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)

(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


Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language and Culture

Good news came yesterday in the form of an acceptance letter to the Hellenic Association for the Study of English‘s conference, “Rethinking Democracy in Literature, Language and Culture.” The event is hosted by Aristotle University of Thessaloniki’s School of English Language and Literature and will take place from May 15-17, 2015. You can learn more by visiting the conference website. I’m eager to see the other panelists’ abstracts, which should be posted soon, but in the meantime I’ll settle for posting mine below:

Narratives of Domination and Resistance in the World’s Largest Democracy

India’s 2014 general elections reshaped the political status quo in the world’s largest democracy. Led by Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seized an outright majority in the nation’s lower house of parliament, thus securing Modi’s position as India’s 15th Prime Minister. Modi’s campaign slogan—Unity. Action. Progress.—echoes the mix of Hindutva and neoliberal ideologies that have distinguished the state of Gujarat, where he served as Chief Minister from 2001 to 2014, as a site of both human rights abuses and economic privatization. Indeed, the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, during which rioting Hindu nationalists murdered nearly 2,000 of their Muslim neighbors and displaced more than 150,000 others, did little to discourage multinational corporations from responding to Modi’s privatization policies with an influx of investment dollars. That such human rights abuses occur so comfortably alongside neoliberal economic developments in one of the world’s leading democracies raises troubling questions about democracy’s role in facilitating some of globalization’s most egregious abuses.

My paper addresses this problem as explored by two contemporary Indo-Anglian writers—Arundhati Roy and Neel Mukherjee. These writers critique the way Indian democracy privileges its neoliberal economic agenda over and against the basic human rights of its many impoverished ethnic/religious minorities and internally displaced denizens. Mukherjee’s 2014 novel, The Lives of Others, traces the development of India’s Naxalite insurgency from its early days of targeted attacks on local landlords in the 1960s to the present day guerrilla war it’s waging against the State’s ongoing attempt to forcibly relocate India’s Adivasi population from their native forests, thus clearing the way for multinational infrastructure projects and natural resource extraction. Mukherjee’s fictional narrative is bolstered by fellow novelist Arundhati Roy’s incisive piece of long-form journalism, Walking with the Comrades (2011), which not only provides a rare opportunity to listen to the Adivasi militants in their own words, but also establishes direct and compelling connections between the Naxalite insurgency and the human rights abuses that accompany India’s embrace of neoliberal economic policies in the wake of the Cold War. While Mukherjee and Roy are quick to acknowledge the Naxalite’s violent methods, they contextualize the insurgency in relation to the systematic human rights abuses that underwrite concepts like unity, action, and progress, all of which are promoted as fundamental to what the popular media often (and wrongly) calls the “deepening democracy in India.” If anything, Mukherjee and Roy expose a deepening crisis in democracy, a crisis that pits multinational business interests, backed by ultra-nationalist ethnic/religious majorities, against the basic democratic rights of those at the bottom of a rapidly-widening economic divide.

I’ve been thinking through the complexity of democracy for a few years now, so I’m pleased to have the opportunity to gather with a group of scholars committed to interrogating and/or theorizing democracy and its cultural representations. That I get to do so in the birthplace of ancient democracy makes the opportunity doubly exciting!

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