In Memoriam: Saba Mahmood

On Saturday, March 10th, we lost a valued member of the Representations editorial board, Professor Saba Mahmood. Our thoughts go to her family and friends. She will be sorely missed.

Saba Mahmood, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, passed away on March 10th, 2018.  The cause was pancreatic cancer.  Professor Mahmood specialized in Sociocultural Anthropology and was a scholar of modern Egypt.   Born in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1962, she came to the United States in 1981 to study architecture and urban planning at the University of Washington in Seattle.   She received her PhD in Anthropology from Stanford University in 1998 and taught at the University of Chicago before coming to the University of California at Berkeley in 2004, where she offered her last seminar in fall 2017.   At Berkeley, in addition to the Anthropology Department, Professor Mahmood was affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Program in Critical Theory and the Institute for South Asia Studies (where she was instrumental in creating the Berkeley Pakistan Studies Initiative, the first of its kind in the United States).

Mahmood made path-breaking contributions to contemporary debates on secularism, opening up new ways of understanding religion in public life and contesting received assumptions about both religion and the secular.  Against an increasingly shrill scholarship denouncing Muslim societies, she brought a nuanced and educated understanding of Islam into discussions of feminist theory, ethics and politics. Her publications and presentations have reverberated throughout the humanities and social sciences, profoundly shaping the scholarship of a new generation of scholars as they develop a thoughtful, knowledgeable, and critical approach to religion in modernity.  As a scholar and teacher, she embodied and followed strong moral and political principles, offered keen analyses of colonial and capitalist power in her account of secularism’s modernity, and formulated new ways of understanding the subject of feminism, relational subjectivity, religious freedom, religious injury, the rights of religious minorities, and comparative legal analysis of religious and secular family law and sexual regulations.

Together with anthropologists Talal Asad and Charles Hirschkind, Mahmood showed secularism to be a complex political formation that produces differences among the religious traditions it seeks to regulate. In her words, “political secularism is the modern state’s sovereign power to reorganize substantive features of religious life, stipulating what religion is or ought to be, assigning its proper content, and disseminating concomitant subjectivities, ethical frameworks, and quotidian practices.” Secularism never escapes its own religious histories, nor does it ever achieve autonomy from the religious formations it aims to regulate.  In fact, the distinction between public and private life central to secular reason draws its bearings from a modern Christian emphasis on private worship. This Christian religious framework, focused on belief, contrasts sharply with religions such as Islam which foreground strongly the role on embodied practices within religious life.  As a result, she argued, secular epistemologies cannot grasp the way that Islam articulates religious values, misconstruing both the Islamic subject and the public meanings of its religious practices.

Within feminist theory, Mahmood challenged readers to understand that the pious Muslim women she studied in Cairo were not mindlessly obedient subjects, but engaged in distinct hermeneutical approaches to reading the Qur’an in schools of their own, cultivating religious practice as a form of ethical conduct.  Challenging views of subjective freedom bequeathed by Western moral philosophy, she made a bold and challenging argument: to understand pious women within Islam one had to conceive of a subject defined in its relation to the textual and imagistic representations of the divine.  Women who engaged in a religious practice of this sort, she argued, ought to be understood as engaging in ethical practices of self-cultivation. And yet, in these cases, the subject of ethics is not voluntaristic, a notion that would separate ‘free will’ from formative social and religious norms; rather, in Islam, the subject of ethics embodies a living and practiced relation to the divine, and requires a different notion of subject-formation.   One consequence of this view was made clear in her intervention in the 2006 debates on the Danish cartoons caricaturing Mohammed. Those who claimed that such images were merely offensive missed the nature of the injury itself.  Within Islam, she argued, the attack on the divine image is the same as the attack on the living and embodied self, since that self resides in that very relation.

In her last work, she studied the discrimination against Coptic Orthodox Christians in contemporary Egypt’s secular regime. Against the view that tribal and religious differences are evidence of the incomplete process of secularization, she showed how religious differences, and conflict, have been exacerbated under secular regimes of power.   She argued that the discrimination and violence suffered by Coptic Christians have increased as the modern state more fully regulated and managed religious life, imposing its own rationales onto debates about religious doctrine and practice.  Far from realizing ideals of civic and political equality, the secular state facilitated religious inequalities and inter-faith violence. Mahmood considered the norms and practices developed within Islam for negotiating religious difference, showing how such religiously informed techniques of civic governance are overridden by secular regimes of power.

Mahmood was the single author of Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton University Press, 2015) and Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton University Press, 2005) which won the Victoria Schuck Award from the American Political Science Association.  She co-authored a Is Critique Secular? (Fordham University Press, 2011) and co-edited Politics of Religious Freedom (University of Chicago, 2015).  Her work has been translated into Arabic, French, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and Polish.  She published numerous articles in the fields of anthropology, history, religious studies, political science, critical theory, feminist theory, and art criticism and served on several journal boards and read for many presses.  Professor Mahmood was the recipient of several honors and awards, including the Axel Springer Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, and fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and the University of California Humanities Research Institute. She was the recipient of a major grant from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Initiative on Religion and International Affairs as well as the Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies. She also received the Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, as well as the Andrew Carnegie Scholars’ program as a young scholar. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Uppsala in Sweden in 2013.

Saba Mahmood was a brilliant scholar, cherished colleague, and dedicated teacher and graduate mentor.   Along with her ceaseless political passions and trenchant analyses, she keened to the beauty of the wilderness, the poetry of Ghalib, the delights of cooking and sharing excellent food. She cultivated with joyous attention her relationships with family and friends. She mentored her students with remarkable care and intensity, demanding their best work, listening, responding with a sharp generosity, coming alive in thought, and soliciting others to do the same. In her final months, she affirmed the values of thought and love, leaving now a vibrant legacy that will persist and flourish among all whose lives were touched by her life and work. She is survived by her husband, Charles Hirschkind, her son, Nameer Hirschkind, and her brothers Khalid Mahmood and Tariq Mahmood.




Hilton Als in Conversation with Stephen Best

Hear Pulitzer Prize-Winning Writer HILTON ALS

Thursday, February 8, 2018, 7:30 pm
Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St., San Francisco
(Rebroadcast on KQED fm, March 18, 2018)

Hilton Als began contributing to The New Yorker in 1989, writing pieces for “The Talk of the Town.” He became a staff writer in 1994, theater critic in 2002, and lead theater critic in 2012. Week after week, he brings to the magazine a rigorous, sharp, and lyrical perspective on acting, playwriting, and directing. With his deep knowledge of the history of performance—not only in theater but also in dance, music, and visual art—he shows us how to view a production and how to place its director, its author, and its performers in the ongoing continuum of dramatic art. His reviews are not simply reviews; they are provocative contributions to the discourse on theater, race, class, sexuality, and identity in America.

Before coming to The New Yorker, Als was a staff writer for the Village Voice and an editor-at-large at Vibe. Als edited the catalog for the 1994-95 Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.” His first book, The Women, was published in 1996. His most recent book, White Girls, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2014 and winner of the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Non-fiction, discusses various narratives of race and gender. He also wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Early Stories of Truman Capote.  Als is currently working on an exploration of the literary luminary that is James Baldwin–his influences, his aspirations, and his relationships to the literary world and to himself.

Stephen Michael Best is an associate professor of English at University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Representations editorial board. He is the author of The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession, and is currently at work on a book about rumor, promiscuous speech, and slavery’s archive.

Sponsored by San Francisco’s City Arts & Lectures Series


Book Chat with David Marno

Join David Marno for a discussion of his recent book

Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention

Wednesday, Feb 7, 2018 | 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm
Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

The seventeenth-century French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche thought that philosophy could learn a valuable lesson from prayer, which teaches us how to attend to, await, and be open for what might happen next. In his book Death Be Not Proud (Chicago, 2016), Marno explores the precedents of Malebranche’s advice by reading John Donne’s poetic prayers in the context of what Marno calls the “art of holy attention.”

The event is one in a series of lunchtime Book Chats sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities at Berkeley.

After an introduction by Representations editorial board co-chair Niklaus Largier, Marno will speak briefly about his work and then open the floor for discussion.

David Marno, Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley, has recently joined the Representations editorial board. He has published on religious and secular concepts of attention, on apocalypse as a literary and political figure, and on philosophy of history and comparative literature. His current project focuses on prayer in the aftermath of the Reformation.

Gallagher on Counterfactuals

New from Catherine Gallagher!

Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction

The topic of counterfactual histories has engaged Catherine Gallagher for some time. In addition to the essays in this new book, her “When Did the Confederate States of America Free the Slaves?” was published in the special forum Counterfactual Realities in Representations 98, and “The Formalism of Military History” appeared in our 25th anniversary special issue On Form.

Catherine Gallagher is professor emerita of English at the University of California, Berkeley and a founding member of the Representations editorial board. She is the author of many books, including The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel.

“‘Splendid Propaganda’: Henry V at War,” A Public Lecture by Kent Puckett

Kent Puckett, associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and member of the Representations editorial board, will speak at an upcoming event co-sponsored by the Institute on World War II and the Human experience and Fordham University Press. His lecture, “‘Splendid Propaganda’: Henry V at War,” will focus on Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film Henry V in the context of British cinematic style, wartime writing about Shakespeare, and the philosophy of propaganda and its effects on the British homefront.

The public lecture will take place on Thursday, November 9, from 6-8pm, at the Lowenstein 12th Floor Lounge (113 West 60th Street) in New York City.

Puckett’s most recent contribution to Representations was his edited “Search Forum,” which appeared in Representations 127 (Summer 2014). Read his introduction here.

On Race in Art

Black Futures: On Race in Art, Curation, and Digital Engagement 
with Kimberly Drew in conversation with Stephen Best

Arts + Design Mondays @ BAMPFA
Monday, October 16, 6:30pm


2155 Center Street, Berkeley

Kimberly Drew has been dubbed an “international tastemaker in contemporary art” on account of her Tumblr blog Black Contemporary Art and her Instagram @museummammy. As social media manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she has been pivotal in moving that venerated institution in directions both democratic and dialogical. Drew will discuss curation, social media, race, and institutions with UC Berkeley professor Stephen Best.

Kimberly Drew is a writer and curator based in New York City. Drew received her BA from Smith College in art history and African-American studies, with a concentration in museum studies. She first experienced the art world as an intern in the director’s office of the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she was inspired her to start her blog and to pursue her interest in social media as it relates to the arts.

A member of the Representations editorial board, Stephen Best is an associate professor of English at UC Berkeley and the author of The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession, a study of property, poetics, and legal hermeneutics in nineteenth-century American literary and legal culture. He co-convened a research group at the University of California’s Humanities Research Institute on “Redress in Law, Literature, and Social Thought” that led, in part, to the special issue “Redress” in 2005. He is also the co-editor of the 2009 special issue “The Way We Read Now” and the 2016 volume “Description Across Disciplines.”

Advance Look: Jeffrey Knapp on “Selma”

In recognition of the speed at which the world and its histories are changing, we’ve just posted an advance version of Selma and the Place of Fiction in Historical Films” by Jeffrey Knapp. The essay will appear in print and online in our Winter 2019 issue, but you can read it here right now.

In the essay, Knapp compares the place of historical fictionality in William Wyler’s 1940 film The Westerner and Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Selma.

“’This isn’t right,’” the essay begins, in the voice of Martin Luther King as depicted by David Oyelowo, in Selma. “Almost as soon as the man resembling Martin Luther King Jr. has begun to speak, he interrupts himself in frustration. ‘I accept this honor,’ he’d been saying, ‘for our lost ones, whose deaths pave our path, and for the twenty million Negro men and women motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness.’ What does he think isn’t right? Is it the racial oppression he has been evoking? Or is it the felt inadequacy of his words to that injustice? As the man turns away from us, we find that he has been speaking into a mirror, and that he is frustrated in the immediate context by his efforts at getting dressed. ‘Corrie’ — it is King, we now understand, and he’s not alone; his wife Coretta is with him — ‘this ain’t right.’ ‘What’s that?’ she asks, entering from another room. ‘This necktie. It’s not right.’ ‘It’s not a necktie,’ she corrects him, ‘it’s an ascot.’ ‘Yeah, but generally, the same principles should apply, shouldn’t they? It’s not right.’” Read full article …

JEFFREY KNAPP is the Eggers Professor of English at UC Berkeley and author of An Empire Nowhere: England and America from Utopia to The Tempest (1992); Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England (2002); Shakespeare Only (2009); and Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood, published this year by Oxford University Press. He is also a contributing editor for Representations.

Adam and Eve: The Story Continues

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, a new study by Stephen Greenblatt, is the subject of an interview broadcast today on Forum, a production of KQED Radio in San Francisco. You can listen to the interview here.

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve explores the enduring story of humanity’s first parents.

Tracking the tale into the deep past, Greenblatt uncovers the tremendous theological, artistic, and cultural investment over centuries that made these fictional figures so profoundly resonant in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worlds and, finally, so very “real” to millions of people even in the present. With uncanny brilliance, Greenblatt explores the intensely personal engagement of Augustine, Dürer, and Milton in this mammoth project of collective creation, while he also limns the diversity of the story’s offspring: rich allegory, vicious misogyny, deep moral insight, and some of the greatest triumphs of art and literature.

The biblical origin story, Greenblatt argues, is a model for what the humanities still have to offer: not the scientific nature of things, but rather a deep encounter with problems that have gripped our species for as long as we can recall and that continue to fascinate and trouble us today.

Stephen Greenblatt, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, cofounded Representations, where many of his essays have appeared.

Form and Reform Conference

Representations editorial board member Ian Duncan will be presenting a keynote lecture at the upcoming Form and Reform conference on 19th-century literature, art, and history.


The conference will be held at UC Santa Cruz from July 27-29, 2017, and is free and open to the public. Duncan’s lecture, on the topic of “The Natural History of Form: From Aesthetic Education to Sexual Selection,” will take place at 8pm on Friday, July 28th. For more information, visit the conference website.


The Art of Friendship in France

The Art of Friendship in France / L’Art de l’amitié en France, 1789-1914

at Maison Francaise d’Oxford

Oxford, UK, July 19-20

Representations editor Michael Lucey and authors Sharon Marcus and Maurice Samuels with be participating in this two-day conference sponsored by Cambridge University’s The Art of Friendship in France project.

From the project’s description:

Friendship is everywhere. It is almost impossible to imagine a society or culture without it. Yet for a concept that is so immediately, intuitively meaningful to virtually all human beings, friendship has been a famously intractable scholarly problem. Unofficial, uncodified and unregulated (not to mention, very often, unspoken), friendship does not lend itself to clear theoretical definition; nor do the friendships of the past necessarily leave traces that might allow us to elaborate a model of historical friendship from evidence. It is doubtless both the challenge and the possibilities promised by these problematic aspects of friendship that have made it such a productive field of research, across a number of disciplines, in the last twenty years.