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Tag: Literary Criticism

Elise Partridge’s Hyper-Realism and Naming the Unknown

To read Elise Partridge’s 2002 collection Fielder’s Choice is to enter a highly-tuned world of memory and perception. The poems are precise, guided by observational skills and a lifetime’s worth of knowledge that transform even distant memories of childhood into something much more certain and accessible than what many readers may experience when recalling their own childhoods. Similarly, Partridge’s observations of nature are encyclopedic in their attention to detail and naming. The natural world that Partridge represents in these poems is not impressionistic, but is instead rendered scientific, knowable, able to be mastered. Even the collection’s opening poem, “Everglades,” which trains its attention on the submerged, fleeting things of the wetlands, ends with an appeal to the practice of naming: “A bird swaying on a coral bean / sang two notes that might have been ‘Name me’ ” (ll. 14-15). Yet what I find most interesting about these lines is not the poet’s knowledge, which extends to the coral bean, nor her desire to know the name of the bird, which she cleverly suggests is the bird’s desire to be named, but rather the subtle anxiety she seems to experience when confronted with something that resists identification. It’s as if these extraordinarily detailed, taxonomic poems carry within themselves an awareness that every experience contains an element of the unknown and the unknowable. Even the most observant poets must, in the final analysis, stand before a horizon beyond which they cannot see.

A good example of this tension between mastery over nature and the impossible horizon of knowledge comes in the collection’s second poem, “Plague.” Following immediately after “Everglades” and its explicit appeal to naming, “Plague” begins with a catalogue of medicinal herbs: “Heal-all, yarrow, alum root, / sweet annie, angelica, hazel shoots” (ll. 1-2). To this list are added “Lemon verbena, spearmint beds, / feverfew blooms nodding heads,” “a spray of Solomon’s seal,” and “magenta balm, white chamomile” (ll. 7-8, 18, and 26). In all, Partridge names nineteen specific plant species, telling us that they are “herbs renowned for healing power” (l. 6). The herbs’ medicinal properties compliment the poem’s title, which emphasizes illness and suffering, and the poet’s ability to recognize each plant species—even if only by their common names—suggests that she knows something about how to use them against the plague. And she does indeed understand the practical use of at least one of the plants, as she makes clear when she writes: “Medicinal ferns were brewed for tea / to soothe sore throats, cure pleurisy” (ll. 29-30). The impression this encyclopedic approach gives is of a poet who moves through the natural world as an omniscient observer. She knows the names of every plant she sees, and she knows how to transform these wild things into wholesome teas, medicines, and cures.

But “Plague” is not a poem about what ails the human body, for the poet’s attention is drawn to a mass of caterpillars as they crawl through this abundance of medicinal herbs, their jaws hard at work consuming lambs-ears, red root, and jewelweed. Driven by hunger and eating everything in sight, the caterpillars occupy a menacing place in the poem, yet the care with which Partridge observes their eating renders them beautiful:

Two pinks caught my eye. I bent down.
Caterpillars were going to town
on a faltering stem, bodies slung
underneath like sloths'. The feet clung;
the heads chewed. Four gnashed a meal
under a spray of Solomon's seal
whose white drops quivered. Paired prongs,
the front legs worked like icemen's tongs
curving to stab. Rear-guard pylons,
flat-soled, gray, dutiful cousins,
helped shiver along the elegant back,
blue-and-red pustules edged with black. (ll. 13-24)

How are we meant to feel about these creatures as they consume a landscape full of life-giving herbs? One way to read the caterpillars is as the very plague the title references, a plague with the potential to destroy the plants altogether. Partridge makes this point clear when, at the poem’s conclusion, she anticipates their metamorphosis into fully-developed butterflies who will “alight on fewer, finer legs / and discharge an arsenal of eggs” (ll. 49-50). The implication is that this spray of eggs—figured here as “an arsenal”—will spell ruin for the herbs that are catalogued throughout the poem. They will multiply the number of larva, which will in turn eat their fill until the landscape is left barren. And yet, for all the potential destruction the eggs represent, the caterpillars are doing exactly what they evolved to do. They consume the herbs, and in so doing, they transform themselves into butterflies. There is great mystery and beauty in this process, and the fact that the garden itself is an integral part of the metamorphosis serves to complicate the disgust one may feel toward the poem’s “plague.”

The extent of Partridge’s ambivalence toward the caterpillars is thrown into relief by “Phoenixville Farm,” the poem that follows directly after “Plague” in Fielder’s Choice. Partridge uses “Phoenixville Farm” to align her sympathies with one side of a starkly-drawn contrast between the artificiality of the subdivision where she grew up and the more rustic, natural setting of her friend Anne’s farm. Her sympathies are clearly with the farm over and against the controlled, disciplined, and supremely boring subdivision where “the change of seasons was marked by switching off / or on the central AC’s monotone thrum” (ll. 17-18). The farm provides her with access to a much more diverse and exciting environment, where the presence of foxes, hornets, spiders, bats, raccoons, and other critters stir within her a desire to escape the constraints of suburban life. When her parents come to pick her up after a sleepover at Anne’s farm, Partridge imagines herself undergoing the very sort of metamorphosis that threatens the medicinal herbs in “Plague”:

Some day, some day---we'd each spin sleeping bags,
doze for six weeks, thrust, gnaw, unkink striped wings,
try out our newborn feelers, lurch to Anne's farm,
bathe in dust puddles, lay eggs, and worship weeds. (ll. 50-53)

This closing metaphor bears a striking resemblance to the metamorphosis described in “Plague.” Not only does Partridge figure her escape from the suburbs as a transition from larva to pupa to imago, but one of the central acts she will commit after emerging from her chrysalis is to follow the example of the butterflies in “Plague” and deposit her eggs among the weeds. Her desire for liberation is very much tied up in questions of seasonality, transformation, renewal, and reproduction, all of which are given a positive gloss within the context of the poem. Yet read alongside “Plague,” the metaphor that concludes “Phoenixville Farm” unsettles any easy interpretation of the “arsenal of eggs” that the former poem’s butterflies will discharge throughout the herbs. If the caterpillars are symbols of destruction in “Plague,” they represent the potential for freedom in “Phoenixville Farm,” and it is in the contradiction between the way these two poems represent metamorphosis that the horizon of Partridge’s knowledge appears.

The plants and animals that demand so much attention in “Plague” and “Phoenixville Farm” may be named and described, their life cycles and practical uses understood, but the larger questions of interdependence, metamorphosis, liberation, death, and beauty are left unanswered, perhaps because they are unanswerable. And perhaps this is the point of Partridge’s hyper-realistic poetics. By training her eye on the fine details of her surroundings, and then expressing those details with clinical precision, Partridge exhausts the mundane and positions her readers before the ineffable. It’s almost as if every meticulous description—every act of naming—moves us one step closer to what can never be ultimately known. And it is the stubborn presence of the unknown that makes her poems worth returning to. Like the bird that cries, “Name me,” at the conclusion of “Everglades,” Partridge invites us to name the unknown in her poems, knowing full well that no mastery and no knowledge will ever empower us to do so with finality. Yet the attempt yields its rewards, training our attention as it does on those qualities of being that transcend certainty and give rise to what must always be rediscovered anew.

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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” (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 (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 (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. (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” (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, as Palumbo-Liu makes clear, identification with otherness must expand upon “wider considerations of historical, political, ethical and social (rather than simply intersubjective) life” (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” (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 (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” (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. (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. 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” (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” (H139). 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.

Note: 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.

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Re-locating Middle East Studies Conference Roundup

Over three beautiful early-summer days 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 my work on Middle Eastern graphic novels crosses disciplinary boundaries (a crossing that makes a certain amount of sense considering the Middle Eastern Studies’ interdisciplinary nature, to mention nothing of the academic post I hold in in the Middle East), and I ended up learning a lot from 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 use 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 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 Sana’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’s 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 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.

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 use the comics medium to tell the sorts of stories that are all too often marginalized by mainstream media outlets. My paper attempted to show that, while the Middle Eastern comics scene is in a nascent stage, there is reason to be optimistic that the comics medium, and especially web comics, will continue to develop in productive directions throughout the Middle East and North Africa, thus allowing more writers and artists to seize power over their own stories and re-read regional culture and politics for a global audience.

Finally, Joseph Massad’s and Gary Bunt’s keynote addresses were 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 his talk was controversial was 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 focused 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 more advanced digital networks. 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 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. I look forward to future collaborations between the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies and the American University in Dubai, and I hope to see another such conference 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.

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