Commentaries Education

Humanities make humans

We often hear, in public and private conversations, that Pakistani culture and politics will become better with the increase in access to education. This is nothing new: almost all nations offer “education” as a panacea: as something that can solve most of their socio-economic problems. In the last decade or so, huge investments have been made in higher education in Pakistan, but a shift in public culture is not so visible. In fact, the culture has become markedly more violent and troubled. So, why is the rise in education not leading to a more egalitarian and progressive culture? And why is it that in some cases, some of the most highly educated youth end up being terrorist sympathisers, like those who murdered Sabeen Mahmud?

Besides other reasons, it is the lack of a humanistic education that causes so many of our ideological and material problems. But let me clarify my terms: What do I mean by humanistic education? Simply stated, a critical humanistic education focuses on the humanities disciplines that include, but are not limited to: literature, history, and philosophy. But simply including these subjects in our college curricula is not enough. Humanities must be taught to encourage critical thinking, to learn to accept cultural differences, and to encourage the habits of questioning all master narratives. Very rarely are humanities taught in such a way or with this aim in Pakistani universities.

In such a didactic model, students learn the habits of democratic life

Furthermore, like in the US, most of the higher education funding in Pakistan is reserved for Science-Technology-Engineering-Match (STEM) disciplines. I guess the idea behind this investment is to train and develop a workforce that can compete globally and contribute locally. But if this workforce does not develop the habits of critical thought, then no amount of scientific knowledge would make them into the kind of enlightened and tolerant citizens that any modern nation-state absolutely needs to sustain itself.

There is a vast corpus of research on the role of humanities in what Gayatri Spivak, the renowned postcolonial scholar, calls “training the imagination” of our students. In such a didactic model, students not only learn the subject matter, but also learn the habits of democratic life.

On the day of the successful testing of the US atomic bomb, Oppenheimer, who headed the Manhattan Project, said, “I am become death: the destroyer of worlds.” So, on the day that he had achieved his scientific mission, which was the creation of the bomb and its successful launch, Oppenheimer does not speak like a scientist. As a scientist he should have been proud of his accomplishment. He speaks as a humanist.


Thus while science can give one the knowledge to build or to destroy, only a humanistic education can equip one to know the difference between destructive and salutary acts.

Both Pakistan and India became independent nations because of the hard work of their leaders (and of course their followers) who understood the functioning of the British political system and thus could challenge the British within the rhetorical logic of their own system. Jinnah and Nehru are both good examples of this. These leaders were a product of the British humanistic tradition, but sadly they failed to replicate the very educational system that had produced them.

Now, in the early education sector, private schools do encourage critical thinking and focus a lot on humanities, but in most of the cases, these schools rely on a purely Western curriculum. The students are not really trained to be responsible citizens within Pakistan, but are trained to perform better in foreign universities. A culturally grounded humanistic education would enable the students to know the world but without developing a disdain for their own culture. Thus, a critically aware humanistic education would enable the students to encounter cultural differences without feeling threatened by the difference itself. And this capacity to live with differences is crucial to all modern democracies, but especially for Pakistan where sectarian, regional, gender, and other differences are currently being mobilised to pit our citizens against each other.

But of course, there is yet another question that I must answer. Precisely, how is literature supposed to make us better human beings? In his book Radical Pedagogy, Dr Mark Bracher asserts that we all, in one way or the other, attempt to safeguard our identities and move about in the world with an imperceptible knowledge of all threats to our identities. In order to bring about change in our worldviews, knowledge alone is not enough. We must alter our self-serving narrative through attentive didactics. It is in this attempt to reshape our personal and collective narratives that a humanistic education becomes crucial.

For an average Taliban foot soldier, the narrative is oversimplified: the world is divided between the followers of their own sect and “the rest”. The rest are evildoers and wrong – a threat to the purity of one’s faith. No amount of uninformed education can alter this worldview. Only an informed education that slowly displaces this exclusivist narrative with a more inclusive narrative has some hope of transforming such destructive subjectivities.

Now, all these individuals with a purist view of faith and culture can be trained to be scientists, doctors, and engineers and all that knowledge would probably not alter the narratives upon which the edifices of their selves are built. Only a critically informed humanistic education would have some hope of altering and transforming the core narratives of such people.

On the whole then, for a country like ours, while it is absolutely necessary to develop technological, medical, and other scientific expertise, it is also extremely important to revitalise education in the humanities so that we can produce the kind of human subjectivities that are, besides their scientific training, also trained to imagine and practice life in an increasingly diverse and complex world.

First published in The Friday Times.

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Commentaries Education

At NUML: Re-experiencing Pakistani Hospitality

AS part of the UNT-NUML Partnership program, I arrived in Islamabad yesterday to start the in-house teaching and training sessions with the NUML (National University of Modern Languages) English department.

This is a sort of special return for me: many years ago I had walked the halls of NUML as a young captain studying Japanese as part of preparation for an army course in Japan. At that time, I could have not imagined that one day I will return to NUML as a scholar and teacher of literature. But this is one of those turns that life takes and sends one to unimagined journeys. This journey back to an institution that I have always admired is dear to me personally as well as professionally.

Over the years I have taught numerous American and international graduate students, but I have never interacted with any Pakistani students. Thus to return and teach at a Pakistani university is a first for me and also one of the most exciting turns in my life. I am so deeply excited about my class tomorrow that I cannot sleep and am writing this brief note at 2:00 A. M.

Besides teaching, this arrival has also put me back in touch with the characteristic hospitality of my Pakistani brothers and sisters that I had almost forgotten. As a scholar working in America, I am used to traveling for conferences and doing everything myself: it is part of the job and one does not expect much from one’s hosts.

But since I arrived here, I have experienced an undconditional welcome from everyone on NUML campus. From the top administrators to the security guards outside the hostel, each one of them have made me feel welcome and shown me, without words, that they are delighted that I am here and that they will do anything to make my stay comfortable. This does not only reflect the general functioning of NUML but also displays the general hospitality that our culture possesses and that does not usually get acknowledged.

So, on my first night at NUML, I am delighted to be here, am grateful for every kindness shown to me, and hope that I can provide the best possible service and training to NUML faculty and students.

Commentaries Culture Education

Iqbal: The Reluctant Feminist

Iqbal apologists always suggest that Iqbal wanted the women to have all the rights granted to them in the shariah: how revolutionary is that? It is the job of a philosopher to think on the edge of thought, to go beyond what custom and tradition permit.

I started reading Iqbal in eighth grade. Since then, I have read almost all works of Iqbal and published quite frequently about various aspects of his large literary oeuvre. In fact, almost two chapters of my book (Constructing Pakistan, Oxford UP 2010) rely quite heavily on Iqbal’s poetry and his political wirings. I state all this to prepare the reader that I am familiar with Iqbal the poet, the philosopher, and the historical figure and my critique of Iqbal’s elevation to the level of a national poet of Pakistan, thus, comes from this place of knowing, this place of love.

Appropriating a poet’s work for the work of a nation is always a political project: in this process of imagination, the poet is given a prophetic status and his works are mobilized to underwrite the nation. The British did that in the figure of Shakespeare; The Pakistanis have indubitably relied on Iqbal as the prophetic poet philosopher of the nation.

What happens when a poet is elevated to the mythical level of being a national poet? His works can then be mobilized to crystallize and fix a certain imagination of the nation, could be one answer. In this process of using the works and words of a national poet, the poet’s works become trans-historical and timeless. In simple terms, the thoughts of a national poet become a legitimizing text in defining the nation with an absolute reliance on the past. I believe that it is crucial to the Pakistan’s future to re-read Iqbal within the contextual history of his writing and to challenge all visions of human existence with this matrix.

First, what kind of subjectivity does Iqbal’s works privilege, and what underwrites the retrieval of such subjectivity? (I have written longer works on this that you can read in your own time by following this link: It is fairly obvious that Iqbal’s project of historical retrieval is a masculine project: his ideal man (or or mard-e—mujahid) is an action-oriented male figure modeled upon the male figures of early Islamic history. This retrieval of an idealized male subject involves a chronotopic approach in which time and space come together to invoke him: the time of the Prophet and the region of Hijaz. Our mullahs often quote this timeless figure as the ideal male subject of our present and, not surprisingly, often quote Iqbal in emphasizing their point. Late Dr. Israr Ahmed was famous for quoting Iqbal.

What we need to understand is that Iqbal’s political poetry is deeply tainted with the politics of his times: his retrieved Muslim subjectivity, therefore, is a reactionary retrieval of an idealized Muslim malehood specific only to his particular political context. This retrieval through an idealized past is a common practice during the final stages of all anticolonial movements. During the final stages of struggle, in what Frantz Fanon calls the “fighting phase,” the poets, instead of thinking toward the hitherside of future, think backwards to an idealized pre-colonial past, which in case of Iqbal happens to be the Islam of eighth century. The male subject so retrieved—the mujahid—thus is posited as an ideal subject needed to resist the colonizers through an unsullied, premodern subjectivity. This works fine during the anticolonial struggle as such tropes of masculinity are absolutely essential for any freedom struggle. But this exercise in retrieval also leaves the postcolonial Muslim-state in love with an irretrievable past. Resultantly, if we read Iqbal’s idealized male subject as non-contextual and transhistoric instead of reading it within its historical context, we end up privileging a countermodern, pre-colonial male subjectivity as opposed to its modern counterparts.

I am suggesting that we need to re-read Iqbal within the context of our current predicament. Also, we cannot rely on Iqbal to give us all the answers and we need to have the courage to admit that maybe, like so many of us humans, Iqbal can also be wrong sometimes. But Iqbal has been so deeply impressed upon our consciousness as the national poet philosopher that even suggesting that he was not at all perfect, can incite a venomous counter attack from his acolytes.

Rereading Iqbal with the tools of modern theory will enable us to read the very male-specific and sexist nature of his work. While his work lauds the exploits of men and produces a detailed genealogy of a male mujahid identity, the attention to the role of women is pretty thin. In fact, Mullahs often use Iqbal to justify the status of women as “passive citizens.” When it comes to the question of women’s rights in the postcolonial Pakistan, I think Iqbal terribly squandered his cultural and symbolic capital in not taking an explicit stance on the rights of women. It is no that he could not have found existing works on the subject: after all Maulana Mumtaz Ali had published his revolutionary, and now totally neglected, Haqooq-e-Niswan and had already launched a journal to this effect. Iqbal’s silence, or lukewarm engagement, with the question of women’s rights can thus only be attributed to a matter of choice, for, being a learned philosopher, he could have not been ignorant of the debates in progress and of the importance of the this particular issue for the future of Pakistan.

His stance on women is pretty clear form his earliest works: women are whole only in supporting roles and cannot really have or possess an individual, agential subjectivity of their own. This is quite odd coming from a philosopher who leaves no philosophical thought untouched in his last work The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.

Of course, the Iqbal apologists always suggest that Iqbal wanted the women to have all the rights granted to them in the shariah: how revolutionary is that? It is the job of a philosopher to think on the edge of thought, to go beyond what custom and tradition permit and this is what Maulana Mumtaz Ali had done with great courage and wonderful eloquence in his book on the rights of women. The reason our Mullahs have never engaged with Mumtaz Ali’s work is simply because none of them have the kind of wisdom to grasp the issue and debate it; it is easier just to parrot the age-old clichés for the secondary state of women as “sanctified” by religion.

In my alternative history of Iqbal, I imagine him thinking deeply about the rights of women. In this alternative history Iqbal asks the following questions:

  • – Are women capable of reason and speech?
  • – Are women responsible, legally, for their actions?
  • – Are women responsible for their actions and shall be judged as individuals on the Day of Judgment?

If the answer to all these questions is in affirmative, then, in my imagined history, my Iqbal employs his monumental philosophical skills to form an answer. He writes, or says, or declares that since women are individually accountable for their actions in this world and the other, that accountability presupposes that they have an individual, agential, and fully realized political and social identity. We cannot have it both ways, Iqbal would say, for if women are not fully realized active citizens, then they should not be fully accountable for their sins both here and in the hereafter. In fact, my Iqbal would go a step further and suggest that if we acknowledge women only as secondary beings—in relation to their male counterparts—then all their spiritual and corporeal sins should be attributed to their male masters.

But as we all are painfully aware, Iqbal never goes there. He challenges, unravels, and berates a hundred different philosophies but never has the courage to tackle the most significant question of Islamic way of life: the question of the rights of women.

And now, sadly, in his postcolonial apotheosis to the role of a national poet and philosopher he has become the most useful prop to all those who can only imagine a reactionary Pakistan: A Pakistan uncomfortable in the present, terrified of the future, and deeply in love with a romanticized irretrievable past.

(Also published by Viewpoint Online)

Commentaries Education

Deleuze and Foucault on Marketing as Control (via Media Assemblages)

Gilles Deleuze never to my knowledge wrote extensively on marketing, but he had some choice words for it in "Postscript on Societies of Control." I quote them below. I lectured today, minutes ago actually, on Foucault's panopticism and Deleuze's modulated control to my first year marketing and communication course at QMUL. I tried to make the argument to them (about 200 very diverse, international students) that marketing is a historically specif … Read More

via Media Assemblages

Commentaries Education

Ania Loomba’s Colonialism/ Postcolonialism: A Candid Discussion With My Students

Today we concluded our discussion of Ania Loomba’s introductory book to postcolonial studies in my undergraduate class. Toward the end of our class session, I asked my students if they had trouble reading, understanding, and consuming this text. Not surprisingly, quite a few of them had some interesting and quite aptly critical things to say about the book. Their comments can be summed up in the following few sentences:

  • The chapters are too long; it would have been better if the author had organized her chapters in short [thematic] sections.
  • She mentions a lot of authors we do not know about [Fanon, for example] without providing us any details about them.
  • She jumps from one topic to another, sometimes without giving us a warning or a hint.
  • The sentences are too long and the authors tends to repeat herself a lot.
  • She does not give us any precise definitions.

Needless to say, I agree with some of my students concerns: the book is, at times, hard to read, especially for undergraduates. Having said that, I disagree with their expectations of the text. I feel that the author cannot write an academic book–especially one that is introducing a complex field of study–purely from the point of view of making it accessible to its readers. The author has the liberty of presupposing a certain degree of theoretical knowledge on the part of students, especially those studying literature. I do think the book could have been better organized in terms of its chapters; maybe shorter, more focused chapters would have been helpful.

But again, coming back to my students side of the story, their comments also made me aware of the kind of consumer culture that structures their subjectivities. In a way, in my view, the book was also a product for their consumption that they as consumers had found “defective.” While most of them admitted that they did get something out of the book, the book was troubling to them as it did not provide a linear and reductive narrative that all of us have come to expect in our lives as consumers.

Personally, I had chosen the book after having read quite a few other readers on the subject. My main reason in choosing the book, surprisingly, was its very ambiguous and inconclusive discussion of postcolonialism as a field of study. I guess I have to do a better job of rendering the book more accessible to my students without simplifying things too much. I am, however, pleased that my students read a wonderfully complex book, took notes, and came back with their questions. Did I mention, I really like my students:))

Commentaries Education

Thoughts on my Last Class at Kent State

Yesterday was the last day of my summer graduate seminar on Postmodernism and also my last day of teaching at Kent State University. I came to Kent State in the fall of 2006 immediately after finishing my Ph.D. at Florida State. Looking back at my three and a half years at Kent as a full-time faculty member, I have, in a very unpostmodernist way, as sort of nostalgic reaction to my relationship with Kent State. While I may not have much to say about the department or the university, I will certainly miss my students from Kent.

In my time at Kent, I found majority of my students to be extremely dedicated, curious, and engaged in their studies. Going to class was never really a chore but rather an exhilarating experience as I entered the class not only to teach but also to learn from my students.I will certainly miss my students from Kent State.

Teaching is an interesting vocation, for the very value of your practice depends upon the gaze of the other, upon a tacit understanding between the teacher and the student that the teacher does not have all the answers and that learning is complex, interactive, and, at times, confusing.

My last summer course at Kent had all the ingredients of an interesting pedagogical experience: an illusive subject (postmodernism), an engaged and dedicated group of students, and the fast pace of a summer course. I am not a postmodernist by training, so teaching this course was also a way of co-learning with my students. And I am happy to declare that by the end of the course not only my students had grasped the major debates of postmodernism but that the experience had also enabled me to build my own repertoire of teaching strategies that worked for this course and that I would incorporate in my future courses.

As I get ready to leave for UNT, I would like to thank all my students from Kent for being an important part of my life. Thank you, for you all have taught me so much.

Commentaries Education

Linda Hutcheon: Reading Notes for Chapters 1 & 2

By Alex Hall and Caleb Berkemeier

(Reading Notes for Linda Hutcheon’s A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction)

Chapter One:

In this first chapter, entitled “Theorizing the Postmodern: Toward a Poetics,” Linda Hutcheon informs the reader that the purpose of this book is to attempt a thorough definition of “postmodernism”—a concept that she claims is often under-theorized by both its supporters and its detractors. To this end, she reveals her primary argument, that “postmodernism is a contradictory phenomenon, one that uses and abuses, installs and then subverts, the very concepts it challenges” (3). If nothing else, this is the core idea that one should take away from the reading of this book: postmodernism is not a total or transcendent rejection of the past, nor is it an uncritical acceptance of the present—postmodernism is a provisional, contingent, complex, and even playful way of viewing past and present from a wholly immanent position. The transcendental position—the notion that one can critique a system without at the same time being implicated in that system—has been overthrown and is no longer the most sophisticated way of understanding the world. Therefore, the only way in which one can critique the present order is from within its logic, to “use and abuse” the concepts that the present order offers.

In order to elaborate on what she thinks postmodernism is, Hutcheon relies heavily upon literary texts as manifestations of postmodernity. The most amenable literary genre for this task is what she calls “historiographic metafiction” which includes novels that “are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages” (5). According to Hutcheon, the study of postmodernism is directed at either literature, history, or theory and is narrative in all three. Historiographic metafiction, therefore, is the best source for understanding postmodernism because it “incorporates all three of these domains. . . . its theoretical self-awareness of history and fiction as human constructs. . . . is made the grounds for its rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past” (5). Some theorists (such as Fredric Jameson) have misinterpreted this focus on the past “as a negative. . . . imprisoning of the text in the past through pastiche” (11), but Hutcheon counters this criticism by characterizing the explicit revisiting of history as “liberating” in its challenging of “a definition of subjectivity and creativity that has for too long ignored the role of history in art and thought” (11).

A common criticism of postmodernism is that it is ahistorical since it is preoccupied with the idea that history can only be known through text. This has led many to believe that postmodernism’s revisionary project is an assault on history rather than what it truly is: an examination of how we come to know history and everything that knowledge implies. Hutcheon says that history is “being rethought. . . . as a human construct” and that “in arguing that history does not exist except as text, it does not stupidly and “gleefully” deny that the past existed, but only that its accessibility to us now is entirely conditioned by textuality” (16). History is a real object (not just language as some radical semioticians claim), but it is impossible to recover the “real story” because history is always mediated through texts that, for all their pretensions to coherence and unity, cannot free themselves from the very history they record.

One of the important literary techniques (along with self-reflexivity) that is used to critique the rationalist historical view is that of ironic parody. It is what Hutcheon calls a “perfect postmodern form” because “it paradoxically both incorporates and challenges that which it parodies” (11). This is one of the more difficult ideas to grasp about postmodernism—that it uses what modernism has to offer but is not modernism itself since postmodernism is a critique of that logic. Modernism’s “discarding or recuperating of the past in the name of the future” (19) is what postmodernism opposes; the transcendent position of modernist art in its search for pure truth is turned into the parodic as postmodern art reenacts the past but without losing its self-conscious connection to the historical present. Through postmodern parody “ironic discontinuity. . . . is revealed at the heart of continuity, difference at the heart of similarity” (11).

But postmodern parody is no mere exercise in literary technique. Its purpose is ambitious and vitally important because it forces a reevaluation of the foundations of unquestioned narratives that are problematical in their exclusionary logic. Hutcheon says that “[p]ostmodern culture. . . . has a contradictory relationship to what we usually label our dominant, liberal humanist culture. It does not deny it, as some have asserted. . . . it contests it from within its own assumptions” (6). What this means is that the grand narratives of human reason and progress that have functioned as a cover for so much irrationality and regression are no longer untouchable. To question the truths of liberal humanism (or any other meta-narrative) is not to default to impoverished relativism; it is to say that truth is provisional and contingent. People can still believe in certain truths, but what they can no longer do is believe those truths uncritically and without the contextualizing process of self-reflexive consciousness. What Hutcheon wants to make clear is that “there are no natural hierarchies . . . only those we construct” (13).

Finally, Hutcheon is concerned with constructing a particular way in which we can talk about postmodernism, not a rigid theoretical framework but what she calls a “poetics.” The function of this poetics is to “offer, as provisional hypotheses, perceived overlappings of concern . . . reading literature through its surrounding theoretical discourses rather than as continuous with theory” (14). She demonstrates what she means by this in a lengthy passage where she accuses Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson of basing their arguments against postmodernism in abstract, theoretical terms that do not touch the world of practice. She goes through some of Eagleton’s criticisms of postmodernism and gives her own textual examples that seem to defy his claims. While at first this tangent seems too divergent, it soon becomes clear that what is most important about this deviation is not necessarily the particular counter-arguments against Eagleton—what is important is that Hutcheon is using products of postmodern practice in conjunction with abstracted theory. She is putting into practice her definition of a poetics of postmodernism that is constantly engaging both theory and practice, a poetics that does not “place itself in a position between theory and practice . . . but rather . . . seek[s] a position within both” (17).

Chapter Two:

Hutcheon’s second chapter, entitled “Modelling the Postmodern: Parody and Politics,” begins by first reiterating what she has already said about postmodern art: that it is “art marked paradoxically by both history and an internalized, self-reflexive investigation of the nature, the limits, and the possibilities of the discourse of art” (22).  Parody, she further suggests, is actually that which can relate the “aesthetic . . . to the political and the historical” (22).  With this in mind, Hutcheon proceeds to outline her intent in the chapter, which is to focus on what she believes “offers the best model for a poetics of postmodernism: postmodern architecture” (22).  According to Hutcheon, postmodern architecture is “the one art form in which the label [postmodern] seems to refer, uncontested, to a generally agreed upon corpus of works” (22).  Backtracking, Hutcheon again cites the historical and political, pointing out that postmodern works are both “precisely because they are formally parodic” (23).  Hutcheon takes this idea a bit further by suggesting that the parody that results in the historical and political aspects of postmodern art actually “use and abuse, install and destabilize convention in parodic ways, self-consciously pointing to both their own inherent paradoxes and provisionality and, of course, to their critical or ironic re-reading of the art of the past” (23).  This to say that postmodern art can simultaneously participate in and critique the system under which it is produced, including by bringing history to bear on the present.  One place where this process can be recognized quite distinctly is in architecture—but Hutcheon will come back to this.  First she is concerned with contextualizing her argument within intellectual discourses on postmodernism, showing that many critics have condemned postmodernism as something that is bereft of critical potential (she specifically points to the conceptions of postmodernism put forth separately by Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson).  For Hutcheon, however, there is critical potential in postmodern works because their use of parody, as she has said, causes the works to be both historical and political, the former of which directly contradicts the ideas about postmodernism according to Jameson.  She further shines her postmodernism through the lens of structuralism/poststructuralism “in an extension of the meaning of ‘language’” (25) which finally brings her to the subject of architecture.

Architecture is suggested as the way that identity was reestablished in Europe following the Second World War, and the use of historical architectural forms helped with that reestablishment.  Now, under postmodernity, “parodic revisitations of the history of architecture interrogate the modernist totalizing ideal of progress through rationality and purist form” (25).  Still, there is some suspicion that this kind of parody relegates postmodern architecture to the so-called “mass culture of late capitalism” (25), which is code for “low culture,” a level of distinction that postmodern art seems to subvert, if not simply ignore.  Thus, architecture, though it had began to look quite distinct from the high modern architecture around the 1970s, began to parody high modernism even as it utilized new styles (26).  At this point, Hutcheon sees the need to define her use of the word “parody,” that is, “repetition with critical distance that allows ironic signalling of difference at the very heart of similarity” (26).  This is to say, parody does not ridicule, but in fact allows for critique, once again because parody causes postmodern art to be both historical and political.

In the next section of the chapter, Hutcheon is interested in discussing how modernism in architecture actually sought to control the “users of the buildings” (27).  After all, as she points out, architecture is fundamentally social.  A loss of faith in this attitude, according to Hutcheon has produced that which we see in postmodern architecture.  Still, the parody inherent in postmodern architecture can challenge this loss (29-30).  In so doing, this period of architecture actually contains what might be characterized as utopian potential, for, as Hutcheon puts it, it “open[s] things up to the possibility of the new” (31).  One way this is evident is by the fact that postmodern architecture “urges us to be active, not passive, viewers” (32).

In the final section of the chapter, Hutcheon continues her discussion of how parody can ascribe critical potential to postmodern architecture.  Still, this potential can be “élitist, if the codes necessary for its comprehension are not shared by both encoder and decoder” (Hutcheon 34).  For this reason, architects might be preoccupied with assuring decoders are in the know, and they try to meet such an assurance via the parodying of classical forms of architecture that are familiar.  To conclude, Hutcheon writes that “postmodern architecture seems . . . to be paradigmatic of our seeming need, in both artistic theory and practice, to investigate the relation of ideology and power to all of our present discursive structures,” which is why she uses it throughout the book (36).

Commentaries Education

The Incompatiblity of Conservatism and Humanities

I recently found myself stating in one of my classes that conservative thought was inherently incompatible with humanistic inquiry and praxis. Though I offered a brief explanation of my  statement to my class, I felt that there was a need to further expound my statement and to trace the very geneology of my desire to express it.

What I mean by conservatism, of course, needs a bit of an explanation. To me conservative mode of thinking relies heavily on metaphysical and religious explanations of the real and presupposes, to a certain degree, that certain ideas, thoughts, and practices are a priori wrong, forbidden, or unacceptable. Such an approach to critical inquiry, thus, can very easily foreclose certain fields and modes of inquiry.

Thus, in a conservative mode humanities and humanistic practice would cease to be an open-ended questioning of truth and would have to rely on certain exclusionary practices that predecide the permissibility and impermissibility of certain thoughts and practices. This foreclosure, caused by assumptions and practices dictated by one’s religious or political presuppositions, would eventually end up making the conservative humanist to be selective in what to include as an object of study.

Such predecided exclusions, I believe, are against the very practice of an open-ended inquiry and the inclusionary practices that encourage us to think at the very limit of thought. To be effective, humanistic inquiry must not prejudge or exclude any possible avenue of inquiry and only a progressive and inclusive politics can enable us to do that.

And since conservatism depends on stable boundaries and exclusionary practices to maintain that stability, it is, therefore, an unsuitable politics for an open and more complex humanistic philosophy and praxis.

Commentaries Education

Ihab Hassan: Notes by Alex Hall and Caleb Berkemeier

(Note: These two entries were chosen as the two Best Journal Responses in my Graduate course on Postmodernism and are posted here with the authors’ permission. This entry should be read in conjunction with Postmodernism: Introductory Notes” and the  earlier entry on Ihab Hassan)

By Alex Hall

In “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism,” from Ihab Hassan’s /The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture/ (1987), Hassan attempts to outline a concept of postmodernism “by putting forth certain queries” (class handout 1), which are articulated in the very first paragraph of Hassan’s essay. To paraphrase the interests of each query, we might say that Hassan is interested in 1) the perceivable contrast between modernism and postmodernism, 2) whether the very term “postmoderism” is an apt title for that which comes after modernism, 3) whether we can even hope to coherently describe that which we then call “postmodernism,” 4) how postmodernism relates to high modernism, and 5) the complications inherent in an attempt to define postmodernism.

In a somewhat playful way, Hassan demonstrates the fragmentary nature of postmodernism by compiling a long list of names that might be associated with it, concluding that such a list hardly helps to organize the postmodern debate. Nevertheless, he does attempt to determine the history of the term, pointing to various uses he has discovered in history. Still, as Hassan notes, the very naming of a phenomenon such as postmodernism might be an attempt to apprehend its fragmentation—a taming of the beast akin to the power wizards have over the natural world in Ursula Le Guin’s /Earthsea/ novels. This brings up Hassan’s discussion of the “will and counter-will to intellectual power” (class handout 2), which is challenged by that inherent fragmentary nature of postmodernism to which I keep returning. If the phenomenon itself contains a fragmentary nature that we acknowledge while we discover our own failure to apprehend the “intellectual power” via reification of term/concept, then this brings up a chief component of postmodernism, which Hassan points out: self-reflexivity.

Hassan attempts to outline ten “conceptual problems that both conceal and constitute postmodernism itself” (class handout 3), which are thus linked to the self-reflexivity of postmodernism. I will not paraphrase them all here, for I am not summarizing the article so much as attempting to draw attention to some of its fundamentals. However, I do want to bring up a point that has struck me several times since class began. At the University of Arkansas, where I earned my Master’s degree, my advisor, Professor M. Keith Booker (who has between thirty and forty books in print on everything from science fiction and postmodern pop culture to African literature and Vargas Llosa), used to say (and this may have been him paraphrasing someone else) that any attempt to DO modernism would necessarily result in POSTmodernism. The reason I bring this up here is because Hassan is referring in the ten conceptual problems to self-reflexivity, and even notes that some authors may write both a modern and postmodern work. In one sense, he is referring to Joyce’s ability to sort of cross over. Still, I cannot help but wonder if there is some validity to the idea that an attempt to write a “modern” fiction would result in its inherent postmodernity precisely because of the self-reflexive intent?

In any case, Hassan next moves to outlining “three modes of artistic change in the last hundred years” (class handout 5)—avant-garde, modern, and postmodern—which leads him to the famous binary division chart between modernism and postmodernism that, while potentially problematic by its very binary nature, is at least useful as a start to thinking about the differences between the two. Still, Hassan sees it as necessary to explain his neologism—”indetermanence”—the tendency of which is the tendency of postmodernism (class handout 6). The term is explained as the fusion or “interplay” of two postmodern “tendencies”—”indeterminancy” and “immanence” (class handout 7). These two tendencies are explained to an extent by Hassan, but we might be well served to discuss them in class.

In the end, it seems that Hassan is as unsure about postmodernism as is everyone, though he does have some concrete ideas.

Works Cited

Hassan, Ihab. /The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture/. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press, 1987. Print.

By Caleb Berkemeier

In his brief yet illuminating essay “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism”, Ihab Hassan takes on the definitional problem of postmodernism—what is it, when did it begin, is it a disinterested and autonomous movement, or is it an interested construction of its adherents and practitioners? On the first page we are presented with a formidable list of these practitioners, many of whom differ widely with one another in theme and purpose and who, collectively, could not by name and particular theory alone constitute a postmodern paradigm. But what they can do is “evoke a number of related cultural tendencies, a constellation of values, a repertoire of procedures and attitudes” (1). This is the basic intent of Hassan’s essay—not to find a coherent articulation of postmodernism in the summation of particularized theories about postmodernism, but to demonstrate what he calls a “seachange” in the collective theme of those particularized theories that indicate a new paradigm.

A shift in paradigm is deeply historical in that it depends on what occurred or is occurring to determine what will occur. Hassan’s initial theory of history is that it “moves in measures both continuous and discontinuous” (1); that is, if postmodernism is in fact a reality of our social existence, this does not mean that institutions and traditions of the past cease to affect the present. In this practical sense, postmodernism is not ahistorical—it ranges over all literary and historical periods, appropriating what it finds in the past and, in the words of Linda Hutcheon, uses and abuses those modes in order to subvert the present system. And by this very act postmodernism proves its sense of history—if the past no longer functioned as a formative force in postmodernity, the postmodern appropriation and interested use of the past would be utterly irrelevant.

Major schools of thought and intellectual movements are subject to change or revision by posterity. If this were not so then, Hassan points out, history would be endlessly repetitive, lacking that essential quality of change that makes it history (1). The articulation of this revision takes us back to Hassan’s definitional problem of postmodernism, the question of its coming into existence as a result of interested construction. He says that there is a “will to power” in the articulation of postmodernism that depends on the “psychopolitics of academic life” that includes all of the arbitrary boundaries erected by those in power, all of the inclusive or exclusive theory and practice that is a support for and a manifestation of the current academic and social culture (2). Perhaps this might be a shocking revelation to some, that a literary or social movement could be an interested construction of those in power. But to assert this is not to revert to a childish vision of conspiratorial manipulation by a secretive oligarchy. Rather, it is to lay bare the workings of power and its pervasiveness, especially in scholarly fields where the assumption is that what is articulated is automatically disinterested. This is the project of theorists like Michel Foucault and Edward Said who insist that any intellectual product “must be situated. . . within the enunciative act itself, and. . . within the broader historical, social, and political (as well as intertextual) context implied by that act and in which both theory and practice take root” (Hutcheon 75). The questioning and undermining of the enunciative act and what it inaugurates is a staple of postmodernism. This is precisely why Hassan includes the politics of the postmodern movement in the essay—postmodernism itself cannot be exempt from this “situating” act. If it were exempt, Hassan points out, then its much vaunted self-reflexivity would be an empty, hypocritical concept.

But even beyond the initial politics of the movement itself, there are questions of postmodernism’s constitution that remain highly ambiguous or contentious—at least, there were in 1987 when Hassan wrote the essay. He says that opinions among scholars on the constituent elements of postmodernism remain diverse (e.g., postmodernism is the neo-avant-garde or an extension of modernism). But perhaps what was certainly true two decades ago is becoming less significant. After all, postmodernism is now an established field in the academic world; it has its own curriculum, its own anthologies. Even the binaristic list that Hassan provides (which we are not supposed to take literally) is an example of how postmodernism—or any literary movement—receives an official definition (problematical as it may remain), as well as a sense of normalization within the acceptable parameters of standard theory and pedagogical practice. The fact that there are now people who are looking for the next movement, a “post-postmodernism” in a sense, demonstrates the actual level of normalization that has occurred within postmodernism and that allows for this kind of speculation, marginalized though it may be.

Whatever postmodernism’s official standing is among scholars at present, some of the other problems that Hassan points out are still relevant. Hassan notes that the naming of this movement is peculiar because, unlike previous antagonistic movements like romanticism and classicism, the word ‘postmodernism’ carries within it the sign of its enemy, ‘modernism’. This sharing of the root word, although it can be seen as another manifestation of postmodernism’s logic of appropriation and subversion, does raise uncomfortable questions about postmodernism’s autonomy and legitimacy as an independent movement with its own, stand-alone artistic sensibility. Hassan says elsewhere that fixed boundaries between literary movements are always illusory, yet there still remains a nagging suspicion that there is something inauthentic about postmodernism. Again, this may be attributable to its own internal logic, and postmodernism would question the very grounds upon which a charge of inauthenticity is made, but Hassan considers it an obstacle, nonetheless.

Another problem is that of periodization, not just the placement of boundaries but the fact that any boundary that one might place on a literary movement is always inadequate to the task of creating a system of perfect confinement. This is because a “period” is both diachronic and synchronic; a single author can write a modernist work and postmodernist work within their lifetime (4). It is equally possible for the temporal order of modern and postmodern production to be reversed. Hassan gives the example of an older author like Kafka who produces a postmodern text while a younger one like Updike can produce a modernist text. Examples like this are enough to explode a simple view of postmodernism as a “period” which is why Hassan is always seeking to complicate the mode. His reconciliation of the high amount of diffusion across literary “boundaries” is “a four-fold vision of complementarities, embracing continuity and discontinuity, diachrony and synchrony” (4). This is, again, Hassan’s perspective on history that can yield transformations of institutions, systems, and traditions from both diachronic and synchronic registers. History and, therefore, literary movements do not have to develop exclusively from one or the other, from the past or present. Its development is heterogonous and can overcome the rigid logic of “periodization”.

From the problems of postmodernism, Hassan turns to what the essay is truly about—putting forth his own definition of what postmodernism is. He begins with a justification and a loose periodization of his own that, in his words, gratifies “the desire to apprehend our historical presence in noetic constructs that reveal our being to ourselves” (5). He makes a distinction between three artistic movements that have existed in the last one hundred years: the avant-garde, modernism, and postmodernism. The avant-garde are designated as “those movements that agitated the earlier part of our century” (5), including Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc. Hassan says these movements were an anarchic attack on the bourgeois social order, furious and politically engaged. In contrast, modernism was “more stable”, “aloof”, “hieratic”, and its literary products were “Olympian” in nature (5). In contrast to modernism comes postmodernism which is “playful, paratactical, and deconstructionist” (5). According to Hassan, the postmodern shares a common purpose with the avant-garde but is distinct in its aesthetic techniques and style.

Hassan’s primary constituent elements of the postmodern are indeterminacy and immanence, both of which are closely related and mutually reinforcing. Indeterminacy is a concept of “unmaking”, subsuming within itself all of the terms that denote a falling apart, “deconstruction”, “disintegration”, “displacement”, “decreation” (7). Applied to the various logics of an earlier historical and literary moment, these processes “[affect] the body politic, the body cognitive, the erotic body, the individual psyche-the entire realm of discourse in the West” (7). In the realm of literature the consequences are severe, bringing into question everything once held to be stable. Entities like the author, audience, book, and genre no longer have a determined meaning or value, and the presuppositions, conclusions, and methodology of writing and critical theory are no longer closed systems. A further consequence of the destruction of universalized values is a reorientation of our “noetic structures” away from a transcendent world to an immanent one. Immanence is “the capacity of mind to generalize itself in symbols” (7), a way in which we can think about ourselves and our world without turning to models that exceed our materiality. Hassan explains it as a way of becoming according to our environment (7).

In a fitting conclusion, Hassan ends with a contradiction in the postmodern condition. On the one hand, postmodernism is characterized by an open and playful method and tone, even in its subversion of its appropriated forms and contents. And yet there seems to be an “antithetical movement” within postmodernism that sustains “pervasive procedures, ubiquitous interactions, immanent codes, media, languages” (8). Our world—while undergoing what Hassan calls “planetization” and “transhumanization”—is simultaneously experiencing a move toward “sects, tribes, [and] factions of every kind” (8). Again, we have come to a conclusion about postmodernism that is paradoxical, but it is a paradox with a positive signification since (according to Hassan, Hutcheon, and Cahoone) it is in the contradiction itself that postmodernism finds its highest value. And, indeed, there is value to be found in the deconstruction of rigid moral systems that are founded on exclusionary theory and practice. But what if the deconstruction of those systems does not provide enough compensation for what it might be secondarily destroying—the solidarity of the human race? This question is an allusion to the Marxist critique and, up to this point, remains unsatisfied.

Works Cited

Hassan, Ihab. The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press, 1987.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Poetics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Commentaries Education

An Interview with Fayyaz Baqir, Director Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center, Pakistan

Fayyaz Baqir

Interview contributed by Maggie Ronkin, Georgetown University

Q1. Could you share a brief history of the kind of work you did before joining the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center?
In 1968, I joined the struggle for social change in Pakistan as a campus activist at Punjab University, Lahore. I hailed from an extremely conservative religious family in Multan and my father was Ameer of Jamaa’t Islami Multan (an extreme right wing religious political party). He taught me to be rational, disciplined, honest, and hard working. However, my compassion for the downtrodden and sinners urged me to seek new avenues for serving humanity. At the age of 17, I turned into a fire brand communist and organized the largest left wing students’ organization in the Punjab, which was known as the Nationalist Students Organization. I was its Chief Convener in early 1970s. Soon after graduating from the University, I joined the South Asian Institute and chose research and teaching as my career. In 1979, Pakistan’s popular elected Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by the military dictator General Zia ul Haq. After Bhutto’s death, several cases were registered against me in different police stations of the Punjab on charges of sedition, inciting people to rebellion, and disturbing law and order. The police raided various places to arrest me, and they locked up my brother when they failed to find me.

I went into self exile in 1980 and lived in North America for the next seven years. During this period, I gradually got disillusioned with Marxist politics. My stay in North America enriched my life and understanding of human potential, but my thirst for finding the truth kept me restless. In spite of my intense and short-lived love affairs with socialism, capitalism, and other contemporary rationalist ideologies I always thought there was something missing in all these ideologies. There was something wrong in their assessment of human potential. In 1986, I happened to meet a Sufi teacher and my life changed forever. Sufism is based on sound understanding of human limitations and brings into play human potential through love, compassion, tolerance, and infinite faith in Allah’s mercy. Sufis kindle the light of hope in the lives of the wretched of earth. Sufi thinking is nicely captured in a statement of the great Sufi Master Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilani. Shaikh once was asked that if his good disciples will go to paradise, what will happen to his bad disciples. The Shaikh replied, “My good disciples love me and I love my bad disciples.” Akhter Hameed Khan followed the same thinking in working for social change. Through his love, wisdom, and knowledge, he lit up thousands of hearts with the glow of hope, self confidence, self pride, and passion for change.

Q.2 Can you briefly discuss the Center’s mission and its major accomplishments.

The Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center (AHKRC) in Islamabad is a repository of knowledge on rural development and poverty alleviation. It was established to commemorate the life-long services of the great development activist Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan. The Center’s main objectives are to accumulate, generate, and disseminate research-based knowledge for policy advocacy with the government, influence public opinion, create reading materials for higher education, and assist policy makers and CSOs  (Civil Society Organizations) in future programming.

The principal objective of the AHKRC is to promote a macro and micro level understanding of the causes and processes of change in the rural areas of the south in general and in Pakistan in particular. The purposes of stressing this objective are to promote the use of such understanding to develop and/or support rural development initiatives and programmes; to influence government, donor, media, and NGO policies; and to facilitate necessary human resource development to make all this possible.

AHKRC is supporting the International Islamic University (IIU) in running a masters’ degree Programme on Rural Development, and the Director of AHKRC is represented on IIU’s Board of Studies. Recently, AHKRC also formed a unique partnership with Maggie Ronkin at Georgetown University and Nadeem Akbar, Islamabad Director of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, to create a videoconferenced summer course for US-based undergraduates on Justice and Peace in Pakistan in 2010.

AHKRC has started a research group to support the work of leading scholars from local universities who seek to understand and analyze development programmes led by development icons from Pakistan. The goals achieved by the support will include reviewing literature on the programmes; formulating research questions in consultation with practitioners; consolidating and analyzing existing data and collecting additional data in light of the research questions; undertaking comparisons with similar programmes, and anchoring the research process in the field.

AHKRC facilitated the publication of Shoaib Sultan Khan’s book “Aga Khan Rural Support Programme: A Journey through Grass Roots Development” and the Urdu translation of “Rural Development in Pakistan” by Oxford University Press in 2009 and 2010. The Center plans to publish a volume commemorating Dr. Khan’s remarkable intellectual, social, and literary achievements and “RSPs–Growth and Change” by Mahmood Hassan Khan in 2010. The Director and AHKRC-affiliated scholars are widely published in national and international research journals. The Director received UNDP’s award for being one of the ten most prolific contributors to the Global Poverty Reduction Network in 2008 and 2009.

Q3. What prompted you to this kind of work?

Pakistan allocates much less of its GDP to social development than do other countries at the same level of income. A large part of this modest budget is not even spent during each financial year. The amount which is spent produces much lower results than its potential. This low performance is not due to lack of resources. It is caused by the lack of administrative infrastructure below the district level, the disconnect between the socio-economic reality of the poor and technical solutions of the formal sector, and the progressive deterioration of the government’s planning capacity. There is no social infrastructure below the district level to fill the gap caused by the absence of administrative infrastructure.

However, during the past 25 years, some very innovative experiments by CSOs have created the possibility of replicating their successful experiments by government and NGOs on a large scale. This, in turn, has produced the need to create a repository of knowledge on sustainable social development. I believe deeply in the effectiveness of discourses of knowledge in solving human problems, which cannot be handled by discourses of power. AHKRC offered me the opportunity to undertake this work. The opportunity, in fact, is why I resigned from a position with the UN and joined AHKRC.

Q4. Are there any particular experiences that you would like to share with our readers?

From my school days, I grew up with friends who belonged to the working class–sons of street vendors, donkey cart drivers, bicycle mechanics, wood cutters, and domestic servants. Most of them were very bright, hard working, intelligent, and well behaved. As I started moving to higher levels of study, many began to drop out of school because they had to help their parents earn a living. It made me very sad at that time and it makes me sad even now. The motivation to turn life around has been with me since. However, my Sufi teachers as well Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan made me realize that profound and meaningful change begins with self-change. The importance of this teaching is ignored by most revolutionary and political ideologies. All authoritarian and extremist ideologies overlook this truth and use enormous force to “change” others. That gives rise to intolerance, violence, and extremism. I was attracted to the work of Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan because it helps me to be what I am. He taught people humility, simplicity, hard work, patience, love, and care through his personal example.

Q5. How did you get involved in the course on Justice and Peace in Pakistan?

Maggie Ronkin

I met Maggie Ronkin through Nadeem Akbar last year, and she shared her vision of starting a course to open channels of communication between undergraduates on North American campuses and Pakistani civil society. This idea touched my heart. The need to do away with stereotyping by means of both Pakistani and American images is equally important. Pakistan is an amazing melting pot like the USA, and both societies need to understand each other well. Pakistan is a very diverse, vibrant, and complex country brimming with talent. It has a rich cultural heritage and has been at the crossroads of many civilizations–Arab, Persian, Chinese, Central Asian, European, and Hindu. Pakistanis’ broad mindedness, hospitality, and enormous capacity to assimilate positive external influences is not widely known in the Western world. The commercialization and sensationalism of the media has largely strengthened and perpetuated negative stereotyping of Pakistanis. This has severely hampered the potential for meaningful interaction between Pakistanis and people in other parts of the world. Not only is this Pakistan’s loss; it is the loss of the entire global community. We must make efforts to change the situation in both nations’ schooling, because reducing human choices for interaction reduces human freedom.

Please visit our website on Justice and Peace in Pakistan at and spread the word about our summer course!