Notes and Comment Blog

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.

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.

G’day mate

May 17th, 2005 6:02 pm | By

Oh, who needs sleep anyway. Adrenalin works just as well. I hardly slept at all the whole time I was in London last autumn, and did that slow me down? Not that you’d notice. Except that I had a tendency to fall asleep the instant I set foot on any form of public transport. I seemed to have a terrible confusion between beds in darkened rooms, on the one hand, and moving vehicles packed with strangers, on the other. As a general rule it’s preferable to do one’s sleeping in the former rather than the latter, but I couldn’t seem to get it straight. Oh well.

Anyway I know right now I’m not likely to get any sleep at all tonight, because I have to be wide-awake very early tomorrow morning, and you know how that goes. Even if you could perfectly well sleep for, say, five hours, thus getting a decent (not opitmal, but decent) amount of sleep simply by setting the alarm – you don’t.

Very global, though, which is kind of fun. Three widely separated time zones. 5:30 a.m. one place, 1:30 in the afternoon another, and 11:30 at night yet another. Mixed. Very cosmopolitan.

My colleague and I are doing an interview (or a chaotic giggle-infested interruptive babble, more likely) for this here Australian Broadcasting Corporation tomorrow. So if you listen to it – you can hear us talking. Or rather alternately yammering and snorting with childish laughter. Then in the morning all of Australia will rush out in a body to buy the Dictionary. So who needs sleep? I have too much work to do anyway; a chance to work all night is just what I need.

Grant’s Tomb

May 16th, 2005 2:56 am | By

Boy I’m tired. What a sissy I am. Just because I woke up before dawn and have been slaving away at revisions all day (except for the times I was walking a very slow exasperating dog I know, which is not exercise but a kind of anti-exercise, a kind of minus exercise) – is that any reason to be tired?! Yes, apparently. Anyway I am. But a reader (an avid reader, in fact, he tells me – my favourite kind) sent me a link to this amusing story, which restored my energy and enthusiasm just enough to jot a note on it. Auckland, Auckland – what are you thinking of? Pull yourself together.

A spiritualist group has been given Auckland ratepayer money so it can teach people to communicate with the dead….When the community development committee met on Wednesday, councillors had some reservations and reduced the amount, said chair Dr Cathy Casey. She said there had been a thorough assessment by council staff, who judged that it met the critera for community assistance funding. Dr Casey said the group did more than communicate with the dead: “There is spriritual communication and healing. We have a vibrant, interesting and colourful community in Auckland city.”

Vibrant, interesting, and colourful. I love that. She means wacked-out, gullible, and loony tunes. Vibrant interesting and colourful indeed. Words like that are great, you know, because they can mean anything. Noisy, time-wasting, deranged, conspicuous, stark staring mad, aggressive, wearing a funny hat – anything. ‘We have a community of absurd people who believe or pretend to believe that it is possible to talk to the dead and that they can teach people how to do it – but it is not quite politic or tactful to say how absurd that is, so what shall we say instead…hmm…we have a community of reality-challenged, gaga, wigged-out imbeciles in Auckland city? No…that’s not quite it…we have a community of brazen con-artists and opportunists in Auckland city? No, that sounds a little too judgmental. I know! They’re vibrant, that’s it! That’s what I say when the neighbours wake me up playing reggae at 3 in the morning, so that’s what I’ll call these nice fruitcakes who want public money to teach people to ‘talk to the dead’ – that’s the ticket!’

And not only are they vibrant and colourful, they’re also celebrating diversity. Good thinking, O ye Auckland spiritualists.

Groups became eligible for funding if they were a proper community organisation, open to the public and contributed to Auckland city’s community vision – in this case it was by celebrating diversity, she said…Dr Casey said her personal views on the foundation’s beliefs and practices should not sway her decision to support grants. “Just because you don’t believe doesn’t mean you should deny other people the right to do so.”

True, true. Very true. When you see them weaving their way down the street believing the colourful vibrant stuff they believe, you shouldn’t leap on them and push them to the ground and smack them in the face until they stop believing that vibrant stuff. Quite right. I couldn’t disagree less. Nor should you tear their clothes or fling stones and small branches at them or ask them where they got that shirt and what they mean by it. No indeed. But does that mean that if they ask you for $4500 you should give it to them? Does it mean that if they ask you for $4500 you should give them $2500? Or $25? Or any money in any currency of any denomination at all? I would say no. My considered judgment would be that it does not. Therefore Dr Casey’s ringing statement on the duty not to deny other people the right to believe bullshit leaves me less moved and transported than you might expect. It simply isn’t all that clear that Dr Casey’s clear duty not to throttle the members of Auckland’s spiritual groups entails an equal obligation to hand out largish sums of public money to said groups, and it is even less clear why Dr Casey thinks (as she seems to) that it does. Or why she thinks that her views of the foundation’s beliefs and practices are merely ‘personal’ as opposed to being the sort of thing she ought to be taking into account before doling out cash to any fool group that shoves its head in the council’s door.

That was fun! I feel ever so chipper now. Chipper enough to make myself something to eat and then drag that wretched dog around some more. It’s like dragging a stalled SUV sometimes, I swear. But at least he’s not colourful.

A Stirring Call to Theoretization

May 13th, 2005 8:23 pm | By

My head hurts. Or is it my stomach. Or is it some finely-tuned moral or cognitive or aesthetic sense situated somewhere between the two – somewhere mid-gullet, perhaps, or resting on the back of the third rib. Whatever it is, it comes of reading this. What is it that’s so irritating about this…

The Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s led some of us to believe that the end of the canon, the end of seemingly objective appraisals of “aesthetic complexity” through close readings, the end of the representation of the culture of white males as culture per se, meant that some major battles in the politics of representation had been won. Some scholars however, suspected that the battle had simply shifted elsewhere and so while the critiques of the canon held strong, while courses on queer theory, visual culture, visual anthropology, feminist theory, literary theory began to nudge the survey courses, the single-author studies and the prosody classes aside, the discipline itself lost currency faster than the dollar.

Oh, god, I don’t know. It’s the scare quotes on ‘aesthetic complexity,’ for one thing, as if that’s a stupid or pathetic idea. Well fine. Sod complexity. Up with simplicity. Paint everything one colour, play one note, say one word. Obviously doing anything else is a plot of white males. And then it’s the pathetic lost-in-the-fogness of thinking of this kind of thing as a ‘battle’ – it’s the stupidity of thinking that that’s meaningful politics and something to boast of. (That is a very boastful paragraph, if you look at it carefully. You’d think she’d just got back from the Spanish Civil War with her arm in a sling. Please.) It’s the idiot self-hugging over all those ‘theory’ courses. It’s the crap writing. It’s the whole damn package.

The Birmingham School in England in the 1970’s probably brought an end to English as we know it by proposing that the study of a small selection of texts written in English by a small group of mostly male white writers served to legitimate certain class interests in the university and elsewhere.

Really! Did it! Just like that! A few people in one place say one thing at one moment, and that’s all it takes? English (understood as an interest in Anglophone literature) has been brought to an end! How about that. Here’s me still liking things like ‘The Prelude’ and ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Henry IV part 2’ – don’t I feel silly.

The work that emerged from the Birmingham School and that came to be called cultural studies has combined with postcolonial studies, black studies, queer studies, ethnic studies and women and gender studies to create the humanities as we know it and to spawn the constellation of debates and arguments about empire, subjectivity, hegemony, resistance, subversion, imagination and representation that currently occupy contemporary academics and that briefly but powerfully impact the lives and consciousnesses of the students who pass through humanities class rooms and others who interact in a public sphere with versions of these conversations.

Ohhh, is that what happened. Cool. So ‘English’ has taken over first all of the humanities (which would surprise some historians and philsophers of my acquaintance, among other people) and then the rest of the public sphere – by spawning debates about ’empire, subjectivity, hegemony, resistance, subversion, imagination and representation.’ Really. You know, I wouldn’t have guessed that. I really wouldn’t. Because, see, when I want to think about empire, the first place I think of to look is not, oddly enough, the English department, not even what used to be the English department but is now called the Theory Studies department. See, I tend to think there are other scholars who know more about the subject, so I read their books, instead of the books of Study Theories scholars. Hidebound of me, but there it is.

The beauty of English as a discipline in the last decade has been how flexible the field became, how receptive to new scholarship, how hospitable to queer theory, feminist studies, the study of race and ethnicity, political economy, philosophy and so on. “English” is in fact the anachronistic name we give to a far more protean field of interests and animating concerns; and the fights that we now have over English, over its relationship to the interdisciplinary forms it has given rise to, are really the aftershocks of an event that is well past.

Flexible. Hmm. Yeah, that’s one word for it. But another word (or pair of words) would be mission creep. Or not so much mission creep as mission spread all over the place like watery syrup. Why don’t they get it? Why don’t they get it that nobody wants to learn about political economy or philsophy from people in the (former) English department? Why is it that people in English-turned-Theory think they’re omnicompetent? Why is that? I’ve been wondering for years, and I’m no closer to an understanding than I ever was.

I propose that the discipline is dead, that we willingly killed it and that we now decide as serious scholars and committed intellectuals what should replace it in this new world of anti-intellectual backlash and religious fundamentalism. While we may all continue doing what we do — reading closely, looking for patterns and disturbances of patterns within cultural manifestations, determining the complex and fractal relations between cultural production and hegemonies — once we call it something other than “English,” (like cultural studies, critical theory, theory and culture, etc.) it will neither look the same nor mean the same thing and nor will it occupy the same place in relation to the humanities in general…

The fractal relations between cultural production and hegemonies – ain’t that great? Original, too. Man, I wonder what it would be like to take a course from Judith Halberstam. I’m not tempted to find out, though.

In the process of changing from women’s studies to critical gender studies, these programs have rearticulated their theoretical projects and shifted the emphasis away from reclamations of lost pasts and affirmation of neglected perspectives and towards the consideration of transnational feminisms, gender and globalization, gender and sexuality in relation to race and so on…These interdisciplinary programs emerged as the result of shifts in the discipline that English could not accommodate and, in my opinion, they should be able to replace the traditional English department in the future by recognizing the impossibility of studying literature separate from other forms of cultural production and by exposing the counter-intuitive logic of building Humanities divisions around departments dedicated to the study of the literature and culture of the British Isles…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.

Argh. Those last quotes come less than halfway through the article. It’s all quotable, and it’s long – so I’m going to have to stop! But how depressing. Note how bad the writing is, just for one thing. Note the boilerplate, note the endless empty listing of approved words, note the self-congratulation throughout. Note all that, and then be glad you’re not stuck in one of those departments. Life has its rewards.

The Dope on the Pope

May 13th, 2005 2:01 am | By

Maybe – as a lot of people have said – it’s not such a bad thing that Ratzinger is pope. Maybe we should all be rejoicing, and singing Te Deums and lighting candles and pretending to see baby Jesus on our pizza. Maybe he’ll wake a few dozy people up to what the Catholic church is and what it’s for and what it’s about. It’s not a pretty silk brocade and red velvet backdrop for a sweet old guy who wanders the globe ‘blessing’ people, and it’s not the best place to look for social justice or equality or critical thinking or – much of anything good, really. At least nothing that I can think of. Just ask anyone who grew up in Ireland a few decades ago, for a start. The priest was more like a local tyrant than anything else. And then there were those prisons for girls who – well, you know. For girls who even looked as if they someday might, in some cases. Extraordinary stuff – and not very long ago.

So maybe Ratzinger will remind people of this obvious reality. Maybe the US media will stop talking about the pope as if he were a combination of Mr Rogers and Doctors Without Borders. Maybe people will get a clue, or a grip, or both.

Items like this one should help.

”It would be hard for any Catholic editor not to say, ‘Well, if this happened to ‘America’ magazine, perhaps it could happen to others,’ ” said the Rev. Pat McCloskey, the editor of St. Anthony Messenger, a 311,000-circulation Franciscan monthly based in Cincinnati. ”I’m afraid that a move like this one will cause more and more Catholic thinkers to say that they want to write for publications that are not identified as Catholic and to teach at schools that are not identified as Catholic, because there is more freedom there.”

Well, yes. If it’s freedom, especially freedom of thought, you want, a Catholic anything is not the best place to look for it or expect it, is it. Freedom is not (to put it mildly) what the Catholic church is about.

On the other hand of course it is a bad thing, because since the Catholic church is not going anywhere anytime soon, it would be good if it could change and reform and become better than it is. But it would be even better if everyone would just up and leave.

”A lot of people were unhappy with ‘America,’ including people in Rome,” said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, a New York-based journal on religion. He said he knew many Catholics, including bishops, who were unhappy with Reese’s stewardship of America, which, he said, ”had kind of a carping attitude toward the pontificate of John Paul II. Just as you don’t expect Planned Parenthood to give a platform to the prolife position, there’s no reason why a Catholic journal should provide a platform for positions that are clearly contrary to those of the church…”

Yup. So go write for secular magazines and teach at secular schools. Pope-free zones are easier on the nerves.

Lucubrations and Kakapitze

May 11th, 2005 9:27 pm | By

Joseph Epstein has a rather irritating review of Elaine Showalter’s new book on the academic novel. I don’t like Epstein’s writing much. It’s rather stale and uninspired and labored, I think.

The closest thing we have to these ideal anthropologists have been novelists writing academic novels, and their lucubrations, while not as precise as one would like on the reasons for the unhappiness of academics, do show a strong and continuing propensity on the part of academics intrepidly to make the worst of what ought to be a perfectly delightful situation.

Lucubrations. Perfectly delightful. Propensity. Intrepidly. Yawn. Yawn, yawn, yawn. About as fresh as last week’s oatmeal.

And in this review he says silly and very banal and untrue things about what it’s like being an academic. Obviously being an academic beats being a coalminer any day, but the hours are not as short and the vacations are not as long as he pretends. Like so many people (but he ought to know better, being an academic himself) he counts only the hours actually in class, and ignores the time spent preparing, grading exams, in meetings and the like. Yes, still much better than coalmining, but not a part-time job, and it’s anti-intellectual Fox newsy stuff to pretend it is. Plus he’s blithely casually hostile to feminism. In short he’s a pain in the ass, and pompous with it. But he does praise Randall Jarrell’s Pictures From an Institution, good, and also Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, even better. Furthermore, he mentions one of my favourite bits of The Mind-Body Problem, Renee’s idea about the inverse proportion between solidity of findings and concern with presentation of self. So he gets points.

Ms. Goldstein is quoted on the interesting point that at Princeton Jews become gentilized while at Columbia Gentiles become judenized, which is not only amusing but true. Goldstein’s novel is also brilliant on the snobbery of university life. She makes the nice point that the poorest dressers in academic life (there are no good ones) are the mathematicians, followed hard upon by the physicists. The reason they care so little about clothes–also about wine and the accoutrements of culture–is that, Goldstein rightly notes, they feel that in their work they are dealing with the higher truths, and need not be bothered with such kakapitze as cooking young vegetables, decanting wine correctly, and knowing where to stay in Paris. Where the accoutrements of culture count for most are in the humanities departments, where truth, as the physical scientists understand it, simply isn’t part of the deal. “What do you guys in the English Department do,” a scientist at Northwestern once asked me, quite in earnest, “just keep reading Shakespeare over and over, like Talmud?”

No. Not any more. They did once, but now they keep tracing Foucauldian circulation of energies problematised by the hybridization of the performative otherness of the Other – or the same thing only backwards and while wearing a beekeeper’s hat. So obviously they’re going to care whether everyone thinks they’re hip or not.

And Epstein gets another point for kakapitze – much less yawn-inducing than ‘lucubrations.’

Always the Last to Know

May 11th, 2005 2:30 am | By

Don’t I feel stupid. Sometimes I miss comments here. I don’t have one of them there RSS things, so no little bell goes off, no stoat leaps out of a hole in the corner of the screen, no spark ignites a small charge of powder to explode the ‘k’ key and get my attention. In short, nothing alerts me that a new comment has been posted, and so…if some days have passed…and I’ve forgotten what number they were on…then I overlook them. I feel guilty sometimes, as if I’ve been snubbing people, or ignoring them when they say something interesting. And I miss good stuff, too. I should get one of them there RSS things, I suppose. But I’ve been busy, and…

Anyway, I missed two valuable ones on a post last month. First of all – Brett – The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. There. I mentioned it. Never mind feeling guilty – just read it! Actually – here’s a helpful thing. Just start it. The bulk of it is illustrative – and it’s great stuff, and you should certainly read it if you have time, but it’s illustrative of the basic point. In other words you shouldn’t miss the first part because you don’t have time to read the whole book. I hope Jonathan Rose wouldn’t mind my saying that. It’s not that it’s not all worth reading, but that if you have time only for part, you should read part!

Second item – hardindr (you don’t mind if I call you hardindr do you?) – thanks for telling me Bérubé had struck back! Too bad it took me two weeks to notice, but I got there in the end. And laughed a lot when I did. Inexplicably, he didn’t seize the opportunity to say what a self-satisfied preening buffoon I am (probably figured it was too obvious to need saying). Anyway apparently my recommendation to refrain from reading his blog caused such a stampede of eager readers that his server immediately collapsed in a smoking pile of htmls. Well great. Am I humiliated or what. I tell people not to read a blog so what do they do they all rush off to read it. There’s authority for you! Fine. Fine. Don’t listen to me. I don’t care. Hey, go spend all your time reading Keith Burgess-Jackson, it’s no skin off my nose.

No but seriously, to be fair, Chris Martin had a point: Bérubé does have a terrific style. The rattlesnake line is hilarious. So don’t listen to me. (I seriously don’t recommend K B-J though. Just look back at that ‘dispute’ he had with Richard at Philosophy Etcetera if you wonder why.) Bérubé is funny, and he spends energy rassling with Horowitz.

What’s especially curious about this most recent spike in readership is that it comes just after Butterflies and Wheels did not recommend this blog…When I read that, my heart just sank. Butterflies and Wheels does not recommend my blog – and it was personal, not business! Readers, you know perfectly well there’s no way for me to keep the style and bag the preening. So I figured I might as well fold my little blog-tent and go home. I mean, sure, this humble blog has been, from time to time, smugly self-satisfied and absurdly self-aggrandizing, but self-infatuated? Ouch! Surely my days were numbered. Imagine my surprise, then, to be hit not only with Ms. Benson’s stern disapproval (which hurts quite enough on its own), but with a series of overage charges to boot. April is indeed the cruellest—and the busiest—month.

Mock mock mock, as Margo Ledbetter liked to say. Some people like to aggrandize themselves, other people like to dispense stern disapproval, especially if they then get to have little girls’ beloved tiny dogs killed. I am proud to say I am one of the latter. We are what we are.

But a comment I did not miss came in today and alerted us (thank you, Stewart) to this gorgeous item at the Onion.

“Unlike Scientology, which is based on empirically verifiable scientific tenets, Fictionology’s central principles are essentially fairy tales with no connection to reality,” the AIR report read. “In short, Fictionology offers its followers a mythical belief system free from the cumbersome scientific method to which Scientology is hidebound”…Fictionology’s central belief, that any imaginary construct can be incorporated into the church’s ever-growing set of official doctrines, continues to gain popularity. Believers in Santa Claus, his elves, or the Tooth Fairy are permitted—even encouraged—to view them as deities. Even corporate mascots like the Kool-Aid Man are valid objects of Fictionological worship.

Exactly what I’ve been waiting for all this time. Now I can pray to the Pillsbury Dough Boy and Kramer and the Mercedes hood ornament. Bliss.

“Scientology is rooted in strict scientific principles, such as the measurement of engrams in the brain by the E-Meter,” Kurz said. “Scientology uses strictly scientific methodologies to undo the damage done 75 million years ago by the Galactic Confederation’s evil warlord Xenu—we offer our preclear followers procedures to erase overts in the reactive mind. Conversely, Fictionology is essentially just a bunch of make-believe nonsense.”

Remember a couple of months ago when some Vatican honcho (no, not Ratzinger, some other honcho) pitched a fit about people believing all the silly nonsense that’s in The DaVinci Code? Dang, that was funny. I bet that’s what gave the Onion the idea. Way to go, Oniers.

Look at This Watch

May 10th, 2005 2:18 am | By

Kansas, eh. I have to tell you, I’m having second thoughts about that move to Topeka.

This time, Darwin’s critics insist they are not religiously motivated creationists, but are scientists who believe that certain things in the universe, including human life, are too complex to be explained by natural causes and must be the product of an intelligent creator. They call this theory ”intelligent design,” and while they resist publicly declaring that a Christian God’s hand is at work, they also suggest that proponents of a key tenet of evolutionary theory — that changes over time can result in new species — are atheists or secular humanists.

Atheists or secular humanists – ew ick. Those nasty proponent people wouldn’t just be scientists would they? Rationalists? People like that? Whose atheism or ‘secular humanism’ is just a by-product of the fact that they don’t look for magical explanations of things in general? Is that possible? No, no, of course not; stupid of me; they’re part of that movement of card-carrying secret-handshake-giving atheists that Dylan Evans entertained us all with last week. And yet – proponents of natural selection and the mutability of species probably don’t believe that Bugs Bunny is an actual existing rabbit, either, but they also probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, or worrying about what kind of abugsist they are. As Russell pointed out and as a lot of people reminded Dylan E last week, we’re all atheists about an infinite number of gods; atheists just include the local god on the list. Big deal.

But I still want to know – and no one has yet explained it satisfactorily – why, if IDers think everything is too complex not to have been designed by a designer – then why wouldn’t they think exactly, but exactly, the same thing about the designer? Why aren’t they required to acknowledge that that’s an infinite regress, and therefore kind of a waste of time and probably the wrong answer? Huh? Why? If the universe is so complex (and I wouldn’t dream of denying that it is complex – very complex – no argument from me on that score) that it needs a designer to design it – then what the hell must that designer be like?! I ask you! And if that’s what it’s like – where did it come from? People get baffled enough asking where Shakespeare came from, but a designer who designed all this stuff leaves Shakespeare in the dust (the designer designed the dust, don’t forget). So that designer is one complex thing, am I right? So if a complex thing needs a designer – then who designed the damn designer? Don’t just say god – that’s a tautology, and begging the question, and going around in a stupid circle. Say something convincing. If you do, I’ll have James Randi buy you lunch.


May 8th, 2005 6:45 pm | By

Let’s pay a nice visit to the pope again. We haven’t dropped in on him in awhile, and he always repays attention. Let’s see what he’s been up to, the dear man. Dylan Evans tells us that religion is beautiful, and a metaphor, so let’s take a look at some beautiful metaphors.

A pope “must constantly bind himself and the Church to the obedience of the word of God in the face of all the attempts to adapt it or water it down,” Pope Benedict told a packed congregation. “That’s what Father John Paul II did when faced by all such attempts which were seemingly benevolent towards man. When faced with erroneous interpretations of freedom, he unequivocally underlined the inviolability of the human being, the inviolability of human life from conception to natural death. “Freedom to kill is not a true freedom, but a tyranny that reduces the human being into slavery,” he added, to applause from the congregation.

There’s beauty for you. Rigourous thinking, too. Obedience to the word of God. Err – which word? How do you know? How do you choose? Are we talking Bible here, or what? The Catholic church isn’t all that literalist about the Bible, but then how does it know what the word of God is and above all how does it sort them? In other words, what’s he talking about?

Nothing, really, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s the pope, so he can get away with it. He can get away with announcing that he is in charge of what ‘the word of God’ is and with separating it from ‘all the attempts to adapt it or water it down.’ Do please take note of that phrase. He means human beings must not take thought and decide what are good useful reasonable laws and what are not – no, they must ask the pope what the word of God is, instead, and if the pope happens to be a benighted conservative like Ratzinger well that’s just too bad.

Make no mistake. ‘That’s what Father John Paul II did when faced by all such attempts which were seemingly benevolent towards man.’ Ah yes – ‘seemingly benevolent’ – but we know better. We here in the Vatican know that telling people not to use condoms, and telling them that condoms don’t work, is not seemingly benevolent but really benevolent – because that way they are more likely to die a horrible death and leave their children destitute orphans, which is obviously really benevolent as opposed to merely seemingly so. What luck that we deluded humans have churches to tell us what the word of God is when we get confused.

And then of course there’s the bit about natural death. Er – what? What natural death? The one ‘Father John Paul II’ had? The one Terri Schiavo spent fifteen years having? That’s natural?

Well maybe he doesn’t mean it like that. Maybe it’s a metaphor? And I’m just too secular and atheist and unartistic and thick to get it. Nothing like a little religion to tell us about our longings for transcendence, is there.

Further Ruseana

May 6th, 2005 2:14 am | By

More Michael Ruse, I promised you. Very well then. I never forget a promise. There is
this review of Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain
from December 2003. I remember being rude about it at the time, though I can’t find the N&C I was rude in. I remember because my colleague was tiresome enough to disagree with something I said, and to say that Ruse had a point in one of the places I disagreed with him. Well I ask you – that can’t be right. Anyway, Ruse does say some odd things in this review.

But how then does Dawkins respond to the obvious retort of the religious, who have always stressed mystery? Some of the fundamental problems of philosophy are no closer to being solved today than they were at the time of the Greeks: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is this something not something else? What is mind, and are we unique? Perhaps one agrees that traditional religions—Christianity specifically—do not offer the full answers. But what is to stop a nonbeliever like myself from saying that the Christians are asking important questions and that they are right to have a little humility before the unknown?

Uh – yeah, this particular ‘one’ does agree that traditional religions don’t offer full answers. Actually I don’t think religions offer answers at all, not even partial ones. I don’t think the things they offer are answers. Because they’re not based on serious inquiry or investigation or hard thought, they’re based on revelation and a sacred book. ‘The Christians’ aren’t asking important questions, they’re making important assertions that are made up – that’s not the same thing. Of course there are Christians who ask important questions, but Christianity itself doesn’t. That’s not in its job description. It’s way too flattering to pretend otherwise. And what is this crap about humility? What is humble about making up the answers and then pretending they have some kind of weight? That’s not my idea of humility.

Then there is an old N&C on a different Ruse article. In which he said something that really got up my nose. (Something similar to the above comment, really. Yet he’s an atheist. What is it with all these atheists who fall all over themselves to misdescribe religion and give it way more credit than it deserves?)

People like Dawkins, and the Creationists for that matter, make a mistake about the purposes of science and religion. Science tries to tell us about the physical world and how it works. Religion aims at giving a meaning to the world and to our place in it. Science asks immediate questions. Religion asks ultimate questions. There is no conflict here, except when people mistakenly think that questions from one domain demand answers from the other. Science and religion, evolution and Christianity, need not conflict, but only if each knows its place in human affairs — and stays within these boundaries.

Sigh. Sure, religion aims, anybody can aim, but – oh never mind. You know what I’m going to say. Here is the article where Ruse said that and more. It’s basically about the compatibility of religion and ‘Darwinism’.

For refreshment, there is Jonathan Miller’s letter to the Guardian on Dylan Evans’ article. (I’m not the only one who was rude about it! Such a relief.)

I can’t speak for my friend Richard Dawkins, but I have no reason to believe that he naively regards science as substitute for religion (Letters, May 5). But instead of visualising it, as Dylan Evans does, as no more than “a means to an end”, Dawkins, like me, visualises the scientific worldview as an increasingly reliable representation of the way things are, and that as such it constitutes an end in itself…Even now I am disconcerted by the fact my intuitive disbelief merits a label, pejorative or otherwise. In fact if it weren’t for the intrusive indignation of those who do believe, it’s unlikely that I’d give the issue a second thought. But this doesn’t mean, as Evans insists, that people such as Dawkins and myself are crudely indifferent to the themes and concerns which religion and art express so differently, or that his supposedly more enlightened atheism puts ours to shame.

Of course it doesn’t. And it’s absurd to think otherwise.

Evans and Wolpert Chat About Atheism

May 5th, 2005 8:46 pm | By

So did you listen to Dylan Evans and Lewis Wolpert argue on ‘Today’ this morning? It was quite entertaining at first, but then they got off onto a not very rewarding tangent about religious art, and ran out of time, so the more interesting issues were left unexplored. Pity.

But there were some interesting things said before the tangent.

DE: I think many atheists behave in a rather adolescent manner, and I think that while emancipating themselves from the older religious culture that surrounds them, they insist on rather sort of showy gestures of aggression towards religion; I think it’s just time the atheists moved on and gave a more balanced view of the older religious culture that surrounds them; you know, there’s a time when we come to look at our parents with more compassion and we see them as human beings like us…

Why adolescent? That’s a trope we’ve heard before. Why? Why is criticism (or ‘showy gestures of aggression,’ which is a highly tendentious way of putting the matter) adolescent? Why isn’t it just reasoned criticism and dissent?

And as for moving on – well I’ll tell you what: I will if they will. And not otherwise. I mean, dang, is it not obvious why we don’t ‘move on’? We don’t ‘move on’ because unfortunately religion is not merely a matter of pretty pictures and pretty music, is it. As Lewis Wolpert pointed out:

But to value religion for its beauty, and to ignore the damage that it does to our society, just take all the stuff about contraception, and AIDS, and stem cells, and things like that, and all the holy wars, and [inaudible] see beauty in it is bizarre beyond words.

And why the parental comparison? Is that to shore up the untenable ‘adolescent’ epithet? Religion isn’t my parent, and I’m not ‘rebelling’ against it like an angry teenager. I don’t want it to loan me the car or wash my clothes or quit nagging me about my hair. Or is it there to stand in for religious people whom we’re supposed to look at with more compassion? But then why not just say that, why bring up parents with their inevitable whiff of Oedipal struggle and general babyishness? I’m all grown up, thanks, and my atheism has nothing whatever to do with adolescent rebellion. That’s a belittling, trivializing, patronizing comparison, as is the bit about showy gestures and adolescent manner. Well – if atheists deserve all this trivialization and belittling, what do theists deserve? Eh?

…so many of my fellow atheists – we can’t seem to get them to move on from the tired old religion-bashing and articulate a more content-full account of the way that they find meaning in a godless universe, and I think that’s important, I think it’s something that atheists are just not living up to really – a positive account of their own view of life…There’s a failure to try and see things from the other person’s point of view, and not even for a minute to try and adopt their perspective even for a second so that one could see what it actually seems like for the religious person, I think that it’s incumbent upon atheists who proclaim themselves to be bearers of tolerance and – to actually give an example to other people of the kind of tolerance they preach.

Tired old religion-bashing. Well, there again, religion-bashing is not nearly as tired – not within shouting distance of as tired – as religion itself is, not to mention atheism-bashing. And then – why are atheists obliged to ‘articulate a more content-full account of the way that they find meaning in a godless universe’? Why is that our job? Why is anything our job? Why are we supposed to give an account of ourselves? As if – what – theism is the default position, so anyone who isn’t a theist has some explaining to do? As in the Guardian article, Evans is arguing as if atheism is a system, an ideology, a worked-out established wide-ranging doctrine, when in fact it is merely the absence of one. And by the same token – atheists don’t ‘proclaim themselves to be bearers of tolerance.’ I wouldn’t dream of such a thing, myself. Much less would I ‘preach’ the stuff.

Evans’ whole case seems to rely on a mischaracterization of atheism as simply an inversion of religion, as like religion but turned inside out, but that’s nonsense. I won’t call it adolescent nonsense though. I’m far too polite and tolerant for that.

The Problem is not New

May 4th, 2005 2:12 am | By

We have some allies in the battle against Ruseism and Evansism. PZ at Pharyngula is kind enough to say that I’ve been on a tear lately. Pardon me while I blush and simper. But then who could help being on a tear, with so much provocation around. Anyway PZ is helping with the tearing and shredding, which is good, because my desk is about to collapse under the weight of work I have on hand.

Evans has this idea that religion is a kind of symbolic art, and that atheists are criticizing it as a bad painting, while all the good religious people are sharing his view of it as an elaborate metaphor for life. That is false. Atheists can appreciate the religious music of Bach, the quality of some of the books of the Bible—I even have a favorite book—and that the concentration of wealth in the religious hierarchy has supported a lot of great art and literature and thought. Most atheists are not interested in taking a flamethrower to the next choir singing Handel’s Messiah. Likewise, it is ludicrous to imply that religious people are largely sensible of the metaphorical nature of religion and share his view of it. Face it: most religious people in the western world believe that god is real. Heaven and hell are real. Jesus is god. Etc., etc., etc. They do mistake the art of religion for reality, and as he condescendingly puts it, must be “only a child”.

Indeed they do. If they didn’t (bless their hearts) there wouldn’t be any problem, would there. If everyone agreed that this was all just a story, there would not be any problem! Obviously! There aren’t any campaigns to force schools to teach that Hamlet was King of England from 1555 to 1603. There is no Osama bin Laden-equivalent who wants us all to live according to the morals and manners of The Tale of Genji. There is no Pat Robertson who wants us all to model ourselves on Dorothea Brooke. There is no pope who spends her time issuing edicts and encyclicals about what really happened in Pride and Prejudice. There are no settlers building houses in disputed territory because they think it was promised to them by a character in Little Dorritt. There is no guy in the White House who thinks he doesn’t have to think about anything carefully because King Lear wants him to be where he is and do whatever he decides to do. If the whole mess were art and nothing else – then it wouldn’t always be telling us what to do and peddling ignorance every chance it gets. It wouldn’t be threatened by everyone who doesn’t buy its fantasies.

PZ also commented on the Michael Ruse article. And I did a search at B&W to find some other Ruse material. There’s this review in the LRB of a book of his on the supposed relationship between science and religion. Sounds ghastly, as Marvin would say.

Attempts to reconcile science and religion are usually doomed to failure, as in the Radio 4 exchange, because nearly all religions make claims about the real world – the domain of science – that don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Faced with these difficulties, advocates resort to circumlocution, sophistry or absurd speculations that offend both scientists and believers. Despite the difficulties involved, however, reconciling science and faith remains a popular project…Michael Ruse’s book is an astonishing contribution to this literature. It astonishes because of the bravado of its thesis. Instead of espousing Gould’s tame view that religion and science are distinct but complementary, Ruse, a philosopher and historian of science, maintains that at least one form of science (Darwinism) and one form of religion (Christianity) are mutually reinforcing. They are reconcilable, he asserts, because virtually every tenet of conservative Christianity, including original sin, the immortality of the soul and moral choice, is immanent within Darwinism and an inevitable result of the evolutionary process.

Hoo-boy. Read the whole thing – it’s interesting. The reviewer is polite but deeply unconvinced.

Perhaps aware of the weakness of his arguments, Ruse makes a final evolutionary plea to sceptics: ‘We are middle-range primates with the adaptations to get down out of the trees, and to live on the plains in social groups. We do not have powers which will necessarily allow us to peer into the ultimate mysteries. If nothing else, these reflections should give us a little modesty about what we can and cannot know, and a little humility before the unknown.’ One can only wish that Ruse had heeded his own advice. In the words of the physicist Richard Feynman: ‘I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.’

That’s enough for the moment. There’s a lot more Ruse, but there aren’t a lot more hours in the day. More later.

No Respect

May 4th, 2005 1:16 am | By

I meant to do this sooner but things have been horribly busy. But a correspondent tells me that Oona King needs all the volunteers she can get; the SWP and the MAB will be out in force on election day. I’m 6000 miles from Bow and Bethnal Green, but I know some of you are much closer than that. Her office is 0207 613 4749.

I thought it was just a large watermelon

May 3rd, 2005 5:41 pm | By

Update on the Dylan Evans article. New information. This just in. Your correspondent has learned. In short, my colleague tells me that Dylan Evans has said sensible things at times. For instance in a certain philosophy magazine that my colleague has something to do with.

It’s very confounding, frankly. Because some of the things he says in that there magazine seem diametrically opposed to the things he says in that Guardian article. Are there pod people in his garden, I wonder? Or has he simply had a radical change of mind.

For instance, from a TPM-sponsored public debate on the issues raised by a paper given by Professor John Dupré at the
Mind/ Aristotelian Society Joint Session titled ‘Against Reductionist
Explanations of Human Behaviour’ in which Evans was the other protagonist and the chair was Ian McEwan.

Dylan Evans began by noting that science has always had to face down its
detractors. ‘They sit, Canute like, on the sands of obscurantism, shouting
in vein at the advancing tide of knowledge. “Get back! Come no further!
Leave me this little piece of unexplained territory!” Thankfully, science
takes no notice. The Promethean spirit that animates scientific enquiry,
that terrifying curiosity that inhabits the human soul, always proves
stronger than the fear of knowledge that opposes it.’

The Promethean spirit? That terrifying curiosity? Does that jibe with the hostile and, frankly, inaccurate characterization of science in the Guardian article? Especially with this bit –

But I do think there is one respect in which religion is more truthful than science – in its depiction of the longing for transcendent meaning that lies in man’s heart. No scientific theory has ever done justice to this longing, and in this respect religions paint more faithful pictures of the human mind.

Well. Maybe with some very determined hammering, the two can be made to fit. It depends what he means by ‘transcendent meaning,’ I suppose (but then what does anyone ever mean by that handy, elusive, capacious phrase?). But surely a Promethean spirit of terrifying curiosity is one form of transcendent meaning. (And in fact arguably a far better one than actual, existing religion, as opposed to the wishful religion that Evans has in mind, provides. Religion gives such dull, limited, closed, unexciting answers to the questions humans ask, after all. They’re about as Promethean as a Sunday advertising supplement in the newspaper.) And the Promethean thing, the terrifying curiosity thing – that seems to me to have far more to do with ‘longing’ than religion does. Religion does the opposite of the Promethean, it doesn’t keep looking for more, opening newer doors, it just seals everything off. It’s not really about longing so much as it is about termination. About giving inadequate answers to large questions.

Evans noted that ‘although the
evidence for evolution is overwhelming today, there are still those who
ignore it. Over half the US population still believes in the literal truth
of Genesis. Thankfully, the population in the UK is somewhat more
enlightened on this matter. Few people here seriously doubt that we evolved
from other life forms. But even in the UK, there is still a widespread
reluctance to take this idea to its logical conclusion, namely, that our
minds are just as much the product of evolution as our bodies. This is
Canutism. The new Canutes admit that the tide has come further up the shore.
Science has already claimed the human body as its own, they recognise, but
please don’t let it claim the human mind.’

Evans is taking religion awfully literally there. Why doesn’t he just treat it as a metaphor?

And then from another piece, this one written by Evans, about a public discussion at LSE between Alan Sokal and Bruno Latour.

Latour was clearly the most accomplished
public speaker, often raising hoots of laughter with his quips and
one-liners. Latour’s rhetorical skill, however, was not matched by a
corresponding level of logical rigour. Indeed, many felt that his
entertaining performance was deployed to conceal the lack of clarity in his
argument. Sokal, on the other hand, while not so accomplished an
entertainer, was crystal clear, and made the most incisive arguments. Again
and again he pressed Latour to clarify his position, but to no avail; Latour
gave contradictory responses, first speaking in terms that could only be
construed as highly constructivist, then denying that his position was
relativist when challenged by Sokal. The result was a rather frustrating
debate, in which the speakers never quite managed to make contact. Sokal
tried valiantly to clarify some complex issues, but was defeated by Latour’s
apparently deliberate obfuscation and ambiguity. Some might put this down
simply to a clash between two very different intellectual traditions; those
of Anglo-American philosophy of science and French cultural criticism. This,
however, merely avoids the real issue, which is not merely a question of
cultural differences – the issue of scientific objectivity. Unfortunately,
the debate will not get any further until the Latours of this world learn to
speak and write with greater clarity.

No comment.

Strange, isn’t it? Either there’s a pod in his garden, or he’s just had a radical change of mind. But I have to say, I don’t think the change of mind has done much for the clarity of his writing.

Who Needs an Excuse?

May 3rd, 2005 2:00 am | By

Oh honestly. What was that I said about the unending flood? Here is another break in the dam – more nonsense than I’ve seen in one place for a long time. (Well not all that long. There was that Butlerian review the other day, and that item where paganism meets disability rights and gets spectacularly tangled in its own feet. But a long time if you’re waiting for lunch, anyway.) If you can read this without wanting to be violently sick – then there’s something wrong with your cognitive functioning and I want nothing further to do with you.

There are many species of atheism, just as there are many species of religion. But while many religions still thrive, most of the atheisms that have ever existed are now extinct. The non-religious person today is, therefore, rather like a person who wanders into a shop to buy a breakfast cereal and finds only one variety is for sale. Moreover, this variety isn’t very tasty, because the kind of atheism that flourishes today is old and tired.

Oh for Christ’s sake. Start off with a bang why don’t you. That is so stupid. There aren’t many species of atheism, because atheism isn’t like religion, so it’s no good saying ‘just as there are many species of religion’ as if that made it true. Religion is all about multiplying entities, and about making up stuff to believe; atheism isn’t, it’s just about not believing the stuff other people have made up. It’s not a belief, it’s not a religion, it’s not a mirror-image of religion only with minus signs where the pluses should be. It’s just not believing there is a god, that’s all. It’s not old and tired today because there’s nothing to be old and tired. It’s not a system, not an ideology, not a set of postulates or rules or myths; it’s just non-belief in a deity. It’s no more stale and tired than all the other things we don’t believe, because there’s no bread to get stale. My non-belief in the Great Pumpkin isn’t stale, so why should my non-belief in ‘God’ be? No earthly reason. People just think it sounds deep or wise or shrewd to say so. Well it doesn’t.

Today’s prominent atheists – people such as Jonathan Miller and Richard Dawkins – hawk around a belief system that reeks of the 19th century, which is not surprising, for that is when it was born. Dawkins is virulently anti-religious, passionately pro-science and artistically illiterate – thus manifesting all three of the main characteristics of the old atheism in a particularly pure form.

[Taking tight grip on temper and speaking through clenched teeth] It is not a belief system! It’s not even an it; it’s the negation of an it. Therefore it wasn’t born in the 19th century, because it wasn’t born. It’s just not believing in god or gods. Not believing is not believing. How else can one say it? Saying ‘I don’t believe X’ is not a belief system, it’s the opposite of a belief system, because it’s the rejection of one. It’s not incompatible with a belief system, or many, of course, but it itself is not a god damn belief system, it’s the refusal of one! Pay attention, dammit, Dylan Evans.

Furthermore, Dawkins is emphatically not artistically illiterate. Dylan Evans can’t have read Unweaving the Rainbow or he wouldn’t have said that.

My kind of atheism takes issue with the old atheism on all three of its main tenets: it values religion; treats science as simply a means to an end; and finds the meaning of life in art. When I say that I value religion, I don’t mean that I see any truth in the stories about gods, devils, souls and saviours. But I do think there is one respect in which religion is more truthful than science – in its depiction of the long ing for transcendent meaning that lies in man’s heart. No scientific theory has ever done justice to this longing, and in this respect religions paint more faithful pictures of the human mind.

Garbage. Complete, unadulterated garbage. Wrong and uncomprehending in every word. Wrong about atheism, stupid about science, wrong about religion.

Atheists who attack religions for painting a false picture of the world are as unsophisticated and immature as religious believers, who mistake the picture for reality. The only mature attitude to religion is to see it for what it is – a kind of art, which only a child could mistake for reality, and which only a child would reject for being false.

More nonsense. Atheists attack religions for ‘painting a false picture of the world’ because that’s what religions damn well do! Dylan’s hearts and flowers let’s sniff the buttercups version is very sweet and nice but it’s not religion, is it. It’s not the Vatican banning condoms and telling women how to live, it’s not Islam forbidding people to leave Islam, it’s not creationists trying to get religion taught in biology class. Dylan’s version might be a nice idea. If all believers read his article and decided ‘oh, I see, it’s all a metaphor’ and immediately began living accordingly starting right now today, I would be delighted. But guess what, they’re not going to, are they. That being the case, there is still every reason to ‘attack’ or rather criticise religions for painting a false picture of the world, and one doesn’t have to subscribe to a ‘belief system’ to do so; one can just recognize bullshit when one sees it.

Transcendental Science

May 2nd, 2005 8:53 pm | By

Good. After Michael Ruse it’s a relief to read Dawkins on the same general subject.

You can’t statistically explain improbable things like living creatures by saying that they must have been designed because you’re still left to explain the designer, who must be, if anything, an even more statistically improbable and elegant thing. Design can never be an ultimate explanation for anything. It can only be a proximate explanation. A plane or a car is explained by a designer but that’s because the designer himself, the engineer, is explained by natural selection.

And it’s no good pretending otherwise, is it, especially if you simply can’t possibly believe that otherwise. It’s ridiculous to expect it. And then, it’s not as if religion is uniformly and reliably beneficent, or even harmless. That’s worth keeping in mind too, when people get indignant with atheists who actually have the bad taste and lack of tact to say they are atheists. There’s that little matter of the Vatican and condoms, just for instance…

A delusion that encourages belief where there is no evidence is asking for trouble. Disagreements between incompatible beliefs cannot be settled by reasoned argument because reasoned argument is drummed out of those trained in religion from the cradle. Instead, disagreements are settled by other means which, in extreme cases, inevitably become violent.

Sometimes quietly violent, but nonetheless violent for that. The Vatican doesn’t go into Africa and Latin American with machine guns blazing, but it might as well. It abuses its ridiculous undeserved power, to order people to kill themselves and their relatives for no good reason; it causes the deaths of millions by that abuse of power; that’s pretty violent.

And you see the same problem of the inability of reasoned argument to adjudicate between incompatible beliefs in the case of religious hatred of homosexuality – or sodomy, as I heard some charm-boy call it on C-Span the other day. They can’t for the life of them come up with a good reason for it – but so what? They don’t need to. They are convinced that their invented god hates it, and that’s all they need. Reasoned argument doesn’t come into it. Secularists are always at a disadvantage in that situation, because the believers just brush off the reasoned arguments; they throw up what they ‘know’ as if it were a magic shield – and for them it is.

“Unweaving the Rainbow” specifically attacks the idea that a materialist, mechanist, naturalistic worldview makes life seem meaningless. Quite the contrary, the scientific worldview is a poetic worldview, it is almost a transcendental worldview. We are amazingly privileged to be born at all and to be granted a few decades — before we die forever — in which we can understand, appreciate and enjoy the universe. And those of us fortunate enough to be living today are even more privileged than those of earlier times. We have the benefit of those earlier centuries of scientific exploration. Through no talent of our own, we have the privilege of knowing far more than past centuries. Aristotle would be blown away by what any schoolchild could tell him today. That’s the kind of privileged century in which we live. That’s what gives my life meaning. And the fact that my life is finite, and that it’s the only life I’ve got, makes me all the more eager to get up each morning and set about the business of understanding more about the world into which I am so privileged to have been born.

Testify, brother. You rock.

A Subtle Ruse, But It Won’t Do

May 1st, 2005 9:43 pm | By

Michael Ruse. [shakes head] I don’t know, I just don’t know. I simply can’t agree. I think he’s wrong. I think it’s bad (or at least dubious) tactics and I think it’s even worse morality and epistemology.

But those are two different things. I know, I know. Is and ought; facts and values. But lying about the one takes you into questions about the other. Which is a roundabout way of saying that even if it were good tactics I don’t think it’s morally respectable to tell lies about what you take to be the truth for tactical reasons. At least not on the whole; not in general; not as a rule. In life and death situations (a murderer with an axe asks you where the little girl with the dear little puppy is because he wants to sell her life insurance, that kind of thing) it’s different; but as a general principle, we shouldn’t go around saying the stork brings babies and there is a thriving colony of utopian hemp-farmers on a planet behind the Hale-Bopp comet, simply to appease and mollify a lot of damn fools who think so and will get all offended and bent and slit-eyed if we contradict them. Especially, frankly, people who are educators, shouldn’t do that. Especially people who occupy chairs that are actually named ‘for the public understanding of science.’ People like that just have an occupational duty not to pretend to believe in a nice man in the sky who makes all our boo-boos go away simply because a lot of sentimentalists want to go on thinking so forever and ever amen and if we don’t let them then they’ll trash science education. Therefore I find it highly irritating that Ruse keeps telling them they should. I’ve upbraided him about it before, and he’s still at it.

Virtually every prominent Darwinian in recent decades has eschewed social Darwinism, and most believe that evolution itself, while responsible for the increased complexity of organic forms over time, cannot be regarded as a linear process driving toward a particular endpoint. But Ruse asserts that popular contemporary biologists like Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins have also exacerbated the divisions between evolutionists and creationists by directly challenging the validity of religious belief – Dawkins by repeatedly declaring his atheism (”faith,” he once wrote, ”is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate”), and Wilson by describing his ”search for objective reality” as a replacement for religious seeking.

But what are they supposed to do? What the hell is wrong with Dawkins’ ‘repeatedly’ declaring his atheism? And what is he supposed to do instead – lie? Shut up? What? And why should he do either one? When theists get to go on the radio and talk everyone else into the ground – why are atheists supposed to zip it? Oh, it makes me tired, this kind of thing. And there’s always more of it. It’s just an unending flood. It’s all the more depressing when people like Ruse join in.

Ruse, a self-identified agnostic, acknowledges the ”thrilling quality” of Dawkins’s writing but says he objects to adamantly anti-religion statements coming from a scientist. ”I don’t have any more belief than Dawkins,” he says. ”But I do think it matters that he is making it very difficult for those of us who care about evolution to put forward a reasonable face to the reasonable portion [of the public] in the middle.”

But there again. That just seems to be saying people should lie either explicitly or by omission, merely for tactical reasons. It’s appeasment, that’s all, and it doesn’t even work. The more people mollify religious zealots, the more the zealots demand. That’s all there is to it. There’s no such thing as satisfying them by just kind of moderating the tone. If you’re not completely on their team, you’re one of the lost, to be turned into pools of unsavory liquid when Jeezis comes back with his ray-gun or whatever it is. And the more they are appeased, the more they go on bullying, and the more likely atheists are to think that they are the only atheists on earth and they’d better not say anything lest they be sliced up with a dull razor.

And then he ends up asking exactly the question I’m asking.

”What am I supposed to do?” he asks in response. ”I’m an academic. I believe in freedom. I believe the most important thing you can do is criticize your own ideas.”

Eh? You’re an academic, you believe in freedom, so you’re spending your energy telling other academics not to say what they think is true, so that they won’t make creationists even angrier than they already are? Does that compute? What are they supposed to do, I keep wanting to know.

And by the way. When are newspapers going to start making their reporters take that course in elementary thinking straight. What’s wrong with this beginning?

In states from Alabama to Pennsylvania, supporters are attempting to restrict the teaching of evolution – and introduce their current favorite theory, Intelligent Design, into the classroom…And such efforts may be having an effect. According to a Gallup survey released last November, only about a third of Americans believe that Darwin’s theory is well supported by the scientific evidence, while nearly half believe that humans were created in more or less their present form 10,000 years ago. What accounts for this revival?

See it? See the problem? What revival? What effect? We can’t tell. We haven’t got a clue. The reporter just gave us one survey; we don’t have anything to compare it to. For all we know the figures ten years ago were 100% One survey is not useful for comparative purposes or for deducing a ‘revival.’