10/18/14

Rosy-Fingered Barbara

One morning a few years ago, I was riding to the office after dropping off the kids at school. Slightly ahead of me, somebody opened the door of a parked car without looking back. I swerved, so the door didn’t hit me, but the kid trailer tangled with the edge of the door and left a scratch on it. Nobody was hurt. I stopped to size up the situation. It was obviously the driver’s fault– you’re supposed to look in the mirror before you open a door on a public street– but she wanted very much to put the matter on another footing. “You bicyclists!” she started out. “You guys just run all the stop signs and act like you own the streets. You must think having a fancy bicycle gives you the right to break the law! And I’m sick and tired of it! And now here you come along scratching my car! You’re going to pay for the damage!”

I tried to point out the irrelevance of these remarks and to get the discussion back to its main point, as I saw it, which was that we’d been lucky nobody got hurt and I hoped she would look in the mirror next time, and too bad about the scratch but it wasn’t something I was responsible for.

Eventually we exhausted our stock of pleasantries and I got back on the road. But the exchange reminded me quite specifically of something I usually try to avoid, but can’t entirely ignore. Namely, public discussion in the era of the comments page.

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10/13/14

Philosophy Begins in Wonder

The University of Otago’s Department of Philosophy gives the curious visitor a roisterous picture of the life of the mind in Dunedin.

[The first hire in 1871,] Duncan McGregor, a graduate of the University of Aberdeen… was an electrifying lecturer with a well-developed ‘will to truth’ and pungent opinions on a variety of topics. … When it came to social policy, he thought that the ‘hopelessly lazy, the diseased, and [the] vicious’ should be incarcerated for life as a humane alternative to the process of Darwinian selection which would otherwise have weeded them out. McGregor resigned in 1886… and, fortified by his fifteen years as a philosopher, went on to become the Inspector–General of Lunatic Asylums.

[J. N.] Findlay … devoted a Sabbatical to sitting at the feet of Wittgenstein in Cambridge and acting as his official ‘stooge’. (His job was to feed Wittgenstein tough questions when the painfully long silences became too excruciating.) But before he could take up his position as stooge he had to own up to his philosophical sins. Sitting in a Cambridge milk-bar, Findlay had to confess to the frightful crime of having visited Rudolf Carnap in Chicago. Wittgenstein was magnanimous. ‘[He] said that he did not mind except that he would lose his milk-shake if Carnap [were] mentioned again.’

At a conference in Florence, [Alan] Musgrave read a typically forceful paper ‘Conceptual Idealism and Stove’s Gem’ which concluded with the ringing words: ‘Conceptual Idealism is a ludicrous and anti-scientific view of the world. … We should take science seriously, reject the Gem for the invalid argument that it is, and abandon the idealism to which it leads.’ There was a burst of applause followed by dead silence. The chairman, to get things going, asked if there any conceptual idealists present who would like to comment on Professor Musgrave’s paper. ‘Not any more’, came a voice from the back.

Every academic department should write a history in this mode. For the whole (delightful) thing, go to http://www.otago.ac.nz/philosophy/history.html.

For the philologically minded: the department’s Maori name is Te Tari Whakaaroaro. The dictionary tells me that “whakaaroaro” means “reflection or “meditation” but the elements, “whaka” plus “aroaro,” seem to add up to “making present that which is present.” Anyone with better insight into the history and connotations of the term is invited to straighten us out in the comments box.

10/7/14

Ebb and wane

The penguin trudged up the beach at the end of the day like a tired commuter returning home.

The tired commuter returned home like a penguin trudging up the beach at the end of the day.

09/30/14

Meeting the Boss

And now for a word from our sponsor. Here is the Coffea arabica tree, just starting to bud. I owe these green leafy fellows more than I can say. O Kaffeebaum, O Kaffeebaum, the forest shade thy berries!

coffea-arabica

09/18/14

Announcing “Travel Pentimento”

For a fee, we will take away the unnecessary things you’ve packed (as you realize, having arrived at your destination and sized up the weather or the social expectations), fly to your closet back home, pull out the things you should have brought, and bring them back to you, wherever you are. How much of a fee? If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be asking.

09/14/14

Childcare in the Mode of the Gift

“We recognize that all tamariki come to us with their own mana. As such, the mana of our tamariki will be respected and kept intact at all times and in all situations. We preserve their mauri and their wairua alike.”

Sign me and my tamariki up! And if it’s not an impiety to do so, list Marcel Mauss as godfather.

09/14/14

Thrown For a Loop

The disorientation of the first days in a new country is familiar. The vowels are different; the natives have their own ways of packaging yogurt; you don’t know how to pay for the bus; people around you are helpful, amused, impatient, or all of these. But to look up into the night sky and see different stars– that’s almost the stuff of science fiction.

09/6/14

The Hoax of the Hoax

I was bracing myself for a round of Sokal-ish denunciations of “theory” and its supposed empire after it was revealed that Slavoj Zizek had lifted some paragraphs from a white-supremacist publication in an article he published a few years ago in Critical Inquiry. But maybe it was summer (the equivalent of the weekend in national news) and nobody was noticing. Or maybe nobody cares enough to shout. Continue reading

09/5/14

Everybody’s Crying Mercy

A. If he had tweeted, “Condoleeza Rice. Justifying racism since 2000,” I hope you would have been offended, even if you don’t like Condoleeza Rice.

If he had forwarded a tweet that called for Nicholas Kristof to be stabbed in a dark alley, I hope you would recognize this as a threat to journalistic freedom, even if you think Nicholas Kristof is a bit of a bore.

B. If a Provost is groping around for a Value on which to build a free-speech doctrine that will exclude the harmful stuff and enable the good, “respect” is a terrible candidate for such Value-mongering. Every small-time bully goes around looking for “respect.” The Geocentrists are offended that Heliocentrism is taught to freshmen. The religious misogynists are convinced that the provision of gynecological services to adult women on campus is an affront to their need for “respect.” Everyone’s appetite for “respect” is infinite. There is no way such a Value can contain a check on tyranny.

What you should have done, O Provost in charge of speech policy, is enunciate clearly the kinds of speech that are not protected. Threats of violence or retaliation, expressions of group hatred, that sort of thing. You don’t want to have a chilling effect. Thinking and exchange can and maybe should disturb, if they are to be effective. But the “freedom” to bully diminishes the freedom of the bullied and corrupts the space of conversation. And you don’t want to give yourself an unchecked authority to decide what demands for “respect” are going to be honored, and which not. Unless that was the point.

C. Brothers and sisters in the profession, “academic freedom” is not “the freedom you have because you’re an academic.” It is the freedom to do and say certain things without fear of retaliation, in the service of teaching and research. One grants the distinction readily in cases of cheating or plagiarism– such people have forgone the academic purpose. I think it would be neither wise nor moral to grant ourselves special caste prerogatives. People resent us enough already.

 

08/31/14

Michael Toussaint Stowers

We at Printculture mourn the death on August 29 of our sometime contributor, questioner, joker, friend and all-round gadfly. If ever proof was needed that electronically mediated friendships can be as solid as those In Real Life, Michael’s many friends can provide it. Michael, we are hobbled without you.

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I met Michael at a conference at Cambridge where the remit was to show how the humanities and sciences could learn from each other. My piece was an attempt to reread Dilthey’s famous distinction between the natural sciences, which explain, and the human sciences, which interpret– and I forget what new spin I was trying to bring to the familiar chestnut. Michael came up afterwards and, in that quiet, diffident tone that in England usually signals that the speaker really knows what he’s talking about, confessed to being an engineer and raised a few questions about my talk, easily the best questions I got on that outing. We got into the habit of email exchanges about methodology, music, medicine, melancholia, and other marvels, and I’m proud that here on PC we occasionally said something that made him rush to his keyboard. He was someone I was counting on hearing from for many years to come.

08/20/14

War Theology

Karl Barth was studying theology in Berlin in August 1914. He later recalled that

The actual end of the 19th century as the ‘good old days’ came for theology as for everything else with the fateful year of 1914.  … One day in early August 1914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war-policy of Wilhelm II and his counsellors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. (Barth, “Evangelical Theology in the Nineteenth Century,” The Humanity of God, p. 14)

The “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three” was probably copied from press releases of the propaganda department. It strikes the usual notes of hypocritical humanism: no German soldier ever committed an atrocity, it was “with aching hearts [that they] were obliged to fire a part of the town [of Louvain], as punishment,” the “wild Russian hordes” are the real danger to civilization, and so forth. Anything bad you might have heard about the German armies is just a fantasy of the perfidious British and French propaganda units. Bits of it are still being recycled today, wherever the bullets fly and after-action press conferences are held. 

Here is the university library of Louvain, before and after the passage of the troops:

la-bibliothc3a8que-de-louvain-avant-lincendie1

pc-belgium-louvain-destruct-72

The main author of the “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three” (published apparently in October, not August 1914) was Adolf von Harnack, the historian of early Christian dogma, first president of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gesellschaft (precursor of modern research institutions), etc., etc. Now a German professor of the nineteenth century had to be one of the proudest individuals on the face of the earth. His wife made him coffee; his adoring students poured him tea and copied down his every remark; he was the lord and master of his seminar room; he wrote books of never less than 1000 pages in order to confute his enemies; he went about in a silk hat and was addressed as “Herr Doktor Professor” or, if he had an administrative appointment, as “Eminenz.” If one was Harnack, one made a special point of insisting that no institution, no Church or State, could prevail against the demands of the individual conscience (see Das Wesen des Christentums [1902], pp. 171-172). Here is Harnack at the dedication of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gesellschaft in 1911, walking on the left side of the Kaiser, in his silk hat:

Einweihung des Kaiser-Wilhelm-Instituts in Dahlem

A proud man, a fine man, a much respected man, but not, in this instance, a very courageous or independent man. Rather, he assumed that the wind was at his back and that everybody thought the way the General Staff thought.

So before signing a petition that all your friends are signing, pause to think about Adolf von Harnack. And about Karl Barth, who went back home and tried to live out his personal reading of the Gospels by joining a workers’ cooperative. (Lucky man, he had a Switzerland to go home to.)

schweiz

08/14/14

The Black Box of Speech

– What’s in the box?

— Speech!

— Oh, that’s great. I love speech!

— Want to help me carry it across that border?

— Sure! And I know you were going to ask me if I wanted to see what’s in the box, but I love speech so much that I’m not even going to ask, to show you how much I love speech. Just tie that box right here, on the top of my backpack, and I’m off! See you later!

That is the role I feel I am being asked to play by many of my insistent friends who are outraged about the University of Illinois’ decision to rescind a job offer made to Stephen Salaita, previously an associate professor (thus, tenured) at Virginia Tech. The University of Illinois hasn’t made clear the specifics of the decision, and it’s unlikely that they will, since it was made at the level of the president’s office, and college presidents are permanently lawyered up and speak only through a mask of precautionary obfuscation. My pals are outraged at what they see as an anti-Palestinian, pro-Israeli decision, an affront to free speech everywhere, an unconscionable attack on the principle of academic freedom, and have been making scabrous personal comments on the people who have spoken in favor of the decision. Obviously, as a tenured academic interested in free speech I am supposed to jump to the aid of Professor Salaita.

Except that I don’t know what’s in that box.

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08/7/14

Cannibal Doctrine

From Ruth Margalit in the New Yorker I learn about the “Hannibal Doctrine,” a long-confidential directive in the Israeli army to let no soldier be taken captive. But not in the sense you might think (protect the troops at any cost, save Private Ryan, leave no man behind). Rather, an all-out attack is permitted, nay mandated, on any hostage-takers and their hostage, at the discretion of commanders in the field. This means, from the point of view of the average grunt, that you are quite likely to be killed by your own platoon if it looks as if you might be taken prisoner.

The doctrine was kept a secret because of its obvious bad effects on morale. Why go to war if the guys at your back are as ready to kill you, under certain circumstances, as the guys opposing you? But I want to think for a moment about its further effects on the army and its place in society. (In case you don’t know me, I’ve never been a soldier and have no credentials as a military historian. I just read history and think about how different societies are organized.)

Effect number one: the Masada complex. For a small number of soldiers, I guess, this doctrine– “better dead than a POW”– motivates them to all-out fighting and unconditional destruction of the enemy. Think about a high level of armament backed up by a suicide pact. To be affected by the Masada complex, though, you have to be powerfully indoctrinated: I am nothing, you have to think, except insofar as my life serves the State of Israel.

Effect number two: buyer’s remorse. For what is the problem about Israeli soldiers being taken captive? No one supposes they are treated like visiting dignitaries while being held, but the thing mentioned in the article is the public-relations problem that is caused for the army by the names and faces of captive soldiers being broadcast every night on the evening news. A source interviewed for the article acknowledges that the Hannibal Doctrine

sounds terrible, but you have to consider it within the framework of the [Gilad] Shalit deal. That was five years of torment for this country, where every newscast would end with how many days Shalit had been in captivity. It’s like a wound that just never heals.

So a moral calculus begins to come into focus. The death of an individual soldier, say Gilad Shalit, is weighed in the balance against the discomfort provoked in Israeli living rooms by five years of newscasts and found wanting. Perversely, sadistically, Hamas kept him alive. It would have been better, says this logic, for him to be killed right away. Better his family receive a terse telegram beginning “Greetings:” than that the army and the cabinet be pestered by citizens wanting to see Gilad Shalit released. Better that an Israeli life be snuffed out than that the government be seen engaging in negotiations with the enemy. If I were a young man in uniform, this would give me a very sour feeling at the pit of my stomach. A feeling that says, You stupid grunt, you’re worth nothing outside the purposes of the State of Israel.

Third effect: the corrosion of civil society. The Geneva Conventions and the history of custom leading up to them were meant to make war less hard on the fighting man. The founder of the Red Cross was led to his mission by seeing the wanton destruction of life and limb on a small European battlefield. For a long time there had been respect of the life and exchange value of officers; Geneva extended such protection to the enlisted man, a step consistent with the spread of democratic norms. Where there is a recognized status of prisoner-of-war, and a hope of decent treatment and return home (conditioned on acceptance of prisoner status), civilization wins a point even in the midst of war. Refusing to let the machinery of civilization operate even in this way, refusing to let one’s men be taken prisoner and to treat the prisoners one takes with the legal proprieties, enlarges the empire of barbarism. We all then move (as the US did in the 2000s) a step closer to the apocalyptic utterance of Conrad’s villain: “Exterminate the brutes!”

It’s been a long time since I was in Sunday School, but I seem to remember a certain monstrous idol named Moloch to whom the Hebrews were forced to sacrifice their children. Was Moloch’s only crime, in the end, to be identified with the wrong side?

 

07/31/14

Low-Information. High-Indignation.

One of my relatives is a reliable supplier of Tea Party propaganda. It’s useful to know what people think the hot issues of the day are, and how we as a nation should be responding to them. This morning I received the following item from my relative, forwarded from Soldier of Fortune magazine:

oil

 

So it appears that some self-styled conservatives don’t know the first thing about how free markets work– and they are supposed to be the ones pushing the idea of free markets.

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07/26/14

The Communicative Action of Trolls

Habermas’s theory of communicative action rests on the idea that social order ultimately depends on the capacity of actors to recognize the intersubjective validity of the different claims on which social cooperation depends. In conceiving cooperation in relation to validity claims, Habermas highlights its rational and cognitive character: to recognize the validity of such claims is to presume that good reasons could be given to justify them in the face of criticism.

Thus spake the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Those of us who have been participating since, say, 1993 in humanity’s biggest communicative enterprise so far will recognize the problem: that there are plenty of actors who are not at all interested in “intersubjective validity” or “social cooperation,” but hijack the rituals of conversation. Trolls, griefers, astroturfers, bots of various make… One’s impulse is to treat such people as flies in the ointment, parasites, bugs, noise– exceptions that crop up alongside a better rule. But proper confrontation with any paradoxical consequence, not sweeping under the rug, is what is needed, if we are ever going to work out this rationality thing. What if we were all secretly trolls? How would that affect communicative behavior going forward?

07/23/14

Fish, Bicycles, etc.

Le Monde, nearing its 70th anniversary, has been running a series of “remember when” articles. Today’s is about the first time a woman was named to head up one of its daily sections. The section was Culture, the year was 1971, and the nominee was Yvonne Baby.

“How will she manage to show up for work at 7 in the morning, when we do the layout?”

“I was wondering how you’d handle the evenings out, theater showings, art galleries, cinema, and all that with your two boys at home.”

“Journalism is a hellhole of a profession… How old are you? Fine: at that age, you’re not going to have any more children.”

(Spoken to a journalist wearing a granny dress) “So you’re pregnant?”

C’est à vous rendre féministe! But at least they have the excuse that the date was 1971.

 

07/18/14

Mugged

Irving Kristol famously said that a conservative is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” But when you look at the record of some of the people who proudly wear that slogan on their sleeve (e.g., Melanie Phillips, who doesn’t believe in vaccination or the dangers of climate change but thinks that Blair’s advocacy of war in Iraq “showed a very high level of courage and statesmanship“) it appears they were mugged by an alternate reality.

(Thanks, I guess, to Ellen for reminding me of this Murdoch scribbler.)