Literary Webs

Jul 10th, 2005 2:29 am | By

Now for another attempt to return to normal programming – at least for a moment.

I’ve been following several literary discussions lately. There is Daniel Green’s comment on that Judith Halberstam article – the one that Michael Bérubé commented on last month and I commented on the month before, at such length that I had to do it twice. That one – Daniel’s – ended with some comments that I’ve been musing about (on and off) ever since. About the distinction (and whether there is one) between literary and non-literary experience. Michael said one thing, Daniel said another, I said a third, Michael answered – and I’ve been trying to figure out what I think ever since. I’ve been thinking, to boil it down, about whether the pity and horror we feel at Cordelia’s death is in fact different from the pity and horror we feel at a comparable death in real life. I think it is. I think it hooks up to the way we feel about it in real life, but I think the feeling itself – the what is it like to feel this feeling – is different. Partly because Cordelia (and literary characters in general) is stripped down, as is the situation. Real life is so full of extraneous material, irrelevancies, and extra information, memory, experience, thoughts, that anything that happens there has to be different from what happens in literature, however detailed and encyclopaedic and complete it tries to be. Plus there’s the fact that reading novels and seeing or listening to plays is different from a lot of things we do in life. Plus there’s the whole question of rhetoric – of how Shakespeare got the effects he did with Cordelia. Plus more, but that will do to suggest the kind of thought.

Then Michael did a long post – an article, really – on Mark Bauerlein’s article here. That also prompted a lot of interesting comments, and Kevin Drum did a brief post on it, which brought a whole different crowd of readers. I was particularly interested by this comment of Michael’s:

And just to make my final point completely clear (because I didn’t quite nail it in the sixth comment above): the fact that Theory / anti-Theory so often appeared, when you and I were graduate students, as a struggle between the firebrands and the deadwood was not necessarily a good thing for Theory. I think it exempted some aspects of theory from skeptical scrutiny early on, and then led to a number of wagon-circling manueuvers in the 1990s as the P.C. nonsense and the various cults of personality took hold.

Exactly. That firebrands v. deadwood trope confused the issues all to hell, in my view. Which I said (sort of), and Michael’s answer clarifies things even further.

My recent thinking about this (still very much under construction) has been informed not only by challenges from the Valve, B&W, and the younger generation of the ALSC but also by my experiences over the past two years with the intro-to-grad-study course, about which I’ll say more in a separate post. (I’d place the second generation a bit later, Mark, but I’d agree that the discipleship—particularly around de Man, about which Guillory has written compellingly—was decisive.) So I’ve been trying to parse out just what in the anti-Theory response is a critique of (a) the celebrity phenomenon and its attendant wagon-circling, (b) the faddish leftism associated with theory, which is not identical to (a) but can go hand in hand with it, (c) the forbidding and/or unappealing prose of some theoretical modes, and (d) the actual arguments, point by point, of one or another theorist.

There you go; that’s just it. Items (a) – (c) can get so thoroughly in the way of (d) that one can’t even always find (d) – because one is so busy being distracted and irritated by (a) – (c).

This subject may begin to get somewhere. The Valve discussion of Theory’s Empire starts next week – July 12. Should be good.

Purity and Corruption

Jul 9th, 2005 7:29 pm | By

A few more salient comments. From the Iranian commentator Amir Taheri:

But sorry, old chaps, you are dealing with an enemy that does not want anything specific, and cannot be talked back into reason through anger management or round-table discussions. Or, rather, this enemy does want something specific: to take full control of your lives, dictate every single move you make round the clock and, if you dare resist, he will feel it his divine duty to kill you.

Specific enough.

With the advent of Islam all previous religions were “abrogated” (mansukh), and their followers regarded as “infidel” (kuffar). The aim of all good Muslims, therefore, is to convert humanity to Islam, which regulates Man’s spiritual, economic, political and social moves to the last detail.

That’s it, you see. The part about regulating all our moves in every department to the last detail. We know that from the Taliban. No music, no kites, no Bamiyan Buddhas; for women, no leaving the house, no school, no work, no medical care, no nothing. Puritanism, in fact. Life as nightmare.

But what if non-Muslims refuse to take the right path?…Some believe that the answer is dialogue and argument until followers of the “abrogated faiths” recognise their error and agree to be saved by converting to Islam. This is the view of most of the imams preaching in the mosques in the West. But others, including Osama bin Laden…believe that the Western-dominated world is too mired in corruption to hear any argument, and must be shocked into conversion through spectacular ghazavat (raids) of the kind we saw in New York and Washington in 2001, in Madrid last year, and now in London.

Well, we just won’t be converted, that’s all. We’ll stay mired in our corruption. Lovely beautiful wonderful corruption. We will not give it up.

Johann Hari in the Independent:

There is an awareness here – although not yet in the rest of the country – that the Bin Ladenists who planned these massacres despise democratic, non-violent Muslims who choose to live in the West as much as they despise the rest of us. Anybody who tells you these bombers are fighting for the rights of Muslims in Iraq, occupied Palestine or Chechnya should look at the places they chose to bomb. Aldgate? The poorest and most Muslim part of the country. Edgware Road? The centre of Muslim and Arab life in London and, arguably, Europe.

Which is why Tariq Ali’s assertion that ‘The principal cause of this violence is the violence being inflicted on the people of the Muslim world’ is sheer cant.

This is not a fight between Muslims and the rest of us. It is a civil war within Islam, between democratic Muslims and Wahhabi fundamentalists who want to enslave or kill them.

Victory to democratic corruption.

Unappeasable Grievances

Jul 9th, 2005 5:46 pm | By

Harry thinks Galloway may have done for himself now.The thought had occurred to me. I saw both his grandstanding (get me, I’m defiant, I’m brave, I’m passionate, I’m taking the unpopular view) in Parliament and his ridiculous performance on Newsnight – thanks to good old C-Span which (amid the desert of dreck that is US cable tv) has shown Newsnight in its entirety the last couple of days, and the news conference with Ken Livingstone and Ian Blair yesterday. What can I say? He comes across as an obstinate buffoon. (Of course, I already thought he was that, a predisposition which must shape how I view him now.)

Hitchens is a relief from obstinate buffoonery. (Drink-soaked ex-Trotskyist popinjayism goes head-to-head with obstinate buffoonery. How I wish Galloway had accepted that challenge.)

I remember living in London through the Provisional IRA bombing in the 70s. I saw the very first car-bomb explode against the Old Bailey in 1972. There was no warning that time, but after a while a certain etiquette developed. And, even as I detested the people who might have just as soon have blown me up as anyone else, I was aware there were ancient disputes involved, and that there was a potential political solution. Nothing of the sort applies in this case. We know very well what the “grievances” of the jihadists are.

Well, some of us do. Others of us apparently don’t. Others insist that the ‘grievance’ is the war in Iraq and that if it weren’t for that, all would be peace and harmony. A view which at the very least overlooks some hard facts about chronology, as many people have pointed out.

The grievance of seeing unveiled women. The grievance of the existence, not of the State of Israel, but of the Jewish people. The grievance of the heresy of democracy, which impedes the imposition of sharia law. The grievance of a work of fiction written by an Indian living in London. The grievance of the existence of black African Muslim farmers, who won’t abandon lands in Darfur. The grievance of the existence of homosexuals. The grievance of music, and of most representational art. The grievance of the existence of Hinduism. The grievance of East Timor’s liberation from Indonesian rule.

The grievance of seeing, I would add, not just unveiled women, but mobile women, out of the house women, working women, studying women, autonomous women, talking women, thinking women, arguing women, free women, running women, lawyer women, doctor women, scholar women, strong women, teacher women, journalist women – unsubmissive women. Women who own themselves as opposed to being owned by men, women who decide for themselves rather than asking men for permission. That’s a huge, colossal, festering, obsessive grievance; clamping down on wild out-of-control women is the first thing that happens when Talibanists win.

The grievances I listed above are unappeasable, one of many reasons why the jihadists will lose. They demand the impossible – the cessation of all life in favour of prostration before a totalitarian vision. Plainly, we cannot surrender. There is no one with whom to negotiate, let alone capitulate.

Just so. The grievances are unappeasable. That was the point of my rhetorical questions to Tariq Ali yesterday. It’s not possible to surrender, because the demand is for a nightmare life. A life of being buried alive – almost like being stuck in a Tube tunnel 250 feet below ground, forever.

Tariq Ali Clears Things Up

Jul 8th, 2005 7:57 pm | By

I was planning, in the spirit of ‘sod you,’ to return to regular programming. I was planning to say more on that Noam Chomsky article, as I had intended to do yesterday until I turned the radio on; then once I started reading, I was planning to say something about that interview with Judith Butler. But now instead I’m going to say something about Tariq Ali, because there he is again, and I find I can’t just ignore him. It’s not my nature. (I wonder if, if I started taking Prozac, or some other brain-chemistry-tweaking drug, I would find myself able to ignore things like articles by Tari Ali. No doubt I would. What a horrible prospect.)

First let’s look at some idiosyncratic logic.

The bombers who targeted London yesterday are anonymous. It is assumed that those who carried out these attacks are linked to al-Qaida. We simply do not know. Al-Qaida is not the only terrorist group in existence. It has rivals within the Muslim diaspora. But it is safe to assume that the cause of these bombs is the unstinting support given by New Labour and its prime minister to the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So we simply do not know (whether those who carried out these attacks are linked to al-Qaida). I take that to mean (though it’s not explicitly said) that it is therefore wrong to assume that they are. However, it is ‘safe to assume that the cause of these bombs is the unstinting support given by New Labour and its prime minister to the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.’ Why? Why is that safe to assume while the other (apparently, though it’s not explicit) is not?

But on to a more basic point.

Most Londoners (as the rest of the country) were opposed to the Iraq war. Tragically, they have suffered the blow and paid the price for the re-election of Blair and a continuation of the war.

So it’s ‘safe to assume’ that the bombing wouldn’t have happened if the Tories had won the election? Is it safe to assume that? Is it safe to assume that that’s the only ‘reason’ the bombers put their backpacks where they did? It seems more tottery than safe, to me.

Ever since 9/11, I have been arguing that the “war against terror” is immoral and counterproductive. It sanctions the use of state terror – bombing raids, torture, countless civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq – against Islamo-anarchists whose numbers are small, but whose reach is deadly. The solution then, as now, is political, not military. The British ruling elite understood this perfectly well in the case of Ireland.

The solution is political. Is it. Meaning what? Meet and negotiate with whatever group or party or government-in-exile planted the bombs? Well, first, to do that one has to know who that is, which means whoever it is has to say: ‘We are the group who did this.’ One group has done that so far; opinions differ on how credible the claim is, but perhaps they could be invited to a diplomatic meeting anyway. Would that work? Does Tariq Ali think it would work? Would the group accept the invitation, would it offer proposals that anyone could agree to? Would, say, Blair and various other heads of states agree to impose Sharia on all the relevant countries? Would they agree to impose Talibanization on all the relevant countries? Would the group in question accept anything less?

But T.A. apparently doesn’t mean exactly that. Negotiations and meetings aren’t part of the package, it seems.

The real solution lies in immediately ending the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine…The principal cause of this violence is the violence being inflicted on the people of the Muslim world. And unless this is recognised, the horrors will continue.

The ‘Muslim world’? What’s that? But more to the point, which violence? In many places in the ‘Muslim world’ most or all of the violence being inflicted is by Muslims on other Muslims – men on women, Islamists on non-Islamists, ‘guardians’ on people who wish they would piss off and leave them alone. But that’s not the violence he has in mind, if I understand him correctly. Well – why does he ‘assume’ that only one kind of violence breeds resentment?

The City

Jul 7th, 2005 7:25 pm | By

I’m still quivering like a struck gong. As I was on September 11. I take it personally, I suppose. (Which sounds narcissistic and infantile, but bear with me for a minute.) I love London, and I love New York – both of them. In a very basic, in the bone way, that goes back to childhood and adolescence. Both cities stand to me for freedom – for escape, adventure, independence, self-fashioning, possibilities. (What comes into my head – this is very absurd and hokey, but I’m going to be absurd and hokey today – is that moment in the [absurd and hokey] movie ‘The Electric Horseman’ when Redford is just about to set free his stallion in a hidden valley to join [and rule] a herd of wild horses. Just before he pulls the bridle off, he tells the horse, ‘Make something of yourself, now.’ Then off comes the bridle and away goes the horse. ‘Make something of yourself, now’ – that’s what New York and London tell us – at least in my personal mythology.) I grew up about 50 miles from New York, so of course it was our Golden City, our Oz, the place where everything was going on. It was an immense part of my growing up to be able (both allowed and competent) to navigate around New York on my own. I liked going with a friend – especially with my eccentric amusing clever cousin Steve – but I loved going alone. The freedom I felt! I can’t even explain it, because it seems to be more than the sum of the parts. It wasn’t just that I was off on my own in a big city with no one knowing exactly where I was. (Sometimes no one even knew vaguely: I would occasionally go without telling my mother, partly just so that…no one would know. Disappearing. Disappearing into freedom. I didn’t do anything scandalous or stupid – just escaped.) It was something more, and I take it that the something more was New York. Cleveland or St Louis probably wouldn’t have done it.

And London was the next stage of that, when I was seventeen. I spent two weeks there on my own – and it was like the freedom of New York squared, or cubed. Because I’d never been there before, never been out of North America before, wasn’t going back to Princeton on the bus at the end of the day – and because it was London. London’s not just any old city, you know. And it got into my bloodstream then and has been there ever since.

So I take it personally. And then, as I mentioned, I was just there, I know people there. I’m wondering if the nice people at Souvenir Press will be able to get home (but buses are running in Zone One again so they’re all right unless they left early). But even without all that, it’s just London itself. It upsets me, somebody bashing at it. And that’s narcissistic, but it’s not entirely narcissistic, because the people who did the bashing did it precisely so that people like me can never ever have that kind of freedom. In fact they did it to punish New York and London for allowing people like me to have that kind of freedom. In the world they would establish, people like me would, far from being allowed to roam strange cities at age seventeen, would be locked up for their entire lives, and never even allowed to know what freedom is. Death and immurement, that’s their Golden City. Well no to that.


Jul 7th, 2005 3:24 pm | By

Funny. Just last night I turned on the radio for a few minutes and heard Tariq Ali telling Seattle about Iraq, oil, one thing and another. Then he went a bit sarcastic about al-Qaeda – saying it’s a tiny organization, it’s a few thousand people at most, what can it do? Well that’s a fucking stupid question, I thought; it can do a lot; thanks to advanced technology and communications it can do a lot. Then he went on to say (near exact quote) ‘These things don’t happen every day.’ ‘Well it only takes one, Bub!’ I shouted furiously. And that was last night. Two hours before the first bomb went off.

No, these things don’t happen every day. That’s fine then. Not a problem.


Jul 7th, 2005 12:59 pm | By

I’m six thousand miles away but I don’t feel six thousand miles away. Comes of having friends, acquaintances, readers there – not to mention having recently spent time there. Tavistock Square, Russell Square…

Say a word if you have a moment, those of you in London, so that B&W won’t worry about you.


Jul 6th, 2005 10:28 pm | By

This article raises a great many questions.

Campbell wants a rationalisation of the current abortion laws, so that terminations are available on demand in the first trimester, but available only on urgent medical grounds in later stages of pregnancy…His conviction owes much to advanced ultrasound scanning, a field in which Campbell is the acknowledged leader…

Okay, why.

By demonstrating the advanced physiological development of foetuses, his images reignited the abortion debate last year, when the television programme, Life Before Birth, showed footage of Campbell’s scans, with embryos moving in real time at just 12 weeks, and apparently smiling at 20 weeks.

Moving, and apparently smiling. But…but moving doesn’t necessarily equate to conscious, aware, even sentient moving. And ‘apparently smiling’ doesn’t necessarily equate to actual smiling (whatever Jeb Bush may say).

A father-of-four, he admits his reasoning is based on gut instinct, rather than cold logic. “It’s very tenuous, very non-specific, and some people say it’s very sentimental, but given how advanced these babies are in terms of the sophistication of their movements, and their facial expressions, I feel it’s actually offensive to be [carrying out abortions], certainly after 18 weeks.”

But what does ‘advanced’ mean there? What does ‘sophistication’ mean? I know what ‘facial expressions’ means, but I don’t know how one picks out ‘sophisticated’ ones from reflex ones. Is that ‘cold logic’? But if it is – maybe there’s a place for cold logic when discussing these issues? Maybe gut instinct can be misleading?

“At 12 weeks the foetus starts to move around much more vigorously, make complex movements, touch its feet and toes, put its finger in its mouth, take stepping movements. Suddenly that is a big change, and you don’t see it at 11 weeks…”

It’s a change, but what kind of change?

Although annoyed his images have been “hijacked by the anti-abortion lobby”, Campbell doesn’t regret the fact abortion is now a hotly contested issue. “I feel slightly flattered in a way that my images have got people talking about it. The foetus is its own advocate. Before, it was all about care for the mother, and I’m all in favour of that. But that’s balanced with images of the foetus, which is saying, ‘Here I am, this is what I can do, this is my humanity, I’m a sentient human being, do you want to terminate me?’ The foetus now is part of the question.”

Okay – that begins to answer some of those questions. The idea is that the foetus (because it is moving around and apparently smiling) is saying ‘Here I am, this is what I can do, this is my humanity, I’m a sentient human being, do you want to terminate me?’. But is the foetus saying that? Would it be saying that if it could talk? And (another question) what does ‘sentient’ mean there? Are we meant to confuse it with ‘conscious’?

So many people told me they felt very emotional about it. I had thought there was a growing movement towards the recognition of humanity in the womb.

There again. Surely nobody claims that a human foetus is not human – so what does ‘recognition of humanity in the womb’ mean?

What about the charge that emotive images of early foetuses showing apparent emotional responses shouldn’t be taken into account in considering an essentially scientific issue?…“Of course it’s emotive,” counters Campbell. “It’s a natural human response to see something that looks and behaves like a child, and to be emotional and protective towards it, not rip it out of the uterus. It’s good emotion, not bad…The film [Life Before Birth] at least made the foetus look like a potential human being, as nice as a newborn baby. It’s not suddenly there and it’s cute; it was cute before birth. It’s time people began to love the foetus.”

But is it? If so, why? Because it moves in an advanced, sophisticated, complex way? Because it’s apparently smiling? Because it’s sentient? Because it’s as cute and nice as a baby? Because it’s human? Because people feel protective towards it when they see images of it? Are any of those good reasons? Are they good reasons when all added together even if they’re not good reasons taken separately?

I have to say, they don’t seem like good reasons to me. That’s not to say that there may not be good reasons, but these don’t seem to be good ones. Movements can be merely reflexive, as can smiling. Sentience is not the same thing as consciousness. Humanity is not in dispute. Cute and nice – well cute and nice seem to be what’s at issue here. It’s all about images, and emotional reactions to images. But images, like appearances, can be misleading. (Surely Campbell must know that – mustn’t he?) In short, a foetus may look as if it’s aware and conscious without actually being so. Now, maybe that’s not the issue – maybe that isn’t and shouldn’t be the cut-off point for abortion. But it’s not clear why movement or ‘cuteness’ should be either. At least not for the rest of us; not for the law; not as public policy. If the foetus’ own parents want to decide the matter on that basis, that of course is their business. But I don’t see why outsiders should decide it for them on that basis. ‘You can’t abort that foetus; it’s cute now.’ That does not seem to me to be a compelling argument.

A Useful Mere Truism

Jul 6th, 2005 2:27 am | By

‘X’ in this quotation is science, which has been temporarily re-named for the purpose of an examination of some criticisms of ‘science’:

X is “E-knowledge,” “obtained by logical deduction from firmly established first principles.” The statements in X must be “provable”; X demands “absolute proofs.”…I quite agree that X should be consigned to the flames. But what that has to do with our topic escapes me, given that these attributions scarcely rise to the level of a caricature of rational inquiry (science, etc.), at least as I’m familiar with it.

Take the notion of “E-knowledge,” the sole definition of science presented here. Not even set theory (hence conventional mathematics) satisfies the definition offered. Nothing in the sciences even resembles it. As for “provability,” or “absolute proofs,” the notions are foreign to the natural sciences. They appear in the study of abstract models, which are part of pure mathematics until they are applied in the empirical sciences, at which point we no longer have “proof.”…Science is tentative, exploratory, questioning, largely learned by doing.

So there! And who said that? Noam Chomsky. He said a lot of good stuff.

As for the cited properties of X, they do hold of some aspects of human thought and action: elements of organized religion, areas of the humanities and “social sciences” where understanding and insight are thin and it is therefore easier to get away with dogmatism and falsification, perhaps others. But the sciences, at least as I am familiar with them, are as remote from these descriptions as anything in human life. It is not that scientists are inherently more honest, open, or questioning. It is simply that nature and logic impose a harsh discipline: in many domains, one can spin fanciful tales with impunity or keep to the most boring clerical work (sometimes called “scholarship”); in the sciences, your tales will be refuted and you will be left behind by students who want to understand something about the world, not satisfied to let such matters be “someone else’s concern.” Furthermore, all of this seems to be the merest truism.

Yes, but how good people are at ignoring truisms when they’d rather spin tales.

Wrong End of the Telescope

Jul 6th, 2005 12:24 am | By

This week’s Writer’s Choice at Normblog is Nick Cohen on Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman. Don’t miss it.

Although I like to present myself as an open and rational chap, I can remember very few times when I’ve admitted being in the wrong. Not wrong in detail, but wrong in principle. In my experience the politically committed rarely do that. We change imperceptibly and grudgingly, while all the time pretending we haven’t changed at all but merely adapted to altered circumstances.

Hmm. I don’t know – sometimes those ‘wrong in detail’ admissions can add up to ‘wrong in principle’ ones. But that’s a mere quibble.

The only time I realised I was charging up a blind alley was when I read Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism. I didn’t see a blinding light or hear a thunder clap or cry ‘Eureka!’ If I was going to cry anything it would have been ‘Oh bloody hell!’ He convinced me I’d wasted a great deal of time looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I was going to have to turn it round and see the world afresh. The labour would involve reconsidering everything I’d written since 11 September, arguing with people I took to be friends and finding myself on the same side as people I took to be enemies. All because of Berman.

The bastard.

Yes, one knows the feeling, or feelings. That ‘oh bloody hell’ thing (in my case it was more like ‘God I’m stupid’), that wrong end of telescope thing, that twitchy stuff about friends and enemies.

Terror and Liberalism is an essay rather than a history and its arguments come from the almost forgotten tradition of the anti-totalitarian left. Its central point is that Islamism and Baathism are continuations of Nazism and communism, not only in their fine points – founders of the Muslim Brotherhood and Baath Party were admirers of Hitler and Franco – but in their fundamentals.

A chapter – ‘Wishful Thinking’ – explains why so many are reluctant to see clearly and in their blindness end up on the far right.

Now that really fascinates me, because we have a chapter called ‘Wishful Thinking’ in Why Truth Matters. I’ve been meaning to read this book; obviously I have to hurry up about it.

Obviously, the socialists couldn’t begin to show solidarity with the German socialists who were being persecuted by Hitler. How could they protest at their treatment or organize parliamentary debates calling attention to their plight when they were making excuses for the Hitler who was doing the persecuting?…To see the old process at work, one only has to look at how a large chunk of the world’s liberal opinion has got itself into the position where it can’t support Iraqi and Afghan liberals, socialists and feminists.

There is a lot more; a must-read.

Religious Myths Gotta Go

Jul 5th, 2005 1:06 am | By

Time to say it in polite company.

Harris’s explosive book, as more than one reviewer has noted, articulates fiercely and fearlessly what more and more people are thinking but few are willing to say in polite company: religious faith is not only blind, but deaf, mute, absurd, irrational, and threatens our very existence…He calls his book “an argument for intellectual honesty. It’s only on matters of religion that we allow people to pretend to be certain of things they are not certain about.”

That’s just it – it’s this special dispensation thing. On everything else people over the age of about four are expected to justify their assertions, especially if they’re a tad far-fetched – but ‘devout’ people can talk about what God wants, and very few people will be heartless enough to ask how they know. It’s a double standard, but one that never really gets explained or justified – it’s just there.

Religious moderation, Harris argues, betrays both faith and reason equally. Moderates are, in large part, responsible for religious strife “because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed” — all thanks to the sacredness in which we hold tolerance.

Exactly – ‘the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.’ And if you try, even atheists flock to chastise you. I do find that strange, and disheartening.

A Word from Mill

Jul 4th, 2005 11:58 pm | By

Good, The Subjection of Women is online after all, just not at Project Gutenberg. So I’ll quote a passage from section one.

All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men. They are so far in a position different from all other subject classes, that their masters require something more from them than actual service. Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments. All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear; either fear of themselves, or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose. All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of other. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections. And by their affections are meant the only ones they are allowed to have — those to the men with whom they are connected, or to the children who constitute an additional and indefeasible tie between them and a man. When we put together three things — first, the natural attraction between opposite sexes; secondly, the wife’s entire dependence on the husband, every privilege or pleasure she has being either his gift, or depending entirely on his will; and lastly, that the principal object of human pursuit, consideration, and all objects of social ambition, can in general be sought or obtained by her only through him, it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character. And, this great means of influence over the minds of women having been acquired, an instinct of selfishness made men avail themselves of it to the utmost as a means of holding women in subjection, by representing to them meekness, submissiveness, and resignation of all individual will into the hands of a man, as an essential part of sexual attractiveness. Can it be doubted that any of the other yokes which mankind have succeeded in breaking, would have subsisted till now if the same means had existed, and had been so sedulously used, to bow down their minds to it? If it had been made the object of the life of every young plebeian to find personal favour in the eyes of some patrician, of every young serf with some seigneur; if domestication with him, and a share of his personal affections, had been held out as the prize which they all should look out for, the most gifted and aspiring being able to reckon on the most desirable prizes; and if, when this prize had been obtained, they had been shut out by a wall of brass from all interests not centring in him, all feelings and desires but those which he shared or inculcated; would not serfs and seigneurs, plebeians and patricians, have been as broadly distinguished at this day as men and women are? and would not all but a thinker here and there, have believed the distinction to be a fundamental and unalterable fact in human nature?

So much has changed since Mill wrote that, and yet women are still subject to unremitting social pressure to be sexually attractive before they are anything else.


Jul 4th, 2005 2:06 am | By

Julian’s been on the radio again – in fact he seems to have been on aproximately every other time I listen, lately. That one’s Night Waves and it’s only good until tomorrow, because it’s last Monday’s show and I didn’t know about it until yesterday when I happened to browse the Night Waves page to see what I’d been missing – otherwise I would have told you sooner.

I transcribed one bit because it sort of fits with various things we talk about here from time to time. The interviewer asked how useful philosophy can be, does it change people’s thinking, and so on.

I think it’s possible to read a hell of a lot of philosophy, it’s possible to be a professional philosopher, and not have a philosophical attitude. I think the philophical attitude is this kind of constant questioning, and I think that sometimes people find philosophy, they love it, and they latch onto a few of their favourite philosophers, and they become as entrenched in a particular form of philosophy as any unphilosophical person becomes entrenched in their assumptions; philosophers are actually subject to the delusion in fact because their subject is officially the ‘queen of the sciences,’ the discipline which questions assumptions more than any other, they kind of feel that they themselves are immune to the kind of dodgy reasoning and stupid assumption-making that the unwashed masses do, and I think that’s a terrible risk of doing philosophy.

Good point. Let us all take a solemn vow (on a bust of Socrates if you happen to have one, or Hume, or Sponge Bob) never to feel that we are immune to dodgy reasoning and stupid assumption-making.

Is That Right?

Jul 3rd, 2005 8:12 pm | By

Here’s something I find quite funny. It’s from The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism from the entry for ‘Speech Acts’.

This issue of parasitic language became one of the turning points of the Searle-Derrida debate. In the late 1970s Searle wrote a “reply” to Derrida’s deconstruction of Austin, assuming that Derrida was attacking Austin and rushing to the master’s defense. Derrida then wrote a hundred-page deconstruction of Searle’s reply, more or less savaging Searle and demonstrating both that philosophically Searle is way out of his league and that methodologically Searle and Derrida are not so very far apart. Both Searle and Derrida are analytical philosophers who believe in rational, logical thought; Derrida is merely better at it than Searle, more sensitive to the mind-numbing complexity of analytical issues.


Just a Light Trim, Please

Jul 3rd, 2005 2:47 am | By

I’d never heard of Sheila Jeffreys before reading this article. Okay so I’m a dreary boring sexless humourless old-timey feminist, but I think she’s right. It depresses me to see the things women do to themselves and how it’s gotten not better but worse since second-wave feminism started.

I’ll tell you something else I hadn’t heard of, and that’s ‘trimmed labia.’ Trimmed what? Trimmed? Trimmed? You trim fingernails and hair, apples and carrots, not pieces of your body! Okay so I’m clueless, but I don’t spend a lot of time keeping up with the ‘sex industry,’ therefore I was unaware there was such a thing as ‘labiaplasty.’ What was that we were saying last year about female genital mutilation?

“Men’s desire for bigger and bigger breasts, and clothes commonly associated with prostitution, has resulted from the mass consumption of pornography.”

Ah – is that what causes it. Good to know. I’ve been wondering for years what the ‘get me, don’t I look exactly like a hooker’ fashion was all about.

She points to studies that have found significantly higher rates of suicide among women who have had breast implants. The latest, conducted in 2003 by the International Epidemiology Institute of Rockville and funded by Dow Corning Corp, a former maker of silicone gel breast implants, included a study of 2,166 women, some of whom received implants as long as 30 years ago. Dow Corning also funded an earlier Swedish study, which examined 3,521 women with implants, and found the suicide rate to be three times higher than normal.

The first thought that occurs to me is that it’s probably not that the implants make women suicidal, but that suicidal women get implants. It seems quite likely that women who think their appearance is the most important thing about them will tend to be depressive. That women who think it’s worth cutting their breasts open and having a foreign substance shoved inside just to make the breasts bigger do not have a particularly healthy or reasonable view of what they could be doing with their lives.

I can get very cross and depressed about this kind of thing. I’m glad Sheila Jeffreys has written this book, but I have absolutely no hope that it will make the smallest bit of difference.

They Say Anything They Want to Now

Jul 2nd, 2005 8:50 pm | By

The trouble is, there is no answer. It’s no good trying to argue the question with the thought that there is an answer if only everyone can be convinced of it – there isn’t. It’s hopeless. There are only two competing goods, or goals, or desires or needs; there’s no way to grant both at once; there’s no way to do the right thing in both directions. At least not that I can ever see.

Three French intellectuals and the publisher of the nation’s premier newspaper, Le Monde, were ordered by a French court in May to pay 1 euro each to Attorneys Without Borders, which Mr. Goldnadel leads, for defaming Jews in an op-ed article three years ago…The case is one of many such complaints to land in European courts in recent years as a surge of emotional discourse – regarding Muslims after the Sept. 11 attacks and Israel after the second Palestinian intifada – bumps against post-Nazi laws intended to guard against the fascist hate-mongering of the 1930’s…Some here say that Europe is struggling to adjust the boundaries of reasonable debate at the worst possible time.

That’s just it. It’s a struggle to adjust the boundaries of reasonable debate – contestable every step of the way, as indicated by the contest-laden vocabulary – struggle, adjust, boundaries, reasonable, debate. Not a black/white, yes/no idea in the lot.

Many free-speech cases have been set off since Sept. 11 by criticism of Islam amid concerns about Europe’s growing conservative Muslim population…The case of the article published in Le Monde arose amid a wave of scorn for Israeli policies that swept Europe after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000. The mood soon fueled a surge in anti-Semitism in France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe. “Death to Jews!” was shouted in Paris streets.

Not a situation that can be just brushed aside, or ignored. Not a shout one wants to hear shouted in any streets anywhere on the planet.

The article, published in June 2002, was nothing remarkable to American readers accustomed to raucous, sometimes racist public debate…One of the passages cited by the court read, “One finds it hard to imagine that a nation of fugitives descended from the people which has been persecuted the longest in the history of humanity, having been subjected to the worst humiliations and the deepest contempt, would be capable of transforming itself in two generations into a ‘dominating and self-assured people’ and, with the exception of an admirable minority, a contemptuous people taking satisfaction in humiliating others.”

One doesn’t want to hear ‘Death to [Anyones]’ shouted in any streets – but at the same time, that sentence does not look like something that ought to be taken to court. In fact it looks like the kind of thing that ought not to be taken to court, because it is a political opinion. And yet – and yet – political opinions, even those comparatively distant from shouts of ‘Death to [Hated People]’ in the streets, can, in just the right (i.e. wrong) circumstances, lead to such shouts and then to the machetes or the massacres in empty warehouses. But then, if one looks at it that way, so can almost any political speech. Safety is good, protection of minorities is good, but so is political discussion. Ideas about the need to protect minorities are themselves the product of political discussion, after all.

An open letter in support of the defendants, signed by 100 French intellectuals and published in Le Monde last year, argued that criticizing the Israeli government “and even the majority of Israelis who support it,” is far from a condemnation of all Jews. It warned that the case “shows the serious threat, which often takes the form of intimidation, that is looming over freedom of expression in France.” But Mr. Goldnadel sees the case as part of a larger shift in what is acceptable in public discourse that began with the start of the second intifada. “Since the intifada, the media has suddenly discovered freedom of expression,” he said. “When speaking of Israel or Zionism they say anything they want to now.”

Well, I think he’s wrong, but I don’t know of any knock-down argument that he is. I just think he is.

Faith Whatting?

Jul 2nd, 2005 2:42 am | By

They’re getting closer…and closer…and closer.

They’ve reached Cleveland, for instance.

The Cleveland health education museum will open its doors to faith healer Dr. Issam Nemeh on July 10, creating an unusual venue for a purported miracle healing service. HealthSpace Cleveland waived the customary $5,000 rental fee for Nemeh, said Patricia Horvath, the executive director. “We decided not to charge them because a number of board members are supporters of Dr. Nemeh’s work,” Horvath said. “We see spiritual health in the holistic view of overall health,” she said.

The Cleveland what education museum? The Cleveland health what museum? The Cleveland health education what? Don’t you mean the Cleveland bide-a-wee home for bullshitters? The Cleveland theatre of wooerpgahwackawacka? The Cleveland we are all out of our minds and happy about it institute?

The Plain Dealer reported earlier this month that Nemeh’s method of acupuncture requires only a five-day training course and uses a device not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for clinical safety or effectiveness. The paper also reported that Nemeh had sued after being kicked out of a medical residency program at Fairview Hospital…Nemeh and his wife, Cathy, who lays hands on the sick with her husband, have declined to be interviewed.

Gee, I wonder why.

Well at least there’s a refuge, of sorts. Well not a refuge – because it’s a summer camp – and if you’ve ever been to a summer camp, especially the kind where you have to actually live there and don’t get to go home after half an hour or so, you’ll know that they’re not what you’d call refuges. More like hell on earth, is what they are. But anyway, if you have to go to summer camp (how ecstatically happy I am that that is one possibility that simply cannot arise in my life, not unless the zealots take over completely and send people like me off to be re-educated, in which case I have a plan to escape to the still-vex’d Bermoothes) then it’s better to go to one where the Christians won’t insist on telling you that you’re friends with the devil. That kind of thing palls after awhile.

Many of the two dozen campers who attended this year’s session last week recounted experiences of being called names and otherwise harassed. For instance, Travis Leepers, 17, from Louisiana, reported that just about everyone he knows has expressed concern to him about his soul and has tried to convert him. Sophia Riehemann, 14, from Bellevue, Ky., recalled how one of her schoolmates called her a devil-worshiper. “People get really confused sometimes,” Sophia said. “They think that if we don’t believe in God we believe in the devil.”

Even the New York Times seems to find the whole thing a little suspicious – and they’re not even in Kentucky or Louisiana.

Nearly two million American adults openly identify themselves as atheist or agnostic, according to a 2001 survey by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Openly! Right out there in the open! Where puppies and butterflies and little innocent children can hear them – they come right out and say they’re atheist or agnostic. You know, I really thought that kind of thing had been made illegal by this time.

Does the Times think people should only say that kind of thing behind closed doors with a hood over their heads and a note of deep shame in their voices, or what? Oh, never mind. I think I’ll amble over to the local science museum for some faith healing and attitude-adjustment.

Oath? What oath? Want some vitamins?

Jul 2nd, 2005 2:08 am | By

What was that thing Hippocrates said? Something about first doing no harm, wasn’t it? Or am I misremembering – maybe it was first bend your arm, or first wear this charm, or first wind up that yarn. Must have been, because the ‘do no harm’ thing doesn’t always seem to be uppermost in the minds of certain kinds of ‘healers’ – but maybe that kind doesn’t take a Hippocratic oath anyway. Maybe that’s what ‘complementary and alternative’ means. There’s this Rath Foundation for instance.

And so to Africa, where there exist “complementary and alternative medicine” practitioners pursuing the fashionable attack on mainstream medicine, just like in the UK. Take Matthias Rath and the Rath Foundation vitamin empire. They have been running advertising campaigns in newspapers and poster campaigns near HIV/Aids treatment centres, telling people that anti-retroviral drugs undermine the body’s immune system, and that “micro-nutrients alone can promote the defence against Aids”.

That’s nice, isn’t it. Positively papal in its niceness. It’s not good enough to tell people to take vitamins in addition to anti-retroviral drugs – no – it’s necessary to tell them the drugs actually undermine their immune systems. (Figuring – what – that they’re mostly very poor so can’t afford to buy both so therefore they have to be made to buy the one that will put money in the pockets of the vitamin people rather than the pockets of the retroviral drug people? How do some people sleep at night, I always wonder. I mean really – I don’t know how the pope and his assistants manage it, and I don’t know how this crowd does.)

…the Rath Foundation makes paranoid accusations against anyone who disagrees with it, accusing them of being in the pocket of the multinational pharmaceutical companies with advert headlines such as “Stop Aids genocide by the drug cartel”…[I]t likes to adopt a mainstream scientific stance and push multivitamins for “treating” illnesses. Harvard researchers have accused Rath of misinterpreting their findings to argue against increased use of antiretroviral therapy, numerous countries’ advertising standards people have ordered Rath to withdraw unsubstantiated claims, and UNAids, WHO and Unicef have condemned his misrepresentations of their nutrition and health advice…South Africa has 5 million people infected with HIV, one person in nine. Fewer than 40,000 are taking proper medication.

That’s a pretty remarkable story.

Mere Featherless Bipeds

Jul 1st, 2005 2:12 am | By

This article by Carlin Romano raises a lot of very interesting issues. I don’t know nearly enough (by which I mean I know nothing at all) about the subject to judge how fair or accurate any of it is – but the issues raised are interesting in any case, and I propose to mumble over them, so there.

The desire to portray great thinkers as disembodied argument machines remains a powerful force in analytic philosophy. Think of it as a slice of amour-propre, part of the arrogant wish to be seen as timelessly, noncontingently right about everything. It can move acolytes to depict thinker-heroes as dynamos of pure intellect rather than peers: mere featherless bipeds whose thoughts bear clear markings from their beliefs, fears, and weaknesses.

See, that’s an interesting idea whether it’s true or not. The idea of people wanting to be seen as timelessly, noncontingently right about everything – there’s something fascinating about that (as well as very funny, of course). I suppose I’m interested in various forms of déformation professionelle, and especially in academic ones, so the thought of a special need or desire to be a disembodied argument machine makes me sit up and take notice.

It also interests me because it seems to me not altogether mistaken to want to separate the thoughts from the biography. I can think of other reasons philosophers (among other people) would want to do that that aren’t mere vanity – so Romano’s article partly goes against the grain of my thinking, which is to say it challenges some of my assumptions. I don’t always like having my assumptions challenged – when the students at Patrick Henry college (no, I’m not going to stop mentioning that place any time soon, why do you ask?) babble about the joys of subordinating women I don’t find it particularly interesting or thought-provoking – but sometimes I do.

It seems reasonable to want to try to do that, at least, for reasons to do with clarity. As part of an effort to strip away extraneous details in order to get at the thoughts as – in themselves they really are. That may be an absurd, hopeless, impossible, even risky wish, but still I can see why people would want to try – at least I think I can. But the idea that it’s pretty much just presentation of self is…interesting.

I keep thinking of Lydgate. In Middlemarch, you know. Eliot does a brilliant job on him: he’s the classic case of a would-be impersonal, dedicated, above it all scientist who in fact is riddled with unaware vanity.

Like many of his colleagues, Hart largely avoided anecdotes, biography, and detailed sociological evidence because it didn’t fit with proper Oxford philosophical method. Clear, precise, and commonsensical, he kept his personal life out of his books. Lacey’s study consequently hit the jurisprudence community like a Kitty Kelley exposé implanted in a Festschrift.

Not all bad, the keeping the personal life out business. One can get weary of the anecdotes about evenings wandering around Jakarta or Rangoon. I’m just saying.

But Lacey’s achievement triggered an attack on her this year by New York University philosophy professor Thomas Nagel, author of – unsurprisingly – The View From Nowhere. Complained Nagel in the London Review of Books, “I felt that I was learning too much that was none of my business…Nagel also maintains that despite Lacey’s distinguished academic position, she is “not equipped … to deal with the philosophical background. When she talks about the ‘paradox of analysis’ or about the differences between J.L. Austin and Wittgenstein, she is lost.” Upping the insult quotient, Nagel maintains that Lacey “seems to have a weak grasp of what philosophy is,” a claim he repeats several times. False in every respect. Lacey, far more industriously than Nagel, backs her statements throughout.

Now, that interests me because I happen to have read just a couple of days ago a letter from Simon Blackburn and Jeremy Waldron to the LRB protesting exactly the same thing.

We were puzzled and depressed to read Thomas Nagel’s patronising review of Nicola Lacey’s biography of Herbert Hart. In particular, his sweeping claim that the author is ‘lost’ when it comes to philosophical issues is both ungenerous and unsupported.

So the context and explanation Romano gives seems to make sense of something puzzling.

Indeed, Lacey utterly foresees Nagel’s line of insult. She specifically anticipates his assertion that Wittgenstein thought understanding “has to be pursued primarily by reasoning rather than by empirical observation,” noting “Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the embeddedness of language games within social practices.” In her view, Hart, like Nagel, never adopted an approach to reality as reportorial as Wittgenstein’s because it “undermines the pretensions of philosophy as the ‘master discipline’ which illuminates our access to knowledge about the world.”

Now that really interests me, because it’s something I’ve heard before, from people I know who have a somewhat disrespectful view of philosophy – who say it likes to see itself as ‘the queen of the sciences’ and that that self-vision can make philosophers a tad grandiose. I have no idea, myself. I don’t know any philosophers. I live in a tiny fishing village on the edge of an ice shelf in the far far north, and philosophers don’t get up here much. But I have heard people (who do know some philosophers) say so. Thus it’s interesting.

The sad upshot of this latest sighting of the disembodied thinker is that a champion of “philosophy” thinks truth matters less than keeping up appearances.


Book Meme

Jun 30th, 2005 2:15 am | By

Err. I knew it had been awhile, but I didn’t think it had been as long a while as that. Thought it was more than a week, so maybe…ten days or so. No – three weeks. Blimey! How I do lose track sometimes (because I’m busy not losing track other times, or rather of other things – that’s what does it).

But I’m on it now. The book meme, which Norm tagged me with ten days I mean three weeks ago. (Really?! I bet it wasn’t. I bet he moved the post, just to rattle me.)

Total number of books I’ve owned:

What, I’m supposed to have counted them and kept track of the numbers? I don’t know! I have a couple of thousand now.

The last book I bought:

Haven’t bought a book in years – too penniless. I’ll substitute the last book I got out of the library – actually it was several – Philip Larkin’s letters, Mark Lilla’s Reckless Minds, Alvin Plantinga’s God and Other Minds, James Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault and a couple of others.

Five books that mean a lot to me:

On Liberty. A Fine Balance. The Secret Garden. Emma. From the Beast to the Blonde.

I’m supposed to tag five people, but I think I’d better not, because it’s been so long – it’s probably not etiquette to tag people, like, two years late.