Philology & Disciplinarity

A struggle has long been under way in the American university, sharpening especially in the past two decades, between area-based and discipline-based knowledge. The distinction between the two often maps closely against another, which differentiates humanistic from nonhumanistic knowledge. This is most obviously so in the case of philology, which in American universities has always been organized entirely according to areas and has, accordingly, experienced a crippling disciplinary deficit. And unsurprisingly, it is now under serious threat.

Like the humanities overall, philology has been weakened by fragmentation, with the proliferation over the past century of philology departments—national departments for Europe and, for the rest of the world, where there are no “real” nations, regional ones (English, Italian, German, Greek-and-Latin (“Classics”), Middle Eastern, South Asian, East Asian, and so on)—and philological subfields such as comparative literature. The net result has been the dispersion of a core knowledge
form across ever smaller and weaker academic units, with all the institutional risks that “small” and “weak” entail.

Another cause of the philological humanities’ debilitation, aside from fragmentation, is less proximate, relating as it does to the attack on area studies beginning in the mid 1990s. This prompted the disciplines to solve their ever-uneasy relationship with areas by simply exiling area scholars (or creating conditions that prompted them to exile themselves), leading to an unprecedented separation of disciplinary from areal knowledge in the social sciences. At the same time, administrators began to combine and transform those small and weak philology departments into “studies” programs where refugee social-science scholars could be relocated.

To be sure, good arguments have been made in support of this development. A “social science” situated outside of social science and looking in at the disciplines is better able to contest the erroneous and often harmful generalizations of Western theory. Such new academic formations can also capture transdisciplinary and transregional processes concealed by disciplines and regions more narrowly construed, replacing containers with connections, as some observers have put it.

Yet the downside, in addition to a remarkable impoverishment and provincialization of American social science, has been the even greater marginalization of philology. For in its contemporary form philology is by and large untheoretical, unmodern, untransregional, and uncool, and as a result of the area-studies critique and institutional reorganization, it has been buried at the bottom of the departmental closets where these other non-Western disciplinary appointments—theoretical, modern, trans, and cool—are being placed.

While these two broad institutional currents have contributed to the endangerment of philology, the principal cause has undoubtedly been intellectual failure, already noted, on the part of philologists themselves. Their misconception of philology has ensured that its full potential as a unified transregional and transhistorical academic discipline has remained completely unrealized. If philology is to develop its disciplinary identity, not only to reverse its dangerous decline but to stimulate the creation of the new knowledge that will do more than anything else to ensure its academic survival, serious rethinking is needed.

In 2004, while still at the University of Chicago, I organized a workshop on “critical philology,” inventing the term—or so I thought—as a kind of provocative tautology. If philology from its origins was conceived of as a critical practice—in the dictionary sense of an objective analysis and evaluation of something in order to form a judgment—it had ceased to be critical in the reflexive way I felt to be essential to its continued viability. At the same time, it abandoned its large and ambitious theoretical aspirations, indeed, its leadership among the human sciences, and had become completely routinized, self-complacent, and—most deadly sin of all, in America at least—boring. Its celebrated rigor had turned into rigor mortis.

What was essential, I felt, was a philology that really was critical and appropriately ambitious. I did not of course fully know then what I know now, a decade later, not only that I was anticipated in my use of the phrase “critical philology” but that I was part of a larger movement across the classical humanities and elsewhere attempting to change the rules of the philological game. Not just to change the rules, however, but to find some way to prevent what many of us at present, and others before us, including Erich Auerbach, believe to be no longer unimaginable: the death of philology, “an impoverishment,” as the great Romanist once put it, “for which there can be no possible compensation.”

So what is a “really critical” and appropriately ambitious philology supposed to look like? Let me start with a few general observations and proceed to some specific suggestions.

Human beings are text-making animals, and knowing how to make sense of their texts goes a long way toward making sense of the animals who produced them, or as far a way as any other method of knowing can take us. “Making sense of texts” is the definition I give to “philology” (being fully aware that philologists have been redefining our discipline ever since there have been philologists). Under this description, philology has been ubiquitous across time and space. Wherever there have been texts there have been philologists attempting to make sense of them and to develop larger generalizations for refining their project.

This project itself becomes “critical” in the sense intended here when it actualizes three core capacities: historical self-awareness, non-provinciality, and methodological pluralism. Philology becomes critical when it grasps it own historicity, constructedness, and changeability; when it understands that it is not and cannot be a local form of knowledge that passes as universal under the guise of science, but must be part of a global—and, by preference, a globally comparative—discipline, seeking global—and, by preference, globally comparative—knowledge; when it realizes that understanding by what means and according to what criteria thinkers in past eras have grounded their truth claims must be part of our own understanding of what truth is, and a key dimension of our knowledge politics.

If we accept that these capacities are constitutive of critical philology, how do we actually put them to work? I want to sketch out such a practice, or at least one aspect of it—the practice of interpretation—by offering less as a theory of philology than an autobiography of philology, indeed, my own. (Let me at the same time make it clear that if, after defining philology as the discipline of making sense of texts, I move from this narrow understanding to the grander question of interpretation—which I take to be the principal method of philology—I am simply recapitulating the discipline’s historical development, as Wilhelm Dilthey made clear.) The storyline here is how I have come to reconcile, or at least think I have reconciled, what I had long found to be fundamentally conflictual or even mutually exclusive modes of understanding a text. For I am someone who (1) was trained to a very hard historicism, but who (2), as a Sanskritist, is heir to a brilliant tradition of reception with its own claims to knowledge, claims that postcolonialism (however vague that concept) has taught us finally to take seriously; and who (3) over time has been tempered by both a critical hermeneutics of understanding and a neopragmatist vision of truth and the very forceful invitation that vision offers for rethinking the purposes of learning.

I have become convinced that a critical philology will simultaneously and in full self-awareness orient itself along these three axes, what are in fact the three planes of a text’s existence: its moment of genesis; the tradition of its reception; and its presence to our own subjectivity here and now. It is only in the sum-total of the varied meanings generated on these three planes, their co-presence to our mind, that the real meaning of a text, its one correct interpretation, can lie. What a text means is nothing but what the text has been taken to mean by the people who have read it; its one true meaning is the assemblage of all these others: what the text may have meant to the first audience; what it meant to readers in time; what it means to me here and now. We make use of these various meanings according to the kind of sense we are aiming to make of the world.

Learning to do this sort of three-dimensional philology is learning to practice a difficult balancing act, I agree, one that requires both training and untraining. It appears to be especially precarious for hardcore historicists such as myself, until we realize that true historicism requires the recognition of historicity everywhere, in ourselves and earlier readers no less than in the core object of our study. All three dimensions must be allowed to represent forms of truth, and any need to reconcile or rank them should be resisted. Some readers will be uneasy with this kind of multiplicity, or worse, find it philosophically incoherent. But others, both those freeing themselves from the tradition of Platonic monism that is the source of that unease, to say nothing of those outside it—like people in India, who happily lived with a kind of pluralistic universalism—will rejoice in it. “We contain copresent but distinct sets of equally coherent sets of desires,” as Richard Rorty put it. “These may not always be able to be made coherent with one another, but they may not be any the worse for that. Plato was wrong: you don’t have to get everything to get together.” In a similar vein Jalal al-Din Rumi, the great Persian poet, is reported to have once said that he was one with all seventy-three sects of Islam. When he was abused by the follower of a particular school for this statement, Rumi smiled and replied, “I am also in agreement with what you say.”

This balancing act is the great intellectual challenge of a critical philology. At one and the same time it respects the scientific value of truth, the pragmatic value of pluralism, and the hermeneutical necessity of asking “What possibility does the text give me to understand my own being?” At one and the same time it asks students to address themselves these questions.

To properly dwell in this multiplicity of truths, philology requires a disciplinary location uniting textualists across areas. And this should be one component in a new and broader paradigm: the problem of “areality” (and disciplinarity) will never be solved unless and until areas are reconjoined with disciplines (and vice versa). Both kinds of knowledge must be produced simultaneously and interactively; scholars should not have to choose between the two because the extrinsically verified and the intrinsically validated are intimately linked. The former recovers its richest meaning in the dense web of connections that exist only areally, and those connections only become meaningful when embedded in a disciplinary matrix—at least one that is historically reflexive, transregional and comparative, and conceptually pluralistic, as the discipline of philology shows to be possible.

Many departments at Columbia, including MESAAS, number among their faculty such critical philologists, scholars who understand the importance of reflexive, theory-rich textual study. But there has never existed an institutional structure for developing and promoting this essential form of knowledge. I have recently proposed the creation of a Center for Critical Philology, which could be the basis for a newly reinvigorated field of study knitting together most of the humanities departments. This new disciplinary identity would complement the area identity that now defines virtually all text-based scholarship in the university and constrains those who practice it from their making a full contribution to the humanities. CCP could also function as an academic home for many of digital humanities projects, of the sort now found in MESAAS and to a lesser degree Classics and English.

This kind of philology—a critical or reflexive or hermeneutic or, better, liberated philology, which can also, when properly cultivated, promote the cultivation of core political-ethical values to become a sort of liberation philology—is for area humanists an essential next step both conceptually and institutionally. It is a necessary extension of our fields. And it is one of the great ideas from the past that, if thoroughly reconstructed, is most decidedly worth preserving.


Note: Some portions of this article have been published in German in the introduction to S. Pollock, Kritische Philologie: Essays zu Literatur, Sprache und Macht in Indien und Europa. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag (in the series, “Philologien: Praxis, Geschichte, Theorie,” ed. Christoph Koenig), 2015. Other portions will be published in “Liberating Philology” in Verge 1.1, forthcoming, Spring 2015. Visit their website here.

Arabic in Africa and the Problem of Archival Thinking

Archival material held in a private archive in Northeastern Senegal. Author’s photo.

Ideally, ‘Eid al-Fitr joyously marks the end of Ramadan fasting with communal prayer and equally communal feasting. In Senegal, as elsewhere in the Islamic world, there are some translations in the form of the holiday but the message is the same. Known in the vernacular as Korité, it functions to bring together the community of believers and cultivate a sense of unity in the West African nation, around 94 percent of which is Muslim. However, during my pre-dissertation research on Islamic textual collection in Senegal this summer, Korité appeared to be as much a point of disunity and contestation as solidarity and community.

Because ‘Eid and the rest of the Islamic year follows a lunar calendar, the start of a new month must be observed by someone with the authority to determine the start of the full moon, thereby making time an inherently political concern. This necessity has produced a notorious, yet predictable, low-level controversy across the ummah, the world community. When does the month start? When does it end? And according to whom? While many countries follow religious authorities in Saudi Arabia, it is sometimes the case that they establish national bodies to determine the appearance of the new moon and hence the beginning and end of the holy month. In some places, this determination is even made at the local level. In Senegal, all three seem to be the case, forcing people to decide between multiple days on which to celebrate their connection with the larger Muslim world.

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“I Just Can’t Wait to be King”

I recently came across an Arabic rendition of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” from Disney’s 1994 blockbuster, The Lion King. It’s a fantastic translation, drawing on a variety of registers of Egyptian colloquial and modern standard Arabic to express much of the humor and dynamism of the English original. Consider Zazu, the king’s red-beaked advisor pictured above. The translation draws from a wide array of Arabic registers to convey his quickly changing disposition, at turns imperious, imploring, and impotent. For instance, as he is chasing after the troublesome cubs (at 0:56), he switches from his shrill vernacular to a more formal register, announcing, “I reckon the time has come, and I’ll tell you frankly…” But before he can finish the sentence, he smacks into the ample rump of an unsuspecting rhino (one of many times in which the poor bird–and the kingly authority he represents–is sat upon or trampled underfoot). As a flattened Zazu slides off the rhino’s backside, Simba picks up with the word “frankly,” which is used in both formal and colloquial Arabic, to label Zazu a muristan – a nutjob, as one translation has it.

As I watched, I realized I was being (re)introduced me to a cast of familiar characters. They were singing a tune I know, rehashing a narrative I remember enjoying, and rehearsing a set of classic Disney conflicts about loyalty, authority, and adulthood. Yet they were doing it all in Arabic, a language I’ve learned, however imperfectly, as an adult. As with any successful translation, it is neither an exact copy nor a wholly new work, but an intermediary text which contains recognizable elements of the original while standing on its own aesthetic merit. As a student of early modern Arabic literature, however, I rarely have a chance to engage with English texts translated into Arabic, especially those from my own childhood in the United States. Watching a clip from The Lion King in Arabic not only raised questions about what constitutes a successful translation, but left me with an uncanny  feeling of having encountered an element of my self through the eyes — or in the voice — of the Other. Continue reading

Bullet Films

Still from "Don't Forget the Plums"
Still from “Don’t Forget the Plums”

An uncomfortably intimate close-up of a young man’s face opens one of the most recent “bullet films” by Syrian film collective Abounaddara entitled “Don’t Forget the Plums.” The penetrating eyes of the unnamed speaker confront the viewer as he gives cautionary advice about how to deal with the media: “When you’re live on air, the presenter will ask you questions about what interests her…don’t let yourself get dragged in.”

The camera remains fixed upon his face with the only partially visible backdrop an off-white wall.   As the unnamed speaker continues, his voice becomes more energetic and his face more urgently expressive. “What about the fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the “Islamic State”? What is the regime doing? Is the regime doing this or that?” he asks, mimicking and mocking a journalist’s predictable questions. “But we don’t give a shit,” he declares, looking straight into the camera and straight at the viewer. “There are people on the ground dying.”

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Fig. 1: Original caricature of Abushâdy by M. Fridon (1928)

I’ve spent the past few years organizing materials that were left behind by my late grandfather, Ahmed Zaky Abushâdy (1892-1955), the well-known Egyptian Romantic poet—and physician, inventor, and bee scientist. Early on in my research, I became aware of two distinct narratives in the biographical literature: Abushâdy the Romantic Poet and Abushâdy the Bee Scientist. The former narrative is enshrined in the field of Modern Arabic Literature, while the latter weaves between the history and science of beekeeping in 20th century England and Egypt. Each tells a story that portrays important aspects of Abushâdy’s life and work. But as I continue to examine the materials in the archive, it strikes me that the logic that gives rise to separate, non-intersecting narratives runs counter to the spirit of my grandfather, who dedicated his life to working across disciplines and bringing together a wide array of traditions and cultures.

One remedy may be to develop a new narrative that emphasizes the hybridization that shot through all of Abushâdy’s activities. As a scientist, he understood the concept of hybrid vigor in both theoretical and practical terms, bringing it to fruition by breeding honeybees on a grand scale. He also applied the concept as a poet, for instance, by welcoming the influences of European Modernism, particularly English poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Keats. Likewise, he developed his own brand of proto-multiculturalism in his academic writing on politics and social issues.

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Mogadishu in Arabia

One way to Caracas“People don’t know what it means to become an Arab at six years old,” writes Somali author Mohammad Ali Diriye on the back cover of his short story collection, Ila Karakas bila ‘awdah (One way to Caracas). Born in Somalia, Diriye went into exile at a young age, and studied in Saudi Arabia and Sudan — formative experiences in his literary career that have deeply influenced his contributions to contemporary Arabic fiction. Like other emerging Somali diaspora authors, Diriye deals with the familiar themes of war and exile, but from a new perspective. Unlike Arabic writers in Beirut or Baghdad, he uses the Arabic language to describe another civil war, on the other shore of the Red Sea. In his writing about about exile, which he describes as “the narrative of an Arab pirate,” the Arab world is no longer the point of departure but the destination.

In La‘nat al-janub (“The Curse of the South”), a short story I recently translated into English, a man leaves his homeland — Somalia is not explicitly named — and starts a new life in Saudi Arabia. The man tries to forget everything in relation with the land of his ancestors, but at the end of the day, his efforts prove futile: remnants of Somalia persist in his mind, against his will. Despite the fact that Diriye doesn’t directly mention Somalia or the civil war in the story, they still linger all over the text. Indeed, their very omission evokes a traumatic lapse in memory.

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“Bored” with the Theater of War?

Performer addresses NYC audience via skype (author’s photo)

First believed to have been performed in 415 BC, Euripides’ play The Trojan Women tells of the violence committed by the Greeks during their siege of Troy, a city not too far from the borders of contemporary Syria. Scholars believe Euripides wrote the play as a critical response to the Athenian slaughter of the people of Melos during the Peloponnesian War.[1] The tragedy draws from an ancient history to speak powerfully against contemporary war crimes and human trafficking—and classicists have taken great interest in the ways in which the play has been reinterpreted over the past century. Performed in Arabic entirely by Syrian women currently living in refugee camps in Amman, Syria: The Trojan Women provides a platform for Syrian refugees to share their experiences of war through a dramatic reinterpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy.

When the performers were recently denied entry visas to the United States, Columbia University organized a promotional event on campus that was attended by many like myself who are currently teaching and studying ancient Greek texts. Over Skype, the Syrian performers spoke about their experiences working on the play in response to questions from their U.S. audience. The highly performative aspects of “engaging across a divide”–particularly on the U.S. side of the screen–dissipated the moment one of the Syrian women took the microphone, moved her face close to the computer camera and surprised her audience by asking in perfect English, “Are you bored?” In response to our silence, she raised her voice and enunciated with a wide smile, “Boooooored?” At that moment, her question disturbed and problematized our passive, distant, and comfortable consumption of war narratives on a screen. The discomfort she provoked flips the spectator’s gaze  inward, drawing attention to our role not only as audience members but as crucial participants in the tragedy behind the tragedy. For a project that aims to give a human face to the suffering that is a consequence of war, achieving this is a success in itself. Continue reading

Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet and Political Activist

Abdilatif Abdalla (author’s photograph)

Abdilatif Abdalla, who will be visiting MESAAS and the Institute of African Studies at Columbia on November 12th and 13th, is one of the most renowned living Swahili poets. Mixing poetry and politics has been a feature of Swahili society for a long time, and classic historical Swahili poets, like Fumo Liyongo and Muyaka bin Haji, were engaged in local politics as well as in writing. Like these Swahili intellectuals before him, Abdalla has been living among his people – or separated from them, through long years of prison and exile – as the gifted and critical voice in society that Swahili poets are seen as: particularly knowledgeable people with a duty to speak up on behalf of their community.

As a poet, Abdalla became well-known only after his term in prison (1969-1972), to which he was sentenced as the author of ‘Kenya: Twendapi?’ (Kenya: where are we going?). He earned his first literary recognition with a didactic poem on the Qur’anic story of Adam and Eve, but it was the publication of Sauti ya Dhiki (Voice of Agony) in 1973, a collection of poems he had written secretly on toilet paper while in prison, that made him famous. Using traditional genres of Swahili verse, Sauti ya Dhiki covered a broad range of critical topics with remarkable depth and originality: the perils of colonialism, racism, material greed, and social injustice. But also the loneliness felt in prison, the persistence of his political struggle, and a plea against abortion from the perspective of an unborn child. Readers were awed by the force and scope of his verbal artistry. Continue reading