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My Interview by The Pakistani Spectator, By Amna Gilani

Posted below is the text of my recent interview with The Pakistani Spectator. Please do visit their site and support them.

Interview with Blogger Masood Ashraf Raja

Would you please tell us something about you and your site?

Well, I am an assistant professor of postcolonial literature at the University of North Texas. [More on my bio here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masood_Ashraf_Raja]. My main blog is called The Pakistan Forum (http://thepakistanforum.net), which I had created as an extension of Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies, an academic journal that I edit: http://pakistaniaat.org. The purpose then, and now, was to write about current issues related to Pakistan.

The Pakistan Forum was originally launched as a WordPress blog and I used the free blogging software provided by WordPress, but I soon moved on to a self-hosted platform and the blog transformed from a single author blog to a multi-author blog about all things Pakistan. I must admit that it was the layout and content of TPS that encouraged me to move to a self-hosted multi author blog.
I’m wondering what some of your memorable experiences are with blogging?

Well, our blog has covered some really important stories. Personally, one blog entry that got the most attention was the one that we published on silencing of a Hunger Strike Story (Hunger strike by Raja Jahangir Akhtar) by GEO TV: http://www.thepakistanforum.net/2011/09/17/geo-tvs-shameful-silence-on-the-hunger-strike/.

Another story that we are really proud of is about a fake Pakistani scientist whose claims to fame were thoroughly refuted by a sort of investigative journalism that was not really performed by the mainstream Pakistani media: http://www.thepakistanforum.net/2011/02/19/the-strange-case-of-a-renowned-pakistani-scientist/

Besides these few example, I think the long term impact of our blog has been to provide a platform to generate discussions about contemporary Pakistan by publishing writings of some prominent and some emerging writers from Pakistan.

If you had to describe life as a blogger in a Twitter message (140 characters) what would you say?

Blog, write, and challenge the normalized assertions of mainstream media.

What do you think sets Your site apart from others?

I think there are many aspects of our blog that set us apart. The first and the foremost is the quality of the writings contributed by our writers. We have prominent scholars, academics, journalists, and young writers as our regular contributors. This automatically enhances the intellectual depth of our content.

A second important thing that sets us apart is our editorial policies. We edit all our blog entries to perfection, so most of our blog entries are sometimes even better edited than some major newspapers in Pakistan.

We also moderate all our comments and make sure that the level of discourse remains fair and civil without harming the level of discussion. We, however, do not allow any comments that do not adhere to our stipulated policy of civil discourse.

But most of all, I would, say it is our fair and non-sensational account of all things Pakistan that sets us apart.

If you could choose one characteristic you have that brought you success in life, what would it be?

Compassion.

What was the happiest and gloomiest moment of your life?

Well, the happiest is easy: when I met my wife. The gloomiest period, probably, was when I left Pakistan for the US in 1996 and was not yet sure what to do with my life.

If you could pick a travel destination, anywhere in the world, with no worries about how it’s paid for – what would your top 3 choices be?

Kalash valley

Srinagar

Kabul
What is your favorite book and why?

Garcia Mqrquez’sOne Hundred Years of Solitude. I love this book because of its style, magic realism, and because of the way it transports you to a sort of different world.

How bloggers can benefit from blogs financially?

I am not sure how to answer this as I have not benefitted much financially. But I think if one becomes a successful blogger, or if a blog is successful, there could be wider financial benefits. In my case, for example, because of the blog and the visibility that it brings me, I was recently contracted by a major publisher to write a book about Pakistan.

What role can bloggers of the world play to make this world more friendlier and less hostile?

I think we all can do this by constantly challenging normalized hierarchies and by giving voice to all those who are silenced by power.

Who are your top five favourite bloggers?

Well my top two are Juan Cole’s Informed Comment (http://www.juancole.com/) and The Pakistani Spectator.

Is there one observation or column or post that has gotten the most powerful reaction from people?

Yes, one of my blogs about my reflections on my Army life seemed to have gotten a lot of attention from all quarters: http://www.thepakistanforum.net/2011/05/26/reflections-on-army-life/
Have you ever become stunned by the uniqueness of any blogger?

I find Juann Cole’s writings pretty stunning.

What is the future of blogging?

I think blogging has now become and will continue to be the most important challenge to entrenched interests of the mainstream media.

You have also got a blogging life, how has it directly affected both your personal and professional life?

I think blogging has enhanced my professional reach and has had no negative effect on my personal life.

What are your future plans?

I plan to continue writing and to continue challenging the normalized systems. Most importantly, I want to focus on challenging the blanket assertions of all kinds of fundamentalisms.

Any Message you want to give to the readers of The Pakistani Spectator?

Please continue reading and writing. The future of Pakistan belongs to you and it will turn out to be the way you shape it. So, write, question, and challenge everything.

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Write for US

Now that we have transformed our blog into a multi-author, newspaper-like format, we would love for you to contribute your work. You can either email us your writings (pakistaniaat@gmail.com) or register with the website as a contributor and upload your content directly.

Our Topics of Interest:

Pakistani Politics and Current Affairs

Pakistani Culture, History, and Stories

Pakistan-Related Announcements

Why Share your Work:

We believe that Pakistan is at a very critical juncture right now and it is imperative on us to foreground and showcase the progressive, enlightened, and inclusive voices of Pakistani intellectuals and writers. So please contribute, pass the word, and place our link on your websites and blogs.

Let us work together to fight the forces of intolerance and hate that seem to have claimed the Pakistani public sphere.

In Solidarity,

Editors, Pakistaniaat Forum

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Abstracts From Pakistaniaat Vol 2, No 3 (2010)

The first special issue of Pakistaniaat, edited by Dr. Cara Cilano, has now been pblished. Provided below are the abstracts of four wonderful articles inclduded in this issue.

Please support the journal through online/Print subscriptions or by purchasing some print copies.

Abstracts

The Break-Up of Pakistan

Philip Oldenburg
Essay traces what the author identifies as the four phases of the 1971 conflict:  the initiation of military hostilities in March 1971; Kissinger’s visit to Peking; the war with India at the end of that year; and the transfer of power to Mujib.

The Birth of Bangladesh/Nefarious Plots and Cold War Sideshows

Roger Vogler
This Paper examines, from the perspective of an American architect living and working in India at the time, many of the events and circumstances that led to the destruction in 1971 of Pakistan as it had originally ben constituted 24 years before.  Among these were the enormous geographic challenges faced from Pakistan’s inception, its deep-seated ethnic incompatibilities, its huge economic imbalances and rampant political egos, and a devastating typhoon.  The paper also explores the tragic human consequences of an American foreign policy that could only see these events and circumstances through a prism of Cold War hatred and suspicion.

Superpower Relations, Backchannels, and the Subcontinent

Luke A. Nichter, Richard A. Moss
In his 1978 memoirs, President Nixon claimed, “By using diplomatic signals and behind-the-scenes pressures we had been able to save West Pakistan from the imminent threat of Indian aggression and domination. We had also once again avoided a major confrontation with the Soviet Union.”[1] Kissinger’s far more detailed chapter on “the tilt,” in the first volume of his memoirs, White House Years, complements and largely corroborates Nixon’s. Kissinger argued that Nixon did not want to “squeeze Yahya” and tried to put forward a neutral posture to the bloodshed in East Pakistan so as not to encourage secessionist elements within an ally, Pakistan, which was divided into two wings over 1,000 miles apart astride India.[2] Above all, before his secret trip to China in July 1971, Kissinger wanted to preserve the special channel to the P.R.C., and he saw three obstacles to handling the situation in South Asia: “the policy of India, our own public debate, and the indiscipline of our bureaucracy.” Kissinger stressed that the U.S. attempted to restrain India by making clear American opposition to Indo-Pakistani conflict and attempting to force the Soviet Union to control their ally, India. Nevertheless, the two South Asian countries marched towards conflict following a string of natural disasters in East Pakistan—later the independent nation of Bangladesh, an election loss for Pakistan President Yahya Khan to Mujib Rahman, and Yahya’s subsequent crackdown in East Pakistan against Bangladeshi independence.

Pakistani-Chinese Relations: An Historical Analysis of the Role of China in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971

Mavra Farooq

The purpose of this essay is to bring into focus the cordial relations that existed between Pakistan and China during the Bhutto Era from 1969 to 1977, and to highlight the role of China during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971.

Both countries had different ideologies and backgrounds. Relations between the two countries developed on the basis of national interest rather than ideology. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto writes:

States deal with states, as such, and not with their social systems or ideologies. If such an argument was carried to its logical conclusion, Pakistan should have friendly relations only with Muslim states and should isolates itself from the rest of the world. It is a historical fact that Islam, as a political force, has suffered more at the hands of Christian states than of others… It is unlikely that China is going to be responsible for the fall of Granada or Pakistan or for wrestling of Jerusalem from the Muslim States. Our reactions are based on the Bandung principles and on the adherence to the concept of non-interference. Nowhere is it mentioned in the scriptures of Islam that fostering friendship with non-Islamic states involves a compromise of identity.1.

This research article undertakes a historical, analytical and documented study of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s foreign relations and politics with China with the goal of explaining how and why Pakistan had friendly and cordial relations with China. The main question is if both countries have different ideologies why are they so close to each other? In international relations, there is neither a permanent friend nor enemy; interests are preferred.

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Our Thanks to Jason W. Ellis, Our Outgoing Layout Editor

As we approach the publication of Pakistaniaat’s fifth issue, I am also beginning to realize what a loss it would be when Jason W. Ellis, our layout editor, leaves our editorial team at the end of this year. Those of you who have published with us or have downloaded, printed, or viewed our content should know that the professional look and wonderful layout of our articles was all because of Jason’s diligent work.

When I decided to launch Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies in January, 2009, Jason was the first person I asked to join our team. Although I had never seen him use any layout software, I had a feeling that he would be perfect for the job. As he had taken a course with me the previous year, I was absolutely certain about his dedication to scholarship and service and his habit of paying great attention to details. However, what made him the ideal candidate for the role of the layout editor was the fact that I had often seen him working with a Macbook Pro, a Black Macbook Pro!!. So, when it came to courting a potential layout editor, this guy using a sleek, sexy, and powerful machine seemed perfect. Thankfully, Jason honored my request and took on the role of our layout editor.

During his two years of service to the journal, Jason has taught me quite a few lessons, but what I admire the most about him and have tried to emulate is his habit of resolving problems (technical or other) through a reasoned and logical approach. I will always be indebted to Jason for teaching me this kind of patience.

During his stay with us, Jason has produced five online as well as print issues and has made galleys for more than a hundred long and short articles. To be precise, Jason has prepared (in two formats) more than 1400 pages for Pakistaniaat, created our header, developed our Layout Templates, and also prepared all of our five print issues. And, this is important, he has done all this voluntarily while also carrying a full class load as a Ph.D. candidate at Kent State University. [1. Those of you interested in Jason’s other work should visit his blog: Dynamic Subspace.]

So, here it is from all  of us at Pakistaniaat: “Live long and Prosper.”

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Commentaries

The scapegoating of Muslims

Published in Viewpoint, October 22, 2010

It is no secret that the right wing pundits and politicians in the United States have always used simplistic and reductive framing of issues to appeal to the emotions and fears of the American public. In his book Moral Politics (U of Chicago P, 2002), George Lakoff explains how this kind of public framing relies on mobilization of certain specific stereotypes. One strategy, often used by the right wing politicians and pundits in the United States, involves the use of a social stereotype “for making snap judgments—judgments without reflective thought—about an entire category, by virtue of suggesting that the stereotype is the typical case” (Lakoff 10). This is precisely what is being done to the American Muslims by some stalwarts of the Republican Party: labeling and judgments about Muslims without reflection being offered as simple statements of truth.

Another important aspect of the immediate history of the right wing American politics is that their policies and pronouncements are often made against the most powerless and weak social groups: gays and lesbians, minorities, single mothers, the homeless, and the immigrants. As the mid-term elections approach, it seems as if the Republicans have decided to frame the American Muslims—immigrants and citizens—as the ultimate threat to the interests of the United States. The statements being made about the Muslims and Islam in the recent few weeks should not be seen as random thoughts of a few whacko politicians: as political research shows, there is never anything random about the talking points of the American right. Listed below is a sample of what has been said and declared by various prominent figures from the American right:

Sharon Angle (Nevada Republican senatorial candidate)

We’re talking about a militant terrorist situation, which I believe isn’t a widespread thing. But it is enough that we need to address, and we have been addressing it. My thoughts are these. First of all, Dearborn, Michigan, and Frankford, Texas, are on American soil, and under Constitutional law. Not sharia law. And I don’t know how that happened in the United States. (Cited from salon.com

Rex Duncan (Oklahoma State Senator)

In order to protect America from international law or the Sharia law, Rex Duncan. Another republican, wants to introduce a “Save our State” a ballot measure that is, in his words “is a pre-emptive strike to make sure that liberal judges don’t take to the bench in an effort to use their position to undermine” undermine the US laws by admitting interntional or sharia law. (Cited from The Reaction

Newt Gingrich, Republican Presidential hopeful in 2012

We should have a federal law that says Sharia law cannot be recognized by any court in the United States,” Gingrich told an audience at the Values Voter Summit in D.C. last month. He wants the law to stipulate that, “no judge will remain in office [who] tried to use Sharia law. (Cited from The Daily Beast)

These are not just isolated statements by desperate politicians: this is, rather, a sophisticated framing of American Muslims—immigrant and citizen alike—as an internal threat offered in various guises at numerous right wing venues. While president Bush had at least made it a point to isolate the September eleven terrorists as individuals who had perpetuated a wrong against Americans, the current drive of the conservative media (Fox news, for example) and the extreme right wing of the Republican party have no problem in conflating the terrorists and the common Muslims. As a powerless group, forming only one percent of the US population, Muslims are probably the only demographic that can be easily demonized without much public resentment or political cost, especially if all Muslims are presented as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.

This anti-Muslim turn in the US conservative circles should not be seen as an end in itself. We should read it through the insights provided by Lakoff about framing, for the purpose of these statements is to suggest that the Muslim stereotype is the real identity of Muslims in America as well as in the rest of the world. Framing, Lakoff also suggests, is not a random act. In fact, representatives of right wing pressure groups meet once a month to haggle and decide the issues of the month that need to be talked about. After certain issues are chosen, then all branches of the US conservative movement, Fox News being their main media outlet, start repeating the selected issues in a wider frame. The purpose, of course, is to create an issue out of a non-issue (like the Shriah law in the US) and to posit their opponents as weak on the chosen issue. The Muslims-as-a-threat frame is not just about the Muslims; in fact it is an isntrumentalization of Muslims for the short-term gains in the mid-term elections.

By presenting all Muslims as a problem, the Republicans hope to “create” an issue and then blame their opponents for not being strident, sanguine, or tough against the “Muslim threat.” Thus, even when the Democrats or other liberal groups attempt to separate the Muslim terrorist groups from common Muslims, they tend to sound weak and unclear, for a complex view of any situation tends to come across as wobbly in a climate of reductive opinions informed by media bite statements.

The American Muslims cannot respond to this conservative onslaught by pointing out the absurdity of these claims: those making these claims know that what they are saying is a lie. What the American Muslims need to do is to build a long-term political strategy that makes it impossible for anyone to issue blanket racist and bigoted statements about them. This strategy must involve an informed response in the semiotic arena by the Muslim scholars, critics, and journalists and mobilization of larger political solidarity amongst American Muslims. The devout Muslims in the US tend to vote Republican because of their conservative leanings; but this is a vote against their own interests. The American Muslims should build a strong coalition of voters who are well informed about the American party politics and then attempt to create lateral alliances with other disenfranchised groups so as to become a viable political block. In a time when Muslims are constantly put on the defensive by the vitriolic and bigoted claims of the conservative media and conservative politicians, the need to be politically active is far greater and silence is not an option.

The American Muslims cannot also just leave their own representation in the hands of a few misinformed Mullahs who neither have the training nor the cross-cultural expertise to really represent the diverse nature of Islam in America. Just as the attack on Muslims is orchestrated by the right and is continuous and persistent, the Muslim voice in the American public sphere must also be continuous and consistent and all acts of semiotic or political aggression against the Muslims must be countered with a balanced but persistent counter discourse.

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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:))

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Announcements Commentaries Culture Politics

The Floods in Pakistan: Short Interview with Fayyaz Baqir, Director Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center

The Floods in Pakistan
Short Interview with Fayyaz Baqir, Director
Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center
Islamabad, August 20, 2010

Maggie Ronkin
ronkinm@georgetown.edu

Donor link: http://www.rspn.org/news/flood.html

1. What regions of Pakistan and sectors of the population are affected most by the tragic flooding?

Vast swaths of land in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (previously the Northwest Frontier Province), Southern Punjab (the Siraiki region of the Punjab), Sindh, and Balochistan have been devastated by the recent floods. These floods are considered to be the worst in the entire world during the past hundred years. It is not an exaggeration that fifteen million families have been rendered homeless, and hundreds of thousands of homes have been wiped off the face of the earth. Hundreds of villages are no more. Standing crops over thousands of acres, cattle, infrastructure, and productive assets of millions of families have been lost due to flooding. A woman from a very well off and respected family of a rural district contacted by phone said “Everything is gone. We are beggars”. Scores of women from small farm and landless families burst into tears when asked about their plight. “There is no food, no water, no medicine, no help” most of them narrated. If they do not receive assistance soon, they may reach the point where they think that there is “no hope”. Such a situation will add another dimension to the crisis because desperate minds are fertile ground for militants. This is a great humanitarian crisis to which the world’s conscience needs to respond. The scale of this tragedy is so enormous that the country’s entire population is reeling in shock.

2. What does the devastation in Pakistan look like to you on the ground?

Thousands of human settlements are under ten or fifteen-foot deep water. Dead cattle can be found everywhere. Innumerable people are stranded in areas surrounded by water. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, children, and elderly people who managed to move out of their houses leaving behind their assets accumulated over a life time have squatted along the roads. Tents are in extremely short supply, so the homeless sit under the burning sun without any shade to cover their heads. They often seem overwhelmed and unable to decide what to do. There are shortages of food, safe drinking water, and medicine. Whenever food arrives, scrambling for it leads to scuffles, and inevitably, the poor, weak, and households headed by women are hurt the most. There is no organized, visible, and dependable government assistance available.

3. What can be done to counter “donor fatigue” and the perception that indigenous aid organizations are untrustworthy?

Please be assured that the media are underestimating the resilience, resourcefulness, and capacity of the people to cope with the disaster due to the presence of hundreds of formal and informal institutions and mechanisms that help people on a day-to-day basis. Credible, effective, and trustworthy actors certainly abound. They include philanthropists, NGOs, custodians of shrines, voluntary associations, government agencies, and, yes, the army. Some politicians also have played very active and constructive roles in reaching out to people. All tiers of the government cannot be trusted and government cannot reach out everywhere given the enormous scale of this tragedy.

Two factors are key here. One is that DCOs, those in charge of districts, enjoy much less power, respect, and authority than did their predecessors, the Deputy Commissioners (DCs). Therefore, they are much less effective. Another is that elected local government officials were released from their jobs a few months ago. New local elections were not held because the ruling parties in each province wanted elections when they could achieve “favourable” results. Establishing links among doers, donors, and communities in need is the most important step. It is not transparency of government and relief assistance alone but sharing of information in general that is most critical. We need information gathering, analysis, packaging, and dissemination through electronic, print, and verbal means in a big way. Mainstream and alternative media have to play active roles to build links and trust. Once trust and links are established, donor fatigue will go away.

4. In what areas is need greatest this week (e.g., shelter, food, medicine, etc.)? In what areas will need be greatest a month and three months from now?

As images circulated across the globe show, affected people and communities have lost everything. The greatest need this week is for tents, food, water, and medicine. One to three months from now the need will be greatest for productive assets like seed, cattle, ploughing instruments, water pumps to drain out trapped water, building materials, and credit.

A package to meet the basic food requirements of a family of 5-7 people includes 20 kg flour, 5 kg sugar, 5 kg oil, 1 kg tea, 5 kg pulses and lentils, 3 kg dry milk, and a few boxes of matches. It meets a family’s food needs for one week and costs Rs. 3200 (US $38). This is the cost of 5 lunches on the go in the USA. Millions of families need help. However, even making a donation to help a single family is like lighting a candle.

5. What can US-based educators do to best represent and encourage interest in the tremendous challenges now faced by ordinary Pakistanis?

Please link up with credible charities, NGOs, and autonomous government departments. Disseminate information on effective local actors to donors, volunteers, and technical experts who can help the affected communities, and raise and disburse funds. One way to identify effective local organizations is through the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP). The PCP accredits NGOs in a thorough and rigorous process, and a list of accredited NGOs is displayed on their website. Another way to identify credible organizations is through the UNOCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It has a district and function-wise list of credible NGOs in the field.) The World Bank-supported multi-million dollar Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) is another source for finding credible partners. Their partners are well scrutinized and selected after a careful appraisal process. Last and not least is the National Centre for Human Development (NCHD), which is headed by a former civil society activist and media professional who is highly respected for her competence, integrity, and commitment to the downtrodden.

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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.

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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).

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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.