Research and Teaching


There is no one better positioned than the late Edward Said to offer advice on the conduct of intellectual life. At the time of his death in September, 2003 he was perhaps the best known intellectual in the world with millions of readers who saw him variously as a renowned professor of comparative literature, a cultural theorist, a musician, music critic, and (with maestro Daniel Barenboim) musical activist, and, with growing urgency over the last thirty-five years, the most passionate, eloquent, and clear-eyed advocate for the rights of the Palestinian people. Idolized and despised, venerated and denounced, Said was impossible to ignore.
The scope of his interests, the depth of his ambitions, the energy and effort invested in every project was vast, and yet each somehow informed and was influenced by the others, and each was animated by his understanding of humanism as universal, inclusive, communitarian, and democratic. Daniel Barenboim (2005) insists that Said had a “musician’s soul” and he traces Said’s fierce antispecialization, his sense of interconnectedness and inclusion, his distinction between power and force, volume and intensity—all insights of a musician—from his work in music to other fields. Said’s great work on Orientatism—which spawned the field of postcolonial studies, a field Said would go on to criticize and question as it developed its own lazy habits and received wisdom—was written and published after 1967, when Said was brought into Palestinian politics for the first time. Linkages abound around issues of conflicting narratives, visibility, and human rights.
As an advocate for Palestinian rights Said was unparalleled and yet he was not a spokesman in any conventional sense, for he held no office whatsoever, nor was he ever a mouth-piece for power. Indeed his criticisms of the official Palestinian leadership were both withering and relentless, keeping with his consistent injunction to oppose all orthodoxy, especially the lazy reductiveness or corruption or failures of those with whom one shares an affinity. Said in regard to Palestine was a powerful public example of someone with a mind of his own, arguing with himself without ever losing sight of the larger contexts of suffering and oppression.
Still the Palestinians had no more powerful champion. Said argued that “Humanism… must excavate the silences, the world of memory, of itinerant, barely surviving groups, the places of exclusion and invisibility, the kind of testimony that doesn’t make it into the reports.” To this end he made it his business to keep talking about Palestine, to say again and again and again—whether he thought anyone was listening or not—that the Palestinian people exist, and that while they have the sorry fate of being the victims of the 20th Century’s emblematic victims, they still have the same rights as any other people. Because all human beings are entitled to the same standards in regard to justice and freedom, Palestinians must be recognized; there simply is no sensible refutation to that self-evident if inconvenient fact. Against the most high-powered propaganda barrage, in the face of threats and smear campaigns, cancellations of talks and spurious “investigations,” Said stubbornly stood his ground and spoke of Palestinians.
His book-length essay After the Last Sky written with the Swiss photographer, Jean Mohr, provides an extended reflection on the lives of Palestinians, and fulfills his injunction to “excavate the silences.” In it he portrays Palestinians, reflects on the images the wider world has of them as well as the images they have of themselves. He maps the corrosive dimensions of occupation, and clarifies the basic human need for people to narrate their own stories in order to move forward.
It is for the Palestinian people themselves “to provide the answer that power and paranoia cannot” he wrote in Al-Ahram and Al-Hayat in 2001. That answer “can only come from moral vision” based on a common humanity, and never from “pragmatism” nor “practicality”: “If we are all to live—this is our imperative—we must capture the imagination not just of our people but of our oppressors.” In order to accomplish that, Palestinians must “abide by humane democratic values.” The moral vision must be “based on equality and inclusion rather than on apartheid and exclusion.” This is a humanist response to a very human tragedy.

Human beings, and particularly intellectuals and researchers, are driven by a long, continuous: “I don’t know.” It is, after all, not the known that pushes and pull us along, although we must be serious about preparation, work, discipline, and labor. Doing research can be hard work, and a researcher can feel (if she is like others who’ve gone down this path) as if she’s crashed into a wall—overwhelmed, uncertain, deeply confused and dislocated in turn. But if she stays with it, if she dives into the wreckage, she will likely find moments of relief, exhilaration, self-discovery, and even of joy.
There is a long tradition of scholarship whose avowed purpose is to combat silence, to defeat erasure and invisibility—this is research for social justice, research to resist harm and redress grievances, research with the explicit goal of promoting a more balanced, fair, and equitable social order. Several questions can serve as guideposts for this kind of inquiry:
∑ What are the issues that marginalized or disadvantaged people speak of with excitement, anger, fear, or hope?
∑ How can I enter a dialogue in which I will learn from a specific community itself about problems and obstacles they face?
∑ What endogenous experiences do people already have that can point the way toward solutions?
∑ What narrative is missing from the “official story” that will make the problems of the oppressed more understandable?
∑ What current or proposed policies serve the privileged and the powerful, and how are they made to appear inevitable?
∑ How can the public space for discussion, problem-posing and problem-solving, fuller and wider participation be expanded?
There is no single procedure, no computer program that will allow this work to take care of itself; there is no set of techniques that is orderly, efficient, and pretested that can provide complete distance from a phenomenon under study or from the process of inquiry itself. Researchers draw on judgment, experience, instinct, common sense, courage, reflection, further study. There is always more to know, always something in reserve. We’re never exactly comfortable, but neither are we numb or sleep-walking. We don’t get harmony, but we do get a kind of arching forward—always reaching, pursuing, longing, opening, rethinking.
Researchers must peer into the unknown and cultivate habits of vigilance and awareness, a radical openness, as we continually remind ourselves that in an infinite and expanding universe our ignorance is vast, our finiteness itself all the challenge we should need to propel ourselves forward. Knowing this, we nourish an imagination that’s defiant and limitless, and like the color blue or love or friendship, impossible to define without a maiming reductiveness. The goal is discovery and surprise, and in the end it is our gusto, our immersion, our urgency, enthusiasm, and raw nerve that will take us hurling toward the next horizon. We remind ourselves that the greatest work awaits us, and that we are never higher than when we’re not exactly certain where we’re going.
What interests, tendencies, or classes does our research precisely serve? What will invite people to become more aware, more critical, creative, active and productive, more free? While researchers might never know definitively how to answer these questions a priori, a certain angle of regard might help each of us to make sounder judgments, to construct a more hopeful and workable standard by which we can examine our efforts. We begin by recognizing that every human being, no matter who, is a gooey biological wonder, pulsing with the breath and beat of life itself, each with a unique and complex set of circumstances that makes his or her life understandable and sensible, bearable or unbearable. This recognition asks us to reject any action that treats anyone as an object, any gesture that thingifies human beings. It demands that we embrace the humanity of every student and every research collaborator, that we take their side.
What are the challenges to human beings today? What does the hope for democracy demand now? Edward Said points out that “Our country is first of all an extremely diverse immigrant society, with fantastic resources and accomplishments, but it also contains a redoubtable set of internal inequities and external interventions that cannot be ignored.” We are faced with the enduring stain of racism and the ever more elusive and intractable barriers to racial justice, the rapidly widening gulf between rich and poor, and the enthronement of greed. We are faced as well with aggressive economic and military adventures abroad, the macho posturing of men bonding in groups and enacting a kind of theatrical but no less real militarism, the violence of conquest and occupation from the Middle East and Central Asia to South America.
Encountering these facts thrusts us into the realm of human agency and choice, the battlefield of social action and change, where we come face to face with some stubborn questions: Can we, perhaps, stop the suffering? Can we alleviate at least some of the pain? Can we repair any of the loss? There are deeper considerations: can society be changed at all? Is it remotely possible—not inevitable, certainly, perhaps not even likely—for people to come together freely, to imagine a more just and peaceful social order, to join hands and organize for something better, and to win? Can we do anything?
If a fairer, more sane and just social order is both desirable and possible, if some of us can join one another to imagine and build a participatory movement for justice, a public space for the enactment of democratic dreams, our field opens slightly. There would still be much to be done, for nothing would be entirely settled. We would still need to find ways to stir ourselves and our students from passivity, cynicism, and despair, to reach beyond the superficial barriers that wall us off from one another, to resist the flattening social evils like institutionalized racism, to shake off the anesthetizing impact of the authoritative, official voices that dominate so much of our space, to release our imaginations and act on behalf of what the known demands, linking our conduct firmly to our consciousness. We would need to reconceptualize ourselves as “stunt-intellectuals,” the ones who are called upon when the other intellectuals refuse to jump off the bridge. We would be moving, then, without guarantees, but with purpose and with some small spark of hope.

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One Response to Research and Teaching

  1. mentalslavery says:

    I like this post, it has a public sociology feel to it. This election cycle has brought all the crazy’s out. You must get a lot of hateful comments. I can imagine most were not alive during the 60’s and have a hard time understanding radicalism. I was not alive during the 60’s so I don’t fully understand it, at least not in the context of experience. I get it intellectually, from studies in sociology and history.

    I came of age in the 80’s. It was a time in which conventional wisdom and conservative thought dominated everyday conversation. I don’t understand how those who lived through the 60’s could handle the 80’s and 90’s as well as the current social climate. Such freedom and opportunity for big change reduced to lifeless existence. Most of what I remember of my father during childhood was him cursing at the evening news and basically apologizing to me for the country that was to unfold during my maturation. I have dedicated my life to understanding how truth was lost for a generation plus. The idea’s perpetrated after civil rights were so obviously bankrupt. As a child I got it. None of it ever made sense. How is it possible that I understood it as a child and others did not? It was not complicated. The conservative ideas have always reversed logical order and served as an excuse for inaction. The premise is “do nothing”, making life in-actionable. Most of what we are told during socialization, most of what is common sense is a lie. Its not even a creative or well planned lie. It is a simple and gross lie. It appeared that the perspective of the 60’s was a brief breakdown in the inter-generational transmission of our cultural lying. Thus, the lies and what they mean for us is an interesting question.

    For example, the idea that people are poor because they are lazy is a big lie people like to repeat. Very popular in the 80’s. It is contradicted by the fact that people are born into poverty. An individual’s laziness can not generate poverty if they were born into poverty. Poverty occurred first and then an individual life, thus, if anything is to be believed it is that poverty that generates laziness. Thats simple, right? Basic ordering of events. The conclusion is do nothing about poverty, you cant help them, they must help themselves.

    But the notion that poverty generates laziness is a lie too, possible a bigger one than the fore-mentioned. Every poor person I ever met worked circles around me in hot shitty conditions and every rich or middle class person I ever meet worked at a desk, in the air conditioning, and had paid vacations. If you don’t believe me, work a minimum wage job and then work a high paying job. Tell me which one made you tired at the end of the day. I already know the answer, the high paying job, right, because all that extra skill and training that was necessary to do the job made that job more tiring. Please, big lie!

    Whats more is that lie leads to a moral lie. I know everyone else knew at least one poor person or at least watched the poor work as they soaked up the luxuries of middle class and affluent services. I was/am always shocked at how people continue unaffected by reality. I have never gotten over it. I am always uncomfortable by my own privilege and that of others. How can I enjoy my life with the knowledge that my consumption or opportunity comes at the cost of another. On a daily basis I fluctuate between pity and rage. I feel sorry for those born oppressed and those who actively work to ignore it. I am enraged by my inability to fix it. I spend all my time trying to and can’t honestly say that I have made much a difference outside of a small number of individuals who I have helped. People say that its not my responsibility and its not their responsibility. Thats more bullshit. You’re aware that it exists and you’re aware that it is wrong. You’re aware that you benefit from it. So, we lie to ourselves, morally. I have done no wrong in ignoring the suffering of others. My affluence is not related to their suffering as if there are resources just laying around for the lazy poor to go pick up. Free healthcare, jobs, food, clothing, just growing on tree’s for everyone to take. Lazy poor, to stupid, because they were too lazy to go to school, to get directions to the resource tree.

    I never understood how children believed in god or santa. Did they not cross the evening news on there way outside to play and see starving children in 3rd world countries? How is it possible that what we are told about god and santa are true givin such reality? God and Santa, most likely, big time lie!!

    The first time I saw that shit (starving children) I understood that it contradicted the premise behind many ideas communicated during my daily interaction with others. I did not earn things. Adults don’t know best, adults created guns and bombs and war. All things opposite of “best”. Working hard was not linked to success, I see lots of people work hard and they are not successful and I see lots of lazy people who are. Its right there, in front of you. Its there every day in every way. Honestly is not of high value, or charity, or kindness. They are reminders of the reality we actively try to forget. For much of my childhood I thought adults crazy. How do they believe in such shit and why are they trying to get me and my other friends to believe it? It s one thing to allow others to be harmed while you do nothing to stop it. How could people intentionally convince others that harm did not exist or was deserved? Additionally, everyone knew that it was all bullshit. Deep, Deep down inside they knew the truth. Every once in a while it would come out. The truth and reality, for a brief second, and then escape back into the unmentioned. Like when children ask why other children need to die in war and where god is when that happens and if that is going to happen to them. Like when children see homeless people and try to give them something. Like when children watch an episode of “Cops” on TV and cry in fear the next time they see a cop in real life.

    I spend lots of time looking through the comment sections of post about political topics. I see lots of division in this country. Another lie, one country. The ability to express an opinion and not have it attributed to an individual is a freeing tool. People say the most hateful things. I believe they are expressing their true selves, the things not acceptable in polite company. They appear to seek out topics where they know they can lecture or demean someone. They know they will find people in the comment sections that represent people they think they are supposed to hate. People who you are told are bad and the opposite of you. I try to put it in prospective. Its just the internet. The comments don’t represent the country as a whole. But that is probably a lie that I have a hard time shaking. That this country is basically good and full of good people. The truth is probably closer to reality. From the beginning of this country two opposite conditions have dominated: oppression and equality. A reading of one basic history book makes it all clear. In the beginning, genocide and slavery and then physical freedom of man, followed by jim crowism and the civil rights movement. Followed by institutional discrimination and what next? All of this under the umbrella of a relatively stable economic inequality. This general pattern creates the appearance that we are making progress, however, one could easily argue that it is merely a perception. And the notion of progress is a lie.

    What is funny about War Vet and farmer is that such individuals show up at this site to call people names, is it the daily lie that we live creating the anger within? You take time out of your day to seek people out to demean? Do you feel better because you have insulted someone? Does that idea you have of people here or ayers match the idea’s you have in you head about someone you know? Someone you have had conflict with, who demeaned you, who appeared to be a radical? Are your actions here retaliation or a lie?

    If war vet is really a vet then he should appreciate what ayers and other radicals represent. If people who seek to demean ayers are patriots then they should think about the functionality of a radical citizen. Right or wrong, like our methods/personalities or not, the radical citizen who organizes is the only group standing between you and your government when some must stand between oppressive powers and the public. So, uh right, uh your welcome! (in advance, assuming positive outcome or passed protection)

    Are you going to stand up to your government and take the brunt of punishment? Withstand the awesome power? Are you willing to face a battle in which you are outnumbered and vastly under-weaponized. No, of course you won’t. If you did , at that moment, then you would become a radica/by definition. This dynamic is not new, there were many who believed we should have never split from Britain, and then there were radicals. So, uh, right, hate to bring this up again, but, your welcome, for freedom and what not.

    Agreeing with the decisions of your government is not patriotic behavior, it is also not necessarily unpatriotic. But if, god forbid, your government designs plans to harm you, we will spread the word. If your government is abusing you then we will stand in the way. When your government sends you to fight a war, we are the only ones who will ask if it is a lie. If we determine that it is a lie, we will lay our ass on the line in opposition. After doing so, we will accept the criticism that comes with our actions. Sound familiar vet? You may not agree with our tactics, we don’t agree with yours. You might find us funny and unrealistic, we think that of you. But we, the radicals, the peacemakers, the hippies, the pacifist are the only ones who will have your back when governments send you to die for an idea or some oil. The rest of society is happy to send you off to war and leave the hard questions to others, because of course, it is not their responsibility. We protest despite the fact that most of us hate war and killing, an army mans trade, and the army man lays his ass on the line for us despite the fact most hate protesters and the liberal idea’s that they spread via free speech. So, the lie we believe of each other is that we are different. We are so different, so different in every way. We could never have anything in common.

    Besides, that we are willing to die for another who we strongly disagree with, and possibly kill. Besides the fact that we hold an idea about what is correct, right or wrong, above our lives. Besides the fact that without the history of sacrifice by vets who fought for freedom I will most likely be silenced, and without the history of radicals who check the powers of corrupt governments the institution of warfare would lose legitimacy. So, the lies mean that we attack others whose behavior we benefit from because we are told they are meat-head warriors or hippy communist radicals. So next time you see a poorer person than you, don’t twist your face at him or her, calmly walk up, extend your hand and thank them for being poorer. Its the least you can do, really.

    Ayers might have been wrong in his actions and his intentions. I don’t know because I was not alive at the time, I doubt any of you were either. I did not know him personally, then or now, I doubt any of you do. I can’t conclude that he wanted to kill others as is commonly asserted. Maybe the lack of death associated with his attacks is luck, or part of a plan, or incompetence. I think that it is likely that if he was such a blood thirsty terrorist who wanted to kill others that he could not have achieved that goal. After all, there was a war raging. But I sure the profound logical and mental gymnastics it took for me to deduce that was not apparent to you, right? Bullshit, you attack ayers because he is a reminder of the truth, living proof of the lie, a thorn in your side as you attempt to go along to get along. If ayers was not around and occupying a respected positions in society then we could repeat the lie, unhampered by his presences, that terrorist exist and our government is here to protect us. That our tax dollars are put to good use in these and other operations; That the world is simple, the poor and lazy, the rich and hard working, The good and the bad. But his presence in such prominence is a reminder, that such a notion is in fact, a lie.

    As we attack each other we fail in our ability to recognize and achieve common goals. We must appear to “god” as silly vacuous simpletons. Maybe that is why children in poor countries starve and women and children are the most to die of war, as evidence of our inabilities. Most of us are of similar income and are subjected to similar problems because a lack of resources, a few of us are doing magnificently. Of course, one day you will be one of those doing soo well, right. If you only work hard. If you follow the rules. If you don’t think or say anything objectionable in polite conversation. Because poverty is result of laziness and your lot in life is our own fault. If you believe these things and by some stretch of the imagination they are a lie, then are you free or are you a perfectly programed robot. Is freedom a lie?

    If you focus on some specifics that some would like you to focus on then you are blinded by the tree and lacking the perspective that comes when viewing a forest. Ayers is one in a long line of radicals. Radicals who exposed the Vietnam war (and others) as a lie, as corrupt. Radicals who made some positive changes and terrible mistakes, just like vets. We, the radical and vet, are as American as oppression and equality.

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