Friday, August 15, 2008

DARWISH APPRECIATION AT DEMOCRACY NOW

Lead for the August 11, 2008 installment of Democracy Now: a careful and moving appreciation of Mahmoud Darwish. Amy Goodman in conversation with two Darwish translators — Iraqi poet Sinan Antoon and Palestinian-American physician and poet Fady Joudah.

Monday, August 11, 2008

THIS CAN'T BE THE PMLA

The current issue of PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association) is just extraordinary. More often than not, when the journal comes in I might find an article or two of some interest, but this issue — most of it given to essays on academia's responsibility to men and women in prison — is simply powerful. The editor's introduction to the feature:

America's prisons and jails house more than two million inmates. At least half the prisoners released in 2008 are likely to be returned to "correctional" facilities by 2010.... What is the academy's responsibility to the men, women, and children who live behind bars? What is it's responsibility to those who are released?

A surprisingly large number of essays follow the editor's introduction addressing a wide range of prison-related issues: Jonathan Shailor's "When Muddy Flowers Bloom: The Shakespeare Project at Racine Correctional Institution", H. Bruce Franklin's "Can the Penitentiary Teach the Academy How to Read?", Avery F. Gordon's "Methodologies of Imprisonment", Tanya Erzen's "Religious Literacy in the Faith-Based Prison", Megan Sweeney's "Books as Bombs: Incendiary Reading Practices in Women's Prisons", Jean Trounstine's "Beyond Prison Education", Robert P. Waxler's "Changing Lives through Literature", Ruby C. Tapia's "Profane Illuminations: The Gendered Problematics of Critical Carceral Visualities", Jody Lewen's "Academics Belong in Prison: On Creating a University at San Quentin", Ronald B. Herzman's "Attica Educations: Dante in Exile", and Larry E. Sullivan's "'Prison Is Dull Today': Prison Libraries and the Irony of Pious Reading".

And those essays not immediately concerned with the relation of the academy to the prison industrial complex are just as electric, particularly Malcolm Read's introduction to Juan Carlos Rodriguez's Althusser: Blowup (Lineaments of a Different Thought):

Nothing is more remarkable in the tradition of Althusserian Marxism than the silence that has dogged the work of Juan Carlos Rodriguez. One thinks of the relative importance attached to the work of Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson. Some might believe the discrepancy is a matter of merit rather than willful or unconscious neglect.

Naturally Read argues the matter is one of neglect, but this neglect is not unconscious:

Given the militancy of the working class in Spain, his [Rodriguez's] presiding categories were those of exploitation and class conflict, which combine to form the basis of a revolutionary proletarian politics that is anything but acceptable to the North American academy.

Agree or disagree, this introduction to Althusser: Blowup brings to us a Spanish theorist most, like myself, were not previously familiar with. It's quite astonishing and certainly easy to forget how different contexts demand different strategies and insist on different theoretical models, allowing figures like Althusser — long abandon by American activists and academics — to be of use to someone like Rodriguez, a theorist situated in a markedly different social formation:

Rodriguez's ability to move toward and beyond positions occupied by Althusser has much to do with his exposure to Spain's "backwardness," not to mention to the realities of fascism. In such circumstances he was able to combine a knowledge of feudalism not commonly found in European scholars, whether bourgeois or Marxist, with a comparatively comprehensive knowledge of bourgeois culture.

While the work of Immanuel Wallerstein and other World Systems theorists (inasmuch as they speak globally to a global situation) is seductive it seems important to remember that such meta-theories also speak for the world. Read's take on Rodriguez here seems to suggest otherwise. Read seems to suggest that Rodriguez's approach — like that of Gramsci — is more tactical than theoretical, engineered to respond to a particular situation at a specific moment in time.

Essays closing the issue include "The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound: The 2006 MLA Presidential Forum" — a two part essay by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin, a follow up to the workshops and talks given at the MLA's 2006 convention.

Unfortunately the journal is made available only to members of the MLA and those libraries (largely university) that subscribe to the journal. Anyone currently enrolled in a college or university should have access to it through their libraries. Anyone not enrolled can simply view a copy at the nearest college library — either way, your tax dollars pay.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

MAHMOUD DARWISH (1942 - 2008)

Hugo Garcia Manriquez sent out a message to the Poetics List shortly after the Associated Press announced that Mahmoud Darwish passed away at a hospital in Houston yesterday evening. AP reported:

Darwish died at a hospital in Houston following complications from an open heart surgery, according to Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Darwish is the world's most recognized Palestinian poet and became a Palestinian cultural icon. He was a vocal critic of both the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian leadership.

His poetry is considered to have given voice to the Palestinian experience of exile, occupation and infighting. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages and has won many international prizes.


Passages from State of Siege, which Pierre Joris carried into English from Elias Sanbar's translation, are quite powerful, the poem a 90-page work first written when Darwish was holed up in Ramallah in January, 2002:


no homeric echo here.
the legends knock on our doors when we need them.
no homeric echo of anything whatsoever...
here, a general is searching for a state that sleeps
under the rubble of a Troy that is yet to come.


In Spring of 2006 I had the honor of including a small handful of Darwish poems in the fourth issue of Damn the Caesars' first volume, the work carefully translated by Rick London and Omnia Amin. These poems — with others previously published in Bombay Gin, Poetry Flash and Viz — were later brought out under the title Now, As You Awaken through Roger Snell's Sardines Press in an elegant edition of 200. The entire collection was then uploaded to the Big Bridge website.

There is one poem in the collection which, like the fragment above, concerns itself with the Homeric, the relation of war and the nation to epic or, more broadly, cultural production. There seems for Darwish to be little distance between poetry, the shifting borders of nations and the constant, unrelenting rhythms of war. But the site of conflict itself seems to become the site of a void, such that conflict, which is the very thing that would produce an epic poetry of nation in the Homeric tradition, discloses something which refuses or negates poetries of nation and war. These are moments of pause, gaps created through conflict which compel an evacuation of representation. It is the moment of contemplative silence after the roar of wreckage — a moment when "Homeric echo" gives way to "Homeric pause":

No flag flutters in the wind,
no horse floats in the wind,
no drums accompany the rise and fall of waves...
Nothing happens in tragedies today...
The curtain is drawn, both poets and audience
have left — there are no cedars or processions,
no olive branches to greet those coming by boat,
weary from nosebleed and the lightness
of the final act, as if passing from one fate
to another, a fate written beyond the text,
a woman of Greece playing the part
of a woman of Troy, as easily white as black,
neither broken nor exalted, and no one asks:
"What will happen in the morning?"
"What comes after this Homeric pause?"

Just as for Adorno there is no lyric poetry after Auschwitz, the hold epic poetry has over the imagination (include in this tradition: Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Jarhead) is negated by the very work of war which gives rise to epic imagination. The Homeric has always been the heroic — a heroism which, through its own work, negates itself, flees the tragic scene of its making.

The irony of passing away in exile, in the US — in Houston of all places — after submitting to the mercies of medical science in America is tremendous. Complications.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

CAPITALISM . COMMONS . CONTINGENT LABOR

Several weeks ago Divya Victor pointed me, by way of her blog, in the direction of Marc Bousquet's blog and his ancillary youtube interviews with Cary Nelson and other scholar-activists. Bousquet's How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (NYU Press 2008) has been an extraordinary eye-opener for me—suggesting, as I'm sure most of us suspected, that the possibility of landing a tenure-track or simply full-time position with adequate healthcare and retirement benefits after completing a graduate-level program is indeed slim. Universities, liberal arts colleges and community colleges have become increasingly dependent on a rootless pool of contingent faculty—many of whom race through the course of a normal day from one college to the next to instruct a couple of classes here, a couple there, and maybe one or two elsewhere in order to cobble together a full time teaching schedule that might allow them to eat, pay rent and, if they have children, scratch up a couple shekels for daycare. Scholars who, as Cary Nelson points out, have been invested with at least enough authority to provide instruction to students at the college level are often forced, while working full time, to apply for public assistance (food stamps) and / or hold additional jobs in the retail and service industry.

Louis Proyect's review at The Unrepentent Marxist of Bousquet's book and Joe Berry's Reclaiming the Ivory Tower (a handbook for adjunct faculty interested in organizing) summarizes both books well for those contingent faculty that may not have the cash to shell out for either title. Discussing one of the more chilling chapters in How the University Works, Proyect writes:
... I never dreamed that things could have reached such a stage before reading Bousquet. In chapter two, he [Bousquet] discusses William Massy's "Virtual U," a "computer simulation of university management in game form" that was designed by a former Standford vice president with a $1 million grant from the Sloan Foundation.

Trevor Chan, who designed "Virtual U," also designed "Capitalism," another game that the Virtual U website described as "the best business simulation game ever created." According to PC Gamer magazine, "Capitalism" is "good enough to make a convert out of Karl Marx himself."
Proyect continues:
The players of this game treat faculty, students and staff (like me) as inputs into the maw of management. If you play the game right you can get maximum results from minimum input. In keeping with the mindset of the game's creator, there are no unions in the simulation.
Given the present situation, it's fairly clear what "maximum results for minimum input" means for faculty and students alike. If we turn to the simulation game's website we find that players managing the Virtual University are beholden not to students or those paying tuition fees but to the Board of Trustees. In ensuring the university is managed properly, the game's homepage tells us that players may be forced to make tough decisions:
As players move around the Virtual U campus, they gather information needed to make decisions such as decreasing faculty teaching time or increasing athletic scholarships.
These particular examples (the need to decide whether to decrease faculty teaching time or increase athletic scholarships) powerfully disclose the market-based logic that drives the game.

The information found on the homepage for Capitalism 3.0, the latest version of the game designed by Trevor Chan, is similarly chilling:

Our current version of capitalism—the corporate, globalized version 2.0—is rapidly squandering our shared inheritances. Now, Peter Barnes offers a solution: protect the commons by giving it property rights and strong institutional managers.

Barnes shows how capitalism—like a computer—is run by an operating system. Our current operating system gives too much power to profit-maximizing corporations that devour our commons and distribute most of their profit to a sliver of the population. And government—which in theory should defend our commons—is all too often a tool of those very corporations.

Barnes proposes a revised operating system—Capitalism 3.0—that protects the commons while preserving the many strengths of capitalism as we know it. His major innovation is the commons trust—a market-based entity with the power to limit use of scarce commons, charge rent, and pay dividends to everyone.

Capitalism 3.0 offers a practical alternative to our current flawed economic system. It points the way to a future in which we can retain capitalism's virtues while mitigating its vices.

While the first version of the game was apparently not as global in scope as the second version, this third version addresses current concerns around non-renewable natural resources and shared common spaces. According to the logic of the game, the solution to preserving non-renewable resources and creating a sustainable environment is of course privatization — that is, those who play the game are encouraged to protect the environment by giving it property rights and putting otherwise shared resources and spaces up for sale. What sort of convoluted logic is this? If we play both games properly, building a new university stadium for braindead meatheads and creating a landless lumpen prolefessorate might allow us to generate the revenue needed to lobby Washington so that water resources, including the rain that falls from the sky, can be privatized here as they were in Bolivia just a few years ago.