Category Archives: Faculty Fellows Seminar

Keeping Your Story Straight: Narrative & Storytelling in Dispute Mediation

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

The Faculty Fellows seminar for December 5th was led by Dr. Madeline Maxwell, Professor in the Department of Communication Studies in the Moody College of Communication. In addition to discussing her research on conflict resolution, Dr. Maxwell discussed her work as founder and organizer of the UT Project on Conflict Resolution and the graduate portfolio program in Dispute and Conflict Resolution. Maxwell’s seminar took an unusual turn into introducing her topic, adding a note of intrigue in the form of a game.

Maxwell began by describing the disputes she mediates as ones that can threaten clients’ well-being fundamentally because of the risk they pose to clients’ personal narrative. Solutions, she noted, are often secondary to the issue of having a story that clients can tell themselves about the dispute and its resolution. She also discussed her plans to eventually write about storytelling in mediation, as well as mediation and conflict resolution as educational modalities. Teaching negotiation tactics can often be effective ways of teaching people how to work together and how to compromise, pedagogy that she has into practice with the Global Ethics and Conflict Resolution Summer Symposium. The Symposium provides high school students the opportunity to learn conflict resolution skills that apply to everything from personal disputes to global issues. Maxwell stated she would like to further explore the benefits of communication and conflict resolution skills training in education alongside her current work.

Maxwell then informed the group that they would be doing a short exercise to demonstrate the ways in which storytelling often coincides with conflict resolution. Two Fellows selected by Maxwell read from a prepared script, telling a fragmented story of two seemingly separate, unconnected events. The rest of the group was permitted to ask the two readers any question they liked about the stories, with the caveat that the readers could only answer “yes” or “no.” The goal, Maxwell explained, was to uncover the full story connecting the two incidents. The Fellows had a lively Q&A, though several details still seemed unclear. Finally, Maxwell and the volunteered Fellows told the entire story.

Through this exercise, Maxwell provided further context for her work, noting the fungibility of words and the inexact science of interpreting disputants’ meanings. Maxwell explained that disputants in mediation will often have spoken or unspoken agreements about what is to be disclosed in the session, which further complicate the role of the mediator. The seminar closed with a discussion of Maxwell’s future projects and goals, as well as a discussion of mediating as a profession and the  relationship between leadership and mediation. Maxwell explained that teaching leadership skills isn’t a matter of teaching people to be assertive, or forcing people into a perceived best outcome. Rather, it’s a process of listening, compromising, and actively finding an agreeable outcome for everyone in a group–what might be called a common story.

 

The New Narrative of Oaths of Peace

By Kathryn North, HI Program Coordinator

A. Azfar Moin, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, began his Faculty Fellows seminar by drawing attention to a map of the dissemination of Islam. The geographic representation painted a surprising picture: the Indian subcontinent (specifically Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) is and has been home to the largest population of Muslims in the world. Moin noted that many may find this fact unexpected because, for the most part, the history of Islam has melded into the history of the Middle East (thanks to the legacies of 19th century Euro-centric historical representations). For this reason, Moin sees one of the primary goals of his new book project, Oaths of Peace: Sovereignty and Political Theology in Islam, as correcting this asymmetrical teleology – that is, he aims to “recast Islam in a new narrative frame – a deep history of biblical monotheism that moves through ‘Asia’ rather than the ‘Middle East’.” Each chapter of the proposed book will focus on an illustrative historical context through which Moin will trace back the long and complex chronicle of events bound by a common thread. In other words, the primary questions at stake for the Fellows and future readers of this work are: what assumptions about Islam can be reconsidered by decentering its focal point and what stories can we uncover by changing the dominant teleological narrative?

For the December 19th seminar, the Faculty Fellows read a draft of Moin’s opening chapter on “oath-taking” and “peace-making,” “Oaths of Peace.” In his manuscript, Moin explains that before Islam expanded into the “polytheistic” Asian context, there was no provision for a peace (sulh) oath to be solemnized. Generally, in the premodern world, for an oath (or, a “curse-in-waiting”) to have validity it had to be sworn on something both parties deemed significantly solemn. Since the time of early Islam, “people of the book” (i.e. Abrahamic “monotheists”) could legitimately swear on the God of Abraham to seal an oath. However, as Islam expanded, Islamic sovereigns faced a critical dilemma: clearly, oaths had to be taken to maintain order, but if a king were to accept an oath by a non-monotheist, he would be open to accusations of subverting the law of the Qur’an. To better understand the severity of this transgression, the Fellows read selections from Jan Assmann’s The Price of Monotheism (2009), wherein Assmann argues that the shift from the dominance of “polytheistic” to “monotheistic” religions were marked by moments that define the “Mosaic distinction” (2009). Assmann claims that, “what seems critical…is not the distinction between the One God and many gods but the distinction between truth and falsehood in religion, between the true god and false gods, true doctrine and false doctrine, knowledge and ignorance, belief and unbelief” (2009, p.2). In other words, accepting the oath of an “unbeliever” on a “false god” was tantamount to apostasy. Therefore, how was a king to govern a “pagan” people?

The hegemonic narrative used to answer this question is that conversion was, for all intents and purposes, the predominant method implemented by the premodern Islamic empire. Conversion, so the story goes, offered a silver-bullet solution to all problems of governance and control (not to mention ethics and religion). However, Moin notes that historians do point to an exception: the policy of religious “tolerance” practiced during the reign of the Mughal empire in India. According to the established narrative, the Mughals were eccentrics but pragmatic; to be able to rule with any sort of expediency in this polytheistic outpost of Islam, Akbar (16th century) took a hard turn away from the monotheistic practice of the day and implemented the policy of sulh-i kull, translated as “universal peace” (or “peace with all”).

Moin agrees that Akbar’s language of accommodation (i.e. viewing…“all sects of religion with the single eye of favor”) was bold and unorthodox in that it essentially claimed authority above God. In fact, ultimately the Mughal’s sulh-i kull allowed the king to accept oaths from members of other religions as they could swear on the king himself as a divine being. However, Moin argues that much groundwork had already been laid by Islamic sovereigns prior to Akbar’s reign and that such claims had to be derived from some existing authority – however, the techniques used by previous Muslim kings had also gone awry of established monotheistic doctrine.

By the 16th century, Akbar (and the Mughals who followed) had inherited both the problem of accepting oaths from non-monotheists as well as the precedents to be able to claim ultimate authority. For instance, Chinggis Khan, one of Mughal dynasty’s most important forefathers, and a “pagan”, brought a return to pre-monotheistic “sacred kingship” during his reign. After defeating the caliphate in 1258, the Mongols declared Chinggis Khan to be “the living god” or god on earth – establishing a narrative of the king as divine. If we look further back, prior to the Mongols, Mahmud, a Ghaznavid mamluk (“slave”) who came to rule Ghazna in the 11th century, provides us with an example of “peace-making” in the non-monotheistic context. After besieging Kalinjar, Mahmud, in addition to spoils, accepted a finger from the Hindu ruler in exchange for peace. However, the symbol of amputation being a Hindu one, the conquered ruler also had to wear a robe of investiture that carried the sacred authority of the Caliphal, the Islam authority. While Islamic sovereignty in this era was manifested in a concrete form, this sovereignty, nonetheless, made it possible to accept oaths from those who were not “people of the book” – an important precedent, as Moin shows.

The Fellows posed a number of historical questions on early Islam, specifically, and premodern oath-taking and religions, in general. Additionally, the group asked Moin to expound on his view of “sovereignty” and “sacred kingship.” To this, Moin responded that, while most scholars would claim that “sovereignty” is a post-nation-state notion that has no place in the premodern context, in reality, issues of governance and territoriality have always been with us. For this reason, early-modern notions of sovereignty can and should be equated with kingship. Similarly, Schmitt’s “political theology” is illustrative for showing that “sacred kingship” was common prior to the expansion of monotheism. Moin explained that Mughal-era sacred kingship was the subject of his first book, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam (2014, Columbia University Press), and he aims to move beyond South Asia and the Mughals in his forthcoming work.

Many of the Fellows were aware of the recent Indian legislation (and subsequent rioting) that denies refugee status to Muslims through the Citizenship Amendment Bill – making Moin’s and the work of his colleagues in this field all the more timely and critical. Moin recently organized a workshop titled “Peace with All Religions (Sulh-i Kull): Indo Persian Political Theology and Cosmopolitanism”, which followed a semester-long seminar series sponsored by UT’s South Asia Institute, bringing this conversation to the wider academic community. If the interest and enthusiasm shown by the Fall 2019 Faculty Fellows is representative, Oaths of Peace: Sovereignty and Political Theology in Islam is sure to be an influential work in shaping the teleological narrative of Islam’s past, and hopefully, this more nuanced history can be used to better guide the current narrative.

Soldiers, Kings, and the Ethics of Ethnography

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

On October 24 the Faculty Fellows seminar was led by Jason De León, Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the prizewinning book, The Land of Open Graves. Previous to the seminar, Dr. de Leon gave a Distinguished Visiting Lecture on his work titled “Soldiers and Kings: A Photoethnography of Human Smuggling Across Mexico,” covering research for an upcoming book and a range of topics including masculinity, representation, radical reflexivity and anxiety, and the ethics of ethnography. 

Dr. De León began the seminar with an introduction to his evolving research methodology, beginning with his early career as a Mesoamerican archeologist studying volcanic glass tools. While working in archeological excavations, De León became interested in the narratives and stories of the workmen digging alongside archeologists, including stories of the border and migration. De León’s work evolved into documenting material culture around the border, particularly in the Arizona desert, taking stock of material goods people take to cross the border, and noting what is left behind in the journey or in makeshift “rest stops.”  Having archived 8,000 different objects at UCLA, De León’s work developed into the Undocumented Migrant Project, a multidisciplinary research project that includes his most recent artistic collaboration, Hostile Terrain 94. This latest project is a participatory installation composed of roughly 3,200 handwritten toe tags representing migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert between the mid-1990s and 2019. De León noted that his most recent book project will further explore issues at the border, focusing on smuggling and smugglers. 

Fellows questioned De León’s stated uneasiness with both ethnography and exhibition, which he had expanded on during his introduction. He admitted that though he currently views the exhibition and museum space as a place of potential experimentation, he initially worried that museum spaces presented too neat of a narrative, a problem he similarly faced in anthropology. Additionally, he wanted to avoid fetishizing the objects he archived, or setting migrants at a remove from the curator or audience. Yet he noted that the art space provides an opportunity for people to be made uncomfortable, or to be moved, allowing De León more freedom to craft a specific message or statement than in a written narrative. 

Fellows additionally interrogated De León’s depiction of smugglers, namely, how he would avoid either slipping into stereotyping or valorizing his subjects. De León stated that his aim is to undermine the typical narratives of smugglers made by the U.S. federal government and border patrol, presenting smugglers  as people who have done bad–even terrible–things, but also as people responding to a complex set of circumstances, from economic hardship to labor pull to interventionist policies on the part of the U.S. itself. He discussed the issues attendant on choosing to craft this book as one for a more general audience, noting that he wanted to write a book that would have the impact of fiction with the theoretical heft of academic ethnography. Fellows remarked on the clarity and compelling quality of his work, and the seminar closed with anticipation for his book and exhibition (which may be mounted in Austin–stay tuned!). 

Making “Bread Money”: The Art and Labor of Turkish Roman Musicians

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

The Faculty Fellows Seminar held on October 17th was led by Sonia Seeman, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology in the Butler School of Music. Dr. Seeman presented the group with a series of works that tied together several years’ worth of research and writing on the music and musicianship of Turkish Roman (“Gypsy”) communities. Dr. Seeman’s new project, titled Bread Money–Musical Movement: Narrating Turkish Roman Musicians’ Lives, seeks to offer a that explores music as laboring activity, her person- and family-centered narrative to complement her previous book, Sounding Roman: Musical Performance and Representation in Western Turkey. Seeman opened the seminar first by asking the group what in the readings left them with questions, with the need for clarification, or the desire for expansion, as well as a broader question: what is it we, as academics, narrativize?

Seeman noted that her project began with a reimagining of what goes into research, and what goes into narrative. Sounding Roman had left her with an abundance of stories, relationships, and connections to the people whose music and lives she had researched. Yet she found that only some of these depictions fit into her first book and some of her academic articles. Seeman discussed how she needs to consider her accountability not only to a scholarly community, but to the communities she represents–as well as to a more diverse reading audience. Musician families hold a mythic status for Turkish Roman communities, Seeman noted, and she seeks to both relate the mythic and the everyday realities. Seeman described the project as a “quilt” of stories, motives, and material, some of which were still in the process of being sewn together.

Many Fellows commented on Seeman’s use of the term “aesthetic labor” to describe the work of Turkish Roman musicians. Seeman noted that most Turkish Roman musicians come from musical lineages–musicianship, in other words, is seen as a family trade, and as an aesthetic trade first and foremost. Though music is frequently seen in Western culture as a pursuit of leisure, Turkish Roman musicians see the act as something to make “bread money,” or money that “puts food on the table.” Their labor, though aesthetic, is still skilled labor, requiring years of training and practice, usually from childhood. Some Fellows questioned whether this conception of labor has been shifted even further by technology, reimagining the bounds of music distribution.

Technology was a further consideration for Seeman’s overall project. Fellows discussed Seeman’s interest in expanding her book project into a hyperlinked text, or a larger digital repository and resource to scholars and students. But Seeman noted that she wants to balance providing an open digital archive with creating an immersive and engaging narrative. Such considerations led her and the group to thinking about Seeman’s own place in the narrative. Ethnomusicology, as she noted, often placed the researcher in the position of being a participant-scholar. Becoming part of the cultural landscape was important to Seeman’s understanding of her musician subjects and of the music that they play. But the process of participating, as Seeman noted, additionally opened up new stories, new avenues, and new friendships–all of which, the Fellows agreed, deserved a place in the ultimate story.