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Nov 7th, 2003 7:44 pm | By

I posted two links in News the other day about the irksomeness of compulsory child-bearing. Is it any wonder that a teasing name gays like to give straights is ‘breeders’?! Anyone would think we were all living in Augustan Rome, where the dear Emperor passed laws that penalized naughty people who refused to get married, much to the disgust of women and men who preferred not to. Is child-bearing likely to die out soon? Is all this social pressure necessary for some dire reason that has escaped my attention? Yes I know Italy has a very low birth rate and that there are worries about pensions and so on, but still, if you look at the planet as a whole, it’s hard to claim that new humans are in short supply.

Rose Shepherd tells a quite surprising story of someone at a dinner party actually upbraiding her and calling her names, not to mention asking the most extraordinary questions, because she had the gall to say that motherhood was not for her.

The funny thing was that this woman was so right-on. I fancy that, if I had announced that I was into cross-dressing, or paganism, or group sex with women, she would have humoured me with polite enquiry. I would not have been subject to the personal, intrusive interrogation, or the criticisms that followed my admission that motherhood was simply not for me. Why had I not had children?…Was there a physical problem?…Was my own childhood so miserable?…Was my relationship too rocky, or too tenuous?…To be a parent, said the woman, was a social obligation. Whereas, to omit to try to have a child is not only against nature, but is ‘spoilt’, when there are women who cannot have a longed-for baby. Did I not want a stake in the future? Immortality through the bloodline? Someone to care for me in old age?

Someone to take a machete to outrageous people at dinner parties? I don’t know, maybe I don’t get out enough, but I find the behavior described quite astonishing. But then the dear old Bishop of Rochester isn’t much better, although even he perhaps draws the line at saying such things to individuals across dinner tables – one can hope, at least.

Three years ago, the Bishop of Rochester voiced society’s prejudice when he dubbed as ‘self-indulgent’ those who chose not to have children. Couples have a duty to have a family, he argued.

Self-indulgent, spoilt – in contrast to all those devoted, self-sacrificing people who have no desire at all to have children but do it anyway out of a sense of duty. Yeah right.

And Zoe Williams makes the important point that this sort of thing is very anti-feminist, though, oddly, few people seem to notice the fact.

There is no room here for analysis or imagination – for women, at least, experience is all. If we are to accept this as truth, then non-mothers exist in a kind of cognitive half-light, and we are inchoate and immature. Since the average age for childbirth is now around 30, this thinking effectively infantilises women below that age and completely rejects the opinions of the permanently childless. So much of the motherhood discourse is dressed up as feminism when, in fact, this does nothing but denigrate women by reducing them to their biological function and excising from all debate those who fail to fulfil it.

Just so. It’s all so backwards. The feminism I know and love is the kind that pointed out, rather loudly and boisterously, some three decades ago that women are allowed to choose whether or not to have children and that not all of them want to and there is nothing wrong with that. But here we are having to re-invent the wheel all over again.

By an interesting coincidence, when I saw those stories, I had just been reading a collection of reviews by Colin McGinn which included one from the New Republic (October 3, 1994) of two books on ‘feminist’ morality. He gets some good mileage out of talking about Hume, Moore and Bernard Williams ‘because they constitute something of an embarrassment for the historical and psychological theory put forward by some feminist philosophers’ since they make similar points despite being, not to put too fine a point on it, men. And then he makes an even better point, which I marked with not one tick but two, meaning not just important but very important.

Actually, it strikes me as somewhat reactionary, from a feminist point of view, to give mothering the central role. If mothering is where real goodness lies, then we are all under an obligation to be mothers, since we should strive to be as good as possible; but since ‘ought’ implies ‘can,’ only women fall under this edict, and so all – and only – women are obliged to be mothers…But this assigns to women the patriarchal obligation of having children and bringing them up, with this obligation morally trumping any other projects that they might entertain.

Exactly so. And how this came to be called or thought of as feminism is an interesting question. Difference feminism has a lot to answer for.

Still Bad

Nov 6th, 2003 5:29 pm | By

The ‘bad writing’ discussion continues. A reader wonders in the Guestbook if ‘bad’ is the best word to use.

OB, very ascerbic, very plain and right on, on the Bad Writing theme. But I think the very the phrase itself needs a housecleaning (or maybe a whole renovation), since “bad” can mean a splay of things: bad-ass, bad-as-evil, bad quality, bad as in WRONG, bad as in naughty … I think YOU mean “bad” as in convoluted, arrogant, obfuscatory, and Wizard-of-Oz academic, no?

Yes. Good point, FK. But I still like the word ‘bad’ for the purpose, and I think the possible other meanings are eliminated by the context. Even the headline on the In Focus makes explicit what kind of bad writing is at issue. And I’m fond of the word ‘bad’ for a number of reasons. The first is its bluntness, simplicity, clarity – how very unlike it is, in fact, the fog-generating unclarity of jargon-mongering. Then there’s its non-euphemistic aspect. I detest the widespread use of the word ‘poor’ as a substitute for bad when people (apparently) don’t want to hurt the feelings of whatever it is they are calling not-good – even if the thing in question is an inanimate object not created by a human. People say things like ‘It’s poor weather for sailing.’ Because – ? Who exactly is going to be offended if we say it’s bad weather for sailing? Poseidon maybe? But that’s a digression – and yet it’s not, not entirely, since language is the subject under discussion. Euphemism tends to obfuscate and should be avoided when possible. (When possible – thus obviously if your best friend asks you ‘How do I look?’ you should not answer, briefly and to the point, ‘Bad.’) Then there’s the fact that ‘bad writing’ means ‘writing that is bad as writing.’ Writing that doesn’t do the job writing ought to do, or any one of the many jobs writing can do. Bad engineering is a bridge that falls down, bad architecture is a house that falls down, bad running is a runner that falls down, and bad writing is writing that makes one long to be illiterate again.

And then there are various resonances – such as Paul Fussell’s amusingly vituperative book Bad, from which I got the phrase (one that he quotes from an old professor of his) ‘Bad, bad, very bad.’ It seems so obvious, and yet people don’t say it enough. I say it all the time. Another resonance is with Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, who filled their correspondence with pointing out how bad a lot of things were. David Lodge once remarked somewhere (sorry I can’t remember where) that the amusingly blunt, direct language of Lucky Jim may have come from the Ordinary Language philosophy that was all the rage at Oxford when Amis and Larkin were there. So perhaps there’s that resonance too, at several removes. And then of course there’s Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing contest, which I think he probably named that for much the same sorts of reasons I adduce here. The writing in question is bad, it’s not poor or weak or unfortunate or regrettable or infelicitous, it’s just plain bad. It doesn’t do what writing ought to do and it does do what writing ought not to do – hence it is bad.

And people go on making the ‘It’s not bad it’s difficult’ defense. The ‘No one expects physics or botany or philosophy to be instantly understandable so why do people expect theory and essays on theories written for theoreticians and theoretical analysis to be instantly understandable?’ defense. Which of course rests on the belief that theory is saying something inherently difficult that can’t be expressed in any other way, but one has only to read the examples I gave (the whole thing will do just as well as the samples) to see that that is simply not the case. No need to take my word for it; by all means read the whole thing. What can I tell you – it’s bad.

And Another

Nov 5th, 2003 6:25 pm | By

Want more? Want more bad writing combined with bad thinking? Right then.

This is from a review by Azfar Hussain of Dis/locating Cultures/Identitites, Traditions, and Third World Feminism by Uma Narayan.

Narayan’s preoccupations with the problematics of the representations of sati in Western feminist discourse indeed remain intimately connected to other representationalist discursive areas, namely dowry-murders in India and domestic violence-murders in the United States — issues that she takes up in the third chapter of her book. Narayan takes a hard, critical look at the ways in which dowry-murders in India are framed, focused, and even formulated in US academic feminist discourse, while pointing up the dangerous problems kept alive by Western culturalist epistemological approaches to Third-World subjects, identities, traditions, and cultures. She argues that while crossing “borders” in the age of globalization, images, narratives, and the entire chain of events pertaining to the Third World lose their national and historical differentia specifica under the homogenizing epistemic logic of some readily available connection-making apparatuses. As Narayan further argues, such apparatuses — informational, ideological, and mediatic as they are — continue to provide visibility to dowry-murders in India and relative invisibility to domestic-violence murders in the US, thereby serving the hegemonic.

Thereby serving the hegemonic, you see. Perhaps if Hussain had said what he says more clearly, he would have been too embarrassed to say it – which is one use of jargon: it makes it easier to say absurd things. But then one has to wonder why people want to say absurd things. Why do Hussain and Narayan want to argue that Western feminists should not ‘frame, focus and formulate’ dowry-murders in such a way that they are made more visible? Why do they want to summon all this portentous suspicion about the whole thing? Isn’t there enough real oppression and racism and colonialism in the world, without going to all this trouble to translate moral or humanitarian attention into something that ‘serves the hegemonic’?

Just a bit more, by way of edification and entertainment.

Such a self-critical interrogation begins to complicate the very question of identity itself in ways in which the continuing “colonialist” process of constructing “Third-World” identity and also even the practice of conjuring the ghost of authenticity haunting that very identity (as exemplified in various brands of counterproductive, essentialist identity-politics these days) are all brought into productive crises. For Narayan, indeed, the question of identity continues to constitute a predominant concern throughout the book. And her insistence on historicizing and contextualizing identity and difference within the deeply specific national contexts — instead of just celebrating or, worse, fetishizing them — seems right on the mark. According to her, the fetishization of difference and identity only renders them vulnerable to ongoing hegemonic appropriations in the metropolis.

Oh, those ongoing hegemonic appropriations in the metropolis. Don’t you just hate that? You know, you can’t get a cab, and the restaurants are all booked, and everything is so expensive, and then on top of all that – ongoing hegemonic appropriations! It’s unbearable!

So It’s a Sample You Want?

Nov 5th, 2003 5:03 pm | By

A reader of ours seems to think I haven’t actually read any bad writing. He’s wrong about that. He tells me to quote some that’s recently published. Very well. Mind you, I wouldn’t do it just to please him, but I’ve been meaning to anyway, when I got around to it, so I’ll get around to it now.

This is from a book published this very year, 2003. It is called, elegantly, The Futures of American Studies, and is edited by Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman. Here is a sample – highly representative, I assure you – from the Introduction:

Like most founding gestures, this one gave monumental status to an origin retrospectively invoked, thereby giving the past authority over the present in a management strategy that seemed aimed to contextualize, if not override, the present threat of rupture and incoherence. In so doing, Wise sought to repair the conceptual ground of a field whose fissuring into multiple programs and subfields at once reflected and gave expression to the aspirations of social movements that had exceeded the ‘founding’ field’s epistemological grasp. The canonical objects of analysis, protocols of reading them, and the interpretive narratives that had secured Wise’s field identity were brought into the ambit of the crisis he diagnosed. In the wake of this encounter, Wise strained to invent a paradigmatic drama that would enable him to feel at home in any of the possible trajectories of the emergent field.

Stop, that’s enough! I want to go on, each sentence is more delicious than the last, so I keep typing, but there is such a thing as copyright, after all. So there you are. I must say, breathes there a soul so dead that that passage doesn’t inspire it with uncontrollable mirth? And it’s all like that. The intro is 38 pages long and it’s all full of that dark suspicion, that insistently paranoid rhetoric, that fatuously portentous jargonization of nothing very much, that wishful mention of ‘social movements’ as if this kind of thing were sort of the academic version of the Flint sit-down strike.

This bit is from the article by Robyn Wiegman, ‘Whiteness Studies and the Paradox’:

I am interested in Forrest Gump as the specific instance and the popular imaginary as the general context for thinking about the academic emergence of an antiracist knowledge project designed to interrogate and historicize whiteness: whiteness studies…If social construction has been used to de-essentialize the racially minoritized subject – to wrestle subjectivity from its oversaturation, indeed reduction to embodiment – then whiteness studies evinces the anxiety of embodiment on the other side of racial power hierarchies, an anxiety that is in itself the consequence of counterhegemonic race discourses that have put pressure not just on what but on how the white body means.

Again – it’s all like that. Page after page of it, treading water, going nowhere. Straining after profundity until the veins stand out on its poor hot forehead, and achieving only polysyllabicality. And then thinking there’s something radical about the whole thing! And there’s something so cringe-making about the sheep-like adoption of Lacanian terminology for no apparent reason, and something so risible about the conjunction of Forrest Gump with a project to historicize something. But there – perhaps I’m just dense, and this sort of thing is terrifically profound.

Group Think

Nov 4th, 2003 9:42 pm | By

The Ruddick essay I discussed in the last N&C was published, as I mentioned, in November 2001, but it was revived and discussed again on several blogs last July. This comment or brief essay by Timothy Burke is particularly interesting.

It’s noticeable what a lot of words there are in both pieces that have to do with social pressure, conformity and group-think. From Ruddick’s article: accusations; how inhibiting these tensions can become; the necessity of adhering to the critical norms of the moment; dominant thinking; rules that I thought were very limiting; disgrace; I was still afraid I’d be attacked; this fear of attack can be utterly compelling; a caution bordering on ventriloquism; disciplinary taboos on certain words and ideals; the threat of ostracism by the group; subtle regulations for speech and thought that are pervasive. From Burke’s essay: the game being played is theoretical one-upmanship; the tyranny of theory; it somehow became shameful to say that I had been drawn to African history simply because it seemed interesting.

Why is that, one wonders. Of course, naturally, there is always some of that in any field, and academic fields are no exception. There are norms and standards and conventions, there is a right way to do things and a wrong way, there is pressure from colleagues to do things the right way – and a good thing too. It’s no good pretending pure anarchy would be preferable. It’s a fine and desirable and necessary thing that scientists should teach and shame each other not to fake their evidence, not to ignore disconfirming data, not to cherry-pick only the studies that support their hypotheses. Same with historians, sociologists, inquirers and researchers of all sorts. It’s fine that philosophers point out logical errors, and chastise confusion of rhetoric with argument. But when necessary demands for rigour and good evidence devolve into heresy-hunting and orthodoxy-enforcing, that’s another matter.

And of course literary ‘theory’ is exactly the sort of discipline where heresy-hunting will flourish – because what else is there? One can present quotations, of course, and say ‘There – you’ve misinterpreted that.’ But it’s always open to people to say simply ‘No I haven’t,’ and that’s that. Especially in a field where deconstruction has dismantled binary oppositions and postmodernism has revealed the futility of Grand Narratives, where Foucault has shown that everything is a power-play and Derrida has undermined phallogocentrism. So all is opinion, and you can’t tell me I’ve misunderstood or misinterpreted or got my facts wrong, but I can tell you that your approach is positivist or Eurocentric or bourgeois or Orientalist and at any rate conservative, and you will feel shamed and guilty and I will not.

So a boring repetitive parochial uniformity is imposed, and some people get out and others censor themselves, and students shrug and sign up for business administration or law instead, and it all seems very unfortunate.

Professional Deformation

Nov 2nd, 2003 1:27 am | By

There is a fascinating article about the discontents of professionalization here. It was written shortly after September 11, but what it says is still of interest. I don’t agree with absolutely all of it, but what of that; I do with most.

Readers in a variety of fields may identify with the experience of a soon-to-be Ph.D. in English, someone who has always worked hard and played by the rules intellectually, who told me that since the terrorist attacks, she’s derived less comfort than she expected from working on her dissertation. She also confessed that she can’t blame the people who look at our discipline from the outside and say, “If you’re not getting at anything that sustains people, what’s the point?”

That’s the main bit I don’t agree with. Sustaining people isn’t the only thing scholarship does, and there is plenty of point in doing non-sustaining (I take sustaining to mean consoling, helping to bear up) things – epistemology for example, or scientific or historical research. The truths that researchers find may well not be in the least sustaining or consoling, but there can be many other sorts of reasons why they’re still worth finding out.

I was in great conflict about continuing to observe certain intellectual rules that were a part of the dominant thinking — rules that I thought were very limiting but that I couldn’t challenge without courting disgrace. Specifically, I felt I had to hide or smuggle in my convictions about what sustains people — my faith, for example, in some quality of shared humanity that makes literary experience meaningful…I was writing about Joyce’s insights into the touching human need to bury, burn, or otherwise take care of the bodies of the dead — an impulse that is universal, however differently loss and the communal response to it are experienced across cultures. I drew support for the notion that this is a universal phenomenon from the field of historical anthropology, which explores what is common and what changes across cultures and eras. Yet I was still afraid I’d be attacked for “essentializing” — for supposing that there are shared features that constitute the essence of being human. For some reason, this fear of attack can be utterly compelling, particularly if your intellectual position can be dismissed on moral or quasi-moral grounds because it has something in common with ideas widely held on the political right.

Indeed it can, and that fear and its compelling quality is the evil demon. That’s the very demon B&W was set up to exorcise. The fear is an understandable one – I experience it or a close relative of it all the time, as I’ve mentioned here before, for instance when I find an interesting article on a site belonging to the Cato Institute or similar. One does not want to assist people who have an agenda that one does not share – that’s simple enough. The Cato Institute’s chief agenda (as far as I can tell) is that of promoting the idea that the market and profit ought to be the final arbiter of everything, and that’s an agenda I dislike intensely. But if an article there makes an important point or has useful new facts to consider – then which political commitment is happy to hear it should be irrelevant. Indeed one could argue that that’s a useful thing – discovering facts or ideas one can agree with in a political stance that is the opposite of one’s own could get all of us into the habit of considering ideas on their merits rather than according to the company they keep, hence could make all of us far more reluctant to be blindly loyal to bad stupid counter-productive harmful or unjust ideas, or untrue or badly-founded facts.

In Disciplined Minds, the physicist Jeff Schmidt claims that professional training in physics, and by extension many other fields, has something in common with brainwashing, and that survival is a bit like deprogramming. The impediment to deprogramming in any environment is the threat of ostracism by the group…Many professions (conceivably all professions) bind initiates to themselves by inducing a subtle spiritual depletion — what the legal theorist Duncan Kennedy, in his 1983 manifesto Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy, called the “sneaking depression of the pre-professional.” In a superb book called Nuclear Rites, the anthropologist Hugh Gusterson describes how weapons scientists are subjected to training that involves rules of secrecy that have a debilitating effect on reasoning and moral judgment…Systematic demoralization seems to be a hidden feature of many kinds of professional training, though each field develops its own mechanisms for producing this change. The theoretical models that have dominated English and the related disciplines in the last two decades are especially effective tools (along with the institutional factors that have always existed) for creating demoralization.

Physicists, lawyers, weapons scientists, ‘theorists,’ all receiving training that empties them of qualities that they probably need. It’s a fascinating and fairly alarming idea.

Science, History and the Hindutva Brigade

Nov 1st, 2003 8:15 pm | By

Yesterday a reader and fan of B&W’s emailed me to express her admiration of Meera Nanda’s new article, and her work in general. She also alerted me to another example of scholarship under attack by the Hindutva brigade. I’m extremely glad she did: I was entirely unaware of the campaign against the historian Romila Thapar. Read about it here and here. This whole subject is immensely depressing and dispiritng – it always is dispiriting to see humans determinedly marching backwards, and patting themselves on the back for doing it.

While 72-year-old Thapar’s appointment was greeted with applause by serious students of history, little did anyone realise that acolytes of the Hindutva brand of politics, primarily those in the Indian diaspora, would unleash a vitriolic campaign against her built on name-calling and the disparaging of her professional qualifications…Thapar’s academic work is controversial with the Hindutva lobby because it is grounded in professional methods of historical investigation, rather than in the pet historical theories of Hindu extremists relying on extrapolation from Sanskrit texts…Thapar’s documentation of early Indian life is at odds with the Hindutva preference, grounded in a regressive Hindu orthodoxy, of seeing India as a purely Hindu civilisation, the political implications of which for contemporary India being obvious.

Nanda also talks about extrapolation from Sanskrit texts, in her case in science, so the connections are obvious, as are the implications for scholarship, independent thought of all kinds, knowledge, truth, public education, democracy. Never mind research or evidence, just consult The Book, be it the Bible or the Koran or Sanskrit texts. Books are excellent things, but infallible books, no.

With the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) assumption of power at the centre in 1998 and its ongoing attempts to remake the educational curriculum in its own chauvinistic image gaining momentum, intellectuals and academic positions at odds with the Sangh Parivar’s view of history have come under attack under various pretexts. The BJP has pursued a concerted effort to malign and delegitimise scholars and intellectuals at odds with its view of India’s past.

Well, if B&W can do anything at all to throw a monkey-wrench into that effort, that alone will justify our existence.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the new intolerance is the official sanction it receives through ministers and leaders of academic institutions which have been unscrupulously and ruthlessly saffronised, including universities, councils of historical and social science research, and the National Council for Educational Training and Research. Soon after the BJP took over the Indian Council of Historical Research, it banned volumes in the Towards Freedom project edited by distinguished historians Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar. NCERT has revised social science textbooks in a blatantly communal manner.

It’s all really very alarming (all the more so of course given the weapons the BJP has at its disposal). Rewriting history, down the memory hole, banning volumes of a history project – it all makes playful attitudes toward truth and universalism seem about as fun and useful as playing with gelignite.

Dratted Ciabatta-Munchers

Oct 30th, 2003 8:33 pm | By

Here is another installment in the on-going story of religious people demanding immunity from criticism for religion and religious people. This one is more irritating than most because so full of heavy-handed sneering (I like my sneering to be done with a light touch, thank you). Chattering classes, bien pensants, choking on their ciabatta – alliterative but crude. And then there’s the ever-popular rhetorical move of deciding what people’s motives are.

Why is baiting Christians a sport among the so-called bien pensants? Because the bien pensants most enjoy and benefit from the status quo, and sense, in the Christian, a subversive element who seeks to destroy their lifestyle.

Err – no. I for one don’t ‘bait’ Christians, but I do criticise religion and religious arguments, and perhaps to Odone that is indeed ‘baiting’. But either way, I don’t do it because I sense in the Christian a ‘subversive element’ – not in the sense in which she means, the sense she elaborates in the article. No, I do it partly because of this very matter of demanding special treatment, and partly because religious people have a bad habit of overlooking the fact that their religions make truth claims about the world that don’t happen to be well-founded or based on evidence. So in that sense, yes, Christians are subversive: they subvert the value of reason and evidence. But that’s not what Odone means.

We believe in authority. In an era that prizes individual freedom, Christians believe in a supreme being who dictates our words and deeds. To modern ears, the concept sounds outrageously autocratic. From when to die to when to give birth, from whom to have sex with, to how to spend their money, the chatteratis believe they should enjoy unlimited freedom. But for the Christian, freedom is not an end in itself.

The concept sounds more than outrageously autocratic – it sounds factually mistaken. Who is this supreme being and how do you know what it has dictated respecting our words and deeds? As far as I know, the only source of this knowledge is a book that was written over a period of a thousand years or so, two thousand years ago. With all due respect, I don’t consider that a very good piece of evidence, and I’m not the only one. That’s why I don’t think religion should be immune from criticism, not because it might force me to give my ciabatta away to the poor or stop being a moral relativist.

Odone does have one point, that Muslims (she says ‘and Jews’, but that’s not entirely true these days) have greater immunity from criticism (or ‘baiting’) than Christians do. I’ll grant her that. But I think the solution is to say that all religions have it wrong, not to say that they all have it right.

The Turning Point

Oct 29th, 2003 12:30 am | By

I’m a sucker for situations like the one Colin McGinn describes in this article in Prospect. People from what he calls ‘an academically disinclined background’ who get their minds awakened as adolescents, and develop and keep intellectual interests of some sort. I always find that setup tremendously moving.

There is for instance a beautiful bit in the movie ‘Gods and Monsters’ in which the director James Whale, played stunningly by Ian McKellen, ponders his own mysterious emergence from a grimly unaesthetic background. Where did he get all that imagination and love of beauty, he wonders, in McKellen’s beautiful reedy voice. ‘How did I get that way, where did it come from?’ He’s not denigrating his parents, merely wondering at his own oddity, and lucky escape.

The novelist Russell Banks was once in Seattle for a week as the feature of a library programme centered on one of his novels. He spent an afternoon at each of several branches of the library, talking to readers in a more protracted and informal way than the usual book tour. I went to one at which he talked about how he started to be a writer – and the fact that he came from a book-unaware, no (he corrected himself), a downright book-unfriendly household. So he didn’t discover books at all until quite late, until he was about twenty I think. But when he did – they were like water in the desert. I loved the passion with which he described the experience. And it made him a writer, and a similar one made McGinn a philosopher. One gets the same sort of story from reading of Lincoln’s self-education, and Frederick Douglass’ learning to read. The point is not at all about ‘success’ or rising in the world or making piles of money, it’s about quite another thing. One of my favourite plots.

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.


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.


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.