“Cine Qua Non: The Political Import and Impact of The Battle of Algiers”

May 19th, 2012

Professor Stephen Whitfield‘s new article, “Cine Qua Non: The Political Import and Impact of The Battle of Algiers,” appears in the LISA e-Journal, a peer-reviewed online journal for scholars “interested in pluri-, trans- or inter- disciplinary studies in fields including cultural ‎studies, literature, philosophy or the history of ideas, the visual arts, music, media studies, ‎sociology, history and anthropology within the English-speaking world although comparative ‎studies with other geographical areas will also be considered.”

An excerpt from his article:

“This is the day of the guerrilla,” Malcolm X confidently announced in 1964. “Algerians… took a rifle and sneaked off to the hills, and de Gaulle and all of his highfalutin’ war machinery couldn’t defeat those guerrillas. Nowhere on this earth does the white man win in a guerrilla warfare. It’s not his speed.”1

The generalization did not take into account the success of the British in defeating the insurrection in Malaya in the 1950s, or the evidence that even the French had won the military phase of their counter-insurgency in Algeria, only to lose politically in an era of decolonization. But “the day of the guerrilla” that Malcolm X perceived as having dawned was to inspire its most important cinematic realization the following year, with the release of La Battaglia di Algeri, an Italian-Algerian co-production (in French and Arabic). In portraying the struggle of urban insurgents (though not revolutionaries fighting in the mountains and hills), The Battle of Algiers has become in retrospect a work of exceptional prescience. In depicting the willingness of terrorists to murder civilians to pursue political goals, this film constituted a preview of a world of sudden, disruptive, and shocking violence, the world that we in the twenty-first century now inhabit.

But foresight is not the only claim that The Battle of Algiers can invoke. If an unscholarly but defensible opinion may be offered, this is quite simply the greatest political movie ever made. One criterion is the breadth of the impact that this film has exerted, the sheer range of an appeal that continues to be felt. From left to right, and from 1965 until the present, the scale of that attraction is the primary focus of this essay. It seeks both to describe that political influence and to account for it in cinematic terms. Briefly banned in France in 1965, and then infrequently shown in that country for the next few decades, screened by groups of political incendiaries ranging from the Irish Republican Army to the Tamil Tigers, praised by the Palestinian intellectual Edward W. Said for “extraordinary… clarity and… passion,” even as units of the Israel Defense Forces were required to watch it,2 revived in the late summer of 2003 through the official sponsorship of the Pentagon’s Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, The Battle of Algiers is peerless in the breadth of the fascination that it has continued to elicit.

Read the rest of the article here.

“Culture Hero: The Anthropologist as Public Intellectual”

May 19th, 2012

Professor Stephen Whitfield has published an article for First of the Month: A Website of the Radical Imagination, titled “Culture Hero: The Anthropologist as Public Intellectual.”

An excerpt:

The most famous line of the most famous book of one of the great American public intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth-century defines “the problem” of the coming century as “the problem of the color-line.” The Souls of Black Folk (1903) uses the sentence three times, and may not refer exclusively to the chasm that divided black and white. But prescient though W. E. B. Du Bois was, and salient though his legacy has been, he is not conspicuously associated with the defense of other racial minorities and ancestral groups. In the twenty-first century, the line looks more colorful than the one that Du Bois devoted his life to erasing; the primary colors have been extended into numerous variations. Even as he noted that the blood of several peoples flowed through his veins, African ancestry determined his identity. He therefore had very personal reasons for his opposition to racism, which the historian George M. Fredrickson defined as “a rationalized pseudoscientific theory positing the innate and permanent inferiority of nonwhites.”[1]

For members of the race that benefited from inequality, the struggle against white supremacy was presumably less compelling than it was for Du Bois, whose commitment to civil rights could be dismissed as special pleading. His friend Franz Boas was a Jewish immigrant from Germany. Among white public intellectuals he was also unsurpassed in making the crossing of that color-line — for the sake of justice — central to his vocation. Consistent in his defense of the very precarious rights of African-Americans, Boas also promoted understanding of the indigenous peoples of the New World. In the breadth of his critique of race, he can therefore lay claim to have vindicated even more decisively than Du Bois the ideal of the public intellectual in the United States. (And unlike Du Bois, Boas never did anything in politics as silly as becoming a Communist.)

The other apt comparison is to Thomas Jefferson, the most influential intellectual ever to hold the nation’s highest office. The notorious image of blacks presented in Notes on the State of Virginia (1783) helped form the color-line. And yet Jefferson’s record of disparagement has to be weighed against his insistence that “all men are created equal.” That credo led Herman Melville, speaking for the defense, to argue that “the Declaration of Independence makes a difference.” Jefferson was also fascinated with Native Americans, whose vocabularies he collected and wanted to have compiled.[2] He should thus be deemed a precursor to Boas, who really was an egalitarian. His academic legacy, as well as his personal and civic commitments, could be called Jeffersonian, in the sense that they were directed toward realizing the moral promise of the Declaration of Independence.

Read the full article here.

American Studies Faculty News: Three Brandeis Professors at BAAS in London

May 3rd, 2012

American Studies Professors Tom Doherty, Maura Farrelly and Steve Whitfield all attended the British Association for American Studies Annual Conference in April 2012.

From left: Tom Doherty, Maura Farrelly, Steve Whitfield

Doherty, currently teaching in Singapore at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, gave the keynote address, “The Only Studio with Any Guts”: Warner Bros. and Nazism, 1933-1941. Farrelly’s presentation was “There is Nothing in Sacred Writ against Indulgence in the Weed”: Tobacco’s Challenge to Methodist Asceticism, while Whitfield gave a presentation titled “The Theme of Indivisibility in the Postwar Struggle Against Prejudice.”

“The Jewish Retail Giant and the Black Community”

February 13th, 2012

Brandeis American Studies Professor Stephen Whitfield’s February 6, 2012 article in Jewish Journal.com tackles the issue of “The Jewish Retail Giant and the Black Community,” focusing on the anonimity (and philanthropy) of Sears, Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald and the impact of Jewishness on this obscurity. 

Whitfield notes that Rosenweld expressed concern that antisemitism might hurt rural business, and yet:

Whatever the validity of his concerns, his company did as much as any retail business in the nation to help farmers and their families conquer the burden of solitude.  More than any other business (except for the Ford Motor Company), Sears, Roebuck enabled a predominantly rural nation to connect with the rising influence of industrial and urban ways of life and ultimately with a cosmopolitan modernity.  No wonder then that, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was asked during the Second World War which American book he would like to see distributed in the Soviet Union, he did not nominate the Federalist Papers or Moby-Dick or even his own public papers.  Instead the leader who listed “freedom from want”—as one of the Four Freedoms that the Allies were fighting for—proposed the Sears, Roebuck catalog.

Whitfield holds the Max Richter Chair in American Civilization at Brandeis University.

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