A Chance to Show Quality

Romantic ideals of originality still remain deeply embedded in how we recognize, cultivate and reward merit in most of our selective systems of education, reputation and employment. In particular we read for the signs of that kind of authentic individuality in writing that is meant to stand in for the whole of a person. Whether it’s an essay for admission to college, a cover letter for a job, an essay for the Rhodes or Fulbright, an application for research funding from the Social Science Research Council or the National Science Foundation, we comb for the signs that the opportunity-seeker has new ideas, has a distinct sensibility, has lived a life that no one else has lived. Because how else could they be different enough from all the other worthies seeking the opportunity or honor so as to justify granting them their desires?

Oh, wait, we also want to know, almost all of the time, whether the opportunity-seeker is enough like everyone else that we can relate their talents, ideas, capabilities, plans and previous work to the systems which have produced the applicants. We want assurances that we are not handing resources, recognition and responsibility to a person so wholly a romantic original that they will not ever be accountable or predictable in their uses. We want to know that we are selecting for a greatness that we already know, a merit that we already approve of.

This has always been the seed that grows into the nightmare of institutions, that threatens to lay bare how much impersonality and distance intrudes upon decisions that require a fiction of intimacy. Modern civic institutions and businesses lay trembling hands on their bankrolls when they think, however fleetingly, that there is a chance that they’re getting played for fools. That they are dispensing cheese to mice who have figured out what levers to push. That when they read the words of a distinctive individual, they are really reading the words of committees and advisors, parents and friends. That they are Roxane swooning over Christian rather than Cyrano, or worse, that they are being catfished and conned.

The problem is that when we are making these choices, which in systems of scarcity (deliberately produced or inevitably fated) must be made, we never really decide what it is that we actually value: unlikeness or similarity, uncertainty or predictability, originality or pedigree. That indecision more than anything else is what makes it possible for people to anticipate what the keepers of a selective process will find appealing. Fundamentally, that boils down to: a person with all the qualifications that all other applicants have, and a personal experience that no one else could have had but that has miraculously left the applicant even more affirmed in their qualifications. Different in a way that doesn’t threaten their sameness.

I’ve been involved in a number of processes over the years where those of us doing the selecting worried about the clear convergence in some of the writing that candidates were doing. We took it to be a sign that some candidates had an advantage that others didn’t, whether that was a particularly aware and canny advisor or teacher, or it was some form of organized, institutional advice. I gather that there are other selective institutions, such as the Rhodes Foundation, that are even more worried, and have moved to admonish candidates (and institutions) that they may not accept advice or counsel in crafting their writing.

The thing is, whenever I’ve been in those conversations, it’s clear to me that the answer is not in the design of the prompt or exercise, and not in the constraints placed on candidates. It’s in the contradictions that selective processes hold inside themselves, and in the steering currents that tend to make them predictable in their tastes. When you try to have it all, to find the snowflake in the storm, and yet also prize the snowfall that blankets the trees and ground with an even smoothness, you are writing a human form of algorithm, you are crafting a recipe that it takes little craft to divine and follow. The fault, in this case, lies in us, and in our desires to be just so balanced in our selection, to stage-manage a process year in and year out so that we get what we want and yet also want what we get.

Maybe that was good enough in a time with less tension and anxiety about maintaining mobility and status. But I suspect the time is coming where it will not be. Not because people seek advantage, but because anything that’s predictable will be something relentlessly targeted by genuine algorithms. Unpredictability is never a problem for applicants or advisors, always for the people doing the selection or the grading or the evaluation. If you don’t want students to find a standard essay answer to a standard essay prompt, you have to use non-standard prompts. If you don’t want applicants to tell you the very moving story of the time they performed emergency neurosurgery on a child in the developing world using a sterilized safety pin and a bottle of whisky, you have to stop rewarding applicants who tell you that story in the way that has previously always gotten your approval. If what we want is genuine originality, the next person we choose has to be different from the last one. If what we want is accomplished recitation of training and skills, then we look for the most thorough testing of that training. When we want everything, it seems, we end up with performances that very precisely thread the needle that we insistently hold forth.

Posted in Academia, Information Technology and Information Literacy, Swarthmore | 3 Comments

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There is a particular kind of left position, a habitus that is sociologically and emotionally local to intellectuals, that amounts in its way to a particular kind of anti-politics machine. It’s a perspective that ends up with its nose pressed against the glass, looking in at actually-existing political struggles with a mixture of regret, desire and resignation. Inasmuch as there is any hope of a mass movement in a leftward direction in the United States, Western Europe or anywhere else on the planet, electoral or otherwise, I think it’s a loop to break, a trap to escape. Maybe this is a good time for that to happen.

Just one small example: Adam Kotsko on whether the Internet has made things worse. It’s a short piece, and consciously intended as a provocation, as much of his writing is, and full of careful qualifiers and acknowledgements to boot. But I think it’s a snapshot of this particular set of discursive moves that I am thinking of as a trap, moves that are more serious and more of a leaden weight in hands other than Kotsko’s. And to be sure, in an echo of the point I’m about to critique, this is not a new problem: to some extent this is a continuous pattern that stretches back deep into the history of Western Marxism and postmodernism.

Move #1: Things are worse now. But they were always worse.

Kotsko says this about the Internet. It seems worse but it’s also just the same. Amazon is just the Sears catalogue in a new form. Whatever is bad about the Internet is an extension, maybe an intensification, of what was systematically bad and corrupt about liberalism, modernity, capitalism, and so on. It’s neoliberal turtles all the way down. It’s not worse than a prior culture and it’s not better than a prior culture. (Kotsko has gone on to say something of the same about Trump: he seems worse but he’s just the same. The worst has already happened. But the worst is still happening.)

I noted over a decade ago the way that this move handicapped some forms of left response to the Bush Administration after 9/11. For the three decades before 9/11, especially during the Cold War, many left intellectuals in the West practiced a kind of High Chomskyianism when it came to analyzing the role of the United States in the world, viewing the United States as an imperial actor that sanctified torture, promoted illiberalism and authoritarianism, acted only for base and corrupt motives. Which meant in some sense that the post-9/11 actions of the Bush Administration were only more of the same. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. But many left intellectuals wanted to frame those actions as a new kind of threat, as a break or betrayal of the old order. Which required saying that there was a difference between Bush’s unilateralism and open sanction of violent imperial action and the United States during the Cold War and the 1990s and that the difference was between something better and something worse. Not between something ideal and something awful, mind you: just substantively or structurally better and substantively or structurally worse.

This same loop pops up sometimes in discussions of the politics of income inequality. To argue that income inequality is so much worse today in the United States almost inevitably requires seeing the rise of the middle-class in postwar America as a vastly preferable alternative to our present neoliberal circumstances. But that middle-class was dominated by white straight men and organized around nuclear-family domesticity, which no progressive wants to see as a preferable past.

It’s a cycle visible in the structure of Howard Zinn’s famous account of American history: in almost all of Zinn’s chapters, the marginalized and the masses rise in reaction to oppression, briefly achieve some success, and then are crushed by dominant elites, again and again and again, with nothing ever really changing.

It’s not as if any of these negative views of the past are outright incorrect. The U.S. in the Cold War frequently behaved in an illiberal, undemocratic and imperial fashion, particularly in the 1980s. Middle-class life in the 1950s and 1960s was dominated by white, straight men. The problems of culture and economy that we identify with the Internet are not without predicate or precedent. But there is a difference between equivalence (“worse now, worse then”) and seeing the present as worse (or better) in some highly particular or specific way. Because the latter actually gives us something to advocate for. “Torture is bad, and because it’s bad, it is so very very bad to be trying to legitimate or legalize it.” “A security state that spies on its own people and subverts democracy is bad, and because it’s bad, it’s so much worse when it is extended and empowered by law and technology.”

When everything has always been worst, it is fairly hard to mobilize others–or even oneself–in the present. Because nothing is really any different now. It is in a funny kind of way a close pairing to the ahistoricism of some neoliberalism: that the system is the system is the system. That nothing ever really changes dramatically, that there have been in the lives and times that matter no real cleavages or breaks.

Move #2: No specific thing is good now, because the whole system is bad.

In Kotsko’s piece on the Internet, this adds up to saying that there is no single thing, no site or practice or resource, which stands as relatively better (or even meaningfully different) apart from the general badness of the Internet. Totality stands always against particularity, system stands against any of its nodes. Wikipedia is not better than Amazon, not really: they’re all connected. Relatively flat hierarchies of access to online publication or speech are not meaningful because elsewhere writers and artists are being paid nothing.

This is an even more dispiriting evacuation of any political possibility, because it moves pre-emptively against any specific project of political making, or any specific declaration of affinity or affection for a specific reform, for any institution, for any locality. Sure, something that exists already or that could exist might seem admirable or useful or generative, but what does it matter?

Move #3: It’s not fair to ask people how to get from here to a totalizing transformation of the systems we live under, because this is just a strategy used to belittle particular reforms or strategies in the present.

I find the sometimes-simultaneity of #2 and #3 the most frustrating of all the positions I see taken up by left intellectuals. I can see #2 (depressing as it is) and I can see #3 (even when it’s used to defend a really bad specific tactical or strategic move made by some group of leftists) but #2 and #3 combined are a form of turtling up against any possibility of being criticized while also reserving the right to criticize everything that anyone else is doing.

I think it’s important to have some idea about what the systematic goals are. That’s not about painting a perfect map between right now and utopia, but the lack of some consistent systematic ideas that make connections between the specific campaigns or reforms or issues that drawn attention on the left is one reason why we end up in “circular firing squads”. But I also agree that it’s unfair to argue that any specific reform or ideal is not worth taking up if it can’t explain that effort will fix everything that’s broken.

4. It’s futile to do anything, but why are you just sitting around?

E.g., this is another form of justifying a kind of supine posture for left intellectuals–a certainty that there is no good answer to the question “What is to be done?” but that the doing of nothing by others (or their preoccupation with anything but the general systematic brokenness of late capitalism) is always worth complaining about. Indeed, that the complaint against the doing-nothingness of others is a form of doing-something that exempts the complainer from the complaint.


The answer, it seems to me, is to opt out of these traps wherever and whenever possible.

We should historicize always and with specificity. No, everything is not worse or was not worse. Things change, and sometimes neither for better nor worse. Take the Internet. There’s no reason to get stuck in the trap of trying to categorize or assess its totality. There are plenty of very good, rich, complex histories of digital culture and information technology that refuse to do anything of the sort. We can talk about Wikipedia or Linux, Amazon or Arpanet, Usenet or Tumblr, without having to melt them into a giant slurry that we then weigh on some abstracted scale of wretchedness or messianism.

If you flip the combination of #2 and #3 on their head so that it’s a positive rather than negative assertion, that we need systematic change and that individual initiatives are valid, then it’s an enabling rather than disabling combination. It reminds progressives to look for underlying reasons and commitments that connect struggles and ideals, but it also appreciates the least spreading motion of a rhizome as something worth undertaking.

If you reverse #4, maybe that could allow left intellectuals to work towards a more modest and forgiving sense of their own responsibilities, and a more appreciative understanding of the myriad ways that other people seek pleasure and possibility. That not everything around us is a fallen world, and that not every waking minute of every waking day needs to be judged in terms of whether it moves towards salvation.

We can’t keep saying that everything is so terrible that people have got to do something urgently, right now, but also that it’s always been terrible and that we have always failed to do something urgently, or that the urgent things we have done never amount to anything of importance. We disregard both the things that really have changed–Zinn was wrong about his cyclical vision–and the things that might become worse in a way we’ve never heretofore experienced. At those moments, we set ourselves against what people know in their bones about the lives they lived and the futures they fear. And we can’t keep setting ourselves in the center of some web of critique, ready to spin traps whenever a thread quivers with movement. Politics happens at conjunctures that magnify and intensify what we do as human beings–and offer both reward and danger as a result. It does not hover with equal anxiety and import around the buttering of toast and the gathering of angry crowds at a Trump rally.

Posted in Blogging, Information Technology and Information Literacy, Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Politics | 4 Comments

#Prefectus Must Fall: Being a True History of Uagadou, the Wizarding School

So there’s been a spot of disagreement about how to think about state systems in Africa in relationship to J.K. Rowling’s world-building for her Harry Potter novels. I feel a bit bad about perceptions that I was being unfair, but I also mostly continue to feel that this is just the latest round in a long-standing interdisciplinary tension (arguably all the way back into Enlightenment philosophy) about what exactly can be compared about human societies and on what basis the comparison ought to be made. I think that’s a discussion in which African societies have often been described as having a deep history of not having what Europe has, with the comparison serving to explain disparities and inequalities in the present-day. I am not the first to react strongly to that mode of comparison.

But I also do feel that it’s important in some sense not to have a dispute that is both scholarly and political completely overwhelm the possibility of giving useful guidance to J.K. Rowling and other creators who work with fantasy or speculative fictions. In general, I would like to see specialists in African history and anthropology be prepared not only to provide useful, digestible knowledge to fiction writers but also to non-specialists. Which means, I think, showing how it could be possible to draw upon specific African histories and experiences to create and imagine fictions and stories that incorporate African inspirations rather than to treat Africa as a zone of exclusion because it’s too difficult or touchy.

So: a bit of fanfiction, intended to demonstrate how to subtly rework what Rowling has already said about her wizarding world.



For a month now the instructors at Uagadou have dutifully assembled to ward off attempts by students, particularly those in Ambatembuzi House, to cast kupotea on the statue of Peter Prefectus that has been at the foot of the Great Stairway for the past sixty years.

Prefectus’ own nkuni spirit has joined the teachers in defending his statue, though as always it is hazy and distracted, only half here, half wandering indistinctly in the halls of England’s Ministry of Magic. We say that they must allow the spell to be cast: let him go home once and for all. There are few left in Prefectus House, anyway. The white wizards who still live in Africa go to Hogwarts, Ilvermorny or Durmstrang, as do some number of Africans.

Prefectus Must Fall. Though we students love Uagadou and what we learn here, it is time for this school to be a truly African school. Not the “African” of silly affectations like using hands instead of wands that a few teachers introduced forty years ago in an attempt to get away from Prefectus’ wholesale importation of the curriculum of Hogwarts! Let us rediscover the real history of African magic, of the many magical styles and ways of learning from Africa!

We know the truth now. This old, rotting, half-real castle shivering in the mountains isn’t a thousand years old, it’s 110 years old. Or more to the point, it’s a thousand-year old school that was stolen and stuffed inside an imposter’s cheap recreation of the school that never let him be a teacher. Peter Prefectus was a fourth-rate wizard stuck in a basement of the British Ministry of Magic who decided that if he couldn’t teach at Hogwarts, he’d go off to Africa just like the Muggle officer Harry Johnston and make a Hogwarts there.

There was a school here once, back before the kingdom of Bunyoro rose. It wasn’t for all Africans everywhere, but Swahili and Ituri and Khoisan wizards from the coast and the jungle and the forests all came. People from the shores of the big lakes came, people from the hills and savannah came. That’s where Peter Prefectus built his fake Hogwarts, where that old school was. The leaders of that ancient school foolishly let him and helped lift the stones and cast the spells. They felt they needed to understand what was happening, and to learn the magics that Prefectus offered, but all they did was sell out our heritage!

They don’t tell you when you get sorted that Prefectus was an incompetent who had the cheek to believe that his teachers and pupils were incapable of any real magic anyway. He never learned an African language, not one, but made the students learn spells like “expelliarmus” and “impedimenta”. He hired other European wizards and let them bully and hurt and even kill the Africans who came there. We had wizards like Grindlewald and Voldemort here too, but they were in charge and no one came to the rescue, not for us.

We know the truth. Prefectus must fall.

Prefectus stole two schools! The ancient one of the lakes and then he had the cheek to try to steal a name from near to another old African place of magical learning, the school which today still exists at Kumbi Saleh in the ruins of Ghana. Hard times for it now, harried by sinister wizards hiding in the Sahara who believe that all magical schools should be destroyed. That is another reason Prefectus must fall: it is time for Uagadou to do its part in helping other African wizards in their struggles. Kumbi Saleh should not have to wait for a half-hearted delegation of wizards from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang to save it from attack. We should not hear any longer from our headmaster and teachers that it is “against tradition” for Uagadou to play a role.

Uagadou, even in disrepair, is still wealthier than our real comrades at the ancient academies in Kumbi Saleh and Axum. We should help them and work with them and learn from their wisdom about wizarding. We should be working with the “moving school” of Eshu, the secret society of West African wizards who have no castle or building, but who move tirelessly from one site of ancient power to the next, from Old Oyo to Benin to Kumasi, walking the ways that they know. We should talk to the small schools that meet all over the continent, and reach out to wizards too poor or endangered to think of coming here. Uagadou should train far more Africans than it does, and stop just being for a small handful of families made powerful by their dealings with the European wizards.

Prefectus Must Fall! Unite to liberate our school and our peoples! Leave off the lies, cast away the glossy brochures that arrive by Dream Messengers to entice you here. Face the truth!

Posted in Africa, Sheer Raw Geekery | 8 Comments

On Uagadou, the African Wizarding School

I have a good deal to say on the plausibility of a wizarding school in J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world, and the first would be that I should know better than to send Twitter to do a blog’s job, I guess. There is a good deal wrong with Henry Farrell and Chris Blattman’s defense of Rowling’s imagination. To some extent more wrong than Rowling herself. You may from the outset roll your eyes and say, “It’s imaginary, let it go” and I hear you, but in fact the kinds of imaginary constructions of African societies and African people that operate in fantasy, science-fiction and superhero universes are actually rather instructive guides to how Western-inflected global culture knows and understands the histories of African societies as a history of absence, lack or deficit rather than as histories of specific presence, as having their own content that is in many ways readily knowable.

Let’s start from the very beginning, with Rowling’s expansion of her world-building in Harry Potter. When she recently imagined what the whole world in her fantasy universe looks like, what did she say about it?

1. That most nations in her world do not have their own wizarding schools. Most wizards are “home-schooled”.
2. That distance education (“correspondence courses”) are also used to train wizards.
3. That the eleven wizarding schools that do exist in the world share some common characteristics that derive from the common challenges and affordances of magic. They tend to be remote, often in mountainous areas, in order to insulate themselves from Muggles, in order to attempt to stay out of wizard politics as much as possible, and to maintain some independence from both Muggle and wizard governance.
4. That there is an International Confederation of Wizards to whom a budding wizard can write (via owl) to find out about the nearest wizard school.
5. So far, Rowling has announced that there are three wizarding schools in Europe, one in North America (on the East Coast), one in Japan, on in Brazil (in the rainforest), and one in Africa called Uagadou, pronounced Wagadu. As far as I know the others aren’t announced yet.

What of Uagadou?

1. It’s pronounced Wa-ga-doo. Farrell and Blattman take this to be a reference taken from the place of the same name associated with the ancient empire of Ghana. (Which was located in what is now Mali and Mauritania in West Africa.)
2. There are smaller wizarding schools in Africa, but Uagadou has an “enviable” international reputation and is a thousand years old.
3. It enrolls students from all over the continent.
4. Much magic, maybe all magic, comes from Africa.
5. Wands are European inventions; African wizards just use their hands.
6. Uagadou doesn’t use owls for messages, it uses Dream Messengers.

In response to Twitter complaints that this is just more “Africa is a country” thinking, where the entire continent gets one school that is an undifferentiated mass of African-ness, without specific location, Rowling has responded first to say, “Students from all over” and second, that Uagadou is in Uganda, in the “Mountains of the Moon”, by which she probably means the Rwenzori Mountains in northwestern Uganda.


Farrell and Blattman set out to defend Rowling, saying that it is plausible that all of sub-Saharan Africa would only have one wizarding school. (I’m guessing that before she’s done, there will be a wizarding school in Egypt or otherwise near to North Africa, so let’s leave that aside.) Farrell and Blattman do so by saying that Sub-Saharan Africa didn’t have a “state system”. In an initial tweet, I expressed my irritation by noting that there were states in Africa, to which Farrell replied that their article concedes that there were. Just that material environments “conspired against” state development until colonialism, and that the fewer states that existed were far apart, and thus that there was no state system, no competitive relationship between states, and thus that states did not become strong through such competition, unlike in Europe or Japan, where there were more rivalrous relationships between states because of the relative scarcity of land.

I think I am right to say that Farrell and Blattman’s acknowledgement that there were states is essentially prophylactic, meant to head off precisely the kind of Twitter objection I offered. The substance of their piece is still this: Africa had an absence of something that Europe had a presence of, and that this is what makes Rowling’s fantasy a historically plausible one, that rivalrous states that form a state system that is about control over a scarce resource (land) could lead to having multiple wizarding schools, and that Africa’s absence of these things means that having only one makes sense too. “There has been a relatively solid state” in England for a thousand years, they say, so of course Hogwarts. Uagadou, in contrast, must have formed in the absence of a state. And maybe it shares a name with a place that was thousands of miles away because perhaps “the school began in a faraway territory, before it hid itself in the remote mountains of central Africa, fleeing slave raiders and colonial powers”.


I have on occasion expressed frustration with Africanists for insisting that non-specialists must go deep inside the particulars of specific African histories in order to win the right to talk about them. And the similar inclination of many practicing historians to view large-scale comparative history or the more universalist aspirations of many social scientists with suspicion. But this is a case where some of that suspicion is warranted, I think. Partly because Farrell and Blattman insist on the tangible historical plausibility of Uagadou in Rowling’s fantasy world and they then toss in just enough history to be tangibly wrong.

Here’s the thing. First, if I were going to construct what is essentially a fantasy counterfactual of a relationship between the place Wagadu and some other place in sub-Saharan Africa, that a group of wise and knowledgeable wizards moved from an important trading community in the empire of Ghana to somewhere else in Africa, I’d at least stick to historically plausible routes of movement and connection. Wagadu and the eastern side of the Rwenzori Mountains is roughly like imagining that an ancient group of Irish wizards relocated to Ukraine in order to get away from British landlords. It’s very nearly random, and that’s the problem. It’s exquisitely well-meaning of Rowling to want to imagine Uagadou in the first place, and to respectfully draw out of African history for the name of the place. But it doesn’t make sense in terms of very real histories that can be described for what they actually were, not in terms of some abstracted absence in comparison to Europe.

Equally, I’d wonder at the counterfactual that has Uagadou moving a thousand years ago, before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and at the height of state-building (even state system building) in the upper Niger and Sahel. It’s not as if the idea of great institutions of learning and teaching built through the revenues of trade are fantasies in that region of West Africa at that specific time: there were real institutions of that kind built in Timbuktu and Gao at exactly that moment which depended on very real long-distance connections between Muslim polities in Egypt and North Africa and the major states and polities of the West African interior. Why would Uagadou want to get away from all of that in 1016 CE? Even if Farrell and Blattman want Africa’s supposed lack of state systems to be the magic variable that produces more than one wizarding school, Uagadou’s birthplace has exactly that. And if even the wise wizards of Uagadou decided they had to leave, why the east side of the Rwenzori mountains, to which the peoples of their home region had no links whatsoever?

But hey, at least Farrell and Blattman’s defense is intact in the sense of western Uganda not having a state system, right? That would have made Uagadou different than other wizarding schools coping with state systems! Except that the region between western Lake Victoria and the Rwenzoris was another place in sub-Saharan Africa where multiple states and polities with sometimes rivalrous relationships go back at least three or four hundred years. If Uagadou was really trying to move to a place where there weren’t very many human beings or there weren’t states or there weren’t state systems (or it arose in such a place, if we discard the relationship between the name Wagadu and Uagadou), western Uganda isn’t the place to put the imaginary school.


Ultimately this is why I think Farrell and Blattman’s defense of Rowling is more problematic than Rowling herself. I think Rowling is trying to do the right thing, in fact, to include Africa and Africans in her imaginary world, and she’s not just reaching for lazy H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs tropes of cities in jungles and excitable natives yelling Ungowa! Bwana! But the fact is that the way she picks up a name to stand in for a more respectful conception of Africanity still underscores the degree to which the history of African societies is a kind of generic slurry for most people. If I had imaginary Scots-named people running around in an imaginary Pomerania dotted with imaginary Finnish place names, most readers of my fantasy would understand that I was doing some kind of mash-up, and if I didn’t have some infodump of an alternate history at some point to explain it, they’d likely regard what I was doing as random or incoherent.

Farrell and Blattman are trying to provide a kind of scholarly imprimateur for that same sort of mashup, but the histories of the places that come into view in Rowling’s imagination are knowable and known. If you ask me to provide the fictional background of a wizarding school in western Uganda and why it is the only one in sub-Saharan African and admits pupils from all over a very large continent, the last thing I’m going to do is start farting around with gigantic generalizations about states and state systems that immediately frame Africa as a place which has a lack, an absence, a deficit, that is somehow naturalized or long-running. I’m going to build my plausibility up from the actual histories of African societies.

So maybe I’m going to talk about the historical world of western Uganda for what it was, for which I have a more than adequate scholarly literature, and try to imagine what a wizarding school there looks like that makes sense in that history. And the first thing I think is that it isn’t a castle in the mountains if it’s a thousand years old and it isn’t distinguished from European wizarding just by using hands rather than wands. I start to think about what magical power in western Uganda might be like, even in a world full of magical power.

If I start to think about why there’s only one school, and why the whole continent uses it, I stop thinking about a thousand years and start thinking about two hundred. I stop messing around with giant social scientistic abstractions and start thinking about colonialism. Which, to head off Farrell and Blattman’s likely objection, they do too–but not as an explanation for Rowling’s fantasy Africa being in a state of relative global deprivation. I start thinking about why Uagadou is in fact like Hogwarts, physically and otherwise. Perhaps why the University of the Witwatersrand is not wildly different from Oxford in the generalities of its institutional functioning. I think about the world in the last three hundred years, and why institutions in modern nation-states resemble each other in form even if they don’t in power or privilege or relative resources or impact. And then I wonder why Rowling doesn’t simply go there too.

The answer would in some sense because Rowling’s descriptions of the wizarding schools wants to retain some whimsy and some friendliness to a young-adult sensibility. But you can imagine African magics in a globalized fantasy from within their imaginary histories rather than from outside and even stay friendly to a young adult sensibility: as Vicki Brennan noted, that’s a good description of Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch. And Rowling’s Harry Potter books inscribe the history of World War II into the wizarding world, and racism and fascism into the conflicts wizards face today. Why isn’t colonialism Dark Magic of a particularly troubling sort–the kind that suppresses many African ways of learning wizardry and then leaves behind a single, limited institution for learning magic that is built on a template that comes from somewhere else?

There’s a plausible history for Uagadou right there, but it can’t be a thousand years old if that’s the case. This is the basic problem.

You can tell a story that imagines fantastic African societies with their own institutions arising out of their own histories, somehow protected or counterfactually resistant to the rise of the West. But you have to do that through African histories, not with an audit of African absence and some off-the-shelf environmental determinism.

You can tell a story that imagines that imaginary wizarding schools arise only out of histories with intense territorial rivalries within long-standing state systems, but then you have to explain why there aren’t imaginary wizarding schools in the places in the world that fit that criteria rather than frantically moving the comparative goalposts around so that you are matching units like “all of Sub-Saharan Africa” against “Great Britain”. And you have to explain why the simultaneous and related forms of state-building in West Africa and Western Europe created schools in one and not the other: because Asante, Kongo, Dahomey, and Oyo are in some sense part of a state system that includes England, France and the Netherlands in the 17th and early 18th Centuries.

You can tell a story about how many different ways of learning wizarding in an imaginary Africa were suppressed, lost, denigrated, marginalized or impoverished, leaving a single major institution built on an essentially Western and modern model, and write colonialism into your world of good and evil magic. If you have a faux Hitler in the Dark Wizard Grindlewald, why not a faux Rhodes or a faux Burton as another kind of dark wizard?

That’s not what Rowling has put out so far. And it’s definitely not the kind of thinking that Farrell and Blattman offer in an attempt to shore up Rowling. All they offer is a scholarly alibi for Africa-is-a-country, Africa-is-absence, Africa-can-be-mashup-of-exotic-names.

Posted in Academia, Africa, Sheer Raw Geekery | 10 Comments

On the Deleting of Academia.edu and Other Sundry Affairs

Once again with feeling, a point that I think cannot be made often enough.

Social media created and operated by a for-profit company, no matter what it says when it starts off about the rights of content creators, will inevitably at some point be compelled to monetize some aspect of its operations that the content creators did not want to be monetized.

This is not a mistake, or a complaint about poor management practices. The only poor practices here are typically about communication from the company about the inevitable changes whenever they arrive, and perhaps about the aggressiveness or destructiveness of the particular form of monetization that they move towards.

The problem is not with the technology, either. Uber could have been an interface developed by a non-profit organization trying to help people who need rides to destinations poorly serviced by public transport. It could have been an open-source experiment that was maintained by a foundation, like Wikipedia, that managed any ongoing costs connected to the app and its use in that way. And that’s with something that was already a product, a service, a part of the pay economy.

Social media developed by entrepreneurs, backed by venture capital, will eventually have to find some revenue. And there are only three choices: they sell information about their users and content creators, even if that’s just access to the attention of the users via advertisements; they sell services to their users and content creators; they sell the content their creators gave to them, or at least take a huge cut of any such sales. That’s it.

And right now except for a precious few big operators, none of those choices really let the entrepreneurs operate a sustainable business. Which is why so many of of the newer entries are hoping to either threaten a big operator, get a payout and walk away with their wallet full (and fuck the users) or are hoping to amass such a huge amount of freely donated content that they can sell their archive and walk away with their wallet full (and fuck the users).

If the stakes are low, well, so be it. Ephemeral social conversation between people can perhaps safely be sold off, burned down and buried so that a few Stanford grads get to swagger with all the nouveau-richness they can muster. On the far other end, maybe that’s not such a great thing to happen to blood tests and medical procedures, though that’s more about the hideous offspring of the social media business model, aka “disruption”.

But nobody at this point should ever be giving away potentially valuable work that they’ve created to a profit-maker just because the service that hosts it seems to provide more attention, more connection, more ease of use, more exposure.

Open access is the greatest idea in academia today when it comes to make academia more socially just, more important and influential, more able to collaborate, and more able to realize its own cherished ideals. But open access is incompatible with for-profit social media business models. Not because the people who run academia.edu are out of touch with their customer base, or greedy, or incompetent. They don’t have any choice! Sooner or later they’ll have to move in the direction that created such alarm yesterday. They will either have amassed so much scholarship from so many people that future scholars will feel compelled to use the service–at which point they can charge for a boost to your scholarly attention and you’ll have to pay. Or they will need to monetize downloads and uses. Or monetize citations. Or charge on deposit of anything past the first article. Or collect big fees from professional associations to for services. Or they’ll claim limited property rights over work that hasn’t been claimed by authors after five years. Or charge a “legacy fee” to keep older work up. You name it. It will have to happen.

So just don’t. But also keep asking and dreaming and demanding all the affordances of academia.edu in a non-profit format supported by a massive consortia of academic institutions. It has been, is and remains perfectly possible that such a thing could exist. It is a matter of institutional leadership–but also of faculty collectively finally understanding their own best self-interest.

Posted in Academia, Information Technology and Information Literacy, Intellectual Property | 2 Comments

Technologies of the Cold War in Africa (History 90I) Syllabus

I saw last year that some smart academics were using Piktochart to design more graphical, visual syllabi, so I took a stab at it.



Posted in Academia, Africa, Swarthmore | Comments Off on Technologies of the Cold War in Africa (History 90I) Syllabus

“Dates Back Millennia”

You know, I have less of an unqualified hatred for the “dates back millennia” line than I used to. I’m thinking this as I see my feed fill up with friends and colleagues complaining about Obama’s use of it in his speech to talk about the Middle East. To some extent, historians overreact to its use by politicians for two separate reasons.

The first is that of course it’s factually wrong and not at all innocently so. Which is to say that this line of explanation, whether offered as a quick throw-away or as a substantive claim, looks away from the history of the 20th Century and the very decisive role played by European colonialism and post-WWII American intervention in structuring many supposedly “ancient hatreds”. In the case of Israel-Palestine, that is particularly convenient for the United States (and for Zionists) because the direct and immediate causal relevance of the precise way in which the state of Israel came into being and the ways in which the current states of the Middle East were brought into the geopolitics of the Cold War are the major and direct causal underpinnings of contemporary conflicts. It runs from mature responsibility and from genuine analytic understanding all at once.

The second reason for the reaction is Invoking “ancient hatreds” not only is a misdirection of attention, it also naturalizes conflicts in the bodies and minds of the combatants. It’s a kind of shrug: what can one do? but it also turns more to psychology than history as the toolset for thinking through current politics, which is at best futile and at worst creepy.

So why do I qualify my dislike? First I think among historians we all recognize that there’s a strong turn to the modern and contemporary among our students and our publics, a presentism that most of us criticize. But I think in moments like this, we contribute some to that presentism. We should leave a door open for times before the 20th Century to matter as causal progenitors of our own times and problems. Sure, that argument has to be made carefully (shouldn’t all historical arguments be thus?) but I actually think all of the past is weighing on the present, sometimes quite substantially so. “Ancient hatreds” isn’t quite the right way to put it, but there are aspects of conflict in the Middle East which do genuinely derive structure or energy from both the Ottoman period (early and late) and from times before that.

It’s also that I think we end up in getting angry at politicians who are trying to kick over the traces of their own government’s recent historical culpability but in so doing forget that there are many other actors who also believe and are motivated by the supposed antiquity of their actions. On some level, if they do think so, we ought to at least listen carefully and not quickly school-marm them about why the experts hold that they’re wrong. Authenticity is a strange twilight realm. If people believe that they are upholding something ancient, that has a way of becoming true enough in some sense even if they’re wrong about the history between them and that past moment and wrong about what the ancient history really was. It might be easier simply to focus on the culpability of some states and actors for the current situation and leave aside compulsively correcting their history in some cases.

But finally, as long as we’re talking culpability, the one problem with always, invariably locating conflict and hatred as having their most relevant origins in Western colonialism and in the decisions made during post-WWII decolonization is that we risk having our own version of a distraction from uncomfortable truth. As I noted, maybe sometimes there really is something older at play. There’s a really great book that the historian Paul Nugent wrote about the Ghana-Togo borderlands in West Africa that makes the argument that counter to the common trope that the Berlin Conference simply arbitrarily created random and incoherent borders–that the border there was both reflective of older 19th Century histories and that the communities in the borderlands did much to fashion those boundaries. More uncomfortably, maybe sometimes there’s something far more recent and contingent at play–maybe sometimes in current global conflicts even our preferred causal stage is an “ancient conflict” of little real empirical relevance to combatants, who are instead being put into motion by the political and cultural histories of the last twenty years or even the last ten.

Posted in Academia, Politics, Production of History | Comments Off on “Dates Back Millennia”

All Saints Day

Commenting on the debate over Halloween costumes seems freshly risky this week, but the subject has been on my mind since I read this New York Times article on the subject on October 30.

My first thought would be that calls for the resignation of the Silliman House masters at Yale are dangerously disproportionate to the email that they wrote in response to polite guidance from the Yale administration. I’ll come back to why that disproportionate response worries me so much later in this essay.

And yet I don’t entirely agree with the way that Erika Christakis chose to come at the issue. I wish everyone could back up a step so that the entire discussion is not about free expression vs. censorship or between safe spaces and stereotype threats. Once the discussion has locked into those terms, then the “free speech” advocates are stupidly complicit in defending people who show up at parties in blackface or are otherwise costumed or having themed parties with deliberately offensive stereotypes. Once the discussion has locked into those terms, people who want to say that such stereotypes have a real, powerful history of instrumental use in systems of racial domination are forced to understand that advocacy as censorship–and are also unable to leave space open to hear people like Erika and Nicolas Christakis as making any other kind of point.

The real issues we should be talking about are:

1) The concepts of appropriation and ownership. This is where moves are being made that are at least potentially reactionary and may in fact lead to the cultural and social confinement or restriction of everyone, including people of color, women, GLBQT people, and so on. In some forms, the argument against appropriation is closely aligned with dangerous kinds of ethnocentrism and ultra-nationalism, with ideas about purity and exclusivity. It can serve as the platform for an attack on the sort of cosmopolitan and pluralistic society that many activists are demanding the right to live within. Appropriation in the wrong institutional hands is a two-edged sword: it might instruct an “appropriator” to stop wearing, using or enacting something that is “not of their culture”, but it might also require someone to wear, use and enact their own “proper culture”.

When I have had students read Frederick Lugard’s The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, which was basically the operator’s manual for British colonial rule in the early 20th Century, one of the uncomfortable realizations many of them come to is that Lugard’s description of the idea of indirect rule sometimes comes close to some forms of more contemporary “politically correct” multiculturalism. Strong concepts of appropriation have often been allied with strong enforcement of stereotypes and boundaries. “Our culture is these customs, these clothing, this food, this social formation, this everyday practice: keep off” has often been quickly reconfigured by dominant powers to be “Fine: then if you want to claim membership in that culture, please constantly demonstrate those customs, clothing, food, social formations and everyday practices–and if you don’t, you’re not allowed to claim membership”.

And then further, “And please don’t demonstrate other customs, clothing, food, social formations and everyday practices: those are for other cultures. Stick to where you belong.” I recall a friend of mine early in our careers who was told on several occasions during her job searches that since she was of South Asian descent, she’d be expected to formally mentor students from South Asia as well as Asian-Americans, neither of which she particularly identified with. I can think of many friends and colleagues who have identified powerfully with a particular group or community but who do not dress as or practice some of what’s commonly associated with that group.

What’s being called appropriation in some of the current activist discourses is how culture works. It’s the engine of cultural history, it’s the driver of human creativity. No culture is a natural, bounded, intrinsic and unchanging thing. A strong prohibition against appropriation is death to every ideal of human community except for a rigidly purified and exclusionary vision of identity and membership.

Even a weak prohibition against appropriation risks constant misapplication and misunderstanding by people who are trying to systematically apply the concept as polite dogma. To see one example of that, look to the New York Times article, which describes at one point a University of Washington advice video that counsels people to avoid wearing a karate costume unless you’re part of the real culture of karate. But karate as an institutional culture of art and sport is already thoroughly appropriated from its origins in Okinawa, and it was in turn an appropriation of sorts from Chinese martial arts–and no martial arts form in the world today is anything even remotely like its antecedents in practice, form or purpose. Trying to forbid karate costuming to anyone but a truly authentic “owner” of the costume is a tragic misunderstanding of the history of the thing being regulated. It’s also a gesture that almost certainly forbids the wearing of a costume that has a referent that is not wholly imaginary. If a karate outfit is appropriation for anyone but a genuine Okinawan with a black belt, then so also are firefighters, police, soldiers, nurses, doctors, astronauts and so on. Even imaginary characters are usually appropriations of some kind of another, drawn out of history and memory.

It is precisely these kinds of discourses about appropriation that are used by reactionaries to protest Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall, or to assert that a tradition of a particular character or cultural type being white or male or straight means it must always be so. It might be possible to configure a critique so that appropriation from below is always ok and appropriation from above is never ok, but that kind of categorical distinction itself rests on the illusion of power being rigid, binary and fixed rather than fluid, performative and situational.

What I think many activists mean to forbid is not appropriation but disrespect, not borrowing but hostile mockery. The use of costumes as weapons, as tools of discrimination. But it’s important to say precisely that and no more, and not let the word appropriation stand in for a much more specific situational critique of specific acts of harmful expression and representation. “Appropriation” is being used essentially to anticipate, to draw a comprehensive line proactively in order to avoid having to sort out with painful specificity which costumes and parties are offensive and which are not after the fact of their expression.

2) But this leads to my second point: “appropriation” is being used for the convenience of custodial authority, for the use of institutions, for the empowerment of a kind of kindly quasi-parental control over communities.

Institutions–like college administrations and particularly the legal advisors they employ–don’t like situational judgments, they don’t like critiques that apply with strong force in some situations and don’t apply at all in others. So they often seek to rework demands for change into rules and guidelines that can be applied evenly to all subjects at all times. That’s one reason why appropriation as a concept at least has the potential to force people to perform the identities they claim according to a pre-existing sketch in the hands of institutional power.

Custodial authority in this respect and many others is a danger for other reasons. Here I can’t do much more than echo Fredrik deBoer’s warning against “University Inc.”: the custodial university quickly becomes the neoliberal corporate university. On some campuses, student activists are incidentally or accidentally strengthening the capacity and reach of custodial power over faculty, staff and students alike. Among other consequences, this change in academic institutions often puts faculty from underrepresented groups at much more intense risk: student activists are sometimes accidentally undercutting one of their most cherished objectives.

Even when the people in the crosshairs do not have that vulnerability, they have the basic vulnerability that all working professionals have in the disastrous political economy of early 21st Century America. In the Christakis’ case and many others, I feel as if simplistic ideas of asymmetrical power and “punching up” are being used to overlook the potentially disastrous consequences of introducing greater precariousness into the lives of middle-aged professionals. Sometimes the consequences of failed leadership is sufficient cause to warrant making an individual’s life precarious, and sometimes the asymmetry of power is enough that one can sleep easy about the consequences–say, with the resignation of the University of Missouri’s president, who I think we can say will in fact land on his feet. But often not. What’s being said to the Christakises in those videos is serious business, and I don’t know that those saying it seem to realize it is, even though many of them clearly feel with legitimate passion that what was said by Erika Christakis is also serious business that makes them feel unsafe in a place where they prize a sense of security. It’s a cliche, but here something of “two wrongs don’t make a right” is important.

This is also a concern about the future of academic institutions themselves. This is the other problem with some of these protests. I feel badly for everyone today in that everything they write on social media, every protest they attend, every response they give, has some chance of being seized upon by commenters all over the world. Nobody was looking at my college life with that kind of attention. But for anyone who aspires to political action,even action as intimate and simple as seeking personal safety and happiness, they have got to pay attention to the infrastructure surrounding that action, and to the consequences that will flow from it. Bit by bit, protests that seem to assert that yes, the university is indeed a world completely apart from the social and cultural realities around it, add fuel to the fires being set by reactionary politicians all around the United States. Bit by bit, protests where the rhetoric that is meant to be strictly local but is turned national or global end up looking tone-deaf or disproportionate. This could be a learning experience: liberal arts learning is supposed to increase the capacities of students to speak, think, write and act in the world around them. But for it to be a learning experience, in some cases students (and faculty) will have to treat the question of how a particular claim will sound or mean outside of the local context seriously. And they will need to think very carefully about matching critical demands to visions of proportionality that sound reasonable to more than just the group at hand.

3) This leads in turn to my third point. What is going on with struggles over Halloween costumes and much else besides within college and university culture has implications for the futures of liberal arts-educated students. And they are not the implications that are commonly drawn either by “free speech advocates” or by defenders of current campus activism.

“Free speech”, broadly speaking, is not what is at risk in most campus disputes. Occasionally it is to some extent: that’s how I interpret the seriously misconceived protests at Wesleyan recently against the student newspaper. Even in the case of Wesleyan, however, the initial impulse to inhibit or constrict what can be said gave way to something more managerial and neoliberal, this time not from administration but from student leadership itself. The student assembly proposed cutting the funding of the paper in the name of a drive for efficiency, having it “compete” for positions against others with an inbuilt incentive-based reward for incorporating diversity.

What I think that move suggests is that some of the drive for cultural transformation, with its constant turn towards custodial forms of managerial and institutional power, may be in danger of turning away from an ideal of creating safety and security for all towards an ideal of governance over others. That the struggles now underway have at least some danger of congealing into an intramural struggle for elite power in the political economy to come. On one side, the future economic elites: the students from selective institutions feeding into the finance industry and Silicon Valley. On the other side, the future cultural managers and bureaucrats: the students from selective institutions feeding into consultancies, non-profits, risk management administration, human resources, into the civic middlemen of a future capitalism.

Where that danger becomes clearest is precisely in the talk of guidance and guidelines, suggestions and “soft rules”. Not so much in the talk itself, but in who the talk is aimed at. Free speech advocacy tends to see every guideline from an institution as a law, and turn to a libertarian vocaculary to contest it. The issue is less the making of law and more the incipient character of class hierarchy in the political economy to come.

One of the things that I heard coming from a substantial wave of student activism here several years ago was that they held themselves to be already knowledgeable about all the things that they felt a good citizen and ethical person should know. It was the other students, the absent students, the students who don’t study such subjects, who worried them. And some of the activists had a touching faith in a way in the power of our faculty’s teaching to remake the great unwashed of the student body. If only they took the right classes, they’d do the right thinking. As one Swarthmore student in spring 2013 said in the group I was in, “I can’t believe there are students here who graduate without having heard the word intersectionality.”

This moment worried me, even though it is important as always to remember: this was a young person, and I said things under similar circumstances that I would be deeply embarrassed to hear quoted directly back to me. It worried me because I hear that same concern a lot across the entire space of cultural activism, both on and off-campuses.

It worries me first because that student and many similar activists are wrong when they assume that what they don’t like in the culture is a result of the absence of the ideas and knowledge that they hold dear. Far more students here have been in a course where concepts like “intersectionality” come up than this student thought. All political ideologies in the contemporary American public sphere, from the most radical to the most reactionary, have a troubling tendency to assume that agreement with their views is the natural state of the mass of people except for a thin sliver of genuinely bad actors, and therefore where a lack of agreement or acceptance holds, it must be because the requisite knowledge has been kept from the masses. This is a really dangerous proposition, because it blinds any political actor to the possibility that many people have have heard what you have to say and don’t agree for actual reasons–reasons that you’ll have to reckon with eventually.

It worries me second because I think some activists may be subconsciously thinking that if they can sufficiently command custodial or institutional power, they will not have to reckon with such disagreement. Not only does that mistake custodial power as permanently and inevitably friendly to their own interests, it is where the temptation to use class power against other social groups will enter in, has already entered in.

This is what worries me most. The thing that I wish that student had recognized is that some of the people that he wishes knew the word intersectionality already know the reality of it. They might not have the vocabulary he does, but they have the phenomenology right enough. Perhaps more right than the student did.

I worry, as in the case of Halloween costumes and much else, that at least some cultural activists are setting themselves up as future commissioners of culture over other social classes and their worlds, that this is as much about admonishing people “out there” for their failure to use the right terms, for their outre mannerisms and affect, for their expressive noncompliance. That this is all about kids who will become upper middle-class (or rich) through access to education judging and regulating kids who will not have that status or education, no matter where the educated kids started in life. That making blanket policies about Halloween costumes and much else might become a building block of class differentiation, part of a system of middle-class moral paternalism.

That’s what an earlier generation of cultural activism left me doing as a young graduate who wanted to be an “ally”: piously correcting people outside of my immediate social universe whenever life put me into close contact with them. Often when it was the most innocent and well-intended on my part, it gave the greatest offense, as when I once started talking about the importance of working-class unionism with my non-union working-class cousins that I was meeting for the first time at my paternal grandfather’s house.

At least in some cases, the entire infrastructure of current cultural activism is disabling the need for careful listening, for patience, for humility, at the moments where it is needed most, particularly within the ethical commitments that many activists themselves treasure and articulate. That’s why guidelines and rules and custodial dictates and finger-wagging about general concepts like appropriation are a problem: they take what is profoundly situational and circumstantial and turn it systematic. They interrupt rather than intensify attention. They make a spectrum of expressive practice into a right-wrong binary.

We need to tell someone thinking of wearing blackface to a party to absolutely stop right there and think again. We need to tell someone planning a fraternity party with a “gang theme” to cut that shit out or else. Neither of those moments is meaningful expression or harmless fun, and there needs to be no room for them. But we also need to not give ourselves permission to piously tell the kid in the karate uniform that they’re appropriating someone’s culture, or to inform the guy in the cowboy uniform that cowboys were nothing but agents of genocidal conquest.

We need to not self-nominate as authorities over culture, especially the speech and cultural activity of people whom we arrogantly judge don’t know as much about it as we do. We need to be in culture, in circulation, even acting through appropriation and imitation, a part of the crowd and not above it. We are all dancers, not choreographers; our only choreographer is the endless, ceaseless and sometimes abrasive motion of human thought and expression in a never-simple world.

Posted in Academia, Popular Culture, Production of History, Swarthmore | 17 Comments

On the Eating of Lotuses

Wary as I might be (like most historians) of historical analogies, there’s an obvious one out there that could stand some use. I think about it every time I read a story about how young and innocent men and women, most but not all of them Muslims, have snuck out of their home nations to join ISIS in Syria or Iraq. The first thing I think about is, “This is pretty much like the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades”.

Before all my lefty friends descend upon me in their full wrath, let me be really clear about what is and is not similar. The values, ideologies, purposes, and moral character of the two cases are 110% different, alien to each other. I think of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as genuinely heroic if also slightly naive; I think of ISIS as a horrific movement that I would love to see scourged from the planet and I think anybody who joins them is at best a dupe in service to evil.

So what’s the point of the analogy, and what can we learn from it? The thing is that the mass media in the U.S. and Western Europe acts as if it is baffling when promising, bright and often quite “Westernized” young people want to join ISIS. That often leads to polite, careful, nervous attempts to anatomize Islam as a religion or the “culture” of Islamic communities as if they hold the answer.

The answer in some sense is the same as the answer about young foreigners who flocked to Spain to fight the fascists. What the people who evaded legal restrictions were seeking was the chance to really matter in the world, to put their lives on the line to shape the future in a situation where it seemed to genuinely hang in the balance. They did so in a context where the everyday world around them offered nothing more than stasis and passivity to ordinary citizens and a world where the people in charge during their lives had largely proved that they were feckless, arrogant and untrustworthy at best. If you were nineteen in 1937, your life began in the midst of catastrophic war, your childhood was in an era where heedless plutocrats speculated carelessly and governments demonstrated their near-total inability to understand the economic systems they supervised. You came of age in the middle of a global depression full of misery, and even if you were hopeful about the countermoves of social democrats, you had to wonder why anyone thought that eating your vegetables, studying hard in school and being a good citizen was either a secure or existentially meaningful way to look at your own future, The Waltons notwithstanding.

The reason the media professes to be mystified by the charisma of ISIS for some young people is that they aren’t prepared to countenance the degree to which the world that’s on offer to those young people, Muslim or otherwise, is at best something to be resigned to. Even for people born in privilege, this is a world full of short-term and long-term precariousness. You can’t look forward to working for a company that will reward your long service. You can’t acquire skills that have lasting market value. You can’t count on social progress in your world, or expect basically good governance from your nation. Technological innovation seems less likely unless you’re looking forward to the next social media app. There isn’t that much to believe in any longer, no matter where you live.

Most importantly, many people, old and young, have every reason to think they don’t matter as individuals. The financial inequality tilting the entire planet towards a smaller and smaller elite is matched by a kind of spiritual and imaginative inequality. Yes, sure, online media offer some new avenues for democratic participation in culture-making, often in a better and richer way than Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. But otherwise? Liberal democracies around the planet have stunted horizons, barely daring to tackle minor bureaucratic reforms, and they’re frequently captured by political elites that increasingly seem like aristocracies. Social mobility seems as much a quaint thing of yesteryear as slide rules and telegraphs. Nobody goes from the mail room to the boardroom now. It doesn’t matter if these perceptions are not empirically accurate: they are the way the world feels to many people. Much as I intensely disliked what he advocated as the answer to the problem he identified, I still think Paul Berman was right in 2001 to call out liberalism for its “coldness”, to remark on the ways that defending liberalism and democracy seems abstract, distant, and passive. In fact, that a commitment to liberalism seems only like defense, never like movement or change or improvement.

In the search for something warmer and more sustaining, something that promises a direct relationship between being an individual and changing the world, there is not a lot of out there at the moment. Small surprise then that ISIS and similar movements strike a chord. No less a surprise that a big, dumb, clumsy quasi-empire like the United States and Western Europe can barely even understand that this is what they’re facing, let alone have anything like a remotely honest conversation about what it means to stand against that moment. Small wonder in some sense that ISIS volunteers and anti-ISIS volunteers have some similar motives.


That’s what burns me so much about the wider coverage of US attempts to counter the influence of ISIS and their allies in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. For the last six months, we’ve had a steady flow of articles in the New York Times and other respectable, mainstream publications that have privileged access to sources in the US military and government about how previous strategies in the region have failed despite considerable expenditure of funds and efforts, and in particular how the groups we’ve chosen as our allies and surrogates are poorly trained, indifferently led, and half-heartedly committed. And then the pundits and the journalists and the mostly-anonymous sources harrumph and ponder and pontificate about how to do it right. Which is just silly. There isn’t a way to do it right as long as we remain what we are, how we are. Doing it right would involve living up to our potential as a liberal democracy rather than down to our ersatz empirehood. Or it would require thinking more clearly about what we are doing as an empire in ways that I think the United States is incapable of achieving.

I’ve found some of the smart scholarship on the history and character of empires published in the last few years very useful for rethinking the rather kneejerk understanding of empire as a massively and inarguably worse and more oppressive political form than nationhood, particularly Fred Cooper and Jane Burbank’s sweeping history of empire as a political form and Charles Maier’s thoughtful reflections on similar themes. These are not apologies for empire, let alone advocacy of it, but they do open up a more analytic understanding of why empires, including modern Western ones, tend to experience certain kinds of recurrent crises and to fall prey to some of the same self-defeating uses of violence and injustice even if they also avoid some of the distinctively modern failures of national, Westphalian sovereignty.

One of those recurring problems is the relationship between imperial cores and their clients on their frontiers. What can the core offer to agents or groups at its periphery who might protect or enhance the power of the center?

Not incorporation or membership: that’s the whole point of the different between empires and nations, that at least in theory the autonomy of actors at the periphery or frontier is a selling point for both empire and client alike. In practice, empires usually forget that autonomy both because of their own chauvinistic ideologies, how the center justifies its centrality, and because some of the value of empires to core and periphery alike is in the standardization of mechanisms of exchange, in the protection of travel, in the regulation of commerce, all of which can slide very quickly into other kinds of constraint and aggression.

No, what the core can offer is resources that allow its clients or agents to enact their own goals and achieve supremacy over rivals beyond the edges of imperial influence. In return, the empire should not expect ideological, religious or cultural loyalty. Because being loyal to an empire for its values, its culture, its way of life, is strictly for dummies. The empire will not respect that loyalty because it doesn’t see its frontiers as “home”. Committing to empire in that sense involves selling out authenticity, selling out everything that makes you a part of your own historical world, in return for nothing at all. So the only collaborators who show up when that’s the deal are naive, stupid or desperate.

Maier is willing to concede that maybe the post-1945 United States isn’t fully an empire in the classic sense, but he insists that it has had many of the same characteristics in its relationship to the world and that Americans have had a hard time grasping the implications of that relationship, as the citizens and leaders of empires often do.

The point is not to seek more brutal or unprincipled clients, either. This is what “realist” thinkers in the Cold War and since have habitually preferred, that the United States or the West should select clients who will do whatever dirty work the empire can’t be seen to do. That’s just the mirror opposite of asking groups you support to show their fealty to Mom, apple pie and Chevrolet, but it’s the same mistake. Empires pay clients on their frontiers just so the clients won’t attack the empire and will attack those who would. That’s it. They’re not employees, they’re not citizens, they’re not servants or slaves.

So what can we offer to fighters in Syria? Weapons, cash, resources. Fine. What they do next is up to them. That’s their reason for asking for those things: so they can do what they want and fight whom they choose, to be who they already are. They might indeed eventually choose to fight the empire that gave them the weapons in time. That, too, is a common part of the history of empires. But that’s what the bargain is all about, if the empire chooses to pursue it. The pundits who pretend that we should be looking for good, loyal, liberal democratic capitalist evangelical Christian American-loving Syrian proxies who will follow our orders and obey our strategy should really just say that we’re looking for idiots and unicorns, because it amounts to the same thing. Especially in the Middle East, there are many reasons to remember that giving America the loyalty it imagines it requires is a way to end up abandoned and desperate whenever the shooting dies down for a moment. Anyone who is paying attention knows what America does, what even the least racist and brutal empire will eventually do, which is betray anyone who actually believed in it. We encourage people to paint targets on themselves and then we look the other way when they’re murdered and tortured and then we have the incredible cheek to act like nobody notices when we do it.


In both cases–the search for proxies to fight wars we can’t or won’t fight, the desire to stop people from going to join ISIS (or to fight it)–the real problem is with the level of hallucinatory self-regard in American appraisals of the situation. Maybe that’s another weakness of empires. Maybe that’s a reason to start thinking about a world that’s organized around neither nations nor empires, since both constructions of sovereignty frequently wrap the world in layers of injustice, stupidity and delusion. Pundits keep talking about “non-state actors” without being even slightly interested in talking about them, much as the Pentagon and the politicians jabber on about Syria without wanting to acquire even the slightest curiosity about the specific humanity and history of the people who are dying, killing, leaving or hanging on there.

Maybe the only way to move forward is to stop being what we are and have been, stop wanting what we’ll never get. Maybe it takes understanding and curiosity before demands and judgment. Maybe it takes acknowledging that what we’re offering many people at home is powerlessness, insignificance and passivity while we claim to be providing the opposite. Maybe it takes acknowledging that all we have to offer is money and guns and have no right to tell anyone else how to use them, since we don’t permit anyone else to tell us the same. If we want to offer more at home and the world, the problem is not out there, it’s in here. We’re the worst victims of our many and myriad illusions, though by no means the only ones.

Posted in Politics | 5 Comments


Over the last decade, I’ve found my institutional work as a faculty member squeezed into a kind of pressure gradient. On one side, our administration has been requesting or requiring more and more data, reporting and procedures that are either needed to document some form of adherence to the standards of external institutions or that are wanted in order to further professionalize and standardize our operations. On the other side, I have colleagues who either ignore such requests (both specific ones and the entire issue of administrative process) to the maximum extent possible or who reject them entirely on grounds that I find either ill-informed or breathtakingly sweeping.

That pressurized space forms from wanting to be helpful but wanting also to actually take governance seriously. I think stewardship doesn’t conform well to a hierarchical structure, but it also should come with some sense of responsibility to the reality of institutions and their relationship to the wider world. The strongest critics of administrative power that I see among faculty, both here at Swarthmore and in the wider world of public discourse by academics, don’t seem very discriminate in how they pick apart and engage various dictates or initiatives and more importantly, rarely seem to have a self-critical perspective on faculty life and faculty practices. At the same time, there’s a lot going on in academia that comes to faculty through administrative structures and projects, and quite a lot of that activity is ill-advised or troubling in its potential consequences.

A good example of this confined space for me perennially forms around assessment, which I’ve written about before. Sympathy to my colleagues charged with administrative responsibilities around assessment means I should take what they ask me to produce seriously both in the sense that there are consequences to the institution if faculty fail to do in the specified manner and seriously because I value them and even value the concepts embedded in assessment.

On the most basic human level, I agree that the unexamined life is not worth living. I agree that professional practices which are not subject to constant examination and re-evaluation have a tendency to drift towards sloppiness and smug self-regard. I acknowledge that given the high costs of a college education, potential students and their families are entitled to the best information we can provide about what our standards are and how we achieve them. I think our various publics are entitled to similar information. It’s not good enough to say, “Trust us, we’re great”. That’s not even healthy if we’re just talking to ourselves.

So yes, we need something that might as well be called “assessment”. There is some reason to think that faculty (or any other group of professionals) cannot necessarily be trusted to engage in that kind of self-examination without some form of institutional support and attention to doing so. And what we need is not just introspective but also expressive: we have to be able to share it, show it, talk about it.

On the other hand, throughout my career, I’ve noticed that a lot of faculty do that kind of reflection and adjustment without being monitored, measured, poked or prodded. Professionalization is a powerful psychological and intellectual force through the life cycle of anyone who has passed through it, for good and ill. The most powerfully useful forms of professional assessment or evaluation that I can think of are naturally embedded in the workflow of professional life. Atul Gawande’s checklists were a great idea because they could be inserted into existing processes of preparation and procedure, because they are compatible with the existing values of professionals. A surgeon might grouse at the implication that they needed to be reminded about which leg to cut off in an amputation but that same surgeon would agree that it’s absolutely essential to get that right.

So assessment that exists outside of what faculty already do anyway to evaluate student learning during a course (and between courses) often feels superfluous, like busywork. It’s worse than that, however. Not only do many assessment regimes add procedures like baroque adornments and barnacles, they attach to the wrong objects and measure the wrong things. The amazing thing about Gawande’s checklists is that they spread because of evidence of their very large effect size. But the proponents of strong assessment regimes, whether that’s agencies like Middle States or it’s Arne Duncan’s troubled bureaucratic regime at the U.S. Department of Education, habitually ignore evidence about assessment that suggests that it is mostly measuring the wrong things at the wrong time in the wrong ways.

The evidence suggests, especially for liberal arts curricula, that you don’t measure learning course by course and you don’t measure it ten minutes after the end of each semester’s work. Instead you ought to be measuring it over the range of a student’s time at a college or university, and measuring it well afterwards. You ought to be measuring it by the totality of the guidance and teaching a faculty member provides to individual students, and by moments as granular as a single class assignment. And you shouldn’t be chunking learning down into a series of discrete outcomes that are chosen largely because they’re the most measurable, but through the assemblage of a series of complex narratives and reflections, through conversations and commentaries.

In a given semester, what assessment am I doing whether I am asked to do it or not? In any given semester, I’m always trying some new ways to teach a familiar subject, and I’m always trying to teach some new subjects in some familiar ways. I am asking myself in the moment of teaching, in the hours after it, at the end of a semester and at the beginning of the next: did that work? What did I hope would work about it? What are the signs of its working: in the faces of students, in the things they say then and there in the class, in the writing and assignments they do afterwards, in the things they say during office hours, in the evaluations they provide me. What are the signs of success or failure? I adjust sometimes in the moment: I see something bombing. I see it succeeding! I hold tight in the moment: I don’t know yet. I hold tight in the months that follow: I don’t know yet. I look for new signs. I try it again in another class. I try something else. I talk with other faculty. I write about it on my blog. I read what other academics say in online discussion. I read scholarship on pedagogy.

I assess, I assess, I assess, in all those moments. I improve, I think. But also I evolve, which is sometimes neither improvement nor decline, simply change. I change as my students change, as my world changes, as my colleagues change. I improvise as the music changes. I assess.

Why is that not enough for the agencies, for the federal bureaucrats, for the skeptical world? Two reasons, namely. The first is that we have learned not to trust the humanity of professionals when they assure us, “Don’t worry, I’m on it.” For good reasons sometimes. Because professionals say that right up to the moment that their manifest unprofessionalism is laid screamingly bare in some awful rupture or failure. But also because we are in a great war between knowing that most of the time people have what my colleagues Barry Schwartz and Ken Sharpe call “practical wisdom” and knowing that some of the time they also have an innocent kind of cognitive blindness about their work and life. Without any intent to deceive, I can nevertheless think confidently that all is well, that I am teaching just as I should, that I am always above average and getting better all the time, and be quite wrong. I might not know that I’m not seeing or serving some group of students as they deserve. I might not know that a technique that I think delivers great education only appears to because I design tests or assignments that evaluate only whether students do what I want them to do, not whether they’ve learned or become more generally capable. I might not know that my subject doesn’t make any sense any longer to most students. Any number of things.

So that’s the part that I’ll concede to the assessors: it’s not enough for me to be thoughtful, to be practically wise, to work hard to sharpen my professionalism. We need something outside ourselves: an observer, a coach, a reader, an archive, a checklist.

I will not concede, however, that their total lack of interest in this vital but unmeasurable, unnumbered information is acceptable. This should be the first thing they want: our stories, our experiences, our aspirations, our conversation. A transcript of the lived experience of teaching. This is the second reason that the assessors think that what we think about our teaching is not wanted or needed. They don’t want that because they believe that all rhetoric is a lie, all stories are told only to conceal, all narrative is a disguise. They think that the work of interpretation is the work of making smoke from fog, of making lies from untruths. The reason they think that is that stories belong at least somewhat to the teller, because narratives inscribe the authority of the author. They don’t want to know how I assess the act of teaching as I perform it because they want a product, not a process. They want data that belongs to them, not information that creates a relationship between the interpreter and the interpreted. They want to scrub evidence clean, to make an antiseptic knowledge. They want bricks and mortar and to be left alone to build as they will with it.


I get tired of the overly casual use of “neoliberal” as a descriptive epithet. Here however I will use it. This is what neoliberalism does to rework institutions and societies into its preferred environment. This is neoliberalism’s enclosure, its fencing off of commons, its redrawing of the lines. The first thing that gets done with data that has had its narrative and experiential contaminants scrubbed clean is that the data is fed back into the experience of the laborers who first produced it. This was done even before we lived in an algorithmically-mediated world, and has only intensified since.

The data is fed back in to tell us what our procedures actually are, our standards have always been. (Among those procedures will always be the production of the next generation of antiseptic data for future feedback loops.) It becomes the whip hand: next year you must be .05% better at the following objectives. If you have objectives not in the data, they must be abandoned. If you have indeterminacies in what you think “better” is, that’s inadmissable: rarely is this looping even subject to something like a Bayesian fuzziness. This is not some exaggerated dystopic nightmare at the end of a alarmist slippery slope: what I’m describing already happened to higher education in the United Kingdom, largely accomplishing nothing besides sustaining a class of transfer-seeking technocratic parasites who have settled into the veins of British universities.

It’s not just faculty who end up caught in the loop, and like frogs boiling slowly to death, we often don’t see it happening as it happens. We just did our annual fire drill here in my building, and this year the count that we did of the evacuees seemed more precise and drawn-out than last year, and this year we had a mini-lecture about the different scenarios and locations for emergency assembly and it occurred to me: this is so we can report that we did .05% better than last year.

We always have to improve just a little, just as everything has to be “growth-based”, a little bigger next year than last year. It’s never good enough to maintain ground, to defend a center, to sustain a tradition, to keep a body healthy happy and well. Nor is it ever good enough to be different next year. Not a bit bigger, not a bit better, but different. New. Strange. We are neither to be new nor are we to maintain. We are to incrementally approach a preset vision of a slightly better but never perfect world. We are never to change or become different, only to be disrupted. Never to commune or collaborate, always to be architected and built.


So here I am in the gradient again, bowed down by the push on all sides. I find it so hard when I talk to faculty and they believe that their teaching is already wholly and infinitely sufficient. Or that it’s nobody’s business but their own how they teach, what they teach, and what comes of their teaching. Or that the results of their teaching are so sublime, ineffable and phenomenologically intricate that they can say nothing of outcomes or consequences. All these things get said, at Swarthmore and in the wider world of academia. An unexamined life.

Surely we can examine and share, express and create. Surely we can provide evidence and intent. Assess and be assessed in those ways. Surely we don’t have to bury that underneath fathoms of tacit knowledge and inexpressible wisdom. We can have our checklists, our artifacts.

But surely too we can expect from administrations that want to be partners that we will not cooperate in building the Great Machine out of the bones of our humane work. That we’re not interested in being .05% better next year, but instead in wild improvisations and foundational maintenance, in becoming strange to ourselves and familiar once again, in a month, a moment or a lifetime. Surely that’s what it means to educate and become educated in an uncertain world: not .05% more measured comprehension of the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on Sao Tome, but thinking about how a semester of historical study of the Atlantic slave trade might help make a poet forty years hence to write poems, might sharpen an analytic mind, might complicate what was simple or simplify what was complex. Might inform a diplomat ten years from now, might shape a conservative’s certainty that liberals have no answers when he votes next year’s Presidential race. Might inspire a semester abroad, might be an analogy for an experience already had. I can talk about what I do to build ramps to all those possibilities and even to the unknown unknowns in a classroom. I can talk about how I think it’s working and why I think it’s working. But don’t do anything that will lead to me or my successors having to forgo all of that thought in favor of .05% improvements onward into the dreary night of an incremental future.

Posted in Academia, Defining "Liberal Arts", Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Swarthmore | 5 Comments