CFP: Graduate Colloquium on “Indigenous Spaces,” February 15, 2012

The newly created Collaborations on Indigenous Studies Project (CISP) at Columbia University is accepting paper proposals for its first graduate student colloquium:

Indigenous Spaces:

Pushing the Boundaries of History, Bodies, Geographies, and Politics

A Graduate Student Colloquium

Presented by

The Collaborations on Indigenous Studies Project (CISP)

Columbia University

February 15, 2012

We invite graduate students to submit proposals for a graduate student colloquium on the theme of Indigenous Spaces: Pushing the Boundaries of History, Bodies, Geographies, and Politics, to take place at Columbia University in the City of New York on February 15, 2012. Contributors are encouraged to think about ‘indigenous spaces’ that connect indigenous communities, bodies (understood in a broad sense), histories, geographies, and academia.

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On Walls and the Spectacle of Sovereignty

My oral exams are scheduled for late January, which means the past month has been a frenzy of reading and the next three promise to be equally busy. The bright side is that my program gives us a lot of freedom in formulating reading lists, so one of mine is a rather idiosyncratic theory list focusing on race, global studies, law, and spatial theory—my small effort to chip away at the walls, so to speak, between the disciplines that have informed my studies.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of reading Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (MIT Press, 2010). The book begins with a meditation on the recent spate of global wall-building that paradoxically coincides with supposed weakening of nation-state boundaries. The most well-known examples are the winding Israeli West Bank barrier and the exorbitantly expensive (and ineffective) high-tech “fence” that now separates the U.S. from Mexico. Brown notes astutely that these walls are meant not really to strengthen borders between nations, but rather to keep out certain non-governmental, transnational forces perceived as a threat to sovereignty—yearning would-be immigrant masses, illegal drug trade, terrorism. Moreover, these walls serve a significant symbolic function: they are “iconographic of” and spectacularize the idea of sovereignty for a privileged population anxious about its porous cultural and political borders. Of course, to say that walls are spectacles of sovereignty is not at all to diminish their material, often destructive consequences, which have been many.

Reading Brown’s book reminded me of my visit to Germany this summer. Having only one day to spend in Berlin, I headed for the East Side Gallery, a kilometer-long section of the Berlin Wall that has been transformed by artists into an “International Memorial for Freedom.” I also walked through the bizarre historic site of Checkpoint Charlie, a former crossing point between the Soviet and American sectors, where a man dressed as a Cold War-era U.S. soldier still stands guard for photographic purposes. At both sites, I participated in the usual rituals celebrating the spread of democracy and economic freedom: that is, I took pictures (exercising my right to an individual point of view) and purchased postcards (participating in both transnational communication and the commodification of nostalgia). As Brown points out, something about walls offends the liberal worldview and westerners like to vaunt their demise, even as we deploy new walls for the “protection” of democracy.

Irony aside, the visits were actually quite moving for me, as I thought of the East Berliners who had risked (or lost) their lives trying to escape political oppression and economic stagnation, as well as my own family, which left Vietnam as boat people when I was a baby. I, like the average American, eschew romantic notions of how life would be better under communism (though my reasons might not be ordinary). Nevertheless, I know there are limits to the liberal tearing down of walls: in uncritically celebrating the spread of “freedom,” we risk forgetting the burdens we force on those living outside the walls we continue to build. It is true that freedom isn’t free—but Americans are usually not the ones who pay.


Osnabrück Update: Law, Literature, and the Nation

Law, Literature, and the Cultural Presence of the Law,” a workshop convened by Claudia Lieb and Brook Thomas as part of the Summer School, has been examining the many possible relationships between law and literature by focusing on “the nation” as a site of disciplinary convergence.

The workshop’s well-structured reading list began by tracing the history of citizenship and the nation-state, and moved on to literary theory treating law and the nation, including work by Guyora Binder/Robert Weisberg and Homi Bhabha. As a “law and literature” case study, the workshop then examined E.E. Hale’s Civil War-era short story, “The Man Without a Country” (1863) in view of the historical controversy that inspired it: Clement Vallandigham, a Union politician, was arrested and punished for speaking out against the Civil War. The Vallandigham case sparked a “reply” by President Abraham Lincoln arguing that the government may, during times of rebellion, suspend habeas corpus, prohibit anti-war speech, and try protesters in military court. The case raised constitutional issues that have resurfaced several times in U.S. history, most recently, of course, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hale’s patriotic short story should interest those who study nationalism and citizenship. It concerns a young American man who speaks out against his country and is sentenced to spend the rest of his life never seeing or hearing another word about the United States. Over time, the man (named Nolan, a play on “no land”) feels the loss of his country deeply and by the end of his life is a fully reformed, though still exiled, patriot. Although the story is fictitious, Thomas notes, some readers took it to be true and its nationalistic message resonated widely; it was a staple of American high school curricula until the 1970s and has experienced something of a revival since 9/11.