Meet Guggenheim Fellowship Recipient, Roxanne L. Euben

Euben PublicityOften characterized as “midcareer” awards, Guggenheim Fellowships are intended for men and women who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts. The Foundation receives between 3,500 and 4,000 applications each year. Approximately 200 Fellowships are awarded each year.

Guggenheim Fellowship Recipient Roxanne L. Euben is a comparative political theorist, specializing in both Islamic and Euro-American political thought.


How has the Guggenheim Fellows Program impacted your research and overall career?

Euben: I’m writing this only six weeks after the 2016 Guggenheim Fellowships were announced so it’s hard to articulate the impact of the fellowship at this point. But I can say that the award has already conferred a certain visibility and legitimacy to the scholarship that I do. That’s a remarkable gift for any scholar, but especially for one whose work pushes at the traditional boundaries within the discipline between political theory and comparative politics, engages equally with Euro-American and Islamic political thought, and takes seriously texts and figures that are at best understudied or ignored, and are at worst dismissed as politically and morally dangerous.

Perhaps more obviously, the Guggenheim Fellowship supports a year of research leave, which will enable me to make substantial progress on my current book-length project. This research is guided by the questions: Why has the experience and act of humiliation come to be so closely associated with the bodies and minds of Muslims in this political and historical moment? In what, precisely, does this humiliation consist? I approach these questions by investigating both Islamist discourse about the humiliation of Islam (from written texts to the visual rhetoric of Da’ish/ISIS video propaganda) and American rhetoric about national humiliation by Muslims (evoked by, for example, pictures of slain U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu and the attacks on 9/11). I trace patterns and discontinuities in the content and significance of humiliation across Islamist discourses, competing Arabic discourses of humiliation (from rhetorics about national humiliation to the twinning of humiliation and dignity during the 2011 uprisings), and in the Islamic tradition in whose name Islamists routinely claim to speak. Finally, I analyze not only what distinct rhetorics of humiliation say, but also what they do, that is, how they work politically and affectively on different audiences in specific contexts via various modes of delivery (e.g. print, cassette, visual, digital media, etc), mobilizing them to either retaliate by imposing humiliation on the humiliator, or find creative sources of agency to overcome the experience of degrading powerlessness.

The project will demonstrate that the link between humiliation and retaliation evinced in Islamist discourse is far from inevitable, as the Arabic rhetoric of humiliation can and has, under certain conditions, been deployed to mobilize inclusive, non-violent, and democratic action. It will also offer a conception of humiliation quite different from the one that currently prevails in a variety of disciplines, from political science to social psychology to scholarship on human rights and law. The prevalent understanding depicts humiliation as a violation of dignity or respect, both of which rest upon deeper assumptions about the inherent and equal worth of human beings, and the moral autonomy of the individual. By contrast, I develop a conception of humiliation grounded in cultural overlaps and shared ethical grammars. In this definition, humiliation is tied to an imposed impotence reflective of unjust inequalities of power, a condition that violates not only a particular social standing, but a deeper ethical order in which that standing is grounded.

What topics in research do you primarily focus on? How can people access your work?

Euben: My scholarship straddles the fields of political theory, Middle Eastern politics and Islamic Studies. For example, my research has addressed such topics as Muslim cosmopolitanism; jihad, martyrdom and political action; travel narratives (including the Arabic genre of the rihla) and political theorizing, commonalities between Muslim and European perspectives on science and reason; comparative political theory; and Islamic critiques of modernity. Along the way, I’ve engaged with the  work of thinkers from Ibn Khaldūn to Sayyid Qutb, Herodotus to Hannah Arendt. My books include Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism (Princeton, 1999), Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge, (Princeton, 2006), and Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from Al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton, 2009), written and edited with Muhammad Qasim Zaman. My work has been published in a range of academic journals, including Perspectives on Politics, Political Theory, The Journal of Politics, The Review of Politics, and International Studies Review. I’ve also contributed articles and op-ed pieces to online outlets such as The Immanent Frame and Quartz, the Atlantic Monthly’s digital magazine.

What would be one piece of advice you would give aspiring social science and humanities students?

Euben: I’ll pass along the most helpful advice I’ve ever received, although it’s deceptively simple: avoid getting caught up in small-minded preoccupations with status and petty in-fighting. Keep focused on your work and do it well. Pay greater attention to the complexities and messiness of political life–along with the patterns therein–than to fleeting professional and disciplinary trends.

Read more here about Roxanne Euben’s work.