Using interdisciplinary research to complicate the argument

Using interdisciplinary research to complicate the argumentProfessor and John Charles Hillis Chair in Literature Ali Behdad. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Ali Behdad, the new director of CNES, aims to promote collaborative interdisciplinary research that advances knowledge of the complex history, culture and traditions of the Middle East.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, September 24, 2018 —Ali Behdad, who became director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) on July 1, began his academic career with hopes of specializing in Persian literature. In the decade following the U.S. hostage crisis in Iran, however, a dearth of research and professional opportunities in that field led him to the discipline of comparative literature, rather than focusing more narrowly on a single literary tradition.

“My first book [Belated Travelers: Orientalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution (Duke, 1994)] examines representations of the Middle East in European literary traditions,” explains Behdad. “And while my research since then extends beyond literary studies, I have always maintained a scholarly interest in the Middle East,” he adds. Most recently, Behdad has turned his attention to the subject of photography, noting, “My latest book — Camera Orientalis: Reflections on Photography of The Middle East (Chicago, 2016) — explores the history of photography in the Middle East.”

Behdad joined UCLA in 1993 with a dual appointment in the departments of English and comparative literature. Some 25 years — and five books — later, he is Professor and John Charles Hillis Chair in Literature and teaches in departments and programs across the College of Letters and Science.

In addition to his “home” department of English, Behdad currently offers courses in comparative literature and the International Institute’s Global Studies Program. He holds additional affiliations with the department of Near Eastern languages and literatures and the Program in Digital Humanities. In fact, Behdad — who clearly enjoys the opportunity to teach both undergraduates and graduate students alike — recently taught the Global Studies Travel Study Program in Paris (“Global Challenges in Post-Colonial France) for the first time this summer.

“I use teaching as a platform to explore ideas I'm interested in, but also to help students improve their critical thinking,” he remarks. “I think that as teachers, our most important contribution is to enable students engage in critical analysis and critical thinking — these are crucial competencies in an age of information, and skills that lie at the very heart of humanistic research.”

“What do you do when 30 or 40 percent of U.S. citizens believe that Obama is a Muslim and was born in Africa?” he asks. “We have to see if there are ways in which we — as teachers, as academics, as scholars — can counter misinformation and make people more aware of the kind of misrepresentations that are occurring [in our society].”

Multidimensional research

“I sometimes tell people that I'm a jack of all trades, master of none. That's actually the best definition I know of what it really means to be a comparativist,” remarks Behdad. “As a scholar, my interests are interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and even trans-historical,” he says. Whether he is writing about travel literature, postcolonial theory, immigration in the United States or photography in the Middle East, Behdad strives to speak to scholars and students across a wide range of disciplines and perspectives. Doing so takes a great deal of care and time, Behdad explains. “I tend to work on a book for a good decade before I can move on to the next project,” he says.

Speaking of  “A Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States" (Duke, 2005), he reflects, “You cannot understand immigration if you only focus on historical trends. You may understand a certain aspect of the phenomenon and you may develop a sense of general tendencies. But the sociology of immigration is also very important, as is legal scholarship, which can complicate broad-scale analysis by bringing the impact of immigration policy on individual lives into view,” he continues.

Current events have recently underscored the enduring relevance of this earlier work, which explores Americans’ “amnesia” about the history of immigration in the United States. Specifically, a willful amnesia of the conquest of Native Americans, the exploitation of enslaved Africans and the annexation of French and Mexican territories.

“The U.S. has historically vacillated — and this goes back to the debate between Hamilton and Jefferson — between what I call xenophilia and xenophobia,” explains Behdad. The image of the United States as an immigrant nation, he observes, fails to acknowledge that it was founded on the exclusion of those considered “others” and the exploitation of those to whom the rights of citizenship were not guaranteed. “Even the white people who came in the 19th century, many of them as indentured laborers, had to work on farms and pay their debt bondage back before they had their freedom,” he says.

“I think that an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge is really where we can produce new insights,” Behdad comments. “Sometimes,” he adds, “it takes a spirit of what Edward Said called ‘amateurism.’ But importantly, amateurism is not about being a dilettante,” he explains. “Amateurism means having curiosity and being always genuinely interested in expanding your own knowledge as if you were a new student.”

In order to write his latest book, "Camera Orientalis," for example, Behdad spent a year at the Getty Research Institute as a Consortium Scholar. He was one of the few in his cohort who was not an art historian. There he focused on learning about 19th-century photography as an artistic practice, including how to discern the difference between, say, an albumen print, a salt print and a silver gelatin print.

"Camera Orientalis" makes a number of compelling arguments, among them, that photography in the Middle East is an essential part of the history of photography. For early photographers, the sunlight in the region proved ideal for using the new technology, which was immediately and widely used by archaeologists and explorers across Europe and in the region to document ancient ruins and historical sites. Photographers from the Middle East began working in the field almost as soon as the first photographic devices were developed, leaving behind a body of work that has yet to be sufficiently examined.

As Behdad demonstrates, photography also played a large part in colonial involvement in the region, with members of French, British, Italian and Russian foreign delegations photographing royalty and everyday people in many countries, including in Iran. At the same time, he shows that Persian and Ottoman rulers in the 19th century used photography extensively both to represent their power and as an act of power.

A broader view of “Orientalism”

Behdad’s scholarship has been widely recognized for creating a broader framework for studies of Orientalism, one that has given the theory renewed relevance. “I think that Orientalism as a monolithic discourse that the West projects on the region offers an invaluable, but in certain ways, too limited perspective from which to understand the significance and impact of the multidirectional and transnational dimensions of encounters between the West and the Middle East,” he says.

“What I have tried to do, both in my first book and in 'Camera Orientalis,' is to complicate what we call Orientalism,” he continues, “by arguing that it is not just something that the West does to the East, but a broader phenomenon that crosses national and historical boundaries.”

In "Belated Travelers," for example, Behdad highlights that French and British Victorian scholar-travelers to the Orient in the 19th century were a diverse group for whom Orientalism represented not simply (in Said’s terminology) a “will to power,” but also a desire for the Orient. “I tried to show,” says Behdad, “how Orientalism is a much more plural, diverse and ambivalent set of discourses and practices than just a unidirectional, monolithic representation.”

In "Camera Orientalis," Behdad further complicates Said’s original argument. Following the work of Ussama Makdisi and others, he asserts that Orientalist discourse goes both ways. “For example, as the Ottomans or the Persians were trying to represent themselves to the world [through photography], they, too, were relying on a certain Orientalist vision,” he explains. “They exoticized some of their own ethnic minorities and lower classes,” he continues, “representing them as if they were living in an earlier stage of human development, as opposed to living contemporaneously with people in the cities. And they exoticized their own women as well.”

Broadening the analytical paradigm for the Middle East

Given his diverse research interests and administrative experience (he is former chair of both the English and comparative literature departments), Behdad is a natural fit for the Center for Near Eastern Studies. “I'm excited about joining CNES for a variety of reasons, not only for the interdisciplinary scholarship and research, but also in terms of collaboration,” he shares. “In the sciences, you have tremendous collaboration, but in the social sciences and the humanities, we can often function as ‘lone wolves.’”

In the past, Behdad has been the principal investigator for three Mellon Foundation grants that supported collaborative research and team teaching. His vision for the Center is one in which faculty from the humanities, critical historiography, humanistic social sciences and the visual arts will work together on projects that deal with themes of shared interest, supported by a lecture series and possibly newly designed courses.

Behdad particularly hopes to lead CNES beyond an area studies approach to think about the Middle East in a global context, one that takes into account both the region and its multitudinous diasporas. “I'm excited about shifting ways of thinking about the region from what I would say is a discourse of crisis to one that represents the Middle East as a region defined by change,” he continues.

“The rich cultural traditions, histories and practices of the region have not only produced conflict,” he reflects. “Cultural and political movements also have questioned and, in significant ways, redefined the meaning of progress itself.”

This article was published earlier on the website of the Center for Near Eastern Studies.


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Published: Monday, September 24, 2018