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The Contested Landscape Of Jerusalem

The Review

John Matthew Barlow discusses University of Tel Aviv archeologist Raphael Greenberg's new research on the dig at Wadi Hilweh, and its political and cultural ramifications for Israelis and Palestinians.


  • Contested Jerusalem


    John Matthew Barlow discusses University of Tel Aviv archeologist Raphael Greenberg's new research on the dig at Wadi Hilweh, and its political and cultural ramifications for Israelis and Palestinians.


  • The Occidental Guerrilla

    Book Review

    Michael A. Innes reviews David Kilcullen's new book The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. A timely and astute synthesis of experience, research and analysis, the author pinpoints the political shear between minority existential threats to US interests and the majority of the world's locally invested guerrillas who just want to be left alone.


  • Architecture & Biopolitics


    Berlin-based writer Daniel Miller's October 2008 interview with Swedish philosopher and SITE Magazine Editor-In-Chief Sven-Olov Wallenstein, on his new book Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009).


  • Wired For War


    The second symposium in CTlab's 2009 series, focused on Peter Singer's new book, Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (Penguin Press: 2009), ran from 30 March to 2 April. Singer and half a dozen scholars from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Austria debated the use and ethics of robots in war.


  • The Limits Of "Security"

    Current Intelligence

    Kenneth Anderson explores the link between international financial instability and global security in response to Judy Shelton's recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.



A Tear In The Consciousness: Irony, Secrecy, and Dissimulation

The latest issue of Harper's includes a tongue-in-cheek proposal for a study of "weaponized irony" (not, not iron-working; the "it's ironical" kind of irony), and development of a sort of semantic mapping technology, the "Ironic Cloud". According to Harper's, "Last winter, Lockheed Martin Corporation approached Princeton University with a request for research initiatives." Sounds like a Minerva sub-contract." In April, [D. Graham] Burnett, an historian of science, and [Jeff] Dolven, a professor of English, submitted the proposal, the cost of which they estimated to be $750,000; Princeton declined to forward it to Lockheed." The opening para reads:

Irony is a powerful and incompletely understood feature of human dynamics. A technique for dissimulation and “secret speech,” irony is considerably more complex than lying and even more dangerous. Ideally suited to mobilization on the shifting terrain of asymmetrical conflict, inherently covert, insidiously plastic, politically potent, irony offers rogue elements a volatile if often overlooked means by which to demoralize opponents and destabilize regimes. And yet while major research resources have for forty years poured into the human sciences from the defense and intelligence community in an effort to gain control over the human capacity to lie (investments that led to the modern polygraph, sodium pentothal–derived truth serums, “brain fingerprinting,” etc.), we have no comparable tradition of sustained, empirical, applied investigation into irony. We know very little about its specific manifestations in foreign cultures; we understand almost nothing about the neurological basis of its expression; we are without forward-looking strategies for its mastery and mobilization in the interest of national defense. This project–a sustained three-year, three-pronged, interdisciplinary investigation, drawing on social scientists, engineers, and neurobiologists—will position Lockheed Martin for field leadership in a crucial new area of strategic and commercial growth.

This doesn't really convey the satire that comes up elsewhere in the proposal, so I'd encourage readers to check it out for themselves.

Lisa Wynn at Culture Matters asks whether anyone knows "of other examples of this wonderful genre of grant proposal as parodic critique of the funding source?" There are elements of the proposal, though, that are actually well grounded in serious research. I'm thinking now of Mariane C. Ferme's The Underneath of Things: Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone (University of California Press, 2001). Or more recently, Maria Dakake's summer 2006 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, "Hiding In Plain Sight: The Practical and Doctrinal Significance Of Secrecy In Shi'ite Islam."

There's a thick literature on the subject of psychosocial compartmentation, and it speaks directly to the ideas in the Burnett/Dolven proposal. Their version: "the general mechanism is clear enough: irony manifestly involves a sudden and profound “doubling” of the inner life of the human subject. The ironizer no longer maintains an integrated and holistic perspective on the topic at hand but rather experiences something like a small tear in the consciousness, whereby the overt and covert meanings of a given text or expression are sundered."

Dakake's work on medieval Shi'ism suggests a variation on their theme, grounded in practices of religious secrecy and dissimulation:

The doctrinal importance of secrecy in early Shi`ism parallels the importance of secrecy in other traditions, particularly mystical or esoteric traditions, such as Kabbalah in Judaism or even Sufi mysticism within Islam itself; and the Shi`ite practice of secrecy and dissimulation as a strategy of survival and self-perpetuation has much in common with similar tactics employed by other minority or threatened religious communities, such as those discussed by Hugh Urban or Paul Johnson. However, the role of secrecy in Shi`ism differs from all of these cases in that it is a historical case—that is, while active dissimulation (taqiyyah) may still be employed by Shi`ites today for a variety of practical purposes, the widespread practice of secrecy and dissimulation was limited primarily to the early, formative period of Shi`ism, when the revered line of Shi`ite spiritual leaders, the Imams, was physically present and actively guiding their community. While other scholars have argued for reserving judgment on the content of secrecy, while concentrating on the more empirically knowable and verifiable strategies and sociological effects of secrecy, with early Shi`ism, we have a case in which much (if not all) of this content is now published and widely known, and has been for many centuries. From this aspect, we are in a much better position in this case to examine and understand the relationship between the practical and doctrinal importance of religious secrecy, and between the content of secrets and the social strategies they serve, though, from another aspect, we are at a disadvantage.

Dakake, Maria. (2006). "Hiding in Plain Sight: The Practical and Doctrinal Significance of Secrecy in Shi'ite Islam." Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 74 (2), 324-355 DOI: 10.1093/jaarel/lfj086

Reader Comments (2)

Superb. It took a while for Sokal to be revealed ...

Jul 13, 2009 at 7:33 | Unregistered CommenterTim Stevens

Mike Innes:

Is a "tongue-in-cheek" proposal" also an "ironic" proposal by definition? Then we'd have a double irony, and be in Godel-Escher-Bach territory.

I really wish I could read the Dakake, but don't have a library to borrow from.

A very nice post, in any case.

Jul 14, 2009 at 16:19 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Cameron

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