On February 28th and March 1st 2013, the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University will be hosting its annual graduate conference. Titled “Paradigmatic Conflict and Crisis,” the conference seeks to showcase the work of emerging scholars whose research is concerned with the spaces between conflicting, emerging, and established paradigms, and with new possibilities for our understanding of paradigm as both a discursive formation and a set of practices.
Baraza is happy to announce our participation in two exciting facets of this year’s conference. First, Baraza will be co-sponsoring a roundtable discussion whose discussion topic resonates with our driving goals and interests as a digital space for the exchange of knowledge across disciplines and geographies. “Decolonizing the Digital” will address questions surrounding the role of the Digital Humanities as an emerging field of knowledge in current and future scholarly research on the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. Crucial to this discussion is the decentering of the Europhone/North American academy as the locus of work within the Digital Humanities.
In addition to co-sponsoring the “Decolonizing the Digital” roundtable discussion, Baraza will be involved in the creation of a digital volume showcasing exceptional papers presented at this year’s conference. Our foray into digital publishing is a natural and necessary step forward in our role as a marketplace of knowledge exchange across discursive and geographic boundaries.
“Paradigmatic Conflict and Crisis” is currently accepting abstracts, which can be submitted online at http://mesaasgradconference.org until Monday January 21st, 2013.
My father is an art historian. One of the criticisms I remember him leveling against non-art historians over breakfast was that “x doesn’t know how to read an image.” I had always assumed this was one of those criticisms that don’t really mean anything like: “x totally misrepresents Foucault here” or “x’s discourse is hegemonic.” The past few weeks have given a couple of examples, however, of just how right my father was and how wrong I was. It seems no-one, including myself, really knows how to read an image.
The first is the case of the Swedish Culture Minister and the racist cake. Lena Liljeroth was photographed smiling as she cut into a cake that depicted a racist caricature of a black woman. This has been taken as, at best, a misjudged, ill thought-out stunt and, at worst, a deeply problematic symbol of lingering racism in Swedish society. My first reaction was that it was a provocative post-colonial critique. The head of the cake was replaced by the head of a real person who was screaming with pain throughout the proceedings. My interpretation: Europe has been gleefully cutting up the proverbial African and eating their very flesh oblivious to the human being in pain underneath the surface (vel sim).
Coverage of the conflict that brought the end of Gaddafi's 42-year regime over Libya exposed some of the weakest points in the ways we conceive of geographical categories. Rebel forces accused Gaddafi of using “African mercenaries,” painting a racial tint to the civil conflict. In many respects, the conflict showed the limits of Libya's Africanness -- which Gaddafi emphasized in his later years -- while aggravating the very real historical tensions between Arabs and other ethnic groups in Africa. Nevertheless, the positioning of Libya as an African nation has resonated with many Africans on the continent and throughout its diaspora.
How can we account for Libya's occupation of both Arab and African fields of identity?
A recent feature article published in the McGill Daily--my alma mater’s independent newspaper--recounted the detainment of Islamic Studies PhD student Pascal Abidor during a trip home to New York from Montreal via Amtrak. Abidor presented his passport to the border patrol officers as the train entered the United States, and when asked where he lived and why, Abidor explained that he was a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies at McGill University.
This was enough to arouse the suspicion of the officers, who then looked through files on his laptop and found images of Hamas and Hezbollah rallies. Abidor explained these were a part of his research on Shiism in contemporary Lebanon. Abidor was then removed from the train, handcuffed, detained, and interrogated.
The global wave of protests presently underway has ushered in a new crisis in the interdisciplinary field of area studies. The Arab Spring in particular has sounded an alarming wake-up call, leading many to challenge the relevance of modalities and methods currently employed within area studies. There is an existentialist quality underpinning this crisis, as scholars question how their personal subjectivities and academic training may be employed in a more constructive, responsible manner.
Although it is a relatively new field, this is not area studies’ first moment of crisis. As the United States rose to superpower status in the aftermath of World War II, area studies began to emerge as a field through which the government could cultivate regional “experts” to perform military and intelligence missions in areas deemed critical to Washington’s interests. Throughout the Cold War, dubious ties of many leading area studies scholars and departments with governmental and military agencies (ranging from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Department of Defense) were exposed. Many resulting issues of transparency and ethics, in terms of the often-ambiguous relationship between politics and academics, remain unresolved today.
After 42 years under the tight grip of Muammar al-Gaddafi, Libya is not only experiencing a political revolution but also a media revolution. The tightly controlled state-run media of the Gaddafi regime allowed no room for free expression or criticism. As the revolution which began in February of 2011 spread across Libya, numerous media outlets emerged including more than 300 dailies and weeklies according to the news website Magharebia. During a trip to Libya late last year, I noticed new newspapers with their first editions on sale at news stands on a weekly basis.