Welcome…

This is my Xenophilia blog where I post various occasional writings as well as links to my publications, and by invitation to current projects. Many of the older posts have been lost and the posts I am reposting are not necessarily in the order they were written. Hopefully, going forward from June 2015 this will be resolved.

Steven at work
Steven @ Work, May 2015. Background, HORIZON WATCH, Angie Reed Garner.

The links at the top of the page can be used to navigate to my biography page and to various current projects.

If you are looking for my academic writing, try academic.edu. In the future I will add additional links to ongoing projects, e.g. my work on stand-up comedy and masculinity, as it becomes more developed and interesting.

 

Leaving Abu Dhabi

Places seep into you. They get under your skin. Some years ago—eight to be precise—I wrote a blog post titled “Leaving Lahore”—in which I reflected on the experience of leaving Pakistan after barely a year in the country. While that post is sadly lost—I’ve learned far more powerful ways of backing things up in the interim—it’s gist was a somewhat harried effort to come to terms with leaving a place I’d just barely begun to know.

Pakistan is, as the subtitle of Anatol Lieven’s excellent book would have it, A Hard Country (Allen Lane, 2011). It is also beautiful, intriguing and alluring. Our year there, 2007-2008, was eventful. It witnessed martial law, the assassination of Benezir Bhutto, the Taliban takeover of Swat, the escalation of the American “Drone War” and much else. There were several large bomb attacks in Lahore—which had until then been relatively unaffected by such things. On a day-to-day level the most draining thing was the increasingly accute electricity shortage. Rolling, nearly-random blackouts referred to as “load shedding” left us—and everyone else in the city—without power about 12 hours a day. The well-off compensated by running diesel generators that spewed noxious smoke. While we knew enough to avoid drinking water from the tap, it didn’t occur to us at first ice from the neighborhood eateries would be a vector for parasites. At the same time there was the warm welcome we received and so many things to explore and try to understand.

The UAE is a very different kind of place. I arrived directly from Pakistan and experienced the most profound culture shock of my life–not because it was so profoundly different from my own culture (a fraught notion in any case), but because of the contrast with Lahore. The biggest difference is the lack of visible poverty. There are, of course, plenty of poor people in the UAE. But for the most part these are the working poor–mostly “able-bodied” individuals who have been carefully screened by local authorities before being allowed to enter the country. (Well, some categories are more closely screened than others, but in relative terms it is a highly controlled population.) Moreover, for the most part poverty is hidden away in labor camps or the staggering debt load incured by many domestic, construction and service workers. The contrast with Pakistan (or South Asia more generally) could not be greater. Again, there are plenty of very wealthy people in Pakistan, but poverty–including the relative impoverishment of all that falls in the realm of the public good–is as visible as a weeping sore on the face of actor viewed in high definition close-up.

Lahore, of course, is heir to a deep legacy of cultural accomplishment visible in its monuments–the Shalimar Gardens, the Badshahi Mosque, Data shrine and so on–inherited from Mughal times, as well as a plethora of traditional markets that evoke all of the exotic tropes of the Arabian Nights–enchantment, danger, allure, decadence–in a way that the UAE, for all of its post-modern opulence, cannot match. Yet there is a level of care–of basic expenditure and attention to maintainance–in Abu Dhabi that is utterly alien in Lahore. The monuments endure, but only because of the fabulous character of their construction. Basic attention to infrastructure is almost unknown–so in that sense it reminds me of post-Reagan America!

But ultimately what I am feeling is not really so specific to Abu Dhabi. We have lived here for eight years–the longest I have lived anywhere in consecutive years since graduating from high school. It feels like an eternity. Angie Reed and I made a life here. Our beloved German shepherd Heathcliff lived his last several years here and passed away. Somehow George, a long-haired local cat, found his way into our lives, demonstrating his ability to manipulate hominid sensibilities. We made a garden, our “Garden of Hedon,” on our lovely terrace. I became a department chair and learned just how difficult it can be to mediate between neoliberal institutional expectations and student/faculty desire. So much has happened!

I am relieved and sad and full of hope to leave this place that has been my home–our home–for so many years. This is so even though I am very much looking forward to my new life in Louisville, Kentucky, to writing and teaching and selling art and to becoming part of what I have already found to be a wonderfully creative community of comic and musicians and artists and thinkers. I look forward to being able to be more politically engaged, to say more precisely and openly what I mean. I know that I will benefit tremendously from the time to write and do research and activism with anti-war veterans. And yet… Here I am, sad to tears, at leaving.

I think I will be profoundly grateful! How many of us can be so sad to leave a place, a situation, and yet so exuberant and joyful about what likely comes next? It is a blessing I have in no way earned. No one can. It is grace in its purest form–though I am no theist–I recognize the real message of grace. Grace is the experience of a benefit that you know you did not earn or deserve in any conventional sense. It is an excess every bit as real as the excess of suffering that attaches to bare life, to genocide, to idiotic and profoundly evil levels of incarceration such as those found in my own country of birth, even if such negative excess is easier to believe in.

Some things I take away from Abu Dhabi.

A better understanding of the ways in which constantly moving for city to city, cotinenent to continent, for all of its advantages in perspective, has a cost that I never quite got until now. This is the first place where I stayed long enough to really become part of some things. Toward the end of my time in Portland, working with a small non-profit group and connected to a nationwide network of right the right activists I had something akin, but that was a very different way of being. I was single and immersed in the work and almost nothing else. Here I think people will miss me, miss us, quite apart from work. Moving to far flung parts of the globe takes you out of your human context, forcing you to lean on institutional supports precisely because you at first have no personal ones.

The underbelly of the neoliberal academic dragon is ugly. I have seen enough to last a lifetime! The surveillance and standardization regimes are not just irksome, they are an active detriment to the purpose of the University. And yes I know this is not unique to ZU, rather it is spreading to every corner of academic life. There is nothing irrational about this if we accept that the purpose of universities is something other than education in broad terms. Once we allow that a college education, or scholarly research should primarily be judged by the extent to which it contributes to the neoliberal economy, then we lose all authority to make any other kind of claim.

I have nothing against students learning “useful” skills, but I think it is necrotic to think that “job skills” as defined by capitalist employers are the only, or even the most valuable skills. It is, moreover, profoundly I unrealistic to train a vast excess of reserve labor to do the same high value set of tasks–and this is quite apart from how we define what those tasks are.

Academics are a noisy, long-winded and entitled lot on average, prone to crying foul at the slightest hint of a violation of our prerogatives–or at least that is our image, and I have certainly witnessed all-too-much of that sort of behavior as department chair the last three years. But, some of the things we complain about should not simply be dismissed as First World Problems. But the incessant application of notions of “efficiency” and “accountability” and even “real world applicability” to academia is a much larger issue than it would seem to be. At issue is not the privileges of a few spoiled eggheads, but the collective capacity to pursue wonder, curiosity, to head down a thousand, thousand dead ends and utterly unproductive avenues to see where they might lead all the while not knowing as the initiation to knowledge.

I am, of course, not arguing that nothing about the university should be changes; that there are not many ways to be curious and live in the pursuit of wonder, but without places that are purpose-built to insulate and nurture such things, something is lost that no virtual community, no flex-time work plans, no weekend university scheme can come close to replacing. That something is time–the long slow time to think and ruminate and grind away at issues both trivial and profound. A place to dream. There may well be better ways to teach a narrow set of practical skills than a university classroom–some combination of apprenticeship and OJT comes to mind–but there is no better place (for many people at least, it’s peculiarities are by no means conducive for everyone!) to learn to dream and test out aspects of dreams than a university environment at its best.

I have learned that in spite of my best efforts, I can’t make-up for a malfunctioning institution with built-broken systems. This may seem obvious, but there is something seductive for me about sticking myself into

BATMAN vs. SUPERMAN vs. NUCLEAR WAR

The fantasy of efficacious violence haunts both super hero stories and the equally fantastic—though far more harmful—stories we tell ourselves about about “smart bombs” and “precision guided munitions,” and military intervention on the side of what is right or just or humane. The comics, and the movies that derive from them, have an edge on reality in that no one actually has to suffer and die for them—and in that there is at least the possibility, however rare, of some narratively central reflection on the fantasy structure. In national war narratives this is mostly left to marginalized opposition groups and political gadflies.

In spite of the bad reviews, as a life-long geek I enjoyed Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. This doesn’t make the politics underlying any less fraught.

***SPOILER ALERT***

Continue reading BATMAN vs. SUPERMAN vs. NUCLEAR WAR

Hegemony, Militarism, Democracy

Some New Year’s thoughts on popular support for militarism in the United States.

Herein I want to think not individual evil (or sociopathic self-aggrandizement), but the consequences of collective violence as implemented in and through state policy. The occasion for this is the new year, though in truth I’ve been looking for an excuse to publish a blog post on the topic. More specifically I want to look at a year end commentary on the Foreign Policy site (http://foreignpolicy.com/), “The GOP Plan to Bring Back a Unipolar World” by Gordon Adams and Richard Sokolsky (December 30, 2015), and read it in tandem with Jonathan Waverley’s important—though deeply flawed—book Democratic Militarism: Voting, Wealth, and War (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Continue reading Hegemony, Militarism, Democracy

Hashtag Ferguson Ethnography

I am writing this, mostly, in response to Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa’s article “#Ferguson: Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States.” Published in the Vol. 42, Iss. 1 (February 2015) of American Ethnologist, I only just got round to reading it. Given my interests in the concurrent militarization and “prisonization” of American life, with an ongoing racialized basis, this is unfortunate. Bonilla and Rosa’s article is an important point of departure, even though I find it deeply unsatisfying.

Continue reading Hashtag Ferguson Ethnography

Post-AAA reflections #demystifyingacademics

The experience of organizing and chairing a panel for the American Anthropological Association meetings this year (Denver 2015) made me realize that all of the mediocre experiences I have had on “residual” panels, where I submitted a paper to the AAA and they lumped me either with a partial panel, or with others doing supposedly related work, were the result of this less than cohesive process.

Continue reading Post-AAA reflections #demystifyingacademics

Forever War, The – Revisiting

Forever War, The – Revisiting

Posted on January 19, 2013

My sabbatical semester-or the functional equivalent, a competitively-awarded research semester-is coming rapidly to a close. In a few days I will leave behind my laptop desk and comfortable chair at Garner Narrative in Louisville, Kentucky for a short visit with my family in (the vicinity of) Portland, Oregon and then return to a hectic teaching schedule in Abu Dhabi. Continue reading Forever War, The – Revisiting