentalist and accelerating through How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, do much to not only represent, but also to interrogate this transformation. I agree with Hardt and Negri when they insist that it is inaccurate “to claim that we can (re)establish local identities that are in some sense outside and protected against the global flows of capital” and the biopolitical regime that ensures its advancement (45). Or, as they claim somewhat more forcefully: “we should be done once and for all with the search for an outside, a standpoint that imagines a purity for our politics [and, I would add, our cultural identities]. It is better both theoretically and practically to enter the terrain of Empire and confront its homogenizing and heterogenizing flows in all their complexity, grounding our analysis in the global multitude” (46). At stake in this argument is the recognition that globalization is more than “a machine of biopolitical command”; it is also the “plural multitude of productive, creative subjectivities of globalization that have learned to sail on this enormous sea” (Hardt and Negri 60). But without the recognition that we, as individual subjectivities, constitute a larger multitude that circulates within the global system and represents the only feasible point of resistance to existing power systems, we will never be able to reconfigure globalization in our own image.

To return to How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and to conclude, Hamid recognizes that the state, and the state’s inseparability from the global financial powers, shapes the contours of our being. And yet he also suggests that our shared experience within the explosive pull of globalization’s orbit can serve as a catalyst for our recognizing how this pull continues to transform our consciousness and our relationship to each other. He writes, “If there were a cosmic list of things that unite us, reader and writer, . . . then shining brightly on that list would be the fact that we exist in a financial universe that is subject to massive gravitational pulls from states. States tug at us. States bend us. And, tirelessly, states seem to determine our orbits” (How to Get Filthy Rich 139). And yet, for all of the tension that globalization creates between this economic/political regime and our respective cultural and/or individual identities, Hamid is clear that the orbits we find ourselves circulating within pass through each other. And so, as How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia‘s unnamed narrator, who is also “you,” lies on his deathbed at novel’s end, Hamid leaves us with these pertinent lines: “You have been beyond yourself, and so you have courage, and you have dignity, and you have calmness in the face of terror, and awe, and the pretty girl holds your hand, and you contain her, and this book, and me writing it, and I too contain you, who may not yet even be born, you inside me inside you” (222). This sentiment expresses the hope of the multitude: that the free circulation of difference is foundational to an expansive collectivity that cuts across the global terrain, a collectivity that has at its center a desire for liberation from all that seeks to arbitrarily bind and/or divide. We are inseparable. A multitude of singularities.


I presented this paper at the 3rd International Conference on Language, Linguistics, Literature, and Translation, “Connecting the Dots in a Glocalized World,” which was hosted by Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman from 3-5 November 2016. Many thanks to those in attendance who asked questions and offered insights and/or suggestions.


Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Penguin, 2007.

—. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Riverhead, 2013.

—. “Enduring Love of the Second Person.” Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London. Penguin, 2014.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Harvard UP, 2000.

Palumbo-Liu, David. The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age. Duke UP, 2012.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2018 Micah Robbins

Robert F. Williams, Epideictic Rhetoric, and the African American Freedom Struggle

Late in the summer of 1961, an interracial group of Freedom Riders arrived in Monroe, North Carolina, a town long mired in intense racial conflict, to join civil rights icon Robert F. Williams’s campaign to integrate the town’s facilities, particularly the public swimming pool and schools; to have all signs indicating white and non-white areas removed from public view; to achieve nondiscriminatory hiring practices in local factories; and to guarantee the appointment of African American citizens to positions within the city government. As president of the Union County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Williams had generated considerable controversy two years earlier when, in a moment of frustration over a series of racially-biased court decisions, he claimed that “the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attacker on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching” (qtd. in Rucker 20).1 Although Williams tried to soften his rhetoric by explaining that he had meant only to say that the African American community must consider armed self-defense until such time as the criminal justice system guaranteed its constitutional right to equal protection under the law, the national leadership of the NAACP, led by Roy Wilkins, suspended Williams from his leadership post, but they did so only after a period of high-profile debate over the organization’s position on self-defense. It was in response to his being censured that Williams began to publish The Crusader, a widely-distributed monthly newsletter that served as a platform for his ideas and helped further elevate him as a militant voice within the largely nonviolent Civil Right Movement. The Freedom Riders who descended on Monroe that summer intended to help Williams integrate the town, but they also wanted to counter his advocacy of armed self-defense by demonstrating the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance in a town notorious for its bigotry and racist violence.

Williams welcomed the Freedom Riders as friends and allies, and they collaboratively organized a campaign of peaceful protests against Monroe’s segregationist policies.2 However, the protests attracted large numbers of Ku Klux Klansmen and other white supremacists from throughout North Carolina and beyond, and–as Williams had predicted would happen–the peaceful demonstrations soon devolved into mob violence. It was during the ensuing melee that Bruce and Mabel Stegall, a white couple who had traveled from out-of-town to join the racist counter-demonstrations, drove their car into Williams’s segregated neighborhood, where they were surrounded by a crowd of angry citizens, armed and ready to repel anyone associated with the day’s white-supremacist violence. What happened next is both confusing and disputed, but most historians agree that Williams offered the couple safe haven within his home, but that he would not assist them in escaping his neighborhood. His position was simple: he didn’t want them to be harmed, but he insisted that since they had found their own way into trouble, it was their responsibility to find their own way out of it. When the Stegall’s were able to leave Williams’s neighborhood in peace some hours later, the Monroe police charged Williams with their kidnapping.3 Unaware of the charges but fearing that he may be lynched as the town’s leading black activist, Williams fled North Carolina to stay with friends in New York.4 He thus becoming an unwitting fugitive from justice, a federal crime that landed him with an FBI arrest warrant.5 Convinced that he would never receive a fair trial in the United States, Williams fled first to Canada, and then to Cuba, where he was granted asylum by the Castro regime. It was as a consequence of these dramatic events that The Crusader found itself with a new base of operations and a new source of moral and material support, namely Cuba’s revolutionary society. Williams continued to publish The Crusader in exile from Havana, with a distribution of 40,000 copies per month, until he finally left Cuba for Maoist China in 1965 (Tyson 290).

Robert F. Williams examining his FBI wanted poster

These events provide an important context for The Crusader‘s transnational perspective. Williams’s newsletter is remarkable not only for its unflinching advocacy of armed self-defense at a time when Gandhian nonviolence dominated the American Civil Rights Movement, but also for its insistence that the black freedom struggle within the United States was part of the revolutionary anti-imperialist movements that swept so many nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia in the 1950s and 60s. It is true, of course, that the American Civil Rights Movement developed a militant revolutionary wing in the late 1960s, and that this faction was very much in sympathy with the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, as well as the many anti-imperialist struggles exemplified by the colonialist/imperialist wars in Vietnam. The Black Panther Party is a case in point. But the Black Panthers did not publish the first issue of their iconic newspaper, The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, until 1967, well after Williams had begun to distribute The Crusader from exile in Cuba and China. Writing in his biography of Williams, Timothy B. Tyson argues that The Crusader “defies the conventional narrative of the black freedom movement that begins with civil rights and ends with Black Power. In fact, virtually all of the elements that we have come to associate with the Black Power movement that gained national attention after 1965–anticolonial internationalism, black pride, economic nationalism, cultural politics, and armed self-defense–resonated in these pages as early as 1959″ (196). Indeed, Williams himself recognized The Crusader‘s novelty, especially in terms of its commitment to internationalizing the American Civil Rights Movement, a point he makes clear in the foreword to his unpublished autobiography: “Through The Crusader, we became the first civil rights group to advocate a policy stressing Afro-American unity with the struggling liberation forces of Latin America, Asia and Africa. We steadfastly maintained, in the face of vigorous opposition from white liberals and the black bourgeoisie, that our struggle for black liberation in imperialist America was part and parcel of the international struggle” (qtd. in Tyson 196). And yet, despite its transnational perspective, The Crusader never abandoned its commitment to the African American freedom struggle in general, and to the plight of Monroe’s African American community in particular. Herein lies one of the newsletter’s special qualities: it was at once local and global, concerned with achieving justice in Monroe as well as with the liberation of oppressed people everywhere.

Williams forged this relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and the transnational, anti-imperialist revolutions of the 1950s and 60s by articulating a set of shared values between these seemingly disparate movements. Indeed, the pages of The Crusader are replete with appeals to solidarity between the African American people and those of the revolutionary postcolonial societies. For a representative example, we may look to how Williams represents Maoist China:

The Chinese people support all peoples who struggle for justice and liberation. They whole-heartedly support Afroamericans who struggle against Jim Crow and racial oppression in the so-called free world of the racist USA. In the factories, in the store windows, on billboards, in recreation centers and conspicuous places throughout the land, huge posters proclaim the Chinese people’s support for oppressed Afroamericans. Even the small children of China express great admiration and sympathy for their oppressed black brothers of the barbaric and racist USA. They are very saddened when they hear of the terrifying plight of our people in America. (“China” 7)

The emotional appeal in this passage is obvious, but what is perhaps less obvious–and altogether more interesting–is the way in which Williams represents revolutionary China as a positive antithesis to the Jim Crow south. Whereas Williams came of age in a town that displayed “whites only” signs in its store windows and other conspicuous places, a town that exercised racist hiring practices in its factories and segregation in its recreation centers, he represents Maoist China as a society that has effectively transformed these sites of racial oppression into beacons of justice and liberation. The message is clear: the African American people have friends among the world’s struggling masses. This point is made explicit in the illustration of the “Non-Anglo-Saxon World” condemning “U.S. Racism” that Williams included on the title page of the February 1964 issue of The Crusader. The illustration depicts a diminished and isolated African American figure struggling to find his place among the giants of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Williams directly appeals to his fellow African Americans to do more to forge bonds with revolutionary China when, just after the sentences quoted above, he writes, “We are extremely fortunate to have such honest, sincere, and militant people as our allies. We must do more to create a greater bond between our peoples” (“China” 7). Williams used The Crusader to create the conditions for such a bond within the minds of his readers, and in so doing he helped transform the consciousness of a generation of activists that would come to see itself as the revolutionary vanguard of the anti-imperialist struggle within the United States.

“You a Majority Charlie?” The Crusader, vol. 5, no. 2, 1964, p. 1.

The way in which Williams presented revolutionary anti-imperialism as the positive antithesis to the Jim Crow South is an example of how epideictic rhetoric, or the rhetoric of praise and blame, contributed to the development of a transnational consciousness within the American Civil Rights Movement. By engaging in a sustained and vituperative condemnation of American racism, and by unapologetically praising those aspects of the revolutionary societies in Cuba and China that he knew many African American people supported (e.g., social equality, economic justice, anti-racism, etc.), Williams articulated a clearly-defined value system that could serve as a point of solidarity between the African American community and the postcolonial communist states. In his recent overview of the pedagogical uses of praise and blame, Peter Wayne Moe situates the epideictic in relation to the shared values that animate a strong sense of community. For example, he defines the epideictic as “the rhetoric of showing forth, or display, of demonstration, of making known, of shining. And what the epideictic shows forth is the shared values of a community. These are the values the epideictic upholds, the foundation from which the rhetor can praise and blame” (426). In other words, one can only praise and blame effectively if those within the rhetorical situation share the values that render one thing praiseworthy and another worthy of condemnation. It is in the act of organizing these shared values–in articulating them into focus–that the epideictic has the potential to shape the contours of a particular community. Summarizing the work of Michael Carter, Moe states that “the epideictic can generate particular knowledge within a community, create a sense of that community, define that community, and establish a ‘paradigm’ for being within that community” (437). It seems to me that this is precisely what Williams accomplished in the pages of The Crusader. He drew on the shared values of an oppressed community within the United States and placed them alongside the values of a transnational liberation struggle, thus redefining that community in terms that were altogether more radical than anything offered by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), or the NAACP.

Williams’s use of epideictic rhetoric is evident from The Crusader‘s inaugural issue, but the epideictic becomes more effective as Williams develops a first-hand knowledge Cuban and Chinese communism, in part because they offered Williams something praiseworthy with which to throw America’s failures into high relief. Consider, for example, how he contrasts race relations in the United States and Cuba:

The U.S. is angry because of the example that Cuba is setting for all Latin America. She is also angry at the example in race relations that Cuba is setting just 90 miles from the racist USA. There are no racial barriers in Cuba. The U.S. says that oppressed colored people must be patient and wait generations for the attitude of bigots to change. Cuba has proven this to be a lie. Cuba has changed the attitude of racists almost overnight. Those who can’t take the change go to Miami to join the other racist scum of the USA. (“Cuba” 4; my emphasis)

Here, as in so many of his editorials, Williams condemns the United States as a center of deception and hatred in the world, while he praises Cuba for having effectively purged racism from its shores. The image on the cover of the April 1962 issue of the newsletter illustrates the point. Titled “Cuba: Territorio Libre de América,” the drawing depicts the Williams family being protected from American bigotry by armed Cuban revolutionaries. In the foregrounds stands Fidel Castro, one hand signaling that the racists should come no further, while the other cradles a dove of peace. Williams is clearly presenting Cuba as a land of peace and freedom, but also as a society that will defend the lives of its black citizens and allies. Indeed, in the editorial that accompanies this image, Williams writes, “A few years ago no black man could have dared expect a nation in this hemisphere to extend a friendly and protective hand to him after he had aroused the brutal caveman instincts of white racists determined to make a vicious example of an Afro-American fighter for human rights” (“Truth Crushed to Earth” 2). Cuba thus shines forth in the pages of The Crusader as an examplar of truth and justice, and Williams uses this shining to impress upon his readers that solidarity between the African American people and anti-imperialist societies such as Cuba “is where the heart of our victory lies” (“Truth Crushed to Earth” 2). This shift in perspective away from a regional movement for civil rights and toward a transnational revolution in social relations is made possible by the epideictic positioning of the revolutionary communist societies over and against the United States.

“Stop! No Racists Allowed Here!” The Crusader, vol. 3, no. 8, 1962, p. 1.

The way that Williams uses the epideictic to lambaste the United States while upholding Cuba and China as models to which the African American community should aspire needs to be placed within a Cold War context. It’s important to remember that Cold War America depended upon the idea that the United States represented a safe-haven from tyranny, and that the promise of America was irreducibly attached to the ideal of freedom and justice for all. When the horrifying realities of racism in places like Monroe found their way into the international press, the United States found itself in an embarrassing situation that compromised the moral authority it attempted to wield against the world’s communist nations.6 But The Crusader can’t properly be thought of as an international publication. Throughout its history, it was aimed squarely at an African American readership, and the praise and blame it showed forth was not intended to embarrass the United States in the eyes of the world, but rather to reorient the perspectives of its readers. By using epideictic rhetoric to expose the hypocrisy of a nation that announced itself as the lone defender of freedom in the world while subjecting its minority populations to systematic racism and violent bigotry, Williams invited his audience to reconsider the accomplishments of the communist world–especially in terms of racial equality–and to re-imagine themselves in light of that particular knowledge. That he was doing this before anything like a Black Power movement had taken shape in organizations such as the Black Panthers or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is a testament to Williams’s influence within the American movement for racial justice, but it is also a testament to the power of the epideictic to articulate and give shape to new forms of solidarity and community.

I presented a version of this paper at the Conference on College Composition and Communication annual convention in Kansas City, Missouri on 16 March 2018. Many thanks to those in attendance who asked questions and offered insights and/or suggestions.


1. Two cases in particular motivated Williams’s controversial remarks. One involved a white man who physically assaulted an African American housekeeper who disturbed his sleep when she knocked on his hotel-room door. The other involved a white man who raped his African American neighbor. In both cases, all-white juries acquitted the men on all charges.

2. Williams agreed to participate in the demonstrations, but he refused to sign the Freedom Riders’ pledge of non-violence. His position remained consistent throughout his life: if attacked, he would fight back.

3. Monroe’s pro-segregationist police became aware of the Stegall’s presence in the Williams home when Williams allowed Bruce Stegall to speak with the town’s police chief A. A. Mauney during negotiations over the release of a group of injured protestors who were being held without access to medical treatment. Mauney claimed that Williams proposed a prisoner-swap–the Stegalls in exchange for the injured protesters–which is how he justified the kidnapping charges.

4. Williams was concerned about the large Klan presence in Monroe, but he also feared police chief Mauney, who had claimed earlier that day that he would see Williams “hanging in the Court House Square” by nightfall (Tyson 280).

5. The FBI had had Williams under surveillance since his teenage years, and their interest in his activities became all the more intense when he began to visit Cuba with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in the late 1950s. The trumped-up kidnapping charges were no doubt a convenient excuse to apprehend someone they considered to be a dangerous political dissident.

6. Williams was instrumental in bringing one such embarrassing injustice to international attention. In 1958, two African American children–9-year old James Hanover Thompson and 7-year old David Simpson–were arrested after one of their white female neighbors told her mother that she had kissed Simpson on the cheek while playing a game earlier in the day. The girl’s parents went to the police with the story, and Thompson and Simpson were accused of attempted rape and sentenced to reform school until they reached the age of 21. As president of the Monroe NAACP, Williams helped rally international attention to Thompson and Simpson’s plight, and international newspapers were soon carrying front-page coverage of what came to be known as “The Kissing Case.” President Eisenhower consequently pressured North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges to pardon the boys.


Moe, Peter Wayne. “Reading Coles Reading Themes: Epideictic Rhetoric and the Teaching of Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 69, no. 3, 2018, pp. 433-457.

Rucker, Walter. “Crusader In Exile: Robert F. Williams and the International Struggle for Black Freedom in America.” The Black Scholar, vol. 36, no. 2-3, 2006, pp. 19-34.

Tyson, Timothy B. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. U of North Carolina P, 1999.

Williams, Robert F. “Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again.” The Crusader, vol. 3, no. 8, 1962, pp. 1-3.

—. “Cuba No Fallara.” The Crusader, vol. 4, no. 1, 1962, pp. 3-5.

—. “China: A New Hope of Oppressed Humanity.” The Crusader, vol. 5, no. 2, 1964, pp. 6-7.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2018 Micah Robbins


If You May Read, You May Print

In her 2002 study of nineteenth-century American print culture, American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853, Meredith McGill complicates the relationship between copyright and issues of authorship in several ways. For example, she explains that, “According to a republican theory of authorship, exclusive ownership of texts in the public sphere can only be secured by a writing that is pure publicity” (McGill 63). Only publicly authored documents (i.e., statutory laws) have the authority to regulate the exclusive ownership of texts by individuals because only such publicly authored documents bear the authority of an indisputable signature — that of the public itself. In other words, the republican theory of authorship that dominated nineteenth-century literary culture denied individual authors access to a common-law and perpetual copyright. Instead, authors were forced to submit to the regulatory power of the public as embodied in statutory law. What is both interesting and difficult about this perspective is that it drives an ideological wedge between private and public interests, postulating a theory of authorship which subordinates the individual author’s rights to the interest of the public which is also, not coincidentally, presented as an authorial presence — the author of the legislation governing authorship.

This immensely complicated formulation comes at the conclusion of McGill’s summary of the opposing arguments in the Wheaton v. Peters (1834) copyright case. The decision in this case established “going-into-print as the moment when individual rights give way to the demands of the social and defines the private ownership of a printed text as the temporary alienation of public property.” The Marshall Court’s decision to limit an author’s ability to own, and therefore control, the rights to his or her published writings raises some interesting questions regarding the materiality of the written word, the processes by which information is disseminated, and the nature of intellectual property rights in an age of mass (media) production. McGill hints at these problems in her description of the republican theory of authorship and its implied split between private authorship for material gain and public authorship designed, produced, and distributed to advance the collective public good (45-46). By approaching these issues through an examination of the Wheaton v. Peters case, McGill shifts the emphasis on authorial control away from an individual’s exclusive right to the value of his or her intellectual labor and toward the role an individual’s labor plays in advancing the common interest.

At the heart of the Wheaton v. Peters case is an argument over textual materiality and its dissemination. But issues concerning the materiality and dissemination of written texts are complex and difficult to navigate, for texts are written/printed/disseminated in myriad ways. McGill highlights this complexity by focusing on the court’s distinction between handwritten manuscripts and published texts. For example, she specifies that the court’s final decision “establishes a distinction at law between handwriting and print, identifying the former as personal, and the latter as public property” (65). McGill, to a limited extent at least, sympathizes with this private/public split between unpublished manuscript and published text. Her sympathy emerges from her understanding of nineteenth-century print culture as situated within an emerging, widely dispersed industrial publishing industry whose size and multi-faceted nature subjected authorship to the pressures of an increasing number of participating forces in the production and dissemination of published texts. In her criticism of Elijah Paine‘s (one of Henry Wheaton‘s lawyers) argument regarding the infallible identification of books with their authors, McGill writes:

The watch, the table, the guinea, and the book have been compared as articles of personal property, not in relation to the history of their production. And, while it is possible that the watch and the table could be owned by those who made them, the addition of the guinea to the list would suggest that what is at issue here is the degree to which these objects can be marked by the identity of those who possess them, regardless of their manufacture. Within the narrative of detection set up by this passage, the restoration of the book to its rightful owner circumvents the entire system of exchange, making the author the destination as well as the origin of the text. (54)

By focusing on Paine’s complete circumvention of the exchange system that transforms an individual manuscript into a multiplicity of books for sale on the open market, McGill not only recognizes a collapse between producer and consumer, she also elevates the process by which books are manufactured to a position of importance that displaces the central role of the individual writer as sole producer of the work. McGill drives her point home by relying on a similar sentiment expressed by the bibliographic scholar Roger Stoddard: “Whatever they may do, authors do not write books. Books are not written at all. They are manufactured by scribes and other artisans, by mechanics and other engineers, and by printing presses and other machines” (4). According to this formulation of authorship, a book does not bear a single, dominant signature — that of the writer — but is in fact marked by a multiplicity of signatures that directly connect it to an economic system of exchange.

Once we view a book as a market-oriented material commodity, perpetual copyright becomes increasingly difficult to justify. McGill demonstrates this difficulty by illustrating what she considers to be Paine’s “utterly inappropriate” series of analogies that liken the publication and sale of books to the leasing of land (56). By drawing this comparison, Paine suggests that a book’s property value does not permanently transfer to the reader at the point of purchase, but must revert to the author by virtue of his or her natural right to the material contained in the text. McGill rejects Paine’s tendency to “think in term of inheritance [rather] than in production, leasing instead of sale, and in the reclamation of an object rather than in profit or exchange” (56). Her disagreement with Paine’s argument is that he simultaneously presents “the book as a commodity (an acknowledgment made manifest in his emphasis on the materiality of text) and his commitment to a Lockean theory of property, a theory that sees property not as an alienable thing but as a relation of enclosure” (McGill 57). One reason these two views are incompatible is that the Lockean theory of property is based on individual labor, or what McGill calls “an act of appropriation which is necessary for [an individual’s] subsistence” (57). Therefore, according to common law property rights, “the circumstances of the private is drawn by the author’s labor, the moral ground for appropriation is bodily self-perpetuation, and the moral limit to acquisition is suggested by the principle of self-sufficiency” (Paine qtd. in McGill 57; my emphasis). The first part of this definition shows how the book as mass-produced material commodity does not fit within the Lockean theory of personal property. The process by which the book is transformed from manuscript to published text involves the labor of multiple individuals. The production process — a manuscripts going into print — marks the end of the author’s personal right and the beginning of the public’s collective right. Again: books are not written, they are manufactured.

What exactly occurs in terms of ownership of a text in the production and dissemination process is central to McGill’s account of nineteenth-century print culture. As the above examples demonstrate, there is a discrepancy between the conception of the text as a pure commodity and the text as a natural property in the Lockean sense. In illustrating Wheaton’s attempt to navigate this discrepancy, McGill presents an image of the text as a free-floating commodity exchanged in defiance of the traditional rules that govern the market. As an example of the curious relationship of the book to the economic system of exchange in which it circulates, McGill quotes Daniel Webster (another Wheaton lawyer) as saying, “none can doubt a man’s book is his book — is his property” (55). As soon as we consider the discrepancy between the book as material commodity and a material representation of its author’s individuality, Webster’s statement falls apart. The weakness of his proposition is not lost on McGill. She perceptively notes, “What the force of [Webster’s] tautology would override is the fact of the market, the necessary discrepancy between the man who owns the book as author, and the man who owns the book as reader” (55). The mechanical nature of industrial publication distances the author from the text, interjecting an advanced process of production and dissemination that mechanically marks the text, thus distinguishing it from the author’s individual identity. Yet despite our recognition that authors are not the sole producers of the texts we regularly handle, we persist in assigning sole ownership of a text to its author at the same time that we claim individual ownership over the books in our personal libraries. Part of McGill’s project is to highlight this contradiction. She draws on the process by which books are manufactured and distributed to challenge our notion of authorship, and she succeeds in bringing the material discrepancy demonstrated by Webster and Paine to the fore of our attention when considering the history of copyright in the United States.

Yet despite McGill’s argument against Wheaton’s inconsistencies and her wonderfully complex analysis of nineteenth-century authorship, she limits her discussion of authorship to those writers who worked within the industrial publishing industry and for a specific purpose, namely monetary profit. By limiting her analysis of books as commodities that circulate in an economic, capitalist system of exchange, McGill ignores the types of amateur publications that scholars such as Ann Fabian rightly bring to the surface of nineteenth-century print culture. When combined with well-known examples of self-published books such as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Fabian’s focus on an authorial/editorial practice that functions outside — or on the margins of — professional publication exposes what I see as a weakness in McGill’s argument. If copyright should be limited, in part at least, because of the process by which the material commodity is produced (i.e., through the operation of an industry that marks the text with the labor of multiple individuals rather than the single labor of a lone author), the alternative process by which amateur authors, editors, and publishers produce their work begs a reconsideration of McGill’s view of the book as a commodity produced and disseminated through a professional/industrial process of exchange. One aspect of amateur authorship that distinguishes it from the type of authorship McGill discusses is that the amateur author often doubles as editor, printer, and distributor — a virtual collapse of Robert Darnton‘s “communications circuit.” The term “self-published” openly excludes the industrial publishing apparatus that McGill introduces as a key challenge to an author’s claim of ownership over his or her text. An author like Whitman performed much of the labor that brought Leaves of Grass into being as a material commodity. In Whitman’s case, the Lockean theory that the circumference of private property is determined by the extent of the author’s labor would seem to provide him with the theoretical basis for an argument in favor of perpetual copyright.

Robert Darnton’s “communications circuit”

No matter the physical labor Whitman performed in the production of Leaves of Grass, the republican theory of authorship is driven by the privileging of reader’s interests over those of individual authors. In a particularly striking example of such privilege, McGill quotes an argument Charles Ingersoll (one of Richard Peters‘s lawyers) makes before the court in defense of Peters’s right to reprint Wheaton’s collection of reports:

The notions of personal property of the common law, which is founded on natural law, depend materially on possession. Throw it out of public use, and how can you limit or define that use? How can you attach possession to it at all, except of a subtle or imaginative character? If you may read, you may print. The possession is not more absolute and entire in the one case than the other. (61)

This, of course, returns us to the problem of who possesses a text once it is sold on the open market. According to Ingersoll’s statement, to read is to possess, and to hold the right to reproduce a text in the act of reading is analogous to holding the right to reproduce a text in print. As McGill notes in her comments on Ingersoll’s argument, “This proposition constitutes an astonishing elision of the sphere of production from the opposite direction than we have come to expect. Whereas Webster and Paine imagine an unmediated relation between author and printed text, casting the author as sole producer, Ingersoll imagines an unmediated relation between reader and text” (61-62). Not only does this unmediated relation between reader and text have radical implications for copyright law — the proposition conflates the “technology of print” with the “repetition in the mind of the reader of the ideas of the author” — it also has radical implications for the nature of authorship (McGill 62). By shifting the emphasis from authorial control to the communal control of the reading public, the republican theory of authorship devalues the authority of the individual author in favor of the public interest. It is only when a text meets its rightful destination — the reading public — that authorship as defined by material production and dissemination comes into being.


Darnton, Robert. “What Is the History of Books?” The Book History Reader, ed. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery (New York: Routledge, 2002), 9-26.

Fabian, Ann. “Amateur Authors,” A History of the Book in America, vol. 3, ed. Scott Casper, Jeffery D. Groves, Stephen Nissenbaum, and Michael Winship (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 407-415.

McGill, Meredith. American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

Stoddard, Roger E. “Morphology and the Book from an American Perspective,” Printing History 9.1 (1987): 2-14.

Wheaton v. Peters, 33 U.S. (8 Pet) 591 (1834)


“Plates” (CC BY-NC 2.0) 2012 Tom Garnett

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2018 Micah Robbins

Hidden Passages, Human Flows

On Tuesday, 12 December 2017, I will discuss contemporary Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s recent novel Exit West as part of the American University in Dubai’s Arts & Sciences Lecture Series. Hamid’s novel focuses on a young couple from an unnamed South Asian (or perhaps Middle Eastern) city that is overrun by a fundamentalist insurgency. They escape from the city through one of a series of mysterious black doors that begin to appear throughout the world, a passage that thrusts them into a global stream of refugees fleeing violence and poverty for a better life in the West. They are transported from their home city to Greece, and then to England and the United States. Along the way they are confronted by the hardships of displacement, the ugliness of the emerging nativist backlash in Europe and the United States, and the subtle yet enduring changes they undergo as they come into contact with unfamiliar cultures and values.

Exit West is a remarkable example of transnational literature, which is writing that adopts a self-consciously global, rather than local or national, perspective. It explores time-space compression (the black doors), the construction of multicultural identities, global role reversals (the nativists become “the natives”), and the global refugee crisis. My lecture will bring these strains together in order to demonstrate how literature is able to represent one of our great humanitarian challenges, and how accelerated globalization, and especially the global flow of people, is reshaping contemporary literature away from national literary traditions and toward a transnational literary consciousness.

The Arts & Sciences Lecture Series promotes interaction between AUD’s faculty, students, and staff. Hosted twice during regular semesters, these evenings provide opportunities for faculty to share their research with the university community, thus encouraging engagement with challenging concepts and critical thinking beyond the classroom.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2017 Micah Robbins

Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel

The b2 Review, which is part of boundary2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture’s online publication, 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.

I also learned a lot from studying Tally’s book. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel is a good example of a scholarly work that manages to take on a major author’s complete oeuvre. Tally offers substantial commentary on all of Vonnegut’s fourteen novels, all while remaining swift and brief and consistently engaging. I hope that he earns a wide readership and that his study helps encourage further interest in Vonnegut’s fiction, especially within the academy.

Below is an excerpt from my concluding remarks (read the full review here):

Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel does much to reposition Vonnegut as a major American writer. By approaching Vonnegut’s oeuvre as an integrated postmodern iconography, a strategic project bridging the gap between modernism and postmodernism, Tally reveals Vonnegut to be a serious, deeply imaginative writer whose fictions intervene in major intellectual debates—political and theoretical—that continue to impact contemporary social developments. Tally thus begins to correct the general paucity of scholarship on Vonnegut’s work, and he does so with a critical agility that not only allows him to touch on all of Vonnegut’s major fictions, but also to situate those fictions in relation to American literary history, continental philosophy, modernist and postmodernist aesthetics, and progressive politics. But what stands out most remarkably in this study is Tally’s theory of Vonnegut as misanthropic humanist. In bringing together these two seemingly oppositional terms, Tally lays bare the raison d’être of Vonnegut’s black humor, which is to find a way to embrace a self-degrading humanity that—through inevitable historical forces and biological determinism—cannot do otherwise but construct the mechanisms of its own destruction. Vonnegut’s black humor thus reveals the contours of what I now think of as a politics of comic futility. It’s important to note, however, that despite the fatalism that underwrites Vonnegut’s misanthropic humanism, his novels do struggle against seemingly insurmountable forms of violence and injustice, and they do so while maintaining a cheerful spirit that encourages political engagement even as they dismiss political activism as a quixotic pursuit of the impossible. As Tally notes at the conclusion of his illuminating study, Vonnegut “recognizes the demeanor and comportment best suited for engaging in a project such as he faces, and we face at the end of the American Century, and moving into another, as yet unknown, era. As Nietzsche put it, ‘Maintaining cheerfulness in the midst of a gloomy affair, fraught with immeasurable responsibility, is no small feat; and yet what is needed more than cheerfulness? Nothing succeeds without high spirits having a part in it.’”

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2016 Micah Robbins

Re-locating Middle East Studies Conference Roundup

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 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 in the Middle East), and I was 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.

Two of my personal highlights were Sameera Ahmed’s “Pushing the Agenda: Cultivating Research Capacity in the Sultanate of Oman” and Luca Nevola’s “Oh SMS Enter the Phone of My Soulmate!: Love, Mobile Phones and the Codification of Intimacy in Contemporary Yemen.” Both Ahmed and Nevola are using field research to understand different cultural trends—from the traditional to the postmodern—along the southern strip of the Arabian Peninsula. Ahmed’s research, for example, draws on interviews and focus groups to construct a more robust understanding of veiling practices in Oman. She argues convincingly that attending to the opinions of Omani women toward veiling across different regions (interior vs. coastal), localities (city, village, rural), age, marital status, and educational background serves as an antidote to the often uninvited politicization of the hijab, niqab and burqa. Listening to the voices of women who choose to wear the veil helps us understand the diversity of veiling practices and allows us to begin to approach the complexity of meaning inherent in these practices. Similarly, Nevola draws on extensive field research among Yemeni youth, both male and female, to show how young lovers in Yemen are using mobile phones, and in particular sms communication systems, to engage in novel acts of poetry writing. Focusing on a set of sms love poems he gathered during his fieldwork (some of which are whimsical and inventive), Nevola considers how this mode of communication affects the language of honor and modesty, the traditional semantics of love, and the conventions of courtship and marriage in the Old City of San’a’ and the Yemeni countryside. His findings suggest that contemporary telecommunication technologies challenge well-established courtship rituals, while at the same time advancing and deepening Yemen’s rich poetic tradition.

I was also impressed by Firat Oruc’s “Hekayat Khaleejiya: Short Filmmaking in the Gulf” and Nadia Wardeh and Fadi Haddad’s “Toward the ‘Social Media Generation’: Rethinking Traditional Instructional Classroom Sources.” Oruc’s presentation focused on the vibrant contemporary filmmaking scene in the Gulf region, including the United Arab Emirates. He argues that the region’s young, experimental filmmakers are in the process of developing a language for the complex interrelations between globalization and cultural heritage, as well as the deeply felt anxieties of rapid social change, a language he calls “post-desert modernism.” He also speculates, and quite interestingly so, on the relationship between geographically small countries (Kuwait, Qatar, UAE) and the genre of short film. Wardeh and Haddad, on the other hand, draw on shifts in the contemporary media environment to argue that the humanities and social sciences have yet to seriously engage in the ongoing transition from the traditional book/news/media culture to a networked society, or the social media generation. Drawing on a range of wonderfully humorous case studies, including the amazing Abla Fahita web series, they question the possibility of accepting new media platforms as alternatives or supplements to more conventional pedagogical resources. Like those engaged in the digital humanities more broadly, Wardeh and Haddad see emerging technologies as a fundamental (and inevitable) aspect of the twenty-first century classroom, though they are theorizing ways for these technologies to enhance rather than supplant old media.

Day 3 (95)
Presenting my remarks on Middle Eastern graphic novels and web comics

I also presented some of my thoughts on contemporary Middle Eastern graphic novels and web comics on the “Re-readings/Re-takes: Narratives in Literature and Media” panel (which also featured Nevola, Wardeh, and Haddad). My paper—“Graphic Novels, Web Comics, and New Narrative Forms in the Middle East”—focused on artists Magdy El-Shafee, Amir Soltani, Khalil Bendib, and Leila Abdelrazaq, with an eye toward understanding how they have seized on the comics medium to tell the sorts of stories that are all too often marginalized by mainstream media outlets. I hoped to show that, while the Middle Eastern comics scene is still in a nascent stage, there is reason to be optimistic that the comics medium, and especially web comics, will continue to develop in evermore productive ways, thus allowing more writers and artists to seize power over their own stories and re-read contemporary Middle Eastern culture and politics for a global audience. My presentation was well attended, which is always a treat, and the audience was very helpful in asking challenging questions and suggesting further areas for exploration. I had a great time!

Finally, Joseph Massad’s and Gary Bunt’s keynote addresses were the perfect capstones to the conference’s many fascinating papers. Joseph Massad’s remarks, “How Not to Study Women and Gender in the Muslim World,” was by turns controversial and intellectually stimulating. He was at his best when discussing how the logic of developmentalism tends to overwhelm academic, media, and NGO representations of the Middle East in general, and of Muslim women in particular. When it comes to cultural autonomy, the forces of neoliberal developmentalism are indeed insidious (something I have begun pursuing as a part of my research agenda), and Massad has a clear-eyed view of how these forces work to destroy sites of cultural difference that threaten Western capitalist hegemony. Where he gets controversial is in suggesting that the way to properly study and discuss gender-specific practices in the Muslim world is to exoticize gender-specific practices in the West. For example, Massad seizes on female circumcision as an example of a practice that Western organizations, including the United Nations, commit considerable resources—both intellectual and material—to combating, while simultaneously ignoring similar practices (e.g., male circumcision, cosmetic surgery, tattooing, etc.) that are pervasive in the West. Although he was careful to note that he objects to reducing western culture to these practices, the gist of his argument did just that, and in the process he drew a series of false equivalences (between male and female circumcision, for example) to which a number of the conference participants objected.

Joseph Massad delivering his keynote address on the opening night of the Re-locating Middle East Studies conference
Joseph Massad delivering his keynote address on the opening night of the Re-locating Middle East Studies conference

Unlike Massad’s more politically charged keynote, Gary Bunt’s presentation, “Interpreting Cyber Islamic Environments,” provided a comprehensive overview of online Islamic resources and communities, from the early days of listserves and chatrooms to today’s most advanced digital frameworks. Bunt has been tracking these developments since the invention of cyber environments as such, and his findings suggest that cyberspace is impacting on notions of Islamic religious authority by allowing alternative hierarchies to challenge and usurp traditional centers of power by virtue of their digital proficiency and online networks. These alternative hierarchies range from cyber mosques, complete with archived sermons and live counseling services, to jihadist networks that have mastered the use of social media for recruitment and propaganda purposes. What is most striking about these cyber Islamic environments is how widespread and comprehensive they are. Put simply: The internet has proven to be incredibly fertile ground for Islam. Indeed, as Bunt made clear in response to a question regarding cyber Christian environments, Muslims have far outpaced Christians and other religious groups in their use of the internet as a site of religious exploration and proselytization. I’m humbled by Bunt’s mastery of this material; when it comes to Islam and Muslims in cyberspace, his research bona fides are second to none. For more on this and related matters, check out his website: Virtually Islamic.

And of course, as with any good conference, “Re-locating Middle East Studies” was more than just panel presentations and keynote addresses. I also enjoyed mingling with interesting scholars from around the world, including North America, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia, and I learned a good deal about Middle Eastern Studies by chatting with various conference participants over coffee or while enjoying the various meals we shared over the weekend. This was a truly international event, and thus enriching beyond the purview of the scholarship itself, no matter how outstanding. I look forward to future collaborations between BRISMES and AUD, and I hope to see another such conference here in Dubai in the not-too-distant future.

To learn more about “Re-locating Middle East Studies: New Geographies of Discourse,” visit the conference website.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins

Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language and Culture Conference Program

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 working on issues related to democratic theory and praxis.

I will present my paper, “Narratives of Domination and Resistance in the World’s Largest Democracy,” alongside Anastasia Stefanidou and David Roessel on the “Seeking a Place to Belong: Immigration and Displacement” panel. As always, I’m eager to test my ideas before an interested audience, but I’m also excited to hear their papers, “Elia Kazan: Redemption and Belonging in America” and “I, Too, Am America: Using the Correspondence of Langston Hughes to Examine Race and Democracy in the United States.” Both papers are sure to generate a stimulating dialogue on issues of contested identity and territory within modern democracies.

I also look forward to the event’s three plenary sessions, which include Athena Athanasiou’s “Whither the Demos of Democracy? The Political Performativity of the People”; John McLeod’s “Illegitimate Democracy: Some Lessons from Transcultural Adoption”; and Peter Buse’s “Clowning and Power: Lacan, Nietzsche, Foucault.” Together with the papers being offered at the regular sessions, these plenary remarks promise to contribute to a fascinating weekend of scholarship and debate in Thessaloniki.

For a full look at the conference program, click here.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins

Protest on the Page: Essays on Print and the Culture of Dissent Since 1865

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—to expand and revise our understanding of the modern American press.

A review of the book’s Table of Contents gives a sense of the variety and depth of its scholarship. The essays include:

  • James P. Danky: “Protest and Print Culture in America”
  • James L. Baughman: “Protest and American Print Culture”
  • Adam Thomas: “Writing Redemption: Racially Ambiguous Carpetbaggers and the Southern Print Culture Campaign against Reconstruction”
  • Andrew D. Hoyt: “The Inky Protest of an Anarchist Printmaker: Carlo Abate’s Newspaper Illustrations and the Artist’s Hand in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
  • Nicolás Kanellos: “Spanish-Language Anarchist Periodicals in Early Twentieth-Century United States”
  • Trevor Joy Sangrey: “Pamphlets of Self-Determination: Dissident Literature, Productive Fiction”
  • Laura J. Miller and  Emilie  Hardman: “By the Pinch and the Pound: Less and More Protest in American Vegetarian Cookbooks from the Nineteenth Century to the Present”
  • Daniel Vaca: “Meeting the Modernistic Tide: The Book as Evangelical Battleground in the 1940s”
  • Carol L. Tilley: “Children and the Comics: Young Readers Take on the Critics”
  • Derek Seidman: “Paper Soldiers: The Ally and the GI Underground Press during the Vietnam War”
  • Micah Robbins: “The Clowning of Richard Nixon in the Underground Press”
  • Joyce M. Latham: “Off / On Our Backs: The Feminist Press in the ‘Sex Wars’ of the 1980s”

I’m honored to have my work presented in such good company, and I congratulate the editors for assembling such a rich collection of essays on the historical relationship between print culture and the culture of dissent in the United States.

Here are the opening paragraphs of my essay, “The Clowning of Richard Nixon in the Underground Press”:

Richard Milhous Nixon’s abuse of power cast a dark shadow over his short-lived second term, and by April 1974, his brazen obstruction of justice mobilized thousands of outraged citizens to march on Washington for the first mass protest since his second inauguration. The New York Times reported that 6,500 “spirited but good natured” protesters converged on the nation’s capital, “accompanied by rock music, streakers and the fragrance of marijuana,” to demand the “speedy impeachment” of a president who had long been the target of popular dissent. Nixon had spent his second term staunchly resisting the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation into the Watergate crimes. In a last ditch effort to suppress the sordid details captured on subpoenaed White House audio tapes, Nixon finally released redacted transcripts of his conversations just three days after the April protest—more than twelve hundred pages that presented the American public with a verbal record of a foul-mouthed national leader with a set of personal and political scores to settle. This paranoid, vindictive Nixon was in crucial ways at odds with the various personae he attempted to construct over the course of his long political career, thus confirming what many Americans suspected all along: Richard Nixon was no stable entity. The 6,500 people who gathered in Washington to demand his impeachment understood this, and—in an act of real political clarity—five protesters demonstrated the urgency of exposing Nixon’s crimes by shedding their clothes, donning cheap Nixon masks, and streaking through Washington’s crowded streets.

These five naked “Tricky Dicks” participated in an aggressive, often obscene, mode of satire that circulated widely among the countercultural New Left, most notably in the pages of the underground press. The long sixties—a period marked by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education on one end, and the 1975 fall of Saigon on the other—witnessed the resurgence of a vibrant, politically engaged journalism that challenged mainstream views of American hegemony. Publications like the Los Angeles Free Press, the East Village Other, and the Fifth Estate, to name just a few of the hundreds of underground newspapers that circulated throughout the period, established an alternative media that presented readers with starkly contrarian editorial views, thus returning to the unconstrained, activist tactics of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century press. Disposing of the so-called objectivity that lent the nation’s mainstream media its aura of authoritative truth-value, the underground press opted instead for a heady mix of fiery polemics, muckraking investigative reports, participant accounts of various protests movements, and edgy underground comix. While these newspapers were often overtly militant, they also leveled biting satirical attacks on mainstream social mores and public figures alike. Radical press-workers deployed defamatory satire in an attempt to counteract the public-relations techniques national leaders used to manipulate their public images and, by extension, public opinion. They did so most memorably in their relentless assault on Richard Nixon. Drawing on a range of irreverent tactics, alternative journalists and cartoonists advanced a sustained satirical attack on Nixon’s disingenuous, manipulative public personae. By targeting a US president with open defamation, these satirists engaged in direct political resistance to the mass-media spectacle that allows power to diffuse itself through the public-relations apparatus, and they did so by seizing on the power of print to mock, deride, and indeed libel Nixon in an effort to further galvanize a radical movement for social change.

Here is what editor James P. Danky has to say about my essay in his preface, “Protest and Print Culture in America”:

As Vicotor Navasky suggested, satire is a powerful weapon for protest. Laughing at someone in high places is likely to promote a powerful reaction. Of all US presidents, none has attracted the attention of satirists more than Richard Nixon. Micah Robbins shows us the way Nixon’s public persona was made into that of a demonic clown by the countercultural press. In their use of print to protest Nixon, his policies, and his cronies, these editors and publishers used wildly obscene, libelous representations of the president to subvert the carefully managed public personae that helped him maintain a decades-long political career. Whether through representations in novels by authors like Robert Coover and Philip Roth or in the pages of underground newspapers and magazines such as the Realist and the Berkeley Barb, dissident satirists launched an aggressive, symbolically violent series of insults against Nixon’s reputation that proved to be an important part of the forces that brought him down.

And here are the opinions of various experts in the fields of Communication & Journalism, Politics, Popular Culture, and American Studies on the collection as a whole:

“These are fresh, fascinating inquiries into the unknown byways of American journalistic history. Protest on the Page amounts to an alternative history of the press, far different from the familiar triumphant and establishment-celebrating narrative.” —Nicholas Lemann, Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism, Columbia University

“How great it is to have a book about the history of the press that’s not about the New York Times or Washington Post, and not about the glories of a free press in a democracy. The journalism of visionary movements—anarchism, feminism, dissent in the military—is part of our heritage too, and it’s great to see it get some of the attention it deserves.” —Adam Hochschild, cofounder of Mother Jones magazine and the author of To End All Wars

“Historians of social change have always drawn upon ephemeral publications from the fringes of politics and culture. But the essays in this splendid collection show that the printed word has actually been a central player in the politics of social movements, from anarchism to vegetarianism. This sharp focus on media provides valuable new insight into how movement politics has worked in American History.” —David Paul Nord, author of Faith in Reading

“A substantial contribution to the histories of print culture, media, journalism, and non-mainstream movements, groups, and ideas.” —John Nerone, author of Violence Against the Press

If you’re interested in the history of the American alternative press, First Amendment speech freedoms, or movement politics in the Twentieth Century, be sure to take a look at Protest on the Page, which is available directly from the University of Wisconsin Press.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins

Relocating Middle East Studies: New Geographies of Discourse

Since arriving in Dubai, I’ve taken a fairly aggressive approach to reading 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. All of this has been exciting, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to share my thoughts on these texts in a formal setting.

That will change when the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) comes to the American University in Dubai (AUD) for a conference on evolving political, economic, and cultural dynamics in the Middle East. AUD’s School of Arts & Sciences has a very active Middle Eastern Studies program, and its faculty has worked hard to bring BRISMES—one of the leading Middle Eastern Studies organizations—to AUD for what promises to be an intellectually-engaging three days of scholarly discussion and debate.

I will be joining the “Re-readings/Re-takes: Narratives in Literature and Media” panel, where I will present some of my research on what’s going on throughout the region viz. graphic novels (see abstract below). I can’t wait to meet with visiting scholars who will converge on AUD from around the world next month.

Graphic Novels, Web Comics, and New Narrative Forms in the Middle East

In his introduction to 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. 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 I had read so long ago.” The graphic novel’s subversive, liberating potential to tell the sorts of stories that are largely ignored by the popular media and literary fiction alike has not been lost on a new generation of storytellers working within the comics medium to re-read the contemporary sociopolitical realities of life in the Middle East. Indeed, the past decade has seen a remarkable proliferation of graphic narratives produced and distributed throughout the MENA region. This paper will examine how writer-illustrators such as Magdy El-Shafee (Metro: A Story of Cairo),  Amir Soltani and Khalil Bendib (Zahra’s Paradise), and Leila Abdelazaq (Baddawi) 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. By manipulating spatio-temporal dynamics to present multiple, simultaneous contexts within a single narrative, these graphic storytellers practice a sophisticated narratological approach to what has always been a popular medium, thus transforming a traditionally juvenile and ephemeral mode of pop-art into mature texts that capture aspects of life too often relegated to the margins of representation. Working from within their own independent publishing collectives and often adapting their work for online platforms, these young artists are producing an emerging body of literature that is re-shaping how contemporary readers perceive the challenges and triumphs of 21st century life in the Middle East.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2015 Micah Robbins