PROFESSORS OF ENGLISH TRY THEIR HAND AT MAPPING
The Observation Gallery on the 30th floor of the University’s Eshkol Building seemed an appropriate setting for the three-day conference on “Mapping Cultural Spaces,” held at the University in December.
The mapping, undertaken by a number of scholars from English Departments around the world and two geographers from the University, involved physical and literary as well as cultural space. The equality between worldly and heavenly space, the relationship between matter and spirit, and the comparison of the external cosmos without with the internal world in the minds of people all featured in this mapping.
Thomas More’s Utopia is based on the Greek pun that the good place, “eu-topos,” is no place, “u-topos,” Dr. Elliot Simon, Senior Lecturer in the Department of English, reminded his listeners. Simon finds More’s Utopia a “monstrous world that has re-drawn the cultural map and imposed one’s own ideas. It calls for a refashioning of human nature, and is the fusion of actual and imaginary cultures.” In the end, though, More may have thought of his Utopia as the “good place” existing “no place” other than in his imagination.
“In his fear of the carnal world and forbidden knowledge, Poe used art as a protective sanctuary,” said the University’s Prof. William Freedman of the 19th-century American mystery writer, Edgar Allan Poe. The beautiful, unearthly woman in many of his stories personifies the work of art in which she appears. The decay and subsequent death of such women symbolize the failure of art to exclude the realities that both underlie and threaten the aesthetic refuge.
In Freedman’s opinion, the (feminized) faces of reality and truth that Poe regarded as too horrible to describe destabilized his writing. What many critics describe as shrewdly manipulative vagueness or indeterminacy, Professor Freedman regards as a cover for the “morbid truths that the writer was prepared to glimpse but not expose.”
Poe’s fiction, then, is an expression of the author’s anxiety and ambivalence; they are tales of his own, at least partially futile effort to escape the realities of sex, decay, and death through art. Freeman pointed to The Masque of the Red Death, in which the Duke creates a beautiful and fantastic sanctuary inside an abbey as a retreat from the plague that threatens without. His is a “place of art” that, like the tale it inhabits, is designed as a refuge from the ravages of mortality. Reality, however, cannot be kept out.
The triumph, in Freedman’s interpretation, belongs to Poe in the end. The Red Death itself is discovered to be nothing but a costume, a fiction, devoid of bodily substance. The tale is indeed an aesthetic sanctuary.
Poe’s narratives, Freedman concluded, are like a map, but one that is ambivalent: they both point to and struggle to keep hidden a terrible treasure. Poe’s tales are often uninterpretable or incoherent, he explained, because embodying that ambivalence they are a confusing dance of attraction and recoil, exposure, and concealment.
Mapping the formation of modern Persian identity, Prof. Negar Mottahedeh of the University of Minnesota talked about the unveiling of the Babi poetess, Qurrat al-’Ayn Tahirih.
The Babi movement and its believers, followers of the Bab, who was born in Persia in 1817, were persecuted for their credo of equality, including that for the status of women. The poetess unveiled at a conference before true believers of the Bab in 1844. In the strict Moslem perception, an unveiled woman is considered to be naked. Along with the unveiling of women, the popularity of the Bab’s teaching posed a threat to the Islamic way of life, and the Babis were finally exiled.
Mottahedeh charged that this persecution of the Babis was aided by the strict Shiite clergy and government, who condoned murder and promised life in the hereafter for those killed during the fight against the revolutionary catalysts of the modern state. In her opinion, this persecution, directed as it was against any form of foreignness, Western influence, or feminism, laid the groundwork for the construction of present-day Iran.
Traveling farther East and covering the mapping of borders and culture of India, Radha Chakravarty, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Delhi, brought to the conference’s attention a collection of stories, originally written in Bengali, by Mahasweta Devi, entitled Imaginary Maps. “It is an enterprise in utopian cartography in more than one sense,” she said.
In the appendix, the translator/editor of the book, Chakravarty continued, refers to the “Fourth World,” a collective term for aboriginal societies across the globe whose prior territorial claims have been erased from world maps. In the translator’s view, the Indian lecturer said, those maps are created by the political forces of imperialism and the economics of the World Bank.
The book, Imaginary Maps, is concerned primarily with the lives of tribals in Eastern Indian and the disruption of tradition. The translator’s interpretation, according to Chakravarty, who is wife of the Indian Chargé d’Affaires in Israel, “is an attempt to deconstruct officially sanctioned boundaries rather than [constitute] a nostalgic desire to restore a ‘lost’ idyllic order.”
For the reader who cannot access these stories in the original Bengali, she said, the politics of translation adds a further level of “displacement of meaning.” According to Chakravarty, if map-making has traditionally been a way of carving out territory by drawing borders, Imaginary Maps both demonstrates and challenges this process.
Back to earth and the present day, an Israeli cultural oxymoron was examined by Dr. Maoz Azaryahu, Lecturer in the Geography Department.
In 1949, a modest memorial to fallen soldiers of the Golani Brigade was built at a junction--hence its name, Golani Junction--north of Haifa, in the Lower Galilee. An official monument was put up ten years later, and then a museum was built on the site in the early 1980s to further emphasize and commemorate the Golani Brigade.
“The Golani Junction was exclusively identified with the Golani Brigade and Israeli cultural values,” Azaryahu stated. “Until 1994, when a McDonald’s was built on a site adjacent to the national shrine.” This, he said, raised a conflict of meaning that converted the area into a contested site. The famous golden arches constituted a “counter monument” that challenged the meaning of the memorial and the cultural values it enshrined.
“The controversy also pertained to a wider cultural debate within Israeli society,” Azaryahu explained. “McDonald’s is not just a restaurant, but a cultural symbol of the Americanization of Israeli culture and society.” The geographer remarked on the fact that news stories about McDonald’s, from its first arrival in Israel, often captured front-page headlines and were not relegated to the business/ economic section of the media here.
That the Golani Junction case caused great unhappiness to bereaved parents, who felt that their memorial was losing out to commercialism, was reported in great detail, he said. Headlines such as “Jewish Values for Cheap Western Commercialization,” “Our People Contaminated with Americanization,” “Zionism in the Age of McDonald’s” fueled the controversy. On the other hand, a Golani soldier was quoted as saying, “Without a Mac, I’d be dead.”
The late Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister at the time, agreed that the memorial site was important and had to have visible prominence over a restaurant, and appointed a cabinet minister to find a solution. The result: cosmetic surgery. The size of signs on the site was changed so that it would appear that the importance of McDonald’s was reduced. McDonald’s also donated a new Golani sign and planted trees on the site. In Azaryahu’s opinion, however, nothing really changed. “It is a good example of how one place shows the two cultural options of Israel society.”
New York-born Dr. Ben-Zion Cohen, a senior lecturer in the School of SWork, began his affiliation with University of Haifa 30 years ago. As though to cement this relationship further, his son, Haifa-born Jonathan, also teaches here.
“The University is big enough to cause no problems by having a father in the same working place,” said the younger Cohen, a Lecturer in the Department of Communications. “In fact, very few of my colleagues know my father, as my department is relatively new.” He himself has had no difficulty in adapting to many different academic relationships. “When I was young,” Cohen explained, “University staff were friends of my father. Then when I was a student here in the B.A. Sociology Honors Program, they were my teachers. Now they are colleagues.”
Cohen pére freely admitted that he found it very pleasant to be in the same environment as his son. This is substantiated by their first joint research, on how types of communicators fare in social work, which was accepted for publication in the journal, International Social Work. Ben-Zion Cohen said that they had other joint ventures in the pipeline.
Ben-Zion Cohen made aliya in 1961, after completing his Master’s in Social Work at the University of California at Los Angeles. Having earned a B.Sc. in Religion from Columbia University and a B.R.E. from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, he had the proficiency in Hebrew language to enable him obtain work in his field.
“I wanted to work in the probation service,” he recalled. “I knocked on doors, and finally was offered a job in either Ashkelon or Haifa. Haifa won, and I immediately sent for my wife and daughter to join me. My first connection with the University came as a part-time adjunct instructor in the School of Social Work thirty years ago, [when the fledgling institution was a branch of the Hebrew University].
Eventually the call to an academic life took over completely, and fifteen years ago Cohen became a full-time Senior Lecturer here. “Since I first started,” he remarked, “the School [of Social Work] has grown 20 times larger.”
Many changes to the campus have, of course, occurred over this period. Not all of them are to Cohen’s taste. “I am not at all in favor of the commercial enterprise taking place,” Ben-Zion Cohen said, talking about the line of shops--a sort of mini-shopping-mall on Campus--constructed in the air space over the underground parking lot below the Main Building. His son’s reaction was the opposite. Jonathan Cohen felt it would be beneficial to both students and staff. The elder Cohen interjected that the shops already on Campus were sufficient (one multi-purpose shop covering books/computers and small items, a mini-market, and a travel agency). During the interview this was the only point of disagreement between father and son.
Ben-Zion Cohen’s main area of research concerns issues in criminology. “This country, fortunately, has not yet gone the way of the United States, where social work has little to say about criminal justice,” he commented. “Drug increase has played a major part on the Israeli criminal scene during the past ten years. In my opinion, the rehabilitation idea is still alive in Israel, and treatment programs are having some success.” At the present time, he is conducting a series of studies on people’s willingness to ask for help.
“Communication,” the younger Cohen pointed out, “is an academic department, not a school for learning a profession, and I make that fact very clear to my students. I research the social and psychological effects of mass communication, with special emphasis on television. The courses in the department teach students concepts that can be used in many fields, such as advertising, public relations, and media relations.”
Jonathan Cohen is now involved in three projects: research into the media of the religious community (see Focus, Spring 97), and ascertaining how youth relate to the different characters in an Israeli television “soap,” “Ramat Aviv Gimmel.” A third research is being conducted in cooperation with the Minerva Center for Youth Policy (see Focus, Winter 96/97). It is a study in progress about how patterns of television-viewing affect attitudes toward crime and criminals.
This University is not the only academic institution that has had the two Cohens, father and son, at the same time. Jonathan Cohen received his Ph.D. in Communication Theory and Research from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. In his final year there, his father was a visiting professor in that university’s School of Social Work.