More anthropologists in the news: Abu El-Haj in the New Yorker

Certainly more promising in its tone and affect than Strong’s recent case of anthropology villification is Jane Kramer’s New Yorker article about Nadia Abu El-Haj’s tenure case at Barnard (it’s not up on line yet, but I’ll post the link when it is). I think the article is well done, given the near impossible noise to signal ratio that develops around such issues, and especially in Morningside Heights. It gave me a sharper sense of just how powerful Edward Said’s legacy has become in the years since his death. It is, however, a bit light on explaining why her book, Facts on the Ground is innovative, or why it might be interesting to those who want to understand the situation in Israel and Palestine from a new perspective. Although it mentions the basic outlines (the something-more-than-ironic intertwining of Israeli archeology and Zionism), it doesn’t go very far towards contextualizing why anthropologists are doing this kind of work now, and why the reaction represents not only the ideological extremism of the people who deliberately misinterpret it, but also the failure of anthropology and anthropologists to get their messages out.

I think this is a shame, because the book really could be an authoritative one, and I don’t really understand why everyone (including Abu El Haj herself) just sort of wilts and defends, not the book, but the right for academics to decide tenure amongst themselves (which I completely agree with, of course, I have to). But this instead of coming out with a forceful statement of the content and substance of the book? I think there must be something interesting to say about the inability anthropology has of defending itself against the contemporary blog-mediated, 72-hour news cycle, personal-attack media ecology we live in. Note the total absence of the AAA in this article, save a mention of our president-elect, Virginia Dominguez, who was Abu El-Haj’s advisor. Why shouldn’t the AAA step in and fight this fight on behalf of Abu El-Haj? Is there as choice other than responding to idiotic, personlized, ideological attacks and sticking one’s head in the sand? Clearly institutions like Columbia are too economically and politically captured to do it for their faculty, should our professional society be helping?


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

13 thoughts on “More anthropologists in the news: Abu El-Haj in the New Yorker

  1. I think we all have certain books (and occasionally even articles) that have the power to stun us, capture our attention, and remind us just how marvelously interesting and exciting anthropology can be. Facts on the Ground did that for me. And so when the whole tenure controversy broke, I was shocked by the utter lack of attention payed to the actual substance of her work, which had been rather profound for me. And so I feel some alarm at the apparent ease with which the relevance of a work can be abstracted from the substance of the work. You made a very provocative point; this is significant less for what it says about knee-jerk opposition to the subject matter, than about the inability of anthropologists to convey their messages. Perhaps it also reflects our inability to communicate the visceral power of good anthropology to drive us forward, and why that might be important more broadly. Thank you for your post, and I eagerly await the article link.

  2. My petition was briefly mentioned in the article apparently, and for my part, I’d like to clarify the following about that petition, which has been mis-represented by the article in question and the wiki page:

    1) The matter was not about Nadia, but that her tenure case should be allowed to stand on its own merits. That was what the text of my petition said. The fact of the matter is that Paula Stern specifically said that she started the petition against Nadia because of Nadia’s Palestinian name and the topic of the book, so the charge made in my petition that the attack on her was ethnically motivated was already proven on the face of it (res ipsa loquitur). This is why I did not ask Nadia because the issue was not about her (as an individual or a scholar), but about her status attributes (identity/name) trumping her scholarship. That is, it was not a personal vendetta against her. I feel sorry for her as a person, but basically, this wasn’t about her as a person. That’s actually a large part of the problem.

    Also, let’s be clear, the reason we (there was more than one author)decided to write this petition was that as Canadians who do not know Nadia (and I am not even in her specific field), we left Paula Stern and Campus Watch nowhere to go to find a personal connection between me and Nadia. They tried, alleging that I was Nadia’s student (!), and Fox News NY tried to get me to appear in a one on one dialog with Paula Stern, I refused.

    2) It is virtually impossible to write a petition against an anti- petition that is anything but a pro- petition. I might have tried, but then no one would have signed it. Certainly I allowed space in the petition that each academic might clarify, sometimes rather pedantically, which part of the petition they were endorsing. I know that my academic colleagues are largely unable to differentiate the exigencies of political rhetoric from opportunities for mind-numbing displays of pedantry (for examples check out the petition signature list). It’s a nerd thing, just as if one says “Beam Me Up, Scotty!” at a Star Trek convention everyone will stop and tell you that that line was never used in a Star Trek episode. However, my petition does not actually say that she should be granted tenure, as alleged by some, it says only that her work “stands on its own merits”, and that we (as academics in particular) generally endorse her petition for tenure (which we are allowed to do– it is only when we make specific demands for an outcome that we are interfering). Anyway my point is this: write your own damn petition if you don’t like mine.

    3) “We reject every unsubstantiated allegation” (sc. in the other petition, but for some reason the wiki page doesn’t mention that). Yes my petition says that. Yes, of course we do, aren’t unsubstantiated allegations always to be rejected? Of course they are, they are allegations, for one, and they are unsubstantiated, for another. If they were substantiated declarations of fact that would be different. For some reason a lot of academics who claim to speak English fluently didn’t manage to understand this one.

    The petition is still on the web, I just thought I would, for the record, note what I was trying to accomplish rhetorically in my petition. I remind the peanut-gallery that rhetoric is not a branch of logic, and does not obey the same rules. The only test of rhetoric is pragmatic: success or not. But you always get a lot of back-seat driving from the crowd that believes that politics is a spectator sport. Anyway, I write this here because I suspect I am going to hear from a bunch o New Yorker subscribers about this.

    That’s my rant on this matter.
    The moral of the rant is:

    No good deed goes uncritiqued.

    Paul Manning
    Trent University

  3. I haven’t had the time to read El-Haj’s book yet, but I have come across at least a few critiques that focus on the methodological validity of her work:
    “This article”: by anthropologist David Rosen, points out the disconnect between cultural anthropology and archaeology regarding the use of subjectivity and interpretation in determining what constitutes a “fact”.

  4. I have to echo with the comments of Brian Johnson above. The problem with the El-Haj article by Kramer, is it turned into an article about Jewish hysteria and fundamentalism and left out any investigative critique of the book based on how we interpret facts, and how much one can validate or invalidate a whole trove of archaeological research from biblical scholars and archaeologists as opposed to using somewhat ad hoc observations to highlight the zionist project of archaeology. There is something troubling that a broad critique of science can be used to invalidate whole other disciplines without seriously engaging with them. I feel that there is a sloppiness and simplicity to this sort of work. So while El-Haj may or may not have deserved tenure as her work is certainly true to a certain methodology and intellectual climate, the sad thing is middle east politics dismissed any real discussion over the epistemiology and the “facts” as presented by el-haj. That (scientific) facts exist in social contexts is undeniable, but el-haj simply dismisses evidence of biblical scholars and archeologists to tell a “new story” a “different tale” and in essence she seems as motivated ideologically as her zionist opponants. She also homogenizes Israeli and Biblical Scholars. Unfortunately I think this does little service to cultural anthropology (I am one) and its very valid critique of the use and abuse of facts. Because of the highly political climate we inhabit, there seems to be no way to evaluate the book (witness for example that the Kramer piece leaves out any evaluation at all to opt for a sensationalist and somewhat old piece about middle east politics on Colombia Campus) without being seen as taking sides on Middle East politics — thus its own form of censorship. This unfortunately seems the case for much cultural anthropology that can appear unable to see individuals outside of victim/aggressor models or oppressed and exploited or power and disempowered. Human nature if far messier. Regardless, the issue here is that somehow the politics eradicates any ability to discuss what we, as cultural anthropologists, consider as valid methods.

  5. Something here makes me think of another thing that complicates discussion of this book. That is, we’ve got a problem here with the archaeology/anthropology thing. Many folks, including myself, assumed on hearing about Abu El-Haj’s book, that she was an archaeologist, or at least an anthropologist conducting a critique of archaeology. I.e., it’s an internal matter within our four-field discipline. On reading (only part, so far) of _Facts on the Ground_, that’s clearly not the case. Abu El-Haj is a cultural anthropologist doing science studies – the scientific object of her study happens to be another anthropological subdiscipline, but that’s almost coincidental. I’d say _Facts on the Ground_ is much better understood in the context of the anthropology of technoscience, like Gusterson’s _Nuclear Rites_, Traweek’s _Beamtimes and Lifetimes_, Rayna Rapp’s work, and so on. In my environmental subfield, I’d add Hayden’s _When Nature Goes Public_ and Bruce Braun’s _The Intemperate Rainforest_ as well. Those anthros have often been subject to criticism from the scientists they studied, on the basis of subjectivity versus science and the nature of facts and so on. The hyper-politicization of the Abu El-Haj story makes it touchier than the rainforest politics of Braun or even Gusterson’s weapon techs, but the problem is the same. And I think a large part of the misplaced aggression results from the sense that discussing the presence of culture and ideology in the making of a scientific ‘fact’ can only be an attack, a denial of the fact’s factiness. One of my favorite bits on the subject is Gusterson’s preface to the second edition of _Nuclear Rites_ where he talks about the reception his work received from the nuclear weapons scientists. I just think it would be profitable to have this work considered in that context instead of the more polemic and personal venue of an intra-disciplinary fight.

  6. Yes, Victoria, great point.

    Just to add to your analysis, that is the difference between politics and science as vocations (not to invoke Weber but…). Science at its best explores the complexity of things in all directions. Politics must take multi-directional complexity and get it focused into some kind of a linear programme. It’s the difference between a beanbag and a spearpoint in terms of getting things done.

    They’re just very different projects. I take this to be Paul’s very sensible point about the difference between political rhetoric and mind-numbing pedantry.

  7. I’m puzzled by Victoria’s response. Having read Facts on the Ground twice with students, I did not see evidence that “[Abu] el-haj simply dismisses evidence of biblical scholars and archeologists to tell a “new story” a “different tale” and in essence she seems as motivated ideologically as her zionist opponants.” In fact, she doesn’t dismiss evidence, she describes sometimes heated debates between Israeli archaeologists regarding, for example, models of Hebrew immigration/colonization. She describes the ways museums and tours are organized. She calls our attention to the narrativization of archaeological evidence, which is always underdetermined and thus open, usually, to more than one reading (what does it mean, for example, when pagan Astarte figurines are found in purportedly “Jewish” homes? What does it therefore mean to portray a place or a time or a settlement as “Jewish” as opposed to something else? Why do exhibit curators choose one possible interpretation–that a particular house was burned by the Romans rather than by other political movements who were torching homes at the time, or by a kitchen fire–when making up their labels?)

    No scientist likes to be the focus of “science studies” scholars; not physicians, not physicists or mathematicians, not engineers, not other anthropologists. That doesn’t necessarily invalidate the approach. Abu El-Haj’s brilliance was to find ways to analyze archaeological evidence, sites, and the social organization of their production and popularization as contemporary Israeli material culture and contemporary Israeli social process. It is certainly not perfect (name a book that is), but it is anything but simplistic, and certainly not “anti” anything.

  8. The fact is that Paul Manning is ONCE AGAIN intentionally twisting facts. No, I NEVER said that I started the petition because Abu El Haj was Palestinian – in fact, Kramer goes out of her way (inaccurately, actually) to state the Abu El Haj is NOT Palestinian. I started the petition because Abu El Haj’s work does NOT stand up to the test of the experts. It is deeply flawed, incredibly inaccurate, and filled with lies. She seeks to deny Jewish history because, in reality, she can’t find any Palestinian history that is more than a few decades old – and for good reason – because there isn’t any.

    Jane Kramer’s article wasn’t much better than either Manning or Abu El Haj. Kramer wanted to push her angle…and did NOT listen to what I was saying to her. Then she had her assistant call me to “verify” my quotes and when I said, no, that isn’t what I said…I was ignored. If this is the level of US journalism and academe, the US is in big trouble. The FACT is that Abu El Haj is NOT qualified and does NOT deserve tenure at Barnard – that is not MY opinion…it is the opinion of many, many experts. As for Paul Manning, I rate him rather low on the intelligence scale – if one can judge from his amateurish attempts to slur anyone who doesn’t agree with his pathetic opinions.

  9. One more comment – if you’d like to actually read the experts – please feel free to go to my website, where I have collected a large “library” about Abu El Haj’s book, which, by the way, I read BEFORE I started the petition. My site is:

    As for Abu El Haj – there are a number of incredible “facts” she makes up, or assumes, or credits to “anonymous” sources. She is NOT an archaeologist and yet feels, based on her supposedly spending ONE day on a dig…that she can accuse Israeli archaeologists of using bulldozers to destroy (ironic, considering this is EXACTLY what the Arabs are doing below the Temple Mount on a regular basis – proof of that is in the photos that have been posted in a number of places). Abu El Haj suggests that Jews might have burned down parts of Jerusalem in 70 CE (why does she suggest it…oh, because there were Romans and Jews in the city at the time and there was a 50-50 chance of it being Jews and we can’t prove who set the fire. That’s about as stupid an argument as you can get…and she continues from there.

    The experts – not Kramer, who didn’t read the book, and not Manning, who…well, I assume he can read, but never mind – the point – I did read the book and based on MY own knowledge (Political Science, NOT anthropology) and my extensive reading of the real experts – showed me a deeply political book; a clear agenda; and a complete disregard for the facts on the ground. The truth IS on the ground; Abu El Haj just didn’t want to see it…and Kramer was too lazy to investigate it properly…notice how few real experts she actually quotes, for example.

    Don’t let your opinion be shaped by a lazy journalist or a biased professor – read the experts…the ones who DO dig in Israel, the ones who DO know the facts on the ground. The ground doesn’t lie – Abu El Haj, Kramer and Manning did!

  10. Yeah the Abu El-Haj thing is clearly driven by an intersection of several different things: the anti-stss backlash, the politicization of the topic, the politics of the tenure process, and anthropology’s populist tendency to either 1) denounce the powerful or 2) advocate on the part of the powerless and what happens to that tendency when applied to the case of Israelis and Palestinians.

    Any way, ad hominems aside, one interesting thing about the debate are appeals to authority and expertise — you can see this in Paula’s comments. It is sort of interesting to see how this shakes out in practice on her website. The ‘reviews on Abu El Haj’ section of the sidebar of her website includes 12 pieces including:
    1. A review of NAEH’s book by a Barnard grad and a grad student on the website of SPME, a peace-focused nonprofit group.
    2. A piece by Stern herself
    3. A letter to the Columbia student paper by an Israeli archaeologist
    4. A letter to the Columbia student paper by a professor of Jewish studies
    5. A short note from a climate research who claims that he has not read the book
    6. A longer piece by a freelance writer with a Ph.D. from Oxford
    7. A column from a professor of sociology which is more focused on postmodernism at Barnard, and not NAEH’s book per se.
    8. An article from Washington Examiner about the professiorate, not a review of NAEH’s book. No obvious academic credentials of the writer.
    9. A piece from an educator and lecturer with an MA in Middle Eastern Studies
    10. An article from Front Page Magazine by a freelance writer on ‘postmodern archaeology at Barnard’
    11. A review of the book from a professor of International Relations, apparently published by Stern’s site
    12. A newspaper article about the story running on JTA.

    Please correct me if my attributions of these authors and locations is incorrect.

    I personally am interested in evidence and argumentation, so I don’t particularly care whether someone has credentials in order to take them seriously. But on reflection it looks like there are really about 6 substantive pieces in there with serious discussion of the content of the book, and none of them are from book reviews in academic journals by full professors with Ph.D.s in blah blah blah. If you are going to make an argument from expertise, I’d think you’d want to include more of those types of sources.

  11. Rex is right. There have, in fact, been a number of reviews of the Abu El-Haj book published in academic journals by both archaeologists and anthropologists. Even one by Aren Maier, whose letter (but not his academic review) appears on the Stern site.

    But I couldn’t find any references to academic journal articles on the Stern site. Does anyone know if a full bibliography has been gathered anywhere?

    Having just finished a book on the creation of Israelite written culture in the Iron Age, having lived in Jerusalem for a few years, and being more than a little interested in contemporary debates on how cultures and polities get created, it might finally be time for me to bite the bullet and take a careful look at this book…

  12. As someone who was trained as an archaeologist, I would just like to point out that some of the best critiques of archaeological theory and practice have come from anthropologists in other fields. Kroeber springs to mind immediately of course (when he accused Americanist archaeologists of butterfly collecting in the 1930s), as does Chris Stringer’s work in paleoanthropology, James Clifford’s and Quetzal Castenada’s (separate) thoughts on Maya ruins, and Inga Clendinnen’s work on the conquest-period Aztecs. Simply because Professor El-Haj (identified several times in Kramer’s article as someone of Palestinian heritage) is not an archaeologist, this doesn’t mean that she might not have useful things to say about how Israeli archaeology has proceeded.

    The robustness or otherwise of her argument is in her book, not in a narrow reading of her credentials.

  13. New York eventually granted Nadia Abu El-Haj tenure as an associate professor of anthropology, it was an arduous process that proved a testing ground for academic freedom. Jane Kramer authored an exhaustive piece for The New Yorker on the battle that erupted over Abu El-Haj’s application for tenure. The piece covers the online petition, launched by Barnard alumna Paula Stern, to deny Abu El-Haj tenure.

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