Friday, January 30, 2009

Monumentality in Post-Bush Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- For the war-beaten orphans of the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit, this big old shoe fits. A monument to a shoe thrown at former President Bush is unveiled at the Tikrit Orphanage complex. A huge sculpture of the footwear hurled at President Bush in December during a trip to Iraq has been unveiled in a ceremony at the Tikrit Orphanage complex.

Assisted by children at the home, sculptor Laith al-Amiri erected a brown replica of one of the shoes hurled at Bush and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki by journalist Muntadhir al-Zaidi during a press conference in Baghdad.

Al-Zaidi was jailed for his actions, and a trial is pending. But his angry gesture touched a defiant nerve throughout the Arab and Muslim world. He is regarded by many people as a hero. Demonstrators in December took to the streets in the Arab world and called for his release.

The shoe monument, made of fiberglass and coated with copper, consists of the shoe and a concrete base. The entire monument is 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) high. The shoe is 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) long and 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) wide.

The orphans helped al-Amiri build the $5,000 structure -- unveiled Tuesday -- in 15 days, said Faten Abdulqader al-Naseri, the orphanage director.

"Those orphans who helped the sculptor in building this monument were the victims of Bush's war," al-Naseri said. "The shoe monument is a gift to the next generation to remember the heroic action by the journalist."

"When the next generation sees the shoe monument, they will ask their parents about it," al-Naseri said.

"Then their parents will start talking about the hero Muntadhir al-Zaidi, who threw his shoe at George W. Bush during his unannounced farewell visit."

Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi leader toppled by the United States in 2003, was from the Tikrit region.

Al-Zaidi marked his 30th birthday in jail earlier this month. One of his brothers said he is "in good health and is being treated well."

Al-Zaidi's employer, TV network al-Baghdadia, keeps a picture of him at the top left side of the screen with a calendar showing the number of days he has spent in detention. The network has been calling for his release.

By tradition, throwing a shoe is the most insulting act in the Arab world.


I think the last sentence in that CNN report (see original here) is one of the master strokes of insipid journalism, but, for me, it is the icing on this cake of wonderfulness. Somehow, someway, I will need to tell this story the next time I speak about monumentalism and public memory. I just hope I don't ruin it by talking about it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Governmentality -- This Time with Feeling

The emergence of Michel Foucault's College de France lectures are starting to shift the scholarly landscape in some interesting, exciting ways. This is perhaps strongest around Foucault's concept of "governmentality" which constituted all of ONE published essay, the well-known collection The Foucault Effect. That single lecture was actually taken from the middle of a series of lectures Foucault was giving on security, territory, and population. (This brilliant summary by me is actually the title of the book that all these lectures now appear.) Read back in this context, governmentality starts to be more wide-ranging than was once thought (especially with respect to the role of the state) and more intelligible than the earlier, sole essay conveyed.

Reading those lectures a couple of years ago, I realized that my own book on governmentality would need to be re-considered and I am really glad for it. Books like Stephen Legg, Spaces of Colonialism (2008) and essays by folks like Stuart Elden, Jeremy Crompton, among others, are giving me a very useful community of scholars with whom to re-consider governmentality as an analytical concept.

Now, of course, it is time to get this book done and join that conversation!

Friday, January 23, 2009

History, Historians, and the News

Here is why I am often "unavailable" when contacted by the media.

From the newswires;

"A Canadian government-sponsored initiative to re-enact the Battle of the Plains of Abraham this summer has baffled the small group of historians in France who specialize in Canadian history. The National Battlefields Commission is helping to finance the re-creation this summer to mark the 250th anniversary of the 1759 victory by British forces over the French at Quebec City. This year's event, involving up to 3,000 volunteers, has triggered consternation in Quebec over whether a folkloric celebration involving history buffs could inflame Quebec nationalist sentiment. Many nationalists view the battle as a humiliating defeat and the start of English domination over French-speaking inhabitants of North America. French historians have similar concerns about the wisdom of the re-enactment, and even question the battle's historical significance. "This is stupid," said University of Caen historian Andre Zysberg. "This celebration of a military event will just revive old political, religious and ethnic antagonisms. It is the use of history as a political weapon." Francoise Le Jeune, who heads the University of Nantes' Centre for the Study of Canada, said it is important for a young country like Canada to find unifying landmarks."

I am always impressed by scholarly discourse that includes the expression "This is stupid." Who wouldn't be? Now I doubt Professor Zysberg said to the reporter, "okay, is the recording device working? Good. Here comes my opinion on this issue: This is stupid. Did you get that? Should I repeat it? No? Good. I look forward to the article. Good bye." (If this was, in fact, what happened, then I have a whole other kind of respect for this quotation.) But the dreaded sound-byte mentality of contemporary media makes reflective, and, yes, digressive, discourse nearly impossible. This is hardly news -- although if it were it would be "Media is Stupid!" --but it still breaks my heart.

But the above article is useful for it reminds us that when you want to really get insight into the politics of memory and history involved with something like the re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the first stop better be specialists of Canadian history working in France. I feel better knowing this.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Audacity of Hope

Cynical as I want to be about the possibility of effective, lasting, and meaningful change, I am succumbing to the winds of hope blowing up here from Washington, D.C.. It has put into motion for me the idea of a research paper on how the Canadian media responded to Lincoln's two inaugural addresses, especially the now-mythic second one given at the end of the American Civil War. Today, though, it is about the audacity of hope.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Place, Memory, and Youtube

The family album, travel diary, and scrapbook is still alive and well in the digital age, except now it appears in websites like Flickr and Youtube. Historians are S-L-O-W-L-Y coming to terms with all this, and public historians and historians interested in memory, have been quickest off the mark. I have had really good success teaching undergraduate students (a first-year class in "Landscape and History" and a third-year class in "Historical Representations") taking advantage of the accessibility of these digital archives. Here is what we do:

1) Students are asked to read Steve High, "Deindustrializing Youngstown: Memories of Resistance and Loss following ‘Black Monday’, 1977–1997," History Workshop Journal, 54, 1 (2002): 100-121.

In that article, Steve makes several important points, but among these is how the narratives of loss told about Youngstown, including those by Bruce Springstreen in his "Youngstown", followed closely the narratives of loss told about the American Midwest during the Great Depression, by people like John Steinbeck.

2) Before discussing Steve's article in much depth, I begin class by showing the following:

Not only do students "get it", more importantly this exercise opens up far ranging discussions about the urge to document place, self, community and so forth, through things like mash-up music videos. They wander back into their own experiences, and those of their family, and start to talk about things like "family albums, travel diaries, and scrapbooks". This requires only a modest amount of intervention from me. Students have a terrific capacity for, and interest in, working through stuff from their own lives but from a perspective they had not yet considered. To me this is what being in a university classroom is all about.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Revising, Revising, Revising

Michael Chabon is the best wordsmith in American literature. He writes sentences that make other writers (read: me) weep with a combination of joy and envy. I sometimes read his writing aloud to better savour, and deconstruct, the rhythm of his prose. My respect for Chabon was deepened, however, when I read, listened to, and watched a number of interviews he gave in support of his most recent books, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Maps and Legends, and Gentlemen of the Road. He talked a lot about the process and, lo and behold, here was the "secret" to his remarkable writing: discipline. He writes everyday, from 9-3, aiming for a minimum of 1000 worthy words. While also blessed with more than a trace of talent, Chabon's story is in many respects unexceptional. He puts his butt in a chair, his fingers on the keyboard, and gets to work.

I have been thinking of Chabon quite a bit these days as two readers' reports have me (and my co-author) grinding hard on revisions. There is no way to shortcut this process and, if I am honest, I would be saddened if there were: the suffering, sleeplessness, and frustration of revision is also one of the strangest pleasures a writer has.

Revise, revise, revise.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Teaching and Reading

Today marks the start of my graduate class. I love this class because I get to listen to, and learn from, a group of very smart people who, if I have done my job correctly, are reading good historical writing. As much as any course I have ever taught, this one is the most revealing about my own (professional) self. And it is also the class in which I say, by far, the least. Terrifying but also least as these things go for academics.

We start with one of the finest books written in Canadian history: Alan Greer's Mohawk Saint. I have recommended this book to all sorts of readers, inside and outside the university, and have yet to hear a bad word about it. It is a book about a remarkable historical figure, about a fascinating and distant historical era, and yet it is also a book that manages to be about history and about historians without losing a focus on the story and its actors. I have read it three times cover-to-cover and learn something new every time. What a great way to start my teaching in 2009.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Year, Hopefully, Of Blogging

Reading so many good (and, sometimes, less good) books and not talking about them has become rather depressing. If reading something makes my stride a little bouncier, my mood a little better, and my brain a little livelier, why keep these good feelings to myself? It is time to blow the dust off of this blog and get to the historiography that is mattering to me.

There are also some very self-serving reasons to do this: I have three books in progress right now, all of which are under contract, in addition to the work I am doing in preparation for the 2009 Annual Meeting of the Canadian Historical Association. I am so grateful to my students for inspiring me to not scale back on my teaching and supervisions: being in the classroom, reading drafts of graduate thesis chapters, exchanging emails with former students, remind me daily that all of my scholarly work is deeply and profoundly connected. I want to think out loud about these connections and this space seems ideal for just that. And so...

First up is the new Ann Laura Stoler book, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton UP, 2009). Stoler is writing a book about how the Netherlands Indes were archived, how they were written about, photographed, studied, reported upon, and talked about over a 100 year period, from the 1830s to the 1930s. It is not a book about life and death in the archives, about the odd dissonance involved with holding scraps of paper on which an unimaginable number of histories collide and bounce away. Nor is it a book about power-knowledge practices, technologies, and strategies which have become so important for governmentality and state formation scholars. It is both of those things, partly, but it is also a book that is committed to understanding how the making of colonial archives were endemic to the making of colonial histories. Stoler's breath-taking reading across theoretical and disciplinary traditions opens up some exciting meditations on the colonial archive of the Netherlands Indes that move in some significantly new directions from those opened up by other scholars interested in these issues, such as James C. Scott, Antoinette Burton, and Patrick Joyce. Selfishly, I wish Stoler would broaden what constitutes the "colonial archive" and probe how other locations of archiving might reveal about the patterns and processes she identifies in more official (i.e. statist) archival spaces, something, for example, Burton's Dwelling in the Archive does quite nicely. Like everything she writes, though, Stoler's Along the Archival Grain has much to offer scholars from all over the university and I hope historians in particular read, debate, and respond to the challenges this book makes.

Less scholarly, but no less important to me over the last couple of weeks has been John Hodgman. If you want to know why, head over to his website or his Wikipedia entry and prepare to laugh. That is all.