O’erleaping Itself

Disgust, ethologists since Darwin and Richet tell us, is an emotion rooted in self-preservation. You have an instinctive aversion to tastes, sensations, and things that are likely to be harmful. (The history of the concept by Wilfried Menninghaus is worth a read, though it’s definitely the work of a Germanist.) Moral disgust, I suppose, is the same emotion projected onto an ideal body, the body of laws, habits and conventions that make us an “us.”

I find the repeated experience of moral disgust to be corrosive, and thus undermining of the supposed original purpose of the feeling. But there’s no way to let go of it. Perhaps it will outlive me.



Signature Event Conte( )t

For hundreds of years, people who were unable to write attested their consent by scratching an “X” on documents they were unable to read. Why X? Why not A, or I, or O?

Of course, there’s the thought of the cross, which in Christian countries might stand as the sign of any individual.

I’ve long thought— perhaps whimsically— that the validity of “X” as a marker of intention comes from its intersection of two opposite lines. Anything, even a branch falling from a tree, can scratch a diagonal line on a surface, but to do the same thing in the opposite direction and have the two lines meet at a point bespeaks awareness and intent, which a judicially recognized signature aims to confirm. The second line of the “X” is supposed to be a minimal extra added on to nature, and once you’ve done that, you’ve started to act in the world, to “persist and sign” as they say in French.



A Fine Kettle

I often think denouncing others from a position of self-asserted moral purity is a narcissistic way of engaging with an imperfect world. Here’s something from today’s Inbox that reminds me of how things can go askew. The allusion to current US policy is particularly well-aimed.

Statement by the AAS Officers on the 2018 AAS-in-Asia Conference

A controversy is developing among the AAS membership with regard to the AAS-in-Asia conference in Delhi, following the decision of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of the Government of India to deny visas to all Pakistani scholars. The AAS-in-Asia conferences began as an experiment four years ago. Two questions now face our membership: 1) Should the experiment to hold AAS-in-Asia conferences be terminated? and 2) How should AAS handle the current situation?

With regard to the first question, AAS members need to consider two sets of difficulties that arise in holding AAS conferences in Asia. The first is finding host institutions that are willing to provide the faculty, administrative staffing, and funding involved in organizing a conference that is now being attended by some 1,000 scholars. This is a challenge everywhere: even the smaller regional conferences affiliated with AAS stateside are finding it difficult in this age of budget cutbacks to find campuses willing to serve as host institutions. Securing a partner for a much larger event involves extended discussion of logistics, responsibilities, and finances.

The second major set of problems is political. With the possible exception of one or two countries in Asia, it is difficult to find a politically uncomplicated country to serve as a conference venue, so that issues of visas and academic freedom do not arise. As we know, the problem is no less acute in the U.S., where the latest iteration of the federal government’s travel ban puts restrictions on visitors from five predominantly Muslim countries and adds limits on certain travelers from two non-Muslim countries.

With regard to the second set of problems, AAS is coming under attack for two reasons: 1) for its decision to proceed with the conference being co-hosted by Ashoka University and 2) for the AAS’s failure to inform its members as soon as it learned of the Indian government’s decision not to grant visas to any scholars from Pakistan.

AAS and Ashoka University have been working on this conference since 2014. The AAS board felt that it was important to rotate the conference across the four regions into which AAS is divided, to counter the apparent East Asia bias in the previous conferences, which were held in Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Despite the many dynamic educational institutions and exciting scholarly research being carried out in South Asia, few scholars from that large region had been participating in the AAS-in-Asia conferences. When faculty and administrators at Ashoka University said they were willing to take on this responsibility, AAS was delighted. The board felt that Ashoka’s offer was an exciting opportunity to deepen scholarly exchanges across Asia , and we agreed to use a multi-tiered fee structure that made participation less expensive for scholars from South Asian (and some other) countries.

The AAS board did discuss issues of academic freedom prior to signing a memorandum of understanding with Ashoka University. Ashoka was firm in its commitment to the selection of panels on the basis of academic merit and breadth of participation across institutions and countries. These principles were honored in the selection of panels. We also raised the question of the difficulty of obtaining visas for individual scholars to travel to India; we did not, however, anticipate a blanket refusal to issue visas to all scholars from a given country. Nor did we know that the Indian government would also include in this prohibition people of Pakistani origin who hold other passports.

As soon as we learned of the MEA’s decision in early March of this year, back-channel efforts were begun to have the MEA’s blanket ruling reversed. In the third week of March, the Pakistani scholars whose panels had been selected for presentation at the conference (a total of eight people) were informed about the MEA ruling. They were offered the option of presenting their papers via Skype, as a way of ensuring our commitment to academic freedom and salvaging their valuable contributions as far as possible despite the MEA’s ruling. The MEA letter was posted on the conference website on March 6, and the subsequent letter from the Home Ministry, which arrived on April 6, was posted on April 9.

Scholars are now signing a petition not only denouncing the Indian government but also criticizing the way AAS has handled the situation and calling for us to cancel the conference. We acknowledge and understand those who question how AAS has handled the situation, and we respect their views as to how we should deal with it now. For those aware of the history between India and Pakistan, the fact that the MEA has denied visas to Pakistani scholars is, however reprehensible, not unexpected, given the tensions, border skirmishes, and three full wars between the two countries over the past seventy years. Knowing that there was even a possibility that the Indian government would deny visas, should AAS never have agreed to work with an Indian university to hold AAS-in-Asia in India? Further, knowing that there are political complications involved in virtually every country in Asia, should the AAS-in-Asia experiment be terminated?

While there are financial costs in canceling a conference for which reservations were made over a year in advance, there is a broader question to be addressed: Is there merit in working with Asian institutions in the hope of helping to strengthen academic freedoms and civil society, recognizing the contexts of current limitations? We might also go further to ask if scholars should refuse to participate in international conferences held in any country with problematic government policies. This would include the U.S., which has a blanket ban on potential participants from seven countries.

The current officers of the Association are in agreement with those among our members who urge us to oppose restrictions on scholarly exchange across borders and to challenge such restrictions wherever possible. At the same time, we recognize the complex political climates in which many of our colleagues function. We believe that fostering intellectual exchange is often the best means of support, even though in many instances this will involve compromises rather than stances of absolute moral purity.

Media Reports on This Issue

The Wire (India), “Ban on Pak Scholars Against Open Exchange of Ideas: Asian Studies Conference Organisers”

Inside Higher Ed (United States), “No Pakistani Scholars Allowed”




Lavengro: Scholar, Gypsy, Priest by George Borrow, first published in 1851, is a sort of autobiography, with sections that cross over into the domain of the novel and others that reek of polemic or lyric. As autobiographies go, it is as non-standard as Tristram Shandy, in its own way, isWe could not affix to it the subtitle Wordsworth gave his Prelude,“The Growth of a Poet’s Mind.” Nor could we see in it, as in Augustine’s Confessions,the steady underhanded working of Providence. Nor even the working-out of the destiny that matches a character, as with Rousseau. The narrative proceeds by chance events, coincidences, and one long-term addiction. Borrow’s first-person narrator is born into a military family in Norfolk and relocates again and again through the British Isles with the reassignments of his father’s regiment. The father is a conventional Englishman who honors King and Country and hopes that his son will find secure employment, perhaps in the army, perhaps in the Church, or as a clerk to a lawyer (Lavengro133). But the son is useless in any useful employ. His passion is for language. Posted to Ireland, his father’s regiment passes a couple of drovers who say something that makes a young officer ask, “Strange language that! What can it be?”

Continue reading


The future of the Little Magazine

I just read Sven Birkert’s meditation on his top-flight literary magazine,  AGNI, casting its lot ever more definitively with online over print. The one thing that sticks out is online’s lack of concern for the future. When you send out print issues, you are lodging them all over the world. They are seeds. A central server, on the other hand, can go down. Its contents may not be able to be restored, even when there are backups. (Printculture is a case in point.) An organization may close, or go bankrupt, or decide that it is not worth transcoding old material to ever-newer media. At that point, all of what has been produced dies. The Wayback Machine shows almost no evidence that any of the websites I produced in the 1990s ever existed. If “the center will not hold,” there is nothing. So I look at Sven Birkert’s guardedly self-congratulatory message, and think that the words have a SELL BY date and that afterwards, the electrons will disband and go back to their chaotic realms in the universe. This is not a way to record our literary history.


There is No Natural State of the Humanities

This is just to extend a point I made in “The Sky is Falling,” and to tease out some of its implications, so: there is no natural state of the humanities. There is only the state of the humanities in a situation.

Part of the argument I’m making is that the situation in which the humanities function in the US university has changed, in the following ways:

  1. Economically. There’s plenty of evidence to show that students and their parents are price-sensitive when it comes to choosing majors. The cuts in state funding following the 2008 crisis and the weak job market that continues to plague the US (don’t be fooled by the unemployment rate; labor force participation continues to decline) mean that students do not feel free to major in fields they know produce less certain financial outcomes than others.
  2. Culturally. A recent survey shows that 58 percent of Republicans think that colleges/universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country. We know why they think this, and we know they’re wrong. But obviously in a situation in which about 30 percent of the country identifies as Republican, this is going to affect humanities majors.

In both these cases of course the causes have nothing to do with anything particular to the humanities or to the work we do as professionals. And one solution to the problem would be to attack it at the two levels I’m describing above (via politics and state governments in the first case, and via the culture war in the second). But of course we have no special leverage at those levels, so attacking the problems there is hard. The question is how we might respond to them at the levels at which we do have some professional leverage. See my ideas in the piece.



Relative to what?

A few years ago I was on an outside review committee for a department of Comparative Literature at an Ivy-ish institution. Among the statistics we were given as part of our evaluation of the department was that enrollments in CL were down 11 percent since the last review. That seems pretty terrible!

Hmm, I said, and asked for statistics for all the other humanities departments. Turns out enrollments across the humanities were down 33 percent. So Comp Lit was actually doing pretty well!

The lesson for all academics and indeed all those of us who use and are used by statistics is: relative to what? All rates of change are relative, and deciding what the larger category of relation ought to be (humanities departments? the whole university? Comp Lit departments elsewhere around the country?) is of course critical to be able to understand one’s own situation.

All this by way of saying that the 44 percent decline in majors that took place at the U of Montana (see my last post) apparently took place in the context of a 33 percent overall drop in enrollments (not the same as majors, but still) at the university in general. So. My point about what one ought to do remains, but… shame on Montana and on me for not asking the right question.


Ob princeps legibus solutus sit

The legal argument in my title, articulated by late Roman jurists — “that the ruler is above the laws”– is one of the things we don’t believe in a democracy, and names a test American democracy is having to face. Not in order to fail it, I devoutly hope.

But at the moment I am perplexed by another kind of law that we seem to have abrogated in the favor of our clownish rulers: the rule that you should at least try to tell the truth, so as not to be despised by your community, and that you should try to make sense, lest you be classed as a fool.

To release your ruler, or your neighbor, from these obligations is to be in a very dangerous place indeed.


Majors down 44%; what to do?

Lots of justified outrage, fear, and anger on Twitter about the University of Montana’s plan to collapse its language departments and to cut 6 tenure-line faculty in English and 7.5 in the languages. The university’s president, who has an MA degree, is a former middle manager at GE. OK. All good.

But. The rationale for the cuts in the report is that majors in these fields are down 44 percent (since when it doesn’t say). So. Your majors are down 44 percent. I understand that it’s not your fault (you’re teaching the same thing you’ve always been teaching; your material didn’t suddenly become 44 percent less interesting). But … it’s your responsibility to attempt to change the situation, no? Even if it’s not your fault? And if you don’t (and maybe the good folks at Montana tried) or if you tried but couldn’t, then… what ground do you have to stand on when it comes to conversations with Deans and Provosts and Presidents?

I feel like my colleagues around the country are not addressing this issue: if your majors are down 44 percent, why should you keep the same number of faculty? How can you justify this, without resorting to claims about the “inherent value” of what you do that could be made equally compellingly by any department at the university?

My solution to this problem is to start trying new things, because it might be better at least to die fighting than to die inch by inch. More posts to come.



A Little Knowledge

Take identity-rhetoric, virtue-signaling, competitive outrage, Twitter-forwarding, and stir. You get something like this mob action about a high school student’s prom dress as cultural appropriation. The funny thing? Qipao are not even Chinese. The qi 旗 in qipao 旗袍 means “banner,” indicating the Manchu origin of this item of clothing: a “banner robe.”

The Manchus, for those who are operating with a comic-book understanding of world history, are a semi-nomadic people from the grasslands of southern Siberia who invaded and conquered China by stages in the seventeenth century, founding the Qing dynasty which ruled from 1644 to 1911. They were organized into “banners” (qi) or military tribes. The nomad origin of the qipao is visible in its tight sleeves and split skirt (it probably would have been worn over trousers originally): both features you want in your robe if you’re going to be riding a horse and shooting arrows.

The qipao became “Chinese” only as a result of the imposition of the norms of a colonial regime. Yes, the Manchus had the same eye, skin and hair color as the Chinese. But they were deeply resented by Chinese under their rule and committed the usual colonial acts of brutality. How soon we forget.


Engineering for the Arts and Letters Set

Sometimes I wonder if the past few decades of work in science and technology studies have made any deep impress on the minds of people whose work is mainly in literature and the theory of interpretation. I don’t claim any special knowledge of STEM disciplines, just a steady curiosity and a readiness to appropriate any models that I find lying around, if they provoke a train of thought. For some years I’ve been annoyed by the repetition in my circles of lit-and-theory people of a couple of phrases that imply knowledge of how engineering and technology work, and yet say the opposite of what anybody who has ever changed the brakes on a bicycle or attempted to fix a faucet knows.

  1. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Audre Lorde).  To believe this, you would have to believe that the tools are essentially and permanently the master’s– that tools always and exclusively do the bidding of the person who owns them. And that is simply not true. If they are tools, they are available to do any job that lies within their technical affordances. Even if you wrote on a crowbar, “FOR EXCLUSIVE USE IN SUPPORT OF WHITE PATRIARCHY,” that wouldn’t scare off a feminist or an anti-racist who took a mind to dismantle some housing with it. Tools are tools; they can’t be brainwashed or threatened, only locked up, and locks (which are tools) can be picked (using other tools). In fact, I would suspect that the tools best suited to dismantling the master’s house are the tools that were used to build it. (One precondition: that the tools must be out of the master’s hands. But that’s not difficult: if you’re a master, traditionally you have subcontractors to do the sweaty work for you.) Or to step out of allegory: the high-end education that benefited those in power from, say 1492 to the present, is the most desirable education for whoever wants to restructure the apparatus of social power. Luddites please abstain.
  2. “Strategic essentialism” (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak). To utter this slogan is to invoke the touching belief that strategies always work– that the person who commands the strategy is in control of its means and consequences. And (see the paragraph about tools above) that’s not the case. Strategies blow up in the strategist’s face; they always have. They lead to developments that nobody anticipated. And if you think that essentialism is a bad habit of mind, an oppressive psychological trick, an error that generates endless other errors, then you shouldn’t adopt it selectively at moments when you think it congratulates you. I am sure there are a lot of people who keep a loaded pistol in the drawer “for self-protection.” Thousands of people every year discover that it was a bad idea precisely because the pistol meant for self-protection wasn’t aware that it was dedicated to that use, and behaved as if it were designed to kill three-year-olds. Do not make this mistake.

I have a long list of fantasies about technology that cripple literary scholars in their dealing, not with technology per se, but with the apparatus and infrastructure of their own disciplines. But let these start the parade.


3-D Printing in 1891

From the Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences of Paris (Comptes rendus hebdomadaires de l’Académie des Sciences), vol. 45 (1891), 1496:

M. Antoine Cros presents for the Academy’s evaluation a paper entitled “The Teleplast. An example of the transformation of form into rhythm and vice versa. Transmission of shapes over distances, without transmission of matter.”

The transmission of images over the telegraph had already been performed by Bain, Bakewell and Caselli, and Antoine Cros’ brother Charles Cros had imagined using a similar system to send pictures to open communications with the denizens of Mars. I haven’t been able to find out much more about the Téléplaste, except that, characteristically, this advanced technological object was easily confused with mystical bla-bla involving the remote sensing of ectoplasmic entities.

In any case, the wheels may have turned more slowly in 1891 but they were moving.



I saw Isle of Dogs the other day and have been absent-mindedly following the press. Some viewers try hard to find something scandalous in the film’s use of Japanese culture. Does Wes Anderson exoticize, Orientalize, dehumanize Japan? Can we possibly get upset about something here? I find that after watching puppets move on a screen for two hours in a row, my own movements seem scarcely human to me, like the products of a painstakingly assembled but still slightly awkward stop-motion sequence. Perhaps being able to wield the term “dehumanizing” as an accusation isn’t a guarantee of moral magic after all. I’ll have to ask Viktor Shklovsky, or he’s not at home, Bertholt Mei Brecht Lan-fang.



Another Fifteen Minutes

You’ve heard the remark credited to Andy Warhol, that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. You might not know that Tristan Corbière (1845-1875) was there first:

“Va: tréteaux, lupanars, églises,
Cour des miracles, cour d’assises:
— Quarts d’heure d’immortalité!”

In flat paraphrase, this would give something like: “Go ahead: the stage, whorehouses, churches, / beggars’ den, criminal court: — / Quarter-hours of immortality!”


Insomnia Mashup

It occurred to me the other night that the Brahms Ballade no. 2, as rendered by Glenn Gould in 1982, is a missing John Fahey composition, played on the wrong instrument.


The Goldberg Variations Variations

Glenn Gould’s 1956 album of the Goldberg Variations– I’ve lived with that record for as long as I can remember. I also have Gould’s 1981 version, the thoughtful rather than impetuous one, but the 1956 record comes first. First chronologically, but (somehow) axiologically. When I hear other people play the score– accomplished artists with something to say– it’s as if every note comes marked with a little aside: “Glenn hit this one a little harder,” “Glenn sustained this one for a tenth of a second longer,” “Different from Glenn’s ornamentation,” “Glenn chose to bring out the tenor voice in this bar.” Not that I am a GG unconditionalist, but that’s the reference recording in my ear and brain, so help me Gould.

Now Sony has issued a 7-CD compilation of the session tapes that went into the making of the album, and it’s like looking into Flaubert’s manuscripts. Gould (23 at the time) put in long days at the studio, doing one take after another, trying out this way, that way, giving up after ten bars of something that he could see wasn’t going to be good enough, reminding himself of the bass figures, humming to himself (of course), going fast, then slow, with more or less attack, laying down competing tracks for later selection. You hear the variants that lay behind what was to become the canon. It’s like peering into the Language Module of someone’s brain, or a Borgesian library of permutations. And it’s like being in the house while someone practices Bach all day, which brings up some of the pleasantest memories I have.


Thoughts and Prayers

I realize that “thoughts and prayers” are being widely mocked as superficial and thoughtless. Prayer is far from useless, though. In a situation like last year, in which our best friend died of a brain tumor, losing her mind by inches, there was nothing empirical that we could have done. We could not have increased the efficacy of her treatment or the expertise of her doctors; we could not have altered the course of her cancer. It is in this kind of situation that prayer is useful because it goes beyond the usual channels of causation. Prayer addresses our Creator and asks Him to provide what we cannot supply ourselves.

Prayer requires focus and intention; it is not a little thought that from time to time surfaces in one of the eddies of the mind. Sustained prayer takes a while. On Yom Kippur, for just over a day, we do nothing but pray (except for the congregants gossiping and the kids running around in the synagogue courtyard); if we take the day seriously, we pray for our very lives. Now we feel it; our own lives may be forfeit in the coming year. Sholem Asch’s story of a fool/sage, “The Village Saint,” makes the stakes no lower; in the end, the fool/sage, who does not know how to read, communicates with God on Yom Kippur with a whistle, and it is enough to avert God’s severe decree.

But prayer does not substitute for action. You did not see the religious leaders of the SCLC, in the late 1960s, immure themselves in their churches and assume that their prayers would change everything around them. They had to go out, to march, to sit in, and to stand up. They had to stand up to the worst our society had to offer them, and they did so without regret. They likely did pray for their own lives and those of their congregants, but they went out and faced the policemen, dogs, and water cannons.

Most of the prayers I have made, either from the prayer book or my heart, have not been “successful.” It may have been due to my intention being less than complete, or to my having sinned in various ways and not taking care of that before my petition. It may have been due to hypocrisy on my part, or due to my having told someone of my intention to pray. And as for the greater problems that affect us in this country and this world, God may have already decreed that they take place. As the angel Gabriel says in the Martyrology on Yom Kippur, “You must accept this, my righteous, beloved ones, for I have heard from behind the heavenly screen that you have been ensnared.”

And yet still I persist — as some friends would say, holding an imaginary dialogue with a nonexistent old man with a white beard. The greatest effrontery of the “thoughts and prayers” locution is that prayer seldom takes place, even for a second. Perhaps if the “thoughts and prayers” people took ten or twenty minutes to pray from the heart, not to comfort themselves but to offer something up whose chances are unknown, the balance of our merits would change. Perhaps they would realize that it was still within their power to go out and change things and that the old man with the long, white beard was waiting for them.


My Cousin the Bot

One of the many reasons for unplugging from Facebook is the spectacle of many of my relatives avidly reposting falsehoods generated by Russian, Serbian and Montenegrin troll farms. They don’t seem to have the wit or energy to write up their own lies, but just push “Share” on items posted by nonexistent users like “jamesjo76415286,” “Survive Our Collapse,” “Sunday Gunday,” “@GenJohnKelly” (an acknowledged parody account) and “Kim Daskam.” Here’s how you relativize treason, by treating as facts a lie in multiple layers by the current occupant of the White House:

And here is how you make gun control sound like a bad idea: it “didn’t work,” supposedly, in the towns where a lot of black folks happen to live:

But an Ivanka Trump lookalike in a cowboy hat? Hell, give that girl a an AK-47 with a bump (heh heh) stock.

From an alternate universe in which numbers count for something, here’s a handy tally comparing gun laws and per-capita gun deaths. (Safehome.org.)

And here’s the international ranking:

For once, I’m not proud to see the USA as #1. (A roundup from Vox here.)

I’ve discovered that sending a friendly message suggesting that these relatives might like to check Snopes before posting doesn’t help– for them, Snopes is another liberal conspiracy, and there is no shame in being found wrong. As one cousin wrote to me, “You still believe Snopes? We don’t know anything.” If you don’t know anything, you aren’t responsible for anything, ain’t that convenient. So: The kid who shot 17 students at his former high school the other day did so, if you listen to some of my relatives, because Hillary bought him a gun and sent him out to use it, or because the FBI somehow set him up. There’s no abyss of stupidity too profound to be shared by these over-sharers, who somehow think they are saving the Republic by doing so. Team Trump over Team Truth!

Should I move to a cave in the mountains? Or am I already in a cave in the mountains and just don’t know it?

For example, a few days after the Parkland massacre, one of my relatives had this to say (or rather, repost):

So: the real issue, apparently, is not taking action to protect human lives. The important thing to do is nitpick about something Obama said, push the NRA’s long-discredited interpretation of the Second Amendment (“a well-regulated militia” was never about citizens’ right to resist their government), and cheer for upcoming civil war on our own territory. If a kid murdered people with an assault weapon, it was (a) somehow Obama’s fault, and (b) justified in the larger scheme of things, because if you disapprove of mass murder, you must have been brainwashed that way by Soros and the globalists. That’s what you might call some deep thinking from the world of suburban Southern white folks.

Another analysis shows you how my kinfolk work the moral calculus.

Fortunately, it’s just talk; but talk kills, with a little help from accompanying material factors.


Unlike Fine Wine

At an editorial conference today, trying to get my colleagues to see the point of a piece I’d written with a small edge of polemic, I realized that the argument in the piece is a version of one that I’ve been making for twenty-five years, and it’s still not getting anywhere. Not for any lack of empirical accuracy or logical consistency (I’ve checked). People just don’t want to hear it. Though stubborn, I don’t expect things to improve.