Friday, January 29, 2016

Comprehensive Exams Update

I'm doing my comprehensive exams this semester. That means procrastination is my familiar friend in these months. Somehow, writing a few thoughts down and clicking publish is easier than opening up my books this morning. Besides, this way I can share a few thoughts on what I'm reading to make it sink deeper into my mind, and still feel like I'm not working. Win win!

But first, what are comps?

I find that the farther along one goes in academic studies, the more confused family and friends are about what is happening. Everyone more or less understands going to college and getting an undergraduate degree. The Masters degree is a little more confusing but it's still basically just a matter of going to classes and writing an extra-long paper. By the time you get to the Phd level, however, people aren't familiar with the process. I'm done with classes, for example, but I'm not even half-way to my Phd. This confuses people. Most of my remaining time will be taken with teaching classes to undergraduates and writing a dissertation (essentially a book, but invariably unpublishable in its dissertation form). But before I can do that, I need to pass my comprehensive exams in May. Basically, this just means that between now and then I will read a bunch of books, and then sit down in a room with three professors to be raked over the coals. Fun!

I have concluded that I can't study for an exam for four months, especially since this isn't anything like what one normally thinks of as an exam. No, my secret sauce for succeeding at comps is to do it for me. I don't mean that in a selfish sense. I just think that if I am to stay sane, it will be because I am reading these books for the love and excitement of learning rather than in hopes of answering a difficult questions months from now. Doing it for the joy of it means letting myself linger over books that I want to linger on, and thinking about connections that have nothing to do with comps: teaching ideas, dissertation possibilities, intersections with articles I'm trying to publish. That's my theory. It'll keep you sane.

Now, my method. I have three book lists (racial identities and ideologies in the twentieth-century U.S., religion in the twentieth-century U.S., and settler colonialism and decolonization). I'm alternating back and forth, doing one book list each week. I'm hoping that will give a sense of coherence to each week, and then the intervening two weeks before I come back to a given list allow ideas to germinate (or lie dormant, as the case may be). I'm using evernote, writing a less than one-page summary of each book, which I find to be extremely helpful. I can print those and read over them in relatively short order, so I have (perhaps naive) hopes of actually remembering the gist of all the books. I figure if I read 10 books a week ("read" in the graduate school sense) I will not fall too far behind and will be in a position to ramp up for a more intense sprint in April. So far, when I think about what I'm learning I really enjoy it. When I think about it being comps, I don't enjoy it. So again, do it for yourself.

So, this week is my first settler colonialism week. I can now say I've read some Frantz Fanon. I haven't finished The Wretched of the Earth, and I may well be misinterpreting him, but I can't accept his ideas about violence and religion. Colonialism, he writes, "is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with greater violence." Part of what violence accomplishes, of course, is the liberation of the mind of the colonized. But I don't think such liberation requires violence. I'm struck by the similar terms in which Dr. King described the psychological liberation he believed African Americans achieved through non-violent action. And I am interested to see if Fanon addresses the case of India. I don't know anything about decolonization there, but I'm not sure how it would be interpreted as a case of the colonized meeting violence with greater violence. Still, I understand the appeal of violence and I've written before about the real costs of non-violence.

As for religion, I don't know enough about Fanon to know if he was attacking the liberatory potential of religion as such, or if he was attacking its actual practice in colonial Algeria. I would dispute the more general attack but not the specific one. For example, this seems perceptive and necessary:
The Church in the colonies is a white man's Church, a foreigners' Church. It does not call the colonized to the ways of God, but to the ways of the white man, to the ways of the master, the ways of the oppressor. And as we know, in this story many are called but few are chosen.
Brilliant. But elsewhere, he seems to imply that religion as a rule aides colonial oppression without exception. He talks about the colonized subject taking his (It's always a male subject for Fanon) tensions and frustrations out on his fellows rather than on the oppressor and contends that religion supports this misdirected aggression:
The colonized subject also manages to lose sight of the colonist through religion. Fatalism relieved the oppressor of all responsibility sine the cause of wrong-doing, poverty, and the inevitable can be attributed to God. The individual thus accepts the devastation decreed by God, grovels in front of the colonist, bows to the hand of fate, and mentally readjusts to acquire the serenity of stone.
It's not that this is universally wrong, but it's naive to suggest that this is the way religion functions in the world. Again, from India to the United States, religion during Fanon's life also mobilized "the wretched of the earth" to resist their oppression. Like most everything, humans have found ways to use religion for both good and ill. In other respects, the book is remarkably relevant. It's remarkable how much Fanon's discussion of the colonist and colonized calls to mind the American context of White supremacy, especially if we think of the creation of American ghettos as analogous to colonial rule.

While we're talking about Algeria, another fascinating book this week is Todd Shepard's The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France. Shepard argues that at the moment of Algerian independence French leaders quite suddenly rewrote history so as to make decolonization appear natural and progressive, a vindication of French universalist ideals. In doing so, they obscured the rupture that had actually occurred in the French nation (Algeria was France) and repudiated a colorblind political ideal of French citizenship. To put this more simply, "The Algerian Revolution," Shepard writes, "was at the same time a French revolution," or, even better, a "counterrevolution" in which French identity narrowed and protection of civil liberties declined. Instead of acknowledging this wrenching revolution, the French "invented decolonization." 

This is fascinating. It's probably old-hat to people in the field, but it's new to me. I need to think more about the implications of framing decolonization in this way. Decolonization as revolution or nation-rupturing in the metropole means discarding the idea of decolonization as something that takes place only on the periphery, only among so-called developing peoples. I need to think about how this is all entangled.

Speaking of so-called developing peoples, I also waded through the introduction to Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincializing Europe.  My understanding is that Chakrabarty believes the language and categories we have for thinking about modernity are embedded in the European past and are in fact inadequate for thinking about modernity in South Asia (and the whole global south for that matter). In short, Europe's present is not the globe's future; there are multiple ways of being modern, and we must cast off the historicist conceit that history is moving from stage to stage toward a certain destination, one that Europe happily arrives at first. Part of what this means, I think, is that our entire popular language about "development" is really messed up. Developed nations, developing nations, or modernizing nations. This kind of talk imports European categories to innacurately describe global realities. I think. Who knows? This book is confuing!

Nonetheless, Chakrabarty said something really fascinating about religion that I think is important. In keeping with the theme of his book, it calls into question European ideas about what is modern, but it also rebukes a lot of historian's conception of what religion is. Here's Chakrabarty:
The second assumption running through modern European political thought and the social science is that the human is ontologically singular, that gods and spirits are in the end "social facts," that the social somehow exists prior to them. I try, on the other hand, to think without the assumption of even a logical priority of the social. One empirically knows of no society in which humans have existed without gods and spirits accompanying them...
I take gods and spirits to be existentially coeval with the human, and think from the assumption that the question of being human involves the question of being with gods and spirits.
I need to read the rest of his book to more clearly see what this means for him in practice, but this seems like a radical rebuke to any kind of Marxist-influenced view of religion.  Now, I completely agree with this, but I agree with it because of my theological beliefs rather than historical training. I'm not sure what it means for historical work. Doesn't it take religion outside the sphere of historical scholarship altogether? I think I'm missing something and need to read the rest of the book to see how he applies this idea.

Let's see...what else? I also read Margaret D. Jacobs' Bancroft Prize-winning book, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940. Utterly fascinating and devastating. Jacobs argues the removal of indigenous children as part of "protection" and "assimilation" policies in late nineteenth and early twentieth century were not more benign practices representing a break from earlier brutal forms of colonization. Instead, they were nation-building policies with the same fundamental goals of earlier policies: the taking of land and the erasure of indigenous identities. 

She pushes hard on the idea that the very presence of indigenous groups represented a threat to the construction the American and Australian nations, and thus historians who have seen a sharp break between earlier overt violence and these ostensibly more humane policies are missing the forest for the trees. And she cleverly shows how women took center-stage in the process of child-removal. Instead of military invasions of land, now white women invaded the intimate indigenous spaces of the home, policing and pathologizing the indigenous body, sexual practices, and child-rearing norms. She makes a convincing case that you can't understand the settler colonial project without understanding how Europeans undermined the gender conventions of indigenous peoples and asserted their own in the name of civilizing, advancing, uplifting. Beneath the rhetoric of saving and civilizing and "making useful" through child removal lay "a bedrock of concerns about defining and building the nation--as white, Christian, and modern."

A possibly more problematic book is Hermann Giliomee's The Afrikaners: Biography of a People.  This is a sprawling book, but for my purposes Giliomee's apartheid arguments are most important. He contends that the decisive turning point in twentieth century South African history was not the National Party's 1948 victory on an apartheid platform, but S. Africa's divisive entry into World War Two as it divided whites along lines of language. He discards the claim that apartheid was driven by Afrikaner populism in the north. Instead, he claims, it was a product of the western Cape. Further, he contends that the ideological roots of apartheid were found not in Nazism but in already established segregation (especially in schools), the white supremacy of the Dutch Reformed Church, American Jim Crow (fascinating! When American hyper-nationalists talk about our grand influence on the world they usually don't acknowledge these kinds of influences), and emerging ideas about indirect rule and social conflict in plural societies. That Afrikaners pursued apartheid even beyond their economic self-interest was due, he contends, not to simple racism but a concern for ethnic and national survival. This sounds reasonable but it also treads some uncomfortable lines. I worry that there is a romanticism to this that is unwarranted, but I don't have the expertise to know. For instance, he frames the Afrikaners as fighters of "the twentieth century's first anti-colonial war" which, in the first place, seems a quirk of timing, and in the second place, not even true. Was the Philippine Republic not fighting an anti-colonial war against the United States at the same time? On the other hand, it is simply true that Afrikaners were both colonized and colonizers, as he puts it, and that tension can be uncomfortable to explore.

But wait! What is settler colonialism? I should have mentioned this book first: Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century: Projects, Practices, Legacies is a collection of essays edited by Caroline Elkins and Susan Pederson. In the introduction they introduce a typology for twentieth century settler colonialism, setting it apart from earlier forms and from settler projects and settler states. Their argument: twentieth century settler colonialism was defined by a four-way negotiation for power, and the institutionalization of settler privilege. The four groups contesting the governance of the settler colony were the metropole, local administration, indigenous population, and the settler community. The typology distinguishes between settler colonies with high and low institutionalization of settler privilege, and high and low levels of settler incorporation into governance, thus creating four quadrants. Rhodesia, for example, was high in both variables, while Korea was low in both dimensions. This typology allows for easily understanding comparison of similarities and differences across settler colonies around the world.

They're also careful to distinguish twentieth-century settler colonialism from earlier forms. Elkins and Pederson urge us to consider pre-twentieth century settler colonialism in countries like Australia and the United States not as a stage of historical development but as an organizing principle of the states founded by it. Drawing here on Patrick Wolfe, they write, "Settler colonialism, then, is not the past--a violent but thankfully brief period of conquest and domination--but rather the foundational governing ethic of this 'new world' state." Yet the twentieth century cases discussed in the book are quite different from those earlier and extremely successful forms of settler colonialism. In every twentieth century case, the indigenous population was larger, and the influence of the metropole stronger. Twentieth century settler colonial societies were more fragile, and only in the case of Israel did they produce a successful nation-building project.

Ok, I think I'm ready to get to work now. 


  1. Thanks for your explanation of what you are doing this semester. That was helpful to me. I'm glad I'm a piano teacher. While I find challenge in trying to understanding what you are writing about, I could never deal with that day after day. I also understand your procrastination. It must become somewhat burdensome for you, too. Hence the "do it for me" stance. Good for you for finding out what works for you.


  2. Thanks for sharing what you're doing. I'm glad I don't have to do it.