06/25/16

Ha’nacker Mill

It is an irony that the poem most suitable for this latter day should have been written by the fascist Hillaire Belloc.

Sally is gone that was so kindly,
Sally is gone from Ha’nacker Hill.
And the Briar grows ever since then so blindly
And ever since then the clapper is still,
And the sweeps have fallen from Ha’nacker Mill.

Ha’nacker Hill is in Desolation:
Ruin a-top and a field unploughed.
And Spirits that call on a fallen nation
Spirits that loved her calling aloud:
Spirits abroad in a windy cloud.

Spirits that call and no one answers;
Ha’nacker’s down and England’s done.
Wind and Thistle for pipe and dancers
And never a ploughman under the Sun.
Never a ploughman. Never a one.

06/23/16

The Play of Analogy

Republicans have dismissed as a “publicity stunt” a continuing sit-in protest over gun laws by Democrats in the US House of Representatives.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said the protesters were more interested in headlines than tackling gun violence. (BBC News, 23/6/2016)

Would you let a poisonous snake wander around your house while children and guests were there?

Although Goebbels, no stranger to killing, went around with a cyanide pill hidden on his person, and I suppose that was his right, he didn’t think to carry a dose sufficient to carry off another fifty or three hundred people, or to toss it in the water supply. We Americans are a generous people.

A theology professor in our neighborhood shot himself and his wife the other day. Why was he in such a hurry? Because convenience was right at hand, and we Americans love convenience. I am reminded of something about “seventy times seventy,” from a guy who must have lived in a more slow-moving era.

Rikki Garni said it best: “The dictionary is the only loaded gun we keep in the house.”

06/18/16

Branching History

In 1869-1870, the government of Ulysses Grant sent a confidential envoy to the Dominican Republic to talk about statehood. Yes, statehood: a treaty of mutual assistance and free trade was proposed, with the opportunity to join the other states of the American Republic (just recently sutured back together after the unpleasantness of 1861-65) in the adventures of liberty, manifest destiny, and the Monroe Doctrine.

Grant saw in San Domingo a few advantages. A safe harbor for our navy, in order to keep the Caribbean sea lanes open; a market for our manufactured goods; even a country in need of the development that thousands of recently liberated black Americans could provide, if they could be induced to move there. (This was the moment of the Ku Klux Klan’s rise; by opening a new channel of emigration, Grant may have thought he would deprive the Klan of its target and raise the price of labor in the South.) The United States was casting about for an empire, and this would have been the first stage of an imperial expansion on the same basis as that whereby the West was won (or lost, if you think about it from the Mexican point of view). That is, influx of population, building of republican institutions, and finally integration into the fold as a new state, with full protection of constitutional rights as they were then understood.

Consider what in the end happened. Occupation of Cuba and the Philippines (1898). The Panama Canal Treaty. The ambiguous status of Puerto Rico. Purchase, under war conditions, of the Virgin Islands. Interference in Haiti, the DR, Venezuela, and on and on. All activities that earned us the resentment of most people in those areas, who experienced the US not as a space of freedom and security, but as a gun butt. History could have branched a different way, whereby we would have enlarged our selves, not stomped on our others.

Which is not to say that assimilation would have been easy or inevitable. The embrace of the Inviting Gringo might have been as little acceptable as the bayonet of the Demanding Gringo. But think about it. What would be the national character of a United States that had accepted its Spanish-English bilingual destiny already in 1870?

It was not to be. Grant had neglected to bring the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on board– indeed, he hadn’t even briefed them about his secret initiative. They were not happy about it. Charles Sumner, usually a loyal party man, bristled. Speeches were made decrying the chaotic and violent character of the Dominicans’ government, which rendered them unsuited to statehood (curiously, inasmuch as the Wild West was shooting and brawling its way to statehood during these same decades). Worst of all was the prospect of mixed-race people becoming citizens of the United States. Senator Carl Schurz of Missouri torpedoed the initiative with these words:

Fancy the Senators and Representatives of ten or twelve millions of tropical people, people of the Latin race mixed with Indian and African blood; people who have neither language, nor traditions, nor habits, nor political institutions, nor morals in common with us; fancy them sitting in the Halls of Congress, throwing the weight of their intelligence, their morality, their political institutions and habits, their prejudices and passions, into the scale of the destinies of this Republic.
(cited in Robert S. Levine, _Dislocating Race and Nation: Episodes in Nineteenth-Century American Literary Nationalism_ [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009], p. 209)

I can fancy it. So could Frederick Douglass. And if more people had been able to imagine it in 1870, we would have a different set of problems to deal with today, but white supremacy might not be one of them. What would be (indeed, what is) the point of building a wall between two groups of US citizens?

06/4/16

Rat Productivity

The earliest recorded behavioral experiment with rats took place around 250 BC.

            Li Si was a native of Shangcai in Chu. In his youth he served as a petty clerk in the province. In the privy of the clerks’ quarters he saw how the rats ate the filth and how, when people or dogs came near, they were frequently alarmed and terrified. And when he entered the storehouse he saw how the rats in the storehouse ate the heaps of grain and lived under a big roof, never having to worry about people or dogs. Li Si sighed and said, ‘Whether a man turns out to be worthy or good-for-nothing is like the rats—it all depends on the surroundings he chooses for himself!’ (Sima Qian, Shi ji, translated by Burton Watson as Records of the Grand Historian, vol. 1, Qin Dynasty [New York: Columbia University Press, 2002], p. 179.)

We who teach in colleges are generally lucky rats in Li Si’s terms, especially if tenured. But measures of well-being do not correlate with an absolute or static level of comfort; beyond a certain level, the marginal utility of increased income tapers off. What makes academics happy is engagement, participation in discovery, and a sense of control.

In a global health organization I work with, we have found in many resource-poor settings that the effect of salary raises on the subjective well-being of clinicians is negligible compared to the effect of giving doctors and nurses the tools they need to do their work well. And doctors and nurses who are satisfied with their work conditions are better at helping their patients. This strategy of enhancing effectiveness has been notably useful in counteracting brain drain among medical personnel in poor countries.

Li Si forgot to compare the productivity of the two groups of rats (in his defense, it’s hard to see what a measure of rat productivity would be). But any academic behaviorist can. The best times in my career have been when I’ve had a strong posse of like-minded people working with me to expand a frontier of knowledge or teaching; the worst have been years when colleagues wasted each other’s time with bickering, squabbling over shrinking resources, defending positions or undercutting each other. And when I think back over the causes, I note that the main factors creating a negative climate for the “life of the mind” have been, ultimately, administrative. If someone wanted to “disrupt” (in the old sense of the word) teaching and research in a certain sector, there is no easier way than to institute a competition for shrinking resources. That will hinder new projects from developing, reward non-cooperative behavior by actors who are less affected by the diminished resources, and reduce commitment by those who have other outlets for their energies, not to mention distracting attention from the things that brought us here in the first place. And if the resources are shrunk in an abrupt, startling, non-transparent way, without discussion of alternative scenarios or opportunities to cooperate in managing scarcity, you’ll have some disturbed rats.

05/22/16

And So I Sat Down to Write my Academic Memoir

I am privileged to have spent much of my adult life in the company of people for whom fat-shaming is a more grievous injustice than starvation.

(With an opening line like that, it will have to be a posthumous memoir. I couldn’t stand to read the reviews.)

05/22/16

Liberal Education as Radical Proposition in the Late Ming

(A talk for the 2016 Weissbourd conference, “Does Liberal Education Need Saving?”)

Just at the moment when the liberal arts are under attack in America as being a merely ornamental excrescence, Chinese university administrators are trying to reform the curriculum in order to include more general education and more seminar-style teaching. Cao Li 曹莉, a professor and dean at Tsinghua University, finds this risky. “Many universities,” she says,

are rushing to join in the adventure of internationalizing higher education with foreign capital. All these shifts and transformations pose severe challenges to the Chinese university, one of which is the problem of how the identity of a Chinese university can be defined and upheld. In this regard, liberal education cannot ignore the strategic importance of maintaining national identity and cultural self-consciousness…. [T]he model of the American university is being invoked to rationalize and standardize university of education. We will have to realize that one of the most disturbing results of globalization is the standardization and homogenization of cultures, which threatens to deconstruct nationality and dismantle national consciousness as well as cultural confidence…. To break out of such a globalizing paradigm both culturally and intellectually is a challenge to all nations and their educational enterprises.[1]

Continue reading

05/15/16

Lying About Sex

“We demand that sex speak the truth… and we demand that it tell us our truth, or rather, the deeply buried truth of that truth about ourselves wich we think we possess in our immediate consciousness,” you’ll remember that Foucault said. He also insisted that that “truth” was a scam, the more so the more it became obligatory.

I guess it’s usual to lie about sex– the sex one is having or not having (or used to have or not have). But lying about the kinds, occasions and purposes of sex that other people are having, or have had, touches my fiber of moral disgust. It happens in all sorts of places and ways. Let’s do less of this.

 

04/20/16

Results

After a year of my working with my Basic Literacy student, the program did an official evaluation of her progress. The main gain was in reading, on which I had focused pretty relentlessly. She’d gone up three reading levels; given the wide tranches of the evaluation system, this means that she started at about a third-grade reading level and ended up at a high school level. Other gains were less obvious, and there were a few goals we’d never gotten to, but on two hours a week for a year, I think she did well.

I mention this not to apply for a medal, but because it validates something I have believed since I started tutoring back in 2010: one-on-one tutoring is by far the most effective means of moving students ahead. It is one of those things where the apparent high cost of extending individual services is mitigated by the high cost of traditional remediation and the increasing penalties imposed by governing and certifying agencies for student failure and non-completion of degree. Tutoring puts a human face on a college or organization, and gives the student the idea that someone cares about him or her. There is no better way of giving a student confidence.

I am not a great motivator; I cannot make someone who doesn’t want to be there suddenly care. But give me someone who knows that they’re in trouble, and that reading and writing are barriers to what they hope to achieve, and I am good to go.

I am under no illusions about administrators’ search for a zero-ongoing-costs solution. There will eventually be robots in the tutor role, and that’s all students are going to get, because it’s easier for a bureaucrat to have a one-time-expense of $150,000 for a robot than to keep paying a few people what’s now $15 an hour year after year. But I’ll keep doing this as long as I can.

04/1/16

Coughka

I don’t have the time to research this right now, but it seems to me that the set of features known as “the Kafkaesque” owe at least as much to the experience of being a tuberculosis patient in the 1920s as they do to to Jewishness, Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy, minority language status, the Oedipus complex or other factors that have been put forward.

It’s all there. The dream quality of not being able to distinguish the most trivial things, or fantasies, from mortal danger:

[1922] March 16. The attacks, my fear, rats that tear at me and whom my eyes multiply.

March 24. How it lies in wait for me! On the way to the doctor, for example, so often there.

May 26. The severe ‘attacks’ during the evening walk (resulting from four tiny vexations during the day: the dog in the summer resort; Mars’ book; enlistment as a soldier; lending the money through Z.); momentary confusion, helplessness, hopelessness, unfathomable abyss, nothing but abyss; only when I turned in at the front door did a thought come to my assistance… [The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1914-1923, ed. Max Brod, tr. Martin Greenberg (New York: Shocken Books, 1949), 225, 230]

The paranoiac feeling:

[1923] June 12…. More and more fearful as I write. It is understandable. Every word, twisted in the hands of the spirits– this twist of the hand is their characteristic gesture–becomes a spear turned against the speaker. Most especially a remark like this. And so ad infinitum. The only consolation would be: it happens whether you like or no. And what you like is of infinitesimally little help. More than consolation is: You too have weapons. [Diaries, 232-233]

But Franz K. didn’t have all the weapons he needed: that was the last entry in the diary. (He lived for almost another year past writing those words.)

Most of all, a description of tuberculosis that makes it sound like what much later would be classified as an auto-immune disease:

[1922] March 7. Yesterday the worst night I have had, as if everything were at an end.

March 9. But that was only weariness; today a fresh attack, wringing the sweat from my brow. How would it be if one were to choke to death on oneself? If the pressure of introspection were to diminish, or close off entirely, the opening through which one flows forth into the world. I am not far from it at times. A river flowing upstream. For a long time now, that is what for the most part has been going on. [Diaries, 223]

What’s so special about the 1920s? Since Koch’s discovery of the TB bacillus in 1882 and development of the sputum test in 1890, it had been possible to know with certainty that you were doomed, yet be unable to do anything conclusive about it (that would become possible only with antibiotics). Does this sound like the judgment or what? Yes, Susan Sontag, I am aware of the danger of romanticizing illness. But don’t you see the analytic mind of Kafka at work, trying to understand the process of his own obliteration? That’s the castle, that’s the trial, that’s Amerika (or: The One Who Disappeared).

04/1/16

Longer Views

There is (this will be no news to anyone who’s been awake for the last forty years) a debate about whether state-provided social services are too expensive to be continued, whether they’re actually beneficial to their recipients or reduce them to the status of helpless dependents, whether they’re more or less efficient than some hypothetical market mechanism– in sum, whether they should exist at all. At least as presented in the relatively highbrow newspapers and magazines that cross my threshold, the matter of cost is always framed in relation to current expenditures: health and education as a fraction of GDP, or as compared to defense, etc.

That way of framing the math, however, renders invisible many dimensions of benefit and cost that become perceptible only when we look at matters in a longer view (say over a lifetime) and dice more finely the categories of payers and recipients. It turns out that for the overwhelming majority of British rate-payers, and by overwhelming I mean 93%, the amount paid in over a lifetime exceeds the amount received in benefits. So you can forget about the welfare queens, the “culture of dependency,” and all that stuff. Who knew, you may ask, that the public was always stepping up to the plate and giving a little more than necessary to help the less fortunate?

In another way, social services such as education, healthcare, and unemployment insurance act as a collective savings account to get people through the hard times. The number of people who will at one point or another need to call on these collective savings is large. Only a few people never experience need over their lifetimes. The few lucky standouts shouldn’t begrudge the majority whom social investments kept from going broke at one point or another: if the unlucky folks really had to eat garbage or steal on a regular basis in order to survive, surely the lucky ones would be sleeping less well at night. And need is not a lifetime thing; it happens in moments or cycles and, once again, the impact can be cushioned by the whole society’s willingness to think and pay ahead.

Admittedly, these results are from Great Britain, where some 70 years of Labour-inflected policy have created a long enough statistical run to give useful data. But surely in the US, even without a National Health Service and despite our patchwork of state governments, some more provident than others, the numbers exist to show what entitlements really do and don’t do, under a variety of conditions, over a lifetime. I’d be glad to read a factual comparative study. In the meantime, here’s the report on lifetime outcomes from the Nuffield Foundation’s Institute for Fiscal Studies:

 

03/16/16

Filling Out the Record

“The person who proposes that cowboy poetry is poetry composed by cowboys has not begun to theorize. ” Saussy, The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies, p. 15.  But now see Carson Vaughan, “My Cousin, the Cowboy Poet.” Not especially theoretical, but has a range.

03/4/16

Art and Life

Pursuant to IRS Circular #[redacted], please be informed that following the publication of your memoir, your entire life is deductible as a business expense.

03/4/16

Version française

For some reason I couldn’t help writing up a French-language digest of my book The Ethnography of Rhythm, just out from Fordham University Press.

 

L’ETHNOGRAPHIE DU RYTHME

Écriture, oralité, technologies

Haun Saussy

 

Préface par Olga Solovieva

 

Introduction: Le poids d’une parole ailée

Le sujet de ce livre est la perturbation causée par la littérature orale. Ce qu’on entend par littérature orale; comment on en rend compte (approche théorique, approche ostensive)—insuffisamment. La nécessité d’une histoire du concept, car ni l’oralité ni l’écriture n’existent en tant que telles: définitions en miroir et par défaut. Jules César et les druides, Flavius Josèphe et les aèdes. Les Anciens vs. les Modernes, et Homère, auteur de “chansons du Pont-Neuf.” Vico, Ossian, Wolf, les folkloristes du XIXe siècle. Quand a-t-on pensé pour la première fois que les textes oraux avaient une structure spécifique?

Chapitre I. Une poésie sans poèmes ni poètes

  1. “Deux ou trois cents phrases rythmées”

Jean Paulhan (1913), collectionneur des hain-teny. Une poésie de dispute. Le bien communal poétique. Les proverbes, les formules: composition par tous et par aucun. Un langage superposé au langage ordinaire.

  1. Des festivals du rythme

Marcel Granet (1919), lecteur de Paulhan. La poésie chinoise ancienne, définie par ses déficits en personnalité et en invention. “Le rythme était tout.” Les formes élémentaires de la vie poétique.

  1. Le style oral

Marcel Jousse (1925) prend fait et cause pour une civilisation de transmission orale, gestuelle, du savoir. Les verbo-moteurs. Les Formules, les Balancements. La disparition de l’auteur au profit de la Récitation. Homère, Jésus, porte-paroles de la mémoire collective. Les grands laboratoires du Style oral.

  1. La formule comme système

Milman Parry (1928), ou la mise en ordre rythmique d’un apparent chaos sémantique. Les formules nom-épithète chez Homère et leur différenciation fonctionnelle. Langage poétique, langage d’une poésie orale. Les débuts des “oral poetry studies.”

  1. Langue, parole, censure

Jakobson et Bogatyrev (1929) proposent une théorie du folklore oral centrée sur l’oubli (censure) de ce qui viole les normes. La récitation d’une œuvre orale est la parole d’une langue collective. La futilité de la censure dans une civilisation de l’écrit prouvée par l’histoire.

Chapitre II. L’écriture comme moyen de notation

  1. Le cyborg épique

La théorie de la composition collective orale: le robot poète. Peur du mécanisme, d’où : dénégation, mauvaise foi. Un déterminisme technique par antiphrase. Critique de l’ethnographie tacite des “oral poetry studies,” trop dépendante d’une valorisation d’une différence oral/écrit qui ne correspond pas aux données rapportées du terrain.

  1. “Mot à mot”

Comment transcrit-on? Sait-on ce qu’on fait en notant un texte oral? Le mot, artéfact d’une technologie. La théorie linguistique des aèdes. Les unités de composition; l’identité et la différence considérées au point de vue d’une autre technologie de la reproduction des textes. Comment faire mieux que l’écriture: rappels, liens, tabulations.

  1. Au fil du temps: sutures

La rencontre du texte oral et de l’imprimé. Henri Estienne, Ludolf Küster: qui sont les rhapsodes? Le texte homérique et l’ennui du typographe: pourquoi tant de formules? Naissance du cliché, de la propriété littéraire, de la parodie. Les médias et les technologies selon les commentaires pindariques.

Chapitre III. Autographie

  1. L’oreille inscriptrice

Léon Scott (1858): invention d’un mécanisme pour transcrire la parole sans passer par l’alphabet. Marey. Les choses parlent d’eux-mêmes.

  1. “La parole est un mouvement”

Pierre-Jean Rousselot (1882), disciple de Marey. La dialectologie, science des différences infimes. La parole, au sens de Saussure, captée par une écriture sans mots et sans playback. Le corps, la matière, le temps, l’inscription.

  1. Le patois de Parnasse

L’alexandrin existe-t-il en dehors d’une fiction normative? La phonétique expérimentale au secours du vers libre. Le vers traditionnel n’a pas vraiment douze pieds, et le vers libre comporte symétries et césures.

  1. Une différence de quinze cycles

Le corps humain, instrument de réception et de production de vibrations. Une esthétique physiologique, une psychologie musculaire.

Chapitre IV. Le gramophone humain

  1. “Errores Modernistarum”

L’arrivée tardive de la philologie biblique allemande en France. La philologie contre la foi. Le Vatican contre les “modernistes.” La condamnation (1907) de Loisy.

  1. L’évangile du mouvement

La récitation orale selon Jousse, une réponse à la philologie iconoclaste de Renan et de Loisy. L’évangile ne résiderait pas dans les textes écrits, mais dans un registre aujourd’hui perdu de gestes et de mouvements. “Nous avons les paroles mêmes de Jésus.” Les moyens de mémorisation plus forts que la mort.

  1. Une galerie de squelettes

La Psychologie de la Récitation au temple de l’anthropologie physique. L’ambition: faire du mimétisme une loi physique de l’organisme humain, tout comme l’inscription d’un contenu dans une série de gestes lui donnerait corps et un moyen de propagation.

  1. “Quatre juifs obscurs”

La valorisation de l’oralité contre la glorification maurrassien de Rome. Un certain philo-sémitisme rencontre le renouveau juif ; déchristianisation de l’évangile.

  1. La civilisation gallo-galiléenne

Dans la France occupée, une lecture de l’histoire à contre-pied. Le front uni des Druides et des Mères. Le retour de l’oralité.

Chapitre V. L’inscription corporelle

  1. La science des matériaux

Le corps humain, support d’inscriptions. L’esprit humain comme surface écrite. Quelques “lois” de l’écriture sur cerveaux vivants.

  1. Des techniques du corps

Mauss (1934): le corps, premier outil. Transmissions des savoirs par et sur le corps. Merleau-Ponty et l’homme sans projets. Le projet, unité d’inscription de la technique mémorielle qu’est la littérature orale. Perspective de reconstitution d’un paysage mnémonique pour la récitation épique. Bricolage, Traumarbeit. Le corps du récitant, le corps du texte. La littérature orale aura été le lieu d’expérimentation pour tant d’avant-gardes artistiques ou théoriques du XXe siècle parce qu’elle a le pouvoir de dissoudre et de reformer les unités mêmes dont dépendent les autres médias de notre modernité.

Bibliographie

Illustrations et légendes

 

01/23/16

When My Number Comes Up

What do you say I write an application to the XXXX Foundation, the YYY Trust, or the ZZZZ Institute for the following purposes:

— Cataloguing my library. I can’t find books I’m looking for. I would save a lot of time if I knew where so-and-so’s book about Lamartine as epistemologist was stored, or even what color the jacket was. (Higher-ticket item: digitize my whole library so I can carry it around on a 2TB telephone attachment.)

— Organize my xerox collection, with many items dating back to 1974. (As above.)

— Get time to read books. The list of things I’ve started but not finished is embarrassingly long. Save me, XXXX Foundation, from my lifelong embarrassment.

Or of course I could retire, with a generous enough pension, and do all this without ever bothering anybody again about it.

 

01/17/16

A Sheep In Wolf’s Clothing

From 1993 until last week, I interviewed high school students for admission to Yale, under the aegis of a branch of the Admissions department called the Alumni Schools Committee (ASC). For the first twenty years, it was a rewarding experience, one where I saw immense possibilities for some students and hoped that Yale could help make those possibilities happen. I worked hard in my interview reports to convey who and what the students were. About five or six years ago, I got a Lucite paperweight and a certificate from the ASC, indicating that I had done better than expected.

In the year or two after, the students took on a different character. There were many fewer given to me, and those were most often students who had been programmed with activities and spurred to excel by well-meaning but desperate parents. I saw only one student from that time who actually seemed capable of changing the world. The competitive world of college admissions meant that many were now provisionally admitted, through a little bit of legalistic chicanery, before an interviewer ever came on the scene, rendering my role almost superfluous. And I had a shock when, after many years, I was put into the same room as my fellow interviewers and discovered that all the stereotypes of Yalies had instantly come true. Representative was one jowly man, slightly older than me, wearing a tailored navy-blue Brioni suit, who worked for UBS, and who was very concerned lest he and his colleagues be held responsible for the financial collapse of the country. “She’s going after our people!” he said of Elizabeth Warren, with no small outrage. As the prophet Hosea put it, “You are not my people.”

The final thing that made me think about leaving interviewing was that, due to new rules, quite sensible, I could not interview in my home. I am an independent contractor, and have no office of my own. The ASC local director was kind enough to ask a fellow interviewer, a very high-powered lawyer in an international firm, whether I could use some of the lawyer’s office space. It was palatial, taking up the top floor of a skyscraper. There were huge, marble walls, enormous volumes of space, marble topped conference tables, and a conference room looking out fifty miles to the mountains to the east. The office manager offered me food, soda, and water whenever I came in. I felt like an imposter whenever, at home, I put on my one acceptable suit, knotted my bulldog tie, and, a half hour later, ushered a student into the panoramic conference room. I felt as though I was conveying a rather Mephistophelean message: cast your lot with Yale, and all earthly success shall be yours. Given that I was a glaring example of that not happening, I felt completely out of place, especially given how deferential the students were after they gaped at the panoramic conference room.

Last year, I had to do something I had never had to do before: ask ASC to reassign a student. Foolishly, I had forgotten that the AAAS conference was at the same time as the crunch interviewing week. I was upset about it, but that turned to relief in a very short time. This year, I had one student reassigned due to my being sick, and realized I didn’t want to interview anymore. I got a nice note from the ASC director, but now I am free.

I am not sure how to give back to Yale anymore—I surely cannot do so financially. The Yale of today seems fundamentally different from 25 years ago. Perhaps Yale needs more interviewers from younger generations. Perhaps Admissions will rely more on computers to home in on the precise data that determine a successful applicant, and fewer interviews will be needed. For now, I can take off the wolf’s mantle of “success,” and try to be more consistently who I am.

01/11/16

“… and there’s nothing I can do”

Ground Control reports, with deep regret, definitive loss of contact with Major Tom. He will forever orbit Earth outside his tin can, having shown us very different-looking stars.

It is funny how David Bowie’s first utterance on vinyl can serve as his obituary. He was a brilliant role-player, up to and including self-parody, and writing one’s epitaph is the ultimate genre of self-parody, isn’t it? But a self-parody that other people can read themselves into, this is achieved only by the Laforgues and Corbières of this world.

I landed in college in the late 1970s. Duke was, if not a party school, at least a school where parties occurred. You could tell by the music what kind of party was going on and whether it was worth knocking on the door. Some of the more frequent correlations observed were:

Steely Dan = might be an ok party, but if anyone is wearing pastel bermudas, no.

Bruce Springsteen = probably not, though there might be a lot of free beer. Billy Joel = fuggedaboudit.

Smokey Robinson = definitely good party.

David Bowie = the kind of party where you might stay until sunrise if other conditions were right.

12/29/15

Parson Weems and the Enemy

I am currently reading Parson Weems’s Life of George Washington, in order to present a simplified and abridged version to my student. Weems is oft-remembered for having made Washington appear to have said and done various impressive things which were not actually the case — for example, his confession of having chopped down a purely notional cherry tree. But there are words in Weems’s Life that stand out as transcending their time and author, and as applicable today.The Hessians were German mercenaries who fought on the side of the Crown during the Revolutionary War, and they committed what today might be called “war crimes.”

Weems:

“To make them fight the better, it seems they had been told that the Americans, against whom they were warring, were not (like the Europeans) Christians and gentlemen, but mere savages, a race of Cannibals who would not only tomahawk a poor Hessian, and haul off his hide for a drum’s head, but would just as lieve barbecue and eat him as they would a pig. “Vat! Vat!” cried the Waldeckers, with eyes staring wild and big as billiard balls, “Vat! eat Hessian man up like vun hock! Oh mine Got and Vader! vot peoples ever been heard of eat Christian man before. Vy! shure des Mexicans mush be de deble.

“This was Hessian logic: and it inspired them with the utmost abhorrence of the Americans, to whom they thought the worst treatment much too good.”

I think we can see both British and Hessians in our own community — our community of Americans, who were the butt of such logic and such treatment centuries ago. So soon we all forget.

12/23/15

A Shout-Out to Papa Bach

Among the pieces of “equipment for living” bequeathed me by my parents, few can have done me more good or been in more steady use than the music of old J. S. Bach. Migraines (back when I had them), insomnia, attacks of unreasonable crankiness, low air pressure, taedium vitae, even the reading of bad manuscripts– all are beaten back, or folded into an envelope of otherness, by a few bars of the music Colette libeled as a “golden sewing machine.”

In the Bach household nothing happened by chance.
Scarlatti’s cat, o.k.,– but count me the milk twenty children could spill!
Every drop worked its way into a counter-subject.
Instruments requiring repair and daily tuning received the impact of rocking-horses,
Of which the largest was called der Russolo.
Catharina Dorothea tore up the Buxtehude rather than let Carl Philipp Emmanuel play it.
And moving day
Gave a new meaning to “walking bass.”
Each child, each parent, had an imaginary friend; Sebastian had three.
“The Forty-Eight” were inseparable.
The eye surgeon came with credentials from London
And blundered through the theme in the minor key
After which Anna Magdalena noticed an anomalous hitch in the rhythm.
In the Bach household nothing happened by chance.
Sheep might safely graze, ranging to pastures ever more distant,
But All Came Home

 

12/19/15

I’m Not Going

I knew that something was seriously wrong when KUSC, the classical radio station in LA, devoted yesterday to the music from Star Wars. Every hour on the hour, some evidence of John Williams’s inept theft from Wagner, Holst, and Walton was brought forth. Is there a difference between the Throne Room music from No. 4 and Walton’s Spitfire Prelude? Yes. The former does not even appropriate the latter;  it just despoils its chords. Handel showed composers how to appropriate when he took an undistinguished Italian Magnificat and turned it into the eight-part antiphonal choruses of the latter part of Israel in Egypt.

But this whole Star Wars phenomenon is manufactured consent, mass games (in the North Korean sense) — the clutch of mass marketing to create a sacramental event, one which is partaken in by everyone the way we all partake of Christmas, whether we are co-religionists or not. Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 6 are pilpul — worthless commentary and padding on Nos. 4 and 5. Fans talk about “the expanded Star Wars universe” — which is essentially midrash, the agglomeration of prosaic explanatory content. In the same way as we do not need to know that Moses’s speech impediment was due to an angel’s providentially guiding him towards putting a hot coal in his mouth, we do not need to know that the spongy mystical Force of the universe is actually due to a physical factor in someone’s blood. The appeal of the first two movies was that they explained very little, being so very visual in their idiom and in debt to the laconic Western. Children could use their imaginations to fill in the gaps. Very little was left to the imagination by the end of the prequels. It had all been spelled out, in video games and novelizations and fan fiction, so that now it was a canon that could be believed, taught, and confessed. There are few devotees now able to say “Credo quia absurdum” in the Augustinian sense. They may be reminded by the science popularizers of what kind of unit a parsec is, but since they are unaccustomed to measuring distances in parsecs, the word reverts to the way it is used in the script.

I think I am going to take a pass on this one and go to a Met HD broadcast before its audience dies out.

12/12/15

Slow Tracks and Safe Spaces

Someone must have pointed out that Justice Scalia’s suggestion that black students would be happier in “slower-track” schools is a segregationist’s version of the theory that minority students need “safe spaces” where they won’t have to confront the racism and classism of majority culture. It would be obtuse to oppose Scalia to social-justice campaigners in this regard; in some way they want the same things, only they want them for different people (Scalia being, manifestly, in search of a paternalistic rationalization for preserving the University of Texas as a “safe space” for well-heeled white youth). Let’s not miss the point.

The point has to do with different kinds of space: public, private, the space where you test your claims against the best available resources of critique and rebuttal versus the space where you have only to explain what it’s like to be yourself. Indeed, if I may universalize for a moment, everybody needs a space where they can decompress, put their burdens down, explain why they sense themselves as outcasts. For us all to do so successfully, we need those spaces to be safe, in the sense of not being exposed to hostile attention. As Jonathan Holloway points out, though, the omnipresence of social media, making snitches of us all, renders the formerly operative distinction between private conversation and public speech blurry at best, moot at worst.

I suggest that we start pioneering a dual mode of conversation in universities (since it’s universities that have been the main testing grounds for communicative inventions since the Middle Ages). Let’s mark the classroom as the place where any kind of argument, no matter how stupid or counter-intuitive, is allowed to appear, on condition of being debated and rebutted and put in a larger frame of discourse.* If you want to advocate for offensive Halloween costumes, by all means do it, but you’ll have to stay to listen to the reasons and stories of the very people who would be offended by them. (I am assuming, of course, that the classroom is available and welcoming to the people who would be offended– not kept outside the gates by discrimination or discouragement. That is in fact a condition of educating the thoughtless: bringing them into direct contact with people who will say, “Do you realize what that means to me?”) The classroom is the space for a public that has accepted certain procedures as shaping discussion and its consequences (e.g., lots of logic and evidence, no intimidation or retaliation). In other corridors, let us ask and give consent to say what is on our minds, as in a therapy session or a conversation among trusted friends, with everyone ready to agree that what is said in such rooms goes no further.

Thus two kinds of “safe space” would be instituted in an institution of learning. The classroom is a safe space for the exercise of communitarian deliberative reason; the other kind of room (let’s call it the green room) a safe space for the expression of community-disrupting feelings like anger, resentment, disappointment. The whole campus can’t be a greenroom, unless we are all assumed to have exactly the same point of view on everything– which we don’t and shouldn’t. Those who want the campus to be identical with a greenroom are in fact dallying with Scalia’s model of college life. If universities want students to do well without repressing themselves, they need to offer both kinds of space, both kinds of deal.

And the quad? The street? These are liminal spaces between the university (which we’re differentiating into two kinds of discursive space) and the world (where certain general laws and customs apply, under the proviso that people can change them). If you perform a public expression of the greenroom set of feelings, I guess you are ready to deal with the often ignorant and uncomprehending reception of those feelings. Knowing that there’s a greenroom where you won’t be called to account has to help you in that often lonely and frustrating place.

* And, once they had been through the mill, adequately rebutted stupid ideas would stay out of the sphere of possible discourse (all right, now you see, dear reader, my helplessly utopian commitments).