A Model for Qur’ānic Interpretation & The Qur’ān: A Select Bibliography Reply


I have liberally adapted the bulk of what follows from Abdullah Saeed’s Interpreting the Qur’ān: Towards a Contemporary Approach (New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 150-154. The additional material is largely by way of clarification or explanation and although some of it is wholly new, I believe it is in the spirit of, if not faithful to, Saeed’s proposed model.

 A Model for Qur’ānic Interpretation

Stage 1—Encounter with the world of the text

Stage 1—A  broad and general familiarization with the text(s) and its (their) world(s).

Stage 2—Critical Analysis: (a) Linguistic considerations; (b) Literary context; (c) Literary form; (d) Parallel texts; (e) Precedents

Stage 2—Here we are interested in what the text says about itself (its ‘self-referential’ character). This involves various fundamental analyses:

  1. Linguistic considerations: this entails analysis of the language of the text (linguistic units), semantics (the meaning of words and phrases involving features of the context, conventions of language use, and goals of the speaker), syntax of verse(s), and in general all linguistic and grammatical issues intrinsic to the text. It also covers different ways in which particular words and phrases can be read (qirā’āt).
  2. Literary context: how the text in question functions within a particular sūra and/or the Qur’ān as a whole. For instance, examining what comes immediately before or after the verse(s); the composition and structure of the text as well as its rhetorical style and qualities.
  3. Literary form: identifying whether the text is (largely or principally historical), has liturgical function (e.g., a prayer), is a proverb, a parable or other kind of narrative, or has a legal function. Detailing the connection between literary form and meaning (including, possibly, pragmatics: extra-linguistic context of utterance, generally observed principles of communication, goals of the speaker, presuppositions vis-à-vis new information, speech acts, implicature, etc.).
  4. Parallel texts: exploring whether there are other texts that are similar to the text under consideration in the Qur’ān and, if so, the extent to which they are similar and different.
  5. Precedent(s): identification of texts that are similar in content or import and whether these were revealed or inspired before or after the text under consideration.

Stage 3—Meaning for the first recipients: (a) Socio-historical context; (b) Worldview; (c) Nature of the message: spiritual, theological, ethical, legal; (d) Message: contextual v. universal; (e) Relationship of message to overall revelatory message of the Qur’ān

Stage 3Relating the text to the recipients of the Qur’ān:

  1. Wider contextual analysis: historical and social information that would shed light on the text in question; analysis of the worldview, culture, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions of the first recipients of the Qur’ān in Hijāz (region in the northwest of present-day Saudi Arabia and includes the cities of Mecca and Medina). This analysis includes close examination of the time and place in which, for example, specific cultural, legal, political and economic issues arose.
  2. Determination of the nature of the message the text conveys: spiritual, theological, ethical, legal, etc.
  3. Exploration of possible layers of meaning: ‘outer’ and ‘inner,’ overt and implied, or specific and underlying messages of the text; investigation of whether or not the text has universal or simply contextual import and application in the context of the first recipient community. Are there different ways or means other than those specified that can accomplish the specific and clear reason, purpose, or goal of the text in question (e.g., punishment, deterrence, and mercy but without this prescribed form of punishment (which ‘made sense’ at the time and place of the first recipients of this revelation).
  4. Determination of where message the message is located in a hierarchy of values (metaphysical, devotional and ritual, legal, ethical, etc.).
  5. Consideration of how the message relates to the broader objectives and concerns clearly evidenced in the Qur’ān.
  6. Evaluation of how the text was received by the first community of Muslims and how they interpreted, understood and applied it.

Stage 4—Contemporary meaning: (a) Analysis of present context; (b) Contemporary context vis-à-vis socio-historical context; (c) Meaning through time: earliest recipients to the present; (d) Message: contextual v. universal; (e) Applicability to contemporary circumstances and conditions

Stage 4—Relating the text to the contemporary context:

  1. Determining the current concerns, problems, and needs that appear to be relevant to the message of the under consideration.
  2. Exploring the present social, political, economic and cultural context relevant to the text.
  3. Exploring the specific values, norms, and institutions that have a bearing on the message of the text.
  4. Comparing the present context with the socio-historical context of the text under consideration, taking into account similarities and differences.
  5. Relating how the meaning of the text as understood, interpreted and applied by the first recipients of the Qur’ān and subsequent historical recipients to the present context, taking into account similarities and differences.
  6. Evaluating the universality or specificity of the message the text conveys and the extent to which it is related or unrelated to the well-known (i.e., uncontroversial within the tradition) broader objectives and concerns of the Qur’ān.

Most of the last two stages (3 & 4) are not covered by classical tafsīr.

 The Qur’ān: A Select Bibliography (in English)

This list includes translations of the Qur’ān into English as well as works examining this sacred scripture from both within and outside Islamic (theological, philosophical, mystical, and legal) traditions.

  • Abdel Haleem, M.A.S., trans. The Qur’an. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Abdel Haleem, M.A.S. Understanding the Qur’an: Themes and Style. London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.
  • Abu-Hamdiyyah, Mohammad. The Qur’an: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  • Akhtar, Shabbir. The Quran and the Secular Mind: A Philosophy of Islam. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary. Washington, DC: Amanah, 1989.
  • Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’ān. Beltsville, MD: Amana Publ., 1989.
  • Ali, Ahmed. Al-Qur’an: A Contemporary Translation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • Aresmouk, Mohamed Fouad and Michael Abdurrahman Fitzgerald, trans. The Immense Ocean—Al Bahr al-Madīd: A Thirteenth Century Quranic Commentary on the Chapters of The All-Merciful, The Event, and Iron, by Ahmad ibn ‘Ajība. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2009.
  • Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Qur’an. Gibraltar: Dar al-Andalus, 1980.
  • Ayoub, Mahmoud. The Qur’an and Its Interpreters, Vols. 1-2. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984.
  • Baljon, Jon M.S. Modern Muslim Koran Interpretation (1880-1960). Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1961.
  • Barlas, Asma. “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2002.
  • Bell, Richard. Introduction to the Qur’an. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1963.
  • Bell, Richard. The Qur’an Translated, 2 Vols. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1960.
  • Boullata, I.J. Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur’an. London: Curzon Press, 2000.
  • Burton, John. The Collection of the Qur’ān. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
  • Cook, Michael. The Koran: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Cooper, John. The Commentary on the Qur’an by Abu Ja‘far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press and Hakim Investment Holdings, 1987.
  • Cragg, Kenneth. The Event of the Quran: Islam in its Scripture. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971.
  • Cragg, Kenneth. The Mind of the Quran: Chapters in Reflection. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1973.
  • Cragg, Kenneth. Readings in the Qur’ān. Brighton: Sussex University Press, 1988.
  • Dawood, N.J., trans. The Koran. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956.
  • Draz, M.A. Introduction to the Qur’an. London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.
  • English Translation of the Meaning of Al-Qur’an: The Guidance for Mankind (Muhammad Farooq-i- Azam Malik, trans.). Houston, TX: The Institute of Islamic Knowledge, 1997.
  • Esack, Farid. Qur’ān, Liberation and Pluralism. Oxford, England: Oneworld, 1997.
  • Esack, Farid. The Qur’ān: A Short Introduction. Oxford, England: Oneworld, 2002.
  • Fakhry, Majid, trans. An Interpretation of the Qur’an. New York: New York University Press, 2002.
  • Gätje, Helmut (Alford T. Welch, trans. and ed.). The Quran and Its Exegesis. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976.
  • Al-Ghazālī, Shaykh Muhammad. A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an. Herndon, VA: The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2005.
  • Gwynne, Rosalind Ward. Logic, Rhetoric, and Legal Reasoning in the Qur’ān: God’s Arguments. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004.
  • Hamza, Feras and Sajjad Rizvi, eds. An Anthology of Qur’anic Commentaries, Vol. 1: On the Nature of the Divine. New York: Oxford University Press in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2008.
  • Hawting, G.R. and Abdul-Kader A. Shareef, eds. Approaches to the Quran. London: Routledge, 1993.
  • The Holy Qur’an: Arabic Text with English Translation and Short Commentary (Maulavi Sher  Ali, trans. and Malik Ghulam Farid, ed.). Tilford, Surrey, England: Islam International Publ., 1994.
  • Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Quran. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2002.
  • Izutsu, Toshihiko. God and Man in the Koran. Salem, NH: Ayer Co. Publ., 1980.
  • Izutsu, Toshihiko. The Structure of Ethical Terms in the Qur’ān. Chicago, IL: ABC International Group, 2000.
  • Jansen, J.J.G. The Interpretation of the Koran in Modern Egypt. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974.
  • Kassis, Hanna E. A Concordance of the Qur’an. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998.
  • Khalifa, Rashad. Quran, Hadith, and Islam. Fremont, CA: Universal Unity, 2000.
  • al-Khu’i, ‛Abu’l Qasim al-Musawu. The Prolegomena to the Qur’an. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • The Koran. J.M. Rodwell, trans. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1909 (reprint ed., 1974).
  • The Koran Interpreted. Arthur J. Arberry, trans. New York: Macmillan, 1955.
  • Leaman, Oliver, ed. The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • Madigan, Daniel A. The Qur’an’s Self-Image: Writing and Authority in Islamic Scripture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Mattson, Ingrid. The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.
  • McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, ed. The Encyclopedia of the Qur’an, 5 Vols. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2001-2006.
  • McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’ān. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Mir, Mustansir. Dictionary of Qur’anic Terms and Concepts. New York: Garland, 1987.
  • Nelson, Kristina. The Art of Reciting the Qur’ān. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1985.
  • Pickthall, M.M. The Meaning of the Glorious Koran: An Explanatory Translation. New York: New American Library, 1930.
  • The Qur’an (Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, trans., with Arabic text). Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 1997.
  • The Qur’an Translated, With a Critical Rearrangement of the Surahs. Richard Bell, trans. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1939.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an. Minneapolis, MN: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980.
  • Rippin, Andrew. The Qur’an and Its Interpretive Tradition. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2002.
  • Rippin, Andrew, ed. Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur’an. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1988.
  • Rippin, Andrew, ed. The Qur’an: Formative Interpretation. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate/Variorum, 2000.
  • Rippin, Andrew, ed. The Qur’an: Style and Contents. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001.
  • Robinson, Neal. Discovering the Qur’an: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text. London: SCM Press, 1996.
  • Saeed, Abdullah. Approaches to the Qur’an in Contemporary Indonesia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Saeed, Abdullah. Interpreting the Qur’ān: Towards a Contemporary Approach. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • Sands, Kristen Zahra. Sūfī Commentaries on the Qur’ān in Classical Islam. New York: Routledge, 2006.
  • Sells, Michael. Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 1999.
  • Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. Women in the Qur’an: Traditions and Interpretations. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Tabarī, al (J. Cooper, trans.). The Commentary on the Qur’ān. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Taji-Farouki, Suha, ed. Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’ān. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Turner, Colin, trans. (Mohammad Baqir Behbudi, textual exegesis). The Quran: A New Interpretation. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1998.
  • Versteegh, C.H.M. Arabic Grammar and Qur’anic Exegesis in Early Islam. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993.
  • Wadud-Muhsin, Amina. Qur’an and Woman: Reading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999 reprint ed.
  • Wansbrough, John. Qur’anic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
  • Wansbrough, John and Andrew Rippin. Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004.
  • Warraq, Ibn, ed. The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.
  • Warraq, Ibn, ed. What the Koran Really Says: Language, Text, and Commentary. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002.
  • Watt, William Montgomery. Companion to the Qur’an. Oxford, UK: Oneworld, 1994.
  • Watt, William Montgomery and Richard Bell. Introduction to the Qur’an. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970.
  • Wild, Stefan., ed. The Qur’an as Text: Islamic Philosophy, Theology, and Science. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997.

[cross-posted at ReligiousLeftLaw]

The Playwright & Intellectual Responsibility (Updated: 1/14/2012) Reply


Mark Edwards has two important posts in a series on the late playwright, essayist and dissident intellectual Václav Havel (1936-2011) up at Concurring Opinions: here and here. Yours truly with a lengthy comment in the second post.

Update: Mark’s latest posts (Parts III & IV): here and here.

The Long & Winding Sentence in the Age of Twitter 1


 

Pico Iyer has an essay on “the long sentence” in today’s Los Angeles Times. A taste:

“‘Your sentences are so long,’ said a friend who teaches English at a local college, and I could tell she didn’t quite mean it as a compliment. The copy editor who painstakingly went through my most recent book often put yellow dashes on-screen around my multiplying clauses, to ask if I didn’t want to break up my sentences or put less material in every one. Both responses couldn’t have been kinder or more considered, but what my friend and my colleague may not have sensed was this: I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment.

When I began writing for a living, my feeling was that my job was to give the reader something vivid, quick and concrete that she couldn’t get in any other form; a writer was an information-gathering machine, I thought, and especially as a journalist, my job was to go out into the world and gather details, moments, impressions as visual and immediate as TV. Facts were what we needed most. And if you watched the world closely enough, I believed (and still do), you could begin to see what it would do next, just as you can with a sibling or a friend; Don DeLillo or Salman Rushdie aren’t mystics, but they can tell us what the world is going to do tomorrow because they follow it so attentively.

Yet nowadays the planet is moving too fast for even a Rushdie or DeLillo to keep up, and many of us in the privileged world have access to more information than we know what to do with. What we crave is something that will free us from the overcrowded moment and allow us to see it in a larger light. No writer can compete, for speed and urgency, with texts or CNN news flashes or RSS feeds, but any writer can try to give us the depth, the nuances — the ‘gaps,’ as Annie Dillard calls them — that don’t show up on many screens. Not everyone wants to be reduced to a sound bite or a bumper sticker.

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions — or that at least is the hope — and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying ‘Open wider’ so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).

‘There was a little stoop of humility,’ Alan Hollinghurst writes in a sentence I’ve chosen almost at random from his recent novel ‘The Stranger’s Child,’  ‘as she passed through the door, into the larger but darker library beyond, a hint of frailty, an affectation of bearing more than her fifty-nine years, a slight bewildered totter among the grandeur that her daughter now had to pretend to take for granted.’ You may notice — though you don’t have to — that ‘humility’ has rather quickly elided into ‘affectation,’ and the point of view has shifted by the end of the sentence, and the physical movement through the rooms accompanies a gradual inner movement that progresses through four parallel clauses, each of which, though legato, suggests a slightly different take on things.

Many a reader will have no time for this; William Gass or Sir Thomas Browne may seem long-winded, the equivalent of driving from L.A. to San Francisco by way of Death Valley, Tijuana and the Sierras. And a highly skilled writer, a Hemingway or James Salter, can get plenty of shading and suggestion into even the shortest and straightest of sentences. But too often nowadays our writing is telegraphic as a way of keeping our thinking simplistic, our feeling slogan-crude. The short sentence is the domain of uninflected talk-radio rants and shouting heads on TV who feel that qualification or subtlety is an assault on their integrity (and not, as it truly is, integrity’s greatest adornment).

If we continue along this road, whole areas of feeling and cognition and experience will be lost to us. We will not be able to read one another very well if we can’t read Proust’s labyrinthine sentences, admitting us to those half-lighted realms where memory blurs into imagination, and we hide from the person we care for or punish the thing that we love. And how can we feel the layers, the sprawl, the many-sidedness of Istanbul in all its crowding amplitude without the 700-word sentence, transcribing its features, that Orhan Pamuk offered in tribute to his lifelong love?” [….]

And…in case you missed it, Pico wrote on “The Joy of Quiet” in “the other Times” at the close of last year.

Pico Iyer on Graham Greene Reply


 

There’s a notice of a new book on Graham Greene by my friend Pico Iyer, in the New York Times. As I note in the former link, I would unhesitatingly recommend anything written by Pico, but I especially look forward with relish to this book, having had several conversations with him about his (and now ‘our’) fondness for Greene. Buy from your local, independent bookseller if possible (so as to help them avoid the fate of my beloved Bodhi Tree Bookstore) but if not, see here.

Place, No-Place, and the Transnational Stage: “Minor” Works by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams 1


The following is cross-posted from Legal Lacuna:

In his 1993 classic To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature, Eric J. Sundquist pays careful attention to texts many critics view as “minor,” such as Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition and Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. As Sundquist reminds us, we miss much when we focus only on “major” works by canonical American writers, including, often, American literature’s insistent cultural heterogeneity and its fundamentally transnational character. It is in this light that I have been thinking about some plays I read recently.

In the 1940s, Tennessee Williams established his gift for rendering the local on stage: the characters and social dynamics he introduced in The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire continue to populate our imaginations when we think of the American South and New Orleans. His spatial metaphors still resonate: the streetcar that rushes us headlong through life; fragile characters trapped in a menagerie of societal constrictions. Written in the shadow of World War II, Williams’ highly successful family dramas might be seen (superficially) as reflecting a turn inward, a privileging of the domestic over the global at a moment of anxiety about America’s role abroad.

But Williams’ sense of place was more expansive than most remember. In Camino Real, first staged in 1953, Williams creates a surrealistic no-place that is alien yet familiar, fitting for this prescient allegory of American imperialism and state repression. In the first of sixteen “blocks,” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, looking bedraggled, arrive in a Spanish-speaking town “that bears a confusing, but somehow harmonious, resemblance to such widely scattered ports as Tangiers, Havana, Veracruz, Casablanca, Shanghai, New Orleans.” After consulting a map, Sancho notes that the Camino Real (Anglicized) and the Camino Real (Spanish) meet in a dead end. Soon arrives the protagonist, an American named Kilroy who sports a jeweled belt spelling out “CHAMP” and a pair of golden boxing gloves. The audience follows Kilroy as he travels the Camino Real, encountering desperate characters of varying nationalities. In this play, unlike in Williams’ more well known works, tensions and contradictions within American society are projected vaguely outward onto the global stage (so to speak), resulting in a play filled with abstraction and symbols, rather than crystallizing into a concrete narrative of dysfunction in the domestic sphere.

Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist play The Emperor Jones, first staged in 1920, stands out as another allegory of empire and identity that has since been overshadowed by the playwright’s realist family dramas, which include Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh. Brutus Jones, an African American who speaks entirely in minstrel dialect, has made himself ruler of an unnamed Caribbean island, and now faces an uprising. He escapes into the forest, where he encounters a series of frightening, surreal scenes that reflect the traumatic history of race in America. Like Camino Real, this play also creates an unspecific foreign setting as a way to explore both the moral ambiguities of U.S. actions abroad and the deeply rooted conflicts that characterize American identity at home. Over the years, the play has been criticized for its racist imagery and characterization, but has also been interpreted by anti-racists as a cynical commentary on American race relations. It is a significant work insofar as it highlights the global or transnational aspects of American cultural history, particularly with respect to race.

Southern Literary Review 1


I have become the managing editor of Southern Literary Review.  We seek book reviews about Southern literature, and we’re looking for enthusiastic writers to contribute biographical profiles of landmark Southern authors.  Visit our submission guidelines.

The Southern Literary Review celebrates southern authors and their contributions to American literature.  We feature classic southern writers who have defined southern literature, such as Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner.  SLR also profiles and interviews modern novelists such as Tom Wolfe and Wendell Berry and emerging southern writers such as Daniel Wallace and Sue Monk Kidd.  With hundreds of pages of original content, we are dedicated to offering quality information about America’s southern authors, and their works.  Peruse our excellent book reviews on new southern novels as well as the classics of southern literature.

SLR was founded in 2004.  With an overhaul of the site in Spring 2009, SLR has now invited several contributors to join in producing fresh content on a regular basis, so there will always be something new to see here.  Julie Cantrell served as editor-in-chief for nearly two years and Adele Annesi joined as managing editor in 2011. Both Julie and Adele have recently retired. After years as dedicated contributors, Philip K. Jason and Allen Mendehall took the reigns of SLR in November, 2011. Phil is now publisher and executive editor.

On Walls and the Spectacle of Sovereignty Reply


The following is cross-posted from Legal Lacuna.

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.

The College Football Top 25 as Compared to Literary Classics Reply


As Andy Staples writes, who knew that LSU was compared to Slaughterhouse Five, Alabama to To Kill a Mockingbird, or Oklahoma to Grapes of Wrath. For what its worth, I think All the King’s Men was a Far better choice for LSU and clearly Missouri is Hamlet. Of course Robert Penn Warren taught at LSU….  Need there be any other claim to number 1?

Setting the Table: Updated Links, Calls for Proposals and Law, Culture and Humanities Reply