Three intellectual events happened simultaneously a few weeks ago that had me dusting off a text I hadn’t looked at for fifteen years, Fredric Jameson’s “Marxism and Form.” It’s one of his best books and it stands out especially strong compared to some of his recent work such as “Brecht and Method,” which is unreadable and worse seems to miss on purpose everything still exciting about Brecht’s thought, the popularization of socialism through the cinema and on stage, for example.
In “Marxism and Form,” Jameson offers a lucid definition of dialectical criticism more useful today than it was in 1971. The American Left “cultural theory” discourse is bland, mechanical, laden with jargon, and anti-dialectical and thus opposed to making organic interconnections, even when staring you in the face. I revisited “Marxism and Form” for a vocabulary of the dialectical interrelationship.
Rereading Jameson’s text, I found a way to understand these three interrelated events, namely the U.S. Zionist movement’s suppression in New York of the Royal Court Theatre’s hugely popular and award-winning London production of “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” the release of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s Working Paper “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” and the grand opening in New York City of “Made in Palestine,” the first ever museum exhibition in the U.S. devoted to the contemporary art of Palestine, a survey that spans three generations of Palestinian artists of West Bank, Gaza Strip, parts of Israel, Syria, Jordan, and the United States.
This is Jameson’s definition of dialectical criticism: “It is, of course, thought to the second power: an intensification of the normal thought process such that a renewal of light washes over the object of their exasperation, as though in the midst of its immediate perplexities the mind has attempted, by willpower, by fiat, to lift itself mightily up by its own bootstrapsIt aims, in other words, not so much at solving the particular dilemmas in question, as at converting those problems into their own solutions on a higher level, and making the fact and the existence of the problem itself the starting point for new research.”
Jameson’s passage cleared up for me right away the supposedly controversial issue of how to read Mearsheimer and Walt’s “Israel Lobby” thesis, which can be simplified as follows. Is it merely another cold war apologia for further U.S. imperialism in the Arab world, putting the onus as it does on AIPAC for the continuation of unconditional U.S. support for the Israeli colonization of Palestine? Or does it effect a break, finally, with what Edward Said called “the last taboo in American politics,” i.e. pointing out the fact that Israeli Zionism is a case of ethnic cleansing and as such belongs to the same history of genocidal conquest as that shared by Anglo-American settler colonialism and German Nazism? Never under the last taboo of American politics, the late great Israeli civil rights activist and professor of chemistry at Hebrew University, Israel Shahak, a survivor of Auschwitz, always put it tersely in his meticulous human rights reports of Israeli oppression in the occupied territories, and in a language that would be familiar to many Americans were in not for the last taboo’s endurance. Palestinians are clear victims, he said, of “Judeo-Nazism.”
Seen in this light, Mearsheimer and Walt’s thesis is a straightforward conversion of the problems of the Israel Lobby and U.S. foreign policy “into their own solutions on a higher level,” and it also makes “the fact and the existence of the problem itself the starting point for new research.” The recent outpouring of critical discussion and analysis of their working paper is solid evidence that they’ve succeeded well in this form of dialectical thinking and research.
At the moment Mearsheimer and Walt were releasing their working paper, the New York Theater Workshop was canceling the production of “My Name is Rachel Corrie.” Arranged skillfully through recourse to the journals and e-mails of American activist Rachel Corrie, which tell of her upbringing in Olympia, Washington down to her death under an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza at the age of twenty-three, a murder supervised by members of the Israel Defense Force, the play was “postponed indefinitely” by the theater’s artistic director James Nicola. He told the media: “Listening in our communities in New York, what we heard was that after Ariel Sharon’s illness and the election of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections, we had a very edgy situation.” The London-based cast and crew of the production were shocked, having purchased their flights during previous weeks. Their misplaced confidence came from the fact that the production schedule had been already printed and tickets advertised on the Internet.
Rachel Corrie said she had made her journey to the occupied territories “to meet the people who are on the receiving end of our tax dollars.” The nature of Rachel’s reception by the recipients of her tax dollars made for an easy aesthetic choice, for here was an example of a human being writing elegantly and self-consciously her own historical script but not in conditions of her own choosing, and purposefully leaving that script behind for others to read and understand, so they might better write their own scripts under similar objective conditions. “I don’t think it’s an extremist thing to do anymore,” she wrote. “I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends and make comics for my co-workers. Disbelief and horror is what I feel. Disappointment. I am disappointed that this is the base reality of our world and that we, in fact, participate in it.”
If Mearsheimer and Walt provided cogently, and instantaneously as it were, the thesis for whom precisely to blame for the play’s political suppression in New York, it did nothing for an appreciation of one of the most important consciousness-raising moments in the history of the Palestinian Diaspora, the opening on March 14 of the “Made in Palestine” exhibit, which features the work of twenty-three contemporary Palestinian artists. The exhibition was curated by James Harithas during a month long stay in the Middle East; he was aided in his work by Palestinian artist Samia Halaby whose art is on display. In 2003, “Made in Palestine” premiered at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, and in 2005 traveled to San Francisco, and then Montpelier, Vermont. The New York exhibit is scheduled to close on April 22, but its organizers tell me they are busy trying to extend it for at least another month.
The exhibit is at the Bridge Gallery on West 26th Street in Chelsea, on the third floor. It’s a relatively small space, with a low ceiling, yet somehow 2,000 people gathered there on March 16 for the grand opening. The situation brought to mind the title of an English translation of the selected poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, “Unfortunately, It was Paradise.” I had missed the event, but a few days ago I spent my Saturday afternoon at the Bridge, confident it would be crowded but much less so compared to the first two weeks. It was a splendid day outside, sunny and very warm with a calm wind blowing easy through fully blossomed apple trees. Selfishly, I realized during my walk from the subway that the wonderful weather would be to my advantage inside the gallery, and after four hours of dwelling in the different worlds of the Palestinian artists on display, I noticed that less than a dozen people had decided, as I had, to use this beautiful Saturday at the Bridge.
The small turn out could not dampen my spirits, however, and I’ve maintained this high spirit for the past few days while putting together a few thoughts about the exhibit. As suggested by the Jameson reference, the whole exhibit struck me as one of the most powerful arguments for the renewal of dialectical reason and self-consciousness I’ve encountered in the past twenty years. It shows clearly how far we’ve drifted as a culture from appreciating the simple usefulness of art, in the loftiest sense: the way art alters perception without reference to anything else such as the market or “the new,” which today always amounts to the same thing. “Made in Palestine” has escaped the corral of what Jean Baudrillard terms the artistic “non-event” of gallery openings under late capitalism.
Upon entering the gallery space, I was instantly reminded of the closing lines of Emile Habiby’s masterpiece “The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist.” The novel ends with a parable in which a lawyer, who had listened to a madman, is frantically digging up the ground around him in search of buried treasure. After uprooting a tree and still finding no treasure, he returns to the madman who is busy painting a wall with a brush dipped into a bucket with no bottom. The madman asks the lawyer did he uproot the tree; he says yes but there was no treasure. The madman tells the lawyer to pick up a brush and do some painting. Habiby’s narrator has the last words: “The point is, gentlemen, how will you ever find him unless you happen to trip right over him?”
In a tight space featuring twenty-three artists, one would expect to have to negotiate a lot of different artifacts, yet the opposite is the case. The visitor must look attentively for the art and discover on their own the logic of the entire exhibit, since there are no guide sheets and no pedantic summaries by art historians pasted on the walls. Moreover, much of the art resists grandstanding, preferring to dwell in corners and, in one case, on a support beam. This is an installation by Nina Sinnokrot called “West Bank Butterfly #2,” which for visitors accustomed to museum exhibits trying to sell you posters and calendars is very easy to miss, as Sinnokrot’s piece has found a new home completely unannounced, exactly in the manner of a returning group of fully mature butterflies, on the inside of the beam at the very back of the gallery space. There are dozens of butterflies resting on the beam’s inside, each a detailed double map of West Bank spreading out its wings, that is, each butterfly wing is a twin map of West Bank. The colors are soft: pale green, yellow, and burnt orange; but once your eyes take notice of all the butterflies resting on the beam, it’s hard to miss the insistent vibrancy of Sinnokrot’s visual arrangement.
Geographical consciousness in the art is expressed not in the subject matter, nor the titles, but rather through the felt loss of historical Palestine. This loss is rendered by many of the artists in the raw materials they’ve chosen for their work. Tyseer Barakat’s “Father” is emblematic. From the West Bank city of Ramallah, Barakat chose an old chest of drawers made of pine through which to tell the story of “Al-Nakba,” or the catastrophe: the Zionist conquest of Palestine and the forced exodus of more than 800,000 Palestinians which it immediately produced, institutionalized on May 15, 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel. The chest has seven drawers. Beginning with the top drawer, a linear story is related through a series of smoky images burned directly into the pine, first of village life before Al-Nakba and then, starting from the second drawer down to the seventh, of steady Israeli colonization of Palestine. Barakat’s father image is the dominant motif. In each drawer he is seen looking out at the viewer, while behind him at the back of the drawer are images of villagers in various states of shock, anguish, and staying power. Always there are olive trees on the horizon. In the seventh drawer, the father is wrapped in linen and laid to rest by his wife and three sons.
Mustafa al-Hallaj, in whose memory the exhibit is dedicated, produced in 2000 before his passing a 296-foot-long print titled “Self Portrait as God, the Devil and Man.” The piece is completely mesmerizing, organized into three long rows of scroll, because of space limitations. Following the whole story he tells, expressed in his own style of hieroglyphics, is a demanding mental activity, requiring intense concentration and a notebook. His depiction of the female figure is remarkable, which appears throughout the work in constantly shifting stages of metamorphosis, each a variation on the symbol of the lithe Arab peasant woman popularized during the rise of Arabic nationalist literature in the early twentieth century, which rejected, according to literary scholar Sabry Hafez in his excellent book “The Genesis of Arabic Narrative Discourse,” “the class hierarchy in which the well-fed, fair-skinned Turco-Circassian women were the women of ruling cliques, in marked contrast to the dark and slender Egyptian peasant.” Al-Hallaj’s cosmology can be done justice only by seeing the work at it is, and then going to the library for books on Arab history and mythology. There are least eight or nine different birds portrayed, each with its own mythological significance.
Ashraf Fawakhry’s installation “I am a Donkey” also invokes the peasant, this time in explicitly Palestinian form. For those who haven’t read Habiby’s “The Secret Life of Saeed,” Fawakhry’s brutal sarcasm might go misrecognized, and so the curator made sure to include on the wall next to the installation a passage from the famous novel, in which the protagonist Saeed recounts how he was saved “by the munificence of an ass.” In 1948, Israeli soldiers took aim at young Saeed and his family, who had refused to leave Palestine; his father is murdered, but the bullet meant for Saeed is taken by a donkey instead. Fawakhry features forty-seven different tiny donkey figures, each enigmatic on its own. For example, one is covered by scotch tape under which are pressed several crusty toenail clippings obscuring the donkey’s image. Yet as a whole the configuration is a belly laugh difficult to contain, even in the austere environs of a Chelsea museum.
The exhibit ends on a heavy note, Emily Jacir’s video installation “Crossing Surda,” a clandestine camcorder-made visual narrative of Jacir’s experiences crossing the militarized Surda checkpoint that separates Ramallah, where she lives, from Birzeit University, where she teaches. A U.S. citizen, Jacir began her project thinking the Israeli soldiers patrolling the checkpoint would treat her differently than they do the indigenous Palestinians of Ramallah, for she notes in her brief explanation posted near the installation’s entrance that at first she carried the camera out in the open. But after an Israeli soldier detained her saying, “This is Israel. You can’t take pictures,” and then tossed her U.S. passport in the mud, Jacir the next day cut a small hole in her bag. Thus, the images we see are all from the waist down, mostly of approaching feet walking at a brisk pace on very muddy pavement, a stretch of cold rain having come just before.
What’s striking is the general mood of the Palestinian walkers. The visual narrative is structured according to eight days, each beginning with “To work” and ending with “From Work.” Towards the end, the viewer is completely exhausted, not so much by the walking but because of the forced nature of the commute. The contradictions are grueling. First, the road itself, connecting Ramallah with Birzeit University, is wide and smoothly paved; it was made for car and truck transit. It is a winding and hilly road with what might have been scenic views of outlaying Ramallah. But all one can see is rubble, on each side of the road. In the middle of the commute sits a massive Israeli tank. As viewers, we pass by it sixteen times.
The inescapable feeling is worse than daily racist humiliation. It’s closer to systematic, collective torture by other means: being forced as Palestinians not only to walk on a cleanly-paved road made for cars and trucks, but being reminded deliberately and unendingly by the Israeli occupying army that the land around you is being dismembered right in front of your face. The walk Jacir takes us on is one of the most harrowing I’ve ever made, and I could see that some of the museum goers felt the same way, an overwhelming sense of nausea that moved a few people I was watching it with to leave before the video came to an end.
The second aspect is that no one is talking to each other, despite the fact that Jacir’s camera is concealed. There is nothing to say given the nature of the walk. In fact, the surprising total silence (the only words spoken throughout the video are by taxi drivers at both the beginning and the end of the Surda trek announcing their destinations), even though many of the Palestinian commuters are walking in groups, seems clearly to be an act of solidarity and resistance to occupation. This will never be accepted as a walk to work. The walk is a forced march imposed by an occupying power.
Jameson’s definition of dialectical thinking helps a person appreciate the full scale of the iconoclastic work presented in “Made in Palestine,” in which “a renewal of light washes over the object of their exasperation, as though in the midst of its immediate perplexities the mind has attempted, by willpower, by fiat, to lift itself mightily up by its own bootstraps.” One of the great beauties of this monumental exhibit is that the twenty-three Palestinian artists of it consistently reject any separation of their creative activity from the singular object of their work: Palestine, a land confiscated, dismembered, and bantustanized on a daily basis by Israel yet at the same time in a constant process of collective mental liberation, by gutsy acts of intellectual will, from all emotional ambivalence and political compromise.
Supporters of Israel are often heard complaining of all the media coverage given to the occupation as well as the international attention paid to the Palestinian struggle for national independence, arguing a latent anti-Semitism. While rejected out of hand around the world as the basest kind of racist and colonialist apologetics and thought control, critics and scholars in the U.S. have spent many years exposing Zionist cover-ups such as this one. Still, a recent survey shows that 66 percent of Americans polled continue to support Israel unconditionally.
This problem is complex and cannot be addressed properly in short articles on the Internet. But one provisional conclusion to draw is that other side of the dialectic, the half that’s never been told, is where the answer lies. Do most Americans support Israel precisely because it’s a racist and colonialist state? If so, then it follows that the majority of Americans will never be convinced the Israeli occupation is morally wrong, just as the majority of Americans have never been convinced that white racism is morally wrong. Just as they refuse to acknowledge, by way of a simple national apology, that the foundation of this society for its first two centuries was the mass extermination of American Indians and the imposition of hereditary lifetime slavery on African Americans.
In 1989, I interviewed Israel Shahak in Jerusalem about his recent work on the theft of water by the Israelis from Palestinians in the occupied territories. He had just reported in the Middle East International magazine that, “the Palestinians of the West Bank will get only 17 percent of their own water, while Israel will get 83 percent; of this the Jewish settlers, whose presence there is illegal, will get 20 percent.” I asked him how he had got involved with this work. He said it was after returning from Mississippi in the late 1950s, when he was a student studying abroad. The African American civil rights movement had shocked him out of his slumber, he told me, and when he returned to Israel he quickly saw all the parallels.
Shahak was forever optimistic, mainly, I think, because he recognized a profound truth the civil rights movement had brought to light. In a state founded on settler colonialism, the majority, constituted politically by the ruling class as a social monolith, will always identify with the colonizers, no matter how poor and propertyless its members might be; the question is how to successfully organize against it. Not within it, as in the middle way preferred by most American leftists, but ideologically outside, causing constant defections that make the majority’s monolithic structure shake and ultimately collapse. The three events of the past month, aimed like javelins at the head of the monolith, remind us again that when it comes to oppression, the other side is not the middle but its unambivalent rejection.
JONATHAN SCOTT is Assistant Professor of English at the City University of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.