Sunday, June 29, 2014

the bogus of enrollments

Institutions are in their very essence hypocritical about their aims, methods, and practices, a fortiori when an institution of “higher learning” claims that its “high” aim is nothing but “knowledge,” the common good, or “Jesuit education” and the goodness of the world.

So it was no surprise to detect that level hypocrisy in a letter from the Chair of our department addressed to me in late January apropos my “low” enrollments. (Full text below, letter #1) (A letter always reaches its destination, says Jacques Lacan.)

Even though the letter seems to be written in a “consensual” “friendly” tone, albeit with cowardly undertones, that “friendliness” is precisely the problem. Thus, while placing “loyalty” in the institution of higher learning that employs us both as tenured professors for over 20 years, what the letter lacks is that institutional objectivity: the simple fact that if my enrollments have been lower than they should in the past couple of years, it is for no other reason due to objective institutional changes which have nothing to do with me (nor with the Chair for that matter) as an individual.

Yet the whole tone of the letter is individualistic, addressing enrollement as if it is “my” problem, while maintaining that bogus institutional loyalty as the bearer of “higher principles” of learning (Jesuit and Catholic education and all that crap). Universities are known to thrive on the non-said, which is a general non-dit policy down to the most mundane memos.

From the beginning, the letter comes directly to the point, addressing the problem of “my” low enrollments in fours seminars in Fall 2013 and Spring 2014. Considering that the Chair and myself both work in the History department (with a big H), two semesters do not seem much of a time framework either historically or statistically for that matter. So why did the Chair, who seems to appreciate historical time in his research (on the British monarchy), not check my enrollments in the last five years (at least since my return from the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 2009), comparing them with broader institutional patters.

As the letter de facto criminalizes me for my low enrollments, making me responsible for what happened (again, without explicitly naming the criminal act(s), for being, say, “hard” on students, “irresponsible,” élitist, and so on), it fails to mention the essential, namely, that enrollments have shifted due to strategic changes in the core requirements, which, in turn, have prompted changes in the departmental requirements.

To solve the mystery problem of low enrollments, the letter engages in a vicious circle: to reach a “decent” enrollment, which is set at 100 for a 2:2 load like mine (“research intensive,” another one of those bogus terms), I must teach 3 courses in the Fall 2014 on a 3:2 load, but now the minimum enrollment should be in the order of 125. The Russian roulette continues until we reach the maximum 4:4 load for a 200 minimum. To reach such “demanding” numbers, the only solution is to load one’s schedule with tons of useless core courses. Adieu à la liberté, bonjour tristesse, vive la fraternité! Adieu au langage, as Jean-Luc Godard would say.

Loyola has been toying with the cash-machine of the “core” since eternity, but it was only in 2003–05 that this Jesuit (and Catholic) institution of higher learning (and knowledge) finally found its Eureka moment: to transform the “core” into a capitalist enterprise one must include every possible subject on the planet, from western and non-western civilizations to terrorism and Boko Haram. In other words, the “core” became truly “Boko.” We should name it the Boko-core. Moreover, departments, in light of the new core, started changing their own requirements accordingly. For example, a “world history” course, history 299, which was a requirement for “international studies” students, was no more required since 2012–13. Instead of the 35 students I would normally get, I had only two in Spring 2014.

At the time, when Loyola made its great discovery on über-capitalism (a.k.a. Jesuit education), I was a visiting professor at Aleppo University, the major industrial city in the Syrian north. The then Chair sent me a “good news” letter informing me that “Islam” (whatever thay may mean) is now part of the core, and that I could, if I wanted to, offer “Islam” within the core. I’ve responded that the “good news” must coincide with the end of the core-as-core, as it had lost, through extensive inclusion of non-western societies and civilizations, and various topoi, its heart and soul, becoming more of a shopping mall and a supermarket of ideas. Equally important, I predicted, the “special topics” seminars would lose both their status and momentum; indeed, I thought that all 300-level courses would be affected. That’s particularly true of someone like yours truly living from a “minor” field, whose courses are not “required,” and with no openings to graduate studies and upper-level dissertations. Needless to say, it looks pretty much clear in hindsight that the killing of the 300-level seminars was pretty much a deliberate institutional policy, as those courses look less “profitable” than the fully capped core courses. (See letter #2 below)

When I returned to Chicago in Fall 2005, after a two-year absence, we developed with colleagues working on Islam, the Near and Middle East, North Africa, and east and central Asia, a “minor” that we decided to call “Islamic World Studies” (IWS). Our main aim was precisely to counter the “crisis” of the lack of variety in the 300-level special-topics offerings for “minor” areas like ours. We naïvely reasoned that if we could sign in 50 to 80 students into the IWS minor, we would not be cursed forever with low-enrollments at the 300-level. By 2006–07 we had 60 students joining in, which enabled me to offer topoi like “the middle east on film,” “Iran,” Egypt,” “Turkey” and “the Arab uprisings,” with 20 students on average. We got $3,000–$5,000 grants on newly designed seminars from the Department of Education in D.C. to promote novel ideas and expose students to new topics.

In 2009–10, upon my return from Princeton, my enrollments were at their highest, so were they in 2010–11. The decline in numbers started in earnest in 2011–12, albeit modestly, as an outcome of the “reforms” that were worked out in 2003–05, and they accelerated further in the following year, until we reached a low point in 2013–14. The IWS has now only 20 students, and a seminar on the “Ottoman Empire,” scheduled for Spring 2014, had to be cancelled because it had “only” 8 students by Christmas. The lucky 8 students received their providential cancellation Christmas time. No one has offered such a seminar in 20 years, and possibly throughout the university’s long history.

Nor is this cowardly cancellation of courses limited to history. A friend of mine got his "philosophy of religion" seminar canceled in November 2013 for no other reason than it had missed the 10-student mark a couple of months before the beginning of the new semester in mid-January. Instead, he had to teach four identical "ethics" core courses, capped at 35 each: some will die teaching the core, the same way some die from eating too much chocolate. Needless to say, it has become impossible to plan for a more coherent thematic approach in teaching and writing in such an environment.

It does not require a rocket scientist to realize that the problem of enrollment is institutional. The university has spent in the last decade close to $500 million (and counting) on projects to “renovate” its various campuses, making them more agreeable to the body and soul, hence, it goes without saying that it needs the cashing-machine of the core to service its debt. In other words, it operates like a banana republic economy which is grossly indebted to hungry investors and banks, while surviving annually only by servicing its mounting debt. Debt aside, Loyola faces another crucial problem, namely, the fact that no more than half of the students are able to make it in four years for graduation, compared to 86 percent for our neighbor Northwestern, which fairs poorly for the university in its “national ratings.” So all this shuffle between core and requirements has no other purpose but to give students a college degree without much work.

Which is precisely the problem in American higher education in the last decades. Colleges and Universities of sorts attempt to become lucrative not by improving content and knowledge, but by opening up to entertainment, at least for the arts and humanities and social sciences. It’s a live or die situation where the high expenses of learning could only be met if the institution transforms itself into a machinery for promoting investment capital.

letter #1
Dear Zouhair,

I am sorry that we have not had a chance to speak since I became chair.  I write to you now on a matter of some seriousness.

As you may know, I am required to monitor the enrollments of all faculty in the Department. According to the latest figures, your two courses for this term, Hist 300E-001 and Hist 299E-001 have enrolled five and two students, respectively. This comes after a Fall semester that saw 13 students take your Hist 322-001 and 5 take your Hist 299E-00. In addition, you supervised a Provost Fellow in HIST 399, for a total across the academic year of 26 students.   

Unfortunately, those numbers are not appropriate or financially sustainable for a faculty member with a 2-2 teaching load in the College. According to the Department of History Standards for Research-Intensive and Research-Active Faculty (adopted by the department and approved by the Dean in the Fall of 2010):

As a general rule, faculty should average approximately 25 students per class. Research-intensive faculty with a 2-2 load should teach at least 100 students per year; research-active faculty with a 3-2 load should teach at least 125 students per year. Faculty with 3-3 teaching loads should teach at least 150 students per year; those with 4-4 loads, 200 students per year. Exceptions are granted with the approval of the chair and/or dean. 

In addition, the Principles and Normative Guidelines on Faculty Instructional Responsibilities, approved by President on October 20, 2009 (available on the Academic Affairs web-site as the Loyola University Chicago Faculty Instructional Responsibilities: that "Undergraduate courses that enroll under 10 students do not generally qualify as fulfilling this course load, except with permission of the Dean as may be necessary to delivery of a particular program."  

As a result, after consultation with the Dean, it has been determined that your total enrollment of seven students this semester cannot count for two courses.  Though it does not reach the threshold of one course, we have decided to count it as one.  In order to fulfill your commitment to the College as a research intensive faculty member (2-2 load), you will be required to teach three courses next semester (Fall 2014).  In order to approximate the required number of students, we will ask you to teach at least one section of Core (History 104 or, if you prefer, History 101) and possibly two, in addition to one or two upper division courses (your choice of Hist 312, 313 or 322) for a combined total of three.

I cannot imagine that this E Mail will be welcome to you.  Please understand that it is not intended to be punitive and I take no pleasure in having to write it.  As you may recall, I have read your work, Zouhair.  It addresses many subjects, but one of the most important is that of institutions.  As we would both agree, institutions have shared cultures and specific requirements of their members.  This initiative is intended to help you to justify the salary paid you by the institution that granted you tenure, as well as to assist you to participate more fully and rewardingly in its life.

If you wish to discuss this in person, I am in the chair's office most afternoons. In any case, I look forward to your response. 


Robert Bucholz, D.Phil.; F.R.Hist.S.
Professor and Chair
Department of History
Loyola University, Chicago
1032 N. Sheridan Road
Chicago, IL 60660

letter #2
Marcia Hermansen on 11/19/13:

HI and thanks for supporting the program.

I will be happy to help you promote classes to get more enrollments.  300 enrollments are also down in Theology.

Due to changes in core beyond my control--the IWS program now has only 20 Minors rather than 60--this may also be a factor so plan for less interest from that quarter in 300 courses in future semesters.

Best wishes,


Marcia Hermansen
Director, Islamic World Studies Program
Theology Department
Loyola University Chicago
1032 W. Sheridan Road,
Chicago, Il 60660
773-508-2345 (office)

faire une pipe

A while ago I received a message from the Chair of our department with the title “your webpage.” (See infra for the full text.)

What’s wrong with my webpage <>?

Loyola had at the time accepted that my webpage be directly linked to the departmental webpage, that is, my name links me directly to my personal page which carries my own domain-name, hence contrary to what the Chair’s email falsely claims, this is not “your LUC webpage”: I’ve designed it myself over 10 years ago, and it does not sit on the Loyola servers in Chicago. In fact, it is hosted by the Yahoo Small Business unit.

When I did the initial design once I moved to Rome for a year in 2001–02, the year the Manhattan Twin Towers went down, Loyola did at the time host my webpage, and I used to update it regularly, that is, until 2006–07 when updating became a real annoyance: every once and a while the page was “locked” under an administrator’s name, and it had to be “unlocked” simply to add a photo or a text. When I thought that enough is enough (I disliked also that the “address” was too long, ugly, and could not be easily memorized), I created the above domain-name and moved everything to the new website.

The point here is that Loyola has nothing whatsoever to do with this personal webpage of mine. So why was the Chair frustrated? Because “someone” from the “Loyola community” got “offended” that on my Flickr portfolio <> there is (female) nudity. Actually, to be specific, the message below did not specify what the “problem” really was with the “four images” “in the vicinity” of the link below—nudity (male or female) or otherwise. One has to go to the link to see what the “problem” might be: nudity, indecency, sexual intercourse, penetration (or lack thereof), blow-jobs, and so on. The fact that the “problem” is unnamed but only alluded to is a fundamental aspect of the accusation by this or those anonymous person or persons from the so-called “Loyola community.” Forget about freedom of speech, the first amendment, and academic freedom, you only feel within a “community” once you’re accused of a felony or crime. We’ve known for some time that institutions of higher learning in the United States are Foucauldian in their essence, with a high degree of scrutinization, and with a lot of empty homogeneous time and resources at their disposal. Thus the dumb hypocritical bureaucracy must be running mad in its paper work, servers, viruses and malware, and paranoia, fearing that it would lose its grip on its “audience,” “community,” and “Jesuit education.”

Notice here that my Flickr account is unrelated to Loyola, and that on my webpage there is a link to Flickr only under “photography”; to repeat, both webpages are not hosted by Loyola, but by Yahoo.

“The ones who have generated complaints,” as the text below says, did not generate their complaints to me personally—say, be email—but to the Chair. Not only such decent people prefer to remain unnamed and anonymous, but their complaints only point to an image, which we’ll have to assume “contains” something “indecent” into it, to the point that it must be permanently “deleted,” as the text urges me to do, so that the unnamed “problem” would not reach the ears of the higher officials at Loyola.

The image to which the link below refers to is composed of frames within frames, which are framed with a single “final” frame—that of my camera’s viewfinder. There is the frame of a cheap reproduction of a painting by the Belgian René Magritte. The painting is quite well known and world famous, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” This is not a pipe, to which Michel Foucault had devoted a small penetrating book on the ambiguities of language. The painting is indeed a meditation on language: “this is not a pipe” is technically correct because what we see is a painting that represents a pipe, hence as a representation of a pipe “is” not a pipe—per se. The being-of-a-pipe should be taken strongly as one of existence-of-a-thing, its being what it is. But then we know damn well that this is a pipe in the sense that the representation of the pipe still makes it a pipe, that we can all acknowledge it as such without problem. Notice, however, how in the title, “this is not a pipe,” the “not” negates the “is,” as if in an act of defiance to the very existence of the object—and to being and time in general. Moreover, it is the very juxtaposition of the representation-as-image with language which, in the final instance, negates the existence of the represented object, leaving it to an object-of-representation that marks the sublime beauty of this unique work of art of the twentieth century.

Magritte seems to have been under the influence of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) whose view of language operated under the separation of the signifier from the signified. If the signifier is the “sign”—the linguistic word—which designates a “content,” the signified object, then the relation between signifier and signified remains problematic. For example, if I say “tree”—acting as signifier—the signified in this instance is nothing else but the “image” of a “tree” that I have in mind at the moment—not the “real tree.” I can, of course, designate a “real tree” out there to show to my hearer what a “tree” “is.” But the way we generally (unconsciously) use language is through abstract associations and representations. Every word “makes sense” not by designating a concrete object, but by “defining” it through other words and designated objects. Which renders any “tight association” between signifier and signified a bit problematic, to say the least.

This is precisely what, for example, American abstractionism of the first few decades of the twentieth century has perfectly seized. Artists like Marc Rothco and Jackson Pollock have seized the moment of the “separation” of signified and signifier to declare the non-necessity of figurative art, an art that paints something that is out there, and hence transforms it into a mere object of representation. Abstractionist paintings do not “represent” anything in particular anymore. The representation, if any, must be thought of abstractly or conceptually.

That’s—briefly—regarding the first “frame” in my photograph. The second “frame” consists of a still from a film running on a TV-monitor, presumably from a DVD machine, and what we see—at face value—is a woman giving a blow-job to a man. We only see the face of the woman but not that of the man, whose only erect penis is within the frame. What’s interesting here is that the wo(man) is gazing at the man’s invisible gaze, which, being excluded from the frame we can only imagine—the spectator filling the gap.

The film clip is from a short by Argentinian director Gaspar Noé who became well known with Irréversible. It is its “juxtaposition” with Magritte’s painting that gives it resonance. The frames within frames. Magritte’s painting is only a cheap reproduction of the original, covered in glass with a black frame. Nöé’s film clip by contrast is framed within a monitor, and the two frames have been framed through a camera’s viewfinder and presented as such to the spectator.

Does the title-caption give any clues? The French “faire un pipe,” to do a pipe, simply means in common jargon “blow-job” (léchouille). I leave it to your imagination to decide.


It has been brought to my attention that some of the images connected to your LUC webpage are objectionable to some in the university community.  Would it be possible for you to remove them?

The relevant images are on page 5-6 of the Flickr page.  There may be others, but those are the ones that have generated complaints to me.  The four images in the vicinity of the link below are most relevant.

If the photos are not removed and complaints are made to higher officials in the university, your page may be removed from the university site.



Timothy J. Gilfoyle
Professor and Chair of History, Loyola University Chicago
Associate Editor, Journal of Urban History

Saturday, June 28, 2014

truth claims, avowal, and evidence

Truth claims, avowal, auto-biography, and madness in the construction of criminality in contemporary Syria

Zouhair Ghazzal
Loyola University Chicago

In the Syrian penal system, which closely follows the French model of evidence, a judge constructs evidence based on forensic reports, interviews of and statements delivered by suspects and witnesses, and memos drafted by judges, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals appointed by the court in the course of the investigation; all of which constitute truth claims, as constructed by the judge from the vintage viewpoint of his or her own narrative. In other words, statements taken individually would be problematic in terms of receiving their validity through factual evidence alone. If they do not stand on their own, it is because their validity would only be established through the judge’s narrative.

There is, however, another twist to the matter, as judges would be unable—or at the very least, feel embarrassed—to deliver their verdict without the accused openly making an avowal: I did what you have suspected me of doing, and that is the truth of the matter. That kind of avowal (confession?), in its religious Christian underpinnings, becomes normative in the secular European penal systems of the nineteenth century. The avowal opens that unavoidable gap in our understanding of the act and the subject behind the act, an attitude that led to the outsourcing of juridical opinions in the direction of doctors and psychiatrists. Tell me who you are, and why you did it, became the motto of judges towards their suspects and accused. Because such calls to truth could not be answered once and for all, judges had to give up some of their authority in favor of opinions delivered by doctors and psychiatrists. A declaration of insanity was good enough to halt the verdict, as required by law (again, following precepts adopted by the French Code pénal since 1832), whereby the accused would be sent to a psychiatric institution rather than be incarcerated in a prison cell.

One could argue, by tracing the discursive archeology and genealogy of the penitentiary to its European nineteenth-century roots, that the transformation of the avowal as the sine qua non of evidence prior to verdict was probably related to the association of penance to the prison system. It was not enough to incarcerate people for wrongdoing, as the prison experience must carry with it the weight of rehabilitation: We have to know the subject, who he is, for the rehabilitation process to be successful. Penance, in its Christian medieval underpinnings, assumes a process of voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong: the prison would then become that public penance for having done wrong. But it was not enough, however, for “society,” as represented by the judge, to know who did commit the hideous act: the avowal of the culprit became normative across the penal system.

What is striking here is the parallelism to be drawn between the juridical and the medical. “I am mad”: The avowal becomes the key component in the psychiatric process, without which there would be no contract between the patient and medical authorities. Hence the patient must himself seal the conditions of his incarceration in a medical institution. In similar vein, a suspect, prior to becoming an accused, must declare that “I did commit the crime that I was accused of.” In both instances, the act creates the contract, while in civil law the contract establishes an obligation that is consensual.

Behind such exigencies, from both the juridical and medical instances, lies a long history of avowal, one that is associated with “telling the truth” (dire vrai) in general, and, more specifically, “telling the truth of oneself” (dire vrai sur soi-même), both of which could be traced back to their Greek, Roman, and Christian origins. With all the exigencies towards “objectivism” to be found in both the juridical and medical science, what brings them together is that strange requirement of the discourse of the culprit/patient on him(her)self. Hence between the judge and the culprit lies the discourse of the culprit, the knowledge that the latter has on him(her)self. Similarly, between doctor and patient lies the truth that the patient would reveal on him(her)self. The declaration itself could be understood as speech act, but it exceeds it in the sense that, at least in penal proceedings, it could constitute the tragic climax of court hearings. Avowal is by definition associated with “telling the truth,” as it does not make much sense to declare that what I’m telling you is not the truth. The question then becomes to understand the implications behind such practice of telling the truth, and how it paves the way towards the penitentiary, as opposed to the mere experience of the prison. The broader implication is that of governmentality, that is, the political control of society as a whole.

To wit, an avowal is a “total” contractual obligation between speaker and hearer, in the sense that it is the entire “culture” of a society that is at stake. How people speak to one another, how they make a confession, how they deny a previous statement, are not simply a product of a “situated encounter,” but transcend it to what the archeology of knowledge in a certain culture has produced over its long history.

In Arabic, avowal usually stands for iʿtirāf, whose root is the verb iʿtarafa, to avow, to confess (which tends to be the former in a secular setting like a court hearing). The other parallel term is that of iqrār, from the root verb of aqarra, to acknowledge, to declare. However, even though the two terms of iʿtirāf and iqrār seem to be (wrongly) used interchangeably in the court literature, even by judges themselves, they should not be confused. In effect, the iʿtirāf carries that strong sense of “telling the truth” in an exercise of self-revelation; iqrār by contrast is an act of acknowledging which could be “read” or “interpreted” as such by a judge from a series of statements delivered by a suspect or witness. It hence lacks that direct self-avowal.

It is beyond our purposes to trace back the genealogical connotations of such concepts throughout the history of Arab and Islamicate societies and civilizations. What we can do for our purposes here is to see how such notions operate in the context of the contemporary Syrian courts, that is to say, how they have been transplanted, adopted, and assimilated in order to understand their juridical and political connotations in a developing state like Syria. (One could indeed argue that practices of self-examination, whereby an internalized belief must be externalized in relation to an authority that would provide its “approval,” is indeed absent in Islam; or for that matter a “hermeneutics of the self” is absent altogether.

A judge in the city of Idlib (north of Syria) made the following remarks in a memo he drafted regarding a woman who was accused of killing her husband (allegedly helped by her brother) in the late 1980s, problematizing “avowal” into six broad categories.

1.     A judicial avowal must be descriptive, personal, frank, and emanating from a free will, while at the same time in accordance with reality.
2.     When there is a denial to the original avowal, as was the case here with both prime suspects, having denied in the presence of a military prosecutor most of what they had stated earlier, the earlier avowal could still stand as valid, in particular if the denial would create an implausible reality, that is, a “view contrary to the accepted reality (khilāf li-l-ḥaqīqa al-rāsikha).” In our case here, it would have been implausible that the victim would have died either in an act of suicide or targeted by assassins other than the two suspects.
3.     An avowal must be devoid of confusions, ambiguities, contradictions, and in no need of manipulated interpretations to become intelligible down to its finest particulars (juzʾiyyāt).
4.     An avowal could also be implicit (iʿtirāf ḍimnī) in the sense that the suspect avoided any direct acknowledgment of a truth, but nevertheless her statements, when interpreted in conjunction with other statements, either by the same suspect or by another witness, could bear the light of a hidden acknowledgment.
5.     In all the above instances, it would be therefore up to the judge to decipher a genuine confession from a faked one, or perceive an acknowledgment in the process of an interview or a police report, and contrary to what the defense attorney in our case here had repeatedly stated, denying an avowal (rujūʿ ʿan iʿtirāf) is not enough for the judge to drop the confession in question, as the denial itself could be devoid of any truth.
6.     Finally, the aim of all this tedious but essential work in sorting out avowals and acknowledgments would be to determine for each homicidal case “the cause of the killing (al-bāʿith fi-l-qatl),” considering that “each criminal act is in need of a motive (dāfiʿ).”

Even though taken out of context from the factualities of the crime in question, such assertions are nonetheless normative enough to reveal the discourse that stands in Syrian courts when it comes to avowal, and more broadly, evidence.

What does it mean that an avowal must be frank and emanating from a free will? One obvious interpretation is that an avowal must not be delivered under duress, otherwise “telling the truth” would become meaningless. But, a more deeper explanation would look in relation to the revelation of the self, the fact that what is revealed in an avowal is that inner self, or as the judge stated in item 6 above, the fact that every crime has a “motive” or “cause”: identifying the killer is not enough, if the motive is not there yet. What else would provide us with the motive but the avowal from the one who presumably committed the act of killing? We therefore need to understand why the discourse of the accused must, in the last resource, come at the rescue of the objectivity of the juridical discourse; and why, at times, when the defendant is unable to fill that gap, psychiatric and medical discourse is there to fill that silence. Moreover, defendants, at times, in the solitary confinement of their prison cell, draft “letters” on their own, addressed to family members, friends, confidants, or even counsels and judges, which on their own pose additional problems at identifying the meaning of avowals as speech acts. Where do auto-biographical statements fit? What role should we accord to them?

But then all those truth-claims need to be detected by someone, hence the importance of the judge’s discretionary powers; or, as item 5 above states, it is “up to the judge” to make distinctions, to decipher a genuine confession from a faked one, or an implicit avowal from one that seems more straightforward, or whether a denial should be accepted as such. More importantly, it is up to the judge to construct the “motive” of the crime, as without this dāfiʿ the judicial process would be devoid of its substance. In all this, therefore, the judge acts as a “hearer” in the face of a suspect-speaker of sorts, a suspect who at the end of a hearing may have said very little, or nothing at all. To relieve himself from such deadlock, the judge may at the end seek psychiatric help for his suspect, but, whatever the outcome, all discretionary powers are in his hands.

At times avowals could be frank and startling, as if there is too much into them in a very little space:

I confess of having committed the crime of killing my mother. The reason was that my mother kept interfering with my marital life, forbidding me from filing for a divorce from my husband. I was also aware that my mother and sisters were having sex with my husband. I reiterate all previous statements [to the police and public prosecution].

This was a woman speaking to an investigating judge in his office at Aleppo’s Palace of Justice in 1996. She will also inform him that prior to killing her mother she had burned her own home, then went to her mother’s house to spend the night, woke up early in the morning, took a hammer from the kitchen and killed her mother in her sleep by smashing her skull.

Notwithstanding the horror of such scenes, the young woman, Fatima, a mother of a teenage boy, drafted a letter to a family member while serving in her prison cell.

To my paternal cousin Muhammad ‘Ali Shawwa Abu ‘Abdo,[1] hoping that when you’ll receive this missive you’ll be in good health, as God wishes. In case you’d care to ask, I’m doing well, and the only thing that I miss is seeing my dear son Sami Shawwa.[2] I also want you to talk to my brothers so that they would drop their lawsuit against me, and to get me out of my prison. I can’t take it anymore, as I’m on the verge of committing another crime in prison. I’m unable to live here far away from my son Sami, as I’m unable to adapt to this situation in such circumstances. Tell them that if they don’t drop their lawsuit against me so that I get out of here, I’ll arrange for them seas of blood—not a single sea only—and I can do that from my prison, and not only in talk.

Besides the fact that such gruesome passages look startling, if not embarrassing, it is not clear what judges do with them. The above passage is taken from a long letter that the accused had drafted to her cousin while in prison, a copy of which was in the dossier that was used by the judge for his verdict. The discretionary powers of the judge were here, as they always are, enormous. The judge could have, for instance, asked for psychiatric evaluation, but he did not, probably because neither prosecution nor defense pushed for such request. More importantly, however, was what he precisely did with such written “testimony,” as there was no indication that he effectively used it in his verdict; but then it could have had impacted him without openly addressing the issue. The point here is that such “testimonies” which play the role of “avowals” even more strongly than “normal avowals” would do, may, in the final analysis, not receive even a casual mention in the verdict. Even by law, the question of their inclusion remains indeed problematic, as these are statements delivered in writing but only in the privacy of the culprit, hence nothing was uttered in public, within the format of the usual line of questioning. Which begs the question, why are they then included in the dossier? What difference would that make?

What such question reveal is the fundamental problematic that we have posed at the beginning of this survey, namely, that the avowal has become in nineteenth-century Europe the centerpiece of the criminal dossier, in that “telling the truth,” the discourse of the culprit, must come from the subject him(her)self. In sum, the discourse of judges and doctors, though necessary, is not enough. What we need to question, therefore, is, through an analysis of dossiers, how the avowal has become the centerpiece of evidence, what role does it serve, and the deadlocks that the system has placed upon itself with such requirement.


Abi Samra, Muḥammad, Mawt al-abad al-sūrī. Shahādāt jīl al-ṣamt wa-l-thawra [The Death of Syria’s Eternity. Testimonies of the Silence and Revolution Generation], Beirut: Riad el-Rayyes Books, 2012.
ʿAwwā, Muḥammad Salim al-, Fi uṣūl al-niẓām al-jinā’i al-Islāmi, 2nd. ed., Cairo: Dar al-Maʿārif, 1983 [1979].
Dulong, Renaud, ed., L’aveu. Histoire, sociologie, philosophie, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2001.
Fahmy, Khaled, "The Anatomy of Justice: Forensic medicine and criminal law in nineteenth-century Egypt," Islamic Law and Society 6, no. 2 (1999): 224-71.
Foucault, Michel, Mal faire, dire vrai. Fonction de l’aveu en justice, Presses Universitaires de Louvain, 2012.
Foucault, Michel, La société punitive. Cours au Collège de France, 1972–1973, Paris: EHESS–Gallimard–Seuil, 2013.
Garapon, Antoine, Bien juger. Essai sur le rituel judiciaire, Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob, 1997.
Ghazzal, Zouhair, The Grammars of Adjudication, Beirut: Ifpo, 2007.
Ghazzal, Zouhair, The Crime of Writing, Beirut: Ifpo, 2015, forthcoming.
ʿUṭrī, Mamdūḥ, Qānūn al-ʿuqūbāt, Damascus: Muʾassasat al-Nuri, 1993.

[1] Muhammad ‘Ali was the brother of Fatima’s husband, hence her brother-in-law. If, as she claims, he was her “paternal cousin,” then Fatima and husband must have also been paternal cousins. There is a possibility, however, that they were “cousins” only in the figurative sense of the term, that is, not as a real blood relationship.
[2] Referring to both son and cousin by their full names has something impersonal about it, diminishing its intimacy, as if the letter was meant to be read not by the recipient himself, but by some anonymous judicial authority.

Friday, June 27, 2014

dept. of education

Chicago, 5 April 2013

Dear Dean Reinhard Andress,

Thank you for receiving me in your office in mid-March, and I apologize for the delay in responding to your email.

During our conversation, I made it clear that a major reason for my reluctance to submit my annual assessment form to the Chair of the History Department since January 2010 was the unwillingness of our department to make public the relevant data that would correlate teaching evaluations with grading and other matters.

In the last few years, beginning with the departmental committee report that evaluated my request for promotion to the rank of professor, and further assessments by the Chair, the students’ evaluations have become the most contentious issue. In our meeting last month, you read to me what you perceived as “negative comments” by the students, and in your letter you mention that “your teaching is problematical because of a significant number of negative comments by students.” And you add that “I see you as not fully complying with your teaching responsibilities.” First of all, I don’t know what “significant” means here, since the department has failed to provide us with any relevant figures that would correlate evaluations, grading, and the quality of teaching. In effect, since the students’ evaluations have become computerized around 2005–06 through a new system, I’ve requested from the Chairs of our department to provide us with relevant data that would situate the evaluations for each professor in relation to his or her colleagues. Such data would include at the very minimum the class average for grading and assessment; the standard deviation for each course/seminar and the overall average; the correlation between each professor’s performance and that of the department; and the distribution of grades for individual courses and seminars and the department as a whole.

To wit, there is a national problem of grade inflation, well documented in the academic and journalistic literatures, and to which the department and university are willingly not paying much attention. Consequently, those of us who have our courses and seminars structured on rigorous readings and grading of papers and assignments are punished for not fitting with the mysterious and unpublicized “general curve” of grading and behaving. It is no secret, however, notwithstanding absent data about grading and the performance of students and their professors, that 50 percent of Loyola’s students fail to receive their bachelor degrees within the four-year period normally assigned to them, and that this may in turn point to a major structural weakness in the performance of students, in spite of Loyola’s lenient requirements.

Should professors like myself, who have been at the service of the university for 20 years, be punished just few years before their retirement, simply for assigning first-class readings, and for providing rigorous comments and grading to their students’ papers? During our conversation in your office, you have quoted what you perceive as so-called “negative comments” by some of my students, which were randomly accumulated by the departmental Chair. Besides the fact that such statements would only produce circumstantial and anecdotal evidence at best, they should not be used for purposes of tenure/promotion and the renewal of contracts, unless, of course, they are substantiated by statistical evidence for the totality of courses and seminars offered by the department in a semester. Moreover, the so-called “negative comments” are taken for granted for what is perceived as negative. When, for example, a student claims that “the professor’s lectures are too long and incomprehensible,” shouldn’t we inquire further and check whether this student has read the assignment, cares about the content of the assignment (the assigned book), and if so, whether his/her dissatisfaction stems from any differences of interpretation, or is indicative of something else? Or when a student claims that “the essay’s prompt is vague, if not incomprehensible,” shouldn’t we pursue the question further and ask her whether she has read the texts upon which the prompt was based? And if so, does she care about the texts she has read? Do they mean anything to her?

Why are you confronting me only with the negatives? Why not look at what “positive” comments have to say, and, again, confront such comments with a rigorous test of quality in order to see what they have in turn to say about what Loyola has to offer—or what it fails to offer?

There is the desire of a consumer society to avoid learning curves. This tends to result in dumbed-down products that are easily started but compromised in value and application. Shouldn’t we contrast this with teaching experiences that do have learning curves, but pay off well and allow students and teachers to become well versed in reading and writing? For over 20 years I’ve committed myself to demanding learning curves in my writing and teaching, and I want to pursue along that path.


Zouhair Ghazzal
Professor of historical and social sciences
Department of History

Regarding my writing and research, I prefer to be read rather than simply graded. For that purpose I made public all my contributions since 2009–10:

Additional material is available here:


Beirut, the week before the new year

I did not write in the first place. I was not (into) writing at all. I could not do it, nor commit to it. I was not reading much either. Not until I went to college, and it was that complete fiasco of entering into college as a bio-chemistry (premed) major that forced me into excessive reading, then, much later, into wanting to be a writer. The disconnection with society and the world-at-large could not be anymore concealed. Rather it is, indeed, the sine qua non of my shattered existence, or of my parlêtre, as Lacan would say, meaning that being-into-language. What I like about Lacan is that he does not conceive language as a “tool” for “communication,” but as an entity inscribed within the body, without which the body would be shapeless and motionless. That it hasn’t been revealed earlier, in my teens, is a constant source of regret. Was I too docile back then, wearing a mask-of-satisfaction, like a protective shell, that I did not believe in? Is it a character flaw? But even the disaster of the college experience—from its first weeks—did not propel that urge to write. With the urge to read there was no urge to write yet. That damn sense of urgency, that writing should matter more than oxygen, was not there. We tend to think modern Arabic through a détour—that we learn “it,” we learn its potentials, by going through the other major Latin languages: French, English, and to some, German. We learn modernity from the potentials of the likes of French and English; then come back to Arabic as a language of “lacks” of sorts, assuming we ever come back to it. Maybe we’ve abandoned it in the first place, with no desire to learn it, to be-with-Arabic. If language is the house of being, as Heidegger has claimed, then we’re into an orphaned culture without language. This Arabic which has stubbornly maintained itself for more than fifteen centuries, beginning with the notorious poetic and pre-Islamic seven muallaqāt, gives us that feeling of inaccessibility. The Jāhiliyya of the muallaqāt had at least a sense of community, because some of the best poems of the time were “hanged” on the Kaba, which was allegedly a pagan monument, prior to passing to the prophetic hands. I should have done the same since high school, with an urgent sense to write for a (virtual) community. I’ve learned since then to procrastinate and defer endlessly—defer the writing process. When I did my first book, I wrote it in French, but I was ill at ease in the whole process. Not much of a jouissance, not even the modicum of pleasure. I had the writing of the likes of Foucault and Braudel in mind, but had no idea where to situate my first serious project on the political economy of Damascus. Which is precisely the cultural and political problem of the eastern Mediterranean: the absence of a viable narrative, something that would make sense at least for the last couple centuries. I want a prose that makes me feel “one” with the city; I want to feel that I belong to it; and that she belongs to me. Instead, I happen to come and go like a stranger. There is a notion of stranger that I do not mind, propounded by the German sociologist Georg Simmel: a stranger is not only someone who must learn the shared codes of society, but, more importantly, he is seen by others as having “not yet” learned those norms, that he is not one of us, and will never be. But then no one would take you seriously if you simply learn the norms, adapt, and behave well. The stranger must reveal the insidiousness of those norms, how treacherous and uncanny they are.

Hence this whole theory of my hands tied by divine ordinance, parental repression, fatherly superego which forbids jouissance, all of this does not make sense. I was not into writing to begin with, and this has been an agony ever since I’ve realized the importance of writing, of believing in it, of investing into and being committed into it. It’s like being in love: to give what we don’t have to someone who does not want it. Because such a mindset was not there to begin with, say, as a teenager, where it should have all begun, it has always been an agony. Going public has also been another of those agonizing experiences. Instead of repression pure and simple, we should think in terms of shame, anxiety, castration of the body.

Think of photography in terms of the relationship between the object produced by the photograph and the reality of the setting. Ultimately, there is no reality outside the artifact of the object. Likewise, the signifier does not represent a trace of reality, but represents a subject which makes its apparition into the real, by effacing the original trace, while substituting itself into the infinite chain of signifiers that make reality possible—comprehensible by being discursive.

At a downtown bookstore my eyes caught the title of a just published French novel: “the artist of sex.” In one passage picked at random, the mother tells her daughter that men are miles away from women, will never figure out how to bring them to sexual jouissance—not even pleasure. Forget therefore about the missionary position and its affiliates (so-called oral and anal sex, no such terms exist in French), as they won’t even bring even a modicum of pleasure. And the mother raves on: men would do better masturbating on their own, but they need the woman to exhort their masculinity and honor games. Ultimately, the daughter went for the artistry of sado-masochism, though it remains unclear if such move was at the mother’s exhortation. We see her commanding and receiving pain, though it could be only one way: I like receiving pain but not giving it, or vice versa. The woman as dominatrix, subjugating men to her desire—would that bring the much heralded jouissance of the flesh? Which reminds me of Talal Asad on judicial torture in the late middle ages, perhaps a transformation in the 12th and 13th centuries, if not earlier. Medieval Christian torture became a doctrinal necessity to “see” what was “inside” the flesh and soul, as if it was not enough to simply claim belief (as is the case in Islam), as the latter could not be externalized and offered for evaluation by the Other. The body is therefore subject to torture with the hope that it would deliver a certain truth, hence a system of symbolic utterances called knowledge of the soul (or self). Foucault who was into S&M himself wanted his sexual practices for the sheer pleasure of the flesh: but is that possible? Can sexuality be conceptualized outside discourse?

An Indian critic à la Chakrabarty, Aijaz Ahmad, notes how much Said’s Orientalism owes to the Foucauldian topology of epistemic systems, that of the “order of things,” whereby an epistemic structure is valid for a particular time-space framework. My problem with all this Orientalism saga is that it is not even concerned with the massive work that is needed to recover the essence of the third-world texts. Only when such work is done, only when such texts are taken seriously for their own sake, can we speak of a recovered modest dignity.

The smells of this city. Nothing like Damascus or Aleppo, the quintessential city of smells. Everything is more modest here. On a warm Saturday afternoon I took it to the back streets. Many shops had their electricity out, part of the daily three-hour-minimum rationing. That smell of being old: shops that belong to the 1950s and 1960s, simply because they are benefiting from the old-rent law. The oldness is a far cry from Aleppo, which still smells the Ottoman centuries. With my narcissistic psyche, I kept pondering, Why did I leave? Why did I go west? Too late perhaps, now that I’m “enjoying” the city—the jouissance of the pervert. What is it that I know now that I did not know then? Is it a question of knowledge? We do not progress as individuals; what time and duration bring to us is that “insertion” of present knowledge into a past where supposedly it was “not there” “yet.” But it was there—in an embryonic form—and that’s precisely what we appreciate: I love my fate, because it was all there from day one; I can now better appreciate why I did what I did. No regrets; only one failure after another. A friend of mine once gave me the greatest reward: Tu réussis tous tes échecs; you’re so damn good at succeeding in all your failures. So fucking French erotic!

On the long run we’ll all be dead. On the short run, however, even if we indulge into serious relationships, even if we’re committed, we’re at the end of the day alone. Yet, being alone-alone is not like being alone-in-a-relationship. The latter poses the fundamental question, What is it being-with-an-Other?, which the alone-alone would not even dare to question. How to “be” “with” that Other, whether another being, or non-being, remains the fundamental dilemma of our times.

I did not buy this story of the Wall Street broker who all of a sudden turns as photographer of prostitutes and drug users in the larger New York area in order to “discover” the existence of God in himself, like a medieval sufi, leaving behind all speculative wealth—and atheism. It seems that in both instances—from Wall Street to the drug addicts and the prostitutes—there is a jouissance of excess: from the excesses of speculative capital to those of the deterioration of body and soul. In both instances, however, there is that jouissance that emerges from the deterioration-as-excess. It could be reformulated as the “quest for excitement,” to use Norbert Elias’ formulation of sports in general. As to the photography on Flickr, it has a blatant voyeuristic element into it which could be termed “enjoying the pain of others.” The top photographers of the last century have come to realize that what remains outside the frame, and which is left at the viewer’s discretion, is equally important, if not more crucial, than what we see on the “screen” in front of us. In the photography depicting drug addicts and prostitutes in the New York area, we’re told in every frame that “there must be something important to see,” which is right in front of us, and, frankly, as a viewer, I find myself deprived of my imaginative powers, like bombarded with pornographic images. How is this related to God’s existence and religion? The thesis that there is an atheistic rupture between Wall Street and God neither makes sense historically nor sociologically. Max Weber has amply demonstrated the correlations between the Protestant ethic and capitalism. More importantly, the entire history of capitalism, since its inception in the Italian city-states in the 13th and 14th centuries points to a process of “accommodation” between the Church and capitalism, so that, for example, usury is “approved” in spite of earlier prohibitions in both Christianity and Judaism. So let’s not think even for a moment that our financial markets are godless! It is precisely because God is dead, that prohibitions are all over the place, that nothing is permitted. Because religion cannot serve anymore as that grandiose framework that encompasses all aspects of life, God must be exhausted at the sight of all those folks who turn towards him for help, like our broker-cum-photographer: God is in deep pain, not at the sight of drug addicts and prostitutes (he is not into social security), however, but at all those morons who “discover” him all of a sudden—asking for help, because they lost faith in the financial markets!