Few accounts of a scholar’s working conditions lodge themselves in a reader’s imagination quite like Eric Auerbach’s understated remarks in the epilogue to his Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946). A German-Jewish philologist, Auerbach was forced out of his academic position in 1935. He escaped with his family to Turkey the following year, and for most of the next decade, he pursued a study in comparative literature on a grand scale -- analyzing texts in several language from more than two millennia -- amid the uncertainties of exile.
The book was written during the war and at Istanbul, where the libraries are not well equipped for European studies. International communications were impeded; I had to dispense with almost all periodicals, with almost all the more recent investigations, and in some cases with reliable critical editions of my texts. Hence it is possible and even probable that I overlooked things which I ought to have considered and that I occasionally assert something which modern research has disproved or modified. I trust that these probable errors include none which affect the core of my argument …. On the other hand, it is quite possible that the book owes its existence to just this lack of a rich and specialized library. If it had been possible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might never have reached the point of writing.
This passage tends to stick in one’s memory. It gives the book an aura of heroism. And Auerbach himself stands as the patron saint of everyone trying to resist the urge to consult just one more paper … just one more book … before adding their own mite to the scholarly literature.
Romanticizing the condition of exile is ultimately one of the more dubious privileges of unreflective security, however. And as such, it evades an unwelcome truth: the condition of the refugee scholar is no historical matter but a 21st-century reality.
So much so, in fact, that one of the oldest academic presses in the world has now added a new periodical to its catalog. As of its second issue, The Journal of Interrupted Studies, founded in 2015 by students at the University of Oxford, will carry the imprint of Brill Publishers. (With headquarters in the Netherlands, the press has been around in one form or another since the 17th century.)
Describing itself as “a multidisciplinary publication dedicated to academic work jeopardized by forced migration,” the Journal debuted in June 2016 with six peer-reviewed articles. Three were by Syrians; the other three by scholars from Ethiopia, Gambia and Jordan. By my count, two of the papers concerned political and economic issues directly affecting refugees, while a third, which explored problems in teaching English-language sentence structure and intonation, had clear practical implications for how some refugees adapt to a new country. Another two papers analyzed economic developments in Africa without directly focusing on emigration. Finally, the issue ended with a first-person account of primary and secondary education in Syria, by a teacher and translator who studied English at the University of Aleppo -- an essay that, judging by a slightly anxious headnote, the editors clearly wanted to have yet worried did not belong in a peer-reviewed scholarly publication.
The dilemma should not come up again. In January, the journal launched a blog called “Interruptions: New Perspectives on Migration,” open to “the journalism, personal essays, fiction, poetry, photography and art of those directly or indirectly affected by migration, and of those who feel they have something to contribute to a revised discussion thereof.”
Behind this ambitious enterprise are Marcos Barclay and Paul Ostwald -- two Oxford undergraduates whose friendship owes something to their similarly extraterritorial upbringings. Mark (as he prefers) describes himself as “half English and half Argentinean,” while Paul’s early years were spent in Germany, Kenya and Russia. Between travel, editorial duties and preparing for finals in a few weeks, they managed to respond to my questions about JIS by email.
The seed was planted in late 2015. While watching a German television show with his father, Paul noticed something about how the program identified its talking heads: a German citizen would be presented with his or her full name, while a refugee would be noted as “Kazim, refugee.” Paul had met highly educated Syrian refugees and found the “small but very telling instance of condescending chumminess” offensive on their behalf.
Discussing it later, Mark and Paul decided that what displaced academics needed was a platform from which they could intervene in public life as displaced academics -- figures whose participation in the community of scholars ought to be regarded not as marginal but as having been interrupted.
In letting them resume their work, such a publication would have to be interdisciplinary -- and open access as well. As Mark put it, “Accepting submissions across disciplines means we can show interruption in different academic fields (social science, natural sciences, art history, law and creative writing, to name a few) and different migration contexts (environmental, political, humanitarian).” Likewise, he says, open-access publishing “allowed us to promote the intellectual dignity of our authors” -- who retain intellectual property in their work -- “in a forum that encourages exchange.”
The first issue of the journal took about six months to prepare. “We started off with encouragement from our tutors and Act Now, an Austrian institution which funded our first issue,” Paul told me by email. “Then we received support from the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes, the German national scholarship program. Beyond that, we have a fantastic team of about 12 people and independent peer reviewers who continue to work on submissions, and our blog.”
A second issue was announced for late 2016, but it has been delayed for what sound like altogether pretty agreeable reasons. “After an exchange of emails and Skype meetings,” Mark says, “we found ourselves sitting in the office of [Brill Publishing] CEO Herman Pabbruwe in Leiden. I remember the sleepless night in anticipation of our meeting and the slightly surreal bus trip to the airport at 3 a.m. as we tried to make our 10 a.m. meeting. When we arrived in Leiden, Paul suggested we mark the occasion by stretching our student budget and going for breakfast. I will never forget sitting next to a canal trying to enjoy a very nice scrambled egg, but quaking with nervousness!”
The discussion went well, perhaps in part because of Brill’s record of support for open-access scholarship. Besides its digital edition, the journal will also be available in print.
The editors told me a little about the forthcoming contents -- but no details, as yet, about the scholars involved: “We make it a policy not to supply the names of our authors unless we have their consent, as sometimes they may wish to withhold their identity for reasons for personal safety.” They hope to be able to give all the names when the journal finally appears.
Of six papers slated for the next issue, three strike me as possibly indicative of the journal’s range and potential. One looks at “the strategies employed by German municipalities in integrating [Syrian] refugees at social, cultural and economic levels” and makes recommendations about how the tactics might be more widely applied.
Another paper makes the case for national and international aid to victims of ecological catastrophes in Bangladesh, based on “a number of precedent cases where international bodies have made humanitarian interventions on grounds of environmental risk.” The editors say they chose the paper because of the relative neglect of the issue in the West “in spite of the fact it has become a severe threat in the developing world as rapid industrialization unfolds.”
And a paper on art history goes back to the origins of forced migration -- or at least one of the earliest stories in which it features. The author examines how the Tower of Babel has been the overt or implicit image of “cultural and social dislocation … throughout many examples of Western contemporary art ranging from Soviet Constructivism to postmodern art.”
All three articles are scheduled to appear in the second issue of the Journal of Interrupted Studies, due out this summer.
As our national political dialogue veers toward personal attack and speculation and away from meaningful and civil exchange, we should require our students to read a national newspaper and discuss its content, and then test them on it, writes Susan Siena.
Earlier this month, Middlebury College was beset by what could fairly be termed the Academic Perfect Storm. Several hundred students on the Vermont campus shouted down Charles Murray, an author of the controversial The Bell Curve, apparently outraged by the visiting scholar’s claims that African-Americans are intellectually inferior to whites because of their genetic makeup. Murray’s talk was sponsored by a conservative student group affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute and was to be moderated by Middlebury professor Allison Stanger. Not only did the lecture never materialize because of shouting, shoving and other intrusions, but Stanger also was injured in the process.
Much has already been written, tweeted and posted about this event. The college has launched several levels of inquiry, while apologizing to the community, alumni and others. The administration has vowed “accountability” for students and others who engage in violence and thus thwarted the event.
Among the major players in this turbulent drama, Middlebury’s president, Laurie Patton, merits special deference. A New York Times editorial lauded her firm and visible commitment to free expression: “She did this admirably in defending Mr. Murray’s invitation and delivering a public apology to him that Middlebury’s thoughtless agitators should have delivered themselves.” Further background enhanced this encomium. Despite growing easiness about the imminent Murray lecture, Patton consistently reaffirmed her commitment to host the event. And just days before the gathering, she forcefully reminded Middlebury students of the college’s historic commitment to free expression, even for hateful views and words.
She also agreed to chair the event in person and courageously remained on stage throughout the turmoil. Beyond offering cordial hospitality, Patton had recently issued a two-page set of policies governing potentially contentious events, offering a model scenario that contains a firm warning that “disruption may also result in arrest and criminal charges.” One of the student organizers praised Patton’s grace and courage as “the one positive thing of the night.”
Otherwise, however, the evening seems to have been a disaster. Although only students were officially invited to attend, many observers noted the catalytic presence of a dozen or so nonstudents wearing black clothing and face masks that mirrored those of the disruptive contingent at a protest at the University of California, Berkeley, several weeks earlier. Given the predictably contentious character of Murray’s widely published writings, tighter security would surely have been appropriate. A plan to extricate the speaker in the event of turmoil was invoked at the 11th hour but foundered immediately when protesters invaded the seemingly secure site; more advance planning and escape routes would have seemed an obvious imperative. In that and several other dimensions, Middlebury’s logistical preparations seemed woefully inadequate.
A few colleges and universities have reluctantly concluded that a scheduled event posed so grave a threat that cancellation offered the only tenable alternative, with hopes that rescheduling would help. Thus, for example, when former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill initially posted his essay about “little Eichmanns” while planning several speeches, several colleges felt safety and survival demanded what would otherwise have seemed a cowardly act. On a quite different occasion, the then chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln was privy to carefully sorted, screened and verified electronic warnings of potential chaos attending a speech by (surprisingly) Bill Ayres, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who had once been a leader of the Weather Underground, a radical left-wing organization. While cancellation is hardly a welcome choice, it is option that should not always be categorically rejected.
A vivid personal experience suggests another approach. In the spring of 1983, protestors at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I served as president of the system, shouted down in its opening minutes a long-scheduled speech by former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, who by then had traveled a far different political pathway. Then Chancellor Irving Shain and I agreed that if Cleaver was willing to return to Madison in the near future, we would ensure adequate security during his appearance, even if that required a secure sound booth. The cost of such an arrangement, we realized, would not be trivial.
We were delighted when Cleaver agreed to make a return visit under those different conditions. We specifically affirmed for the media that, “in keeping with the University of Wisconsin’s longstanding commitment to free speech, if Cleaver wanted to come back to finish his speech, he could do so.” Regrettably, the turnout for the rescheduled speech was sparse for various reasons, including the academic calendar. But we concluded that our investment was well worth making, despite the cost, in the interest of free expression.
Campuses will continue to invite controversial speakers and face turmoil over it. What other advice is worth considering in order to keep such turmoil to a minimum? First, careful advance planning with regard to sponsorship and other arrangements seems vital. It may well be worth requiring the sponsors -- whether students, faculty or, ideally, both -- to make firm commitments in writing about the specific steps they propose to take to maximize the success of the event, essentially in lieu of a bond or insurance, though without a financial component.
Second, the Middlebury experience seems to warrant far greater security planning than was evident at the rural Vermont campus. That mandate would, for example, include a clearer location of responsibility within the administration and sufficient engagement of the college’s general counsel, the campus or local chief of police, and other senior officials with expertise in scheduling major events.
Third, formal faculty involvement at Middlebury seems to have been limited if not absent. The location of such responsibility should target a Faculty Senate or other governance body, with a smaller executive committee capable of being convened almost momentarily in event of a crisis. An abundance of relevant materials exists for this purpose, and it may well be that Middlebury’s faculty leadership has in fact consulted them in the past.
Finally, we can hardly overlook the responsibility of the student body. There is much still be to learned about how and why the dozen black-clad and masked intruders were able to enter -- as well as why so few of the rank-and-file Middlebury students resisted or were even indifferent as essentially an angry mob turned their backs on the speaker and continue to shout and jeer. A strong elected student government seems indispensable to such a liberal arts college, visible both to the general and social media as well as within the broader community of which the institution is a major component. Middlebury seems to offer a promising academic venue within which to establish a sounder approach as the next crisis looms.
Robert M. O’Neil is the former president of the University of Virginia and of the University of Wisconsin System, former director of the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Initiative, and founder of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. He is currently a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities.
When the alleged perpetrator is a person with whom we feel some sort of affiliation or reverence, we start to make excuses and bend over backward to deny the plausibility of the victim’s experience, writes Jamie L. Small.
Andy Warhol’s prediction about fame merits the occasional update. One that popped into my head not long ago after crossing paths with a gaggle of tourists holding their cellphones at arm’s length and smiling: “In the future, everyone will take a selfie every 15 minutes.”
After launching this random thought into the world via social media, I realized almost immediately that it wasn’t much of a prophecy. A poll in 2013 found that almost every third picture taken by someone between the ages of 18 and 24 was a selfie. The following year, participants in a Google developers’ conference heard that the users of one type of cellphone were snapping 93 million selfies per day. My reworking of Warhol’s point might not literally describe the status quo now, but it could certainly be taken for evidence of aging, as in fact my friends were not long in pointing out.
No longer a fad though not a tradition quite yet, the selfie is one of those cultural phenomena that almost everyone can recognize as probably symptomatic -- the result of social, psychological and technological forces too inexorable to escape but too troubling to think about for very long. (Other examples: reality television, sex robots, cars that drive themselves.)
Even the most ardent or compulsive selfie taker must have moments of uneasiness at how tightly the genre knots together self-expression and self-obsession, leaving not much room for anything else. A recent paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology identifies a selfie-specific form of ambivalence unlikely to go away. It is called “The Selfie Paradox: Nobody Seems to Like Them Yet Everyone Has Reasons to Take Them. An Exploration of Psychological Functions of Selfies in Self-Presentation.”
More on that shortly. But first, a quick look at a book with a more compact and less literal title, I Love My Selfie, by the critic and essayist Ilan Stavans (Duke University Press). A few of the author’s selfies appear in the book, along with reproductions of self-portraits by Rembrandt, van Gogh and Warhol, but it would be an irony-impaired reader indeed who took him to be making any claim to equivalence. The book’s spirit is much closer to that of the Puerto Rican multimedia artist Adál Alberto Maldonado, whose work appears throughout its pages and who titled one photo series “Go Fuck Your Selfie: I Was a Schizophrenic Mambo Dancer for the FBI.” The seed for Stavans’s book was the preface he wrote for a collection of photos by Adál, as he prefers to be known. (Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College.)
“Richard Avedon once said that a portrait is a picture of someone who knows he is being portrayed,” writes Stavans. “… The self-portrait is that knowledge twice over.” Combined with the highly developed skills of a painter or a photographer, that redoubled awareness can reveal more than the creator’s idealized self-image. The late self-portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe, for instance, “emit a stoicism that is frightening … as if his statement was ‘The world around me is falling apart, but I’m still here, a chronicler of my times.’” Adál’s quietly surreal photographs of himself posing with various props are an oblique and sometimes comic reflection on being a Puerto Rican artist obliged to deal with whatever assumptions the viewer may bring to his work.
Selfies, by contrast, are what’s left of the self-portrait after all technique, discipline, talent and challenge are removed from the process. They exist to be displayed -- not to reveal the self but to advertise it. Stavans calls the selfie “a business card for an emotionally attuned world” and describes life in the public sphere of social media as “a mirage, a solipsistic exercise in which we believe we’re connecting with others while in truth we’re just synchronizing with the image we have of them in our mind.”
And as with other forms of advertising, too much truthfulness would damage the brand. Most selfies never go out into the world. “The trash icon in which we imprison them,” Stavans writes, “is the other side of our life, the one we reject, the one we condemn.”
The authors of “The Selfie Paradox,” Sarah Diefenbach and Lara Christoforakos, are researchers in the department of psychology of Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. The participants in their study were 238 individuals living in Austria, Germany and Sweden between 18 and 63 years of age, recruited from email lists and at university events. They were asked about the frequency with which they took selfies and received them from other people, as well as a series of questions designed to elicit information about their personality and feelings about, and motivations for, taking and viewing selfies.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, people who stated that they were open about their feelings and prone to discussing their accomplishments also tended to enjoy taking selfies. And consistently enough, those inclined to downplay their own successes also tended to report “negative selfie-related affect” -- i.e., were decidedly nonenthusiastic about selfies.
The researchers found broad agreement with the idea that selfies could have unpleasant consequences (inciting derogatory comments, for example) but much less regarding what the positive effects might be. “The only aspect that reached significant agreement” the researchers found, “was self-staging, i.e., the possibility to use selfies for presenting an intended image to others.” Positive benefits such as expressing independence or connection with others were recognized by far fewer participants. And those who took selfies more often were more likely to identify positive consequences for the activity:
In a way, taking selfies may be a self-intensifying process, where one discovers unexpected positive aspects (besides self-staging) while engaging in the activity and this positive experience encourages further engagement. Nevertheless, the majority showed a rather critical attitude, and among the perceived consequences of selfies, negative aspects clearly predominate.
To put it another way, participants in the study tended to acknowledge that putting a selfie out into the world could backfire -- while the only broadly accepted benefit of a selfie they recognized was that of self-display or self-promotion. Though the researchers do not spell out the connection, these attitudes seem mutually reinforcing. If the most recognized motivation for posting a selfie is to benefit the ego, exposing its vulnerabilities would be an associated danger.
Another of the findings also seems in accord with this logic: participants were likely to explain their reasons for taking and posting selfies as ironic or self-deprecating -- while showing much less tendency to assume that other people were doing the same. They also expressed a preference for others to post more nonselfie photographs.
Indeed, people who reported taking a lot of selfies tended “not to like viewing others’ selfie pictures and rather wish for a higher number of usual photos.” It seems in accord with one of Stavans’s observations: “Looking at a favorite selfie is like entering into a world in which we, and nobody else, exist in an uninterrupted fashion.” At least until Narcissus falls into the pool and drowns.