Notes and Comment Blog


As He Pleased

Jun 12th, 2005 8:06 pm | By

I’ve been reading a little Orwell lately – prompted partly by my offhand comment in an email to Norm that Orwell was good but Hitchens is better – which itself was prompted by Philip Dodd’s introduction of Hitchens on ‘Night Waves’ in which he quoted someone (someone unnamed, I think) as writing in a review that Hitchens is as good as Orwell, or almost as good as Orwell, or some such. That annoyed me. It is my considered opinion – despite the offhandedness of the comment alluded to above – that Orwell is over-rated as a writer. Really quite seriously over-rated. That his language is very often decidedly tired and uninspired, even banal, and that there is a lot of commonplace thought in it. Phrases like ‘dirty little scoundrel’ come to mind.

But when Harry at Crooked Timber did a post about Fascinating Hitchens in which he quoted Norm quoting me there was a lot of disagreement (along with some agreement) with my relative estimation of the two – which is why I got Orwell off the shelf to check my impression again. And – I still agree with myself. He’s good, he’s interesting, he’s definitely worth reading, but he is not a great writer or stylist or thinker. He’s not as good as Dwight Macdonald, for instance.

That’s just a flat assertion, obviously. It would take extensive quotation to make my case – because he is good, so I can’t just quote a terrible sentence and leave it at that. But if you read a good chunk of him, the flatness and uninspiredness become increasingly noticeable.

But! As I say – he is good. I’m just saying he’s not the best; but he is good. On religion, for example…

It also appears from my correspondent’s letter that even the most central doctrines of the Christian religion don’t have to be accepted in a literal sense. It doesn’t matter, for instance, whether Jesus Christ ever existed…So we arrive at this position: Tribune must not poke fun at the Christian religion, but the existence of Christ, which innumberable people have been burnt for denying, is a matter of indifference.

Now, is this orthodox Catholic doctrine? My impression is that it is not. I can think of passages in the writings of popular Catholic apologists such as Father Woodlock and Father Ronald Knox in which it is stated in the clearest terms that Christian doctrine means what it appears to mean, and is not to be accepted in some wishy-washy metaphorical sense.

There. So yaboosucks. Exactly what I’m always saying – when people start with that ‘Oh but religion doesn’t mean, you know, literally believing in [trailing off vaguely] – it just means a way of feeling, a way of looking at the world, a framework.’ No it doesn’t! A feeling, a way of looking at the world, a framework, is not a religion, it’s something else. Christian doctrine means what it appears to mean, it doesn’t just mean a fondness for daffodils and clouds. Religions do make truth claims about the real world, so don’t tell me they don’t. It ain’t honest.

If you talk to a thoughtful Christian, Catholic or Anglican, you often find yourself laughed at for being so ignorant as to suppose that anyone ever took the doctrines of the Church literally. These doctrines have, you are told, a quite other meaning which you are too crude to understand…Thus the Catholic intellectual is able, for controversial purposes, to play a sort of handy-pandy game, repeating the articles of the Creed in exactly the same terms as his forefathers, while defending himself from the charge of superstition by explaining that he is speaking in parables.

Bingo. Exactly. A handy-pandy game for controversial purposes. Parable, nothing. If it’s all just a parable, then what is all the fuss about? If it’s all a parable, atheists and theists are the same thing and can stop arguing – and all those people rioting at theatres, and threatening MPs and writers and BBC producers, and sticking knives in people – they’re all just confused, they’re taking literally what everyone else means metaphorically. Yeah right.

So – I still say Orwell is way down the list of best essayists I know of, but he’s nowhere near the bottom.

That by the way was an As I Please, from 3 March 1944.



Tragedy in Brooklyn

Jun 12th, 2005 4:33 am | By

Katha Pollitt rocks.

So it’s 2005 and this is the academic question that has driven the Daily News and the right-wing New York Sun into apoplectic fits, and caused heartburn all over CUNY: Should Tim Shortell, an atheist, be allowed to assume the chair of the sociology department of Brooklyn College? You know, an atheist–someone who doesn’t believe in God. An anticleric. A disrespecter of religion. A mocker of Christianity.

This is what I’m saying. This is why atheists sometimes use noneuphemistic language. It’s because atheism is viewed and treated and spoken of as a crime and an outrage and something that ought not to be allowed. And that’s why the habit of just bashfully not mentioning the fact that theism is about truth claims that are not true, gets a little tiresome. There is a real problem here. I’ve said it before (so those who are tired of hearing it should leave now and go get an ice-cream soda or something), but I’ll just restate it again. There’s a real problem when the people who don’t say there are invisible supernatural entities (or entity) operating the cosmos are considered reprehensible, while people who do, are considered virtuous. That’s backwards. It’s the wrong way around. It reverses the terms. One might as well give prizes to bullies and sadists and throw kind helpful people in prison (which is exactly what happens in some places, and let’s not go live there).

You might as well say no Southern Baptist should be chair, since someone who believes that women should be subject to their husbands, homosexuality is evil and Jews are doomed to hell won’t be fair to female, gay or Jewish job candidates. Or no Orthodox Jew or Muslim should be chair because religious restrictions on contact with the opposite sex would privilege some job candidates over others. But nobody ever does say that. As long as a believer ascribes his views to his faith, he can say anything he wants and if you don’t like it, you’re the bigot.

Sad to say, she’s right. I’ve been seeing a certain well-known atheist (and self-proclaimed anti-theist) called a ‘bigot’ lately myself. The benefit of the doubt is always with the people of ‘faith’ (despicable word) and always against the people of reason. Well, enough of that. (Though I’m still not going to start calling myself a Bright. There are limits.)



Only as Good As

Jun 10th, 2005 4:57 pm | By

My colleague didn’t get lost yesterday, and I did manage to figure out which square Starbucks in a square outside the entrance to Westlake Mall he meant (it was kind of unmistakable, in fact, a freestanding little glass mansion of Starbucks all on its own), so we did meet up as opposed to standing around stupidly in the wrong place. They wanted to go someplace pretty and not too far away as they had to get bus back to the airport quite soon, so we went to a park on the water about a mile north of downtown. Then we argued about whether this park beat Nonsuch or not – I said no!!, they said yes!! – but then we agreed: Nonsuch is better as a park, Elliott Bay Park has a far more spectacular location and view. It’s too bad there was a good deal of cloud draping the horizons yesterday, because it meant Mt Rainier was entirely invisible (as it usually is) and the Olympics nearly so – we could just make out the foothills, and I had to inform them that in fact there are spectacular mountains rising just behind those. Never mind – they’ll familiarize themselves with the look of the Pacific Northwest over time. And there was plenty to look at – water, islands (which they refused to believe were islands – but they are, it’s just that the ends aren’t always easy to make out), peninsulas, ferries, sailboats. It’s true – the actual view from Nonsuch doesn’t compare. (The view from Richmond Hill, on the other hand, is another matter, and the one from the lawn east of Kenwood is not so dusty either.)

Now, back to unfinished business. Or not so much business as pontificating. But hey, if the pontiff can pontificate, so can the rest of us. So back to unfinished pontificating then. We were discussing this question of whether religion can motivate people to be good – not in the sense of motivation through fear, which as James Mill pointed out is a revolting selfish motivation, but in the sense of externalizing and personalizing an idea of goodness and then deriving motivation from that external personification. I think that is one – only one, mind you – way religion can work.

But of course one of the problems with that is that the result is only as good as the conception of goodness is – and all too often people’s conception of goodness is absolutely crappy; is in fact worse than common or garden badness would be. All too often, people’s conception of goodness boils down to making other people submit and obey and be under rigid control. All too often it hasn’t got a damn thing to do with kindness or generosity or compassion or mercy, and in fact looks far more like cruelty and lust for domination. As Mary McCarthy famously said, religion is only good for good people; for bad people it’s terrible.

And then there’s the larger problem, which has to do with the role of religion in public morality and public debate; with the fact that religion is wrongly but widely thought to have some kind of expertise in moral issues, and therefore public debate is cluttered up with bishops and priests and mullahs, who in fact have no expertise at all, but rather a deep knowledge of Authority, which is no help. Religion may at times with the right people under the right circumstances motivate goodness – benevolence, courage, altruism – in individuals, but religion is not a useful contributor to public discussion of morality. Either it has nothing whatever to add that is not available to secular thinkers, or what it adds is the wrong thing to add. In other words – sure, sometimes religious talking heads manage to say something sane, but that’s because they’ve done some thinking, the kind of thinking we can all do, and because they’ve been influenced by various humane ideas in the culture (that racism is bad, that capital punishment is not the way to go, that justice and equality have something to be said for them), not because they have some special religous wisdom. And other times they say things that are absurd or downright hateful, because they think their deity hates contraception or women who are not enslaved. So what is it that they add? Nothing.

Public discussion of morality has to be secular and rational, because the other thing just doesn’t work, and can’t work, and shouldn’t work. If you tell me your God thinks the babies should have their heads dashed against the walls of the city – I’m not going to be impressed, am I. ‘God says so’ just doesn’t cut it in public discussion, any more than ‘my gut says so’ does. But there are people of the ‘God says so’ party on every ethics panel and many chat shows. That’s a bad situation. That’s one reason there is a need for energetic resistance, and even, at times, rudeness.



Not Contempt but Outrage

Jun 9th, 2005 8:18 pm | By

Norm has a post on religion and Hitchens and the vexed subject of ‘contempt for religious believers and what they believe’ that I have – however reluctantly! however ashen with misgivings, trembling with nerves, tottering with distress, quaking with anxiety, keening with regret – disagreed with him about in the past.

It might be suggested on Hitch’s behalf that, whether it meets such needs or not, because religious belief isn’t substantively true, all it merits is contempt from atheists and humanists; and its adherents, likewise, only deserve disrespect in one or another mode. But that religion isn’t true cannot be a sufficient reason for this; it is quite standard in democratic and pluralist societies to disagree in a tolerant and non-contemptuous way with beliefs and opinions we hold, or even sometimes know, to be false.

Yes – up to a point. Or maybe not so much up to a point, as depending on how you define contempt. In fact that’s what I disagreed about last time I disagreed – I didn’t, and still don’t, think that what Polly Toynbee expressed was contempt. What she expressed was something more like outrage, and it was directed primarily at the Vatican, the news media’s sycophantic coverage of the Vatican, and Blair’s knee-bending to the Vatican. Now, given the Vatican’s murderous condom policy, I think that outrage is highly appropriate.

But this time it’s a fair cop. Hitchens does express contempt – and – I find what he says bracing and welcome in contrast to the endless diet of whining and reproof directed at atheists – but at the same time, I can see what Norm means. I’m not sure I agree with it – because of that endless diet – but I can see what he means.

At the same time, it is a straightforward empirical fact that countless numbers of people – and I use ‘countless’ here advisedly and literally, not just loosely to convey the sense of very many – have been moved by their religion to do good in the world, to behave well…Think of a person who has illusions about the character of someone he loves – his mother, his children – and has those illusions because he loves them and so is unable to face certain unwelcome truths about them. That he has such illusions may certainly end by doing him, or them, harm. But so may it lead him to do a lot of good things he otherwise might not do.

True. I think that is one way – one of the few ways – religion can work in a kindly as opposed to brutal way. I think the analogy is more literal than Norm means it in this argument – I think many people do think of God that way, and that that thought is what inspires them to do good things. I think that God serves as a sort of Platonic idea of what a completely good, kind, loving, benevolent, compassionate being ought to be (it may be Mary or Jesus instead, because God-God is a god of wrath). Once you have that idea – of an entity that is all about kindness and goodness – then you want to please it by being kind yourself, and not pain it by being cruel. That’s a crude way of putting it, but I think that is how it works. Unfortunately not nearly often enough – unfortunately all too often it is the punitive, vengeful aspects that loom largest – but sometimes.

But that’s only one aspect of the problem. There are others that have to do with secularism, democracy, rational discussion, education, the media – with the extent to which ‘democratic and pluralist societies’ can survive in a world of theocracies. But that’s a large subject, and I have to go. My colleague is briefly in town, and if he doesn’t get lost, we’re supposed to meet up for a chat. I’ll tell him you said hello.



Full Disclosure

Jun 8th, 2005 2:33 am | By

All right, we’ve made this separation; we’ve put the veracity or epistemic question on one side of the line, and the consequentialist question on the other. We’ve further said that the epistemic question comes first: that is, that for the sake of clarity, it ought to. So then what happens on the other side of the line? How does that discussion go?

One way it goes is to say that even if there is no good reason to think religion is true (unless religion is defined so thinly that it bears no resemblance to what most people mean by the word), it still doesn’t do to say so, because saying so would (to put it somewhat hyperbolically, as people occasionally do) ‘rot the fabric of our civilization.’ Or it doesn’t do to say so because saying so might rot the fabric of our civilization. Or it doesn’t do to say so because what if saying so rotted the fabric of our civilization? Or it doesn’t do to say so because it is possible to imagine that saying so could rot the fabric of our civilization. Or some such variation on the theme. Which is a way of saying No, the epistemic question should not come first, the consequentialist one should; or else it’s a way of saying the separation is a bad separation, and the two are not and should not be separable: that one should consider the epistemic question and the consequentialist one simultaneously.

But how? How is that possible? Especially for people who don’t have an ingrained habit of thinking that way? Or for people who once did, but have learned not to, and are damned if they want to start again. It’s not an easy trick. If you don’t believe in Santa Claus or God, it’s very difficult – probably impossible – to convince yourself that you do for the sake of some other goal. It’s easy enough to lie about it, but not to believe it.

But that’s all right, belief is not required, lying is all that’s expected. All Philip Dodd was urging Hitchens to do, apparently, was to shut up – and burn his essay on Bonhoeffer. Not to change his own beliefs, just to keep silent about them. That’s easy enough, surely?

Perhaps, in a sense, but why is it expected? Because religion is a ‘pillar of society,’ because religion is good for social cohesion, because religion is the anti-fabric-rot of civilization. Therefore people ought to lie, at least by omission.

But first, how does anyone know that religion is any of those things? How does anyone know it’s those things more than it’s their opposites? How does anyone know, in short, that religion does more good than harm? It would take an enormous amount of counting and surveying and compiling to know that, surely. And what of the opposite argument? That religion causes wars, hatreds, genocides, persecution, oppression, and therefore should be undermined by noisy atheists without delay?

And second, isn’t it rather sleazy and condescending to tell people not to disclose, not to put into circulation, their opinion that there isn’t much reason to think religion is true, because it might upset the poor weak masses who haven’t heard the news yet? And isn’t it also slightly absurd? ‘Psst – they can hear you!’

And then – how does it work anyway? Or how would it work? How would, for instance, various scientific endeavors go forward if the deity always had to be taken into account? They wouldn’t, would they. So then what? How do we arrange all those complications.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying I don’t think these arguments that we may be atheists ourselves but we shouldn’t say so in public, are at all convincing or persuasive. (Philip Dodd said he was a secularist himself – in the midst of his rather vehement rebuke.) I can think of arguments I do find persuasive, for why we shouldn’t always give voice to our atheism in personal contacts and relations. But for shutting up about it in books and journalism and on websites? Nope. Nothing so far.



First Things

Jun 7th, 2005 12:02 am | By

There are many ways one can divide up religion and arguments for religion in order to discuss or analyze them, many ways one can draw a line down the middle of the room and put all the Xs on one side and all the Ys on the other. (And then draw another line and sort the Ys, and then draw another line and sort their progeny, and so on, until everyone goes mad and the game is over.) One way is to separate questions about veracity from questions that leave veracity aside. To separate the epistemic issues from the moral and aesthetic and emotional, one might say. So on this side of the tavern we argue about whether there is any reason to think religion tells the truth or not, and on that side we argue about what social purpose religion serves, or whether religion is necessary for a sense of wonder or a sense of meaning, or whether without religion everything is permitted.

That sort of argument has been going on in the comments lately. But there’s a problem with it, it seems to me. This is the problem: if religion is lacking in the veracity department, then what’s the point of saying ‘yes but it’s good for social cohesion’? Or at least – if religion is lacking in the veracity department, there is a serious problem with saying ‘yes but it’s good for social cohesion.’ There is grave danger of intellectual dishonesty and sloppiness in saying that. There is a risk of getting everything wrong and confused. We can see why via analogies, I should think. It would be good for social cohesion if every human on the planet had a magic bowl that would fill with whatever food we wanted whenever we asked it. Yes. But that is not the case, so is the fact that if it were the case, that would lead to social cohesion, some sort of argument that one should respect the idea that it is the case? It doesn’t seem to be, does it. The idea seems silly. So why is it otherwise with religion?

In other words, why do we talk about whether or not religion is useful for social cohesion, or provides a sense of meaning, or is necessary for a sense of wonder, before we ask whether or not there’s a shred of truth in it? Isn’t that slightly back to front? It is, you know. Because if it’s just a load of nonsense, then what good is it to say it’s good for social cohesion? Lots of things would be good for social cohesion if they were true, but they’re not, so what good does that do? Next time social cohesion breaks down in your neighbourhood, tell everyone ‘We wouldn’t be having this quarrel if Bugs Bunny were here, we’d be too busy asking him how Elmer Fudd is doing.’ See if that helps.

No. The first question to ask about religion is, surely, whether or not its truth claims are true, whether there is any evidence for them or not, whether they are anything more than a human invention. If the answers are all No – then asking all those questions on the other side of the line is a little dishonest, isn’t it?



Meaning

Jun 6th, 2005 8:17 pm | By

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

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

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

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

Leiter sent them a correction.

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

And look what they appended to the correction:

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

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



What’s That in Your Eye, Phil?

Jun 6th, 2005 12:11 am | By

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

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

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



Have Mercy

Jun 5th, 2005 2:45 am | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Things Are Against Us

Jun 2nd, 2005 8:27 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

Quite an embarrassing mistake, that.

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

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

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

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

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



No Exit

Jun 2nd, 2005 12:01 am | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Surely Two Choices is Enough

Jun 1st, 2005 11:08 pm | By

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

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

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

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

The author of the article points this out.

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

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

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

It doesn’t appear so.



Frat Boys

Jun 1st, 2005 1:40 am | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. It. Isn’t.

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

IK Are you two friends?

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

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

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

PH They want everything to be all right.

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

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



I Already Knew That

Jun 1st, 2005 12:10 am | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



A Review

May 28th, 2005 1:10 am | By

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

Another item. I’m slowly catching up…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



A Better Grasp

May 27th, 2005 6:06 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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



No Passports?

May 27th, 2005 5:34 pm | By

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

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

The whole article is worth a read.

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

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



Not Again

May 26th, 2005 8:23 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Historicize That Artifact!

May 26th, 2005 5:21 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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



My Baby Done Gone, 2005 Edition

May 25th, 2005 10:54 pm | By

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

And that was that.

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

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

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

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

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