Notes and Comment Blog


Put That Book Down and Join the Group

Oct 26th, 2003 6:47 pm | By

This is a hilarious bit of reading. (Which I would have missed, despite entrenched habit of perusing the Guardian, but for Norm Geras’ always-interesting site, where you can vote for your own favourite novels, to the tune of three.) Lashings of sarcasm and mockery in Catherine Bennett’s look at Jane Root, BBC2, and the Big Read.

To ignore books is easy. So is burning them. You just need a match. But to make independent reading sound dull and great books look stupid, to transform literature into a vehicle for celebrities, polls, lists, voting opportunities and confected rivalries, to get books confidently debated by experts who have never read them, to set up a competition between Winnie the Pooh and War and Peace: that takes a kind of genius.

Oh go on – tell us what you really think!

The whole, quite fabulously patronising presumption of Root’s “campaign to get the country reading” is that reading is such a painfully lonely and arduous business that we need generous dollops of celebrity, hype and audience participation to force the medicine down. Or as Root describes her mission: “It’s an attempt to turn reading, which can be a very private experience, into something which can be enjoyed together.” The ramblings of people who actually enjoy this private experience might be as off-putting to the general viewer as the confessions of some sordid onanist. Better a jolly book group, you gather, than a pathetic, solitary exercise in self-flagellation.

Solitary reading is it! You wanna go blind?

Now stop that, that’s quite enough. Sorry, sorry. There is a serious point lurking behind the mockery, of course. It is infuriating that people insist on erasing the boundary between popularization and dumbing down. It is perfectly possible to popularize science, philosophy, history, literature, without making them idiotic; people do it all the time. Look at the success of Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ for instance, and James Burke’s ‘Connections’. Both fun, entertaining, accessible, often funny, without being downright stupid. The stupidification is not necessary, so it would be nice if people like BBC and PBS producers would stop doing it.



Difficulty

Oct 23rd, 2003 6:55 pm | By

A few more thoughts on ‘difficulty’ and bad writing. The result of reading another introduction, this one to the anthology Critical Terms for Literary Study. Thomas McLaughlin has some interestingly symptomatic things to say.

So the very project of theory is unsettling. It brings assumptions into question…And…it does so in what is often a forbidding and arcane style. Many readers are frightened off by the difficulty of theory, which they can then dismiss as an effort to cover up in an artifically difficult style the fact that it has nothing to say…Of course theory is difficult – sometimes for compelling reasons, sometimes because of offensive self-indulgence – but simply assuming that it is all empty rhetoric ultimately keeps you from confronting the real questions that theory raises.

There’s a lot of interesting maneuvering going on in that passage. I could write a theory-laden exegesis on it, if I were that way inclined, but instead I’ll just make a comment or two in the demotic.

Note first of all the sly insinuation, that is so often resorted to in these cases. The ‘project’ of ‘theory’ is unsettling. Geddit? We’re scared, we’re threatened, we think theory is going to stick its hand up our skirt. And then it appears again – readers are ‘frightened off.’ No we’re not. We’re repelled. There is a difference. ‘Theory’ is about as frightening as a soggy doughnut. But the unsettling/threatened/frightened bit is a time-honoured defensive strategy, of course, especially since Freud put it to such good use. If it works it makes the theory-skeptics feel vaguely guilty or foolish or caught out (uh oh, am I a weakling? am I too timid and pathetic for this scary stuff?), and even if it doesn’t, it makes the theory-partisans feel all sorts of terrific things: macho, brave, rebellious, progressive, daring, cutting edge, innovative, able to confront things that other people turn away from.

And then of course there’s the nonsense about ‘assuming’ it is all empty rhetoric, and the even sillier nonsense about keeping oneself from confronting the real questions that theory raises. That assumes – assumes – that literary ‘theory’ is the only discipline that does confront those real questions. Has McLaughlin never heard of an adjacent department that goes by the name of ‘philosophy’? People there occasionally turn their attention to questions of how language works too, as a matter of fact, and even though they’re not immune to jargon themselves, they generally do a considerably better job of it than literary ‘theorists’ do. To say the least.

Any discourse that was out to uncover and question that system had to find a language, a style, that broke from the constraints of common sense and ordinary language. Theory set out to produce texts that could not be processed successfully by the commonsensical assumptions that ordinary language puts into play. There are texts of theory that resist meaning so powerfully – say those of Lacan or Kristeva – that the very process of failing to comprehend the text is part of what it has to offer.

I have a lot to say about that, but this Comment is already long, so I’ll leave the passage for your contemplation for now, and comment later. I do love the last sentence, though. Yes, you could say that.



It Was Just as Bad For Me as it Was For You

Oct 22nd, 2003 7:14 pm | By

I enjoy coincidences. They make me feel like part of the Divine Plan. (That’s a joke, but actually there was a coincidence last week that made me feel tempted to go all New Agey. I resisted, though.) So it amused me a couple of days ago that I started the day reading a new collection of ‘theoretical’ articles (by which you are to understand articles written by people who once would have been called literary critics but who have now moved Up in the world) – articles of a badness, a pretension, a tortuously protracted emptiness, that has to be read to be believed, and then after I’d done that until I couldn’t stand it any more I got on line and found two articles about Bad Writing. Spooky, or what?

One is by the excellent Carlin Romano, reviewing an anthology of essays by, apparently, fans and practitioners of bad writing.

Culler, the well-known Cornell University literary theorist, and Lamb, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell, waste no time noticing in their introductory essay that the catalyst for recent ill will in this area, the Bad Writing awards bestowed from 1996 to 1999 by the journal Philosophy and Literature, largely targeted practitioners of “‘theory,’ with its odd cachet of both political radicalism and intellectual abstraction.”

Welll…that’s a self-flattering way of putting it. I’m not sure ‘theory’ has all that much cachet beyond the departments where it is practised, or perpetrated. As a matter of fact, radical historians and philosophers of my acquaintance despise the stuff. ‘Theory’ doesn’t have much cachet, odd or otherwise, and most people aren’t entirely convinced of its radicalism. To put it mildly. Abstraction, yes, that everyone will give it. It is abstract. So abstract that most of the time it manages to say nothing at all, or so little that one wonders why anyone would bother to scribble it on a postcard, let alone go on for pages and pages in a journal.

Not a single essayist departs from a seeming party line that what Dutton and his sympathizers call “bad writing” is simply “difficult” writing that intentionally varies from formulations of common sense (a commodity much insulted in these pages from a standard Adorno/Gramsci standpoint) in order to question various kinds of linguistic, philosophical, and political status quos.

No. Not all of it at any rate – and in fact not a lot of it that I’ve ever read, or that anyone I know has ever read. At least – it is difficult in the sense that one feels a strong compulsion to fling the book out the window, and it takes an effort to resist that urge. But difficult in the sense that there is profound meaning that one has to concentrate to understand? No. That’s just more self-flattery. What there is, is an endless tedious process of vocabulary display, in which the writer demonstrates to her colleagues that she knows how to use ‘imaginary’ (as a noun) and ‘geometry’ and ‘discourse’ correctly. But that’s all. That’s not difficult, it’s only too easy, to understand as well as to write. If you don’t believe me, I recommend to you the introduction to the anthology The Futures of American Studies edited by Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman, or the essay by Wiegman therein, ‘Whiteness Studies and the Paradox.’ By another coincidence, those were the bits I read that morning before reading these articles – and Wiegman is mentioned as a bad example by Romano, citing Denis Dutton.

The other article is one by Dutton from 1999 – a locus classicus of the war on Theoryspeak.

No one denies the need for a specialized vocabulary in biochemistry or physics or in technical areas of the humanities like linguistics. But among literature professors who do what they now call “theory” — mostly inept philosophy applied to literature and culture — jargon has become the emperor’s clothing of choice.

That’s what so annoying about it, you see – that pretense that ‘theorists’ are doing philosophy when they’re not, they’re not doing anything like it. Nor are they doing literary criticism. They’re attempting to do a sort of cultural analysis, which is a good thing to do in, er, theory, but in practice they do it so ineptly that one wishes they wouldn’t.

The vatic tone and phony technicality can also serve to elevate a trivial subject. Many English departments these days find it hard to fill classes where students are assigned Milton or Melville, and they are transforming themselves into departments of so-called cultural studies, where the students are offered the analysis of movies, television programs, and popular music. Thus, in a laughably convoluted book on the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding affair, we read in a typical sentence that “this melodrama parsed the transgressive hybridity of un-narratived representative bodies back into recognizable heterovisual modes.” The pretentiousness of the worst academic writing betrays it as a kind of intellectual kitsch, analogous to bad art that declares itself “profound” or “moving” not by displaying its own intrinsic value but by borrowing these values from elsewhere.

Phony technicality – again, that’s just it. It’s like Nick’s vision of Gatsby in Paris, a fake ‘leaking sawdust from every pore.’



Don’t Like It? Adapt!

Oct 20th, 2003 1:19 am | By

There is a new book out by Frank Furedi, Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability In An Uncertain Age, which sounds highly interesting in itself and which also resonates with a lot of cultural oddities we talk about here on B and W.

It is the society-wide belief that people cannot cope on their own that leads to the features of therapy culture that we are all too familiar with today: the burgeoning counselling industry, the relentless emphasis on boosting ‘self-esteem’, the expansion of categories such as ‘trauma’ to encompass more and more life events. What gave rise to this downbeat view of human agency, this ‘fatalistic epistemology’ that recasts people as victims?…The decisive reason, Furedi says, is a broader political and cultural shift – in particular, the collapse of the left, and of any project for social change.

That certainly sounds right to me. I just wrote a miniature jeremiad yesterday about the shift from wanting to change and reform X, to simply altering one’s attitude to X – which certainly does have the advantage of saving a lot of trouble and effort and possible hostility from people who don’t feel like allowing us to change X, but which also has the considerable drawback that it doesn’t in fact change X. If something is bad and unjust and harmful and a product of human decisions, the right thing to do is to alter it, not to persuade its victims that they’re all right really.

Having given up on the notion that human beings could change the world, the left focused instead on helping people to survive their circumstances. This shift, Furedi explains, was rapid, complete and – to him at least – unexpected…’In the 1970s, radicals were often scathing of psychology. Feminists, for example, used to protest bitterly against the medicalising of pregnancy and other aspects of women’s lives. The political culture of the time was suspicious of psychological explanations and solutions, and saw them as a way of imposing conformity. ‘Yet now, it is people from the cultural left who are the most insistent about the importance of medicalised explanations and therapeutic interventions’, he continues…In a time when social change is off the agenda, therapy culture unites conservatism and radicalism under an umbrella of survivalism. When it is accepted that there is nothing we can do about the circumstances that we live in, the big challenge of the new century becomes helping individuals merely adapt.

Exactly. The cultural left is a very odd variety of left, it begins to become clear. In many, many ways not even recognizable as a left at all.



Having it Both Ways

Oct 16th, 2003 10:54 pm | By

This is a familiar, er, story.

But in writing Sylvia, he was aiming to tell a story “that was not dependent on the audience being interested in Sylvia Plath.” So Sylvia is not actually about a writer. Mostly, it’s about a talented girl who dries up and goes mad as a housewife struggling in the shadow of a powerful and successful man.

Yes, such movies never are. They never are ‘actually about a writer.’ So what is the point of them? I never can understand it. To give people some kind of bogus feeling of cultural something-or-other? To give them the illusion that they’ve read the writer in question’s books, or at least might as well have now that they know something visual about her life? They don’t, of course, know a damn thing about what went on in her head, or about the way she transferred what went on in her head onto the page and what happened to that ‘what’ in the process and how good the translation is, or about what she read over the course of her life. No. Because that’s not what people go to the movies to see, obviously. They go to see fights and gun battles, or failing that at least some drama and emotional turmoil or a good lingering illness. They don’t go to see some bint reading in a chair and writing at a desk for hours and hours.

So what you do is, you eliminate everything to do with actual intellectual activity, and just show the entertaining stuff. Tom Eliot’s marital troubles, Lytton Strachey’s boyfriends, Byron’s sexual adventures of all sorts, Iris Murdoch fading away. And Sylvia Plath and her endlessly reviewed melodrama. Not because the audience gives the smallest tiniest damn about Eminent Victorians or Don Juan or The Waste Land, but because that way you get to have both an entertaining soap opera and a whiff of Kulcha. The whiff is totally unconvincing, indeed ridiculous, but never mind, it seems to do the trick, it puts bums on seats. But there’s something irritating about it all the same. If you want to see a soap opera see a soap opera, and if you want to read Virginia Woolf do that, but you look silly doing one while pretending to do the other.



And Pets

Oct 14th, 2003 8:44 pm | By

This is a mildly amusing item. Or maybe it’s not all that amusing really, it just happens to amuse me, because a friend and I were chatting this morning about the relative merits of dogs and cats as pets and the relative merits of animals and humans for misanthropes like us.

The article considers it a scandal that people misdirect their affection onto animals instead of relatives and friends. Well but – be fair. Animals don’t argue. They don’t contradict. They don’t willfully misconstrue what we are saying and then shout at us for saying what we’re not saying. They don’t borrow our clothes. They don’t eat the last piece of cake we carefully stashed in the fridge (because they can’t open the door). They don’t smoke. They don’t say our hair looks funny like that. They don’t nag. (Well, they do, when they’re hungry or want to play or go for a walk. But it’s a different kind of nagging.) They don’t remember something stupid we said fifteen years ago and bring it up at odd moments. They don’t dirty every dish in the house and then go out for the day. They don’t want to watch football when we want to watch a movie or vice versa.

Well that was fun. I will have my little joke. Actually the article does have a point.

In this age of alienation and mobility, too many of the old and the lonely, and even the young and the lonely, find themselves having to rely on cats and dogs for love and companionship, rather than on the web of relatives and friends their ancestors had. When that happens, it becomes temptingly easy for the dependent to blur and even erase the distinctions between themselves and their pets. They begin to see pets not just as animals who share their homes but rather as friends who share their humanity. And that’s not just sad; it’s dangerous.

There is something in that. There are a lot of people out there who think their pets have Rights (we’ve discussed the slipperiness of the word ‘rights’ before). For instance their cats have the Right to roam free. Very well, but then what about the Right of birds and other wildlife not to be killed? Is it so self-evident that domestic cats that we breed for our pleasure and amusement have Rights that trump those of other animals that we don’t breed? If so, why? What of introduced species that displace native species? Whose Rights trump whose there? The answer is not self-evident, it seems to me. And this is not a hypothetical. If you’ve read our About page you know that I used to be a zookeeper. Among the animals I worked with at the zoo were five mountain goats that had been caught in the Olympic Mountains as part of a research programme to see what capture and removal did to them physically (the answer was, nothing good). It was necessary to find out because they were an introduced species who were doing a lot of damage to native plants, which then had harmful knock-on effects on other wildlife. This was a very controversial issue – there were people who wanted them removed and people who wanted them protected; there were pros and cons on either side; whose Rights should be paramount was very far from obvious. As so often, the question is a complicated one, and Rights are a tempting shortcut but maybe not all that helpful.



Lie Back and Enjoy It

Oct 13th, 2003 9:47 pm | By

This is a hilarious piece. Katha Pollitt is pretty good at being hilarious. But of course she has good material here. Why are conservatives always bleating and moaning? Have they not noticed? Yo! Those heavy steel things in your hands? Those are the levers of power!

Why can’t they just admit it, throw a big party and dance on the table with lampshades on their heads? Why are they always claiming to be excluded and silenced because most English professors are Democrats? Why must they re-prosecute Alger Hiss whenever Susan Sarandon gives a speech or Al Franken goes after Bill O’Reilly? If I were a conservative, I would think of those liberal professors spending their lives grading papers on The Scarlet Letter and I would pour myself a martini.

This is what I keep saying. Of course there are a lot of leftists in humanities departments, not because conservatives are systematically excluded (though no doubt they are unsystematically excluded), but because on the whole leftists tend to be also the kind of people who want to do that kind of work and conservatives don’t. Obviously! Grading papers on The Scarlet Letter or even on ‘The Sopranos’ doesn’t pay as much as, say, being a bond trader or an oil executive. This comes as a big surprise to people? That leftists are not quite as intent on the bottom line as conservatives are?

Ah well. I don’t really want to make heavy weather of it. Actually I just thought the line about grading papers was too funny to waste, so I wanted to quote it.



Damp Squibs

Oct 13th, 2003 4:30 pm | By

It’s a very handy thing, having a Fashionable Dictionary and a Rhetoric Guide. Because whenever people who have little or nothing of substance to say, resort to mere abuse instead, it’s useful instead of merely boring and time-wasting. You can just slide it into one or the other and hey presto, your correspondent has done a little work for you.

For instance, there’s ‘Meaningless Sarcasm’. Addressing your opponent (or rather the person you’re attempting to engage, who wandered off in boredom long ago) as ‘little Ms X’ or ‘little Mr Y’. Has the disadvantage of making one sound about seven years old, but if one is delusional enough, it passes for wit.

Or there’s that old favourite, ‘I’m embarrassed for you, frankly.’ That’s a funny one. It’s hard not to wonder why it’s such an old favourite, when it’s so silly. It’s so obviously not true that one would think people would want to do better. Why should anyone feel embarrassed for an opponent who says something foolish? The time to be embarrassed is when we ourselves say something foolish, not when other people do. And that is normally how it works, isn’t it, especially in an argument. It’s quite simple, really. Here we are having a disagreement. I say something clever. Result: feeling of pleasure and triumph for me. I say something stupid. Result: feeling of embarrassment and chagrin. Opponent says something clever. Result: I feel annoyed. Opponent says something stupid. Result: I’m delighted. Where does the embarrassment come in? Sarcasm is all very well, but it has to be good to work.



An Unfortunate Meme

Oct 13th, 2003 2:17 am | By

There was a very interesting review in The Nation last month, that talks about a subject that’s been coming up a lot lately: the tendency of apologists for the Catholic church to equate criticism of the church or the Pope or Vatican policy or the religion itself, with intolerance or hate crime or a kind of racism. It seems to be a bit of a meme, in fact. No doubt the archbishop of Birmingham had just been reading Philip Jenkins’ new book and picked up some ideas. The ideas he picked up are very bad ones, as I argued in a N&C last month. The Catholic church is an institution like any other. It’s not a good idea to make institutions immune from criticism, it seems to me. And even if it were, surely it’s simply a category mistake to muddle criticism of institutions with bigotry against people.

And one could argue that the Catholic church is a particularly bad institution to grant immunity from criticism. It’s such a very activist body. I don’t normally quote myself, but just this once I’m going to, because it’s all just too apposite.

It’s familiar stuff, but that doesn’t make it any more reasonable. An unholy alliance between identity politics and obscurantist religion that uses complaints about ‘offense’ to try to establish its right to be beyond criticism. Suck it up, bish. Your church is out there in the world telling billions of people what to do, including whether to have children or not. Claiming immunity on top of all that is really pushing it a bit.

Not only whether to have children or not, we now learn. Also whether to protect oneself against HIV or not. The answer the Vatican gives is, not. No, don’t wear a condom, because we don’t want you to, because we think contraception is bad, because if God had wanted us to be able to have sex without procreating, why, he would have built contraception in, wouldn’t he. So because we don’t want you to for a stupid irrational fundamentalist reason that not even most of the believers accept, therefore we’ll tell lies about condoms, thus condemning who the hell knows (certainly not the pontiff) how many people and their spouses and children to a horrible death. Brilliant.

So JoAnn Wypijewski does well to point out the danger of this ‘don’t criticise Catholicism’ meme:

Jenkins is ordinarily a cool dissector of the cultural construction of social problems. He aims to be the same here, but his book is a muddle, alternately careful to distinguish anti-Catholicism from anticlericalism, policy disputes from prejudice, and then recklessly defining political protest–most dramatically, ACT UP’s 1989 action inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral–as hate crime, anti-Vatican rhetoric as hate speech, discrimination against policies as discrimination against persons.

No immunity for church hierarchies that tell billions of people falsehoods about latex and the HIV virus.



The Fame Game

Oct 11th, 2003 7:44 pm | By

This column by David Aaronovitch seems apposite to something we were talking about the other day – the cult of celebrity, or in Leo Braudy’s memorable phrase, the frenzy of renown. It’s not just a matter of electing conspicuously unqualified people to powerful jobs on the basis of nothing at all apart from pure Fame, though that’s more than bad enough. It’s also what fame, or perhaps a certain kind of fame, can do to the people who have it.

an American sports sociologist, Jeff Benedict,…had been asked by sports authorities to collect data to contradict the perception that many athletes were committing crimes against women. Benedict interviewed 300 athletes, victims, lawyers, cops and groupies and discovered that, unfortunately, the perception was correct. In 1995 and 1996, he revealed, there were 200 cases of college and professional football and basketball players arrested for abusing women.

Could that have anything to do with the exaggerated hero-worship of athletes that is, surely, one tributary of the cult of celebrity.

Redmond has pointed out a common feature in many of the cases that she has dealt with. “At some point the athlete has said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ He feels he’s entitled to her, and if she says no to him or embarrasses him, he puts her back in line.” We can do what we like, say the young footballers. There is nothing that is forbidden to us. We are gods. And our perception of ourselves as gods is endorsed by the purblind fans, by the groupies, by the amoral administrators who only care about what we do insofar as it affects their investment.

Just so. All the drivel that gets drivelled about football players and basketball players as ‘heroes,’ all the sweaty exhortations to athletes to be good ‘role-models’ – why? Do we exhort pharmacists or real estate agents or insurance peddlers to be role-models? Why athletes? Is there some connection between skill at throwing or catching a ball and, say, ethical responsibility or consideration or generosity? Not that I can see. Do correct me if I’m wrong, but the connection seems entirely arbitrary to me. Maybe instead of reasoning that because we make such a big deal of athletes, therefore people look up to them, and so we should beg them to use their influence well, we should stop making such a big deal of them (or at least a different kind of big deal), so that people won’t confuse them with real heroes. Fame and human decency are unfortunately not the same thing, they’re not even particularly close neighbours.



Frames

Oct 8th, 2003 10:07 pm | By

One of the things that can make discussion so dull and claustrophobic is limiting it to just one set of frames: left and right. Not everything is about that. Not absolutely everything is political, and then even what is political doesn’t necessarily divide neatly into left and right.

One different frame, one that arranges and sorts things in a way quite different from the left-right docket, is anti-intellectualism. There is plenty of anti-intellectualism on the left as well as the right – and on the right as well as the left. Often they seem to compete with each other over who can raise the lip farthest to sneer at learning or rationality or critical thought.

For me this division often supersedes that between the right and the left. There are times, or situations, or issues on which I prefer a pro-intellectual conservative to an anti-intellectual lefty. The pro- or anti-intellectual frame trumps the left-right frame. I noticed this shift several years ago, and I think it was then that I began to realize that my leftish outlook was full of fissures and cracks. The more the left insists on being anti-rationalism and anti-Enlightenment, the broader and deeper those fissures become. And I don’t think that’s inevitable. I don’t think anti-intellectualism is an inherently leftist position.

Worries about anti-intellectualism are often taken to be elitist and so right-wing (except the right uses the ‘elitist’ epithet at least as much as the left does, so I’m never clear on the logic of that), but I don’t think that’s accurate, not if you define the elite in a sensible way. Not if by the elite you mean people with money and power. Intellectuals aren’t the elite in that sense, and the elite certainly aren’t intellectuals. Rich people don’t have time to mess with books and ideas, they’re too busy making money. Intellectualism is a minority taste, yes, but elite doesn’t mean minority, so that’s beside the point.

And in any case, intellectualism is more of a minority taste than it has to be, because we make it that way. Every time we snigger at nerds and geeks, every time we conflate ignorance with sincerity and being ‘down to earth,’ we train each other to think of mental life as something odd, peculiar, and probably sinister. Every time people who ought to know better endorse this view, they do their bit to keep the joys of intellectual exploration and discovery away from the non-elite, and that is very far from being a kindness.



Such a Good Idea

Oct 8th, 2003 7:47 pm | By

Well, perfect. Absolutely splendid. Good thinking. It’s such a boring unhip vieux jeu Enlightenment kind of idea, to think that people in high office ought to have something to recommend them beyond pure Name Recognition. How silly is that?! What else is there but name recognition?

No, of course. Obviously. Obviously having your picture taken a great many times in rapid succession is simply the ideal qualification for being, say, the president of the United States, the single most powerful human being on the planet, or the governor of California, a state larger than many important countries. After all, presidents and governors get their pictures taken a lot too, so there you are.

Yeah, come on, this is such a brilliant reform, let’s really push it through, let’s get mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore (take what? who knows, who cares) and throw out all those condescending elitist know-it-alls (if there are any left) and replace them with more photogenic people. Let’s make Jennifer Aniston Secretary of State, and Sly Stallone Ambassador to the UN, and Tom Cruise governor of New York, and let’s throw out the entire Congress and replace it with everyone (still alive) who’s been in the cast of Saturday Night Live, and impeach the Supreme Court and replace it with the cast of ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends’ (omitting either Joey or George, whichever). Then when we do that the rest of the world will be so jealous they’ll do the same thing, and pretty soon the whole world will be run by movie stars and athletes. It will be like Utopia! Like a beautiful dream!



Prevention

Oct 7th, 2003 8:42 pm | By

Our sermon for today is on the text

The religiosity of the recovery movement is evident in its rhetorical appeals to a higher power and in the evangelical fervor of its disciples. When I criticize the movement I am usually accused of being ‘in denial,’ as I might once have been accused of heresy.

That is from Wendy Kaminer’s examination of the ‘recovery’ and self-help movements, I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional. But the reaction she describes is typical of vastly more ‘movements’ and ideological systems than just the self-help variety. In fact it’s probably fairly difficult to find a ‘movement’ or ideology whose adherents don’t resort to that tactic. If someone criticises a set of ideas to which I am committed, then that someone is doing a bad thing. I must elaborate on exactly what kind of bad thing it is that the critic is doing. Let me see. The critic is being intolerant. The critic is an elitist. The critic is arrogant and anti-democratic. The critic is an extremist and outside the mainstream. The critic believes things that most people don’t believe, or doesn’t believe things that most people do believe. The critic has Bad Motives – I don’t know exactly what they are, but I’ll hazard a guess. The critic is Eurocentric, or Orientalist, or a positivist.

It’s all pre-emption. And all based on the premise that criticism, however impersonal and general it may be, is somehow impermissible. Not just wrong, in error, inaccurate, but wicked and invidious and deserving of moral condemnation. That’s a bizarre notion on the face of it, and it will be worth pondering where it came from…



Sincerity is Not Enough

Oct 6th, 2003 5:28 pm | By

Alan Wolfe has a new book out, in which he apparently says something very silly.

As modern Americans with distinctly tolerant sensibilities, you pride yourselves on your willingness to change, yet religious believers, even the most conservative among them, have adopted themselves to modern society far more than you have changed your views about what they are really like. You have made the whole country more sensitive to the inequalities of race and gender. Now it is time to extend the same sympathy to those who are different in the sincerity of their belief.

Well, I for one don’t put ‘tolerance’ at the center of my politics or my belief system or whatever you want to call it, precisely because of statements like that. Depending on how one defines ‘tolerance’, of course. If it means simply non-interference, live and let live, equality before the law, and so on, that’s one thing. But if it means, as it is so very very often taken to mean, never ever breathing a word of criticism even in general terms, even in public media like books and newspapers and websites – then that’s quite another. And that seems to be what Wolfe means by it.

And his analogy is a very bad one. ‘Inequalities of race and gender’ are not the same thing as ‘difference in the sincerity of belief’. Obviously. Blindingly obviously. One is born a given race or gender. Yes, ‘race’ is a social construct that doesn’t really mean very much, but being stuck with it is certainly part of that social construct. There’s a lot of cultural pressure around these days to try to construct religion the same way – to convince us all that we’re born Muslim or Hindu and can’t possibly change it. But that notion overlooks the fact that religions have ideational content, religions make truth claims which can be accepted or rejected, religion is a cognitive matter. If we demand immunity from criticism for religion, what other set of ideas will we claim immunity for? And if we start demanding immunity for any set of ideas that people are ‘sincere’ about, what hope is there that we can analyse and judge and criticise all ideas impartially?



Great Lowing Herds of Rebels

Oct 5th, 2003 9:38 pm | By

Erin O’Connor at Critical Timber continues to expand on her discussion of conformity in the humanities. There are new posts here and here.

This is a large, rich subject, and one that has been under discussion for quite a long time, for instance in the pages of the late lamented Lingua Franca. William Kerrigan has an excellent essay on his enchantment and then disenchantment with Derrida and ‘theory’ called ‘The Falls of Academe’ in Wild Orchids and Trotsky. David Lehman discusses the displacement of literature by literary ‘theory’ in Signs of the Times. Helena Echlin describes the misery of being a literature graduate student at Yale in this essay.

But my professors look at me as if I am the village idiot. It tires me out listening to long sentences that sound like English but lack all meaning. And resistance isn’t easy. Where there is noparaphrasable meaning, dissent is impossible, because there is no threshold for attack. It is like trying to disagree with a poem by Mallarmé. (Without the poetry.)

Without the poetry indeed.

In general, students and faculty at Yale do not explicitly espouse theory, or particular theorists. But high theory, whatever its merits or demerits, has validated the use of jargon. People who talk nonsense are now looked upon not as sloppy thinkers, but as sages. The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism…

It sounds very like an email O’Connor received last year:

Hipper-than-thou graduate colleagues literally smirked when I voiced my thoughts in class, then snubbed me in the hallway; professors dismissed my papers as naive and romantic. In a private meeting, one professor questioned me about my “evident resistance” to critical theory, which she described as a “problem.” Chiding me to “rise above the undergraduate level,” she encouraged me to adopt more “rigorous” critical approaches. When I asked her to elaborate, she reeled off a dozen theorists–Jameson, Spivak, Said, etc.–whose “sophisticated” analyses should “inform” my thought.

Oy veh – can’t you just hear them. Naive and romantic, indeed! But ‘critical theorists’ themselves are never naive, oh hell no, they’re the only sophisticated people on the planet, they are. Yes and offering up the same old dreary list of red-hot ‘theorists’ is all that’s required for ‘informed’ thought. Because Jameson hung the moon, and Spivak invented the wheel, and no one thought about power until Foucault came along. That’s one of the rich ironies of the whole thing, of course: the way a discipline that prides itself on being cutting-edge and hip and non-naive is in fact so remarkably sheep-like and suggestible and line-toeing. Read Mark Crispin Miller’s account of attending a lecture by Homi Bhabha. The acolytes he saw talking to his friend after the lecture, who were so overcome with admiration and yet so unable to articulate why and of what…How can we not suspect that we have a bad case of Emperor’s new clothes here? That they are all simply unwilling to be the ones to say ‘That just sounded like a lot of empty words being shoved around like so many tiddlywinks to me’? No, so much better just to go on assuring each other that it was all terribly sophisticated and rigorous, and simply accuse anyone who doesn’t agree of ‘resistance’ to theory. The trick served Freud well, after all; it got him an undeserved reputation as a brave and lonely iconoclast; so let’s all do that. How else are we going to get tenure?



Twitching

Oct 4th, 2003 4:45 pm | By

As B and W gets ever more popular, I find myself cringing at times. So many right-wing blogs seem to like us. Fortunately so do a lot of left-wing ones, as well as less-politically-classifiable ones, but all the same, I do cringe. But as my colleague likes to remind me, the left has only itself to blame (or, when he’s being ruder, it serves the left right). If they will insist on being woolly, if they will insist on ignoring evidence they don’t like – then they’re just giving away ammunition, that’s all. The more leftish voices there are trying to keep the left honest, the better, and if that’s a gift to the right too, so be it.

But then again. It’s not always quite that simple. People do have agendas, after all, and can use evidence for their own purposes. So I do cringe, and hesitate, and doubt, and ponder, sometimes when I find an article on a site belonging to the Cato Institute, or the American Enterprise Institute, or the Competitive Enterprise Institute (we should start calling ourselves the Butterflies and Wheels Institute, I think, it sounds so much more important). Getting the facts right is one thing, and using them to try to make a case for profit as the ultimate decider of every question is quite another. But then I shake the water out of my ears and remember that if the article is good on its own terms, if it makes its case, I should link to it and let readers draw their own conclusions. So that’s what I do – cringing all the while.

My colleague’s colleague (Julian Baggini) talks about this in an article at Open Democracy.

But it would be as wrong to dismiss Bradley’s claims because of their provenance as it would be to accept them because of a prior commitment to free trade. Bradley backs up his claims with plenty of evidence, and some of his recommendations are as eco-friendly as any green could wish…But there is little chance of Bradley or Beckerman getting a sympathetic hearing from greens or their leftist allies. This isn’t just because of willful narrow-mindedness. The problem is that there is a wider ideological war going on and in war, propaganda is more valuable than the truth. What people say is not as important as how their words will be used.

That’s just it, you see. How will the words be used. But then if that worry becomes a reason to hide or dismiss or ignore or conveniently ‘forget’ evidence or arguments that we don’t like – the result is obvious. Everyone will be systematically lying all over the place and any hope of getting policies based on reality instead of wishful thinking is gone.

Our ideological enemy’s enemy is our ideological friend; loyalty to a position, deserved or not, blinds us to the merits of our opponent’s case…A tract like Bradley’s can be readily dismissed – since it emanates from a free-marketeer, ‘he would say that’. But this game can be played on both sides: when greens dismiss Bradley’s thesis, the neo-liberals can just as easily say ‘they would say that’. Yet we should judge arguments on the basis of their premises and reasoning, not on the predictability of their conclusions.

He’s right you know. The other way only leads to Down the memory-hole. We’ll just have to get used to the odd cringe.



Sacred and Inviolable

Oct 4th, 2003 2:49 pm | By

I had a bit of a dispute or anyway discussion with my colleague yesterday, about one paragraph in his article on the Bright idea. On this Durkheimian idea that religion does not necessarily entail a belief in the supernatural, that it can also refer to the sacred, and hence to inviolable unrevisable ideas. I haven’t read Durkheim, and I need to. I think the only reason I resist the idea is that that’s not what people usually mean by religion (a point Richard Dawkins makes in his article ‘The Great Convergence’). Discussions and arguments about religion can become frustratingly evasive and slippery when the parties are not talking about the same entity, and defenders of religion have a way of defining religion one way when talking to skeptics (you know, it’s feelings of awe or wonder, it’s that ‘oceanic’ feeling that Freud was so stonily devoid of) and quite another way when talking to fellow-believers. So I’m dubious about broadened definitions.

But the underlying idea I do think is interesting. I suppose it’s one of the essential background ideas of B and W that no beliefs, opinions, ideologies, theories, ideas, should be inviolable. At least none that amounts to a truth claim about the world. But other commitments or loyalties, on the other hand, ought to be. It would be a fine thing if all six billion plus of us had what we so obviously don’t, an unshakeable conviction that we must not murder, slaughter, ethnically cleanse, torture, rape, beat, injure anyone. It would be a conspicuously better world if that conviction were precisely not revisable by, say, ethnic or religious chauvinists on the radio whipping up hatreds, or mullahs or priests or rabbis or reverends lashing their congregations into frenzies of hatred and rage, or ‘teachers’ in madrassahs teaching boys to hate and despise and punish women.

But alas, no. That’s not how it is. Ideas about decent behavior are all too easily revisable – see Eichmann in Jerusalem, Ordinary Men, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. No, it’s the damn silly, useless, or harmful ideas that become sacred and inviolable, while the most necessary one is tossed out the window all too easily.



More Than Politics

Oct 3rd, 2003 9:18 pm | By

I have another thought on the matter of lefties in the academy. It has to do with this one sentence of Timothy Burke’s that Erin O’Connor quoted:

The tripwires here aren’t generally as obvious as saying, “I voted for Bush”-though Brooks is completely correct in thinking that this would possibly be one of the three or four most disastrous things an aspiring humanities scholar could say during an on-campus interview.

What’s interesting about that is that it’s no doubt true enough, but there is more than one reason for it, more than one kind of reason. At least I assume so, extrapolating from my own opinion on the matter. In fact, the other reason (the reason other than the one implied by the context, which is the political one) bears out precisely the point that Burke and O’Connor are making. The other reason has to do with those less parochial, less narrowly political ideas and commitments that one expects intellectuals to have. The other reason for being repelled to hear that an aspiring humanities scholar voted for Bush is the fact that the man, his many explicit remarks on the subject, his considering himself qualified to run for the presidency, and the support for him, are all profoundly anti-intellectual. Any humanities scholar worth her salt ought to be hostile to Bush, and I would still say that if he were to the left of McGovern. All the sneering at Gore for knowing something and expecting the voters to care about substance, all the drivel about likability, all the brazen nonsense about what a reg’lar guy Bush is despite having everything handed to him by way of birth and money, simply because he never reads and mispronounces words and doesn’t know much – all those are glaring signs that what humanities scholars do and value, and what they think is valuable for other people, is considered elitist and often downright wicked by too many Republicans and too many voters. As an American I’m embarrassed by Bush; if I were a Republican, I would be beside myself with disgust.

It’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder what things would be like if the Republican president were, say, Richard Posner. Would the revulsion among humanities scholars be quite as universal? Would an interviewee’s having voted for him be quite such an automatic trip-wire? I really wonder. I know it wouldn’t in my case. I’m quite sure I would disagree with many of his policies, but I wouldn’t feel as if there were an unqualifed overprivileged not very bright mediocrity in the job, and that would make a big difference.



Think Like Us

Oct 2nd, 2003 8:00 pm | By

There is an excellent post at Critical Mass – starting, interestingly enough, from a comment on Crooked Timber. So we’re in a hall of mirrors here, or the land of infinite regress, or something. Bloggers commenting on bloggers commenting on bloggers commenting on (finally) an actual newspaper column. But that’s all right. The truth is, plenty of blog posts are better than plenty of newspaper columns. And this one is very good indeed. Erin O’Connor quotes Timothy Burke on the excessively narrow terms in which charges of political orthodoxy in universities are framed.

Virtually anything that departed from a carefully groomed sense of acceptable innovation, including ideas and positions distinctively to the left and some that are neither left nor right, could be just as potentially disastrous. Like a lot of right-wing critics of academia, [David Brooks] generally thinks too small and parochially, and too evidently simply seeks to invert what he perceives as a dominant orthodoxy. If they had their druthers, Horowitz and Pipes and most of the rest of the victimology types would simply make the academy a conservative redoubt rather than a liberal one. The real issue here is the way that each successive academic generation succeeds in installing its own conventional wisdom as the guardian at the gates, and burns the principle of academic freedom in subtle, pervasive fires aflame in the little everyday businesses and gestures of academic life.

That’s great stuff, and spot-on. Parochial is just exactly what this kind of thinking is. Anyone who’s ever listened to a putative Shakespeare scholar, say, droning on about what sadly imperfect views Shakespeare had on the Other, knows all about that parish, and wants to get the hell out of it and move to the big city. Clearly O’Connor is one of those:

I have often had occasion to say to students that the things that draw them to advanced literary study–a love of learning, a love of literature, a deep desire to share those loves with students through teaching–are not the things that drive most English professors, and have next to nothing to do with what they would be expected to do in graduate school and beyond. The student who enters grad school intent on becoming a traditional humanist is the student who will be labelled as hopelessly unsophisticated by her peers and her professors. She will also be labelled a conservative by default: she may vote democratic; may be pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, and anti-gun; may possess a palpably bleeding heart; but if she refuses to “politicize” her academic work, if she refuses to embrace the belief that ultimately everything she reads and writes is a political act before it is anything else, if she resists the pressure to throw an earnest belief in an aesthetic tradition and a desire to address the transhistorical “human questions” out the window in favor of partisan theorizing and thesis-driven advocacy work, then she is by default a political undesirable, and will be described by fellow students and faculty as a conservative.

This is what I’m always wondering about the trendy lit-crit crowd. Do they even like literature particularly? They don’t seem to. They seem to want to talk about anything and everything else under the sun except literature. Which is understandable in a way – I love the stuff but I’m not sure I would want to write about it, and I’m especially not sure I would want to keep on writing about it for thirty years or so. But then why get a PhD in English? If you want to read and think and write about politics, why not get a PhD in that? Or in history or sociology? Why go into literature and then talk about something completely different? It seems so futile, so silly, and such bad manners. Like going to a pizza place and screaming the place down because it doesn’t serve sushi.

As Burke points out, this is at least as much about conformity as it is about politics…It’s the culture of academe–or at least of the academic humanities–that is the main problem. If you don’t have to be a conservative to get labelled–and reviled–as a conservative, then “conservative” means something other than “conservative” in the academic circles I am discussing here. It means something more like “non-conformist,” which, ironically, often translates into either “traditional humanist” or “person who questions prevailing orthodoxies of any stamp” or both. Certainly, left-wing politics are central to this problem–the people who are labelling the “conservatives” in their midst are by definition on the left. But what they are labelling “conservative” is more often than not not conservative per se, but simply different from them.

Just so. I’ve had people solemnly inform me that B and W is ‘culturally conservative’. Which seems to me a silly thing to say on about ten different levels. One, so what? Two – so is everything that is newer than something else automatically better than that something else? Does everything invariably get better and better in an uninterrupted trajectory towards perfection? Do things never get worse from time to time? Hasn’t the Whig view of history had some doubts cast on it now? Three, if you take that view, doesn’t that mean that whatever New Thing someone comes up with tomorrow is necessarily better than whatever it is you’re doing now, and if so, doesn’t that make it all seem a tad pointless? Four, is it really sound to judge ideas chronologically? Does it work to simply date everything and then say ‘Well look, this idea is from 1825 so obviously it’s much better than this other one from 1789’? Hitler was newer than, say, Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Kaiser was not a great guy, but was he worse than Hitler? For that matter, Colly Cibber was later than Shakespeare; was he better? Well, the reductio is obvious enough. But people go on saying it. Erin O’Connor is exactly right, it seems to me: it’s all about conformity and orthodoxy, group-think and fashion, playing well with others instead of thinking clearly on your own.



Secularism Meets the Hijab

Oct 1st, 2003 7:19 pm | By

This is always an interesting subject. There are so many boxes one could put it in, for one thing. How unhelpful, self-cancelling, and ill-founded talk of ‘rights’ can be. How difficult or indeed impossible it can be to meet everyone’s desires and wishes – which is just another way of saying how self-cancelling talk of ‘rights’ can be. How difficult or impossible it can be to decide what is really fair and just to all parties, which is yet another way of saying the same thing. How incompatible some goods are, how irreconcilable some culture clashes are, how differently we see things depending on how we frame them. If our chosen frame is religion, or identity politics, or multiculturalism, or tolerance, or anti-Eurocentrism, or all of those, or some of them, then head scarves look like one thing. If our frame is feminism, or secularism, or equality, or rationalism, or Enlightenment, or some or all of those, then head scarves look like another thing. If we see merit in both sides of that equation then head scarves look like a damn confusing puzzling riddle.

In France, meanwhile, two teenage sisters have been suspended from school after insisting on attending class with their heads covered. The school says it is simply enforcing secular laws that ban all displays of religious faith in state schools and public buildings. “The girls’ argument that they have a right [to wear a headscarf] is incompatible with secularism and school rules,” Education Ministry Inspector Jean-Charles Ringard said. Alma and Lila Levy, whose mother is Muslim and whose father is a Jewish atheist, say they are simply demanding that two basic rights be respected. “We are being asked to decide between our religion and our education; we want both,” said Alma Levy, 16.

Yes, but then what about other rights? What about the rights of other girls not to have to learn in the presence of a symbol of female inferiority and subservience?

A constitutional ruling gives schools power to ban any religious symbol – headscarf, Jewish skullcap or Christian cross – worn as an “act of pressure, provocation, proselytism or propaganda.” The headscarf, or hijab as it is called in Arabic, has stirred controversy in France for more than a decade…French feminists and left-wingers say the scarf is a token of servitude, a sign of submission to male dominance rather than to God, as devout Muslims claim it to be.

Just so. Pressure, proselytism, propaganda. A head scarf carries a lot of meaning, it’s not just some neutral bit of decoration. No doubt I ought to, but I find it very hard to feel much sympathy for girls who ‘demand’ their ‘right’ to advertise their subordinate status.