17 December 2011

Schooled to Order: Education and the Making of Modern Egypt

"They opened fire with cannons and bombs on the houses and quarters, aiming specially at the mosque, firing at it with those bombs. They also fired at suspected places bordering the mosque, such as the market. And they trod in the mosque with their shoes, carrying swords and rifles. Then they scattered in its courtyard and its main praying area and tied their horses to the prayer niche They ravaged the students' quarters and ponds, smashing the lamps and chandeliers and breaking up the bookcases of the students and the scribes. They plundered whatever they found in the mosque, such as furnishings, vessels, bowls, deposits, and hidden things from closets and cupboards. They treated the books and Qur'anic volumes as trash, throwing them on the ground, stamping on them with their feet and shoes. Furthermore they soiled the mosque, blowing their spit in it, and urinating and defecating in it. They guzzled wine and smashed the bottles in the central court and other parts. And whoever they happened to meet in the mosque they stripped. They chanced upon someone in one of the student residences and slaughtered him." (Abdul Rahman Jabarti, 1798, from Napoleon in Egypt)

27 November 2011

The Disaffections of Daily Life: Pathways to Activation Within and Without the Machine

Disaffection and activation are intertwined in a multiplicity of ways. They are not necessarily related in a linear, cause and effect type of relationship. Sometimes, a person can become disaffected from a way of thinking or acting, and this disaffection can lead to forms of activation. Other times, becoming activated for a particular cause or issue can lead to disaffection from the opposing ways of thinking and acting. Throughout one's life, disaffections and activations come and go, overlapping each other, adding and subtracting understandings of life experiences. Disaffection without activation can lead to nihilism, and activation without disaffection can lead to co-optation or extremism. In whatever ways we understand their dynamics, disaffection and activation seem to be interdependent. In this essay, I want to reflect on the overlapping relationships between disaffection and activation, and emphasize how daily life experiences provide opportunities for both, by placing these reflections in the context of living in what might be the declining stages of an era marked by hegemony of the megamachine.

22 October 2011

Norms and Allegiances in Muslim Education

Even the most casual observers of current events will notice a tension between Western civilization and Islam. This tension is often made explicit in Western public discourse about "Islamic fundamentalism" and the "clash of civilizations." Similarly, Muslim public discourse often focuses on the Zionist occupation of Palestine and the destruction of places like Bosnia and Iraq. But careful observers will soon realize that this tension contains within it an odd, and often unnoticed, paradox. While most Muslims are quick to denounce instances of Western aggression and political double-dealing, the more subtle cultural legacies of colonization and imperialism receive less attention. This is apparent when one takes the time to look at various forms of institutionalized colonization, such as education.

14 September 2011

Social Studies Standards: Diversity, Conformity, Complexity

"If the goal of human history is a uniform type of man, reproducing at a uniform rate, in a uniform environment, kept at a constant temperature, pressure, and humidity, living a uniformly lifeless existence, with his uniform physical needs satisfied by uniform goods, all inner waywardness brought into conformity by hypnotics and sedatives, or by surgical extirpations, a creature under constant mechanical pressure from incubator to incinerator, most of the problems of human development would disappear. Only one problem would remain: Why should anyone, even a machine, bother to keep this kind of creature alive?" (Lewis Mumford, The Transformations of Man)

15 August 2011

Mapping the Musical Commons: Digitization, Simulation, Speculation

This essay is a speculation on how recent digitization and simulation technologies are providing a means of mapping cultural processes that may contribute to new ways of enclosing the musical commons. Three broad, shifting, and interwoven themes permeate this speculation: contested concepts of ownership between a disorganized and reorganized capitalism; blurred distinctions between cultural products and human processes; living beings between the convergence of technologies for mapping and simulation. By outlining a potential paradigm shift in how people understand music, the essay suggests some new directions for ownership and control of primary cultural resources, especially with respect to embodied and simulated musical processes.

20 July 2011

The Utility of Islamic Imagery in the West: An American Case Study

The long history of encounters between Western civilization and Islam has produced a tradition of portraying, in largely negative and self-serving ways, the Islamic religion and Muslim cultures. There is a lot of literature cataloguing (and sometimes correcting) these stereotypes. It is not my intention to rehash this corpus here, though I do rely upon some of the more important works. What I want to do instead is focus on a particular dimension of these encounters, and examine why the West has consistently constructed and perpetuated negative images of Islam and Muslims. My focus will be on the utility of Islamic imagery in Western civilization.

08 June 2011

Searching for Swing: Participatory Discrepancies in the Jazz Rhythm Section

Swing is sometimes described as a groove, pulse, or feel, and I assume that there are as many words for comparable concepts as there are musical styles, languages, and cultures. On the syntactical level (that is, in the realm of crotchets and quavers and their subdivisions), jazz swing has never been effectively notated. Ridetaps, the drummer's tapping on a ride cymbal, are often represented by dotted rhythms or eighth note triplets, while a bass line is usually written as straight quarter notes. To these notated sketches, musicians add the "swing," making the notes come alive. What is it that they add? What is swing on the sub-syntactical level? Some may argue that swing results when musicians are playing precisely together, while others may insist that swing occurs when the musicians are a bit out of time, or out of phase with each other. Both musicians and analysts may disagree about these "together" and "apart" issues, so it is important for us to develop a systematic method, an etic grid, for measuring degrees of synchrony and discrepancy between musicians.

21 May 2011

The Distillation of Dr. Hiller: Choices in Editing Oral History

After completing an interview, we begin the task of organizing and editing our tapes and notes. During this process, we must continually make choices, and often these choices are interrelated and interdependent; making one choice often lead us to confronting another. This article considers such editing choices on several different levels, ranging from the mechanics of transcribing a distinct set of interview problems, to the question of making them useful in presentation, to the broader issue of editing sound as well as written documents. On this last level, we will see how new technology now gives the old issue of orality a particular vitality. Editing permutations will be presented, culminating in a demonstration and comparison of two routes to a final prose transcription - one route derives from editing a visual document; the other explores editing the aural document, before transcribing, with new tools of sound-processing designed for an aural medium such as radio.

07 May 2011

National Character Studies and the "Arab Mind"

The national character study began as a sort of wartime anthropology. During wartime, it became difficult for American anthropologists to conduct fieldwork abroad, so many sought alternatives. The initial instances of national character research were sponsored by the U.S. government, and among the anthropologists who sought to work in this way were Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Ruth Benedict. These early studies were typically written about the enemies of America: Japan, Germany and Russia. The studies which appeared are often perceived today as attempts at applied anthropology, and the scholars who participated in them were convinced that they were contributing to the war effort.

16 April 2011

Music out of Mud: Nigerian Pot Drums in Upstate New York

The workshop took place at the upstate New York pottery studio of Frank Giorgini. He and Abbas Ahuwan instructed 12 students in the finer points of pottery drum making. The workshop proper was held on consecutive weekends, and I had the opportunity to stay the week between as an impromptu apprentice. Abbas began on Saturday with a slide show of traditional Nigerian pottery making. Abbas is a professor of ceramics at Ahmed Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria and has a Ph.D from the University of Georgia. He shared scenes from his workshop in Zaria as well from rural areas. I initially sensed an “African” sensibility in the works he depicted. Designs and methods that might otherwise be labeled primitive by some observers appeared to come alive with a rhythm in the context of culture, albeit objectified through slides. I had later several discussions with Abbas about this - the differing sensibilities of Westerners and Africans. For me, it came down to a McLuhanoid viewpoint of oral and visual sensibilities. The African peoples can be considered orally oriented, I argued, and this sensibility shows in the work, the design. One does not see the obsession with formalization, quantization and uniformity. The works are shaped with an oral sensibility, the perfection being in the unperfected form. Abbas thought about this for a few moments, then replied, “There are no bad curves in nature.”

02 April 2011

Children of Jaliya: Teaching and Learning Kora in West Africa

"From his mouth you will hear the history of your ancestors, you will learn the art of governing Mali according to the principles which our ancestors have bequeathed to us."
The youthful prince Sundiata heard these words as the reigning king of 13th century Mali presented him with a customary gift. Sundiata was about to receive his own personal jali, who was called Balla Fasseke (Niane 1965:17). The jali (also known as "griot") is an oral historian and master musician who presents his knowledge in the form of song. Balla Fasseke inherited his art, known as jaliya, from his father who was the king's jali. Prince Sundiata was heir to the kingdom, and Jali Balla Fasseke, was heir to its knowledge, wisdom and music.