Professor Wen-Chin Ouyang reflects on the crisis of the humanities and how they are necessary to our lives
London. Sunday. 24 October 2021. Morning. For the first time in years I open my eyes to sunshine filtering through the bedroom curtains. I grabbed my mobile. 9:16 am. I am 16 minutes late calling my mother in Taipei. There have been earthquakes here, my mother says as soon as she picks up the phone, of magnitude 6.5 on the Richter scale. I turn to The Guardian on my iPad and look for more details. My heart sinks as I read ‘New university job cuts fuel rising outrage on campuses’. Goldsmiths has announced 52 compulsory redundancies among professional staff and academics, the latter all in English and the humanities. I heard about the job cuts from friends at Goldsmiths’ Centre for Comparative Literature but reading about them in The Guardian I am glad in a perverse way that the crisis at Goldsmith has made national news. Perhaps it is time for us to stare the crisis in languages and humanities in the eye. SOAS recently went through a similar experience. Despite the rigour of our research and the recognition of the importance of languages and humanities in our daily life, funding cuts and low recruitment in many of our academic programmes, exacerbated further by the Covid-19 pandemic in the past two years, have led to massive job cuts accompanied by curriculum reform. Many languages have disappeared or are disappearing from school and university curricula and literature offerings are greatly diminished. Looking at the Arabic Programme(s) at SOAS from the prism of what I knew when I first moved to London in 1997, I see ruins of what once was. The MA Arabic Literature was withdrawn together with most of the advanced BA and MA literature modules. Our language modules are reduced in intensity. It is becoming increasing difficult to graduate students with high levels of language proficiency, cultural literacy, and literary skills, just as the world needs them even more than ever. I am reminded of the opening lines of a long qasida poem (translated by Suzanne Stetkevych) by Labid, a sixth century Arab poet, who stood before the campsite of his departed beloved and lamented:
Effaced are the abodes, brief encampments and long-settled ones; At Mina the wilderness has claimed Mount Ghaul and Mount Rijam.
Then I stopped and questioned them, but how do we question Mute immortals whose speech is indistinct.
Stripped bare where once a folk had dwelled, then one morn departed; Abandoned lay the trench that ran around the tent, The thumam grass that plugged their holes.
But I do not wish to lapse into melancholy. Rather, I want to dare to hope against hope, to will a rebuilding from the abandoned dwellings starting from left behind traces, for the Covid-19 pandemic has paradoxically shown us how instrumental languages and humanities are in the ways individuals and communities are responding to the challenges posed by the new coronavirus. A team of SOAS colleagues have been gathering information about the ways in which different linguistic communities in London are responding to Covid-19. Their work on “cultural translation and interpreting of Covid-19 risks” is a UKRI/AHRC Covid-19 research project. From the statistics published to-date, we can see that multilingualism is at work in how migrant communities access information. Most migrant communities access information outside the UK and in languages other than English. And the information they read comes from “formal” news channels (the BBC and the recognized news papers) as well as social media, tabloids, and “collective wisdom” inherited from a history of managing pandemics going around in their global communities through, let us say, chats on their mobile phones. Just as the new coronavirus has connected the “fate” of the entire globe, multilingualism and technology have also brought the globe into one “destiny.” We are struggling together to contain the spread of Covid-19 and at the same time to work out our individual and collective code of conduct under the circumstances of global entanglement.
This has been that space where similar issues have been raised, interrogated and “translated” into everyday conduct. Ibn Butlan, a Christian physician from Baghdad, who left behind a work on medicine and another on his travels in the Middle East, chose to write in the adab tradition pioneered by Ibn al-Muqaffa‘, and in a literary form, the classical Arabic maqama, about the attitudes of the physicians towards illness, and particularly the plague of 1154-55, and their patients, and more importantly “truth” about the plague. Ibn Butlan does not deign to tell us what “truth” is, but by dramatizing the politics of “truth,” the details that go into each version, and the cost of these in actual lives lost (to the plague), he makes visible and tangible the consequences of each thought and each action on individuals and their community. This is the role the humanities have always played, and can still play, if we adjust our academic approach to them.
As early as 2008, Rita Felski examined in Uses of Literature the paradox pervasive in academic study of literature. Critics justify the importance of their work by focusing on the “uniqueness” of the literary work, and by doing so privileging “distinctiveness,” “difference” and “otherness.” For, in the view of many, “the otherness of literature” is precisely “the source of its radical transformative potential”. However, “separating literature from everything around it, critics fumble to explain how works of art arise from and move back into the social world.” Felski goes on to say, “highlighting literature’s uniqueness, they overlook the equally salient realities of its own connectedness.” By calling her book “uses of literature” she proposes pluralizing reading practices, to include the familiar political and ideological and at the same time to go beyond these “to engage with the worldly.” The four part process of textual engagement she delineates, “recognition,” “enchantment,” “knowledge” and “shock” brings literature back to “configurations of social knowledge.” And this “social knowledge” tailored for the Covid-19 situation is what we need now and what world literature and the global humanities can offer.
My thoughts return to Goldsmiths and my mother in Taipei. I will be going to Taipei for the 2022 ACLA annual meeting. Being in my mother’s time zone will alleviate my anxiety about staying in touch with her, but taking part in a comparative literature conference will not, I am sure, calm my fears about the future of languages and the humanities. But we must find a way to show our funders and students the importance of languages and the humanities. That instead of cutting we should be strengthening, expanding and proliferating our offerings in these. For what needs working out is not just decisions about vaccination but also details of our everyday living.
Wen-chin Ouyang, FBA, is Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at SOAS, University of London. Born in Taiwan and raised in Libya, she has a BA in Arabic from Tripoli University and a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia University.
Hanan Jasim Khammas, Visiting Doctoral Scholar at the CCL, reviews Fethi Benslama’s Psychoanalysis and the challenge of Islam (trans. by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. 272 pp. ISBN 978-0816648894)
Fethi Benslama is a French-Tunisian psychoanalyst, a Parisian academic, and the author of several pieces on political Islam. His seminal work Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam (2002) was translated into Arabic by the author’s sister, the Tunisian scholar and feminist critic Rajaʾ Benslama, who is also interested in the psychoanalytic deconstruction of gender and sexuality in Arab and Muslim cultural heritage. Both authors are a must-read, given the poor attention psychoanalytic circles have given to the questions of Islam and its historical development.
In Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam, Benslama addresses mythical, theological, and literary textual accounts if the Islamic genesis to provide an explanation of what he calls the crisis of Islamic radical fundamentalism. The later Un furieux désir de sacrifice. Le surmusulman, published in 2016, seems to provide a clearer and easier reading to the subject; nevertheless, the earlier volume already offers an insightful body of analysis to address many of the big questions of Islam. Reviewers have claimed that the outstanding originality of this work lies in the author’s observation that the Islamist discourse is “tormented” by the question of origin, and that Islam, unlike the Judaeo-Christian tradition which symbolised God as father figure, “denies”, as Benslama put it in an interview with Gabriela Keller (“Islam and Psychoanalysis: A Tale of Mutual Ignorance”, June 13, 2006), “any connection between God and a father figure”. In fact, “God is far removed from humanity because he may not be compared in any way with the idea of mankind” which makes for an “abstract religion” and “abstract God”. This observation is substantiated in the book in a thorough comparative analysis of the history of monotheism, between the Judeo-Christian tradition and Islam. This leads to what I believe is the book’s strongest claim, the explanation of the origins of violence against women in that “the ‘torment’ of origin manifests itself in Islam in the suppression of the feminine, which combined with the absence of the divine paternal, accounts for Islam’s extreme masculine monotheism and political extremism” (as Mahdi Tourage puts it in his 2012 review of Benslama’s book for Contemporary Islam (6): 201-203). Benslama reaches this conclusion through the analysis of the role played by Khadija – the prophet’s wife; and Hagar – mother of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the progenitor of Arabs. According to his analysis, both Khadija and Hagar represent feared figures for having access to knowledge about what cannot be known, and what is impossible to have access to – God. Hagar could see and hear God (81-83), and Khadija confirmed Mohammad’s prophecy even before he knew he was a prophet. When visited by the Archangel Gabriel, Khadija lifted her veil to show the prophet that if the angel leaves, then he is a divine angel sent by God, if he stays, then he is an evil demon. For Benslama, both stories show that women seem “possessed of a ‘negativity’ that can be used to prove the truth of the Other. The veil separates truth from its negation”; and that “[m]an is inhabited by the Other but does not recognize it. Without the woman’s unveiling, and therefore without the veil, he would have remained indecisive, living but doubting god” (135). Thus, the necessity for the veil and the suppression of the feminine come from not the demeaning attitudes towards women, but rather from an existential demand governed by fear.
As refreshing and enlightening as this may sound, one cannot but wonder how Islamic feminism responds to this, for such analysis posits both the exegesis and women-scholar’s reading of the Qurʾān into a questioning examination, or as put forward by Slavoj Zizek in “The Power of Woman and the Truth of Islam” (ABC, May 19th, 2012): “One thus cannot simply oppose the ‘good’ Islam (reverence of women) and the ‘bad’ Islam (veiled oppressed women). And the point is not simply to return to the ‘repressed feminist origins’ of Islam, to renovate Islam in its feminist aspect: these oppressed origins are simultaneously the very origins of the oppression of women. Oppression does not just oppress the origins; oppression has to oppress its own origins”.
In addition, even though the genesis of Islam had excluded God from the symbolic order, maintaining Him in the domain of the un-symbolised – the real –, the analysis does not address the fact that Islamist fundamentalism thrives on the promise of the reunion with the creator and an eternity of living under his blessing in heavens. What is the significance of this ultimate fantasy in the articulation of desire? Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the analysis also ignores the role of orientalist misrepresentation in the formation of radical fundamentalism. Throughout history, the orientalist imagination and its enacting institutions have created images of Islam and Muslims which have also intervened in the reconfiguration of the subject’s interconnected triad of registers: imaginary, symbolic and the real. Let us recall the Syrian thinker Ṣādiq Jalāl al-ʿaẓm, who argued in “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse” (1980, reproduced in in Orientalism: A Reader, ed. by A. L. Macfie, EUP, 2000; also available at https://eutopiainstitute.org/2021/05/orientalism-and-orientalism-in-reverse-sadik-jalal-al-azm/) that Ontological Orientalism – “the foundation of the image created by modern Europe of the Orient” – had “left its profound imprint on the Orient’s modern and contemporary consciousness of itself” (pp. 230-231). How does the image created by Ontological Orientalism participate or intervene in the construction of the Islamic fundamentalist psyche, which al-ʿaẓm described as Reversed Orientalism?
The radical investigation that this work presents connects different complex areas, some of which are left untouched, but this can only mean that Benslama has opened for us a path full of questions which comparative literature can definitely bring answers to.
We are pleased to publish Professor Haun Saussy’s new blog post for the CCL
“Comparative” often stands for “international,” but one book I have long cherished stages its language obsession within the British Isles: Lavengro: Scholar, Gypsy, Priest by George Borrow, first published in 1851. It’s a sort of autobiography, with sections that cross over into the domain of the novel and others that reek of polemic or lyric. As autobiographies go, it is as non-standard as Tristram Shandy. Borrow’s first-person narrator is born into a military family in Norfolk and relocates again and again through the British Isles with the reassignments of his father’s regiment. The father is a conventional Englishman who honors King and Country and hopes that his son will find secure employment, perhaps in the army, perhaps in the Church, or as a clerk to a lawyer. But the son is useless in any useful employ. His passion is for language. Posted to Ireland, his father’s regiment passes a couple of drovers who say something that makes a young officer ask, “Strange language that! What can it be?”
“Irish!” said my father with a loud voice, “and a bad language it is, I have known it of old, that is, I have often heard it spoken when I was a guardsman in London. There’s one part of London where all the Irish live — at least all the worst of them — and there they hatch their villainies and speak this tongue; it is that which keeps them together and makes them dangerous. […] Irish—I liked the Irish worst of all, it sounded so horrid, especially as I did not understand it. It’s a bad language.”
“A queer tongue!” said I. “I wonder if I could learn it.”
“Learn it!” said my father; “what should you learn it for?”
There were no schools for learning Irish around 1810, so the narrator bribes a fellow student to teach him for a pack of cards. “It was not a school language, to acquire which was considered an imperative duty […] but a speech spoken in out-of-the-way desolate places, and in cut-throat kens, where thirty ruffians, at the sight of the king’s minions, would spring up with brandished sticks and an ‘ubbubboo, like the blowing up of a powder-magazine.’ Such were the points connected with the Irish, which first awakened in my mind the desire of acquiring it; and by acquiring it I became, as I have already said, enamored of languages.” This chance encounter seals the narrator’s fate. His father is worried. He finds his son a teacher of French and Italian—respectable languages, those. Father, mother, teachers—not a one of these well-intentioned people can understand that Borrow, like certain other Victorian explorers, has an absolute allergy to respectability and desires the society of outlaws. Irish is his gateway drug, followed by Welsh, Danish, Old Norse, Armenian, Russian, Spanish, and so forth. “Such an erratic course was certainly by no means in consonance with the sober and unvarying routine of college study.” “Erratic course” describes his narrative well enough too: always going off on a tangent, the narrator is lured off the straight path and into a new language study by the chance overhearing of a foreign word or the chance meeting with a foreign book (in one episode, it is a Danish ballad collection washed up from a shipwreck). Every word of an unknown language is like the footprint of Friday on the sands.
Borrow has the ethnographer’s talent for collecting and transcribing stories. Here he is eliciting a narrative from his Rommany friend Jasper:
“When my father and mother were bitchadey pawdel, which, to tell you the truth, they were, for chiving wafodo dloovu, they left me all they had, which was not a little, and I became the head of our family, which was not a small one. I was not older than you when that happened; yet our people said they had never a better krallis to contrive and plan for them and to keep them in order. And this is so well known, that many Rommany Chals, not of our family, come and join themselves to us […]”
“And you are what is called a Gypsy King?”
“Ay, ay; a Rommany Kral.” […]
“And you are not English?”
“We are not Gorgios.”
“And you have a language of your own?”
“This is wonderful.”
“Ha, ha!” cried [Jasper’s mother-in-law]… “Ha, ha!” she screamed, fixing upon me two eyes, which shone like burning coals, and which were filled with an expression both of scorn and malignity, “It is wonderful, is it, that we should have a language of our own? What, you grudge the poor people the speech they talk among themselves? That’s just like you Gorgios, you would have everybody stupid, single-tongued idiots, like yourselves.”
Jasper’s people are still unwelcome in most parts of Europe. George Borrow learned enough from them, despite the opposition of Jasper’s mother-in-law, to merit the title of Lavengro, that is, “word-master.” I have never lived with the “people who dwelt amongst thickets and furze bushes, in tents as tawny as their faces, and whom the generality of mankind designated, and with much semblance of justice, as thieves and vagabonds,” as Borrow puts it, but Borrow’s book has helped to make me a little less of a “stupid, single-tongued idiot.”
Haun Saussy is University Professor at the University of Chicago, teaching in the departments of Comparative Literature and East Asian Languages & Civilizations as well as in the Committee on Social Thought. He is a member of the CCL Advisory Board.
Art is not a humanitarian institution. It should not be. It is an archive where statements articulating the human condition are organised. Some literary and artistic works use an excess of crude and explicit violence, aiming at calling public attention to certain humanitarian crises. These works cause more annihilation than aid as they use epistemic violence in the wrong direction: they promote suffering as a consumable product that satisfies the Other’s narcissistic demands, rather than sincerely awaken impulses for a better change.
To Hannah Arendt, violence “is rational to the extent that is effective in reaching the end that must justify it” and that it “can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals. Violence does not promote causes, neither history nor revolution, neither progress nor reaction; but it can serve to dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention” (On Violence [Harcourt, 1970], p. 79). If Arendt’s views are true, then what is happening in, for instance, the Middle East? Is it irrational violence? Or is there a different category in which the perpetuation of violence in the area can be read? It is evident that there seems to be no end, and no goals are achieved in the perpetual state of violence that affects the region. As Arendt argues, if goals are not met, violence becomes an ontological practice of the body politic.
One of the most striking aspects about the perpetuation of violence in the region, I have noticed, is not the failure to reach ends through rational violence, but rather the way violence is reported and condemned. It seems that the narrative and the political discourse which address violence, both internally and externally, endorse cause-and-effect dynamics which invoke the constant need for violent intervention. This can be seen in the representation of the victims of violence rather than in the depiction of perpetrators. For, as Susan Sontag show us, it is the power of the image to make something real (not more real) (Regarding the Pain of Others [Penguin, 2003], p. 19), and it is the depiction of victims that generates more victimhood, because, as Laura Mulvey explains, “the still image can generate identification and represent enigma without recourse to narrative closure” (Visual and Other Pleasures [Indiana UP, 1989], p. 141).
Such a mechanism can be found both in some representations of the “victims” in the fiction of American Iraq veterans – novels, stories and films like Phil Klay’s Redeployment (2014), Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds (2012), or Kayla Williams’s Love My Rifle More Than You (2005); and in some post-war narratives written by local authors. In the case of American Iraq veterans, fiction written by soldiers tend to dehumanise the Iraqi population by reducing them to the “enemy” or to the “relics of war”, a concept which I use to refer to the representation of dehumanised war victims, like Iraqi war victims, usually presented as wretched subaltern subjects annihilated by poverty, frustration and sexual repression or abuse. I call them “relics” because they engage the aesthetics of the relics: old-fashioned, squalid, fragile yet their presence entails an importance of a religious nature as they evoke the holiness and the sanctity of the “just” war, which was waged to save them in the first place. Although such works have the ultimate noble intention of making us sympathise with the soldiers by showing us the suffering and the pain that young people undergo in combat, they nevertheless perpetuate a discourse that justifies why these wars must be fought. They confirm the message behind war propaganda, making a statement about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. The violence employed and invested in such artistic works can be defined as what Walter Benjamin terms “law-preserving violence”: violence that perpetuates and serves the “legal” ends of the powerful state (Benjamin, Reflections [Mariner, 2019], p. 299).
Similarly, media, literature and art that assumes the ambitious task of exhibiting the suffering and the violence of wars and catastrophes, such as some of the works that depict the Syrian civil war (like Jan Dost’s Green Bus Leaving Aleppo, 2016), or the victimhood caused by ISIL (like Ali Bader’s The Infidel woman, 2015), or the refugee crisis (like Abdallah Al-Khatib’s documentary Little Palestine, 2021), perpetuate an image – and an imaginary – of the depicted people’s identity that can quickly turn into stigma, and which criticism constantly needs to challenge. Like veterans’ fiction, these works employ scenes of violence and extreme vulnerability as a mechanism of protest to condemn the unquestionable injustice and atrocities committed by war actors. However, the excess of information on the suffering of others, and the massive production of such images, as Susan Sontag argues, does not alleviate the victims’ pain. As the reality on the ground shows, it does not stop violence or amend circumstances, for this is not a “law-making violence”, nor it is a “law-preserving violence”. All it can do is to ease the viewers’ moral consciousness by the act of sympathising with the pain of others, distancing them from the victims, yet giving the viewers a sense of authority and moral obligation to do something about it, to “intervene”, “help” or “save” “them” – the classic clichés of modern colonial chauvinism.
The banality of violence is the way in which violence is perpetuated in the apparently most humanitarian and noble purposes of an artistic work. It lies in the unconscious perpetuation of the narrative of victimhood, reducing the depicted subject to an image of a dehumanised relic that serves to justify the source of its victimisation in the name of defending its rights.
Paper proposals are invited for the conference Spectacular Orientalism in Early Modern Europe (1529-1683), organised by the Centre for Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London, in collaboration with the Society for European Festivals Research.
The conference will be held on 24-25 February 2022.
The deadline for paper proposals of up to 300 words is 29 October 2021.
The new website of the Goldsmiths Research Centre for Comparative Literature has officially launched!
This website complements the official pages of the Centre on Goldsmiths’ website; it will display more detailed information about events, people, research projects and collaborations… and of course, it will host this blog.
The Centre for Comparative Literature started its life in September 2020 – I was about to write, “opened its doors”, but of course Covid-19 meant that doors stayed firmly closed for most of that academic year, and much of our planned activity was delayed.
We were a little apprehensive then, though mostly excited to be embarking on the new adventure of the CCL. With our new website and our brand new blog, and as we cautiously look forward to a return to a life lived more “in person” and less “remote”, we are again in the midst of some apprehension, but mostly excitement.
In this first post, let me tell about our ethos and outlook. They are perhaps best explained by our Centre’s main image – both what it represents, and how we arrived at it.
The image came about partly programmatically and partly serendipitously. I had always wanted to use Domenico di Michelino’s famous fifteenth-century painting of Dante holding the Commedia (the Commedia would be my “desert island book”), variously titled “Dante e la Commedia”, “Dante e la Divina Commedia”, “La Divina Commedia di Dante”, and my favourite, “La Commedia illumina Firenze” (The Commedia illuminates, enlightens, lights up Florence).
In that painting from 1465, Dante has the heavens – Paradise – above him; Mount Purgatory, with Adam and Eve in Eden, naked, at the top, is behind him; Hell is to one side, and Florence (displaying buildings dating to Michelino’s time) to the other. Dante is at the centre of his world and of the physical and moral cosmos; the poem is contained in, reflects, reflects on, and contains the world.
In my plan, Mount Purgatory was always going to be replaced by Bruegel the Elder’s sixteenth-century Tower of Babel – a recurrent symbol in comparative literature studies, not least in George Steiner’s classic After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation.
John Ruskin famously declared Dante to be “the central man of all the universe”, but Clare (Finburgh-Delijani, one of the two CCL Deputy Directors), Marie-Claude (Canova-Green, the other CCL Deputy Director) and I wanted to displace the canonical European male writer from the centre of our image. We wanted to include a wider, precious but also more precarious physical and cultural world than the Renaissance Florence that surrounds Medieval Dante.
And then, all these thoughts came together in an exhilarating few hours on a Microsoft Teams call between the three of us.
Dante is displaced, at the centre of our image, by the Guadeloupian writer Maryse Condé, whom we thank warmly for providing us with her photograph and authorization to edit it.
The ancient African seat of learning of Timbuktu (which figures in Maryse Condé’s novel Ségou) takes the place of Florence; the devil at the bottom of Michelino’s painting is now burning books, evoking not only the recent burning of some of Timbuktu’s precious manuscripts, but also the many historical attempts to destroy culture and erase memory.
The arid landscape of Michelino or the cultivated fields of Bruegel give way to the green, densely intricate Bengali mangroves of the Sundarbans, perhaps evoking Dante’s selva oscura but, more importantly, a recurrent literary setting in their own right (they appear for example in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide), as well as a delicate ecosystem threatened by climate change and encroaching human action. That they also echo Maryse Condé’s Crossing the Mangroves was another serendipitous bonus.
Composing this image lead to much laughter and several hours of collaborative fun, but we hope it also encapsulates some of the main concerns that animate us: the recognition and displacing of canons; concern with gender, race, religious and spiritual symbolism; radicalisation, material acquisition, environmental crisis, multilingualism and the necessity of translation. In the CCL, we aim to provide a forum to examine all of this, and a research and teaching environment devoted to the study of literary, artistic, critical and cultural phenomena that traverse, challenge, or work programmatically across national, ethnocentric, and monolingual canons and practices.
And we hope the serious fun we had will continue to be a feature of all our future activities!
This blog also aims to combine light touch and rigorous thought. It will host reflections on matters that concern comparative literature and world literature in their broadest sense, by ourselves and by our collaborators, consultants, visitors and members. Blog posts may address our discipline(s), theoretically, pedagogically, socially (such as in relation to questions of social justice), politically (such as in relation to the political context in which we live, not least the new looming cold wars), or in more academic research-oriented ways, including discussions of relevant debates, publications, and developments in the field. Or they may be personal musings, examinations of life-long obsessions, outbursts about our passions – maybe even our maniae – as we wander in the boundless expanses of literature, the arts and the humanities.
So: Welcome aboard everyone, look out for announcements of events to come, and get in touch with us if you want to know more, visit us, or work with us.
Lucia Boldrini, Director of the CCL – with Clare Finburgh Delijani and Marie-Claude Canova-Green, Deputy Directors.