07/26/18

Spoken in 1945

And yet, we are oppressed by one nightmarish idea: if a dictatorship in Hitler’s style should ever rise in America, all hope would be lost for ages. We in Germany could be freed from the outside. Once a dictatorship has been established, no liberation from within is possible. Should the Anglo-Saxon world be dictatorially conquered from within, as it were, there would no longer be an outside, nor a liberation. The freedom fought for and won… over hundreds, thousands of years would be a thing of the past. The primitivity of despotism would reign again, but with all means of technology. True, man cannot be forever enslaved; but this comfort would then be a very distant one, on a plane with Plato’s dictum that in the course of infinite time everything that is possible will here or there occur or recur as a reality. We see the feelings of moral superiority and are frightened: he who feels absolutely safe from danger is already on the way to fall victim to it.

Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt (tr. E. B. Ashton), 93.

(“Technology” was not yet in use as a euphemism for computers. In 1945 it pre-eminently meant the atomic bomb.)

 

07/13/18

Rehearsal for July 16

DONNY. Vlad, I really admire what you’ve been able to do. Strong leadership, not a peep out of your national press, the Duma is 100% behind you, and you can just reach out and grab Ukraine by the Crimea, and no problem, everybody’s fine. What’s your secret?

VLAD. Easy. I get people in a position where I have leverage over them, and then I have them poisoned if they don’t do as I say.

DONNY. Oh.

VLAD. Now about those emails…

07/12/18

Ad astra

Do you know why I would like to be named director of the Imperial Roman Space Agency? So I could launch the Petronius Orbiter.

07/7/18

Creeping Monolingualism

I know Anne Fadiman, and she’s not stupid, blinkered, or chauvinistic. Yet how impenetrable English-speakers can sometimes be to the fact that other languages exist, and count as means of communication and record! See her New Yorker piece on not liking wine, which mentions by-the-by that

Haut-Brion is generally considered the first wine ever to receive a review—by the diarist Samuel Pepys, who visited London’s Royall Oak Tavern, on April 10, 1663, and, as he noted in his journal, “here drank a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.” Haut-Brion was drunk by Dryden, Swift, Defoe, and Locke. When Thomas Jefferson was the American minister to France, he bought six cases of Haut-Brion and sent them back to Monticello.

“Generally considered” by people whose world is bounded by the approximately five hundred years of the English language that’s easy going for non-philologists, I guess. Isn’t it a pity that over the four thousand or so years that wine drinking has been going on, none of the Greeks, Romans, Italians, French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc., ever conceived of the idea of writing down their thoughts about a particular vintage? Or does something count as a “wine review” only if it’s written for English-speakers? Good thing that Pepys, Dryden, Swift, Defoe, Locke and Jefferson were on the job, otherwise the world would never have known of Ho Brian. And it’s really a pity, then, that Odysseus’s words were wasted, inasmuch as he spoke them in a remote provincial palaver unknown to humanity:

With me I had a goat-skin of the dark, sweet wine, which Maro, son of Euanthes, had given me, the priest of Apollo, the god who used to watch over Ismarus. And he had given it me because we had protected him with his child and wife out of reverence; for he dwelt in a wooded grove of Phoebus Apollo. And he gave me splendid gifts: of well-wrought gold he gave me seven talents, and he gave me a mixing-bowl all of silver; and besides these, wine, wherewith he filled twelve jars in all, wine sweet and unmixed, a drink divine. Not one of his slaves nor of the maids in his halls knew thereof, but himself and his dear wife, and one house-dame only. And as often as they drank that honey-sweet red wine he would fill one cup and pour it into twenty measures of water, and a smell would rise from the mixing-bowl marvellously sweet; then verily would one not choose to hold back. (Odyssey, book 9, tr. Murray)

And likewise the consumer report filed by Archilochus:

I know how to strike up the fine dithyrambic song of Dionysos,
when I’m blitzed with wine
(fragment 120)

For locals only?

06/29/18

Pourquoi j’aime la France

C’est parce que, dans ce pays lointain et peut-être imaginaire, il se trouve quelques centaines de passionnés des lettres pour s’en entretenir comme cette bande d’énergumènes. J’ai bien dit “lettres,” pour souligner le fait que ces lecteurs emballés ne se confinent pas à la “littérature,” mais discutent (et bien) de la philosophie, de la théologie, des lois, de plusieurs époques de la littérature latine et grecque, pour critiquer comme des supporters de foot les choix et le calendrier de la série “La Pléiade” de chez Gallimard. Leur amour sans provincialisme des choses de l’esprit me fait revivre.

06/28/18

Last of the Swingers

“If the President does it, it’s not illegal.” Back in the Watergate days, we used to hoot at that assertion, because we recognized it as a formula for dictatorship. And we’re a country of laws, not of men, or so said the civics textbooks. In our back pocket was the ultimate argument, the courts. And the Constitution, which with its separation of powers and brokering of functions, protected us from would-be dictators. We slept securely with that knowledge.

So Kennedy, the occasional swing vote on the Court, has retired. Within a few months– probably before the midterms– we will have to come up with answers to the slogan, “If the President does it and the Supreme Court condones it, it’s not illegal.”

The newspapers are all about the likely outcomes for Roe v. Wade. An important liberty was established by that decision, but not the only liberty. Let’s not forget what else might happen.

First, corruption, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the quashing of civil liberties, draconian anti-immigration measures and other devices to ensure an aging minority of very rich people retains the whip hand in this country. The Bill of Rights will be declared unconstitutional by a majority on the Court that won’t care about stare decisis, case law, controlling instances and other technical matters where law regulates itself (boiling down to such imperatives as “face the facts” and “be consistent”). The First Amendment will be reconstrued in ways that limit permissible speech and cripple the investigative powers of the press. The Second Amendment’s “well-ordered militia” clause will be reinterpreted restrictively, enabling the unlimited possession of arms by bands of irregulars, call them Tontons Macoutes or Siloviki, who terrorize the unarmed population in support of whatever the dictator’s hate campaign of the month is. And so on. If you want to know the future, look to Russia these days, or perhaps the Israel-Gaza relationship: an utterly asymmetrical power ratio between the rulers and a significant party of the ruled, and a lot of pillage going on with the approval of rubber-stamp courts.

But so long as there is enough to eat, five hundred channels of television, and some ongoing celebrity scandal, people will be cool with it, I guess. Those who aren’t cool with it are likely to put up resistance, and it will hurt. I don’t want anybody to get hurt, which is the deep reason for my belief in democracy and the separation of powers: they make it possible to mediate conflicts without the spilling of blood.

06/24/18

Philosophy of History

Further evidence that progress is a thing of the past: George W Bush’s Cabinet was full of Nixon-era revanchists. Trump’s is full of WWII-era revanchists.

06/20/18

“Obama Did It Too”

— is not a good argument. It’s a Republican talking point, which in itself warrants suspicion. But more than that, it distracts our attention from policies to personalities. Obama was good in many ways, but he wasn’t perfect, and like any American president he let some terrible policies be enacted in his time. It was (and is) our job as the American public to let Obama and any successors know when things are going wrong and justice is not being served. Our job is not to cheer on the sidelines of some fantasized Obama-Trump or Hillary-Trump smackdown.

06/18/18

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.

 

06/12/18

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.

 

06/11/18

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”

 

05/26/18

Lavengro

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

05/8/18

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.

05/1/18

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.

04/27/18

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.

04/26/18

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.

04/15/18

Dehumanized

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.