Can the Subaltern Bark?

Last year, the critically acclaimed filmmaker Wes Anderson released “Isle of Dogs.” The stop-motion animated movie tells the story of a young boy Atari who goes in search for his dog after the evil mayoral administration banishes the entire species to a trash island following an outbreak of the canine flu. Critics praised the film humans and canines flocked to see it.

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Watch the trailer

Around the time “Isle of Dogs” opened, several people asked me if it was based on my book, Empire of Dogs: Canines, Japan, and the Making of the Modern Imperial World, which was published by Cornell UP in 2011 (and will be issued in paperback in a few months).

Continue reading “Can the Subaltern Bark?”

Can the Subaltern Bark?

Surviving R. Kelly and The Rape of Joan Bellinger

Like many Americans, I watched Lifetime’s six-hour Surviving R. Kelly docuseries earlier this month. The series painstakingly narrates how Kelly leveraged his multiple advantages—of gender, wealth, fame, and age—to victimize teenage black women, whose intersecting inequalities have long been exploited by perpetrators of all races. My recent book, Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain, argues that this racialized sexual disadvantage has its cultural roots in medieval attitudes toward young low-income women. The popular stereotype of the sexually available servant girl responsible for her own exploitation was later racialized so the medieval “wanton wench” became the stereotyped “likely [attractive] Negro wench, about seventeen years of age” advertised for sale in 1781 and the “fast little girl” cited several times in Surviving R. Kelly by those who chose to deny Kelly’s abuse.

We can see the traumatic real-life effects of sexualizing socially disadvantaged young women not only in Surviving R. Kelly but also in premodern legal cases. In Canterbury in 1574, a fifteen-year-old servant named Joan Bellinger appeared before two town officials. She testified that her master, the tailor Stephen Jeffrey, had ordered her to come to him one evening when his wife was out enjoying supper with a neighbor. He grabbed her by the arm and threw her down on a bed before exposing himself to her, pulling up her dress, and raping her. Joan reported that “she did tell him that he did hurte her, and he said, ‘No, Joane, I do not hurte the, for this dothe me good and thee no harme.’” He forced her to swear that she would not tell her parents or anyone else what he had done. Similarly, Jerhonda Pace broke a nondisclosure agreement to say of Kelly’s sexual predation when she was sixteen, “I told him it was a bit uncomfortable…It was painful.”

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John Petrean, one of the jurors in Kelly’s 2008 child pornography trial, explained why he had voted to acquit Kelly. “I just didn’t believe them, the women,” he said regarding the young black women who had testified about Kelly’s abuse. “The way they dressed, the way they acted…I didn’t like them…I disregarded all what they say [sic].” In other words, his deep-seated misogynoir prevented him from believing their experiences. Similarly, one of Kelly’s former employees said, “I thought, These bitches are crazy.” In contrast, the sixteenth-century witnesses in Joan’s case believed her: three women appointed by the town alderman examined Joan and affirmed “that she…is very sore hurt in her prevy partes, by suche meanes as she hathe confessed.”

Both R. Kelly and Stephen Jeffrey used various forms of power at their disposal—including gender, age, and socio-economic status—to victimize young women disadvantaged by intersecting inequalities. Just as young black women are disproportionately victims of sexual violence, with between forty and sixty percent reporting coercive sexual contact before the age of eighteen, young servant women in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England were similarly vulnerable. Living in urban areas far from their families, sharing close quarters with their employers, and subject to stereotypes that portrayed them as perpetually sexually available, servant girls appear repeatedly in premodern legal records as victims of abuse and exploitation. Katherine Bronyng’s master and mistress forced her to sleep in their son’s bed, resulting in her pregnancy and legal punishment in 1505. Margaret Haburgh’s master impregnated her and killed her baby by throwing it into the sea in 1519.

Both Surviving R. Kelly and these premodern cases remind us how social inequalities have intersected for centuries to produce violence that falls more heavily than some bodies than others. And they remind us, echoing #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, that movements to end sexual violence cannot ignore poor women and women of color, who have borne the disproportionate burdens of victimization and survival for far too long.

Carissa M. Harris is Assistant Professor of English at Temple University and author of the recently published Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain.

Surviving R. Kelly and The Rape of Joan Bellinger

Why Strong Governments are Bad for Precarious Workers

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Philip Rathgeb, author of the recently published Strong Governments, Precarious Workers: Labor Market Policy in the Era of Liberalization, chatted with our publicity manager Cheryl Quimba. Here’s their conversation:

What is Strong Governments, Precarious Workers about?

It examines why some European welfare states protect unemployed and ‘atypically’ employed workers better than others. While all countries faced the emergence of such precarious workers, some compensated them with better protection and training, whereas others reinforced new divisions within the workforce. The question is, why? Looking at the cases of Austria, Denmark, and Sweden in particular, I find that trade unions are the most consistent force in resisting precarious employment and welfare. What is most striking, however, is that left-right differences between political parties matter less for trade unions – and thus precarious workers – than differences between weak and strong governments. Only when governments are weak can trade unions enforce greater social solidarity in the interest of precarious workers. The book therefore challenges theories that attribute precarity to union clientelism.

Can you explain this relationship between strong governments and precarious workers?

The gradual stages of the liberalization era shifted the balance of class power from labor to capital, which created opportunities for employer associations to push governments in their preferred direction. Governments of the right as well as the left therefore stimulated job creation by liberalizing the labour market. Strong governments are unrestrained in this regard, because they are internally united and have enough seats in parliament. As a result, they can marginalize trade unions to prevent lengthy and costly negotiations. Weak governments, by contrast, need trade unions for consensus mobilization, which creates opportunities for trade unions to strike policy deals for precarious workers. Variations in government strength best explain why trade unions in Social Democratic countries like Denmark and especially Sweden faced remarkable defeats in labor market reform, whereas their counterparts in a Conservative country like Austria remained influential and could thus enhance the protection of precarious workers.

What motivated you to write this book?

What I find striking is the gradual breakdown of the long-term employment relationship in favour of flexible short-term jobs. Among the middle classes of my generation – the so-called “millennials” – this shift is often welcomed, because it can create greater autonomy in working life. You can switch jobs and adapt working hours according to your current life situation or desire for self-realization. This is certainly a great progress for well-educated people without problems in making ends meet or reconciling work-family life.

But I care more about the other side of this story: in-work poverty, unpredictable income, low protection when unemployed or retired. While “flexibility” means greater autonomy for some, it means greater insecurity for others. I wanted to understand when political actors respond to the social demands of workers that are unemployed or on temporary ‘atypical’ contracts, as they face the costs of growing flexibility on contemporary labour markets.

Why do you think this is important?

Precarity is associated with several trends that are detrimental to democracy and society. First, we know that precarious workers are less likely to vote, because they gradually lose faith in the political system. This refers to a process of political resignation so impressively captured by Marie Jahoda, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Hans Zeissel in their seminal study Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal. I vividly remember reading this book when I was in high school, as it has shaped my way of thinking about unemployment ever since. Second, it is clear that precarious workers are more likely to face economic poverty, unequal life chances, poor health, and even an increased relative risk of suicide. Understanding how political actors respond to precarity is thus of great political and social significance in contemporary capitalism.

 

Philip Rathgeb is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz.

Why Strong Governments are Bad for Precarious Workers

The importance of telling stories… but whose story?

Jean Cocteau once wrote that ‘the poet does not invent, he listens’ in order to tell a story. But is there an art to this? Robert Saviano recently argued that he tells stories about Italian Mafias because he constantly seeks to raise awareness to fight them more effectively and he has succeeded extremely well in that. But do his stories always have to be so dark and uber-naturalistic for his message to attract a mass audience? No.

There are many examples of Camorra stories which include different voices, registers, and tones. In Francesco Rosi’s film ‘Le Mani sulla Città’, there is a scene where during a council meeting, the councillors put their hands up and shout ‘our hands are clean, we have got clean hands’, implying that they are not involved in corruption. This one single act summarises the story of corruption which Rosi is trying to tell. More recently, in the Neapolitan Mafia musical, ‘Ammore e Malavita’, the Camorra is portrayed with humor as a harsh reality, but the love story between the Mafia hitman Ciro and Fatima, the witness-nurse, shows that alternatives to the Camorra life are possible, and we laugh at the couple’s attempt to escape it.

FELIA COVERLike Sciascia, Roberto Saviano believes that ‘mafia stories are our defence against organized crime’. And there is no doubt that he is right about the importance of telling stories to help break down l’omertà, (the law of silence), disband traditional stereotypes and introduce a dose of reality. As part of my research for The Invisible Camorra, I too was keen to let the criminals have their say, and use their voices to explain their clan’s mobility around Europe. Adopting a bottom-up, insider’s perspective of the many camorristi who travelled across Europe, I was able to trace their presence and activities in the UK, France, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands. This allowed me to get a taste of their thinking but at the same time, a better-informed overview of their rationale and consequent actions. By using their language, I became fascinated by their mind-set, their choices and acts, which forced me to go beyond the obvious scenarios.

However, I soon realized that it would have been simplistic to leave this one-sided view of their behaviour unchallenged. I too needed to listen to other individuals, those in the wider community and context. After all, criminals do not exist in a vacuum; they act and think in relation to their civil society, the economy and politics and as a researcher interested in un-packaging the complexities of this criminal phenomenon, it was necessary for me to give a voice to all the actors involved. Therefore, I collected the stories of the camorristi, but also of all those who interacted with them (police officers, anti-mafia judges, expert observers, and state witnesses). This helped me produce a multi-dimensional, multi-layered story.

Saviano argues that in his creative non-fiction, the key is to allow the criminal’s point of view to frame the story. He wants to show these camorristi as they are, and he suggests that as a consequence of this, there are no positive characters in his stories. The result is a very bleak and violent portrayal of the Camorra today: young and old camorristi jetting around Naples city and Campania to conquer territory, business deals, and political favours. Like in Kafka’s novels, Saviano’s convincing description of the Neapolitan underworld as lived by his criminals, is one where you cannot breathe, where there is no hope nor escape route.

But, would positive characters in his stories have detracted from his fast tempo and gripping account? Yes, I believe they would have made a difference, and they would have made Saviano’s incomplete stories complete. Different and varied non-criminal voices would have added to the intricate detail, the harsh reality, and the gruesomeness of Camorra lives and business. It would have put his stories in context and not left them isolated. As story tellers of the mafia, it is our responsibility to produce complete accounts of this complex phenomenon. In this way, we are not inventing but continuously listening attentively like Cocteau.


About the author of this blog post: Felia Allum is senior lecturer in Politics and Italian at the University of Bath. She is author of the The Invisible Camorra (Cornell University Press, 2016). From September 2018, she is a Leverhulme Major Research Fellow.

 

 

The importance of telling stories… but whose story?

Happy Independence Day, India: Grassroots Resistance in India Past and Present

Since India won its independence in 1947, it has celebrated its victory over its bygone British colonial occupiers on August 15th annually. In contemporary India the holiday is celebrated with parades, flag-raising ceremonies, and the singing of the national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana.” The festivities mark a celebration of the modern Indian state, but it is also day of remembrance and a repudiation of the repressive colonial powers of the past. Most of the princely states and regions that are now unified under the state flag of India were under the thumb of the British Raj for close to a century (and some lands had been under military occupation by the East India Company or other colonial interests for a least a hundred years before that). Thus, India is no stranger to foreign interventions, and it should be quite comprehensible that many Indians are still sensitive to soft and hard applications of power by outside influences.

Celebratory parade in India, photo by Jessica Falcone.

As I discussed in my book, Battling the Buddha of Love: a Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built, when an American-based transnational Tibetan Buddhist group of mostly non-heritage Buddhists sought to build the biggest statue in the world, they became embroiled in a dispute with local Indians in Kushinagar. The Buddhist group, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), wanted to build a 500-foot behemoth Maitreya statue in Kushinagar, the site of the Shakyamuni Buddha’s death about 2500 years ago.

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A Buddha statue in Kushinagar, photo by Jessica Falcone

The “Save the Land Movement,” comprised of rural Indian farming families and their advocates, argued that the land acquisition of several hundred arable acres that had been organized by the state government for the Maitreya Project would be a complete disaster for those affected. In the process of arguing against the statue, locals said that even if they did consent to sell their farms, which most refused to do outright, the state was forcibly taking their land at far less than market value. While some Indian farmers felt that the project could offer some benefits to the local economy, they were almost in total agreement that the proposed process of land acquisition would be so imbalanced that they themselves would be shunted aside long before any potential benefits trickled down to their villages.

During my years of research on the Maitreya Project, I was often compelled by informants to think about how such a compulsory land acquisition on behalf of a foreign institution was not unlike a neocolonial incursion.

When I embarked upon ethnographic work in India in the mid-aughts, I did not seek to study the echoes of colonialism, but as many scholars in the region will attest, postcolonial India is haunted by the past, especially insofar as domination of the poor by the rich has continued unabated, albeit under new globalized, neoliberal, neocolonial guises. Even armed with the intellectual understanding of this history and cultural context, I naively hoped that the project that I was studying would be different. But my hope that the cultural logics of Buddhist morality would set this intervention on a more deliberate, ethical path were not borne out in fact. Most surprising to me, FPMT and its Maitreya Project, seemed utterly ambivalent about the local resistance movement directed against them.

A village protesting against the Maitreya Project, photo by Jessica Falcone.

An elderly woman in Kushinagar who counted herself as an anti-Maitreya Project protestor told me that she remembered Gandhi’s anticolonial protests from her childhood. She told me during our interview that they had beat the British and they would fight against this Maitreya Project too. On another occasion, I was approached by a local man, let’s call him Sanjay, who likened the Maitreya Project to a foreign parasite. He said, “We will win against the Maitreya Project. I am 100 percent sure that we will be successful. [Around 1600 CE] the East India Company came from London. The East India Company was also a ‘project.’ The Maitreya Project is like the East India Company.” When I hastily wished him and his peers well in their struggle against the Maitreya Project, he seemed skeptical and anxious.

And so, on the occasion of this year’s celebration of Indian independence, as I find myself thinking about Indian resistance movements past and present, allow me to share what Sanjay said to me by way of farewell, “We are stronger now. You tell them that we can’t be colonized again.”

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About the author of this blog post: Jessica Falcone is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University where teaches about South Asian and Asian-American cultural and religious worlds. Her book, Battling the Buddha of Love: a Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built, will be released on September 15, 2018 by Cornell University Press. Since the release date of Manikarnika: the Queen of Jhansi was postponed until next year, she will be celebrating India’s Independence day by watching the movie, Lagaan, for the hundredth time.

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Happy Independence Day, India: Grassroots Resistance in India Past and Present

A Photographer Grows in Brooklyn

Before leaving California in October 1970, to return to NYC, I bought a 35mm camera at a San Jose pawnshop. Because it was the heavier of the two cameras in my $30 price range, I chose a Nikon rangefinder. I was lucky, 22 years old and wanted to be a photographer.

Back home, I took a photography class at the School of Visual Arts, a job with the telephone company and began photographing my family and friends in South Brooklyn. I never felt comfortable at SVA so I rented a small storefront in Sunset Park and set up my own black and white darkroom. I bought a paperback book on photography, and carried it everywhere, reading and re-reading every section.

I returned to college and graduated in 1972. Over the next few years, I completed a Masters degree and worked as a cab driver, cameraman, waiter, photographer’s assistant, bartender and carpenter. But no matter what I did to earn money, I kept photographing. I made my own prints in a variety of darkrooms – almost always ill equipped for washing big prints. So I often used a bathtub.

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Looking back on it now, I smile thinking of my eager young self. I walked around South Brooklyn with my camera and a hand-held light meter, recording each exposure in a 2 x 3 inch spiral notebook. I enjoyed working as a photo assistant in a Manhattan commercial studio, but deep down always preferred photographing in my neighborhood.

Somewhere around 1975, one of my mother’s cousins gave me a Speed Graphic. This classic camera – made famous by Wegee and familiar to me as the logo of the New York Daily News – used 4×5 inch sheet film.

It was quite a while before I was ready to meet the challenges of photographing with a large format camera but I learned.

When I began learning about the craft and art of photography, I was influenced by Robert Leverant’s book Zen in the Art of Photography: “A camera is an extension of ourselves. An appendage to bring us closer to the universe.”

My universe in the 1970’s was South Brooklyn where my ongoing interest in photographing working class family life and religious expression began. Although I photograph throughout NYC with a variety of cameras, I still like to shoot family events in BxW with an old medium format camera.


 

About the author of this blog post: Larry Racioppo was born and raised in South Brooklyn, and he has been photographing throughout New York City since 1971. Living in Rockaway, NY, with his wife, interior designer Barbara Cannizzaro, and their dog, Juno, he can’t believe his good luck.

You can pre-order and learn more about his upcoming book, BROOKLYN BEFORE, here.

A Photographer Grows in Brooklyn

On this #ElectionDay, WOMEN WILL VOTE

Today’s the day. It’s Primary #ElectionDay in seven American states, and this election season, it seems that no one is willing to sit on the sidelines. Women will vote, and make sure their voices are heard. But as we all know, this wasn’t always the case.

women will vote.jpgIn their book Women Will Vote, Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello explain how the 1917 referendum that marked women’s right to full suffrage in New York State was a turning point in history. The victory at the polls signified the coming together of rural, urban, African American, Jewish, immigrant, and European American women. And, also, a victory for the male suffragists that supported it.

As Goodier and Pastorello point out, only when upper-class women convinced the majority of men to support them, did suffrage succeed. After all, at the time only men made political decisions, and only with men on board did women finally have the power, and the number of voters needed, to get the legislation passed.

Moreover, the authors argue that the popular nature of the women’s suffrage movement in New York State, and the resounding success of the referendum at the polls, relaunched suffrage as a national issue. If women had failed to gain the vote in New York, they claim, there is good reason to believe that the passage and ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment would have been delayed. Today many, if not most, political battles start at the state level; and the activism behind New York women’s victory in 1917 is clear proof that local efforts spur social change. As mentioned in our #1869 podcast celebrating the 2017 centenary of the referendum, we should remember that New York State was the tipping point in the national movement that finally gave women a political voice and vote.

Today #NYCvotes and polls will be open through 8:00 PM. Reflecting on the story of Women Will Vote let’s try to bring back the notion of coalition the women who fought for suffrage embodied, and remember that by coming together in spite of our differences we’ll be better citizens, ones able to focus on common goals, and to act for the common good of our society.

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Featured upcoming event:

“The Greatest Victory: Women Will Vote” presentation by Karen Pastorello, on Friday July 6th, from 6pm to 7pm. More details here: https://thehistorycenter.net/calendar

About the author of this blog post: Adriana Ferreira is the Social Media Coordinator at Cornell University Press. She admires women like her grandmother Delia, doctor and poetry writer, who advocate and stand for women’s rights.

On this #ElectionDay, WOMEN WILL VOTE