All posts by clux

Piracy and Protection

by Rina Faletti

In 1924, Harvard Law Review editors wondered: “Is the crime of piracy obsolete?” Today, in a new century and a new millennium, when 90% of global commerce travels by sea, practices of piracy and counter-piracy are pertinent. Research on maritime piracy by Dr. Jatin Dua, socio-cultural anthropologist from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, traces ways in which piracy practices developed in the 19thcentury in the Western Indian Ocean region. He focuses on the Somali coast, one of the busiest merchant port regions in the world. Dua presented “Encounters at Sea: Piracy and Protection in the Western Indian Ocean,” in a bi-weekly seminar series on water hosted by the Center for the Humanities.

Dua explores maritime piracy within frameworks of protection, risk and regulation as he moves among the apparently disparate worlds of coastal communities in northern Somalia, the global shipping industry, and maritime insurance adjustors in London. He locates ideas of protection on a broad continuum between what seem to be polar opposites: of danger and safety, piracy and protection, hospitality and hostility, trade and raid, intimacy and estrangement, patrimony and ownership. He proposes that these “opposites” are “stuck together” as the pirate, the counter-pirate, and the victim of piracy each lay a variable claim to the right to protect the slice of water through which each travels. Here, the “free and open sea” is “far from an empty space of circulation,” but rather a landscape of “forms of territoriality” that variably govern relationships of interchange and conflict at sea.

Dua focuses historical analysis on regional effects of imperialism and colonialism in the 19th century, when interests of imperial ideologies clashed with, and ultimately overran, local sovereignties in maritime transport and governance. His analysis of 19th century Protectorate ideology delineates native protection (whose claim is on an immediate and individualized prospect) from colonial political protection (which claims a global prospect). Dua points out that while colonial-style rhetoric expressed an aspiration toward peaceful and productive co-existence, this was accomplished through “civilizing” practices that disbanded native sovereignties, bringing them under institutionalized control and creating the dichotomy that defined the “Other.”

These points resonate in Dua’s discussion of his current ethnographic work on piracy in the Indian Ocean in recent years. In a discussion of abaan, a cultural institution of protection for itinerant traders in caravans on land, Dua finds that the on-land caravan concept extended culturally into sea trade. Traditionally, protectors of caravans were exalted in ancient poetry; similarly, the rise of piracy into the current century results in an industry of protection from piracy. Today in Somalia, piracy has developed into a highly capitalized practice, where a great deal of money goes into capture, kidnap, and ransom aboard large ships, and where everyone operates in modified modes of protection.

At base in this work, practices of protection hinge on limits of recognition in power relationships. Who is recognized as needing protection, and who as being able to provide it? Where do paradigms of protection fit into assumptions about “civilization”? And, how are the interests of both protector and protected insured in these relationships? Who has the right to be protected? Jatin Dua’s work demonstrates that questions of piracy and protection are far from obsolete.

Ways of Water

by Kim De Wolff

If you google “Maya Khosla” you will find an Indian poet living in America, the co-director of the Turtle Diaries film project, and a Senior Field Biologist. And you will likely be impressed to learn that they are all one and the same person. In her seminar, “Ways of Water, Lives of Those Who Depend On It,” Maya Khosla demonstrated this accomplished breadth in a presentation of prose, poetry and film surrounding her work on sea turtles. Both project and approach reach across divides between researchers and publics, science and art. In what follows I pull out three themes that emerge in and from her work that help us grapple with questions about the practice of being interdisciplinary in a time of ecological crisis.

  1. Communicating “More Than” Science

Though trained as a biologist, Khosla explicitly leaves space for something “more than” science. She writes that arribada, “defies logic, and to some extent, defies scientific understanding,” and deploys scientific concepts as poetic metaphors. The ecotone, for example, as transition area between two bioregions, between land and sea; and as a kind of transcendent boundary space, something bigger and older than humans, than science. The project assumes a natural world that sometimes exceeds our capacities to understand it, and demonstrates a commitment to environmental communication that requires more than the conveyance of measured facts. This stands in contrast to approaches that privilege scientific understanding alone; it is a kind of resistance against the tendency to reduce problems in the word to matters of scientific accuracy (This is an interesting contrast to our first presenter of the seminar, Emmanuel Vincent, who emphasized accuracy and/as credibility as crucial components in climate change science communication).

Like all interdisciplinary endeavors, however, there are tensions between ways of making and sharing knowledge. In an interview, Khosla acknowledges this outright, pointing to the delicate balance between science and values and pushing toward a broader set of questions: what are the relationships between ways of knowing, caring, and acting? Does accuracy matter if it precludes action? Is awareness enough?

  1. Making Ourselves Present

Another way we can think about these tensions is by looking at the variations in writing styles between two short pieces. The Arribada article, for example, leans more toward the conventions of science or environmental writing. It presents a phenomenon in the world: the wonders of turtles coming to nest; a threat to this continuing as returning turtle numbers decline; and the researchers trying to understand it all. The author, as the researcher-writer is a mostly outside observer, describing what is happening on the beach. The article is written in past tense, and even draws on bits of passive voice.

Where the Arribada article opens with images of turtles and turtles alone, the fieldnotes article in Flyways begins with the writer herself very much present: she is “shin-deep” in ocean and turtles and darkness. It is unapologetically written in first person, opening with a declarative sentence that effectively says: “I am here.” Where the Arribada article gives a sense of how the beach looks, here we get a sense of how it feels: little claws digging into human skin and grains of sand that stick to everything; the excitement of scientists and the rubbery smell of baby turtles. The writing is far more emotional, and the author so very human: someone who hopes and cares and struggles and fails. This is perhaps best encapsulated by the devastating moment where a night of successfully leading baby turtles toward the sea by flashlight, ends in the daylight revelation of just how many more remain disoriented and exposed.

Faith. Doubt. Failure. All of these things, of course, are not standard fare in natural science writing where they would be seen to undermine the project of sharing objective knowledge. When and why do we write ourselves in and out of our work? What disciplinary or generic conventions and politics are enacted as we make ourselves and our experiences of research, of interpretation, of emotions, present or not?

  1. From Awareness to Global Change

My final big point returns to the question of the ‘how’ of rasing awareness. Sea turtles are an example of what biodiversity and science and technology scholars (among others) call Charismatic Megafauna: the kinds of species more likely to get attention from publics and policymakers than others. They tend to be large, cute mammals with big eyes. Think pandas, baby harp seals, polar bears. Anything that makes a good plush toy. Like their furry counterparts, a turned around baby turtle being torn apart by a crow – has the capacity to elicit urgent emotional responses in a way that the slow and dispersed effects of ocean acidification cannot. There’s no question, that these are effective strategies for raising awareness, and in the case of organizations like Greenpeace, significant funding. In theory, this funding is then used to protect whole ecosystems.

Yet, as poster-creatures for the ocean, charismatic species like turtles are more likely to be studied, protected and positioned prominently in environmental campaigns than say, the blobfish. Which, if you haven’t seen one, looks like a sad-faced melting pile of pink slime . In response, we could simply adopt the blobfish as our mascot, like the Ugly Animal Preservation Society (Yes, that is for real). But this kind of thinking still leads toward single species-specific problems and solutions. You can see this in the last question asked by the interviewer from Flyways: what can we do to save the turtles?

My final question, then, (and it is a big one) is how do we move from awareness to global change? From having more people on beaches with flashlights to turtle populations that do not need human intervention to thrive. And how do we move from saving specific turtles to addressing the much broader challenges – of climate change, of inequality, of capitalism – at the root of the threats themselves? I do not have the answers – but if it is turtles all the way down, then turtles are an excellent place to start.

Following the Tracks of Yu

by Danielle Bermudez

Water can often be seen as a source of life, but it can also lead to loss. In this seminar, Ruth Mostern, Associate Professor of History at UC Merced, explores how water may have led to immense change of landscape and life in eleventh century China. While research is still being conducted, Mostern provides fascinating insights about the soil of the Yellow River and how this impacted the defensive strategies of the Song dynasty. These dynamics may have altered the environmental history of the region, based on the timing and scale of loess plateau fortification, leading to numerous disaster floods during the eleventh century.

The Yellow River, or Huang He, is the third-longest river in Asia, and is the sixth-longest river in the world, with an estimated length of 5,464 km. It flows through nine provinces, and empties in Shandong province. During the eleventh century, military strategy was important, and ambitious fortification with garrisons, as well as the presence of more than half a million soldiers, had an immense impact on an ecologically fragile region.

According to Mostern, the natural landscape of the Yellow River is prone to soil erosion without vegetation cover. Fortifications in Northern Song were strategically built near the edges of the Yellow River. The exposed erosion-prone sand and soil made its way into the Yellow River, and ultimately drove disastrous flooding downstream. This resulted in one of the most rapidly rising sedimentation rates in history.

Flowing with our ongoing theme of “water,” seminar participants agreed that the environment is not a fixed place, it has agency, is dynamic, and ever-changing, but what is the scale of that change? As the seminar came to a close, participants lingered on the following central question: how do humans shape the natural environment, and conversely, and how does the environment continuously shape us?

al-Karaji’s Hidden Waters

by Danielle Bermudez

Al-Karaji’s treatise has inspired stories worldwide about famous “hidden waters”. The 1,000 year old ancient text has stirred a 2009 children’s book called Water Scientists, as well as a 1950s Persian story called Blind White Fish. The 1950s story even prompted a group of western academics to conduct an excursion in search of the rare fish species mentioned in al-Karaji’s treatise.

While there is an Orientalist fetishization of al-Karaji’s treatise, Abigail Owen, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in World History of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, contends that al-Karaji’s work should be celebrated as one of the oldest texts of its kind in the field of hydrology. Al-Karaji was a mathematician and engineer from the late 10th century-early 11th century. Of Persian origin, he spent an important part of his scientific life in Baghdad where he composed ground breaking mathematical books. In fact, most scholars regard him for the beginnings of freeing algebra from geometry.

One of his most recognized works is his technical treatise on the extraction of hidden waters, which contains complex and profound understandings of different kinds of natural water systems, proper care of tunnel construction and maintenance, methods of water level measurement, the description of instruments for surveying, the construction of conduits, their lining, protection against decay, their cleaning and maintenance, as well as a structure of ethics based on specific social and cultural notions of law, property, and ownership.

Owen and her research team attempt to translate al-Karaji’s 1,000 year old treatise into English, a challenging process of carefully decoding words, images, and meanings. Al-Karaji’s ancient treatise has been translated before, such as from Arabic to Persian, and from Arabic to French. Oftentimes, however, translations of the treatise have obscured particular meanings of fresh ground water, such as with the origins and use of the word “qanat.”

Owen’s research on al-Karaji’s treatise demonstrates how meanings of water are fluid and dynamic across space and time. She makes evident how al-Karaji’s treatise serves as an important form of representation of knowledge about the environment, through a complex understanding of water systems, encouraging us to take up ongoing questions regarding the urgent need and use of water in our society – past, present, and future.

Climate Feedback and Media Coverage

by Danielle Bermudez

Only 23% of people living in the United States say that they have enough information to make up their minds about climate change[1]. How does media coverage affect our understandings about climate change? And, what if scientists could provide their own feedback on climate media coverage?

These are some of the questions that led Emmanuel Vincent, Project Scientist for the Center for Climate Communication at the UC Merced, to create the website climatefeedback.org. This online platform allows the scientific community to annotate and comment on climate media coverage, while giving the public access to this information.

Vincent’s talk was the first UC Merced Seminar in the Humanities of the academic year, launching the Center for the Humanities’ biennial research theme on “Water” for 2015-2017. In his presentation, Vincent reiterated that oftentimes climate media coverage can be confusing, and that the climate feedback website is intended to be a community resource both for scientists and the public alike. The process of the website includes (1) identifying a media piece on climate change, (2) matching scientists to evaluate the article, (3) having scientists annotate the article (includes highlighting, adding figures, charts, and images, commenting, etc.) and (4) assigning an overall rating on the media piece. Members of the public can then access these annotated articles on the climate feedback website and read the annotations and comments provided.

With contributing scientists from prominent research institutions all over the world (over 50+), the climate feedback website has led to media modifying their articles to reflect the comments provided by scientists. The website is intended to make an impact on journalists, concerned members of the public, and has garnered enthusiasm from scientific experts worldwide.

Ruth Mostern, Associate Professor of History at UC Merced, served as a respondent to Vincent’s talk, raising important questions of authority, power, and access. How do communities become permeable? Who can comment on these platforms? Whose voice becomes validated? Who is authorized to provide validation? And, what is the meaning of “expertise”?

Mostern discussed the creation of communities of practice, meaning, and discourse as exemplified through the climate feedback website and as a continuation of ancient practices of annotation and commentary on texts deemed worthy of attention. Mostern discussed both ancient and modern expressions of annotations and commentary, such as hypothes.is, open source and open code platforms, annotations on maps, and other social media websites. The climate feedback website has become a mechanism of community-building within and beyond the scientific community, as a form of public scholarship; as well as a form of publicly and socially engaged work, through the use of common domains and shared language and expertise.

[1] Leiserowitz et al (2011) Climate change in the American Mind. Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

The World Turned Upside Down: Changes in Representations of the World in Medieval Eurasian Maps: Seminar with Hyunhee Park

by Chancellor Dorothy Leland

My role is to say something that helps open up conversations, and I need to confess two handicaps from the beginning.

First, I am not a historian and hence do not have the expertise to critically assess the analyses and arguments that Professor Park presented us with today.

My second handicap is that I am map impaired.

By map impaired, I mean that I often struggle to successfully use the conventions for understanding the maps that I encounter in my daily life. I most frequently experience this handicap with navigational road maps, which appear to me as a dizzying array of highways, streets, and intersections that fail to correspond to the world as I inhabit it. I am a country girl who learned to find my way using a set of physical landmarks—the old oak tree in front of the yellow house, Mr. Miller’s orchard, the dirt path that meandered between fenced pastures to the spot, sheltered by a stand of eucalyptus trees, where I boarded the school bus. To this day, I rarely pay attention to street names and instead look for navigational beacons in the landscape that surrounds me—churches, billboards, dwellings, tree clusters, and others icons that over time orient me in my environment.

Of course, I could draw navigational maps that more closely correspond to my own sense of place, and indeed I sometimes do so to supplement standard street directions for people who want to visit me. And as a child I liked to create maps that took me to fictional treasures or navigated me through imaginary worlds.

The point is that maps are human representations, symbolic depictions of place and relationships within place. Depending on the map, their features are informed by individual psychology, geographical knowledge, religion, politics, and many other factors. As such, maps provide fertile soil for insight from multiple disciplinary perspectives into the human symbolic imagination and the influences that shape it across cultures and historical periods.

The so-called upside down world maps provide a compelling locus of inquiry regarding map-making conventions and history.  These maps place the labeling on a map so that south is up, north is down, east is left, and west is right. As a consequence the Southern Hemisphere appears at the top of the map rather than at the bottom in contrast with mapping conventions that prevail in our own time and culture.   Indeed, it is only from within our own representational convention of orienting North to the top that maps with the South up appear upside-down.

As Professor Park noted in her presentation, the decision to orient maps according to a single prime direction varies across cultures, and there is no purely geographical reason why one direction supersedes others. In looking at the geographical understanding and techniques for mapping the world across different cultures and time, she finds the geographers “all drew observations from the Eastern rising and western setting sun to orient their maps along an east-west axis and north-south axis that followed the position of the North Star or the mid-day sun. Yet geographers of different societies presented this orientation in different ways according to the symbolic and sacred values held by their traditions.”

Although Professor Park reviews several hypotheses that may explain why, for example, the Islamic world adopted a south-up mapping convention, the focus of her study is not on this particular question but rather to trace the transfer of certain mapping practices and views from one society to another and to show how this influenced people’s geographic understanding.  I found her discussion of the influence of Islamic world maps in both China and Europe fascinating and a compelling example of how our understanding and symbolic representation of place, whether it be the world or something much smaller, can shift over time through contact and the selective blending of traditions.

Consider the case of China. Apparently, the earliest extant maps placed north on the top, consistent with Greco-Roman mapping and in contrast to Islamic world mapping. As Professor Park suggests, this may have been to indicate the primacy of a sacred direction based on a traditional Chinese idea that envisions the emperor as sitting in the north looking southward as if down on his subjects. This might also have been because the Chinese placed value on the North Star as a fixed star indicating the geographic pole used for voyages. These maps apparently also focused on drawing Chinese territory to the neglect of the larger world, and consistent with Chinese cosmology, which viewed the earth’s shape as a quadrangle under a spherical sky, maps were drawn within a rectangular frame. The impetus for change, according to Professor Park, was the political need for maps with a broader Eurasian perspective when China emerged as the center of the Mongol empire. Islamic maps and astronomical instruments became available as scholars migrated from Central Asia and Iran to China in the early thirteenth century, and this, combined with a strong political motivation, led to a new Chinese world map incorporating important Islamic influences.

But while there is a clear story to tell about the Islamic influence, Chinese map-making during this period apparently did not incorporate some important elements of the Islamic tradition—including, perhaps, the Islamic concept of the geographical round globe and the south on top orientation of Islamic maps. And the influence of these and other aspects of the Islamic tradition were not strong enough to stick over time and through changing political circumstances. When the Mongol empire failed and was replaced by the native dynasty, Chinese map-making for the most part continued in the earlier mapping tradition.

I have summarized this portion of Professor Park’s presentation because it holds broader questions that interest me—and perhaps you as well. Professor Park opened her presentation by noting that, “historians can often detect important political or cultural shifts caused by a change in perspective that allowed people to see things in a new way.” And although astute historians, armed with appropriate historical documents, can trace these shifts, it may be more difficult to understand the factors that determine or predict when a change of perspective is more likely than not to become firmly embedded as part of the dominant representational framework of a culture or society. In the case of China after the Mongol empire failed, what were the pulls back to the older, more traditional map-making conventions?

I suspect that the explanation does not belong to the province of history alone but rather requires, in addition, political, anthropological, sociological, and psychological modes of inquiry and explanation. Deep cultural change is notoriously slow and unstable in the absence of pervasive and practical, political, or religious influences to motivate the change.

My interest in this question is related to the ways that the study of the past from multiple disciplinary perspectives can inform our understanding of the present and possible future. I wonder, for example, what might be capable of dislodging the reification in the modern western world of the north-on-top map orientation. The question is speculative but also relates more broadly to questions about how traditions of representation get lost, how they might be recovered as part of our active framework for understanding the world, and how deep, lasting changes in the dominant representational frameworks of a culture or society manage to occur.

We know that any given map-making tradition represents only one of many possible ways of depicting place or world. With respect to world-maps, no curved surface like that of the Earth can be projected in two dimensions without some distortion, and different methods of projection are better for conveying elements such as shape or size, compass direction, etc. than others.   The political firestorm that emerged several decades ago over the methods of projection created in 1569 by Mercator, a Flemish mathematician and cartographer, rested on complaints that the distortion of territory that resulted from his method of projection (still widely used at the time) reinforced Eurocentric bias and western imperialism. Even earlier, several surrealists used representational hyperbole to expose the Mercator projection’s supposed Eurocentric bias by shrinking Europe and eliminating some of its countries. Of course, the Mercator map projection was created for navigational purposes by representing lines of constant compass bearing and not as a representation of the relative size or importance of world states, territories, and regions.   But it became over time, due to its widespread use for non-navigational purposes, the standard map projection for many westerners. Its distortion of large sections of the world might indeed have reinforced notions of Western superiority.

Contemporary upside down map enthusiasts point, similarly, to the way in which simply turning the North-up map upside down can jar us out of our complacent sense of place in a world that we have come to see through map-making conventions that dominate the modern western world. It has thus entered classrooms as an educational tool.

I cite these examples as an illustration of the fact that maps, like other forms of human representation, are rich with historical, cultural, anthropological, religious, political, and practical significance. Professor Park has helped us to see the chain of influence between several different cultures during a specific time period that resulted in significant changes in local geographic understanding and world map conventions.

Early Modern England’s Social “Bag of Tricks”

by Dorie Perez

“I’d sit at the back of the room to present this paper,” said Rhea Riegel, a doctoral student in the Interdisciplinary Humanities graduate group and a 2014-2015 Center for the Humanities Graduate Fellow, “but that’s not what a real trickster does.” Real tricksters, like the infamous literary figures Puck from the plays of William Shakespeare and Robin Goodfellow, the archetype that Robin Hood is based on, do their dastardly deeds with an eye towards the future. Riegel says they offer an example of alternative behaviors where social change fosters a rethinking of social roles during moments of upheaval. Tricksters do the important work of challenging or, invariably, reinforcing social roles and morays that the public must then reproduce.

Riegel’s work on Early Modern English literature includes the literary canon of Robin Hood, known to 17th Century readers as Robin Goodfellow. Robin Goodfellow’s “punishment” for bad behavior is to reset “wrongs” – lecherous uncles are whipped and bawdy women dunked in duck ponds to the delight of spectators learning a collective lesson. Humor itself is seen by scholars like Riegel as setting up social conditions for commentary or a rethinking of codified relations. The types of humor that tricksters use are up-ending, but not the full satirization of current events that the modern reader may be accustomed to. Satirical activism as a brand of humor is distinct from situation comedy. Whereas satire disrupts, comedy reaffirms social “truths”. Allegorical tales of lessons learned – Robin Goodfellow punishes rather than scolds, acts rather than relays messages like angels and other divine messengers – making his role in Western literary tradition social rather than based on religious canon or politically attuned to current events of the Early Modern era. His actions serve, in the Foucauldian sense, as correctives of behavior, a task seen as a shared social responsibility.

Another trickster figure Riegel centers her study on is that of Moll Cutpurse, a composite character purportedly based on a real figure in history who challenged gender norms by dressing in masculine clothing to trick unsuspecting targets. Cutpurse becomes the embodiment of changing gender norms during a period of intense social upheaval. The events of the 17th Century in England were incredibly disruptive; the English Civil War, religious strife among warring Catholics and Protestants, the Great Fire of London and the death of Charles I on the orders of a newly-empowered Parliament served as unsteady social ground to negotiate. Trickster figures flourished in the work of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries as ways to reorient audiences to a dynamic reality of changing norms they would then need to make sense of.

Monsters and a “Good Old Fashioned Apocalypse”

by Marieka Arksey

The word monster, deriving from words meaning reveal or display, is appropriately chosen by David Castillo of SUNY Buffalo as a vector through which to explore the social, political, and economic contexts producing horror fiction throughout the past 400 years.  In the 17th century, monsters were associated with aberrations of the natural order, health and the authority of rulership.  Yet despite the fear they inspire, monsters are also the subject of curiosity; beings that embody the liminal spaces between certainty and doubt, apprehension and fascination.  As this liminal entity and as a representation of the human body in an altered state, they are ideal forms through which to explore forbidden or taboo subjects, and for creating a mirror upon which the less desirable aspects of our selves are reflected.

Castillo argues at a recent Merced Seminar in the Humanities event that death, while a trans-historical source of anxiety, is reflected and reshaped in historically specific modes, providing revelations and warnings that are both enduring and are themselves historically specific. He proposes that social-historical and political readings, and feminist and psychoanalytic approaches are ultimately complementary.

Castillo frames his argument around two main categories of monsters: vampires and zombies – both of these requiring deaths as part of their transformations, embodying a loss of identity, engaging in mass human predation, and both being very much liminal beings in that they are ‘undead’.  While other monsters surely exist which provide a lens into humanity, few contain the supernatural elements that make vampires and zombies as malleable in their role as horror fiction characters.  He then focuses on the recent zombie phenomena in Spain as an example of this localized use of ‘monsters as display’.  Using these examples, Castillo asks three main questions:

  1. What do monsters reveal about us?
  2. What do they warn us against?, and
  3. Why is it that people are naturally drawn to reading books about dystopian societies?

Striking similarities between the vampires and zombies who take humans en masse to be their sustenance slaves.  Today, both vampire creation and zombie creation are often made possible by a viral infection, both feed off humans, and both require the death of the pre-vampire or pre-zombie for their transformation to occur.  But where the two still differ is in that no one desires to become a zombie.  As Castillo points out, zombies have no soul.  Their rise to power is aimless. They have not been romanticized and made attractive in the way that vampires have.  They are just a mass of decaying flesh.  And yet, more people in America at least seem to be willing to consider the actual possibilities of zombies (in the way that they are portrayed in fiction) over that of vampires.  The term “Zombie apocalypse” exists throughout our vernacular; “vampire apocalypse” does not.  This distinction is worth exploring and goes some measure to explaining why in Spain, Castillo’s case study of the phenomena of the rise of monster fiction, zombies have become the monster of choice.   It also leaves questions that may prove interesting to explore:  Why aren’t vampires being popularized in Spain in the same way that zombies are?  Zombies and vampires appear to be equally popular in North America right now, but this does not seem to be the case in Spain.  Following that this speaks to different and very historically specific social and cultural conditions in Spain than in North America, what does this say about modern Spanish perspectives of the future?  What does this say about modern American perspectives?  Are we just dealing economic situations, or is there something else within our cultures that had led to the disparate uses of monsters as cultural mirrors?

The tension between fear and curiosity, constructions of identity and otherness and our exploitation of these groups, are, as Castillo discussed, justification for the mass murdering of groups that threaten our status quo, and the loss and attempted regain of control are recurrent themes.  The numerous ways in which zombies can be created and can manifest appears to make them more ideally suited than other ‘undead’ monsters to revealing the changing anxieties we have and mean that they have been, and likely will be, an enduring form of monster across all genres.  Fantasist thinking about ourselves and our survival skills is empowering to societies that are anxious about how disconnected we are despite (and because of) our dependence on technology and is argued to be one of the roots to movements such as the ‘tiny house movement’, ‘going off the grid’, and the ‘backyard’ or ‘urban farming movements’.  His article leaves us asking ourselves: what would you do if you could start over, and, more importantly, would you be able to survive?

 

Unto This Last: Marxism, Debt, and Usury

by Mario Sifuentez

During his visit to campus this spring, David Palumbo-Liu discussed his article “All That is Sold Melts into Air (Again)” with faculty and students. He urges us to shed the shackles of an old morality in order to rid ourselves of the pressing guilt that we feel when we owe money. He argues that this guilt clouds our understanding of what exactly happened during the 2008 meltdown and offers instead a countermorality, that is based on a different sense of morality and justice.

This version of capitalism positions the proletariat as owing future labor to their capitalist overlords and that alienation of wage labor has now become an alienation based on debt. Debt follows us everywhere; it is ever present in our minds, in our labor, and most importantly in our credit score. The credit system is alienating because it eliminates a material good and replaces it with something ephemeral and intangible, it replaces it with distrust and suspicion on the side of the lender, which in turn makes the borrower feel untrustworthy.

In the case of the 2008 meltdown, the borrower, large corporations, escaped the scrutiny precisely because they are not people, they cannot feel alienation, they are not moral beings, and they cannot be held accountable. In the end we pay for their debts twice over in the form of taxes and services not rendered.

So what do we do? Palumbo-Liu reintroduces the notion of a countermorality, one that creates a “whole new social imaginary” that invests heavily in a new kind of language and new kind of vocabulary. One that allows us to reinvent, explode, and construct new meanings for ourselves and places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the one percent.

In reflecting on Palumbo-Liu’s article, I am reminded of Stephanie Black’s fantastic 2002 film, Life and Debt. In the opening sequence, three Rastafarian men sit around a fire discussing the morality of lending money with high interest rates and the indebtedness that has been forced on Jamaica. They read from Exodus 22:25 “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.” The Quran similarly tells us in 2:275 “Those who charge usury are in the same position as those controlled by the devil’s influence. This is because they claim that usury is the same as commerce. However, God permits commerce, and prohibits usury. Thus, whoever heeds this commandment from his Lord, and refrains from usury, he may keep his past earnings, and his judgment rests with God. As for those who persist in usury, they incur Hell, wherein they abide forever.” Ancient Hindu and Buddhist text also demean and condemn usury.

This reminds us of three things: first, that loaning and borrowing money are not immoral per se but the act of usury is really the problem. Lending and borrowing money of course are an ancient practice that predates capitalism. So does usury but capitalism’s original sin is normalizing usury in the everyday lending practices of institutions.

Second it reminds us that the United States established this world wide financial system after the Second World War. The United States and its global lenders, the IMF, the World Bank, and the Inter American Development Bank have been turning the Darker Nations into the Poorer Nations for over half a century. The austerity programs that have been enacted on the U.S. populace might be a case of the chicken coming home to roost. Capitalists have long provided a cheaper and more affordable way of life for Americans at the expense of the former colonies around the globe and are now looking here as a place to continue the gouging. For as Palumbo-Liu’s reference to Marshall Berman reminds us, “the only activity that really means anything to the bourgeoisie is making money.”

Finally, I concur with Dr. Palumbo-Liu that the solution might be as simple as refusing to pay our debts. And as difficult as creating a new morality that forces us to talk about debt and debtors in a different framework. But I want to suggest that perhaps we should look to an ancient morality that while perhaps not as radical as Marxism does resonate with more people all over the world. The wrath and the vocal support that Pope Francis recently incurred because he dared to suggest that all foreign debt should be forgiven is indicative that this sort of morality appeals to a wide swath of the darker nations and makes capitalists quite nervous.

 

Persianate Universal Histories Turned Upside Down

by Kit Myers

With “Breaking Historiographical Boundaries: Early Modern Persianate Universal Chronicles,” Sholeh Quinn turns upside down the traditional way of examining universal histories of the Ottoman and Safavid empires. Most scholars have inspected these historiographies separately because this is still an emergent area of study. In particular, scholars have often been concerned with the last section of chronicles covering the newly established empire. Quinn’s presentation and broader research, however, turn way from atomized analysis of dynasties within this distinct genre toward an approach that investigates the entire chronicles in a comparative fashion.

Quinn’s paper illustrates the fruitful insight gained from—and broader importance of—comparative work. Such an approach makes us consider what part of the picture have we missed, and in what ways do our assumptions get turned upside down by using such an approach? Quinn’s preliminary research considers both the structure and content of four Persianate universal chronicles under the Ottoman and Safavid empires: 1) Mawlana Shukrullah’s (1459) Bihjat al-tavarikh, 2) Ghiyas al-Din Muhammad Khvandamir’s (1524) Habib al-siyar, 3) Yahya ibn ‘Abd al-Latif Husayni Qazvini’s (1542) Lubb al-tavarikh, and 4) Muhammad Muslih al-Din Lari Ansari’s (1566) Mirat al-advar.

Her analysis of universal history reveals that the four chronicles share numerous sectional and elemental components. Historians included portrayals of creation, biblical prophets, pre-Islamic Persian kings, the life of Muhammad and his immediate successors, subsequent dynasties, and lastly, the current dynasty. In looking at these universal histories, Quinn found that they were even less Ottoman- or Safavid-centric than anticipated. Thus, Quinn argues that they should indeed be considered universal histories rather than dynastic. Despite what one might expect, the authors of these universal histories did not explicitly disparage pre-Islamic figures and rulers. Instead, they narrated a shared or “universal” past, placing Islamic history within a larger historical context. Similarly, the authors were not simply Ottoman and Safavid historians because they in fact had varying roles for multiple dynasties, and thus, they were more accurately Persianate historians.

Indeed, the narratives are not entirely independent historiographical accounts but rather closely related and sometimes overlapping variations, revealing low and porous historiographical boundaries. Yet, Quinn’s close reading of the universal histories—such as the way in which Kayumars, who is said to be the first Persian king and first human, was included in the four texts—also illustrates that historians were not merely copying the first chapters of prior universal histories. Historians worked from previous sources but also inserted their own perspectives, making minor to significant revisions of prior accounts. Without a comparative analysis, scholars could easily miss the ways in which historians recorded universal chronicles that possessed shared and divergent pasts. What becomes clear is that studying universal chronicles not only requires understanding the historical context but also historiographical context.