We’ve just lost Barbara Harlow. Born in that infamous year of 1948 in Cleveland, Ohio, Harlow was a professor at UT Austin since 1985. Before that she taught at the American University of Cairo (after her departure, and as a testament to her internationalism, Harlow was on the editorial board of and a frequent contributor to AUC's Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics). Harlow was a model scholar whose political commitment cannot be understated. Her translations and serious engagement with Arabic fiction and nonfiction—in particular the work of Ghassan Kanafani—remains critical. And her comparative prowess was unmatched. She moved between the literatures and histories of the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Latin America perennially and seemingly effortlessly. Her writing and editing at scholarly publications committed to critique and radical politics, like Middle East Report and Race & Class, means she wrote—besides her erudite books—many political interventions and a truly dizzying number of review essays. Indeed, Harlow’s reviewing practice exemplified what one of her most frequent interlocutors, Antonio Gramsci, prescribed:

Individually nobody can follow all the literature published on a group of topics or even on a single topic. . . . Just as those in power have a secretariat or a press office which keeps them informed daily or from time to time about everything published they need to know about, so a similar service will be provided for its public by a periodical. . . . Reviews should not be casual and occasional, but systematic; and they also need to be accompanied by retrospective “surveys” that “sum up” the most essential topics.

Harlow’s review essays were clear, generous, and instructive. Her books, Resistance Literature (1987), Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (1992), and After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing (1996) must be read and re-read. Written at a time when discussions of Palestinian literature were far rarer than they are now, Harlow placed the writings of Palestinians–not just their novels, but their poetry, memoirs, and political tracts—into a global conversation they were often excluded from.

Harlow’s critical method is instructive. In the preface to her book Barred, from which I excerpt at length below, she wrote:

In terms of discipline, this project derives from the traditions of literary criticism and from current schools of cultural theory. Political detention, however, engages a redefinition of the scholarly practices implied in the terms “discipline,” and it is such a redefinition, whed through the different but linked institutional imperatives of the academy and the prison, that I have attempted to encounter here… This procedure is a calculated and not disinterested one. The major figures in the book, its cast of characters as it were, are the prisoners, male and female, their associates, and the specific organizations, struggles, and movements in which they have participated and for which they have been detained. Their writing, the subject of this book, is not just “raw material,” but is itself an articulation of a critical perspective, one that I have attempted both to deploy and to demonstrate.     

In her obituary for Edward Said in 2003, Harlow noted the solidarity displayed in Said’s own obituaries for his friends Eqbal Ahmad and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. She quoted Ahmad who said that “we are in a much worse time than the Cold War.” “Dark times they were,” Harlow concluded, “Scoundrel times they are. But the comrades remained—must remain—in arms.”  Harlow’s solidarity with the Palestinian people, her commitment to the incarcerated, to the wretched of the earth from Ireland to South Africa to El Salvador, was deep and unwavering. Now, perhaps more than ever, Harlow must be remembered and her example followed.   


Prison education, unlike much university instruction as professed in the Western academy, functions to undermine the very walls and premises that contain it. It raises the question of the extent to which an academic discourse functions to perpetuate disciplinary structures erected to maintain order and punish transgressions; it asks why scholarship so often “bantustanizes” the sociopolitical realities of the areas whose cultural production it appropriates. Programs in various ethnic and area studies and women’s studies, for example, which appeared in United States universities following the campus activism and political agitation in the 1960s, as Rosaura Sanchez points out, “not out of a state interest in a body of knowledge but out of interest in ensuring campus order and security.” The work of political prisoners, men and women, and even children, on a discursive level no less than in the political arena, presents a powerful challenge to such disciplining.

Area Studies programs and departments of national literatures have extracurricular analogues in the state bureaucracy that closes its internal borders as readily as it allow for a calculated permeability of external boundaries. On 29 October 1986, for example, the United States bureau of Prisons opened a multimillion dollar maximum security prison for women in Lexington, Kentucky. Designed to house sixteen inmates, for over a year the facility contained only two detainees, Alejandrina Torres, a Puerto Rican nationalists, and Susan Rosenberg, a revolutionary political activist from New York City, both confined under extremely brutal conditions criticize publicly by Amnesty International as constituting “cruel and unusual punishment.” Less than a year later, death squads from El Salvador extended their sphere of activity into the united States, when three Central American women were abducted from the streets of Los Angeles, tortured, and then returned to the streets badly beaten, as a “message” to their supporters. The lexington “high security unit” has since been closed by court order, in part in response to pressures such as Amnesty protest. The closure has been appealed by the United States government. Torres, convicted of seditious conspiracy, was transferred to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego. In the meantime, Susan Rosenberg with five codefendants is awaiting trial in Washington, D.C., on charges of conspiracy associated with a series of bombings in the capital in 1983 following the United States invasion of Grenada. The “resistance conspiracy trial” and its attempt to criminalize political activism in the United States will, according to Susie Day, “probably unearth in the Left profound questions about the nature of justice and criminality in our society.” The ultimate intended effect of such “messages,” however, whether from the United States government or form Salvadoran death squads, is to disenfranchise the political for the sake of the national patriotic, and reassert the dominant boundaries.

Most analyses of the modern prison system, even those that are critical, such as Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1979) and Dario Melossi and Massimo Pavarini’s The Prison and the Factory (1981), remain outside the walls of the prison and its officials. Foucault, for example, following his historical narrative of the transformation of the public spectacle of punishment into coercive and secretive model of the “power to punish,” discerns two images of discipline in the modern penal system:

At one extreme, the discipline blockade, the enclosed institution, established on the edges of society, turned inwards towards negative functions: arresting evil, breaking communications, suspending time. At the other extreme, with panopticism, is the discipline mechanism: a functional mechanism that must improve the exercise of power by making it lighter, more rapid, more effective, a design of subtle coercion for a society to come.

Massimo and Pavarini, in turn, locate the practices associated with such “images” in the rise of the bourgeois industrial state and thus assimilate the architecture, both political and ideological, of the modern prison to that of the factory. According to the two Italian researchers, the “penitentiary invention” is that of the

“prison as machine” capable of transforming, after close observation of the deviant phenomenon, … the violent, troublesome and impulsive criminal (real subject) into an inmate (ideal subject), into a disciplined subject, into a mechanical subject … [and assisting the] production of proletarians by the enforced training of prisoners in factory discipline.

Even such critiques of the prison system, however, too often can be subjected to the consent of that same prison system and its apparent insistence on a language of authority and objective responsibility that requires a complete compromise from the would-be researcher and attempts to usurp his/her own project. Thus, R. Theodore Davidson, who investigated social formations and networks among Chicano prisoner in San Quentin in the 1960s, introduced his study with an explanation of his own situation within the system: “Prison administrators realized the delicate nature of the information I would probably encounter if I were to accomplish my task, so it was agreed that I would not have to reveal any confidential information to the staff. The only exception would have been if I had learned that someone was going to be physically harmed or that the prisoners were going to destroy the prison in some manner.” This “only exception,” however, is twofold, and the requirements of the prison administration and the unitary language serve only to conceal concern for the stability of the prison itself (“destroy the prison in some manner”) under and ostensibly humanitarian sensitivity for the safety and well-being of the anonymous prisoners (“someone was going to be physically harmed”). The testimonies of prisoner betray another analysis, that of an engaged and partisan counterhegemonic cultural production.  

Excerpt from, Barbara Harlow, Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1992)

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