Notes and Comment Blog


Meaning

Jun 6th, 2005 8:17 pm | By

This was an odd item. The Economist’s review of the Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich (which, you’ll be fascinated to know, has an entry, or is it two entries, by my erudite colleague) and The Future of Philosophy edited by Brian Leiter. It ended with – with what certainly looks to an impartial observer (by which I mean me) like a dig.

Although plenty of philosophers consult the Gourmet, it makes others of them cringe. Two years ago close on 300, including some from top-ranked New York University and Rutgers, wrote an open letter complaining that Mr Leiter’s table measured reputation, not excellence, and that it was driving good students away from middle-rank colleges in a race for the top.

Interestingly, seven of Mr Leiter’s 12 distinguished contributors to “The Future of Philosophy” are on his advisory board. None of them signed the letter of complaint. Who said philosophy was out of touch with the world?

That’s the last thing in the review – that’s the note it ends on. Doesn’t that look like a dig? Like a wink wink nudge nudge?

Leiter sent them a correction.

Your review of my collection “The Future for Philosophy” insults, gratuitously, the contributors to the volume, and me as the editor, by implying that senior academics were invited to contribute to the book not because they are internationally recognised leaders in their areas of philosophy, but because they did not sign a letter of protest about my online guide to graduate study in philosophy…Simple fact-checking by your snide, but lazy, reviewer would have prevented this irresponsible insult to the eminent philosophers who contributed to the book.

And look what they appended to the correction:

Editor’s note: Our complimentary review of “The Future of Philosophy” made no such accusation, even implicitly. We pointed out that Mr Leiter’s online ranking, the Philosophical Gourmet, is controversial, but to do so was proper, not snide.

No such accusation? Even implicitly? Even implicitly? Really? What’s that ‘Interestingly’ then? What’s that last sentence about being out of touch with the world? Very odd. Irony is notoriously tricky, but I could have sworn that was a dig. Oh well.



What’s That in Your Eye, Phil?

Jun 6th, 2005 12:11 am | By

Hitchens certainly was busy while he was in the UK. Multiple talks at the Hay Festival, Start the Week, and finally Night Waves. Did I miss any? Did he also fill in for Melvyn Bragg on ‘In Our Time’ and do the weather report on ‘Today’? Did he open Parliament and drive the number 85 bus? Did he announce the trains at Victoria and carry a sandwich-board up and down Oxford Street and sell tickets for the Eye? Was he, like, everywhere, or only almost everywhere?

Whatever, he was on Night Waves, and it’s quite – no, very – interesting. But there’s an irritating bit near the end where Philip Dodd tells Hitchens with much emphasis that he has one enormous blind spot: religion. But he doesn’t do much of a job of explaining why Hitchens’ attitude to religion is a ‘blind spot.’ Maybe he thinks it’s so obvious it doesn’t need saying – but it isn’t. It needs saying clearly and spelling out, because as I’ve mentioned a time or two, it’s not obvious, why religion should be treated with deference or piety or respect or any of the cant.

But it’s not a huge surprise that Philip Dodd thinks it should be. He’s the one who hosted that annoying Night Waves with the ‘postmodernist theologian’ Philip Blond as well as Julian Baggini, Norman Levitt and A S Byatt in April. He’s the one who said ‘Maybe it’s time to call science’s bluff…[to Blond] Do you think science is overly revered at present?’ and the one who let Blond do way more than his share of the talking – who in fact let him dominate the discussion, do most of the talking, interrupt the other participants, and generally carry on as if he had the upper hand and the platform and the right to run the show. Kind of a put-up job, I call it. Kind of a ‘the fix is in’ situation. So he would think Hitchens has a ‘blind spot’ about religion, but I don’t think the clarity of his vision is much to boast of.



Have Mercy

Jun 5th, 2005 2:45 am | By

Humans, humans, humans. One despairs sometimes, one really does. How can one help it.

Police and child protection experts are to investigate the extent of child abuse linked to religious practices after three adults who branded an eight-year-old child a witch and tortured her for months were yesterday convicted of child cruelty offences. The girl, known only as child B, was an orphan from war-ravaged Angola and brought to Britain by her aunt who falsely claimed to be her mother. She was cut with a knife on her chest, had chilli peppers rubbed in her eyes, was starved and repeatedly slapped, kicked and beaten…In one incident child B was bundled into a laundry bag and made to believe she would be thrown in a river by Kisanga and her aunt, who believed the girl was possessed by evil spirits…Police say child B was discovered by a street warden near Kisanga’s east London flat on November 24, 2003. She had cuts and bruises and was shivering…Once all three adults surrounded the girl: “One kicked me, one slapped me and one pushed me. I asked myself, ‘What have I done?’

Was anything left out? The child has lost her parents, her country is racked by war, an aunt takes her to the UK – and then turns on her. She’s eight years old and alone with three adults who are not her parents, who don’t (chances seem to be pretty good) love her the way parents (unless things go wrong) love their children. She’s eight years old, in a strange country, and all, all alone with three people bent on torturing her. She’s eight years old, wondering what she’s done. And there are others in the same situation.

Why do people need to come up with these ingenuities? Isn’t just everyday ordinary bad-temper and meanness enough, are these refinements necessary?

One day in November 2003 Kisanga and Ms X told her they were going to kill her by throwing her into the New River, a canal near her home. She was told to take her clothes off and was forced to get into a large red and white laundry bag, which was then zipped up…Ms May said Pinto intervened to save the child and soon after the girl was dumped on the street and was spotted by two Hackney Council street wardens. She was taken into care but because she did not tell the police about her abuse she was allowed to return to Ms X on Christmas Eve 2003…Ms May told the jury when the girl finally opened up about the abuse she had undergone she also admitted to having been traumatised. “She told her interviewers that she had been suffering nightmares about people trying to kill her,” said the prosecutor.

It’s not just Africa or belief in witchcraft, either. Don’t forget the Candace Newmaker case. She failed to bond with her new adopted mother (hardly surprising at her age), so a ‘therapist’ decided she had ‘Reactive Attachment Disorder,’ meaning she hadn’t bonded with her new adopted mother. (Listen, if someone adopted me right now, it would take me a good long time to bond with her, I can tell you that. I don’t care who it is.) Well hey, it was in the DSM-IV, so it must be a real disease or at least disorder, right? Of course. So the treatment for RAD – a new and not much tested ‘treatment’ but hey, nothing ventured nothing gained, right? – was ‘rebirthing therapy.’ Wazzat? Well, what you do is, you roll the child up in a mattress and pile a lot of stuff on top of her so that she feels squashed and can’t breathe properly, and then you tell her to fight her way out. When she says she can’t, and she can’t breathe, either, you tell her she’s a coward and has to try harder. When she starts to cry, you call her a lot of names. When she says she’s dying, you call her more names, and say ‘Good, die then’ for good measure. When she dies – well, you may feel slightly stupid, but it’s too late.

The people in both cases apparently really believed they were doing the right thing. It’s hard to get the mind around that, but it appears to be the case.



Things Are Against Us

Jun 2nd, 2005 8:27 pm | By

Oh dear – that’s one of the best laughs I’ve had in – well, a few hours, anyway. It was the surprise, partly. You know how a surprise can yank a loud sudden blurt of laughter out of you without your consciously intending it. It was that kind.

What, what, you eagerly cry, tell us so that we can laugh too. It was just a letter on the Letters page about my silly parodic wall article, which said ‘This is one of the silliest things I have ever read.’ Well good! That was the idea, so I’m delighted he thinks so! Mind you, he seems to have missed the fact that the silliness was intentional, but that’s all right – all the better in fact. Shows that it’s plausible enough. That was intentional too – I did try to make it enough like the real thing that the parody would be about something as opposed to merely absurdist. (That’s the basic thinking behind the entries in the Dictionary, too, I suppose. They’re meant to be hooked onto the real thing enough that they’re not just random cartoons. In fact my co-author often had to check a tendency in me to go past the borders of credibility. ‘I just don’t believe that one,’ he would say coldly. I would argue and shout and throw things, but in the end I usually gave in. I put most of the rejects on the B&W version of the Dictionary. I finally removed one of those a few days ago, after the fourth or fifth person emailed to tell me that I had ‘Chinatown’ and ‘The China Syndrome’ confused. I knew I did, that was the joke, but if so many people didn’t realize that – well that must have been a joke that didn’t work.) Mind you, I also included one or two fairly broad hints that it was a joke. The bit about decaying corpses, for instance – I’d have thought that was a bit of a giveaway. But probably the reader was so irritated and incredulous by the time he got to that part that he didn’t quite take it in. And rightly so! If you’re not already familiar with B&W, you wouldn’t asume that it’s a joke, so irritation in that situation is the correct response.

All this reminds me of an article Ellen Willis wrote in the Village Voice in response to the Sokal Hoax. I like her writing, but her partiality for the hoaxed Stanley Aronowitz may have clouded her perception on this occasion. Whatever the reason, she made a surprisingly glaring error:

Roger Kimball, who himself had been totally fooled by Sokal’s parody and blasted it at length in an anti-Social Text polemic in the new Criterion

But – Ellen – oh dear, don’t you see, don’t you get it? The fact that he blasted it means he wasn’t fooled by it, not that he was! The fact that he thought Sokal meant it literally is not the point, the point is that he recognized what Sokal wrote as bullshit, which Aronowitz signally failed to do.

Quite an embarrassing mistake, that.

H. E. Baber reminds us of this splendid item, which I’d read before but forgotten.

Go into any of the little cafés or horlogeries on Paris’s Left Bank (make sure the Seine is flowing away from you, otherwise you’ll be on the Right Bank, where no one is ever seen) and sooner or later you will hear someone say, ‘Les choses sont contre nous.‘ ‘Things are against us.’ This is the nearest English translation I can find for the basic concept of Resistentialism, the grim but enthralling philosophy now identified with bespectacled, betrousered, two-eyed Pierre-Marie Ventre.

All accidentally (as Henry James might have put it), I was gesturing toward the same idea – but not because I remembered Resistentialism. The inspiration was that review of a history of barbed wire we were discussing last week. I was trying to inflate the element of paranoia as much as possible – and ended up in much the same place. Which is quite funny, really.

Clark-Trimble was not primarily a physicist, and his great discovery of the Graduated Hostility of Things was made almost accidentally. During some research into the relation between periods of the day and human bad temper, Clark-Trimble, a leading Cambridge psychologist, came to the conclusion that low human dynamics in the early morning could not sufficiently explain the apparent hostility of Things at the breakfast table…

I have a longstanding, consuming interest in human bad temper. I consider myself an expert in the field.



No Exit

Jun 2nd, 2005 12:01 am | By

And speaking of writing and thinking – as we so often are, one way or another – here is a good article on the subject. Unfortunate that it was first published in the Weekly Standard, but sometimes things fall out that way. It is republished in Theory’s Empire.

…bad academic writing nowadays has become something worse than an aesthetic offense…Academic writing in our own time, however, exhibits a disregard, not merely for style, but for truth. Once upon a time, no matter how badly they wrote, scholars imagined that they were contributing to knowledge. But no longer. Much of the scholarship now published in the humanities—primarily in English and comparative literature, but increasingly in history, musicology, art history, and religious studies—has no other purpose than to confirm the scholar’s own status and authority. It is not a contribution to knowledge, but to political power.

A harsh comment, but all too believable. I say ‘believable’ in that waffly way because obviously one can’t know for sure – we have no way of knowing for certain what people’s motivations are for writing what they do. But it is believeable, because when you look at the actual work in question, it simply is very difficult to think that anyone writes it in order to contribute to knowledge. That just doesn’t seem to be what’s going on – what’s going on looks like something else entirely.

Although she agreed that even leftist scholars “should be able to clarify how their work informs and illuminates everyday life,” Butler insisted that academic writing needed to be “difficult and demanding” (her words) in order to “question common sense”—the truths which are so self-evident that no one thinks to question them—and so to “provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.” If the only choice is between academic obscurity and the pseudo-clarity of “common sense,” who wouldn’t choose the former? But who said that’s the only choice? In the limited range of options she offers us, Butler reveals much about the real politics behind bad academic writing.

Thus – and so soon, too – we meet the false dichotomy again. Who, indeed, said that’s the only choice?

The desire to “question common sense” is merely the self-congratulation of someone whose “sense” is different, but no less “common.” Although Butler wishes to disrupt “the workings of capitalism,” the effect of her writing is exactly the opposite. Its effect is to safeguard the power and privilege of academic capitalists—among whom she is one of the great robber barons.

Wishes, or perhaps claims to wish to disrupt those workings. I myself (suspicious rat that I am) tend to think it’s far more of a claim than a wish.

What Butler’s writing actually expresses is simultaneously a contempt for her readers and an absolute dependence on their good opinion. The problem is not so much her lack of concern for clarity; it’s her lack of concern for clarification. If Butler took seriously her academic responsibility—her duty to teach—she would take pains to make herself clear. Her concern, though, is not to clarify a difficult subject but to justify her position in the front ranks. Hers is not writing to be read and understood; it is a display of verbal majesty, which is to inspire awe and respect. Its one purpose is to confirm Butler’s authority as a leader of the academic left.

A knock-down point, I think. The lack of concern for clarification is telling.

But you can sense the strength of Butler’s party even more strongly among those who support the Bad Writing Contest. In the last two years, at least five young scholars have submitted entries, asking that their names not be released if they should win. In an unsigned June 1997 letter, one entrant confessed that he was “loathe to upset senior scholars in my field,” since alienating them could do “significant damage” to his career…In the current crisis of hiring freezes and intense pressure for tenure, the need to publish is perhaps greater than any time before. Yet to publish in most journals means flinging the jargon, toeing the party line (which is somewhere to the left of gibberish), and quoting the usual suspects (Benjamin, Foucault, Derrida, Said, Jameson, Butler, etc.). I’m often appalled at my own writing, but since jargon, rather than substance, gains a publication, I succumb to verbiage.

Maybe they all hate it, maybe even Butler does, maybe they’re all caught in a trap of their own making. Let’s hope they find the way out soon.



Surely Two Choices is Enough

Jun 1st, 2005 11:08 pm | By

Let’s test our writing skills, shall we? Let’s write an essay on one of these questions:

“Is it more important to follow the rules exactly or to base your actions on how other people may be affected?”

”Are people motivated to achieve by personal satisfaction rather than by money or fame?”

Okay let’s not. Let’s instead curl a lip at the stupid impoverished vacuous questions, and do something else instead. For instance we could wonder why those are the only possibilities on offer, and why the terms are so undefined, in fact meaningless. ‘More important’ – to whom, when, where, in what context? What ‘rules’? Rules pertaining to what? Football? Taking an aptitude test? Morality? If the latter, what rules are meant? What ‘actions’? What am I doing, and what rules apply to what I’m doing, and how do I know, and who issued them? Where are we? What ‘other people’? ‘Affected’ in what sense? To ‘achieve’ what? What kind of achievement are we talking about? What kind of ‘personal satisfaction’? What if ‘money’ and ‘fame’ aren’t real options? Where (again) are we? And why such incomplete choices? The best answer to both questions would be simply ‘No.’

The author of the article points this out.

The real problem with the SAT persuasive essay assignment isn’t what it conveys about spontaneity or style but what it suggests about how to argue. Students are asked to ponder (quickly) a short excerpt of conventional wisdom about, say, the advisability of following rules, and they are then instructed to ”develop your point of view on this issue.” But if the goal of ”better writing” is ”improved thinking,” as the College Board’s National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges has pronounced, perhaps it’s worth asking whether practice in reflexively taking a position on any potentially polarizing issue is what aspiring college students — or the rest of us — need most. As those sample essay questions at the start reveal, and as any test-prep book will confirm, at the homiletic heart of the SAT writing assignment is the false dichotomy. The best strategy for a successful essay is to buy into one of the facile premises that inform the question, and then try to sell it as if it were really yours. Essayists won’t be penalized for including false information, either, according to the official guide for graders. ”You are scoring the writing,” it instructs, ”and not the correctness of facts.”

Ah. The point of the test is to score how closely students resemble Bill O’Reilly. Wonderful.

…the test-prep industry bluntly says that a blinkered perspective pays off on the essay — and nobody knows better than the professional SAT obsessives. ”It is very important that you take a firm stance in your essay and stick to it,” insists Kaplan’s ”New SAT.”…”What’s important is that you take a position and state how you feel. It is not important what other people might think, just what you think.” This doesn’t bear much resemblance to an exercise in critical reasoning, which usually involves clarifying the logic of a position by taking counterarguments seriously or considering alternative assumptions…In fact, self-centered opinion is exactly what the questions solicit…You have to hand it to the College Board: the new essay seems all too apt as training for contemporary social and political discourse in this country, and for journalistic food fights too. But don’t colleges want to encourage the ”strengths of analysis and logic” that the Board itself has said are so important to ”the citizenry in a democracy”?

It doesn’t appear so.



Frat Boys

Jun 1st, 2005 1:40 am | By

We’ve been discussing the personal argumenative habits of Hitchens in comments lately, so this seems like a highly relevant item. Also hilarious, also interesting. I mean to say – if he takes such obvious pleasure in publicly fighting with his brother, it’s hardly surprising that he fights with other people too, is it. My only claim is that whatever rude remarks he makes at the dinner table, they’re not likely to be secret or underhanded – on the contrary, the chances are excellent that he’s just made them on tv or in the Guardian, and will do it again but with more embellishments tomorrow.

His brother knows that, at least, even if not everyone else does:

You should have done what you do in almost any other occasion when you disagree with someone, you should have argued about it, and then we would have reached this position much earlier. Silence is never an answer to anything.

I disagree with that last remark, by the way. Sheer nonsense. Silence is often an answer to many things. People who irritate, for instance. One doesn’t always want to go to all the trouble of explaining to people why one finds them so immensely irritating and therefore won’t be talking to them anymore, does one. Especially if one of the chief reasons they are so irritating is the fact that they can’t seem to figure out for themselves what is so irritating about them, and stop being that way. I mean, why should we do their homework for them? I don’t see it. If they want to know why we don’t like them anymore, they should just give the matter some good hard thought, that’s what. That’s not our job.

It’s a great credit to our father, who was very conservative, that he never attempted to inculcate any politics into either of us, there were no heretical positions in the family. The real difference between Peter and myself is the belief in the supernatural. I’m a materialist and he attributes his presence here to a divine plan. I can’t stand anyone who believes in God, who invokes the divinity or who is a person of faith. I mean, that to me is horrible repulsive thing.

See what I mean? No need to wait for a convivial dinner table or gathering at the bar; there it all is right out in the open. And a fine thing too. Peter makes a very silly (and extremely, maddeningly, familiar) reply. I’m not on speakers with Peter either!

He has several faiths. He has the faith I think of Darwinism, which is just like Christianity, an unproveable theory, which you can believe if you want because you prefer that arrangement of the universe. I happen to think the arrangement of the universe based on the belief in intelligent life is more tolerable than both morally and aesthetically, but he prefers another. I dislike only the attitude that his atheism is not a faith, because it is.

No. It. Isn’t.

And note the linking of what you ‘can’ believe with what you prefer, the casual closing of the is-ought gap. And that’s not even true, actually. It is not possible to believe things we would prefer to be true if we don’t in fact believe them. Everybody knows that.

IK Are you two friends?

PH No. There was an old joke in East Germany that went, Are the Russians our friends or our brothers? And the answer is, they must be our brothers because you can choose your friends.

CH The great thing about family life is that it introduces you to people you’d otherwise never meet.

There’s something terrifically satisfying in that. Especially to someone tired of the cloying American diet of ‘family values.’ Are you friends? No.

PH They want everything to be all right.

CH They want a happy ending – that’s their problem.

That is the happy ending. Implacable hostility: that’s the happy ending.



I Already Knew That

Jun 1st, 2005 12:10 am | By

Well, yes. To say the least. And about time too.

With the publication of his fifth collection of essays, it is time to acknowledge that Christopher Hitchens, as well as an exceptional political polemicist, is also one of the best literary and cultural critics of the past 20 years…It is time to take Christopher Hitchens seriously.

Well past time, actually. To pick just one example among many, one we have mentioned recently, he makes Joseph Epstein look a very pale flat unsparkling essayist indeed. He puts a good many overpraised current essayists in the shade. So well done David Herman for saying so. Some dreary enforcer shouted at Amardeep Singh for daring to say a good word for Hitchens as a critic at the Valve the other day. In fact (now I’ve taken another look) more than one of them. Ha. They should only write and think so well, that’s all. But obviously that’s out of the question, since they have exactly the kind of orthodoxy-enforcing mentality that rules out being able to think and write as well as Hitchens does. The non-orthodoxy and the thinking and writing are intimately connected, are part and parcel of one another, so obviously people who say things like ‘the presumed gap between the politics and the cultural/aesthetic here sounds more than a little bit like the “sure, the Bradley people fund Horowitz, but when it comes to the ALSC that’s just disinterested pursuit of literary appreciation…” from this site’s early days…’ and ‘Rather than throwing up your hands – “huh, he’s sold his soul to the neocons… but that doesn’t have anything to do with this review” – one might think that the proper approach to the topic is to look into the connection between the politics and the aesthetics…’ could no more write (or think) like Hitchens than they could fly like a swallow or bite like a barricuda.

Many people assume that Hitchens’s break with the left came over 9/11. That was a bitter falling out, part of a larger split within the Anglo-American left intelligentsia. But signs of the break are apparent earlier: over Salman Rushdie and the fatwa in 1989, then Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Hitchens’s cause was always the same: secular, humanitarian, democratic.

Just so, as Hitchens has said many times. The Rushdie affair was the start. And he hasn’t broken with the left in its entirety, I don’t think – with the secular, humanitarian, anti-tyranny, pro-human rights, pro-universalism left, the same left wot B&W thinks of itself as part of. The branch of the left he has broken with doesn’t have a monopoly on the word or title or orientation.

At the end of the book [Letters to a Young Contrarian] he writes, “The next phase or epoch is already discernible; it is the fight to extend the concept of universal human rights, and to match the ‘globalisation’ of production by the globalisation of a common standard for justice and ethics.” The pieces on the fatwa against Rushdie had the same tone: it was “the chance to defend civilisation’s essential principle.”

Just so. Universal human rights. The ones Maryam Namazie and Azam Kamguian and Homa Arjomand and Azar Majedi and Kenan Malik appeal to. That is not my idea of ‘breaking with the left,’ it’s far more like trying to get the left not to break with its own basic and best principles.

In all these writers, Hitchens sees complexity, contradiction and “the idea of a double life.” Orwell/Blair, of course, is a classic case of this English doubleness, but the richest account is found in his essay of the early 1990s on Larkin. When Tom Paulin, Terry Eagleton and others rushed to bury Larkin under accusations of racism, sexism and worse, Hitchens dug deeper and found, both in the life and the poetry, more complexity and interest.

And there is a great deal more to say about Larkin than that he was a racist sexist or sexist racist. Blindingly obviously. Larkin wouldn’t be the best person to put in charge of the local Universal Human Rights declaration, but that doesn’t exhaust the possibilities, does it. It takes a certain lack of subtlety to think it does.

Hitchens, you feel, is on the move, drawing away from the littleness of today’s politicians and celebrity culture, towards the great writers of the early and mid-20th century. If that is where he finally pitches his tent, he might end up as the best literary and cultural critic of his generation.

Well, I think he ended up there a long time ago.



A Review

May 28th, 2005 1:10 am | By

Back from Folklife. It’s a hot day for it! And Folklife when it’s hot can be a little much. Crowded, not much shade, crowded, all those stupid teenage abdomens poking out, crowded, and hot. But it was fun. We got lucky and happened on a terrific group – the North Shore Celtic Ensemble – along with a shady spot to stand, so that made the afternoon. Some African drumming, some shanties, and that was enough. If it had been cooler I would have hunted for some Inca music and maybe a little Bulgarian dancing, but this was good.

Another item. I’m slowly catching up…

There’s an excellent archaeology site that has a great review of the Dictionary. He so thoroughly sees the point…

I became quite depressed while taking my MPhil in Archaeology. I was being taught philosophy. By archaeologists. I’m not an expert on Philosophy but I’m willing to bet that with three years for a BA, and another 3+1 for the MA and PhD, there’s a bit more to Philosophy than using long words. Sorry, deploying extensive lexical structures within a textual context. I also suspect that a background in Philosophy would help in teaching it, but I’m open to being corrected by those who know better.

Ain’t it the truth. What else have we been gently hinting to Judith Halberstam – but will she listen? I seriously doubt it.

It’s not that it skewers a clique I find offensive that makes me like this book. There are lots of people willing to criticise post-modernism especially among people who haven’t read the original texts. A lot of ‘criticisms’ are knee-jerk anti-intellectualism. The difference is that Benson and Stangroom have read what is being said and understand it. Which is more than the authors of post-modern articles do. Except as Benson and Stangroom point out, authors don’t really exist.

Which is why postmodernists never put their names on their books, or collect royalties, or accept promotion or tenure, or assign their books to their students. Yep.

I think I’ll find it useful if I give a paper at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference this year. I may well cite some of the definitions deadpan. They should pass through without firing a neuron of doubt in a section of the audience.

Now that makes my little red eyes well up. He thinks he might find it useful at a Theoretical conference. I’ve seldom been so flattered. Sic ’em, Alun!



A Better Grasp

May 27th, 2005 6:06 pm | By

I suppose this is just over-simplified for a mass audience? Or perhaps the editor simplified it? Because it is a tad misleading. A classic example of what Susan Haack calls the passes-for fallacy.

But for many contemporary academics, especially those who bought into postmodern theory in the last few decades, the idea of the “real” raises serious problems. Reality depends on those who are perceiving it, on social forces that have conditioned their thinking, and on whoever controls the flow of information that influences them…Both sides have a point here. No one could survive for a day if he or she really tried to live by the relentless relativism and skepticism preached by postmodernists, in which everything is shadowed by uncertainty or exposed as ideology. But it is also true that the media revolutions of the last century, while they hugely expanded our access to knowledge, created far more effective tools by which that knowledge could be manipulated.

But reality is one thing, and knowledge is another; reality is one thing, and our perception of it is another. Yes, of course, the mass media have created immense new possibilities for manipulation, distortion, opinion-shaping, subtle influencing, and so on; and that’s a hugely important fact; I’ve been obsessed with it myself for years; my shelves groan with the weight of books on PR, advertising, the media, and related subjects; but – but that does not mean that the mass media have done something to reality in general. They’ve done a lot to various particular realities, such as the popular understanding of a lot of things; but much of reality itself is impervious to media manipulations.

Which is not to say that there are no serious problems with ‘the idea of the “real”‘ – but that passage doesn’t state them very clearly. It conflates a problem with knowledge with a problem with the idea of the real. I’m sure Dickstein is well aware of that – probably the editor made him simplify for the purposes of a newspaper piece. But that just creates another problem of knowledge…Ironic, isn’t it. But I kind of like his last paragraph. It’s not unlike the way we end Why Truth Matters.

This is how most readers have always read novels, not simply for escape, and certainly not mainly for art, but to get a better grasp of the world around them and the world inside them. Now that the overload of theory, like a mental fog, has begun to lift, perhaps professional readers will catch up with them.

That’s it, you see. I think we all (or almost all) want a better grasp of the world around us and the world inside us. We also want things that fight with that – consolation, hope, relief – but we want that too. It’s a desire that ought not to be sneered at or patronized or called unsophisticated. It’s the most sophisticated thing about us.



No Passports?

May 27th, 2005 5:34 pm | By

Is this true? It probably is – why haven’t I thought of it before? I don’t know. It was certainly much-mentioned (and worth mentioning) that Bush had hardly been anywhere outside the Texas-Connecticut-Maine circuit when he first ran for Leaderofthelastgreatsuperpower – but what about those legislators. It seems slightly incredible on the face of it, if only because we know some of them go on fact-finding missions and the like. It was a Congressional Representative who was murdered on the airport tarmac in Jonestown in 1978, the incident that set off the Kool-aid mass murder-suicide. It was on an international trip that Newt Gingrich had his notorious snit about having to sit in the back of the plane (or was it the toilet, or the baggage compartment) and therefore he wasn’t going to make nice with the horrible Democrats. Surely they do leave US soil now and then…don’t they? But maybe most of them don’t – which is an alarming thought. Does anyone know if this is true?

Perhaps we should extend the Fulbright program to Congress. Most senators and representatives have never traveled outside the United States. Most do not have passports. Those facts are unsettling, given the dominance of the United States in world affairs. If our representatives lived and studied abroad for a few months before taking office, it would expose them to the world’s complexity. It might humble us.

The whole article is worth a read.

“About Britain,” wrote the Trinidadian critic C.L.R. James in his beautiful book Beyond a Boundary, “I was a strange compound of knowledge and ignorance.” That expresses well the apprehension, in both senses, of an intellectual transported to another land. To leave the familiar behind and enter into the foreign (not for a week or two but to live, to work) can be disorienting…A Fulbright grant, like the changing of seasons, has the appearance of being about environment or geography but is just as much about consciousness. A Fulbright is an experience of the mind. It causes one to rethink oneself and one’s country while puzzling out another.

Yes, and one recommends it to would-be legislators and – dare I say it? – presidents. Parochialism is not a political virtue.



Not Again

May 26th, 2005 8:23 pm | By

I said I wanted to make a noise about the Fallaci matter – but perhaps there’s no point. You know perfectly well what I’m going to say. And what else is there to say? But – well, but tiny water drops can wear away a stone, or something, so we might as well keep making a noise even if it is a predictable noise.

Controversial Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci is to face trial for allegedly insulting the Muslim faith in her latest book, a court in Italy says…Italian preliminary investigative judge Armando Grasso ordered the formulation of charges against the author, saying the book had expressions which were “unequivocally offensive to Islam”.

Okay. It’s all too obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. So what? So what if the book does have expressions which are ‘offensive to Islam’? What does that even mean anyway? Is Islam a person, can Islam be offended? And even if it did mean something, so what. Substitute a wide variety of other abstract nouns for ‘Islam’ in that sentence and see how absurd it sounds. The book has expressions which are offensive to: Socialism, libertarianism, psychology, stamp-collecting, bird-watching, football, sculpture, hairdressing, fashion, advertising, public relations, political science, marketing, philosophy, science fiction. If some blank-eyed buttonholer on the street offered you that sentence you would shrug and walk on; if a judge offered it you would assume you were sound asleep and having a surrealistic dream.

Expressions that are offensive to someone or other are what books have. That’s just how it is. Unless they’re books of train timetables, or telephone numbers, or possibly recipes (though that’s tricky), then they will inevitably have expressions that not everyone will agree with, and therefore can be construed by the chronically indignant as ‘offensive.’ What’s the alternative? That all books should contain nothing but sentences of the formula ‘___ is good’? Would you want to read such a book? Would you want to live in such a mind, would you want to talk to anyone in such a world? No. Not unless you’re a pod you wouldn’t.

Stefania Prestigiacomo, Italy’s Minister for Equal Opportunity, has it right.

Our country is becoming a disquieting one if freedom of speech can be condemned or punished. Reading that someone wants to try Oriana Fallaci because of her ideas makes me think of a sort of lay ‘fatwa’, such as the one which has been forcing Salman Rushdie to hide for years now. Are we really reaching the stage where Ms Fallaci’s ideas are to be considered illegal?

Let’s hope not. Let’s really earnestly hope that we’re all not reaching the stage where criticism of Islam or any religion is to be considered illegal and hauled into court. But who knows. I’m not a bit sure some people who ought to mind the idea, would mind the idea. I heard Lisa Jardine on Start the Week last week rebuke Andrew Marr – ‘there was a note in your voice,’ she told him sharply – for suggesting that there could be anything about Islam in particular that was in tension with democracy. It is Forbidden to say that, Jardine told the world. It is simply Not Permissable to criticise Islam specifically, to say that Islam has its own particular faults that are different from the faults of the other monotheisms. Well – that’s an incredibly stupid thing to say. Lisa Jardine isn’t stupid, but that’s a stupid thing to say. Why is it ruled out in advance that Islam has no faults of its own? For political reasons, obviously. Well-meaning ones, no doubt – to try to shield Muslims from hatred – but epistemically absurd. And the Jardine move is pretty much the same as the Grasso move, and it all amounts to: It is Strictly Forbidden to Criticise Islam. Period.

Can we have a referendum on that first? The AUT got to vote, the American Anthropological Association voted on the Darkness at El Dorado referendum; can we vote on this No Criticism Allowed rule before it goes into effect? Mind you, maybe it would pass. If so, whole libraries are for the bonfire.



Historicize That Artifact!

May 26th, 2005 5:21 pm | By

I was going to scribble something about the Oriana Fallaci matter, but I think I need to do something else first. (Now that The Book is finished and thrown out of the house to make its own way, I’ll have more time to chatter here again. Writing books terrible interference with pressing need to chatter and babble and rant. Must never write book again, because of deep need to babble. Make note to self.) There’s this fairly hilarious review in the TLS of a fanciful history of barbed wire.

For Netz, the raising of cattle is not about producing meat and hides from lands usually too marginal to yield arable crops, but rather an expression of the urge to exercise power…While that is the acquisitive purpose of barbed wire, for Professor Netz it is equally – and perhaps even more – a perversely disinterested expression of the urge to inflict pain…I had always thought that we brand our cattle because they cannot carry notarized title deeds anymore than they can read off-limits signs…By this point in the text some trivial errors occur, readily explained by a brilliantly distinguished academic career that has understandably precluded much personal experience in handling cattle.

And so on. And it’s obvious what the next move is, and the reviewer does not fail to make it. It’s another ‘Hey kids!’ move – Hey kids! let’s all do that!

Enough of the text has been quoted to identify the highly successful procedures employed by Reviel Netz, which can easily be imitated – and perhaps should be by as many authors as possible, to finally explode the entire genre. First, take an artefact, anything at all…Take something seemingly innocuous, say shoelaces. Explore the inherent if studiously unacknowledged ulterior purposes of that “grim” artefact within “the structures of power and violence”. Shoelaces after all perfectly express the Euro-American urge to bind, control, constrain and yes, painfully constrict…That finally unmasks shoelaces for what they really are – not primarily a way of keeping shoes from falling off one’s feet, but instruments of pain…the British could hardly have rounded up Boer wives and children without shoelaces to keep their boots on…

I’ll bite. Let’s see… how about drinking vessels. Cups, glasses, mugs. They’re about power, because they control and repress and constrain the liquid, they confine it within boundaries and borders, they fence it in, they prevent its free creative wandering, they harness its energies to the service of (white, Western, male, Orientalist) human wishes. They are commodified and reified, alienated and consumerist. And cruel. They torture the liquid, you see, by penning it in and channeling its libido, by disciplining and punishing it; by taking it away from its parents or children, and by boiling it or chilling it or freezing it. They are an obvious symptom and outgrowth of rationalism and the Enlightenment project, of science and totalizing narratives, of positivism and phallocentrism. They are phallic symbols themselves, though they are also female genital symbols, which is highly tricky and deceptive. And they’re insidiously Eurocentric and hegemonic because they forbid the delightful free Arcadian way of drinking everything from a curved hand, symbol of community and love, replacing it with the rigid geometrical calculus-riddled shape of the dreaded Cup.

Your turn. Another B&W game or contest. Let’s play Deconstruct/Demystify/Problematize the Artifact.



My Baby Done Gone, 2005 Edition

May 25th, 2005 10:54 pm | By

So here we are again. Where? Here. Where we were a little more than a year ago. In the land of post-partum depression or separation anxiety or what do you think this is, a hotel?. In short, we’ve finished another book. Your well-meaning if surly and inelegant hosts have written another book, which includes the process of finishing writing another book. We have put words down on screen, one after another, patiently piling Pelion on Ossa, except on those days when we opted to pile Ossa on Pelion; one after another, I tell you, until after awhile, after a week or two or three, we had a whole paragraph. Then hey! no sooner had we caught our breath than we were off for the next height. On it went, on and on, while the leaves flew off the calendar, and the flowers bloomed and then withered, the rain fell and the wind blew, the snow piled high and then thawed, the cat threw up and the dog slept, until finally, lo, the land was still and hushed, and there was a great calm upon the waters, and all creation held its breath, and then – in that moment, O best beloved – Jeremy pressed ‘Send’ –

And that was that.

Got that? We done written another book. We’ve finished. We finished today – just now – a couple of hours ago. Therefore soon – i.e. early next year, which is not exactly ‘soon,’ but these things are relative, and I don’t want to go to the damn lighthouse anyway – soon there will be another book with our names on it that people can read and make fun of. It’s not the same kind of book as the last one. Not satirical. Not ironic, not even zany madcap. Although it does have moments – quite a few, actually – where if you look very hard in a strong light, you can just make out a sneer.

But basically it’s serious. (Oooh, serious. Yes very droll, now go away.) It’s called Why Truth Matters and its subject is how to raise angora rabbits.

Which raises an interesting issue, actually. Because my colleague is famed far and wide (meaning, from Cheam to Sutton and back again) as a liar. Everyone who knows him (which is in the high one figures, which is a lot more people than know me) falls to the floor laughing when told that he is writing a book about truth. ‘You! writing a book about truth!’ they exclaim, sobbing with hilarity. ‘How can you write a book about truth when you’re such a liar?!’ Then they call to other people who are in the vicinity, and share the joke with them, and pretty soon the room is filled with people sprawling about positively shrieking with laughter. My colleague takes it all with quiet dignity, as is his wont. He doesn’t allow mockery and incredulity to deflect him from his chosen path. No, he simply wedges a chair under the doorknob so that no one can get in, and carries on putting down words on the screen, just as he ought to.

I don’t have that problem, because I am known far and wide as honest OB, because of that time I gave a guy his glass eye back. Okay that’s an old W C Fields joke, and I tell quite a few whoppers myself, but people are too afraid of me to mock the way they mock my colleague. They know damn well I’d shop them to the committee, or else sneak up on them and kick them when they weren’t expecting it, so they mind their manners.

It actually is called Why Truth Matters, and its subject matter is pretty much what you’d expect the proprietors of B&W to write about – only more so. It’s good, actually. Somewhat to my surprise. It’s very various, despite being thematically unified; it goes in a lot of directions, but also ties together; it has some new ideas, and it deals with interesting subjects. Okay I never said I was modest. Honest, and frightening, yes, but not modest. But no actually it has to do with the material, as well as with our undeniable talent. The material just is interesting – as you all know, because why else are you here? Unless of course it’s because you’re afraid I’ll sneak up behind you and kick you if you try to leave. I might, too.



Darkness as Far as the Eye Can See

May 25th, 2005 8:16 pm | By

Are you all familiar with the Darkness at El Dorado affair? Remember that? The book that exposed a putative scandal in the world of anthropology? Except the putative scandal was – well, let us say it was not well-supported by the evidence. But we all know how that goes. The ‘exposure’ of the ‘scandal’ is front-page news and a best-seller, while the later exposure of the fact that the ‘scandal’ was something more in the nature of a good old mud-throwing exercise is confined to academic journals where most people never hear of it. So that in fact the people who set off the whole mess to a considerable extent got what they wanted. In short, a miscarriage of justice.

It’s a fascinating (and infuriating) story. My colleague just read quite a lot about it for this book we’ve been writing, this book we are finally finally finally about to stop writing – this book that we have in fact stopped writing and are now just putting a few last bits of lace on. There is an article on a new development at Inside Higher Ed – where I left a comment late yesterday, unfortunately so late (my time) yesterday that I appear to have started out writing one sentence and ended up writing another, with unfortunate results for the coherence of the bastard sentence on the page. But the article is interesting and useful, and has links. There is also, as I say in that misbegotten sentence, an excellent article by Thomas Gregor and Daniel Gross in the CHE from 2002. An article they published in ‘American Anthropology’ in December 2004 prompted the American Anthropological Association to hold a referendum on whether or not to rescind its own report on the allegations against James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon that are the subject of Darkness at El Dorado. The report, the fact of its existence, the way it was carried out – all make a compelling (and rather horrifying) story of warped judgment.

What galls many anthropologists is a shamefully conducted investigation that should never have happened in the first place…By the fall of 2000, the charges of murder and genocide against Chagnon and Neel had collapsed. Preliminary investigations established that far from conducting cruel experiments on humans, they had safely vaccinated the Yanomami and saved countless lives. In a normal world, that truth would have punctured the balloon of allegations and left the accusers deflated and apologetic.

But guess what – that’s not how it went.

How then did the association, in violation of its own rules, become the lead prosecutor in an investigation of what it eventually found were “sensationalistic” charges leveled by a “deeply flawed” and journalistically “unethical” book? Our answer is that the leadership was swept away by a riptide of political righteousness so powerful that not even the association’s established policies and the demolition of the most scurrilous charges could withstand its force…In the case at hand, the most serious allegations against Chagnon and Neel had been disproved; the anthropology association does not license its members to practice; and it is among the most politicized of associations. Its fault lines include residual political schisms of the 1960s and ’70s and a confusion of the discipline’s intellectual goals with advocacy.

There it is, you see – a confusion of the discipline’s intellectual goals with advocacy. That’s where the wheels come off. It’s not that advocacy is a bad thing – hell no; indeed, it’s one of the best things. But it is not, repeat not, the same thing as an intellectual goal. In some very important ways, the two inhabit different universes. One universe is that of is, and the other is that of ought. One is facts, the other is values. Facts can (with due caution) inform values, but when values start to inform facts – the facts immediately stop being facts and become something else, only they’re still called facts, and out come the secret police and the show trials and the memory hole and all the rest of the mess.

We saw this same lost-in-the-fog confusion of intellectual goals with advocacy in that Judith Halberstam article the other day, in which what had been literature departments magically transmogrified overnight into some kind of guerrilla movement against colonialism combined with amateur philosophy/political economics departments.

To this must be added the postmodern worldview, much current in anthropology, with its penchant for stripping away appearances — in this case that of a disinterested science in search of the truth — to discover an evil within, or, at minimum, complicity with powerful elites…Such a civil war now threatens anthropology, which is riven with divisions between scientifically oriented, data-driven research and interpretive approaches. What makes the discipline uniquely vulnerable to political turmoil is the worldwide tragedy of beleaguered indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, and the guilt that their suffering evokes. Although the poverty and the oppression are real, academic adversaries may misuse them as swords and shields in their battles…In the association’s report, this exquisite sensitivity extends even to the thoroughly postmodern demand that anthropologists surrender to their subjects the task of defining the topics to be investigated.

That last item is very reminiscent of an article in the Washington Post last September, that I chatted about here and here. Very postmodernist reporters they have at the Post.

Once any outsider starts thinking like an anthropologist, it’s hard not to start asking those bullying Margaret Mead questions. How do you know the natives are telling the truth? Is something sacred just because they say it’s sacred? How do you know that they’re not snowing you with all that talk of the Creator and the power of place and all the happy animism that runs through the general discourse of native life? If you believe that only native voices can get at the truth of native people, you must take it all in at face value. Truth is what individual people say about themselves, beyond refute and suspicion — which is perhaps the most powerful, and radical, challenge that Postmodern thought has proposed.

‘Truth is what individual people say about themselves, beyond refute and suspicion’ – how’s that for a recipe for getting everything wrong? That’s a powerful and radical challenge, all right – a challenge to anyone’s ability to think straight. And can end up with kangaroo courts and show trials. Advocacy is a fine thing, but it has to be the right kind of advocacy.



Hurrah for Old-Time Atheism

May 24th, 2005 2:17 am | By

Well…call me delusional, call me hasty (call me a cab, call me for dinner, yeah yeah, I know), but I can’t help wondering if Salman Rushdie has been reading B&W, at least once. I started with surprise when I started reading this article.

“Not believing in God is no excuse for being virulently anti-religious or naïvely pro-science,” says Dylan Evans, a professor of robotics at the University of West England in Bristol…Evans’ position fits well with that of the American philosopher of science Michael Ruse, whose new book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, lays much of the blame for the growth of creationism in America — and for the increasingly strident attempts by the religious right to have evolutionary theory kicked off the curriculum and replaced by the new dogma of “intelligent design” — at the door of the scientists who have tried to compete with, and even supplant, religion.

It’s not the Evans thing, it’s the combination of that with Michael Ruse, and then farther down in the article Richard Dawkins appears. Hit the End button and take a look at the N&Cs from the beginning of the month, and you’ll see why I think Salman may have been reading here. Maybe not! Maybe I am delusional. Only Ruse is not all that conspicuous, I don’t think; it just happens that I’m interested in him and why he thinks what he does, and so pay attention when he writes something or is reviewed. Then again…I think a review of Ruse’s new book showed up at Arts and Letters Daily, so maybe it is just coincidence. Still – ! It’s not impossible. There is Ibn Warraq’s address to the UN, for instance, and Azam’s, and there are Maryam’s and Homa’s articles. It’s not out of the question that Salman R has a certain interest in issues of this kind, is it now. Anyway, if so, if I inspired him to write about the Evans-Ruse Plan, then very good! Very useful of me. And if not, if he thought of it all by himself, also good, because I can think how clever of me to think of the same thing, and sooner.

Enough about me. It’s the article that’s interesting. Go, Salman.

Evans’ “Atheism Lite,” which seeks to negotiate a truce between religious and irreligious world views, is easily demolished. Such a truce would have a chance of working only if it were reciprocal — if the world’s religions agreed to value the atheist position and to concede its ethical basis, if they respected the discoveries and achievements of modern science, even when these discoveries challenge religious sanctities, and if they agreed that art at its best reveals life’s multiple meanings at least as clearly as so-called “revealed” texts. No such reciprocal arrangement exists, however, nor is there the slightest chance that such an accommodation could ever be reached.

Just so. That’s one of the things that made Evans’ piece so irritating. He’s so annoyed with atheists, and so non-annoyed with theists. Wait – huh? Why do we have to do all the accomodating and sucking-up? Why are we the only ones who have to abandon what we think at the door and sit still and be quiet while the theists stomp around and tear the house apart? Why’s he yelling at us and letting the theists just do whatever they damn well feel like?! We didn’t do anything – why doesn’t he go shout at them for awhile?! In fact why doesn’t he just go shout at them, period, and leave us alone.

Nor does the current behaviour of organized religion breed confidence in the Evans/Ruse laissez-faire attitude. Education everywhere is seriously imperilled by religious attacks. In recent years, Hindu nationalists in India attempted to rewrite the nation’s history books to support their anti-Muslim ideology, an effort thwarted only by the electoral victory of a secularist coalition led by the Congress party. Meanwhile, Muslim voices the world over are claiming that evolutionary theory is incompatible with Islam.

Yeah but see that’s okay because religion is art, man, so it’s harmless, and it doesn’t matter if it tries to eviscerate science teaching. No problema.

Meanwhile religions continue to attack their own artists: Hindu artists’ paintings are attacked by Hindu mobs, Sikh playwrights are threatened by Sikh violence and Muslim novelists and filmmakers are menaced by Islamic fanatics with a vigorous unawareness of any kinship.

Yes, they are, aren’t they. As are non-Muslim novelists who ought to be Muslims because their grandparents were. I’m not naming any names or anything, but I can think of one not a million miles from this very article.

Religions play bare-knuckle rough all the time, while demanding kid-glove treatment in return. As Evans and Ruse would do well to recognize, atheists such as Dawkins, Miller and Wilson are neither immature nor culpable for taking on such religionists. They are doing a vital and necessary thing.

Yeah! Attaboy, Salman! Sing it! Tell those bastards.

Excuse my warmth. But I do get so tired of all this rebuking of atheists even by other atheists for being too noisy or talkative or definite or ‘adolescent’ for Christ’s sake. I do get so sick of all this ‘Shh, shh, if you don’t talk too loud maybe they won’t get angry and will let us live, over here in this little corner with a heap of rags to sleep on, if only you don’t say anything – oh do please be quiet!’ I won’t be quiet. Why should I be quiet? I’m not the one who’s telling everyone there’s a giant Man in Heaven taking care of us, and that’s why the world is such a perfect place and so free of suffering, am I. They can be quiet. I’ve got stuff to say.



Rahila Khan and Toby Forward

May 23rd, 2005 2:51 am | By

More teasing of the Literary ‘what did I just say?’ Theory mafia, thanks to another link-donation by Allen Esterson. Terry Eagleton was doing his bit all the way back in 1999 – surely before After Theory was even a file on Eagelton’s computer.

Gayatri Spivak remarks with some justification in this book that a good deal of US post-colonial theory is ‘bogus’, but this gesture is de rigueur when it comes to one post-colonial critic writing about the rest. Besides, for a ‘Third World’ theorist to break this news to her American colleagues is in one sense deeply unwelcome, and in another sense exactly what they want to hear. Nothing is more voguish in guilt-ridden US academia than to point to the inevitable bad faith of one’s position. It is the nearest a Post-Modernist can come to authenticity.

Bogus! Now that hurts. And from Gayatri herself, too. Angst is good, and masochism is better, and autoguilt-tripping is downright special…but that doesn’t mean people want to be called bogus! Jeez. Especially not by the great Spivak herself. Talk about humiliating. You might as well be called an Orientalist by Said or a logocentrist by Derrida or a power-tripper by Foucault or a whiny bedwetter by Freud.

Post-colonial theory makes heavy weather of a respect for the Other, but its most immediate Other, the reader, is apparently dispensed from this sensitivity. Radical academics, one might have naively imagined, have a certain political responsibility to ensure that their ideas win an audience outside senior common rooms. In US academia, however, such popularising or plumpes Denken is unlikely to win you much in the way of posh chairs and prestigious awards, so that left-wingers like Spivak, for all their stock-in-trade scorn for academia, can churn out writing far more inaccessible to the public than the literary élitists who so heartily despise them.

Well exactly. Bingo. Get me I’m a radical and that’s why my writing is so deliberately incomprehensible that the public would rather be set on fire than read a word of it. Hotcha! That’s the way to start the revolution.

More charitable readers will see this garrulous hotch-potch as a strike at the linear narratives of Enlightenment, by one whose gender and ethnicity these violently exclude…The line between post-colonial hybridity and Post-Modern anything-goes-ism is embarrassingly thin. As feminist, deconstructionist, post-Marxist and post-colonialist together, Spivak seems reluctant to be left out of any theoretical game in town. Multiplying one’s options is an admirable theoretical posture, as well as a familiar bit of US market philosophy. For Spivak to impose a coherent narrative on her materials, even if her title spuriously suggests one, would be the sin of teleology, which banishes certain topics just as imperialism sidelines certain peoples.

He gets kinder after that – and we don’t want to read kindness on the subject, do we. At least I don’t want to quote it. Where’s the fun in that. So instead read this fascinating item that Chris Whiley brought to my attention. It’s full of interesting subjects and implications. Read about Rahila Khan, and her book Down the Road, Worlds Away which was published by Virago in 1987 in its ‘Upstarts’ series.

Virago accepted her book, an acceptance that, in the words of Professor Dympna Callaghan, Professor of English at Syracuse University and author of a Marxist analysis of the exclusion of women from the Renaissance stage, “seemed to fulfill one of Virago’s laudable objectives, that of publishing the work of a diverse group of contemporary feminist authors.”…The agent was surprised to discover that Miss Khan was actually the Reverend Toby Forward, a Church of England vicar…Virago felt it necessary to stand by its purely literary judgment, namely that the stories were written “with hard-eyed realism and poignant simplicity”—it had to do so, or it would justly have been accused of applying double standards to work by Asian women and white men, which would have revealed a frankly racist condescension. But Virago decided that politics in this instance was the better part of literature, and was more important, indeed, than whether the book had anything worthwhile or important to say. It therefore refused to sell any more copies of the offending work. This, as we shall see, was ironic, because the author was drawing attention, not before time, to the truly oppressed condition of certain women, a condition in which one might have supposed that feminists would be interested. The personal identity of the author thus came to be all-important just at the very moment when, elsewhere in the literary world, the death of the author was being confidently announced.

Ironic, all right. Ironic on many levels and for many reasons. Read the whole article – it’s a complicated and interesting story.

The confusion that the affair sowed was evident in the clotted prose that it stimulated. Here is Professor Callaghan again in her essay, “The Vicar and Virago”:

As we saw in the Vicar and Virago Affair, the problem of identity is exacerbated to the point of hypervisibility in the relation between the cultural inscription of race as color and the erasure of race in the dominant construction of white identity. Whites are feverishly clutching at their/our ethnicities—and everyone else’s—and are threatened by the knowledge that the racially hegemonic invisibility so long cultivated may now spell disappearance. In its worst manifestations, this becomes neo-Nazism, but even at its best, this attempt to register whiteness as a racial identity risks reproducing the notion of race as an objective (rather than socially constructed) spectrum of human identity. “Equalizing” racial categories will only succeed in suspending the history of racism and making whiteness, as opposed to white privilege, visible.

But Toby Forward was actually trying to say something, and people made it very difficult for him to do so.

Unfortunately, the ensuing furor over his identity and whether, again in the words of Professor Callaghan, “the appropriation of subordinate identities by privileged whites demonstrates that endeavours to compensate for the exclusion of racial ‘minorities’ from the means of literary production can become the very means for continuing this exclusion,” obscured the importance of what he was trying to say. Indeed, one might even interpret the furor over these matters as a displacement activity of the intelligentsia, who wanted to avoid having to think of the very difficult and real problems that he had raised in his stories, and which are so distressing to contemplate.

Which is understandable. Not everyone wants to try to solve the world’s problems. But then it is more becoming to avoid posturing as a transgressor or a hero of postcolonialism – it’s more becoming and decent to avoid being bogus.



Grue-ish Puffer Fish

May 20th, 2005 8:13 pm | By

A brief follow-up on matters of Literary Theory, and eloquence, and the Naming of Departments, and slavering mutual admiration among Theorists, and whither Theory, and which would you rather have as your one and only book on a desert island where you had to live for fifteen years and three weeks with only a rusty knife and a red cusion with ‘1962 World’s Fair’ embroidered on it in cerulean silk thread to keep you company and help you survive – one book by William Empson or several hundred (different) books by Judith Butler.

Allen Esterson alerted us in comments to this gorgeous page at Columbia – full of people trying to outdo each other in saying slobberingly sycophantic things about Gayatri Spivak. Why do they do that? Why do they do that ‘she/he is the most brilliant insightful original surprising stunning amazing profound clever wise thinker who ever breathed with the one possible exception of this other colleague of mine’ thing? Why? What’s the deal? Do they think Spivak is a member of some secret gang or cabal – like SMERSH or one of those – that controls all academic appointments everywhere in the universe? Do they hope she’ll invite them over for Ovaltine? Do they want to borrow her car? What? What makes them come over all – all – embarrassing, when they talk about each other? Oh well, I guess I just answered the question. It’s the fact that they’re talking about each other. Theorists talking about other Theorists. I guess they just think there’s no such thing as piling it on too thick. They’re wrong about that.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Death of a Discipline does not tell us that Comparative Literature is at an end. On the contrary, it charts a demanding and urgent future for the field, laying out the importance of the encounter with area studies and offering a radically ethical framework for the approach to subaltern writing. Spivak deftly opposes the ‘migrant intellectual’approach to the study of alterity. In its place, she insists upon a practice of cultural translation that resists the appropriation by dominant power and engages in the specificity of writing within subaltern sites in the idiomatic and vexed relation to the effacements of cultural erasure and cultural appropriation. She asks those who dwell within the dominant episteme to imagine how we are imagined by those for whom literacy remains the primary demand. And she maps a new way of reading not only the future of literary studies but its past as well. This text is disorienting and reconstellating, dynamic, lucid, and brilliant in its scope and vision. Rarely has ‘death’offered such inspiration.

Maybe it is – maybe it is lucid and brilliant. But somehow, reading Butler, one can hardly help thinking it’s not, it can’t be – that if the person who wrote that mess likes it, it has to be another mess.

Take a look at that page; it’s worth it.

And
John Holbo has a post at The Valve
that talks about a new book I’m slavering to read, called Theory’s Empire. Holbo links to the Table of Contents – also at Columbia Press, amusingly enough. That table of contents has a lot of friends and contributors and future and potential contributors to B&W in it. Frederick Crews, Meera Nanda, Susan Haack, David Bromwich, Russell Jacoby, Mark Bauerlein, Erin O’Connor. So it’s bound to be good, and quite likely not to write in Butlerese. Almost certain not to, in fact.

Holbo makes an amusing comment:

If ‘theory’ means “speculation on language, interpretation itself, society, gender, culture, and so on” then it is obvious nonsense to say it is something that only got comfortable after 1980. (One of the big achievements of theory is supposed to be laying the gentleman amateur belletristic pontificator in his grave, but then you can’t define ‘theory’ in a way that patently raises him up as an Ur-theorist. What gentleman was ever incapable of ‘speculating about culture’, after all?) Obviously what is being ‘packaged’ as ‘theory’ is narrower than the implied vastness of the definition. Theory is a cluster of figures and styles – a more or less culturally cohesive post-60’s intellectual and literary sensibility – found mostly in English departments. If you want to ‘package’ that, fine; don’t include the old stuff. Dante didn’t ‘do theory’. Maimonides didn’t ‘do theory’. Just include the essential roots. Go back to Kant, fine. (He didn’t ‘do theory’, but he’s essential scenery.) The Enlightenment vs. Romanticism and how that played out to get us where we are, plus a few grace notes from the ancients – Plato, because Derrida. Cramming in other old stuff while squeezing out more contemporary competition looks (ahem) imperialistic. ‘Theory and criticism’ turns out to be a grue-ish cross-cut. Like having a volume entitled ‘analytic philosophy and metaphysics’. Then leaving out Heidegger because … he doesn’t do analytic philosophy. In short, the Norton looks overweight because it is one big Puffer Fish. When attacked, pretend to be larger than you are.

Very grue-ish. Neither fish nor fowl nor good red lentils.



Return of the Repressed

May 20th, 2005 2:36 am | By

You may remember, I had to bring my loving look at the work of Judith Halberstam to a premature close the other day, because I’d gone on and on and on about it and was still less than halfway through, and the day was over and darkness was beginning to creep over the land, and I had things to do, and the bailiff was at the door, and the orphans were calling for their soup, and the rain was coming in the roof –

So I had to stop. But it troubled me. I have to tell you, honest readers, it troubled me. I felt I had left my work half-done. I felt I had left a duty unfulfilled. I felt there was a wrong crying out to be righted, or at least complained about, and I had abandoned the field. I had left my post, I had dropped the reins, I had wandered off while the fire still smouldered. And it haunted me. Down the nights and down the days, the thought of that misbegotten article has pursued me, wailing like a demon lover – ‘Remember meeeeeeee.’

Okay that’s a little exaggerated. I have had one or two other things to do lately, that have driven the thought of Halberstam from my mind for entire minutes. But still…there were one or two things I still wanted to mumble over. The matter of close reading, for instance, which as Chris Williams pointed out I really should have taken the time to be rude about. I mean, if you’re going to be rude, you might as well be thorough about it.

Spivak argues that comparative literature and area studies, like certain forms of anthropology, constitute a colonial legacy in terms of the circulation of knowledge and that in order to confront and replace such a legacy, we have to reconstitute the form and the content of knowledge production. The argument is typically elliptical but powerful and timely. Surprisingly, however, Spivak does not see the reorganization of the humanities as part and parcel of the rise of cultural studies, queer studies and ethnic studies; indeed, she tends to cast these interdisciplinary rubrics as part of the problem. For example, in an unfortunate move designed to recognize and hold on to the importance of the “close reading,” Spivak designates “close reading” as a usable skill in the new comparative field she envisions and she prefers it to another kind of intellectual labor that, in her opinion, has come to be associated with the entirely “unrigorous” fields of ethnic and cultural studies, namely “plot summary.”

Oh, no – she doesn’t, does she? Really? She designates close reading (or “close reading”) as a usable skill? Well god damn, Ethel, what the sam hill does she want to go saying a thing like that for? Close reading?? What the hell kind of usable skill is that? Far reading, that’s the skilled kind. Good old-fashioned interdisciplinary reconstituted reorganized distant reading, that’s the kind of skill we want in this here brave new world of multiinter studies. Sigh. I mean, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Do we have to spell it out? Close reading means having to be accurate, and pay attention, and talk about what is on the page as opposed to what we want to talk about. That’s no good! We want distant reading so that we can just say any old thing and get tenure for it and be the head of a department. I mean, excuse me, Gayatri, but, like, duh.

But, while Spivak’s investment in the “close reading” and formalism betrays the elitist investments of her proposals for reinvention, I urge a consideration of non-elitist forms of knowledge production upon the otherwise brilliant formulations of The Death of a Discipline. If the close reading represents a commitment to a set of interpretive skills associated with a very particular history of ideas and a very narrow set of literatures, the plot summary indicates a much wider commitments to knowledge production, high and low.

Yeah. High and low. That’s it. Close reading is an elitist investment, because of what I just said – it means having to pay attention, and look carefully, and think, and elitist shit like that. Plot summary on the other hand is anti-elitist and it’s wide instead of narrow (narrow bad, narrow like elitist, narrow bad and investment-related, narrow beady-eyed and cruel and wrong), on account of how anybody can do it without having to work very hard or think much. In short, it’s easy. Which is good. It’s easy to teach, easy to do, easy to stop doing, easy all around. Therefore, obviously, it’s right-on and progressive and a blow against hegemonic discourse and narrow old elitist close-reading comparative literature English canonical reactionary Eurocentric evilness. I feel better already.

We must imagine new categories of jobs: not Victorian Studies but studies of “Empire and Culture,” not 19th century American or English literature but “popular literatures of the Americas” or “modern print culture,” not romanticism but “the poetries of industrialization.” Or something.

I love that ‘Or something.’ Oh, right – or something. Good move, in an article. ‘Hey, I have an idea!’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Yes! It’s – um – something.’ ‘Great! Can you let me have 2000 words by next week?’

Let’s rename the interdisciplines within which we, and our students, work (Culture and Politics Program, World Literature, Global Cultures, Transnational American Culture) and let’s insist upon a wide range of language study at a moment when the United States is actively imposing monolingualism on an increasingly heterogeneous, multilingual population

Hey, kids! Let’s rename the interdisciplines! I bet we can use Mr Henderson’s old barn, and there’s a big trunk full of clothes in the attic, and Sally can play the piano, and we all know how to sing. Let’s rename the interdisciplines and pretend we’re teaching history and politics – the people in the history and political science departments will be so thrilled. And let’s insist upon a wide range of language study! You know, like the kind they teach in all those language departments, only – um – er – more interdisciplinary!

Okay, I’ve done more than enough again. I was going to say a few words about her writing. About how remarkably, staggeringly bad it is – and she an English teacher (however under protest and with keen desires to rename her department the Electrical Engineering Department). Look at the length and absence of punctuation of many of the sentences – what are called in the mincingly technical language of old-style close-readingy elitist English departments, ‘run-on sentences,’ aka train wrecks. I was going to say a few words along those lines, but night is creeping over the land again, and I must away. Maybe Judith Halberstam will have a brain wave in the night, and decide to become a greengrocer. One can always hope.



Labels are for Pickle Jars

May 18th, 2005 11:18 pm | By

Well that wasn’t bad at all. Quite fun in fact. And I wasn’t even awake all night.

I did love the comment ‘You must have pissed yourselves laughing, you two, while you were working on this.’ So exactly right. That’s pretty much all we ever do, really.

Now, enough of that; on to more impersonal subjects. I was listening to the World Service on the radio this morning or rather in the middle of the night, and one repeated story was of the Los Angeles mayoral election. It was extraordinary – all the reports said was that the apparent winner (now the winner) was a Hispanic, and the first Hispanic to be mayor of LA in X number of years – and variations on that theme. Period. Not one thing else. Nothing about – you know – his politics? His policies? Substance? What he plans to do? Just pure unadulterated perfectly vacuous demographics. It was both surprising and, frankly, disgusting. (I’m not blaming the BBC particularly; I’m sure other coverage was similar. I’m blaming the mindset, or the fashion, or whatever this is.) The Beeb has an article that does exactly the same thing. Hispanic blah blah Latino blah blah demographics blah blah. Um – hello? What party is he? Does he have any politics at all or is he just a mannequin with an ethnic label?

It’s exactly like what Jeremy Paxman said to Galloway – are you proud of defeating the only black woman blah blah blah. As if that were the whole point of Oona King! Or anyone! I realize where this stuff comes from, and I’m not free of it myself. I admit it, I’m pleased – even as George Bush is pleased, alas – that we have a black woman Secretary of State. I was pleased about the Attorney General in the Clinton administration. And so on. But – but just because I have the silliness too doesn’t mean it’s not silliness. And when it takes over to such an extent that it’s all that’s mentioned then something is off.

Oona King said as much on ‘Today’ a few days after the election. She said that was the one thing she agreed with Galloway on: that Paxman’s question was absurd.

Communalism is not a brilliant idea, and it would be nice if people would start to catch on to that. Here’s Todd Gitlin on the subject, from The Twilight of Common Dreams:

The Enlightenment erected great structures of thought but also manufactured the acid to dissolve them. It was self-reinforcing and self-devouring. It was a philosophy for leaving home, not least one’s ideological home, wherever that was. To hate absolutism was also to hate the absolutist claims of one’s nation, tribe, family. For precisely that reason, the Enlightenment is not to be disposed of with a wave of the moment’s identity cards.

He goes on to describe Richard Rorty as claiming that people act in the name of their particular tribes, and that when they act altruistically they usually give parochial reasons for doing so – that the rescued Jew was a fellow Milanese or a fellow bocce player or the like. He then cites our friend Norm to the contrary.

But the political theorist Norman Geras examined some eighty accounts of Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Only one failed to mention universal moral obligations.

It can be a mistake to overestimate human goodness and altruism and the like, but it’s also a mistake to underestimate it. Parochialism and communalism are underestimates.