Monday, March 31, 2008

Eqbal Ahmad and Terrorism

I recently read a short collection of essays by and interviews with the Eqbal Ahmad, Terrorism: Theirs and Ours.

In the title piece, “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours,” I read Ahmad as making two important points about what you could call (Ahmad doesn’t phrase it this way) “the discourse of terrorism” or (if you prefer your terminology non-Foucaultian) “the way people tend to write and speak about terrorism.”

1. One of his important points is that “terrorism” as an entity is generally left undefined, with the result being that the term is arbitrarily applied to “their” political violence and not to “ours.” (If I read him correctly, Ahmad is against the use of violence to further political ends in general.) This creates interesting situations over time. For example, Menachim Begin, Yitzak Shamir, and others were at one time “terrorists,” with the British offering rewards for them as “terrorists,” etc., while later, when they became “ours,” they became “liberation fighters.” Or a converse example, many individuals who were later involved in the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda were “freedom fighters” when fighting the Evil Empire and Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and only more lately termed terrorists. I don’t think Ahmad’s point here is to equate Begin and bin Laden, but to say that if we’re going to bandy a term like “terrorism” about, we ought to have a definition of it with some actual content that we then apply consistently (so, for example, Operation Condor would be seen as problematic when engaging in car bombings and extra-judicial killings in South America and not just when the car bombing happens in D.C.).

2. He emphasizes that all instances of terrorism have causes, a point that shouldn’t need to be made (for everything has a cause), but something often studiously left out (or explicitly made verboten) in dominant constructions of “terrorism,” where attempts to understand or explain terrorism are misrepresented as sympathy for terrorism and terroristic violence.

Beyond that, it would be nice if Ahmad had gone further in his discussion of causation. In an email exchange about the work, a colleague wrote me that "he plays the victim card, something like 'If you have been terrorized by xyz, you will become terrorists.'" This colleague went on to point out many of the various groups around the world who have clearly been oppressed, victimized, discriminated against, or terrorized who have not resorted to use of terrorist tactics.

In my reading, Ahmad doesn’t actually “play the victim card” as this email correspondent put it, but I think his reaction points out something crucial about any potential consideration of the causes of terrorism – that there may be certain experiences or structural situations that terrorists of a variety of stripes share in common, but at best an awareness of such factors will indicate contributing, but not sufficient causes for terrorism (because what of all the peoples who have suffered similarly and not turned to terrorism?).

In addition to these points, which I take to be the main points of Ahmad’s argument, as a minor point I did also simply find his take on the PLO to be interesting. He argues that one major problem with the PLO, in addition to the problem of the use of violence for political ends generally, was the lack of any sort of revolutionary ideology, strategy, or practice, such that not only were they terrorists, but ultimately ineffectual terrorists to boot, because of their lack of any sort of program beyond reaction.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Jane Hurd, A Remembrance

1.

Jane Hurd, my grandmother, whom I always called Nana, passed away a few months ago. She died after a battle with throat cancer, about which I’ll only say that as much pain as she did suffer from her illness and treatment, I’m thankful that up until almost the very end, she remained cogent and emotionally herself, and that she seemed to have experienced much less pain than is typical with her particular disease.

2.

Nana was a good grandmother, both in the sense that she was a good person and a good person to have as a grandmother and in the sense that she was good at embodying an archetype of grandmotherliness.

Much of my experience of Nana, many of my feelings about her, much of our relationship was conventional. My relationship with her was in many ways almost the epitome of what a grandmother-grandson relationship is often thought supposed to be like in modern North America. She was utterly devoted to me and my sister, loving, indulgent even (she taught me to break open Nutter Butter cookies and add peanut butter, because they didn’t have enough peanut butter for her grandchildren), and always proud of her grandchildren (if she was ever not proud of me, and there must have been times, she never let it show). I certainly tried to be as good a grandson as possible for her.

Much of our experience is powerfully shaped by social structure, discourse, and structured expectations, and certainly in our culture today there are fairly clear ideas about what grandmothers and grandsons are like (or supposed to be like), embodied in the everyday discourse of conversation, in greeting cards, in popular culture, so that I can meaningful refer to my relationship with Nana as “almost the epitome of what a grandmother-grandson relationship is often thought supposed to be like in modern North America.”

To recognize that a relationship or set of experiences is strongly shaped by social structure and discourse in no way makes a relationship or experience any less real, authentic, or meaningful. There is a tendency, by many contemporary North Americans at least, to want to see ourselves as purely products of our own actions and to feel cheapened or lessened when actions or feelings are partly due to outside influence. But, the fact that our interactions with one another and our feelings toward one another were in part (but never completely) the playing out of social expectations and structuring doesn’t in any way change the fact that we interacted in certain ways, with accompanying real feelings.

3.

One of the key traits I associate with Nana is hospitality and generosity. She had a great concern to serve others and that others be served.

Especially with me, and my sister, and my cousins, this was probably partly due to her “grandmotherliness.” She was concerned with generosity and hospitality with everyone (it was very difficult to not eat or drink something when visiting her house – a string of questions, such as “Would you like some cookies?,” “Would you like some coffee?,” “Would you like a sandwich,” would generally continue until something was accepted), but she was especially generous with her grandchildren. When I was a child, at Halloween Nana would always have good candy to hand out to all the neighborhood children (not the little packets of two sweet tarts you’d get at some houses, but candy bars), and she’d typically hand out two or three candy bars to each kid. For children she knew, she’d have special bags with extra candy made up ahead of time, but my sister and I would get a veritable mound of candy. For that matter, I don’t think she ever taught my mother and uncle to add peanut butter to Nutter Butters when they were children – not that she wasn’t a loving, nurturing mother, but that being a grandmother was something a little different.

Another part of my grandmother’s concern with hospitality and generosity was, I think, generational. My grandmother and grandfather grew up as pre-teens and teenagers during the height of the Great Depression. They had known severe and widespread scarcity growing up and one thing I often saw in them, and in many others of similar age, was a concern with scarcity and having enough, and in making sure that everyone was well fed. My grandparents were also very much a part of the WWII generation, with the great emphasis on serving country (with my grandfather joining the navy when he was old enough, and my grandmother training as a nurse) no doubt contributing to an emphasis on service and hospitality generally.

At the same time, I don’t think that Nana’s personality can be reduced to social structural factors like her generation or the playing of a social role of grandmother. Her concern with hospitality and serving or helping others was more thorough-going than with many other grandmothers or women of her generation that I’ve met. For example, in her career as a nurse (a career field in keeping with her personality in general), she spent much of her career as a nurse for the local department of public health, in part no doubt because that was an available nursing job, but in part because she saw that as a specific nursing job where she could make an important contribution to the community in serving many poorer members of the community most in need of help.

4.

Another trait I associate with Nana is strength of character, expressed in simple (though never simplistic) unadorned and elegant fashion.

She was not a flashy person. She was never one to call much attention to herself, in how she dressed, or spoke, or did anything else. She was a soft-spoken person. At the same time she had an amazing strength of character and will. For all her soft-spokenness, she was not one to be pushed around, and she always stood firmly for her convictions (truth be told, as with many, or really most, members of my family, myself included, she could be downright stubborn at times – though in her case usually in a non-argumentative way – she’d generally simply do what she wanted to do or thought was right).

5.

These traits come together in something I associate with her: cooking. She didn’t cook much in her later years, but both her sense of hospitality and her simple strength were reflected in her cooking.

I don’t think of that many recipes when I think of her. She didn’t cook a vast array of things, and her food wasn’t flashy – it was simple and good.

There are two recipes in particular, though, that almost always come to my mind when thinking of her, Chicken and Biscuits and Pound Cake, both things she often made when there was a crowd around. During most important family holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter, these two recipes would make an appearance, usually not on the day of the holiday itself when some holiday specific meal would be fixed, but the day before or after, when a large number of family might still be gathered.

Her Chicken and Biscuits were not particularly complicated: roast chicken with a chicken gravy, with peas always in the gravy, carrots sometimes added, served with or on biscuits. Anyone who basically knows their way around a kitchen could produce some version of the dish, but her version was always particularly well done, though as with a lot of simple dishes well done, it’s nearly impossible to state exactly what made hers so good.

Her Pound Cake was quite simply the best I’ve ever encountered, and almost anyone who ever tried it wanted the recipe – and another slice of cake.

This was her recipe (she always freely shared it, so I’m not exposing her secret recipe here, and I think she’d be happy if anyone were to see the recipe and use and enjoy it):

Jane Hurd’s Pound Cake

6 eggs
2 ½ cups sugar
3 sticks butter (3/4 pound)
3 cups flour
½ tsp. baking soda
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. lemon extract

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Cream sugar and butter in a mixer.

Add one egg at a time and beat well. (She always insisted the each egg be given 5 minutes of mixing time in the mixer for a total of 30 minutes of egg mixing. The recipe’s not particularly difficult to make, but she always insisted that you had to take the time to do it right with no short cuts.)

Sift the flour and baking soda.

Alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk to the egg/butter/sugar mixture, mixing each addition well.

Mix in vanilla and lemon extracts.

Bake 1 ½ hours at 325 degrees in a greased and floured tube or bundt pan.

The first time I used the recipe myself, my partner asked if I was going to glaze it. I answered no, that it didn’t need any if I did it right, that it would be moist inside, with a crisp, flaky crust all around the outside. He was skeptical – until he had a few bites, whereupon he agreed that this cake was best left to stand on its own unadorned.

6.

I’ve perhaps presented a too tidy picture thus far. As with most people, Nana could be characterized by a few key traits that run through much of what she said and did as key themes of her personality, and it’s mostly those things I’ve talked about thus far. At the same time, no more than with anyone else could she be completely or sufficiently encapsulated by a few traits or characteristics. There are many aspects of her that I cherish as much as those things I’ve already mentioned that must be left more as loose ends – qualities of her that can’t be so easily wrapped up into a tidy package of grandmotherliness, hospitality, strength of character, and so forth. As such, I’ll simply mention a couple and try to resist the temptation to wrap things up neatly.

She always had an avid curiosity about history and related topics. As far as I know, this was something she mainly shared with me. I’ve had a passion for history since I was quite young, that ultimately led me into anthropology through an exploration of topics related to history when I was an undergraduate. I remember fondly, ever since I was a child, talking with Nana about history. Some of this was her sharing stories of her own experience of the Depression, or World War II, or other events and times, but it was also conversations about the American Revolution, or the Civil War, or other topics of mainly but not exclusively America history. Later when I developed an interest in anthropology, she was one of the few non-academics I met or knew who didn’t necessarily assume that this meant archaeology, or digging up mammoth bones. Instead, her question was “You mean like Margaret Mead?”

She didn’t talk openly much about politics, but she was a strongly partisan Democrat. (Growing up in a liberal Democratic family in a strongly conservative area made for an interesting time growing up. I always had at least a slight sense of outsiderdom at school, something intensified by the fact that my mother and maternal grandparents were “Yankees,” on occasion leading me to be similarly labeled a “Yankee” in elementary school in a semi-rural setting in the South, despite the fact that I was born in the South and my father’s family had been in the South since before the American Revolution.) I remember the morning after Reagan was elected president in 1980. I had had many conversations about the election with Nana beforehand. On the night of the election, it had been my bedtime (I was nine) before the election results were in. On school mornings, my mother dropped me off at Nana’s on her way to work, and I went to school from there. That morning before school, I asked Nana who had won, and I still recall her deep sadness when she told me that “We lost.” This was much in contrast to the triumphal glee in evidence (by teachers and students) that day at school, and I took (and take) more comfort in her sadness. Much later, I remember her anger and indignation at all the attacks directed at Bill Clinton during his presidency. While I had (and have) my own problems with Clinton, I take much comfort in that righteous anger, also.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tips on Destroying the World

Like a lot of people, I worry a good deal about what we humans are doing to the planet, by which I really mean I worry a good deal about what we’re doing to life and the biosphere. Between anthropogenic global warming, ozone depletion, and the threat of nuclear war, as a species we could well end up responsible for a mass extinction event (though we’re be by no means the first organisms to fundamentally alter the planet’s biosphere – all the anaerobic bacteria spewing out oxygen during the first few billion years of life’s history on the planet did far more than we’ve done, or probably can do, to alter the biosphere – which is not at all to diminish the significance of the mass extinction of animals and plants we may be in the process of producing).

I’m not particularly worried that humans will ever wipe out life on the planet, or even our own species, though I do think it’s possible. Probably the best strategy to attempt to wipe out life on the planet, or simply the human species, would be to incite global thermonuclear war. The trouble with such a strategy is that in any conceivable actual situation, including at the most dangerous moments in the history of the Cold War, while the vast majority of individual human beings might be wiped out through the utter obliteration of the populations of the primary targeted regions (obviously a tragedy far beyond anything human beings have managed to do to one another thus far, even over the course of the bloody 20th century), far too many areas would go untargeted to wipe out the species. It’s hard for me to imagine ICBMs being targeted to wipe out all human life in the many rugged valleys of the highlands of New Guinea, or in all areas of the Amazon Basin, or on all the many small islands of the Caribbean or the Pacific, etc. Fall out, Nuclear Winter, and the like might do many of them in, but it’s hard for me to imagine a “naturally occurring” nuclear war wiping out the human species, much less life in general. To wipe out all humans, and much of the rest of life on the planet, I think you’d really need to engineer a conspiracy to end all conspiracies (in the metaphorical and literal senses) cutting across all the nuclear states to give you access to the world’s total nuclear arsenal so that you could target even the smallest Pacific island and every last valley in New Guinea. With access to the world’s total nuclear arsenal, this might be technically possible, though clearly utterly implausible to implement.

Alternately, one could attempt to wipe out the human species via a bioengineered epidemic. While killing billions in such a manner is potentially feasible if you have the ability to engineer and deliver the disease, wiping out the species would likely run into the same sort of mopping up problem as above.

I hadn’t before given much thought to destroying the planet, figuring that was simply not a possibility. Apparently it is possible, even if highly, highly implausible, as I found out when I read this highly entertaining essay on top ways to destroy the Earth. (I’d note that destroying the Earth would certainly destroy all life on the planet, too, though it wouldn’t necessarily wipe out the human species, as many of the methods for destroying the planet require technologies implying that at least some humans would not be confined to the planet.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

More on Taste and Quality in Art

I initially wrote the following, in very slightly different form, as a clarifying comment on my recent post A Democracy of Creation and Taste (But Not Quality). It's long enough, and I put enough work into it, that I didn't want to simply leave it relegated to the comments section of a post where it's less likely to be seen.

My concern in that earlier post was not to promote any sort of unitary or definitive hierarchy of the arts nor the idea that there is any single way to discern, appreciate, or evaluate art.

For instance, the following selection from the post in which it’s clear that there are a variety of potential criteria, the choice of which leads to different evaluations or appreciations:

“If we compare Beethoven’s Symphony # 9 or Mozart’s Requiem with the Ramones’ “I wanna be sedated” or the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” by most criteria, whether originality, synthesis of complex themes, etc., the Beethoven and Mozart are of higher quality, even if you prefer the punk songs. There may be criteria on which the punk songs rate higher, e.g. reduction of music to its minimal components…”

If you’re uncomfortable with the use of terms like “higher” in this context (and to be honest, on further reflection, I’m a little uncomfortable with the way I phrased that myself), think of it more that certain works are actually, empirically more a certain way than others, regardless of personal taste.

I’m certainly not in favor of any sort of (re-)instatement of some simple high art/low art division that’s arbitrary at best and reflects/reaffirms a stratified class system at worst. I think one of the best and most important consequences of postmodern theory over the past several decades has been to open up serious consideration and reflection on a much fuller array of artistic production. This is reflected in my own thinking, e.g. the way in which in the earlier post and other recent posts related to the topic the discussion has readily considered together as if not unusual Beethoven, the Ramones, Louis Armstrong, Mozart, free jazz, John Cage, Slayer, etc., something that would have been intellectually improbable if not almost impossible a few decades ago. One thing I resist in some varieties of postmodern thinking is a flattening of criticism, discernment, evaluation, and ultimately the appreciation of art or ideas for their own qualities.

Taste may be subjective. (I do question the extent to which even taste can be properly regarded as subjective. I know that my own taste in classical music, for instance, is partly the result of my experience with it. Prior to dating the person who became my partner, a man with a great passion for certain varieties of opera and classical music, as well as for other particular musics, I had not had a great deal of exposure to classical music, and didn’t really have a taste for it. It’s over the past eight years that I’ve cultivated a strong taste for that type of music, though at the same time, simple exposure to and experience of a variety of classical music doesn’t really explain why I have strong preferences for some classical music and not for others. To the extent that most of us are largely unaware of the sources of our preferences, I think it can be said at least that taste largely operates as if largely or wholly subjective.) But while taste may be subjective, the qualities inherent in a work are not subject to our particular tastes.

One thing I’m against is the “anything goes” approach to art appreciation, the sentiment of Family Guy’s Quaqmire that is can mean anything I want because it’s poetry (see the earlier post for the context here), or the sentiment that I’ve heard all too often at cocktail parties (really more at receptions or other semi-formal gatherings, since I rarely go to cocktail parties) or in seminars that because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, whatever thoughts I might have while viewing a painting are in the painting or are the painting’s meaning. Most of us probably have had the experience of having a long chain of thought initially prompted by some work of art, an often pleasurable and intellectually stimulating, and thus important, experience. Once such thought strays beyond any significant correspondence to the work (a grey matter, of course, but an important distinction nonetheless) we’re no longer thinking about the work. I can think what I want when I read a poem (and that’s a good and often enjoyable thing), but I engage in fabulation, inventing a fiction, if I think and claim that anything I think is the meaning of the poem.

Everyone can like what they want. One can prefer, for example, the drumming of Max Roach or Elvin Jones or the drumming of 6025 or Ted (drummers at different times for the Dead Kennedys) or Paul Cook (of the Sex Pistols), or like them or dislike them equally. At the same time, the various performances (recorded and not) of these distinct drummers had particular qualities. The drumming of Elvin Jones was often polyrhythmic, and that’s not a matter of taste, but a quality of his music, and if one chooses to ask whose drumming was typically more complex (which is simply one among many possible empirical criteria for discernment or evaluation) between Jones and Cook or any other set of drummers, that’s a matter of looking to actual empirical qualities, not of taste.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

On Why Pro-Feminist Men Are Not Traitors To Their Sex

A few months ago at a conference, I was involved in a conversation with a few other scholars and the topic of men and feminism came up. One individual (who happened to be female) argued that men couldn’t be feminists, while another (who happened to be male) argued that they could.

I pitched in that it didn’t really much matter to me whether I could be a feminist as a man or not. I’m against sexism and gender inequality; I’m sympathetic to feminism; I attempt to actually incorporate gender and issues related to feminism and gender inequality in my teaching; I’ve done at least a few things over the years to try to do my bit for gender equality; and I figure those are the sorts of things that are important. Whether someone wants to refer to me as a feminist, a pro-feminist man, a feminist man, a man sympathetic to feminism, or whatever else is more incidental. I also figure that as a man it would be a bit odd at best for me to dictate to feminist women whether or not I can be a feminist (i.e. I wasn’t going to argue against this person’s saying I couldn’t be a feminist, but I also wouldn’t argue against another feminist woman’s saying I was).

That whole set of issues isn’t really the point of this post, though, but just a setting. Next, the female colleague said something I felt was simply wrong, that pro-feminist men are traitors to their sex. I didn’t voice my disagreement at the time, mainly because the conversation shifted gears before I could do so, but I’ve mentally come back to it a few times since.

Pro-feminist men aren’t traitors to their sex (or gender) because they can’t be. Neither maleness nor men constitute anything like a coherent social group or entity that they could betray.

Still, “maleness,” “masculinity,” “men,” remain useful labels or categories for some descriptive purpose. I began to wonder how this was the case given that males or men in no sense comprise a single, unitary group. There’s no way that one can realistically speak of the interest of men as a group, for instance, given the divides of culture, race, ethnicity, class, family, religion, etc. (The same point can obviously be made of “femaleness,” “femininity,” or “women.”)

There are social groups comprised exclusively of one gender. Fraternities on university campuses are one example. They constitute distinct groups, capable of acting collectively as a coherent social entity for specific purposes. But recognizing that a group of men (or women) can in a delimited context comprise a social group is a far cry from recognizing men as a whole (especially cross-culturally and trans-historically) as a group. One can speak realistically of men in groups or groups of men, but not Men as a group.

Cross-culturally, within the context of specifically delimited cases, there are instances of gender as social group. For example, in the ethnography Women of the Forest, by Yolanda and Robert Murphy, Munduruc├║ men are described as constituting such social groups on the basis of gender. All the men of a particular community live collectively in a men’s house, and they act collectively as a gender group from time to time, for certain ritual purposes or on occasion to act punitively toward particular women, exercising power over women as a collectivity, not as individual man or individual patriarch or head of household. In such a setting, a man could potentially be a traitor to his gender, e.g. by handing over to a woman the sacred horns seen by Munduruc├║ men as a critical source of their collective power over women. Situations such as this, where men do constitute a social group (I’d argue from the evidence presented in the Murphys’ ethnography that the same doesn’t apply to Munduruc├║ women) occur in specific contexts, don’t characterize men in general, and so far as I’m aware have no analogues in contemporary Western culture.

Instead of constituting social groupings, sex and gender are primarily categories of quality. It can be meaningful to speak of males or men, despite the fact that such terms don’t refer to any real social group (again except in specifically delimited contexts, none of which is present in contemporary Western culture), because they speak of qualities that tend to be shared by individuals that the terms pertain to, without such individuals in any way comprising a distinct social group or entity.