Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Winter 2021

Volume 47 Issue 2
    • 189Orit Bashkin
    • This article studies the ways in which Arab intellectuals in Egypt and the Levant wrote about modern anti-Semitism during the four decades preceding the demise of the Ottoman Empire. This period is often described as the era of the Arab Nahda (revival); it refers to an era when Arab thinkers and writers showed great interest in the Arabic language, Islamic history, and Arab culture and consumed European literary and philosophical works. Arab intellectuals in this period wrote about Jewish affairs. They protested the persecution of Jews in Eastern and Western Europe and compared anti-Jewish racism to an infectious disease that spread in Europe’s cities and destroyed the fabric of its democracy, especially during the Dreyfus affair. I argue that these very pro-Jewish positions were connected to several conversations about the Arab self. Since the Arabs were categorized as Semites in European racial discourses, the meanings ascribed to the term were of utmost important to them. Arab writers also connected their discussions of anti-Semitism to their broader interest in science; as anti-Semitism seemed to have reflected a remnant from the medieval past, Arab writers wondered why this phenomenon prevailed in modern and scientific Europe. As Ottoman subjects witnessing the colonization of Egypt and North Africa, Arab intellectuals underscored the fact that Europe, whose intellectuals and politicians critiqued the persecution of Christians in the Ottoman Empire and argued that their colonization brought justice to persecuted minorities, was treating its minorities in a horrific fashion. Lastly, as Arab thinkers demanded linguistic and cultural rights within the Ottoman Empire and demanded to curb the powers of autocratic rulers, they were interested in Europe’s most glaring failed emancipation. Their reflections, moreover, could help us theorize the present moment, when Jews and Muslims struggle together against purist and racist movements in the US and in Europe.

    • 218Jonathan Kramnick
    • This essay makes a case for the truth claims of literary criticism by examining the epistemology of close reading. It looks closely at skilled practices of quotation and asks what distinctive kind of knowledge they exhibit and create.

    • 241Peter Goodrich
    • A judge springs out of his car on the way to court in downtown Chicago and takes photographs of an inflatable rat. A while later he inserts these photographs into a decision involving another inflatable rodent. Judges now regularly insert pictures in judgments, but there is no study either of the genres or the precedential status of these modern visual emblemata, these pictorial interventions in the record. Using a comparative visual corpus of over three hundred images extracted from diverse common law jurisdictions, the practice of retinal justice, the novelty of vision in decision, is here anatomized, choreographed, and critically classified.

    • 272Sabine Arnaud
    • Long before Jacques Derrida undertook a critique of phonocentrism as a form of ethnocentrism, a few teachers of deaf pupils rose to the challenge of working on a sign language independent of the structures of speech. For Derrida, this critique encompassed a reappraisal of Western limitations, while reflecting upon the boundaries and linearity of alphabetical versus ideographic writing. What I explore in this article is how the development of a pedagogy for deaf pupils went hand in hand with an examination of language itself, including the dominance of alphabetical language, and led thinkers to question its role in the development of thought. The context of the development of a writing proper to sign language was one of the ferments in which this critique took shape, making writing practice the threshold of a critical investigation into the expressive qualities specific to sign language. My aim here is to sketch out the epistemological challenges and stakes of some of these conflicting approaches between the 1760s and the 1850s. This article analyzes some of the most radical linguistic conceptualizations about the potential of sign language to recreate the relationship between users and their language. I consider how teachers’ positionings led them to conceptualize sign language in distinct ways, ranging from a temporary, intermediary tool to an autonomous language with a writing of its own. After considering de Michel de l’Épée’s methodical signs and how far removed they are from the conception of a language of its own, as well as a discussion of them by deaf writer Pierre Desloges, I will investigate how Roch-Ambroise Bébian’s and Joseph Piroux’s conceptions of a writing specific to sign language led each of them to position it as a complete and independent language.

    • 306Leah Aronowsky
    • This article tells the story of the oil and gas origins of the Gaia hypothesis, the theory that the Earth is a homeostatic system. It shows how Gaia’s key assumption—that the climate is a fundamentally stable system, able to withstand perturbations—emerged as a result of a collaboration between the theory’s progenitor, James Lovelock, and Royal Dutch Shell in response to Shell’s concerns about the effects of its products on the climate. The article explains how Lovelock elaborated the Gaia hypothesis and gave it evidential depth through a series of Royal Dutch Shell-funded research projects meant to identify organisms whose biological activities might double as climate-regulating mechanisms. The article goes on to show how this research subsequently laid the foundation for a distinct genre of climate change denialism, in which corporations sowed doubt not by denying the phenomenon of global warming but by naturalizing it.

    • 328Julia Nordblad
    • This article compares two dominating conceptual frameworks of the current global environmental crisis, the Anthropocene and climate change, with respect to how they can be deployed to think about the dynamics of political action. Whereas the Anthropocene has attracted the attention of audiences beyond specialists and has radically expanded the temporal horizon for politics, its temporal characteristics risk rendering it unhelpful for thinking critically about how the current environmental crisis can be addressed. Most importantly, by establishing a reference point in a distant future from which the present is evaluated, the Anthropocene framework gives the impression that the future is already determined and that the course of future environmental degradation is set. The Anthropocene thus fails to specify what is at stake for politics in the current crisis. As a contrast, the climate-change framework is structured as a range of scenarios. It establishes a temporal structure that opens the present to different potential futures and manifests the fact that the level of emissions in the coming decades is decisive for future climate change but not yet determined. Further, the presence of tipping points in the climate system can be understood in temporal terms as a risk in some scenarios of falling into a temporality of unfolding, a mode in which game-changing events that lead to even more emissions proceed beyond human influence. The risk of entering such a temporality that closes down the possibility to meaningfully deliberate on fundamental aspects of the future increases with the rate of emissions. The climate-change framework in this way helps us understand the environmental crisis in a new way, namely by conceptualizing the open future as a finite resource that has to be distributed globally and across generations. In sum, as a framework for engaging with environmental derangement, the climate-change framework offers a more specific and politically useful temporality than the Anthropocene.

    • 349Bina Gogineni andKyle Nichols
    • The Anthropocene debates are rooted in epistemological differences. Geologists seek temporal markers of spatially even anthropogenic impact. Thus, they favor geologic data that fit this category. Humanists and social scientists, on the other hand, tend to focus on the negative effects of spatial unevenness. Without linking the Anthropocene’s temporal and spatial components, the official designation, ultimately determined by geologists, will be a futile exercise that will not make good on the Anthropocene Working Group’s intention for it to be useful for wider segments of society. However, if the Anthropocene is divided into an Early, Middle, and Late Anthropocene, each defined by geologic evidence, the uneven spatial distributions of anthropogenic damage can be traced to specific events in human history, thus actualizing the predictive value of geology. Further, this diachronic scheme, unlike the synchronic ones thus far proposed, makes more legible two fundamental dynamics between human and natural trajectories: the intensification of global inequity coterminous with the intensification of natural damage; and humanity’s ever more audacious attempts to control the environment. This ethos, wielded as the prime justification for taking over that which belonged to cultures not espousing it, has resulted in anthropogenic damage disproportionately affecting the most economically and historically vulnerable peoples. However, their alternative modes of coping with the damages—an ineluctable responsiveness to, rather than control over, environment—enables them to survive. As such, they could lead the way through the Anthropocene, modeling adaptation and mitigation strategies, and obviating the global North’s unsound hope for a technological solution. Three metropolitan architects, Rem Koolhaas, David Adjaye, and V. Mitch McEwen, look to global Southern urbanisms––improvisational, creative, minimalist praxes grounded in indigenous lifeways––for alternate modes of inhabiting anthropocenic modernity. Likewise, New Zealand’s government has materially and ethically mitigated its legacy of settler colonialism by combining Western scientific data with indigenous knowledge to formulate more adaptive, responsive, integrative approaches to environment. By expanding the data beyond the stratigraphic, coordinated interdisciplinary research can measure variegated effects of––and responses to––the Anthropocene, thus better equipping humanity to adapt to and/or mitigate climate change and to eschew unsustainable practices.

    • 370W. J. T. Mitchell
    • When is it a good time to think about time? The answer provided by this essay is that there is no time like the present, especially the crazy, tense present of the year 2020. In this year four distinct scales of temporality have collided in a prolonged period of crisis and uncertainty: (1) the onset of a global pandemic that devastated the world economy and killed over a million people, the worst public health disaster since the Spanish flu of 1918; (2) a political crisis featuring the rise of authoritarian governments around the world that threatened to overturn two centuries of efforts to secure stable representative democracies, centered in the rise of a would-be tyrant and demagogue in the US; (3) an explosive social movement centered in the endemic condition of systemic racism in the US; (4) a global environmental crisis that threatens the stability of the planetary ecological system as a sustainable habitat for thousands of species, including the human. Quarantined in monkish isolation by the pandemic, the author has engaged in a set of reflections on these convergent time scales. Instead of the classic (and unanswerable) philosophical question “What is time?” this essay reflects on the ways we picture time in metaphors, figures, personifications, and diagrams. In an anachronistic gathering of images of time from ancient and modern sources, the essay attempts to replace the ontology of time with an iconology that may provide some useful tools for finding our way through this epochal crisis.