Monday, January 31, 2011

How widespread protests in Tunisia and Egypt could lead to a rapid transformation of geopolitics in the Middle East.

After this month's uprising in Tunisia, many scholars and journalists pondered whether its example could spark other revolts. Still, many were taken by surprise when massive protests erupted in downtown Cairo on January 25th, 2011. Photo from Flickr.

BY WALEED HAZBUN
Assistant Professor of International Relations, American University of Beirut


Watching Al Jazeera English in the living room of my Beirut apartment on the evening of January 14th, 2011, I was mesmerized by the thrilling pace of change in Tunisia. Since December I had been aware of ongoing protests, but as I followed minute-by-minute the unfolding of events in cinematic fashion, on a parallel track in my mind I was remembering the words of my friend and former colleague Bill Connolly. The last chapter of his book Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (Minnesota 2002) offers a corrective of Paul Virilio, who argues that speed short-circuits democratic deliberations and diminishes our capacity to think with concepts in relation to images. Connolly argues: “Virilio remains transfixed by a model of politics insufficiently attuned to the positive role of speed in transtate democracy and cross-state cosmopolitanism.”

As I watched the growing numbers of Tunisian protesters surround the dreaded Ministry of Interior on the main tree-lined boulevard of Tunis, I sensed that the rush of events, accelerating from an initial protest in a poor rural village, was culminating in a near spontaneous manifestation of mass courage. With little time for deliberation, the uprising became a broad-based challenge to the authority of the regime.

One of the many tipping points that drove the cascade of momentous political change was the refusal of the military chief of staff to open fire on the demonstrators. Did he deliberate on how he would be sacked (only to be reinstated after the fall of the regime)? When I heard the news that Tunisia’s long-reigning President Ben Ali had fled the country, I, like many, could hardly believe it.

I have to admit I took some emotional satisfaction in the fall of the regime as—along with many other scholars who have conducted research in the country—I had been frustrated by its tight control of the media and repression of any independent thought, let alone political dissent. While conducting my first round of research in Tunisia for what would later become the book Beaches, Ruins, Resorts: The Politics of Tourism in the Arab World (Minnesota 2008), I found fieldwork challenging. I was told I must inform the authorities of the names of everyone I spoke to (I refused) and I was sure I was being followed during my first
Tourism became a tool that the Tunisian regime used to project
an image of stability and openness. Photo from Creative Commons.
weeks in the country. This experience contrasted sharply with Tunisia’s reputation as a relatively liberal, progressive Arab country. When Ben Ali came to power in 1987 he vowed to return Tunisia to political pluralism and democracy, but by the mid-1990s he had established what The Economist would call one of the most repressive police states on the Mediterranean. I later converted this experience into a major theme of the book, arguing that tourism development was a means to promote what I called “paradoxical globalization.”

As one element of its strategy for promoting economic globalization, tourism development provided countries like Tunisia with not only income and foreign investment, but a tool the regime used to project an external image of stability and openness. This façade masked increasingly repressive state control over the economy, society, and public space. The seeming economic success of the “Tunisia Model” and the regime’s suppression of Islamist movements were celebrated by friendly western governments and many journalists (such as Christopher Hitchens). Meanwhile, the harshness of the regime and shallowness of its openness were barely recognized in the United States. That image, however, seemed to crumble quickly in the face of massive popular protests directed at economic inequality, corruption, and oppressive rule. Thinking in images can help sustain a façade, but it can also fire the imagination and topple those long reproduced images.

In the wake of the events in Tunisia, many scholars and journalists pondered whether its example could spark other revolts. Most were skeptical. Many carefully-reasoned op-eds and blog posts outlined why this was unlikely until all were proved wrong by the unprecedented massive protests in downtown Cairo on January 25th. Three days later, demonstrators from all walks of life took to the streets and challenged the authority of President Husni Mubarak’s regime, sending the massive police forces into retreat. By the next day, Army tanks stood guard on city streets scrawled with graffiti exclaiming “down with Mubarak.” Social media networks clearly played a role in rapid mobilization and organization of protests in Tunisia and Egypt, but protests continued even after the Egyptian regime had ordered the shutdown of mobile phone networks and pulled the country off the Internet. By the time Mubarak addressed his people, his limited concessions were several weeks, if not thirty years, too late. One journalist remarked, “Egypt's embattled President Hosni Mubarak wheels and turns like a dinosaur - too big in brute power, yet too small in the brain to comprehend that he confronts extinction.” [Link.] Meanwhile, the awkward, hesitant statements of US officials highlight the impossible task of reformulating policy in the midst of what could turn out to be a massive, rapid transformation of the geopolitics of the Middle East.

The example of Tunisia rapidly fired the imaginations of protesters across the region. But as Connolly recognizes, along with Virilio, speed can also be dangerous. The challenge to state authority in Tunisia and Egypt has ushered in much chaos and uncertainty. In the rush of events, few contemplated these darker sides of political transformation. Moreover, protests and potentially violent contestations for power remain. In Tunisia, the media has been liberated (with pressrooms spontaneously ousting their regime-imposed editors), developing a new constitutional system that ensures political pluralism and democracy—though it may be a long, fraught process. In Egypt, there are calls for a “mega-protest” on Tuesday to oust Mubarak. The consequences are uncertain. The regime is attempting to slow the process and collapse the momentum for change. At any moment, the army could turn on people and violence could escalate. What we can say, in any case, is that a sudden spark has unleashed new possibilities, new imaginations, and new challenges. The Arab world will never be the same.

-------

Waleed Hazbun is assistant professor of international relations at American University of Beirut. He is author of Beaches, Ruins, Resorts: The Politics of Tourism in the Arab World. He can be reached at wh20@aub.edu.lb.

This article also references Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed, by William E. Connolly.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Zombies and Other Strangers: Thoughts on Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead

Actors Steven Yeun (from left, "Glenn") and Andrew Lincoln ("Rick Grimes") struggle to survive an undead apocalypse in AMC's The Walking Dead.

The author wishes to thank Mark Heimermann and Michael Lang for introducing him to the series.

BY PETER Y. PAIK
Associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (Minnesota 2010).

In recent years, zombies have been fruitful and have multiplied across the landscape of American popular culture. Ever since the films 28 Days Later and Resident Evil revived the genre almost a decade ago, cannibalistic ghouls have gone on to thrive and proliferate in a host of popular films, television shows, comics, and novels. The decomposing undead have come a long way from George Romero’s spare and terrifying classic of 1968, Night of the Living Dead. A modest, low-budget production shot in black-and-white in which chocolate syrup was used for blood and donated pork roast for human flesh, the terror and alarm evoked by grotesque images of the undead slaughtering and feeding on the living were greatly amplified by the film’s grainy, compellingly realistic look. Though Romero’s film went on to achieve box-office success and garner favorable reviews from prominent critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, the genre that it spawned was generally held in low regard for catering to crude appetites for carnage and gore. But the pilot episode of the latest manifestation of the contemporary zombie craze, the AMC series The Walking Dead (based on the comic written by Robert Kirkman and drawn by Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn), drew an audience of more than 5 million—the largest number of viewers for any show thus far on that cable channel (including the trendy Mad Men). It could be argued that animated, flesh-eating corpses have become a more solid fixture in the cultural mainstream than Don Draper’s hat.

But what do zombies signify, and what does widespread fascination with the living dead tell us about our historical present? Raina Kelley argues in Newsweek (see link below) that the popularity of zombie narratives corresponds to heightened states of fear in American society: Romero’s pioneering film evokes the dread of nuclear conflict between the superpowers and the horrors of the war in Vietnam, while films and novels of the post-9-11 era play upon our fears of contagion in an interconnected world, whether in the form of viral infections or terrorist networks. Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry, authors of “A Zombie Manifesto,” (see link below) observe that the void and vacant consciousness of the zombie, coupled with its unappeasable hunger for the flesh of the living, enables it to embody the divergent figures of the enslaved worker and the insatiable consumer. The cannibalistic undead can thus be invoked to critique both depersonalizing collectives as well as predatory individualism.

In The Walking Dead, the comic upon which the AMC series is based, it is not an overbearing and intrusive central authority that is the object of fear and dread for the characters. Rather, governmental institutions are at the outset objects of a desperate and chimerical hope. As in numerous other zombie narratives, a plague of zombies has overwhelmed civilization, bringing about the collapse of the economy and the state. Survivors must contend with the fate of being perpetually exposed to life-threatening dangers. They are forced to rely on their wits, resolve, fortitude, and, most crucially, their capacity for cooperation to preserve their lives as well as those of their loved ones.

The protagonist of the series is police officer Rick Grimes, who for much of the narrative serves as the leader of a group of survivors that include his wife, Lori; his son, Carl; former pro football player Tyreese; sharpshooter Andrea; retiree Dale; ex-pizza delivery boy and car thief Glenn; and Michonne, a lawyer in her former life who wields a katana with deadly effect against the undead and other humans who threaten the group. The narrative follows this band as they wander in search of food and refuge from the undead, migrating from a campground to a gated community, followed by a farm, and then a federal penitentiary. They lose some members and welcome newcomers along the way. They also learn, in the most agonizing ways imaginable, that other organized groups of survivors are far more deadly than the zombies themselves.

The Walking Dead achieves a wrenching intensity in depicting the deaths of its characters as well as in examining the guilt that afflicts those who outlive their loved ones. An attack on Rick’s family and friends by a nearby community under the thumb of a psychopathic warlord takes the lives of the most sympathetic and many-layered characters in the series. Writer Kirkman pulls no punches in his depiction of this confused assault, which turns out to be no less devastating for being disorderly and poorly executed. The harsh realism with which he depicts the battle does not spare the most innocent and the most vulnerable. Other characters die from losing heart at the loss of their loved ones or find themselves unwilling and incapable of coping with a new and dangerous world. Children, on the other hand, adjust too readily for their parents’ taste to the daily reality of death and violence. Rick's young son Carl’s mental state becomes a source of constant concern as the boy seeks to emulate his father by doing the harsh and necessary things that everyone else balks at doing.

It is noteworthy that such an unrelievedly grim narrative has achieved mainstream commercial success in a culture that remains in thrall to the relentlessly optimistic image it holds of itself. What could account for the appeal and popularity of such an unremittingly downbeat narrative? Has The Walking Dead captured something vital about the zeitgeist that might elude more respectable and ostensibly more serious literary works, such as Freedom or even The Road? Post-apocalyptic fiction is a familiar and well-established genre, to be sure, but The Walking Dead arrives with a heightened sense of urgency missing from earlier narratives set in post-apocalyptic worlds. Like most post-apocalyptic works, the comic portrays characters searching for food and staving off the dangers endemic to a hostile environment, but the pervasive gloom and uncertainty that has overtaken American society since the collapse of the housing bubble in 2006 endows the comic with an unusually sharp emotional resonance.

The Walking Dead invites the reader to engage in an extended thought experiment in which ordinary people are forced to give up lives of affluence and security to endure grueling hardships and cope with life-threatening dangers. Indeed, the back cover of collected editions of the comic asks its readers to consider how they would live were they deprived of the conveniences and freed from the distractions of modern consumer society, and thus to reflect on what kind of people they would become when confronted by harsh and brutal necessities. The inertia that grips the political and economic status quo has left many Americans with the foreboding that they will inhabit a substantially different country in years to come. The times of easy abundance and prosperity might well dim into a painful daydream for many of those unfortunate enough to remember an affluent past. Yet at the same time, could we not say that more than few individuals resent how consumer society infantilizes them, and renders them addicted to trivial distractions? Are they not also made uneasy at never having been compelled to develop courage, resourcefulness, and fortitude, qualities that have been revered and deemed necessary in practically every other historical period?



Kirkman’s comic achieves a surprising poignancy and emotional force by means of its convincing portrayal of brutal dilemmas and no-win situations. It emerges as a far more complex and layered text than the arguably most celebrated “serious” literary work of post-apocalyptic fiction of recent years, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which a fixation with lyrical descriptions chokes off the unfolding of any vital ethical dilemmas. Rick and his group take up residence in a penitentiary, where fences and gates keep them safe from the undead, but soon find themselves under attack by a numerically superior force from a nearby town with the objective of taking over the facility for their own people. Should they abandon the complex they have toiled so arduously to turn into a sustainable refuge, with crops, running water, occasional electricity, and storerooms stocked with canned food, or should they stand their ground and fight against the odds? Rick’s decision to defend their home results in catastrophic losses, and survivors of the raid are forced to abandon the penitentiary, which is rendered useless by the battle. Yet Rick’s choice, as terrible as its consequences are, comes across at the time as reasonable and pragmatic, borne out by the fact that most of the attackers do not know how to fire their weapons properly and possess limited quantities of ammunition. Similarly, Rick objects to a risky mission undertaken by Michonne and Tyreese to sneak behind enemy lines and thin out the ranks of their foes. The fact that they come within a hair’s breadth of success, almost cutting off the head of the beast, underscores the tragically narrow margin between total victory and utter calamity, the best of all outcomes and the fulfillment of the most terrible of nightmares. Would the group have been able to fight off its attackers had Michonne and Tyreese stayed behind with them, or would the result also have been failure by virtue of facing an enemy who was simply too deranged to be deterred? The narrative remains tantalizingly reticent on this question.

Yet, as is often the case in post-apocalyptic fiction, the shared sorrows the characters endure serve as the cornerstones of the community that they rebuild. Rick’s group is a racially mixed one that contains wide range of personality types, including (at various points) ex-cons, an unbalanced teenager, a judgmental church lady, a stoic veterinarian who experiences Job-like losses, an intimidating Army sergeant, a guilt-wracked minister, and a shifty scientist who sports a mullet. They take their places alongside several key individuals who cultivate talents they never suspected they possessed—such as Andrea, who becomes an expert sharpshooter. Like the film 28 Days Later, Kirkman’s comic provides a compelling meditation on the origins of human societies. But whereas the film highlights the brutality and coercion employed by warrior tribes to propagate their biological line, The Walking Dead depicts the stresses, frictions, and also reconciliations involved in building a common life among diverse individuals who have been thrown together by circumstance and forced to cope with living, in the words of US diplomat George Kennan, in a “crowded and inescapable political community.” This is a predicament to which Americans have been able to remain largely oblivious, thanks to the geographic and economic expansion that presently seems to have run its course.

It is the question of who survives and who dies that leads to the thorniest aspects of the current zombie craze. There will be those who make the case for the progressive political value of a narrative like The Walking Dead, since it depicts a set of conditions in which virtues forgotten and neglected by high-tech capitalist society take on paramount importance in the struggle for existence, such as resourcefulness, cooperativeness, and selfless dedication to others. In such a context, greed leads either to derangement or immediate death, or to the pathetic and pointless subsistence of human vultures steadily being eaten away by the awareness of their contemptible submission to biological imperative. Though the building of community and the creation of comradeship are at the forefront of Kirkman’s comic, The Walking Dead also shows the undoing of those characters who cling too much to the attachments, frivolities, and habits of the bygone world. Allen, who had always looked to his wife for guidance, loses the will to live after she is killed in a zombie attack, although he has two young sons to look after. Former housewife Carol cannot overcome her sense of neediness, which, given her looks, she could satisfy rather easily in an affluent consumer society. She interprets the constant preoccupation of the others with practical tasks as an implicit judgment against her weaknesses. She cannot get over the shame over having been rejected by Rick’s wife Lori when she proposes that she “marry” them to become Rick’s second wife, so she gives up her life to the zombies, because they at least “want” her.

The Walking Dead #52, Page 8, by Charlie
Adlard.
In a collective existence in which one is obliged to be resourceful and courageous in confronting horror and danger, there is not enough pity to go around for those who cannot or will not struggle against their weaknesses for the sake of the survival and well-being of the group. A terrible and merciless simplicity comes to rule over the lives of the survivors. Rick tells Abraham, after fighting off a group of marauders literally by tooth and nail, of the “switch” that goes off in some people, which enables them to adjust to brutal and dangerous conditions. These people are able to do “whatever it takes to survive and to help those around [them] to survive.” Those who are too immersed in their material comforts, take for granted their security, and cannot imagine a severe and drastic change in circumstances, are by contrast far more likely to break down and become zombies.

As the class divide widens in American society, it is difficult to avoid mapping the divide between "haves" and "have-nots" onto the one separating the living from the undead. A society that is forced reorganize and reimagine itself without ever-increasing wealth and abundance as its ultimate horizon, even if it is fortunate enough to accomplish this task without making a detour through the state of nature, is likely to experience the exacerbation of divisions based on the boundaries that are made tolerable by abundance and prosperity. Indeed, the capacity to confront social upheaval calls up historical scenarios in which paramilitary groups rule over a collapsed society. Furthermore, as the late novels of J. G. Ballard reveal, the “switch” is perfectly compatible with the wealth and privileges of neoliberal capitalism. Ballard’s late novels have as central characters a series of clinically dispassionate messiahs who preach the religion of the “switch,” in which inflicting — and submitting to — therapeutic violence becomes the means of rejuvenating a life sterilized by security and affluence and of opening the passage to a more intense and sacred form of existence. In the latest storyline of The Walking Dead, Rick and his friends settle into a protected community set up by a government agency to provide shelter in the event of some collective disaster. Perhaps this turn in the narrative will provide the chance for an extended reflection on social divisions in the consistently challenging manner Kirkman’s comic has worked out the problems of life in times of upheaval.

-------

Peter Y. Paik is author of From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe. (Get it 30% off when you order using discount code MN71010. See this link for more details.)

Further links and texts cited:
-Raina Kelley, "What We Mean When We Talk About Zombies," Newsweek (October 27, 2010).
-Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Tony Moore, The Walking Dead. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2003-present.
-George Kennan, Memoirs 1950-1963 (New York: Pantheon, 1972).
-Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embree, [PDF] "A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism," boundary 2 35:1 (2008).
-AMC's The Walking Dead (highly recommended)

Monday, January 24, 2011

PW's homepage: Look familiar?


We are filing this under "Cool Thing We Like Today": Publishers Weekly's homepage today includes a photo-link to its Spring 2011 title announcements ... and we couldn't help noticing the similarities between this image and our Fall 2010 catalog cover. Very cool.

We thought we'd take the opportunity to point you toward our recently released Spring 2011 catalog (PDF) of forthcoming titles. Who knows *where* this image might pop up in the months to follow, eh? We kid.

And as if this weren't cool enough for you, there's more. Featured on Page 4 of the Spring 2011 catalog, you'll find David Monteyne's Fallout Shelter: Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War, which was not only featured within PW's Spring '11 title announcements, but whose cover leads the story. Very, very cool.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Politics of Parenthood

Parenthood has been an important part of Obama's presidency. Photograph courtesy of Creative Commons.

BY BRIAN DUFF
Assistant professor of political science at the University of New England

Parenthood plays a central role in the way citizens and politicians think about politics. Take this example: two years ago George W. Bush met with Barack Obama at the White House to give Obama a tour of his future home, and to talk about the job of the Presidency. It was a complex and significant moment in American politics. The economy was in free-fall. The nation was involved in two stagnating wars. A black man had been elected President for the first time. Yet Bush's public reflections on the meeting focused exclusively on parenthood: "Clearly, this guy is going to bring a sense of family to the White House, ... and he wants to make sure that first and foremost, he is a good dad. And I think that's going to be an important part of his presidency.”

Bush was right: Parenthood has been an important part of Obama's presidency. In the opening days of his administration he published an open letter to his daughters in which he promised to make their future, and the future of all American children, the focus of his work in office. Last week in his speech following the tragedy in Tuscon, he ended by calling for Americans to “do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.” In the meantime his opponents seek to use the same perspective against him. Republicans suggested that stimulus spending and other new government programs would burden future generations with crippling debt. “Grizzly moms,” Sarah Palin maintained, would go to the polls to say “No—this isn’t right for our kids and for our grand-kids.”

We have become so used to this way of talking about politics that we rarely consider the larger significance of thinking about citizenship through the perspective of parenthood. This way of thinking has deep roots, and understanding these roots can shed new light on the most persistent problems in our politics. As I explore in The Parent as Citizen, modern ideas about democratic citizenship and parenthood have developed hand in hand. In the book I uncover the origins of our habit of making ideas about parenthood central to democratic politics. I show both why this way of thinking has been so tempting, and why it so often goes wrong.

Ever since modern political thinkers began worrying about how ordinary people can take on the responsibilities of democratic citizenship, they have looked to parenthood as an experience that can instill the qualities most useful for politics: Parenting can summon our sense of responsibility and authority amid the confusion of modern social forces. It can offer an impetus to pause and reorganize our lives around what is most important to us. It can deepen our sense of connection to both past and future as we reconsider our cultural inheritance in thinking about what we would like to pass on to the next generation. In all these ways parenthood has come to be imagined as an experience that generates many of the capacities and responsibilities we hope citizens will bring to politics.

But my book offers explorations of modern politics and political theory that suggest it is counterproductive to stake so much of our capacity for democratic citizenship on the sentiments and capacities that result from a parent’s relationship with a child – a relationship in which responsibility is felt so intimately and profoundly that conflict and failure can be devastating.

Despite the allure of parenthood, it can be a problematic basis for citizenship. When parenthood is imagined to summon a confidence in our political virtues, it often reveals profound insecurities. When parenthood is thought to instill the openness to change appropriate to democratic political contest, it often produces unexpected fundamentalisms and stagnation. When parenthood becomes central to our conceptions of citizenship, our notions of political virtue struggle to live up to these standards.

-------

Read more in The Parent as Citizen: A Democratic Dilemma, by Brian Duff.

"Superb ... Brian Duff shows that parenthood is as much a symptom of as it is the solution to the ills of society. To pose it as some kind of perfect remedy is in fact to preserve the problems of society in the guise of curing them."
—James Martel, San Francisco State University

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reunion Island's UNESCO designation puts spotlight on its medieval and colonial legacies—including its relationship with famous scholar Joseph Bédier.

Joseph Bédier (1864–1938) was one of the most famous scholars of his day. He held prestigious posts and lectured throughout Europe and the United States, an activity unusual for an academic of his time. A scholar of the French Middle Ages, he translated Tristan and Isolde as well as France’s national epic, The Song of Roland. Bédier was publicly committed to French hegemony, yet he hailed from a culture that belied this ideal—the island of Reunion in the southern Indian Ocean. Here, Michelle Warren discusses how France's medieval and colonial legacies have converged since the nineteenth century.

"The Origin of Métissage," Saint-Paul, La Réunion, part of a UNESCO-related project to mark the paths of the Indian Ocean slave trade—on the same shoreline as a monument to European settlement that once bore Joseph Bédier’s name. Photograph by Michelle R. Warren.


BY MICHELLE R. WARREN
Professor of comparative literature at Dartmouth College


In July 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named the land encompassed by the National Park of Reunion Island a World Heritage site. Covering more than 40% of the island, the site was recognized for its exceptional biodiversity as well as for its stunning beauty. At the same session, UNESCO also accepted the French Episcopal City of Albi, a visually striking example of medieval architecture. France's president Nicolas Sarkozy cited “the red city of Albi and the green fortress of La Réunion” as “the most emblematic monuments of our cultural and natural heritage.” Here, Sarkozy reaffirms a long-standing tendency to place both the medieval and the colonial at the heart of the French national psyche.

I read this news while correcting proofs for Creole Medievalism: Colonial France and Joseph Bédier’s Middle Ages, and I was struck once again by the uncanny yet consistent ways in which France’s medieval and colonial legacies have intertwined since the nineteenth century. In my book, I unravel some of these interactions by analyzing political discourse, World Fairs, medieval scholarship, and contemporary museums. The project began, though, with the life of Joseph Bédier (1864-1938)—a native of Reunion who also became one of France’s most famous medieval scholars and a figure of international prominence through his service in World War I and his popular translation of the romance of Tristan and Iseult (aka Tristan and Isolde).

Bédier was closely involved with politicians and cultural critics who tried to make Reunion more influential in the French empire, a task that became increasingly difficult as the government aggressively expanded its territorial claims in Africa and Asia. Especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Reunion seemed hopelessly peripheral and economically stagnant. To combat these practical obstacles, Eurocentric activists emphasized the island’s cultural value, casting the white elites as the guardians of France’s oldest and best traditions. They dubbed the island a “second France,” the “metropole of the Indian Ocean,” and even a “colonizing colony” for its role in the conquest of Madagascar. Bédier and his Middle Ages both played instrumental roles in these efforts.

Reunion Island sits several hundred
miles east of Madagascar.
Today’s initiatives to bring international attention to Reunion through UNESCO bear a surprising resemblance to the cultural politics of the colonial period. In both cases, Reunion is cast as a kind of “Eden,” an idyllic place that must be safeguarded from immigration and economic discrimination (under colonialism), and from invasive species and unsightly development (under globalization). In both cases, activists promote “culture” (be it the old aristocracy or harmonious multiracial diversity) as key to economic growth. In both cases, some citizens resist, valorizing non-European heritages or defending against ecological regulation.

Reunion’s status as a “successful” model of diversity emerges from another recent UNESCO designation: in 2009 the musical style known as maloya joined the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO describes maloya as “an element of national identity, an example of cultural mixing, a moral touchstone and a model for integration”; the cultural activists behind the initiative describe it as “the very symbol of the cultural identity of all the generations in Reunion; [it] truly embodies the values of tolerance, solidarity and openness which characterize society in Reunion.” Maloya, like the National Park, requires support and protection from “outside” influences. As “world” heritage, both culture and nature must maintain local specificity while also transcending it.

These conflicting pressures mirror the politics of culture in the colonial period: national ideals required visible regional “differences” and the absolute unity of the Republic. As I show in Creole Medievalism, distant times and distant places play similar roles in this double discourse, which shapes the Paris World Fairs, Bédier’s major publications, and several contemporary art projects. The Middle Ages and the colonies both oscillate between prestige and barbarism, converging on the scene of a young Bédier reading the medieval epic Song of Roland as a form of local history, under a mango tree on Reunion.

Reunion’s UNESCO initiatives respond to real social, economic, and ecological problems to which there are no obvious solutions. By understanding how today’s efforts are in dialogue with the past, the risks and rewards of cultural politics can become clearer. In order to leverage international recognition into greater national status, Reunion plays, once again, the “pure” and “harmonious” foil to the fractious continent. This strategy sidelines the dissension of lived differences even as it corrects past injustices. Creole Medievalism is about the role of historical memory in this irresolvable conundrum.

-------

Read more about Bédier, colonial France and the island of Reunion in Creole Medievalism.

"A first-rate and fascinating book."
—Jody Enders, author of Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What do you think: Gwyneth Paltrow as legendary actress Marlene Dietrich?

Photos from Just Jared.

In the past week, it has been sporadically reported that Gwyneth Paltrow has signed on to play legendary German actress Marlene Dietrich in a two-part biopic that will be the product of a collaboration between HBO, BBC, and EuropaCorp TV.

What do you think about this matchup? Vote in the poll at the top of this page.

University of Minnesota Press will be publishing Dietrich's biography by Steven Bach in February.