Thomas Keenan
Lecture: "The Death of Politics?
Human Rights, New Public Spheres, and the Jihad
Comment by Samuel Weber
May 1, 2008


Samuel Weber (left), Thomas Keenan (center) and Center Director Daniel J. Sherman observe Keenan's video material before the event

The final event of the 2007-08 year at the Center was a lecture by Thomas Keenan (Comparative Literature and Human Rights Program, Bard College) with a comment by Samuel Weber (Avalon Professor of Humanities, Northwestern University). Co-sponsored by the English Department Colloquium Series in the Global Modern and the Comparative Study in Religion Program, Professor Keenan’s lecture, “The Death of Politics? Human Rights, New Public Spheres, and the Jihad,” was based on his monitoring of what he called the on-line jihadi media scape: websites, but especially discussion forums.

Thomas Keenan delivers his lecture

Keenan’s project asks whether jihadi terrorism still belongs in the realm of politics (in the sense that it ultimately seeks to achieve a political objective), or if it must be considered inimical to politics. A connected concern for Keenan, in response to the work of Michael Ignatieff, is whether anyone claiming to protect human rights can resort to violence.
After showing several video clips gathered from jihadi websites, Keenan argued that while there are recognizable political goals, on the whole jihadists operate against politics itself. However, jihadists risk getting caught up in politics through their distribution of video materials and through this could become similar to other actors in the international political sphere, a development that Keenan noted should be welcomed.

Samuel Weber

In response to Keenan’s talk, Samuel Weber emphasized that especially today—with the world-wide availability of video produced by anyone, anywhere—the meaning of “politics” is shifting rapidly, as is its relationship to force and violence. Media frameworks within which political discourse takes place are less firm or predictable than ever before; on-line jihadist discussion forums, Weber noted, might be the ultimate form of content without imminent frame and could well promote insecurity. He concluded with a question prompted by the Center’s theme “Past Knowing”: will this kind of knowing leave room for the unknown?

The diverse and sizable audience of Center fellows, UWM faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and members of the wider community participated in a lively discussion with professors Keenan and Weber before repairing to the Center’s conference room for further conversation during a reception.


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