Learning, and Not Caring: On the MLA’s Palestine Resolution

LONG AFTER THE last Uber delivered the final, fatigued MLA conference-goer to their flight or train or doorstep, long after the echoes of passionate speeches emanating from the liberal-radical spectrum — from the ACLU’s Anthony Romero to newly elected second vice president Judith Butler to legendary activist Angela Davis — faded from memory, the shadow of a resolution that mandates the Modern Language Association “refrain” from answering the call of Palestinian civil society lingers. But one should equally recoil from any resolution that demands that the brain trust of the largest group of humanistic scholars in the world not think about something in an organized or coherent manner. How did we get to this point?

The Modern Language Association, whose membership includes approximately 20,000 scholars, teachers, administrators, and writers, is an organization deeply concerned about the state of the humanities and especially the study of language and literature. By any standard, it is a formidable organization, now celebrating its 134th anniversary. When I was a graduate student at Berkeley, if you were serious about getting an academic job, you joined the MLA. The same is true today — what job-seeker can afford to pass up the massive resources and networking the organization provides?

During my academic career, I have attended over two dozen MLA conferences. I qualify for a Life membership. Over these many years, I have been elected to several of its committees, including most recently its Executive Council. But I have just delivered my last MLA conference paper and have resigned from the Council. For those who follow issues surrounding Israel-Palestine, especially the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), my name is familiar as a pro-Palestinian activist. But my farewell lecture at the MLA, much of which is included here, actually has little to do with the academic boycott. It has more to do with the state of an academic organization that has made the decision to remain silent about a crucial human rights issue and furthermore to bind its members to silence. This time it is about Palestine, but it may as well have to do with any subject that any academic organization decides to decree verboten. It is this silencing — or to be more specific, the reasons why I believe many acquiesced to being silenced — that is the concern of this essay.

What follows is my diagnosis of a malignant state of mind, of intellectual non-being. It is not just about Palestine, about solidarity, about human rights and the humanities. It is fundamentally about the ways we academics have come to fetishize mastery of a subject, security in political anonymity, and intellectual isolationism at a time when the world — politically, culturally, socially, ecologically — demands that we be curious, daring, and risk-taking. Basically, we have created a system of rationalization that takes a positive academic value (“mastery”) and uses it as an alibi for not getting involved in the world outside of one’s specialty.

The morbid constellation of egotism, arrogance, self-enclosure, and normalized self-interest we find in many professional academics is well represented in literature — what better example can one think of than Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude? Recall the last lines of that remarkable novel:

Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.

García Márquez is diagnosing the cultural and historical conditions under which immensely destructive violence had spread across Latin America, much of it self-inflicted. But it is precisely the finality of that last phrase, the sealing of Fate forever, that makes its utter reversal in the speech García Márquez delivered upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature so astounding. In that speech, he spoke of

a new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.

One must then ask the question: What is this new vision of utopia, rather than of apocalypse, premised on? From where do we derive a “second chance”? The answer can be found by first addressing what García Márquez defines as the “crucial problem” that informs his people’s “solitude”: “Our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.”

The guiding principle of my essay is not to hold “distant” peoples responsible for coming up with the means to render their lives visible to the hegemonic cultural interpreters of the world (i.e., the members of the MLA, and others of that ilk). It is rather to hold ourselves responsible for being open to read and understand things that do not come to us via “conventional means,” in conventional language, with conventional meanings attached. This openness, this willingness to see beyond ourselves, takes the shape of the opposite of solitude — that is, in solidarity — and it is a solidarity that can only occur if we leave professionalism and mastery in their proper places and agree to be, at least provisionally, amateurs. I will have more to say about amateurs later on.

But simply imaginative solidarity, a sentimental kind of transitory alliance, is not enough in the eyes of García Márquez: “Solidarity with our dreams will not make us feel less alone, as long as it is not translated into concrete acts of legitimate support for all the peoples that assume the illusion of having a life of their own in the distribution of the world.” These then are the two crucial elements — openness to how other peoples use language in ways specific to their historical conditions, and an ethical willingness to act in concrete ways to respond to their calls for solidarity. In a word, it is a call for generosity, and what Paul Gilroy has termed “conviviality,” rather than solitude and isolation.

In terms of human rights, this means understanding how even what might appear a standard, conventional, and universal term has to be understood historically, and with an open mind toward historical specificity.

An interviewer once asked Edward Said: “You wrote somewhere that the Palestinian experience is so fragmented that classical concepts don’t apply to it. What about the concept of ‘rights’?” He replied: “Well, we are in a unique position of being a people whose enemies say that we don’t exist. So for us the concept of ‘rights’ means the right to exist as a people, as a collective whole body, rather than as a collection of refugees, stateless people, citizens of other countries.”

This is more than an argument for recognition — it is a demand to be recognized in terms that reflect as adequately as possible the historical realities as told by the subjects, not objects, of history. It is recognizing the historical forces that, as García Márquez remarks, make “conventional means” of representing certain lives inadequate. Only by traveling the distance from our familiar, conventional, and therefore convenient spaces of knowledge, by taking the risk of “insecurity” — the theme of this year’s MLA — can one answer the call to a difficult ethics.

So what has made the academy, and academics, so un-convivial — outside the normal socio-professional “drinks at the convention”? How to explain the fact that 85 percent of eligible voters among the membership did not even bother to vote down a resolution that, some argue, would prevent any serious debate over the academic boycott?

It all starts in graduate school, and only gets worse — this absolute and absolutely vainglorious notion of “mastery,” now baked into the equally soul-depleting notion of “professionalization.” Ironically, the theme of this year’s MLA — “States of Insecurity” — was played out within the most insecure ecosystem one could imagine for job-seekers desperately trying to hide their insecurities behind a facade of “mastery” and “professionalization.” The rub lies here: there is a moral abyss in mastery, because one only gets to it by shunning “non-expert” status like the plague.

Let me be clear — we need experts and professionals and masters of fields, absolutely. All in the proper context. What I worry about is how this mindset gets transposed beyond that context to act as an alibi for silence, for a lack of curiosity, for a paralyzing aversion to risk, when it comes to urgent issues that lie outside of one’s “expertise.” Edward Said made this recommendation:

The intellectual today ought to be an amateur, someone who considers that to be a thinking and concerned member of society one is entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity as it involves one’s country, its power, its mode of interacting with its citizens as well as with other societies. In addition, the intellectual’s spirit as an amateur can enter and transform the merely professional routine most of us go through into something much more lively and radical; instead of doing what one is supposed to do one can ask why one does it, who benefits from it, how can it reconnect with a personal project and original thoughts.

Put succinctly, Said asserts: “Amateurism means choosing the risks and uncertain results of the public sphere — a lecture or a book or an article in wide and unrestricted circulation — over the insider space controlled by experts and professionals.”

Again, taking the case of Israel-Palestine as one pressing example, the common alibi for non-action, and even for shunning discussion altogether, is often, “well, it’s complicated.” That is certainly true. But no one I know would pass a graduate student in their PhD oral exam if they let the answer to a question just sit there. And aren’t the humanities supposed to be all about “complex” things? I suspect it all depends on what we decide is worth thinking about and learning about.

While I have publicly and perhaps stridently voiced my disagreements with those who have sought to silence the call for justice and attacked BDS, the people with whom I have the most difficulty are those that comprise the apathetic, and I would say fearful, majority. It is their silence that is most alarming, disappointing, and frankly dangerous — the symptom of a real malignancy.

We have chosen as our vocation the task of educating people on how the human mind has grappled with aesthetic, philosophical, ethical, and, yes, political issues via the medium of words. But with the choice to educate others comes a lifelong commitment to learning, and of wearing our learning modestly, and not to be swept up in the vanity that seems to come with tenure and promotion. Again, were this quietude restricted to academic timidity, that would be one thing. But to use that modesty as an excuse to remain silent and to silence others is unconscionable.

What we find in the non-voters is nothing less than a lack of will to learn or to care. That is what is so profoundly troubling about the non-response of 85 percent of the eligible voters. And make no mistake about it: this kind of moral timidity, masquerading as intellectual modesty, is what allows injustice to thrive — injustice that we find in Palestine, but also wherever there is misogyny, sexism, racism, and all other forms of bigotry.

We do not all need to take on the mantle of “public intellectual,” but we can be true to our vocation, which is to learn as well as to teach, and not turn a deaf ear and blind eye to what so many have argued is an urgent moral and ethical issue simply because we cannot let go of the mantle of “mastery” that protects us from being wrong, ever. What more moribund vision of intellectual life could there be? At the very least, we should not acquiesce to silencing debate and inquiry when others dare to do what we cannot bring ourselves to do. If we do that, we have capitulated to a mentality that is dangerous far beyond Israel-Palestine.

To end on a scholarly note, let us remember the etymology of the word “amateur.” It comes from the Latin amare, which means “to love.” Its meaning in English refers to someone who engages in a pursuit on an unpaid basis — she does it out of love, not pecuniary interest. It is this sense of the word that we should emphasize — a love that manifests itself in an openness to others unlike ourselves, but also in a letting go of our egos and bogus self-certainty.

Professionalism and mastery have their value and their place. But they should not be the only values we embrace, not if we are truly committed to the cause of the humanities.


David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, and Professor of Comparative Literature, and, by courtesy, English, at Stanford University.