Saturday, March 29, 2008

Slogging through Zamir

Progress isn’t bad, actually, considering that I really didn’t work on the timeline on Thursday. I spent some time writing about the model. I have two-thirds of a blog entry written about how the revision should look and what my problems were the first time through. I wrote until I got stuck and mulled it over the rest of the day. That’s really the hard part about the theoretical part in a comparative politics paper. You’ve got to mull things over until you solve your problems. It’s work, but it doesn’t look like work. It looks like loafing and, until you solve the problem, you have nothing to show for the time, so you feel like you’re loafing. In a sense, mulling can be depressing, because you don’t see incremental progress. I like to see reward for my labor. It encourages me. Hence, the timelining chart. See? Two squares of grey turned yellow. Talal did good.

As you can see, after I’m done with Zamir, I’ll only have the shorter excerpt left from Hanna Ziadeh before I’ll have finished reading all the early stuff. I may try writing some postings on World War I, the end of the Ottomans, early Lebanese history, French imperialism, Versailles and that epic dipshit Woodrow Wilson at that point. It’s rich stuff.

Today, I needed to feel more progress going on, so I spent time with Meir Zamir. I like Zamir. He’s a good chronologist and it’s always good to start with a good chronologist. There’s no getting around the need for mastering a slew of facts to get at the heart of what’s really going on. Plus, it’s a messy, messy time. Messy times are filled with all sorts of idle dreams. Going in to World War I, the world looked like this:

What emerges, in retrospect, to us, can only look like this, which is pretty much, but not quite, our reality:

But what’s glaringly obvious leafing through Zamir is that the only way we can trace the development of the second map from the first is by genealogy. What? You didn’t take MAAS 501 at Georgetown and get forced to read Foucault’s neigh near incomprehensible essay, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History?” Here’s my crash course in the concept. It’s loaded with what I hope are witty graphics and little jokes. I’m told it’s generates a few chuckles. The students in POLS 436 seemed to like it, anyway. But to get on with it:

GENEALOGY: An historical technique that tracks a concept or type of action as it changes from moment to moment, revealing discontinuity over time.

The idea is that certain events don’t really have one cause. Indeed, certain events are the cause of random confluences of other events that are really in no way predictable. You can’t understand the event using theory, only by tracing its genealogy in its specificity. People try things and fail. Roads that you’d never imagine working wind up paying off. In retrospect, we assume that the attempts that failed were doomed to fail and the attempts that worked were the only thing that could have worked. Foucault dislikes that bias.

What I like about the Zamir text is that he tends to track all of the lines that went nowhere. Now, tracking all those lines doesn’t necessarily prove that they could have gone somewhere. But it is stunning to see how many different trajectories were out there and amazing to see them all die off as the field of possibilities closes in response to the increasingly structured situation.

Side Note: Author Identity

I find it quite deliciously odd that the history of Mandatory Lebanon is being written by Israeli scholars. Both Zamir and Zisser are Israeli professors. Kais Firro’s first name is Arabic. His last name seems like anyone’s guess, but he teaches at the University of Haifa. So he works in Israel, even if he’s an Arab. Oh, wait! You know what? I bet he’s Druze. I can’t find an on-line bio, but he writes on the Druze extensively. That could be it.

This reminds me of a story. Back in the fall of ’97, I was chatting with Elyse Semerdjian, who now teaches at Whitman College (in Walla Walla, Washington, of all places), and Kevin Martin, who I think now teaches at the University of Memphis, were chatting in the gilded lobby of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. I had just met Elyse, who shares an important link with me in our scholarly isnad (genealogy)—we’re both students of Denise Spellberg, who teaches Medieval Islamic History at UT Austin. Anyway, Elyse, as you might guess from her name, is Armenian, so I asked her if she were Catholic or Orthodox. Kevin did a double-take at this attempt to slot her and said, “Because her religion matters so much!”

Elyse laughed and said, “No, I don’t mind. It’s a question an Arab would ask.”

Kevin, an ardent secular liberal from Texas, is fairly unique among secular liberals in not being fundamentally hostile to religion. He came from Texas, so it’s a world he knows well. That said, he hates its intolerance. Back then, I had no clue that I was queer—dumb as a rock, I was. I lived near Dupont Circle and things like the Drag Queen parade there would make me quite uncomfortable. When Kevin discovered this he would do things like try to hold my hand in public just to watch me freak out (Kevin really loves women, by the way, not a queer bone in his body as far as I know). But he was (and I imagine still is) mischievous as hell, especially when he thinks you’re being an ass, which, admittedly, I was.

Russell Hardin relates an experience where he was sitting at a conference on political identity and one of the participants started the introductions by requesting each participant give their ethnic identity and say how it related to the discussion, because “no one is just an American.” Hardin thought he was. I no longer feel that I can give a safe answer to that kind of question

So does the slotting matter? Does the slotting not matter? Should the slotting stop? Can the slotting stop? The longer I’m at this, the more divided I am. Anyway, contemporary Lebanon’s early history is being written in Israel, but in English. And it’s all being published by I.B. Tauris in London. I have no idea what that means, if anything at all.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Firro is Done! Hallelujah!

The event is not as exciting as if it were, say, raining men, but with due apologies to the Weather Girls, hallelujah, nonetheless!

That last chapter was brutal. Firro’s fatal weakness is that he really isn’t capable of writing the thesis statements and plans of attack that good writing needs to have if a reader is to keep up with a complex argument. Coupled with his assumption that his reader basically knows the history and he can spend most of his time interpreting it, the text is very difficult to follow. As Zamir’s Quest book runs out just before the fall of France, 1940-1946 on my existing timeline pretty much relied solely on Zisser. Zisser, while fairly comprehensible, is not a detailed chronologist. So unlike the other chapters I’ve timelined out of Firro, I didn’t really have a good chronology onto which I could graft Firro’s material in this last chapter. It was quite painful. I may have to go back to Firro after reading the Gaunson book, just to see if I missed anything useful.

But first, I need to read the first Zamir book. I have large parts of it already in the timeline, but because I wanted to “just bang the paper out” back in 2004, I did triage reading and timelining to fill in the blanks. But Zamir shows himself to be the most reliable chronologist in the bunch. I figure I should use him as a foundation. So to Zamir I go. I’d show you the picture of the cover, but the library copy doesn’t come with the cover and I can’t find a picture on the internet. It is mercifully slimmer than the second Zamir book. Sadly, though, as I explained earlier, it has Firro’s irritating habit of not translating French quotations. Yippee.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


A critical part of any project that uses narrative history is timelining. Presently, my timeline for Lebanon 1914-1946 is roughly 70 pages long. Yes, I know. I can hear you now. “Talal! You are writing a seventy-page timeline for a thirty-page paper! No wonder you aren’t getting anywhere!”

Well, hold on. Any research project takes in far more old data than it puts out in new interpretation. The digestion, after all, is what the reader wishes to be spared in favor of the slim, simplified, effortless answer it is the researcher’s job to provide. We must always know much more than we write. Sorry. My students hate this, but it’s how scholarship works.

That said, the timeline itself is priceless to the researcher, because it can grow. It is, if you will, a capital investment. A well-designed timeline is an integrated, pre-digested reading of many different historical sources that can be used for large numbers of projects. The timeline I am creating is not only fodder for one paper on Lebanon, 1920-1946. It is the foundations of future lectures and chapters, etc. I’ll be dealing with Lebanon for the rest of my career. This is an investment. Here’s a link to an older draft to give an idea of what’s involved.

Moreover, the problem isn’t so much that timelining takes so long. The problem is that I haven’t been timelining. Between 2005 and now, I’ve been dealing with exams, my prospectus and trying to relearn organizing myself out of a wet paper bag. I really haven’t been working on this since 2004. That’s a long time.

The table below summarizes the books that have to be included in the timeline. The shading shows what years the books cover, with gray showing the bits that haven’t been timelined yet and yellow showing the bits that have. The years delineate the line on the right, so the far right border of the chart represents 1950.

As you can see, I’ve got a bit of a slog to get through. Historians each have their own irritating foibles that must be accommodated. Zamir, for example, is quite fortunately rich in dates and data. But his writing style is not particularly chronologically disciplined. He’ll talk a little, rewind, tell you something else, fast-forward and jump to another city, etc. I found that I needed the timeline in order to make sense of the messy, if rich text. The dates, thanks be to God and Zamir, are mostly all there.

Judith Tucker, one of my profs back at Georgetown, was always much fonder of historiography than she was of history and Firro writes in a similar bent. He always wants to assume that you know the chronology and instead, if not focus on what other historians are saying, at least focus on broader, grander interpretations. He rather assumes that you have your facts down. Having timelined Zamir first, I could follow him, but I’m not all that sure that it would be the best book to pick up to get acquainted with Lebanon under the Mandate.

Major fun challenges. It’s irritating that in his first book (the one I’ve not really worked on yet) Zamir likes to make direct quotations of French text without translations. Firro does the same. I spend lots of time at the French-English translator plugging in text. I haven’t taken French in years. And let’s face it—je m’appelle Vincent. Je joue au tennis. Est-ce que vous jouez au tennis? doesn’t constitute a political vocabulary. It’s lots of fun.

Sadly, one gets this sort of treatment from francophile orientalists all the time. Back at UT, I had an adjunct Islamic political theory prof from the University of Chicago poly sci department who studied Morocco. It was the first political theory class I ever took. I didn’t get it and wouldn’t for more than a decade, but I knew the Middle East better than most of the people in the room. She was going to give me a B, then relented and gave me an A. I was grateful, even though I really didn’t know why I was getting the B or why it changed to an A. Anyway, she always lapsed into French, leaving me to try to translate the “smooth-drop-every-other-syllable” elision that is spoken French into my guess at what the written French, which had the missing syllables, must have looked like. I did this in the desperate hope of recognizing enough cognates to conjure what she must have been saying.

It especially irritated me that she never lapsed into Arabic, a language I actually understood. But, she studied Morocco, so I’d probably never have been able to figure out what she was saying anyway, even had she been comfortable enough with the Maghribi dialect to lapse into it, which obviously she wasn’t. But she gave me an A, so I should stop bitching.

Anyway, back to the grind.

Current Project: The "Institutionalization" of the Lebanese Republic, 1920-1946

The original draft of this 75-page monstrosity was completed in November 2004. It is the biggest disaster of my career as a writer. The difficulties were:

(1) Any imaginative person has myriad theoretical ideas about a subject which he or she is passionate. A good theorist must approach this myriad mess and distill a portion of it into a theory. My MS short-term recall problem made it difficult to see the whole picture at once (more on that type of problem here), so I wound up writing the whole mess. It’s time to slay the dragon.

(2) I was trying to show the reader where the idea for the theory came from and which texts had influenced it, as a sort of a literature review. This was a disaster. The journey a thinker takes to develop an idea is not the same journey the reader needs to take to learn the idea quickly. In fact, as the journey the thinker took is often a series of very idiosyncratic imaginative responses to many different texts, that journey, without extraordinary narration, must be by and large meaningless to the reader, whose imagination must perforce work differently that the writer’s. The intellectual journey is deeply meaningful to the thinker, but the thinker is unlikely to be able to contextualize the journey for the reader unless he or she happens also to be a novelist. The point is to bring the reader to the new theory as quickly and painlessly as possible. The intellectual journey is not a literature review. This was not multiple sclerosis. It was simply self-indulgence.

(3) Foucault is right about story telling. We don’t recreate the seamless story from the shambles that are the documents. Rather, we impose order on the documents, excluding some details and inferring others. Our story is always more incomplete than the documents. Now, if done properly, this is hardly a tragedy. Every series of events can be narrated at a more concrete or a more abstract level. I was having trouble moving up and down the ladder of abstraction in order to pitch the story properly for my page limit and theoretical needs. This is a normal graduate student problem. It is not embarrassing that I suffered from it, but it is annoying.

(4) I don’t draw on enough secondary sources for the history. I knew that going in. I was desperate at the time to simply give birth to the idea. The paper was desperately out of control. Getting it into publishable shape was the least of my worries.

The new goal is 12,000 words.