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).

11/26/15

Operation Butterball

As a kid, I couldn’t see the point of Thanksgiving. A holiday with no presents, no fireworks, a brief and blurry view of some enormous balloons going down Fifth Avenue on the TV, a holiday when the grownups sat down and ate all day, and made us do the same– what could be less appealing?

At that age, I didn’t appreciate friendship sufficiently, having had only a few friends and not having traveled far from anything.

Now as I cook my way through the morning, Thanksgivings Past are in the back of my mind: sessions in places as far from Nashville as Orange County, Naples, Taipei, New Haven, Burnsville (NC), San Germán, Glasgow, Key West.

It gives a particular many-layered flavor to the parsnips, not to mention the big bird, now roasting away under a carapace of Sichuan flower pepper.

Santé!

11/23/15

Battlefield Paris

This year in Chicago, I learnt about the recent massacre in Paris from a text message sent to me from Texas. Last year, when in Paris, I learnt about the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff from an email from a friend in Vermont. Wherever you are, trying diligently, as I do now, to dodge news from the simmering world war, it gets ricocheted at you by another eruption of bullets. The only difference in experiencing the massacre in Chicago is the absence of the incessant police sirens that haunted Paris for weeks after the murders, and which a Belorussian friend in Paris now hears again, non-stop, from her apartment near the Bastille:

Я в порядке, спасибо большое за беспокойство! Да, что-то дикое произошло вчера. Всю ночь под окном сирены. На улицу страшно выходить.

[I’m all right. Thanks a lot for your concern. Yes, something wildly horrible happened yesterday. There are the sirens under my window all night long. Scary to go to the street.]

The frontline, with its transposition to Paris, narrows. Now, I find myself at only one remove from the tragedy: I happen to know people who know those who were affected directly. Our landlady, a journalist, had been in the office of Charlie Hebdo just a week before the shooting to commission a caricature from the doomed artists for her newspaper.

A colleague whom I’d met in Paris emailed in distress to excuse himself from our dinner party on the night of November 13 because two of his friends were at the punk rock concert inside the Bataclan, one of them shot (but not fatally) during the escape:

I’m a little overwhelmed right now given the tragedy in Paris last night.  Two of my friends were at the concert hall where the attack took place. They both survived, but one was shot during their escape (he is stable and will be fine). I have been messaging with friends in Paris all night and will probably continue to do so throughout the evening and I just don’t think I will be up for catching up tomorrow.

To say I’m overwhelmed is an understatement.  I honestly just don’t know what i feel or how to feel at the moment and I’m not sure I’ll be much better off tomorrow.

I apologize for the last minute cancellation but I have a hunch you’ll understand.

So crazy.  So sad.  

He, himself a lover of rock music, would certainly have been at the Bataclan with them, had not he made the decision to return to Chicago a month before to finish his dissertation.

Another message from a friend in Paris reads like this:

Deep breath. Profoundly disturbing and unsettling on all fronts — as a human, as a mom, as a parent, as an American, as a Jew, as someone living in France. Hard to believe we’ve explained both Charlie Hebdo and this to our son in less than a year…and on right on the heels of Kenya, Beirut, etc. Unimaginably sad for those affected directly — horrible beyond words. Scary to drop the kids off at school and crèche, to see my husband leave for work, and to head to French class shortly. “Fluctuat nec mergitur”, but how to keep living our lives with kids to consider. My perception of the present aftermath –based on the news/streets/Facebook– is sympathy and empathy, but also anger — can’t let “them” win — gotta live your life. In principal, yes, but as a parent, I cannot wrap my head around it all. A friend set out on a jog with her toddler in a stroller yesterday (determined to not let fear rule) — just down the street — when she encountered a man sprinting in her direction chased by undercover police with guns drawn. She doesn’t know what/who/why was happening, but was deeply disturbed by what could have happened in those few moments. 

Even if one is not yet him- or herself inside the mess, as if skirting a battlefield, one senses already the sound of bullets, fire and smoke. One lives in the war’s tangible potentiality.

That Charlie Hebdo was just a beginning was clear from the failed scenario of multiple attacks: a jogger, a policewoman, a kosher store in Vincennes. By now the “self-haters” have elaborated on their plan to take as many victims as possible, and with the closure of France’s national borders the war has indeed taken on.

Many international actors covet today influence in France for its strategic geopolitical location. The real social problems with unemployment, racism and xenophobia, and the ossified, uncreative educational system failing to integrate immigrants created a pool of disgruntled youth striving for a purpose. What used to turn into local gang wars, a condition vividly portrayed in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995), now found an idealistic wrapping in an appropriated version of Islam. A resentful army of social losers, fired up by the Hollywood style image of all-around-shooting masculinity, discovered their Muslim origins as a palliative for getting over the fact that they are not more than the disposable tools of somebody’s will.

The criminal invasion of Iraq in 2001 that the French reasonably and rationally opposed predictably destabilized the region and led to the uncontrollable Syrian civil war as well as ISIS. I can’t help sending curses in the direction of G. W. Bush and Co. who brought this bright future upon us. As I can’t help thinking that Islamic terrorism in France is an uncanny present that the United States sends back to France in ironic exchange for the Statue of Liberty.

Saddam Hussein and the Assads were, despite appearances, the best allies of the US in the war on Islamic extremism. Whatever was the corrupt oppressiveness of their secular regimes internally, they effectively and brutally kept under control oppressive stirrings of the religious kind. Now the bloody orgy induced by the “opium for the people” doesn’t have any serious opposition, and the battle has spread to the cultural capital of Europe – Paris, with Kalashnikovs aimed at the fans of music and sport.

But what about those Kalashnikovs? – A year ago in Paris, I was struck by an image on display at the French newsstands: On a cover of a journal one could see a disciplined and determined Russian cadet. At a desk with a textbook of the Russian language, he looked yearningly to one side, presumably contemplating a Greater Russia. The caption announced: “Russia has returned.” Working toward this expansionist goal, Putin’s government is building right now a gigantic Center of Russian Orthodox Culture on the quai Branly, to serve as the propaganda platform for Islam’s religious competitor in the aim of destroying Europe.

The closing of French borders in response to the attacks is one of those first little steps towards the re-hermetizing of national polities that the project of the European Union, dear to me, was trying to overcome. With the Russia-funded Front National and the Islamist fighters working in cahoots, ardently catering to each other’s unholy ideological needs, and Brussels, the capital of the EU, shut down under the highest threat level alert, the battle for Paris as a bastion of a free, secular, united Europe becomes real.

What should be done? Above all, the war in Syria and Iraq should end. It is not possible without a serious collective effort of occupation and control of those territories by the Western and Eastern democratic powers (the demand for such help had been voiced by the Syrian pro-democratic activists already in 2012) and a colossal economic investment into a reconstruction of those territories à la Marshall plan in the postwar Germany (that should have been conducted in Iraq since the occupation but was desperately botched up).

Undoing the wrongs is more difficult, more painful, more costly (in all senses) than avoiding the wrongs in the first place. But this time the United States, above all, owe it to themselves, to Europe, and to the whole of civilization.

 

11/23/15

Heard on the Radio

A show about getting out of debt. The confession: “I was a promiscuous spender!” (Repeated at the close of the segment.)

Even riskier behavior  than the profligate spender’s. When you’re letting loose with those dollars, dinars, lira, forints, kopeks and talents, it can get pretty wild.

11/20/15

Café Society? Cafés = Society.

Some of you may have been thinking this week about the “Marseillaise” scene in Casablanca. People around the world were taking a minute to go all out on the “Allons enfants de la patrie” number, “sang impur” and all. All right, marchons! But if I had to pick a scene for the times, it would be the one where the policeman asks: “Your nationality?” and receives the reply: “Alcoholic.” Me too.

Not in the clinical sense, I hasten to say. (At least, no one has given me a diagnosis or taken me aside for a Serious Talk. In my desk drawer is a small bottle of white-out, no whiskey.) But I glory in the name of casual drinker, a regular member of the sodality of people who kick back, have a drink (or not), and let the conversation go where it will. The Alcoholic, in my sense of the word, doesn’t even have to drink booze. Coffee will do– it’s not just a cute anecdote that the “public sphere” began, for Habermas, in coffee houses. Or tea. Even water, what the hell. And let’s get specific: although I could and would invite you to my house, that kind of space imposes a relation of guest to host. I have to run around looking for nuts and crackers to feed you, you are going to show good manners and disregard your cell phone, and all that kind of stuff. In a café, however, we meet as strangers and equals. That is, as particles of society at large. The weak relation of people merely coexisting in a chosen space is an oddly strong social bond, as one realizes when the possibility of doing that is threatened.

A lovely little book given me a few months ago by my friend Tim Brook lays out the case for Parisian cafés, with or without terraces, with or without juke-boxes, baby-foot, toilettes et téléphone, service à toute heure. There are many mansions in café-dom, from the stuffy to the scruffy, and Marc Augé, like the good ethnographer he is, has knocked back a coffee or a demi in a representative sample of them. He follows Maigret, Aragon, Benjamin and a host of other streetlife characters in and out of the pages of an abundant bar literature.

In light of last week’s scenes of horror– people shot dead where they sat on the terrace of the Bistrot Voltaire and suchlike, having a smoke, catching up with their friends, reading L’Équipe (you always find L’Équipe on the counter of a good bar)– this paragraph seemed to speak to me with a Benjaminian extra layer of prophecy:

” ‘Je ne fais que passer’: telle est la devise implicite du passant qui s’arrête un instant au bistrot, où il côtoie d’autres passants connus ou inconnus. Il ne fait que passer, même s’il s’attarde un peu ou si, comme aimanté par le lieu, il y passe une ou deux fois dans la même journée. Le bistrot, c’est la mesure du temps. Bien sûr parce qu’il a ses heures d’ouverture et de fermeture […] bien sûr aussi parce qu’il offre un asile à ceux qui, faute d’avoir pu maîtriser parfaitement leur emploi du temps, se trouvent soudain désoeuvrés, en avance, obligés d’attendre […] Mais aussi, et essentiellement, parce que, pour les vrais fidèles, sa fréquentation implique, plus largement, un rapport particulier avec la vie et avec la ville.”

” ‘Just passing through’– that’s the implicit motto of the passerby who stops for a few minutes in a café and stands alongside other passersby, familiar or unfamiliar. He’s just passing through, even if he stays a while or drops in once or twice more in the day as if the place exerted a magnetic power over him. A bar is a measurement of time. Naturally, because it has opening and closing hours […] and naturally because it offers a refuge to anyone who, having failed to organize their schedule perfectly, find themselves at a loose end, early for their meeting, obliged to wait. […] But also and especially because for a real devotee, hanging out at the bar attests more broadly to a special kind of relation with life and with the city.

Let’s hear it for Marc Augé, Éloge du bistrot parisien (In Praise of Parisian Cafés). Paris: Payot, 2015.

11/18/15

Cheap Moralizing, But Dressed Up to Look Expensive

The Columbia Journalism Review usually does a good job on the meta– going behind the story to get at the story of the story. But in one recent piece, their writer Danny Funt slipped up by failing to question the assumptions of the subjects of the story. And, as isn’t always the case, it matters.

The piece is about the NYT‘s resident Conservative Sage(TM), David Brooks. Brooks, you know, who writes those columns full of harrumphing about how we have lost our way as a civilization and probably deserve what’s coming to us; Brooks who is currently teaching a course at Yale with the modest title “Humility,” and who is recommended in the CJR article by such Conservative Deep Thinkers as Robert P. George of Princeton. The article adopts without demurral Brooks’s (and other American conservatives’) picture of what “morality” is and how it functions.

Brooks thinks a tradition of journalists fluent, or at least conversant, in moral concepts dissipated in recent decades. Theologians were walled off within their denominations, and public discourse about values grew dysfunctional. A life of “meaning” by today’s standard, he wrote in his Times column to begin 2015, “is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life.”

In general, Brooks contends, journalists balk at sharing moral viewpoints, and readers bristle upon receiving them. His critics find him an insufferable scold, a pompous sermonizer. “I think there is some allergy our culture has toward moral judgment of any kind,” he reflects. “There is a big relativistic strain through our society that if it feels good for you, then who am I to judge? I think that is fundamentally wrong, and I’d rather take the hits for being a moralizer than to have a public square where there’s no moral thought going on.”

So, cue up the old chestnut about “the Sixties,” when Ozzie and Harriet were replaced by Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey. Where will the “saving remnant” be found? Where are the adults? And so on.

The motif of “doing what feels good” comes up in what the CJR journalist recognizes is a “jarring” context– a context that will moreover give me my opening to start hectoring the hectorers.

At times, [Brooks] evokes moral awareness in peculiar contexts. On Meet the Press, in 2011, David Gregory asked Brooks and E.J. Dionne about the lack of accountability in the Penn State child molestation scandal.

“We have lost our clear sense of what evil is, what sin is,” Brooks said. “And so, when people see things like that, they don’t have categories to put it into. They vaguely know it’s wrong, but they’ve been raised in a morality that says, If it feels all right for you, it’s probably okay.”

“I think David is way too abstract here,” Dionne interjected, perhaps appropriately.

Now let’s back up here a little bit. The Penn State scandal was about a former assistant coach of football who took advantage of his position to force his sexual attentions on underage boys whom he had attracted to his sports-camp charity; it was also about the university hierarchy’s willingness to look the other way, as long as the football team was winning and the charity generated favorable buzz for the university. Brooks instinctively reaches for the diagnosis of Moral Weakness. The problem here is that we as a society don’t have the moral fortitude to resist those temptations! And when we see our neighbor falling prey to sensual temptations, we lack the fiber to say anything but “Hey man, whatever floats your boat”! Lacking “moral judgment of any kind”!  Is the day of reckoning not at hand?

But the Penn State problem had to do with abuse of authority and a lack of concern for the powerless. It reminds one, doesn’t it, of the repeated scandals in the Catholic Church (that other wholesale purveyor of moral-collapse narratives), where it is priests, fortified by their sacramental function, power words like “evil” and “sin,” and the small likelihood that anyone above them is going to care, who prey on young, poor and thinly supported subordinates. Under the circumstances, I would think that the moral implement to start swinging around the room is not Weakness of Will, but rather Violations of Autonomy. And what do you know, there’s even a moral theory that takes autonomy to be its central value.

The ethics of autonomy arose with the Enlightenment, as I’m sorry to remind the fans of institutional religion who so often form the amen corner for the Brooks style of moralizing. Immanuel Kant said it well: Treat every other human being, not as a means to your end, but as an end in him- or herself.

When the other human being beside you is in a condition of impaired autonomy (underage, or starving, or in a coma, or unable to say No to you), you have a special duty to be exceptionally vigilant to preserve that person’s freedom of decision. If you prevail over that person, ignoring consent or the mere possibility of consent, you have, to say the least, failed in your duty to build the Kingdom of Ends. To put it in churchy language, you have sinned against the Likeness of God that is in every human being.

So who knew? Autonomy ethics is actually capable of producing statements about right and wrong! It can even turn back on Immanuel Kant and judge his performance unfavorably, when he treated as a matter of course the alleged incapacity of Africans to govern themselves, which was handy for making slavery less of a scandal. All this is well known in most parts of the world.

But in America, the person who treats “morality” like a personal franchise is the one who peddles narratives about promiscuity and indulgence, who pretends that autonomy is the same thing as indifference, who complains that the public square is a morality-free zone, who orients discussions toward a couple of personal favorites like the “collapse” of the family, the horror of abortion, and the lack of respect for elders and the law. (If the elders hadn’t so badly screwed up when they were in charge of the law, the young might respect them a little more.)

Also in America, the “morality” line skates right past such peccadilloes as organizing a massive campaign of lies and disinformation in order to pursue a needless war resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people; covering up the cover-ups of the cover-ups, when questions were raised; depriving people of much-needed medical care in the absence of real fiscal imperatives to do so; giving refugees the heavo-ho; and so on. Those can’t be sins, because they weren’t committed by the recognized sinners. Non-procreative sex– why, there’s a sin for you.

And this Robert P. George, surely a nice man in private life, has written copiously on the crisis that is unfettered democracy, when “democratic institutions become mechanisms of injustice and oppression, thus defying the moral law to which they, like all human institutions and actions, are subject.” This “moral law,” you will have guessed, is that endorsed by his own preferred church, and in order to guarantee that no conflict will occur between civil authority and moral law, Professor George of Princeton is ready to take away portions of the autonomy (the rights) presently enjoyed by large sectors of the population who don’t belong to that church. Professor George’s maître à penser, Germain Grisez, was a little franker about his readiness to call for armed resistance to democratic “tyranny.”

To autonomy theorists, theocracy must appear immoral for the same reasons as, say, rape: forced assent to something that should absolutely be left up to the person’s rational deliberative faculties. But what do I know? I’m not a conservative columnist and I don’t teach “Humility” at Yale. I’m just mowing the Kantian grass in the green fields of relatively free speech.