Notes and Comment Blog


O That Esoteric Windiness

Dec 1st, 2003 11:39 pm | By

And another treat, this review of a long biography of Jung. It’s full of good jokes and pertinent observations. For instance –

I picked it up with some words that Macaulay wrote in a review of a two-volume biography of Lord Burleigh echoing through my mind like the insistent snatch of a tune (I quote from memory): Compared with the labour of reading these volumes, all other labour, the labour of thieves on the treadmill, the labour of children in the mines, the labour of slaves on the plantation, is but a pleasant recreation.

And then –

Jung was decidedly not born a charlatan—or at least, he was not one throughout the whole of his career. True, he grew up in a family with a more than average number of table-rappers, which no doubt inclined him later to the study of the esoteric (for it certainly never occurred to him to wonder why the esoteric was, in fact, esoteric), and was subjected in his youth to that Teutonic windiness which comes so easily, though no means inevitably, to those who think and write in the German language. There is nothing quite like esoteric windiness for creating a penumbra of profundity, to which bored society ladies are drawn like flies to dung: and this no doubt explains how he became the Madame Blavatsky of psychotherapy.

I particularly like that, because it’s so relevant to the Bad Writing topic we’ve been gnawing on lately. ‘There is nothing quite like esoteric windiness for creating a penumbra of profundity…’ Exactly so, and that’s why people do it. That, plus the way it makes it so much harder for critics to pin down their mistakes.

Jung was a preternaturally unclear writer and thinker: he would never say anything clearly when obfuscation would do. Whether this was from lack of talent or an unconscious appreciation that clarity led to the possibility of contradiction and even refutation…

Precisely. Dangerous stuff, clarity. It can make it clear that we’re talking nonsense.



Dry Bones

Dec 1st, 2003 9:04 pm | By

There is an excellent article at spiked by Tiffany Jenkins, who wrote another excellent article for us last spring. An excellent article on a very depressing and irritating subject – this passion for defining all human remains, however old and however uncertain of provenance, as someone’s ‘ancestors,’ thus ensuring that they can’t be studied or preserved for future research and study.

Note that the report by the Human Remains Working Group, which was appointed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, is called a majority report ‘because the group’s only scientist refused to accept its verdict.’ Note that and then ponder it a bit. Ponder the fact that a matter with such large implications for science is handed over to a working group with only one scientist. Which is not to say that political, ethical, moral or other non-scientific concerns should never second-guess or criticise or veto scientific ones – but it is to raise an eyebrow, at least.

But another factor is the message that this policy sends out – it effectively suggests to all and sundry that scientific research is not a priority, and that science should be put second to mystical kinds of belief. The panel of experts that will oversee the treatment of remains, for example, will explicitly not include any scientist or researcher who works on the remains – but it will include those ‘versed in belief systems’. The panel will be akin to a new high priesthood guarding the sacred relics.

And not all of this pressure to ‘return’ bones and remains is a response to demands by indigenous (or any other) groups who have had their ancestors’ remains unceremoniously carted off – a lot of it starts at the other end, among museum staff and lawyers, smitten by a bizarre mix of political zeal and spirito-mystico nonsense. It’s enough to make a cat laugh, frankly.

Even in cases of unaffiliated or unwanted remains, the report leans on the side of return. While there are campaign groups who have made strong and vocal demands for return, there are as many people contacted by museums who have been uninterested in receiving boxes with bones of their possible ancestors…The report seems to suggest that descendants are in denial, arguing that: ‘Museums might wish to look critically at the political, economic and other reasons for any silence or absence of protest.’

Well don’t let that stop you! If nobody wants the damn bones back, just ‘look critically’ at the reasons for that absence of protest until you manage to come up with a convincing explanation and then, wallop! drop the cartons of bones on the doorstep of some lucky descendants.

The target of this report is the researchers and scientists working on the remains. The constant message is that remains are sacred and that research must be restrained by ‘respect’. Museums’ claims to scientific or historical objectivity are implicitly criticised…What is drummed home is the idea that no bone shall be regarded in an impersonal fashion. Every molecule, hair and fingernail is seen as sacred unless proven otherwise – and even then, it is thought that the sacred significance has not yet been discovered.

The people who want the remains back have not yet been discovered, the sacred significance has not yet been discovered – so the energy that once would have gone into research on the remains themselves now goes into discovering ‘sacred significance.’ Sad, isn’t it.



Miscellany

Dec 1st, 2003 12:55 am | By

A couple of miscellaneous items. A scientist goes off-topic to talk about women composers, thus revealing (and not for the first time) that scientists tend to know more about the arts than artists and humanist scholars know about science.

And then there’s a very interesting long post by John Holbo on Bad Writing. He’s just read Just Being Difficult?, the new book that re-ignited the subject of bad writing, and he has some excellent acerbic comments on it. There’s also a discussion of Holbo’s discussion at Crooked Timber. One reader there makes this classic comment:

I’ve always wanted to ask Steven Weinberg why he became a scientist. The answer would be most likely because of a certain kind of desire for a certain kind of truth. But truth is a metaphysical construct with a whole lot of poetical baggage. In court they don’t talk about ‘truth’ but about ‘facts’ which are much more mundane. No one spouts of about The Eternal Search for FACTS! do they?

Ah. Truth is a metaphysical construct with a whole lot of poetical baggage, is it. And is that all it is? Does that exhaust the subject? Does no one ever use the word ‘truth’ without attaching words like ‘eternal’ or rather ‘Eternal’ to it? Whose poetical baggage and metaphysical construction is whose, here? Interesting.



Asymmetry

Nov 28th, 2003 9:00 pm | By

Well good, we’ve got that cleared up: all the potential Democratic presidential candidates are religious, there’s not an atheist in the bunch. That’s a relief, isn’t it? And a surprise? Atheists being so thick on the ground in US politics, especially at the national level.

The assumptions behind the news article reporting on this shocker are rather strange, however. Or at least, if not strange in the context of US politics, still, strange in other contexts one can think of. There is this remark, for instance:

Each of the Democrats vying for the right to challenge Bush next year has reaffirmed his or her faith, refusing to cede spirituality to the Republicans.

So, they refuse to cede spirituality, but they’re perfectly content to cede skepticism, secularism, atheism. Why is that? Well one obvious answer of course is that there are more religious people than non-religious ones in the US, and people seeking votes naturally want more rather than fewer. But is that all? Is there not an underlying assumption that ‘spirituality’ (whatever that is) is a good and virtuous thing and therefore must not be ‘ceded’ to the other party? Or am I imagining things.

And then of course there’s the permanent irritation of the way Democrats are always in such a sweat never to ‘cede’ anything to Republicans, and it hardly ever works the other way around. Again, why is that? Why do Dems never worry about ‘ceding’ anything to the left? Why do Republicans never worry about ‘ceding’ anything to Democrats? Why is it almost always just the Democrats who have to follow the Republicans’ lead? This is not just an artifact of the recent takeover of every conceivable political office by Republicans, either, Democrats have been doing it at least since the ’50s. Lyndon Johnson had deep misgivings about sending troops to Vietnam in the summer of 1964, for instance, but he did it anyway because otherwise Goldwater would be able to portray him as weak on the Commies. And it’s always like that. Democrats are always afraid of being seen as ‘too’ lefty, Republicans are hardly ever afraid of being seen as ‘too’ righty. I suppose that could be because Republican ideas are inherently better ideas, but, somehow, I don’t quite think so…



More

Nov 26th, 2003 12:35 am | By

More update on Stephen King at the National Book Awards and the whole ‘You should feel guilty for not reading John Grisham’ line. Excellent comments from Terry Teachout here and here. And the story in the Independent.



Dr Fox

Nov 25th, 2003 9:12 pm | By

A kind and helpful reader alerted me to this article in an email yesterday. It’s very interesting (and also rather amusing, especially at the beginning), but it turns out it doesn’t corroborate what I’m saying in quite the way I thought it might. But that’s okay, because it does raise another issue, which I think it’s worth talking about.

The claim of the article is that difficulty carries prestige, quite independent of content or substance. That educated people will rate a lecture or article more highly if it is ‘difficult’ than if it’s not (with the substance remaining the same). But the trouble is, the measure of difficulty is not a very good one, as the author, Scott Armstrong, acknowledges of one test.

This test is a crude measure of readability because it uses only S, sentence length in words, and N, the number of syllables per 100 words:
F = 207 – 1.02 S – 0.85 N…The Gunning Fog Index (G) is based on average sentence length (S) and the percentage of words (W) with three or more syllables; G = 0.4(S + W).

Yes, and that’s not what I mean by ‘difficulty’ or obscurity or indeed bad writing. At all. I like both polysyllables and long sentences with dependent clauses, and I emphatically don’t like Dick-and-Jane baby writing. I have seen some books of popular philsophy that resort to short sentences and words, and it always surprises me. Surely the audience for popular philsophy is not people who balk at long words or sentences – surely it’s mostly educated people, but educated in other fields. So that’s not it. It’s far more a matter of that dread word, ‘jargon’. That is a loaded word, and I flinch a bit whenever I use it. One person’s jargon is another person’s everyday vocabulary (or it’s another irregular verb – I use technical language, she uses jargon), technical fields do rely on jargon where it would be cumbersome to try to do without it, and it can be and often is anti-intellectual to complain of any and all jargon/technical language. But, in spite of all that, it is almost impossible not to suspect that jargon as used by Bad Writers is not necessary, but rather a device for expanding a small, banal idea into a huge billowing one that impresses the audience, just as Dr. Fox impressed his.

Consider Martha Nussbaum’s translation of Judith Butler’s prize-winning sentence, for example:

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

Now, Butler might have written: “Marxist accounts, focusing on capital as the central force structuring social relations, depicted the operations of that force as everywhere uniform. By contrast, Althusserian accounts, focusing on power, see the operations of that force as variegated and as shifting over time.” Instead, she prefers a verbosity that causes the reader to expend so much effort in deciphering her prose that little energy is left for assessing the truth of the claims.

‘Verbosity’ is yet another subjective term, of course, but surely it’s obvious enough what Nussbaum means. And Nussbaum herself is no short sentence, cat sat on mat writer. In fact she is quite difficult at times, but since she is actually saying something, it’s not the baffling, energy-depleting sort of difficult that Bad Writing resorts to, in a conscious or unconscious effort to prevent assesment of the truth of the claims. The Dr. Fox theory has a lot of merit.



Stephen King Revisited

Nov 24th, 2003 11:46 pm | By

Update – I commented a few days ago on Stephen King’s strange remarks at the National Book Awards. They’re having a very lively discussion of the same subject at Crooked Timber today.



Amazing Mess

Nov 24th, 2003 11:34 pm | By

Serendipity is always fun. I tend to experience a lot of it, because my bookshelves are so peculiarly organized, and also double-shelved, so that it’s easy to forget what’s behind the front row – I’m always rummaging around looking for one book and ending up with five or six others that I’d been thinking of looking for, wondering where I’d put, wishing I had in my hand. And everything is like that. I’m not very tidy. There are forgotten magazines, forgotten notes, forgotten drafts of essays and articles, forgotten all sorts of things. Nothing that will decay – I’m careful about that – no oozy apples or slimy pears turning up after months of wondering what that smell is. But things that don’t rot tend to get buried under drifts of more of their kind until I go looking for them. So yesterday I decided I wanted to find an old article I’d printed out – so I went through a tall stack of them that has been sitting in a corner for a couple of years now. It’s all right, it’s out of the way there, it doesn’t hurt anything. I didn’t find the one I was looking for, but I did find several others I wasn’t, but was very glad to find. One is the William Kerrigan article from Lingua Franca that I’ve mentioned a couple of times lately. Now I can tell you the title and date, in case you want to read it. November 1998, “The Case for Bardolatry: Harold Bloom Rescues Shakespeare from the Critics.” I wish I could link to it but I can’t, it’s not online. But I can quote from it, and discuss it a bit.

One bit I want to quote from gave me quite a start – I suddenly felt like a spirit summoned from the vasty deep.

Should some avatar of Ambrose Bierce ever write a Devil’s Dictionary for the modern profession of literary studies, which has indeed asked for such a scourge by generating theories about its own professionalism, one might well find the following entry: ‘Professional, noun. One who has never been struck by genius.’

I felt like jumping up and down and waving, or sending up a flare, or something. We’re here, we’re here! The avatar, its hour come round at last, is here, writing that very Dictionary. The part that’s on the site is only a fraction, you know. There’s going to be a lot more…

Only we’ll do better than that, I’m unkind enough to say. The problem with that definition is that it’s not particularly funny, and then he seems to miss the obvious joke about being struck. I don’t think we walk into obvious traps like that, thank you very much! We’re good avatars.

And then there’s the one I’ve been quoting lately:

I am told that a noted New Historicist begins her graduate Shakespeare classes by telling the students: “Do not fetishize the language.” They might have to do some fetishizing of this language in order to figure out what “fetishize” means. Used in different senses by Marx and Freud, the word “fetish” has a titanic frisson for contemporary theorists. Simply to employ it appears to induce rapture…In any case, I suspect that the word “fetishize” in “Do not fetishize the language” must be theory-speak for “value” or “get excited about.” What students are to get excited about, I guess, is the defiant act of not getting excited and using magic words like “fetishize,” to congratulate themselves on their lack of taste and sensibility. One has to wonder if a critical school programmatically excluding literary greatness can possibly have a happy prognosis.

See why I like the article? And one more bit.

Today’s critics seize any opportunity to affirm their moral superiority to the literature they study…[W]e see politicized catastrophe being deliberately imported into the realm of literature with the aim of making any other intellectual or imaginative invitation found in that space seem by comparison indulgent and elitist – a potential diversion from the grim, yet doubtless complex, business of gender and nationality.

So. Thus we learn it is good to bury things under other things, so that you can have the pleasure of finding them again. It once, was lost, but now, it’s found. Etc.



Crowded Barrel

Nov 22nd, 2003 11:58 pm | By

Oh dear, oh dear, I really shouldn’t. But I’m going to. Pester another fish in another barrel. Because it’s quite interesting how lame their arguments are, how beside the point or redundant or both. Either they accuse me of not talking about that which I never said I was talking about, or they say something I already said.

I have to say I found the ‘Bad Writing’ article extremely dissapointing. Like, unfortunately, too much criticism of theory it was utterly, utterly trivial. I mean, was this what the ‘theory wars’ were all about, that some people dislike Judith Butler’s use of subordinate clauses?

But ‘Bad Writing’ isn’t criticism of theory, it is what it says it is: a criticism of Bad Writing. Bad Writing in ‘theory’, yes, but still, the subject is bad writing, not theory. And subordinate clauses are not the problem.

Some theory is hard to read (though no harder to read than some analytic philosophy, – Gender Trouble is not appreciably harder to read than Word and Object, although the two books are difficult in different ways).

Yes. That’s my point – that ‘difficult in different ways’ bit. That covers a lot of territory, doesn’t it! I haven’t read Gender Trouble, but the theory I have read is difficult in a pointless, empty, arbitrary way, and that’s what I complain of. Writing that is difficult because the subject is inherently difficult is another matter, but that’s not the kind of writing I was talking about.

If postmodernists are wrong, critique their arguments…The best critiques of postmodernism do just that; witness the gulf separating the ‘Bad writing’ article on this site from the excellent article by Martha Naussbaum which it linked to, which engaged with the actual substance of Judith Butler’s views, rather than raising a fuss about her style.

We do critique the arguments of postmodernists, of course, in other articles. And of course the article by Nussbaum is excellent, that’s why I linked to it. But it’s certainly not accurate to say or imply that Nussbaum doesn’t ‘raise a fuss’ about Butler’s style. She does just that, here for instance:

It is difficult to come to grips with Butler’s ideas, because it is difficult to figure out what they are. Butler is a very smart person…Her written style, however, is ponderous and obscure…Thus one is led to the conclusion that the allusiveness of the writing cannot be explained in the usual way, by positing an audience of specialists eager to debate the details of an esoteric academic position. The writing is simply too thin to satisfy any such audience. It is also obvious that Butler’s work is not directed at a non-academic audience eager to grapple with actual injustices. Such an audience would simply be baffled by the thick soup of Butler’s prose, by its air of in-group knowingness, by its extremely high ratio of names to explanations.

That first sentence says it all, really. But then the other sentences go on to say quite a lot too. How can we help concluding that theory-lovers admire Butler not despite the ponderous obscure style but because of it? Especially since we have yet to encounter any who can say coherently what it is they admire about her?

Is sniggering at examples of ‘bad writing’, apparently as a substitute for providing genuine argument, really the best the self-desribed defenders of the Elightenment can come up with?

Of course it’s not. It’s the subject of one of many, many articles on this site. I disagree with the writer that Bad Writing is trivial or completely non-substantive, however, especially bad writing of the kind in question. I think it promotes bad thinking, obscures bad thinking, drives people out of the humanities, and gives the humanities a bad name, just for four things. I do think it matters. That doesn’t mean I think that’s the only thing wrong with Postmodernism, but then I never said I did. I begin to wonder if another problem with bad writing is that people who like it become incapable of reading carefully. Judging by the defenders on this site at least one would have to suspect that it does.



An Agenda

Nov 22nd, 2003 12:02 am | By

A few days ago we received an email from a new and enthusiastic fan of B&W, telling us we would be even more wonderful than we already are if we linked to Keith Burgess-Jackson at TechCentralStation. Err, thought I. I don’t much like TCS, though I have seen an occasional interesting article there, and I think finally linked to one. I did a N&C about this at some point – about the quandary of seeing an interesting and/or relevant article at a site which is so free markety-rightwing that I really hate to link to it even if I quite like a particular piece. It is a quandary. On the one hand if the article is good then the article is good. On the other hand, their agenda is not my agenda, and do I want to help them push theirs – no, not much. But then it’s our mission to try to disentangle truth claims from ideology. So I sighed and went to TCS to have a look at Burgess-Jackson.

Fortunately there was no quandary, I didn’t like his stuff at all. There may be some that’s good but what I saw was just snide and commonplace. So I answered our fan to that effect, and forgot about it. Until two days later, when I read this item at Crooked Timber. TCS is apparently not as forthright about its agenda and the funding behind it as it might be. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether that matters or not, whether readers can just judge the articles on their merits or not, whether we can all spot an agenda and be on our guard against it or not. Personally I don’t think it’s all that easy – I don’t think we can notice everything, and I’m pretty sure we can’t fact-check everything. At any rate, I’m glad I didn’t like Burgess-Jackson and didn’t bother to link to him. But the quandary will come up again, and again and again.



Brownie Points?

Nov 21st, 2003 9:08 pm | By

It just never goes out of style, does it, berating people for liking things that not everyone likes. We just cannot get enough of that kind of thing. Witness Stephen King at the National Book Awards on Wednesday, as reported by the Guardian.

King called on the publishing industry to pay more attention to writers such as himself, accusing the literati of a “blind spot” when it came to popular fiction. “What do you think,” he asked, “you get social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?” He accused many in publishing of making it “a point of pride” never to have read anything by mega-selling authors such as John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Mary Higgins Clark…

Pay more attention is it. More attention than what? What does he want? Jillions of dollars aren’t enough, he wants yet more attention? Well of course that could be just the Guardian’s paraphrase, so I shouldn’t pick on the word. (Only it’s so hard not to think of Willy Loman and ‘Attention must be paid!’) But what does he mean ‘blind spot’? He gets published, does he not? What does he want? Awards? People who don’t want to read him to read him? That’s a rather strange demand, isn’t it? And also a rather greedy one? Not content with being widely read, he wants to be universally read? Does that follow with all popular entertainment? Once a movie passes a certain point in sales, it becomes mandatory for the entire population to see it? Or does the rule only apply to intellectuals – maybe that’s it. Or should I say to nerds. That must be it – sometime while I wasn’t looking, a law was passed that all nerds have to read every book that sells more than 2 million copies and attend every movie that surpasses the box office take of E.T.

Yes but seriously. King’s not a bad guy. But he really shouldn’t say this kind of thing – he shouldn’t feed the anti-intellectual beast. It’s far too fat already. The matter is quite simple: some people don’t want to read Grisham, Clancy and Clark for a very compelling reason: they’re terrible writers. They may or may not be good story-tellers, but they are dismal writers. I’ve sampled all three, so I can say that with confidence. People who don’t like that kind of thing aren’t pretending not to like it in order to ‘get social academic brownie points’ – we really don’t like it. I’m terribly sorry but there are many many aspects of ‘my own culture’ that I do indeed want to stay out of touch with. Not to get brownies points, not as a point of pride; just because they make me feel sick or stupid or both, and because life is short and time is limited and I have better things to do. That is not a crime, it’s not even an attack on democracy, and people like King really shouldn’t talk as if it is.

And speaking of bogus populism, Matthew Yglesias has a pretty funny one at The American Prospect, from David Frost’s interview with Bush.

THE PRESIDENT: I’m looking forward to — it’s a huge honor to be invited by Her Majesty to stay in Buckingham Palace. It’s hard to imagine me even considering staying in Buckingham Palace when I was living in Midland, Texas. It’s just one of those things. And Buckingham Palace has got a tremendous mystique to it, and so Laura and I are really looking forward to coming.

Aw shucks, isn’t that sweet, li’l ole small-town backwoods barefoot boy makes good. Kinda like Abe Lincoln, ain’t it. Why doesn’t he embarrass himself with that stuff…



Submission

Nov 20th, 2003 7:42 pm | By

I have something I want to comment about, but I keep musing on a different subject, instead. On what a disgusting world it’s turning into, and what an unimaginably disgusting world it would be if the bombers got their way. We thought things were bad before! What with the US propping up repressive blood-thirsty regimes all over the planet as long as they were hostile to the Soviet Union (as Bush acknowledged in London today), and what with the two super-powers piling up ever more and more nukes. But that all looks like a nice cozy tea-party compared to what’s shaping up now, doesn’t it. There is just nothing quite like the combination of nuclear weapons and people who would like to run the whole world according to Sharia. It’s enough to make you want to go out and stock up on little cyanide capsules.

John Gray refers to the nasty mess in passing in a review of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s book about the killing of Daniel Pearl. Just in passing – because everyone knows about it, and what can we do anyway.

Lévy is hardly the first to suggest links between Pakistani intelligence and radical Islam: there is evidence the ISI played a pivotal role in establishing the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan could become the world’s first nuclear-equipped failed state. It presents a greater danger than North Korea, and incomparably more than Saddam’s Iraq.

Yes. Such an exciting prospect – that coup in Pakistan that seems to be just waiting to happen, and then there we are, Muslim fundamentalists with nukes. Oh goody.

Well, while I still can, I think I’ll just enunciate a little rhapsody to the good fortune of being a woman here in this place now at this time instead of at another time or place. To what women who live in the secular West get to have that women who live in Muslim theocracies don’t get to have. Like independence, and ownership of our own selves as opposed to being owned by a man, and autonomy, and the ability to leave the house whenever we want to without having to ask permission or put on a large stifling tent. The ability to leave the house at all. The ability to work, the ability to say no to an offer of marriage – the ability to live our own lives however we damn well please. Period. What a new thing that is for women, how lucky we are to have it, how few women around the globe have it even now, and how…unspeakable it would be to lose it. As it was for the urban women of Afghanistan, for example.

I’m a maniac about independence, myself. It’s perhaps almost my first value; it’s at any rate right at the top of the list. I prefer autonomy to safety, security, to almost anything. Always have. Maybe it’s something to do with growing up in the country – I used to spend all the time I could outdoors wandering the fields and woods, delighting in the fact that no one, not even my mother, knew exactly where I was. So the idea of being under permanent lifelong house-arrest the way women are in Muslim theocracies makes my skin crawl more than almost anything I can think of. And I doubt I’m the only one. For what that’s worth, which is pretty much nothing. That’s the point of all this bombing. ‘We don’t care what you want, we’re going to tell you what you can have.’



Bloody Hell

Nov 20th, 2003 4:21 pm | By

Oh, hell. I despair sometimes, I really do. As who doesn’t. Who in hell doesn’t. What a world, what a world, as the Wicked Witch said. Istanbul, of all places. Well of course. It’s secular. It’s near Europe, and has dealings with the nasty place, and allows women to drive cars and think of themselves as human beings. So let’s just bomb the bejesus out of it.

And kill the British Consul-General, and a lot of people in the street near the bank. A fitting follow-up to killing those pesky Jews at the synagogue the other day. And more tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow – all in the name of a world more like Taliban-world. The worst possible nightmare for people like us, for people who read this kind of thing. A world run by violence-loving, blood-soaked, Koran-thumping, backward-looking, women-hating men. Now there’s a cause to march for. Ah, hell.



Two Cheers for Nerds

Nov 18th, 2003 9:54 pm | By

Isn’t it nice, the way we’re always so anxious not to let each other get above ourselves? The way we’re so terrifically concerned to make sure no one gets any big ideas? The way we’re so very very careful to make sure that everyone understands that our first duty is always to be normal, to be regular, to be like everyone else – so that if we must do something as eccentric and peculiar and self-indulgent as developing some intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge and inclination to think about things – well, all right, maybe we can be forgiven for that, as long as we can show that we’re not nerds about it, and that we realize how boring all that stuff is really.

I was musing on this subject earlier this morning, because I was thinking about the significance of the fact that in an hour of listening to the radio yesterday I managed to hear two examples of Major Media assumptions that most things other than popular culture are boring – and then when I got on the computer, the first thing I saw was example three. There’s something strange about this…

The two yesterday. The first was in a bit of dialogue from the new movie ‘Shattered Glass’ on Fresh Air. It sounds like quite an interesting movie – centering on events at the New Republic, of all things. Not a big newspaper, not a tabloid, not a shiny popular magazine, but the New Republic! Not your normal Hollywood fare. And as Terri Gross pointed out, no car chases, no guns, no romance; just pure journalism. So that’s good! That’s excellent. It’s very encouraging that once every ten years or so the adults among us are allowed to see a movie that’s not all explosions and flames and collisions of one kind or another. Very, very good. But even there…The movie is about Stephen Glass, a reporter who made up his stories, and the bit of dialogue is from an editorial meeting at which he pitches a story about the boxer Evander Holyfield and biting. Then Charles Lane has to pitch his story, and he begins by saying, sheepishly, ‘That’s a hard act to follow.’ Long pause. ‘That’s a very hard act to follow.’ Sheepish laugher. ‘My story is about Haiti…’

Hm. So a boxer who bites is fascinating, and Haiti is boring. Hmmm. Really? Is that really true? And is it true even in the editorial offices of TNR? No, as a matter of fact, it’s not, because it turns out that particular scene didn’t happen, it’s a screenplay fabrication, and Tanner didn’t think the Haiti story was boring at all. Not surprisingly. But then how dreary that the movie has to pretend that it is.

And the other item in the hour was from ‘On the Media,’ an NPR show I hardly ever listen to because it’s so relentlessly cute and would-be funny – but I did hear a few minutes, which included a listener writing to rebuke one of the show’s hosts for calling C-Span ‘a yawn’. Well, granted, some of what’s on C-Span is not what you’d call lively, but it a lot of it is important all the same. And much of it is highly interesting, and even if it isn’t, is it helpful for influential voices such as those on National Public Radio to tell us that it isn’t? Remarks like that aren’t just a description, they’re also a prediction, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a meme – in short, an instruction. ‘This stuff is boring and if you don’t think so you’re boring too.’ ‘This stuff is boring because it’s about the gummint and tedious crap like that, not about good old cop shows which are so much more interesting.’

And today, browsing for news, I promptly find an article in the New York Times about John McWhorter.

Mr. McWhorter, an intense, confident and — perhaps not surprisingly — loquacious man, is not a curmudgeon or a fuddy-duddy. Nor, for that matter, a nerd, despite a résumé that bristles with intellectual precociousness. Self-taught in 12 languages — including Russian, Swedish, Swahili, Arabic and Hebrew, which he initially took up as a Philadelphia preschooler when he was 4 — he is a respected expert in Creole languages. (In his spare time, he is compiling the first written grammar of Saramaccan, a Creole language spoken by descendants of former slaves in Suriname.) A college graduate at 19 and a tenured professor at 33, he has published seven previous books…But none of these exploits, he is at pains to show, should be taken to mean that he is not hip. His conversation is peppered with knowing allusions to pop culture — Britney Spears, Tori Amos, television sitcoms, rap and Broadway.

Well, who said they should be taken to mean he is not hip? Why would we think he’s a nerd, and why does intellectual precocity (not precociousness) imply nerd-dom? And why should we care anyway? Why do we need people not to be nerds or unhip? And what do those words mean anyway? Do they really mean people who don’t know how to talk or walk across a room, or do they just mean people with intellectual interests? Why is it not possible in a mainstream mass market publication to mention people with some kind of knowledge (other than that taught in law school or business school at least) without apologizing? And what does all this constant nagging repetition of the idea that intellect is suspect or risible or both do to us? Does it train us to believe that we’d better not develop any ourselves lest we wind up in some sort of zoo, in the Nerd cage, having peanuts and battered volumes of Heidegger thrown at us?

Oh never mind, I’m bored, I think I’ll go shoot some pool.



Not OK Corral

Nov 16th, 2003 11:27 pm | By

This is an interesting item on Kenan Malik’s site. An email from Nirjay Mahindru, administrator of Tara Arts theatre, commenting on and agreeing with Malik’s tv documentary Disunited Kingdom, and talking about the way the focus on diversity and ethnicity forces minority groups to talk about certain subjects only or else shut up.

Artistically, this type of vetting, for fundamentally that’s what it is, consistently holds the British Asian artistic community back and ensures that cutting edge challenging theatre is somehow viewed as the exclusive monopoly of whites…Thus, I am expected to write basic derivates of ‘Bollywood’, or plays that deal with ‘the family’. What I can’t write about (as no venue will produce it) are plays that could be about anyone, but just happen to have British Asians in the leading roles, with no saris, somosas and silly songs. What I certainly CANNOT write about, are issues that may interest me but have no ‘ethnic component’. Thus, for example, if I wanted to write a play, say, on a passion of mine, the moon landings, that would be totally unacceptable from the likes of I. Putting it bluntly, artistically, I am a Paki, I should ‘know my place’ and write about the world of being ‘a Paki’.

Of course, what no venue will produce is a function of a lot of things – what people will buy tickets to see, what producers think people will buy tickets to see, what interests producers and other administrators, and so on. But it is interesting that audiences or producers and administrators or all of those are interested in Asians as Asians but not Asians as just people – interesting and highly unfortunate. (See the N&C on Amartya Sen saying much the same thing, below.) Because Asians, like anyone else, are not just Asians. None of us are just whatever ethnic group we belong to – none of us are just one thing – we’re all a multitude of things, and the more things we are the better for us and the better for the people who know us.

We posted an article on the same subject a few months ago by Jatinder Verma, also of Tara Arts.

But when a corral is created around cultural diversity we are being fed, and we help sustain, difference; rather than be confronted to explore connections. Merely beating the drum of culturally diverse arts – as decibel seeks to do – will only help to marginalise these artists within the confines of ‘identity’. Identity need not be immutable; it can be in dialogue with other identities. It is only then that we can all participate in the quality of the artistic experience.

Maybe it’s time for the obsession with ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ to run its course. It was only dubiously left-wing or progressive to begin with, and its unprogressive aspects have begun to become very clear in the last few years. Maybe it’s time to start seeing the advantages of universalism again, and let all the ethnics out of their corrals.



No, Not a Coincidence

Nov 15th, 2003 7:16 pm | By

In a way I hesitate to make this criticism, because the writer of this letter also wrote a good one on another issue. But I just feel compelled to make this one comment, because people keep saying the same thing, and it keeps being wrong and point-missing.

The author would do good to actually address the issues of trying to articulate what hasn’t been articulated before rather than simply trashing everyone who tries to write on difficult issues.

The trouble with that is that I’m emphatically not ‘trashing everyone who tries to write on difficult issues,’ and I never said I was. I’m ‘trashing’ or rather criticising bad writing, not writing on difficult issues. It’s simply not the case that all writing on difficult issues is bad – to put it mildly – and nor is it the case that all bad writing is on difficult issues. In fact that’s one of the points I’m making: that one of the reasons bad writing is so harmful is because it uses the badness of the writing to masquerade as writing about difficult issues. That’s a complaint that a great many people made about Hegel, from his own day (Schopenhauer is downright rude on the subject) to the present; that is one thing that bad writing of a certain kind can do.

Another correspondent says something more interesting – finally, a break from the ‘It’s difficult/You’re bashing theory’ defense.

Yes there is a large amount of very poor academic writing. And there are huge mounds of garbage journalism, vast piles of terrible prose fiction, and untold heaps of lousy poetry. Perhaps academics should know better, but so should journalists and authors of all stripes. You’ll pardon me if this seems to be (warning, potential academic term coming up) ideologically driven. Allan Bloom’s prose was often turgid, and such cultural “critics” as Bill Bennett fill their work with cliches and non sequiturs, yet somehow or other they never make the lists in these parlour games. Feminists and post-colonialists, however–well, it’s open season. Must just be a coincidence.

No, it’s not a coincidence. We say explicitly in ‘About B&W’ that our target is FN on the left. Why? Because we’re on the left, that’s why, and think it should be self-critical and self-correcting. I’m emphatically a feminist, for example (as is my colleague), and that’s exactly why I don’t want feminism to be mixed up with either woolly notions about different ways of knowing or with turgid empty ‘theoretical’ droning. What’s so odd about that? Nothing, surely. Wouldn’t it be nice to see more people on the right objecting to, for instance, the bullying manners of Bill O’Reilly, or the anti-intellectualism of Bush? Wouldn’t we respect the right more if there were more of that kind of thing? I know I would. So maybe it follows that others will respect the left more if leftists speak up when they think a given branch of leftism has got things wrong.



Fishy Requisites

Nov 14th, 2003 5:09 pm | By

Oh good, another one. Another nice barrel full of docile, torpid fish.

Why is it that every article bashing “theory” comes from someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about?

Hmm. Why is it that the defenders of ‘theory’ (at least on this site at this time) can’t do better? One, does every article ‘bashing’ (that is to say, criticising) ‘theory’ come from someone who knows nothing of the subject? As a matter of fact, no. I’ve read several articles and indeed books by people who know a lot about it, including some by people who were once keen on ‘theory’ themselves. There is William Kerrigan’s essay in Wild Orchids and Trotsky, for example. And two, why is it that the defenders of ‘theory’ who presumably pride themselves on their awareness of how rhetoric works, on the ways people use language to manipulate each other (I don’t really know what else literary ‘theorists’ would pride themselves on) allow themselves to use such blunt instruments? Like making sweeping statements that are obviously not true, and using the word ‘bashing’ for heaven’s sake, which is such an obvious pejorative that it’s one of the first words we put in the Dictionary. Suggestion for would-be defenders of the brilliance of ‘theory’: be cautious about using the word ‘every’.

There are many theorists who are/were excellent writers — think of Blanchot, for example, or Barthes, or Simone Weil. Just because Lacan wasn’t E.B. White doesn’t mean that what Lacan writes is automatically wrong.

Well no kidding. But who said anything else? The title of the In Focus article is Bad Writing, not Theory. I’m not talking about Lacan or Derrida or Foucault, I’m talkng about their inept imitators. And how did Simone Weil get into the picture? Since when is Simone Weil a ‘theorist’? Do ‘theorists’ get to claim everybody whose work they admire as a fellow ‘theorist’ and then brandish their trophies as evidence that theory is great stuff? If so, just exactly what is ‘theory’ anyway and how does it differ from philosophy? And again, the subject of this particular article is bad writing, not error. It’s perfectly true that a bad writer can still be right (and nor am I suggesting E.B. White as a model, in any case), but if the writing is bad, the rightness will be that much less convincing. And if the writing is deliberately bad, bad for the sake of impressing other fans of bad writing rather than good for the sake of making new fans of good writing and thinking, then my claim is that that’s a bad state of affairs.

Objecting to critical theory on stylistic grounds allows people to dismiss it without actually reading it — and this is the very kernel of ignorance.

Does it? Aren’t people allowed to dismiss it without reading it anyway? They don’t need my permission. And why is it ignorance, indeed the very kernel of ignorance, not to have read critical theory? Is it more ignorant to have given critical theory the go-by for the sake of reading, say, history and sociology and philosophy and economics than it would be to have read critical theory but not history, sociology and the rest? If so, why? And then, there are problems with consequentialist arguments anyway. It’s not necessarily a great idea to claim that one shouldn’t criticise X because that allows people to ‘dismiss’ X – at that rate no one could ever criticise anything, and surely the problems with that idea are obvious enough. And it’s not particularly clear why objecting to critical theory on stylistic grounds would allow people to dismiss it, in any case.

What’s interesting to me is that is we substitute “philosophy” for “theory,” suddenly it’s acceptable to be turgid and dense with respect to your prose. On the unfortunate day when similar articles appear attacking the late Donald Davidson’s brilliant but daunting essays on cognition, we will know the playing field is finally level.

And what’s interesting to me is the way people will keep giving themselves away. There we have it yet again – the attempt to associate ‘theory’ with philosophy or physics or science in general. Let’s try a different thought-experiment – let’s substitute ‘philosophy’ for, say, Scientology, or Objectivism, or Jungian psychology. And thus we see that having a turgid, dense style is no guarantee of having well-founded ideas any more than having a lucid one is a guarantee of having either well-founded or ill-founded ones. Or to put it another way, it’s not particularly acceptable for philosophy to be turgid and dense if it can avoid it, just as it’s not in science writing. And just as guilt by association is not considered a good argument, neither is innocence by association. ‘Theory’ has to defend itself on its own ground; just mentioning Donald Davidson isn’t going to do it.



Like Seizing Sweetmeats from an Infant

Nov 13th, 2003 1:11 am | By

Well this is going to be fun. Thanks to the link at Arts and Letters Daily, we’re getting letters about the ‘Bad Writing’ In Focus – agreeing on the whole, but with some dissenters too. Perhaps it’s dirty pool for me to answer them here…?

Nah. Most people who visit the site never even find Notes and Comment, and besides – the question of the way Bad Writers defend Bad Writing is in fact part of the issue. It’s part of what the article was about, and part of what’s wrong with the whole field. So talking about it is part of our (admittedly self-appointed) brief.

This awful article trots out very familiar objections to “theory” in a way which only provides ammunition for those who think such objections are always merely anti-intellectual.

Hmm. Well, maybe, but it looks to me more as if it’s providing evidence (not that any more is needed at this late date) for those who think Theory is a textbook case of The Potentate’s New Garments.

Benson argues that the questions theory raises are dealt with in other disciplines, without bothering to explore those questions, or even hint at what they might be.

True enough, but that’s because I think everyone knows, at least everyone who’s interested enough to read this site. Why bother to specify? It’s only Postmodernists who think they’ve invented ideas that have been around for at least a century or two.

She makes no effort to enter into any complexities of the debate over who is to judge what is “bad writing,” how, and why (is she by any chance dismissing feminism and Marxism without the need to actually acknowledge their existence, let alone attempt to engage with their critiques? Who knows). Benson also does not actually consider any specific terms/jargon (depending on your view) theory uses, in order to investigate whether they really can be substituted for satisfactorily by the language of “common sense.”

Yes, see, here’s where we get down to it. The ‘complexities of the debate’ – because it is all so very complex and difficult and deep, you know, which is exactly why we can’t discuss it without all this heavy breathing. No, it’s true, I don’t get into the debate over who is to judge, because I don’t see any need to. I think we all are, that’s who. I think the badness is self-evident and I think we’re all perfectly capable of judging it. And as for feminism and Marxism – what have they got to do with anything? Here again the solipsism of Theory comes into play. As if literary theorists had some kind of monopoly on Marxism and/or feminism – or even much to do with them, frankly. More borrowed prestige, is more like it.

And then the bit about common sense. That’s just translation, that’s all that is. I’ve talked about translation here before. I didn’t say one word about ‘common sense,’ it’s not a phrase I use, I think it’s just as silly as the letter-writer does. That’s a false and ridiculous dichotomy – the only two choices are either Theory-jargon, or the ‘language of common sense.’ Pu-leeze. Those two items do not exhaust the possibilities. Nope, this is all just the same old blowing smoke – the writing in question is not bad, it’s difficult, and you don’t understand it, because it’s so technical and profound and professional, and you’re conservative, look at the way you don’t so much as mention Marxism and feminism, and you expect everything to be commonsensical ‘cat sat on the mat’ kind of writing, and who is to judge what is bad writing anyway and how and why, there’s a very complex debate about that which it takes a lot of jargon to discuss properly, and you don’t expect physicists to write common sense language so why do you expect theorists to when theorists’ subjects are every bit as difficult as physicists’ subjects no more so because all physicists have to do is count and measure things.

Oh I don’t know, maybe it is dirty pool, it’s too much like shooting fish in a barrel. But it’s so amusing…



Five Thousand

Nov 11th, 2003 8:08 pm | By

I’ve been re-reading Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, about the Rwanda genocide and what the US, the UN, Belgium didn’t do to stop it, and what France did to help it along. Or perhaps really I should include the US along with France, since we not only didn’t send troops ourselves, we urged other countries not to send troops either. It’s all, really, exceedingly uncomfortable reading.

And relevant to not one but two subjects we were discussing here yesterday: the inadequacy of blanket pacifism in the face of genocidal tyrannical regimes, and the inadequacy of blanket free-speechism in the face of genocidal regimes or movements that use speech, and in particular mass media like radio, to incite and direct mass murder. But perhaps the matter of blanket pacifism is more immediately relevant. I must say, I felt some of my attitudes to the war in Iraq heaving and shifting in a disconcerting way as I read. If what I’ve been having can even be called attitudes; they’re more like a collection of doubts and qualms. But whatever they are, they’ve done a little shape-shifting since I read for instance the section of Gourevitch’s book that starts on page 150.

The desertion of Rwanda by the UN force was Hutu Power’s greatest diplomatic victory to date, and it can be credited almost single-handedly to the United States. With the memory of the Somalia debacle still very fresh, the White House had just finished drafting a document called Presidential Decision Directive 25, which amounted to a checklist of reasons to avoid American involvement in UN peacekeeping missions…PDD 25 also contained what Washington policymakers call “language” urging that the United States should persuade others not to undertake the missions that it wished to avoid. In fact, the Clinton administration’s ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, opposed leaving even the skeleton crew of two hundred seventy in Rwanda…Her name is rarely associated with Rwanda, but ducking and pressuring others to duck, as the death toll leapt from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, was the absolute low point of her career…

And then on page 152 there’s a bit about his visit to the Holocaust Museum…

I saw a group of museum staffers arriving for work. On their maroon blazers, several wore the lapel buttons…inscribed with the slogans ‘Remember’ and ‘Never Again.’ The museum was just a year old; at its inaugural ceremony, President Clinton had described it as ‘an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lurks ahead.’ Apparently, all he meant was that the victims of future exterminations could now die knowing that a shrine already existed in Washington where their suffering might be commemorated…

It’s so hard to get it right. One is always fighting the last war. One learns the lessons of Vietnam, and then finds that they don’t work very well in Bosnia or Rwanda. Then one wants to apply what one has learnt from Bosnia and Rwanda, and worries that one will get it wrong again, and end up at My Lai. During the Vietnam War people talked much of Munich and appeasement; at Munich, people were thinking of the first World War and what a mistake that was; in 1914, people were thinking among other things of failures to resist German aggression in the past. And so it goes. But perhaps the most chilling thing Gourevitch writes is this:

…on April 21, 1994, the UNAMIR commander, Major General Dellaire, declared that with just five thousand well-equipped soldiers and a free hand to fight Hutu Power, he could bring the genocide to a rapid halt. No military analyst whom I’ve heard of has ever questioned his judgment, and a great many have confirmed it.

Five thousand…



Blog Check

Nov 11th, 2003 2:01 am | By

And speaking of the Interahamwe and what people listen to on the radio and how easy it is to overlook what’s not right in front of our eyes…There is a discussion going on at Crooked Timber about free speech and speech codes. For some reason I was moved to ask a question that always occurs to me in the context of such discussions, and that doesn’t seem to me to get asked enough. What do free speech absolutists say about situations like Rwanda and the Balkans where government leaders went on the radio to incite people to go out and kill or ‘cleanse’ other ethnic groups, with all too much success? So far, I’m interested to see, I haven’t had a real answer – just a lot of careful ignoring the question plus one person saying that sort of thing only happens in places like Rwanda and the Balkans, which seems 1. like perfect hindsight – well we know it happens there! so that’s safe enough, and 2. a tad naive, if one casts one’s mind back a mere six decades. So I am forced to conclude, at least for the moment, that free speech absolutists simply don’t argue honestly.

Another blogger enjoyed my sample of Robyn Wiegman’s academic prose. So I’m glad I was dedicated enough to do all that typing. Your enjoyment is my goal.