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Nadia Abu El-Haj Speaks

CartoonIn non-housing-selection related news, this week’s New Yorker has a piece by Jane Kramer (it’s not online, but you can read an excerpt here — and an interesting critique of the piece here) about Barnard anthropology professor Nadia Abu El-Haj. In truth, it’s something of a misrepresentation to say that the piece is about El-Haj, as it ranges in focus from discussing MEALAC’s history of controversy to examining the tenure process’s relationship to politics. But it is interesting and worth a read, if only because it’s the most we’ve heard out of press-averse Abu El-Haj following the ordeal of her tenure process in the fall.

If you’re looking for a piece that will outline Abu El-Haj’s argument, explain her methods of analysis and interpretation, and provide excerpts of her very dense book “Facts on the Ground”, this isn’t it. (If you are, the Current did so subjectively last fall.) While Kramer meanders in this direction, what she’s mainly interested in is how one academic’s tenure process turned into an online firestorm of misinformation and vilification that often said more about Columbia’s Jewish community and faculty than Abu El-Haj’s work.

There’s a lot of re-hashing work that gets done. Kramer re-tells the story of “Columbia Unbecoming,” of Professor Rashid Khalidi’s run-in with New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein and, of course, mentions Ahmadinejad’s visit. She questions MEALAC’s ability to connect to its students and writes: “none of the students I talked to actually liked their time in the department.”

But much of the piece is devoted to highlighting Abu El-Haj’s most public critics—Paula Stern BC’82 and Barnard professor of Religion and Jewish Studies Alan Segal. Stern has nearly always been misinformed and shrill, and Kramer slams the Spec for publishing her “screed”—but the story of Segal’s involvement in criticizing “Facts on the Ground” is an interesting one. Not only did he hold underground lectures condemning her methods of inquiry and tell the Forward that Abu El-Haj “hates Iraelis,” but he later cordially invited her to speak to his class. “I was so mad. I could have killed him,” Abu El-Haj told Kramer. It doesn’t get more candid than that.

In what basically sums up Kramer’s article, and renders some of the reams of pages she spends on back-story pointless, Abu El-Haj says, “What happened last year—it wasn’t about me. I was a cog in the big wheel of the issue of the Middle East and Israel.”


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  • bwogdog says:

    @bwogdog Jamie – if you have jstor access, look at , a review of Sokal’s polemic.

  • bwogdog says:

    @bwogdog isn’t “denial of the obvious” a fundamental if unstated premise of anthropological fieldwork, that the task of understanding culture requires working out what is tacit, assumed, taken-for-granted? the brilliance of LL is precisely this, that BL refuses to take the emic representation of what scientists are up to as the only possible account.

  • bwogdog says:

    @bwogdog At the risk of another, what do you have to say about Laboratory Life?

  • bwogdog says:

    @bwogdog Wow….I just asked a question & I got an ad hominem attack in response.

  • fossil says:

    @fossil Articles from “La Recherche” seem hard to find on the net, at least through Google. But I suggest two, viz., “The End of Science?” and “Did Ramses II Die of Tuberculosis?”, which can probably be found somewhere on the net if you poke around. The first demands a reconstruction of science to make it accord with Latour’s ideological program (in that sense, he uncannioly echoes the Discovery Institute). The second proclaims that, contra the findings of forensice anthropologists who studied the mummy, Ramses II cannot have died of tuberculosis. The reason? “Tuberculosis” did not come into existence until Robert Koch isolated and identified the relevant bacillus in the 1870’s!! One is tempted to call this Berkeleian Idealism raised to the point of uter preposterousness. On this account of “existence”, dinosaurs could not be considered to have existed because the bones of Megasaurus were not identified as those of a an reptile-like creature until the 18th century!

    Another well-known piece is Latour’s take on Special Relativity published in Social Studies of Science. Suffice it to say that the guy lacks the intellectual equipment even to deal with the rather simple derivations that underlie the special theory. The reaction of the physics community, or, rather, that fragment thereof that paid any atention to Latour, is one long horselaugh.

    Sorry I can’t provide more useful websites, but Latour’s own provides plenty of references to his own work. Se also Sokal’s website.

  • yellow says:

    @yellow By presentiments I meant predispositions.

  • yellow says:

    @yellow By “this posting,” I meant the posting at the very top of the page.

  • yellow says:

    @yellow Please supply an exact quotation with appropriate context. I recall someone remarking that her ethnicity made her predisposed to a lack of objectivity with regard to Israel, which I dare say is undeniably clear. A true scholar could, perhaps, overcome such presentiments, but it would not doubt be difficult, and all the evidence indicates that she does not properly fall into that category. With regard to your assertion that derogatory remarks against Jewish academics would not be tolerated, look no further than this posting.

  • ugh2 says:

    @ugh2 *”her ethnicity” being El-haj’s ethnicity

  • ugh says:

    @ugh What was the name of that Barnard alum who said something to the nature of “What do you expect considering her ethnicity?” How the hell would that be fit to print in a newspaper or said aloud in an academic atmosphere if it was against an Israeli or Jewish professor?

  • this article says:

    @this article is so ridiculously biased. My favorite quote: “They [Columbia and Barnard’s Jewish students] are often alarmed by the shock of free speech that is not their own.”

  • fossil says:

    @fossil I read Abu el Haj’s book, just to put that to rest. It’s a bad book by any reasonable standard.

    bah (#17) shows that undergrads still learn something, which is the art of throwing around self-righteous and condescending denunciations while avoiding anything difficult, like dealing with facts. In this instance, he reaches into his trove of cliches to trivialize the work of people who took enormous risks and underwent considerable hardships for reasons having little to do with wishing to add to the world’s stock of racist cliches. Of course, there were those whose field work was carried out in the service of some predetermined ideology–Margaret Mead, for instance. Oh, but I’m not allowed to say that because these days her ideology is on the approved list of shining virtues!

    As to why the scientific anthropologists walked: they were sick and tired of the field turning into an orgy of bad fiction writing.

    I still await a defense of Abu el Haj that goes beyond indignation on parade, something athat might, for instance, deal with the ascertainable facts of the case, as well as the legitimacy of using the cutie-pie doctrines of science studies to avoid having to engage with facts.

  • Richard Silverstein says:

    @Richard Silverstein sorry for those mistakes. “Critiques” should be “critics”. “Wreching” should be “wrecking”

  • Richard Silverstein says:

    @Richard Silverstein In yr critique of Kramer’s article what you neglect is that she’s writing for an audience that doesn’t necessarily know much, if anything about the Abu El Haj matter. You folks have been following it & know so much about it that Kramer’s writing appears a rehash. But believe me, for a New Yorker reader who’s not a Columbia student, teacher or alum, they need all the backstory to understand it.

    Segal wrote a “reasoned critique” of her work? C’mon. He was a one-man wreching crew attempting to demolish her work. The problem w. this whole affair is that neither side put all its cards fully on the table. Abu El Haj did have somewhat of a vested political interest in her work regarding Israeli archaeology. But her critiques are far the guilty party in their smear tactics & outright falsification of her record, theories, & actual writings.

  • Richard Silverstein says:

    @Richard Silverstein Thanks for linking to my blog post about Kramer’s article, which also links to the extensive coverage I gave to the Abu El Haj tenure battle.

    I just wanted your readers to know that I’ve uploaded a pdf of the entire Kramer article which is linked within my blog post:

  • ................ says:

    @................ “…turned into an online firestorm of misinformation and vilification that often said more about Columbia’s Jewish community and faculty than Abu El-Haj’s work.” The resentment which the author of this piece bears toward Columbia’s Jewish “community” (and dare I say Jews in general) is appalling. It’s not as if very many Jews at Columbia were even involved in this. The one Jewish faculty member that did speak about the matter wrote a very lengthy, reasoned critique of her work.

  • uhhhh haaaaa says:

    @uhhhh haaaaa Raise your hand if you’ve ever read anything about Israel with the semblance of an open mind. I won’t hold my breath.

  • uhhh says:

    @uhhh raise your hand if you’ve actually read Abu el Haj’s book. raise another hand if you opened the book with even the semblance of an open mind.

  • fossil says:

    @fossil 1) Abu el Haj clearly specifies Prof. David Ussishkin as the target of her allegation. She concedes that she personally never witnessed this archaeological misdeed, but vaguely cites unnamed informants whom she doesn’t identify. People who worked on the dig contest her claim, as does the fact that the project published a number of post-Roman sites. But Abu el Haj still refuses to provide substantive evidence.

    2) As with “hey” above, you merely make it clear that you’re unhappy with the charges against Abu el Haj withut being able to come up with anything concrete in her defense.

    3) I invite you to actually read Latour, as well as his critics. Try, for instance “La fin de science?” (La Recherche 294, Jan. 97, p. 97) or his his even more egregious “Ramses II est-il est mort de tuberculose?” La Recherche, March 98). See Sokal/Bricmont on the latter as well. To call this guy’s posturings a “theoretical framework” is to remark on the remarkable degeneracy of the contemporary academy. If he has a theoretica framework, then so did Donald Rumsfeld!! What you’re seeing is not bold, new theoretical breakthroughs but rather a bunch of third-raters looking for any excuse to peddle their politics. In the case of Columbia anthro, that’s why the stones-and-bones folks walked out on them. That’s why the IAS faculty, apart from Geertz and his groupies, laughed Latour out of town. See as well Boghossian, “Fear of Knowledge”.

    To sum up, any purported scholar who depends on this kind of flabby nonsense as a “theoretical framework” shouldn’t get tenure, certainly not at Coumbia or any other respectable research institution. But then, Columbia has made even worse blunders than tenuring Abu el Haj, which I won’t go into.

    But you guys like her politics and are consequently willing to give her a free pass.

    1. bah says:

      @bah fossil, your adage rings true. would you prefer anthropology revert to ethnocentric monographers squatting around in southeast asian villages waiting for something dramatic to happen so they could file a dispatch to the american museum of natural history, which would then reproduce a racially caricatured scene?

      cultural anthropology has always been wound up in politics, and it’s always been considerably divorced from physical anthropology too. perhaps the “stones and bones” people only walked when the ideology the discipline was supporting shifted.

    2. fossil says:

      @fossil 1) she clearly isn’t intending to go after ussishkin personally, which makes “defames” unwarranted. the same cannot be said for the way folks like paula stern – and, perhaps, yourself – have treated abu el haj.

      2) it takes a lot of gall to follow up on the charge that she “applauds Palestinians who, for apparently political motives, have destroyed archaeologically vakluable sites” – 12 words, no quotes, no specifics – with the accusation that i have nothing concrete to say.

      3) i have no interest in defending latour, but this is asinine. look, if what really bothered you was latour, you’d be off somewhere else attacking the man himself or perhaps some of his more prominent disciples in philosophy of science or critical theory. you’re not, you’re going after a woman in another field, who cited latour’s work favorably, but is famous for her work on the politics of the israeli academy. it’s obvious to all concerned that you’re not really on a crusade to deny tenure to “any purported scholar who depends on this kind of flabby nonsense”. you’re going after someone whose politics you don’t like, and picking up any tool that comes to hand. stop with the disingenuity, please, nobody is fooled.

      1. obviously says:

        @obviously im not fossil. that should have been “re fossil”.

        speaking of names, though, is fossil going out of his way to justify his?

        “undergrads still learn something” – i mean, could you possibly sound more like a crotchety old man?

        1. fossil says:

          @fossil First of all, Abu el Haj alleged that Ussishkin violated the standards and ethics of his calling without providing credible evidence that any scholar could accept. That’s defamation.

          As to Latour (and Collins/Pinch, and Jasanoff and Bloor and Knorr-Cetina and Harding and Haraway and Shapin and Fox-Keller and Fuller and Hayles and Bloor and Herrnstein-Smith and Longino and so forth, ad infinitum), suffice it to say I’ve been in constant battle with that crew. Since I don’t want to blow my own cover, I won’t tell you where and how–but I’m still getting royalties for a book I published more than a decade ago on that very topic–not to mention perhaps 50 or 60 articles and book chapters written since. To get down to cases, Abu el Haj herself is unambiguous about claiming that science studies is her field, that she is, like Latour, an “anthropologist of science”. Her book makes it clear that she relies entirely on the literature of this crank field for her theoretical authority. Check this for yourself.

          As to her politics: unlike Stern, who is hysterical as well as very careless, I don’t take Abu el Haj’s politics to be a crucial issue. I don’t like her politics, but I fully expect to find them in anyone with Palestinian roots. I dislike Stern’s politics far more, since I think that the “settlers” who claim an absolute right to seize land from Palestinian Arabs where and when they choose, are crazy, vicious, and dangerous. But the issue is the scholarly worth and fairmindedness of Abuy el Haj’s book, on which issues she must be judged harshly. The pity of it is that if she had abandoned the science studies folderol and addressed the politics candidly and directly, she might have produced a genuinely interesting book. For instance, she might have discussed the question of whether the demographics of a piece of land 2000 years ago and more has any bearing on how to reach a fair and just solution to current disputes over that territory. Frankly, I don’t think it has any relevance, whether we’re talking about Zionist ultra claims in the Middle East or Serbian claims in Kosovo. Thus the sin of Israeli archaeology, to the extent that it allies with the ultras, is not that it constructs illusory facts, but that it treats them as though they had something important to say about the present conflict. (But then, Abu el Haj overlooks the fact that for a generation or so, Israeli archaeology has been a thorn in the side of the ultra nationalists and the fervently Orthodox, in that its leading authorities have frequently debunked the supposed historicity of the Bible.)

          But the crowd Abu el Haj was trying to impress did not consist of serous political scientists/philosophers, but rather the heirs of Geertz who, saturated with the cliches of postmodernism, have pretty well ruined cultural anthropology. Who wants to bear the hardships of true field work when they can sit on their asses and do “theory” instead? Note that Abu el Haj’s field work consisted of gadding about a modern country, with all its conveniences and luxuries, occassionally visiting a dig (but not overdoing it in this respect). At that, it’s a hell of a lot more taxing than what many of today’s supposed cultural anthropologists do. Then again, a hopelessly old-fashioned anthropologist like Napoleon Chagnon, who spent many years facing up to extremes of danger and discomfort in order to understand a people on its own turf, is rewarded for his efforts by a tsunami of slander by the very same postmoderists who think that quoting Foucault ad nauseam constitutes scholarship.

          1. bwogdog says:

            @bwogdog Have you read Latour’s Laboratory Life? Or Aramis? His (IMHO brilliant) readings of the social production of scientific knowledge and technology are entirely grounded in careful, well-documented ethnographic fieldwork.

            1. fossil says:

              @fossil In answer to your direct question, yes. It was a lecture of Latour on the Aramis project that convinced me he was a faker. Any decent journalist would have done a much better job. “Careful and well-documented ethnographic fieldwork” it wasn’t, unless you consider condescension and the denial of the obvious to be a hallmark thereof. But see Latour’s paper on Ramses II and tuberculosis for an even more pointed example of childish arrogance.

              You show that Latour will impress those who want to be impressed. It’s not surprising that there are lots of these in a world where homeopathy and worthless theories about the etiology of autism have such an easy time of it. Uri Geller is an even bigger success than Latour!

              How much actual scientific work have you done, by the way? Not much, I infer. Nor have you come up with an explanation for Latour’s getting the bum’s rush at IAS (as also happened with the next Geertz nominee, Norton Wise) other than the obvious one: his work is worthless.

              1. Jamie Egglan says:

                @Jamie Egglan Can you please provide some articles or reviews on Latour available on either SSRN or JSTOR (or another database available to students)?

  • hmm... says:

    @hmm... where is that image from?

    1. answer says:

      @answer That image is actually from the New Yorker article in question.

      It works. I like it too.

  • Obviously says:

    @Obviously El Haj hung the noose on Constantine’s door.

  • people says:

    @people need to chill out. people have used archeology for political purposes since the invention of archeology. so el-haj found that some jews did that for israel. big fuckin’ deal. i’m some arabs have done the same.

    1. oops says:

      @oops i’me *sure* some arabs have done the same.

  • hold on says:

    @hold on the “current” piece is not an outline of her argument; it’s a subjective critique thereof.

    there is a difference.

  • alexw says:

    @alexw That’s a great drawing.

  • bwog says:

    @bwog what happened to the post about the kids who were arrested? did you mis-report something again?

    1. ZvS says:

      @ZvS We’ve removed it at the request of concerned parties.

  • the article says:

    @the article in its entirety is available on the spec website, strangely.

    1. ZvS says:

      @ZvS Also, I don’t see that anywhere — share a link?

    2. fossil says:

      @fossil Jane Kramer’s piece on the Abu el-Haj affair is, sad to say, highly inaccurate, deformed by its visceral sympathies and unexamined assumptions. Specifically, Kramer never comes to terms with the most serious charges against Abu el-Haj’s book, not even saying what they are, let alone refuting them.

      Just to remaind you, here are some of the most salient accusations:

      –Abu el-Haj defames a prominent Israeli archaeologist, accusing him of using a bulldozer to obliterate valuable archaeological material dating from later periods in order to reach the “Judaic” levels preceeding the dispersion of the Jews by the Romans. “Defames” is an appropriate term because the book itself provides no evidence acceptable by scholarly standards, and the author has subsequently declined to provide any, while many eyewitnesses refute the charge.

      –At the same time, Abu el Haj applauds Palestinians who, for apparently political motives, have destroyed archaeologically vakluable sites.

      –Abu el Haj rests most of her “analysis” of the “construction” of Israeli archaeology on the supposed insights provided by postmodern “science studies” theorists like Bruno Latour. There seems to be no evidence whatever that Abu el Haj is conversant with history and philosophy of science beyond what she has garnered from this narrow circle. It is imperative that one ask whether this constitutes an adequate theoretical base for the kind of speculation Abu el-Haj indulges in, especially given the unrelenting criticism that these postmodern “anthropologist of science” have come under. In particular, one should note the unceremonious rejection of Latour’s proposed appointment to the Institute for Advanced study, despite the enthusiasm of the anthropologists, principally C. Geertz, who nominated him, and the devastating criticism of his doctrines by such as Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. One should also take note of the fact that Columbia’s anthropologists divided themselves into two rather antagonistic departments, with the physical and paleo specialists who insist on doing scrupulous science taking their leave of the “cultural” anthropologists. Of course, this occurs in the broader context of the abandonment of scientific standards by cultural anthropologists in general as they rushed to clamber aboard the postmodern bandwagon to an even greater extent, perhaps, than literary scholars. It was this mindset, uncongenial to science as such, that was in the saddle among the colleagues who so vigorously promoted Abu el-Haj’s tenure case.

      Kramer addresses none of these questions, which not only go to the scholarly worth of Abu el-Haj’s work but also bear greatly on the question of whether the autonomy of faculties in making hiring and promotion decisions should be absolute or whether, on the other hand, the growing slovenliness and intellectual irresponsibility of some “disciplines” opens their evaluation proceedures to outside scrutiny, even by alumni. Kramer smugly assumes that the answer is obvious; alas, it is anything but obvious in an academic world that has, in the last couple of decades, proved surprisingly vulnerable to the claims of various ideological enthusiasts.

      1. hey says:

        @hey big words and quotation marks don’t make a good argument, just makes you look like a pompous dbag

      2. yeah... says:

        @yeah... 1) as i recall, abu el haj doesn’t even mention the “prominent archeologist” by name. some defamation.

        2) “applauds” is a pretty obvious distortion. come on, friend, your colleagues have developed a whole vocabulary for that kind of accusation, don’t reinvent the wheel. the term you’re looking for is “excuses”, or perhaps, “apologizes for” or “‘explains'”, with scare quotes.

        3) that’s a lot of words to spend to say that abu el haj shouldn’t get tenure because she uses a theoretical framework (Latour’s) which you think is dumb.

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