There is no gainsaying the political failures of the so-called rights revolutions: how civil rights struggles were incorporated into new logics of bureaucratic and administrative control and depoliticized, how national sovereignty in the underdeveloped world instituted a range of new statist corruptions and murderous exclusions, or how the cant of human rights would begin to cover for a wide range of global power differentials, abuses, and interventions. At the same time, the grim history of the present demands that we take careful inventory of the ground that has been lost over the past thirty years, particularly within the United States. An important benchmark for such consideration, as Joan Dayan suggests, might be the Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia (1972), which for the first and only time abolished capital punishment in the United States. Furman marked the fullest elaboration of the legal precedent set by Trop v. Dulles (1958), or the idea that ‘‘cruel and unusual punishment’’ was determined by ‘‘evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’’ Most important, it insisted that what was at stake in Eighth Amendment protection was not only pain thresholds, but the irrevocably ‘‘human status’’ of the prisoner. 

Furman and its immediate successor cases also marked the first time in U.S. history that the U.S. Supreme Court openly disclaimed the legacy of slavery that had been recoded in postslavery legal decisions and practices surrounding incarceration, or the idea that prisoners were ‘‘civilly dead’’ and thus ‘‘slaves of the state.’’ Nested within the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was an exception for ‘‘punishment of crime.’’ Crime and punishment in turn were central to the reinstitution of quasi-forced labor and political disfranchisement of free blacks in the post Emancipation South. The practices and institutions of the carceral state have in this sense long been central to the constitution of regimes of nonpersonhood that overlapped with and potentially superseded regimes of racial exclusion, something that takes on particular significance in the post–civil rights era. For, at the very moment in which color-blind jurisprudence began to demand the elimination of racial reference within the law and institutional practice, crime and punishment, under the auspices of the ‘‘war on drugs,’’ began to fashion the prison as the preeminent U.S. racial space. Today black men in the United States have a 29 percent chance of being incarcerated. One in seven black men cannot vote due to felony disfranchisement laws. Blacks are 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, yet 40 percent of inmates on death row, and 50 percent of the overall domestic prison population.

— NIKHIL PAL SINGH “THE AFTERLIFE OF FASCISM" (2006) 

The war on Iraq has confirmed the truth of Said’s arguments. There was something very infuriating and depressing about the praise heaped on Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (2002). As we know, Lewis was a central figure in the ties forged between the warmongering crew of the American administration and orientalists. His role brought into view the vital role that orientalist thought has played in unleashing the imperial intervention by the United States. Orientalism stands at the center of imperialist aggression; the war is orientalism by other means. It is a brutal assertion of the claim that “we” know who “they” are; “we” know that the Arabs will use weapons of mass destruction, but the Israelis can be trusted; “we” know that military force must be applied to secure Iraq’s compliance with UN resolutions, yet Israeli violations of UN resolutions on occupation and illegal settlements require no action but only understanding and sympathy. Ironies abound and half-truths are heaped upon half-truths: invasion was redescribed as liberation, and the killing of civilians was rationalized in the name of civilization. How do we square the manufactured image of the war as liberation with the reality of American and British guns pointed at terrified Iraqi children kneeling on the ground, their cheeks caked with dust, hands raised, whimpering with fear?

Where do we turn when confronted with this ugliness of the war on the Orient? Here it is once again instructive and inspiring to turn to Edward Said. Through his work as a scholar, as a critic, as a political commentator, Said asked insistently: Who speaks? For what and whom? How does an intellectual articulate his or her various objects of affiliation? What is his or her place in the West? Or in the third world? What is the specific contribution and intervention to be made by the intellectual, displaced from a “native” culture, and at odds with the metropolitan culture and society? He challenged established authority and identity with these questions, and chalked out a culture of criticism composed through critical affiliations and appropriations. Out of this acute sense of the intellectual’s worldliness and affiliations, there emerged his haunting question: “When will we resist?”

— PATRICK DEER, GYAN PRAKASH & ELLA SHOHAT, “INTRODUCTION: EDWARD SAID MEMORIAL ISSUE,” SOCIAL TEXT 87 (2006)

The more the turmoil increases outside, the more I sink into myself. Memories of so many times come to me. Ancient and long-ago stories, lost and scattered thoughts. Memories one after another, entangled in each other, like a forest to walk through. My memories are my forest. So where does the forest begin? No, where do I begin? And again he was in the forest. As if he wanted to reach the edge of the forest; as if he was searching for his own beginning. As he moved along in the darkness and encountered a bright patch, he paused, but again moved on, for he wanted to arrive at the moment when his consciousness had first opened its eyes. But he couldn’t grasp the moment. When he put his finger on a memory, dense crowds of other memories drifted along in its train. 

— INTIZAR HUSAIN, BASTI (1979)

How, then, was the idea of science as simultaneously “modern,” “universal,” and “Western” generated—and this despite the fact that there exist some seeming contradictions between these qualifiers? In the nineteenth century an entirely new global discourse around the idea of science emerged. As in Europe itself at this time, this new conception was plagued by a conflation of the view of science as a body of techniques, on the one hand, and as a natural philosophy, on the other. It was the appeal to the latter view that helped to legitimize it and, ultimately, to bring it in line with older traditions of knowledge and belief around the world. With the expansion of Western power, Europe’s military and technological supremacy was often seen as evidence of the efficacy of the “European sciences.” Their introduction outside Europe, too, was very much shaped by this attitude, but it also involved—at least initially—various forms of institutional appropriations that entailed what might best be described as a kind of conceptual syncretism, bridging new conceptions of “Western science” with older forms of knowledge. 

The consequent transformation of traditions of knowledge and learning can be seen in the treaty ports of China and in the urban centers of Egypt, where technical arts and sciences such as ballistics, engineering, and medicine formed an important part of new practices of statecraft. The expansion of Western-style schools, academies, and other establishments—such as mission colleges, polytechnics, naval and military academies, and arsenals—also helped to transform the landscape of learning. Whereas communities of knowledge previously served religious (or scholastic) functions first and bureaucratic functions second, these new institutions were directed mainly to the needs of the state. Nevertheless, students were initially drawn from these same and older knowledge communities, and fields of study initially classed under the broad rubric of “Western learning” typically accompanied rather than replaced traditional ones.  Partly for this reason—and despite the highly technocratic nature of these newly institutionalized disciplines—they were easily brought in line with older philosophies of nature and traditions of learning.

— MARWA ELSHAKRY, “WHEN SCIENCE BECAME WESTERN: HISTORIOGRAPHICAL REFLECTIONS" (2010)

This is a difficult time for reflection on any subject that is not related to politics. Poetry needs space for contemplation beyond the present moment. It also needs disengagement from the conditions of the present to allow the poet to link the present moment with the larger issues. He must have the possibility of connecting the daily with the metaphysical. But the closeness of tanks around my house and my preoccupation with living issues makes it difficult to write poetry…I feel strongly the urge to free myself from the contingencies of the present moment. I have managed to write a long text called State of Siege, in which I tried to liberate myself from the Israeli occupation and involve myself in poetics. But because the occupation is constant it never ceases to be an uphill battle.

— MAHMOUD DARWISH, “INTERVIEW WITH RAJA SHEHADEH" (2002)

I remain troubled by the way popular support for U.S. militarism continues to rely on the manipulation of grief around the losses of 9/11, when the dead were counted, named, and recounted. The victims of violence in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere around the globe remain uncounted and unnamed by the U.S. government as a matter of political policy. The suffering of war and occupation is barely visible in the U.S. media. Even the U.S. military dead, a disproportionate number of whom are members of minority groups, may be counted yet are barely accounted for. We’ve learned from movements around the world that mourning and remembering the dead can be a form of militant protest. A global politics of anti-imperialism must also call on grief and mourning for the uncounted dead and the unrepresented suffering at the hands of the American Empire. 

— AMY KAPLAN, “VIOLENT BELONGINGS AND THE QUESTION OF EMPIRE TODAY" (2003) 

Around the mid-twentieth century, the institutions of higher learning throughout North America underwent a dramatic transformation under the impact of émigré scholars fleeing persecution in Europe. These scholars—Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Theodor Adorno, Ernst Cassirer, to name just a few—sustained an intimate but conflicted bond to the world that had expelled them. They brought to the American scene a new sensibility—deference for the European intellectual tradition combined with an acerbic, insider’s recognition of its potential dangers to human freedom. Political theorists such as Arendt, Strauss, and Adorno, along with émigré historians such as George Mosse, Georg Iggers, and Fritz Stern, were especially consumed with the question of what elements in the canons of European thought were most to blame for the rise of National Socialism. They each proposed different answers—they disagreed bitterly, most of all with one another—but collectively they helped to create an entire field of intellectual history organized around the notion that Nazism had a richly philosophical character that could only be defended against if it were exposed at its intellectual roots.

— PETER GORDON, “WHAT IS INTELLECTUAL HISTORY?

Though the term easily lends itself to metaphorical inflation—”I am in exile here, in this unsympathetic environment into which fate has cast me,” as Mme Bovary might have sighed to the notary clerk—it has not lost its primary, political sense. The exile waits for a change of government or the tyrant’s death, which will allow him to come home. If he stops waiting and adapts to the new circumstances, then he is not an exile any more. This condition of waiting means that the exile’s whole being is concentrated on the land he left behind, in memories and hopes. The more passive type, summed up in the banished poet, lives on memories, while the active type, summed up in the revolutionist, lives on hopes and schemes. There is something of both in every exile, an oscillation between melancholy and euphoria.

— MARY McCARTHY, “A GUIDE TO EXILES, EXPATRIATES, AND INTERNAL EMIGRÉS" (1972)

Waking in the middle of a dream, even the worst, one feels disappointed, cheated of the best in life. But pleasant, fulfilled dreams are actually as rare, to use Schubert’s words, as happy music. Even the loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion. This is why precisely the loveliest dreams are as if blighted. Such an impression is captured superlatively in the description of the nature theatre of Oklahoma in Kafka’s America.

— THEODOR ADORNO, MINIMA MORALIA (1951)

Method is a digression. Representation as digressionsuch is the methodological nature of the treatise. The absence of an uninterrupted purposeful structure is its primary characteristic. Tirelessly the process of thinking makes new beginnings, returning in a roundabout way to its original object. This continual pausing for breath is the mode most proper to the process of contemplation. For by pursuing different levels of meaning in its examination of one single object it receives both the incentive to begin again and the justification for its irregular rhythm. Just as mosaics preserve their majesty despite their fragmentation into capricious particles, so philosophical contemplation is not lacking in momentum. Both are made up of the distinct and the disparate; and nothing could bear a more powerful testimony to the transcendent force of the sacred image and the truth itself. The value of fragments of thought is all the greater the less direct their relationship to the underlying idea, and the brilliance of the representation depends as much on this value as the brilliance of the mosaic does on the quality of the glass paste. The relationship between the minute precision of the work and the proportions of the sculptural or intellectual whole demonstrates that truth-content is only to be grasped through immersion in the most minute details of subject-matter. In their supreme, western, form mosaic and the treatise are products of the Middle Ages; it is their very real affinity which makes comparison possible. 

— WALTER BENJAMIN, THE ORIGIN OF THE GERMAN TRAGIC DRAMA (1925)