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.

 

03/21/18

Another Fifteen Minutes

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

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

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

03/4/18

Insomnia Mashup

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

02/23/18

The Goldberg Variations Variations

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

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

02/20/18

My Cousin the Bot

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

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

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

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

And here’s the international ranking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

01/18/18

Unlike Fine Wine

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

01/12/18

Faculty Psychology

I confess to a fondness for the old psychology of the faculties, where neatly differentiated components like Sentience, Judgment and Will are labeled, articulated and shown to work like the parts of a pinball machine. Assume that these faculties are housed in distinct organs, like the ones down in the belly, and phrenology is the result. Within the disciplines of the mind sciences, this way of thinking is way out of date, just one step up from the homunculus or “little man inside the head” model. But if we adjust the scope to focus not on the individual brain, but on the organized group, it begins to make some sense; and since, as Vygotsky, Dewey and so many others tried to teach us, thinking is a social act, the transfer from mind to social practice is easy.

I think of the newspaper– the classic newspaper developed under liberal-democratic governance, in stages from around 1750 to just recently– as an example of faculty psychology write large. It is a way of organizing intellectual labor for certain ends and against certain defects. To idealize somewhat (so don’t object that this is indeed an idealization), you have the Fact department, the Editorial department, and the Business office. The Fact reporters are out there working the pavement and the telephone lines. What happened, who did it, to whom, how, why, and what happened next. The Editorial writers sit in their cubicles wreathing elaborate smoke rings of fantasized verdicts and futures around the odds and ends brought in by Fact. What does this mean, what must we think, if we accept this, what possible objection will be have against that, where are we going. The Editorial writers have no business intervening with the Fact seekers. If anything, the Fact people have the right to go upstairs and spike a story concocted by the Editorialists if it turns out to be based on no facts or an incorrect assessment of facts given. Meanwhile, the Business office is drumming up advertising and subscription revenue– autonomously, it is expected. It would raise a stink if a story reported by Fact or a view suggested by Editorial were to be swayed by considerations of Business (say, by a threat on the part of a major tobacco advertiser to pull their full-page cigarette ads if the paper goes ahead and prints a story about smoking and lung cancer). It would also raise a stink if the editor-in-chief decided that an important piece of reportage needed to be shelved because the readers wouldn’t like it. Of course, when I say I idealize, I don’t mean that such interventions across the boundary of “church and state” (newspaper slang for the division between news and sales) never happened. Of course they happened, probably all the time, and it’s a wonder that the Fact people ever got their jobs done. But when we find out about it, we’re scandalized, and we are right to be so because the large-circulation newspaper, purporting to represent facts as they are together with opinions reasonably arrived at, is a form of thought-processing, and its corruption is a menace to the general interest. “Corruption” in the circles I inhabit means the subornation of the fact and judgment processes by the business process– not the other way around. (I suppose there are hard-core monopolists who usually take corruption to be the production of untoward facts by people heedless of the bottom line. Such people tend to denounce everything newsworthy as “fake.”)

Compare this differentiated and constitutionally hierarchicized processing of news with the non-transparence of e.g. Facebook. You don’t know where the facts come from, who represents them, and the role of money-making interest in publishing them is completely obscure. Enough reason to refuse to pay the slightest attention to that channel.

And as a further thought on the differences between Mother Jones and the New York Times on reporting the Steele/Russia/collusion story: it seems to me out of place to blame the NYT as a whole for shoddy work. I know this brings satisfaction to some; I have often hated the Times’s stupidity in reporting on and instigating American murderous intent and action in Haiti, Iraq, and a few other places. It would be good to know– for the health of the Times and of democracy in this country– exactly how the decision was taken to report in early November 2016 that there was no news about collusion, when every indication since then has been that there was.

01/12/18

Holes

The content of the remarks– don’t pretend you didn’t already know that that’s how the man thinks.

The purpose– to assert dominance. Over refugees and potential refugees, certainly. Over political opponents (shamelessness sends the signal “this is what I say and you can’t do a damned thing about it”). And, with the addition of a gaslighting episode on the day after, the power to assert control over reality (“it never happened if I say it never happened, see?”).

I hope some minds that needed changing are changed.

01/9/18

Man Sees Horse 人見馬 (Reprise)

In Ernest Fenollosa’s essay The Chinese Written Character as a Medium of Poetry, made famous by Ezra Pound, some quaint things are said about Chinese writing as a system of “shorthand depictions” of material things, “moving pictures” of objects and actions, and possibly the future language of the whole world. I’ve written about this primitivist paradox before, but never stopped to think what the Fenollosa/Pound piece would mean to people who really do experience language as a sequence of moving images. By that I don’t mean “the Chinese” (the only Chinese who qualify under this description would be scribes who have forgotten what languages they spoke) but, for example, Deaf people, and preeminently the poets who have wrestled ASL away from its status as an accessory language useful only for mediating English to non-hearing people. If you know Peter Cook’s work, you’ve seen ASL poetry in all its resourcefulness, grabbing, twisting and sculpting its signifiers and pointing toward meanings that it would take a long, patient gloss to make available to mere English-speakers like me. Here are a couple of short poems based on Chinese-character anecdotes taken from Fenollosa (Youtube, at 32:40; but you ought to watch the whole presentation).

01/8/18

Still Harping on about Factoids

From the 2018 MLA panel on science studies in the age of “alternative facts.”

Many of us have felt that we’re living in a time out of joint, when evidence and reasoned argument can be thrown aside by people with enough money to buy enough megaphones to promote their vested interests; this is not how it’s supposed to work, because facts are supposed to be stubborn things, and a lie should always be weaker than the truth. In his 2004 essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” and his recent Facing Gaia, Latour shows that if the unyielding stubbornness of the fact has been an article of faith for modern people, the invincible power of interest has caused many people to put their efforts into rolling back modernity, and in doing so they’ve echoed the language that many of us used to prise apart the grip that other vested interests held on such “facts” as immutable human nature, racial and gender determinism, the hierarchies of class, and so forth. As the Republican strategist Frank Luntz never tires of saying, in trying to gainsay the consensus on the part of geologists and climatologists that global warming is real and human industrial activity has accelerated it, one doesn’t need to offer a single fact in evidence; one merely needs to drum up a discussion that will be taken for a “lack of scientific certainty” about the conclusions. The climate deniers will create an ambiance in which the threshold for proclaiming something a “fact” is impossibly high, and then parlay that into an illusion that the spread of yes/no answers on the question is something like 50/50, when it is really something much closer to 100/0, although the preponderance of money and megaphones is with the minority that has an interest in perpetuating uncertainty and thus delaying any action to slow the pace of global warming.

I don’t endorse climate-change denial and I think the pretense of a debate around the issue is one of the more deplorable tricks in the history of manipulation. But I do acknowledge that some of the moves used by those manipulators have been indispensable to me in my own career of teaching and learning—and indeed they should be. Uncertainty, if I may echo James Bond, is my business, and it’s yours too if you want to make your hearers analytic rather than dogmatic thinkers. Whenever I come on a buried certainty in my repertoire of thought positions, I try to loosen it by asking: Is this really a regularity, or am I indulging in confirmation bias when I tell myself that “Xs always do Y?” Do the regularities amount to a rule, or a delicately cultivated anecdote? Do further examples confirm the scope of the category, or undermine it? Where are the counterexamples? And so on. Outside of my personal thinking and reading practice, I use such techniques in the classroom, always with the intent of dislodging, with this rhetorical WD-40, the frozen certainties of students who tell me, fresh as they are from family or hometown preconceptions, that individualism is un-Chinese, that God created Adam and Eve in preference to Adam and Steve, that men are rational and women are emotional, or what not. What about this counterexample? What about that fact? Are you so sure? Maintaining a lack of certainty about many positions that come naturally to the people of this or that milieu is how we in the humanities earn our keep. We make sure that debate goes forward, that positions don’t get dug in, and (maybe) that new kinds of identity and interest get a chance to speak up. We can do this without ever breathing the heady syllables of “postmodernism,” which some editorial-writers in a race to file copy by deadline have blamed for the era of “alternative facts” in which we now are said to live. As if a philosophical critique of one epistemological model had somehow paralyzed the critical faculties of a 350-million-member public and left us with no means of crying foul when nonsense is promulgated.

Latour’s solution is like that of the driver in the snow. You all remember the rule: when your car begins to spin and lose traction, don’t clamp on the brakes and try to achieve an already long-gone stasis, but turn the steering wheel in the direction of the skid and try to get out of it by going into it. Latour discerns in the appeal to facts-as-they-are a remnant of that old fact-vs-interpretation distinction, correlative to the nature-vs-culture distinction, that marked a long moment in the sociology of knowledge but was never really satisfactory anyhow, and now comes up against its nemesis, the newly tightened citizenship qualifications for admission to the realm of fact that exclude almost every possible candidate and leave us all floundering in a snowscape of “perceptions,” chacun à son goût. His proposal is to improve the quality of debate by agreeing that a fact is a socially constructed thing, but to point out that a social construction is by no means a fictive cobweb that can be dispelled with a gesture of the voluntarist hand. Criticism is never just a matter of pointing out the other person has got the facts wrong! Let us enlarge the definition of “society” that impels the social construction, by widening the group of stakeholders to include the agents and networks so prominent in his account of epistemological behavior. Let us not make everything hinge on the existence of facts, a supposedly apolitical starting point, but on the recruitment of a majority among these newly nominated agents.

 

As I read Latour’s recent work, they led me to think of two readings of the following passage from James Weldon Johnson’s great novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, first published anonymously in 1912. I’ll first introduce and read the passage, then summarize it under reading A, then under reading B.

 

[A Texan, a Yankee profiting from the Southern economy, a Unionist veteran, a Jew, and the novel’s title character, a mixed-race man able to pass for black or white according to the circumstances, are all together in the smoking car of a train discussing American racial politics. Some approve of segregation, some question it, some proclaim it a necessity owing to the inherent superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. After hearing out arguments to the effect that the Anglo-Saxon race never invented anything, does not deserve its present supremacy, and is fated to go down like every other master race in previous history, the pro-segregationist Texan answers by pulling out and passing around a flask of whiskey, saying, “Well, that may be, but facts is facts, and we’re not gonna have no colored people ruling over us, and that’s the end of it.”

 

            “The Texan’s position does not render things so hopeless, for it indicates that the main difficulty of the race question does not lie so much in the actual condition of the blacks as it does in the mental attitude of the whites; and a mental attitude, especially one not based on truth, can be changed more easily than actual conditions. That is to say, the burden of the question is not that the whites are struggling to save ten million despondent and moribund people from sinking into a hopeless slough of ignorance, poverty and barbarity in their very midst, but that they are unwilling to open certain doors of opportunity and to accord certain treatment to ten million aspiring, education-and-property-acquiring people. In a word, the difficulty of the problem is not so much due to the facts presented, as to the hypothesis assumed for its solution. In this it is similar to the problem of the Solar System. By a complex, confusing and almost contradictory mathematical process, by the use of zigzags instead of straight lines, the earth can be proved the center of things celestial; but in an operation so simple that it can be comprehended by a schoolboy, its position can be verified among the other worlds which revolve around the sun, and its movements harmonized with the laws of the universe. So, when the white race assumes as a hypothesis that it is the main object of creation, and that all things else are merely subsidiary to its well being, sophism, subterfuge, perversion of conscience, arrogance, injustice, oppression, cruelty, sacrifice of human blood, all are required to maintain the position, and its dealings with other races become indeed a problem, a problem which, if based on a hypothesis of common humanity, could be solved by the simple rules of justice.” — James Weldon Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), in Writings (New York: Library of America, 2004), 101.

 

Reading A: The doctrine of white supremacy is as absurd as the geocentric hypothesis. In cosmology there are facts, which everybody who is modern since Copernicus has already learned to accept. You white supremacists are, like the remaining geocentricists if there are any, backward, brainwashed, dogmatic and are wasting your mental energy trying to prove a thing that is inherently and obviously false. You are obsolete. You can go on deluding yourselves until the end of time, and if so, good luck to you, but you’ll never achieve anything that way. On the other hand, the simple rules of justice would do away with the problem (proving the superiority of the white race) and the means for its pseudo-solution (oppressing everyone who is not white).

 

Reading B: We, the actually existing majority, have agreed on a hypothesis (a matter of concern) that entails certain facts, and these facts are different from the ones that are required by your hypothesis; moreover, the consequences of the majority’s hypothesis are beneficial whereas the consequences of your hypothesis are entirely destructive, even to yourselves. At least one book that represents this point of view exists; it is in your hands, you have just heard our arguments, and others will follow to present better and richer arguments. We tell you therefore that you may have your so-called facts, but only to be voted down again and again, and the Occam’s Razor that will doom you to futility is the greater epistemic efficiency and broader appeal of the hypothesis we are putting forth.

 

– Faith in progress. The geocentric cosmos giving way to the heliocentric cosmos is not just an illustration—it is the example of examples, the displacement that put us all in our proper place and taught us how to think and observe. Social equality is inevitable, like the victory of science over ignorance.

As I used to read the passage, this was the main ingredient. Now when I reread it with attention to the orchestration of “matters of fact” with “matters of concern,” other components push their way forward and become more and more the drivers of the passage’s logic:

– Its refusal to engage in the reality of “races” (the vast domain of dubious “facts” that constitute race science, alas alive and well in popular thought today).

– Fantasy of democratic efficiency. If only voices were not suppressed, truth would out. The energy that currently goes to suppressing them could be reoriented to productive ends.

 

Whether you follow reading A, emphasizing the matters of fact, or reading B, emphasizing the social matters of concern, the persuasiveness of the paragraph still depends on logic and the summoning-up of an as yet imaginary forum to debate it all. And unfortunately, in the United States, as in many places, we are still trying to get a quorum for social equality, as we are struggling to get one for many other matters previously thought to be in the domain of scientific authority and now allegedly left up to the whim of lobbyists and billionaires. And the notion of a community of Latourian agents might not be a definitive solution to the problem of bought opinion, because, as we know today, money can buy you quite a few bots, virtual humans often taken by physical humans to be fellow-beings, fully qualified as agents under almost any reading of Latour’s account of the sociology of science, and quicker to multiply than you and I are, though their purpose is to confuse and drown out rival views.

Still, I think there is a purpose in summoning-up. That would be our job, as professionals of language and argument: a linguistic act that requires us to exercise the phatic, conative, and poetic functions, rather than make everything rest on the referential/constative dimension of language which is not traditionally within our docket. Latour’s critical performance in Facing Gaia summons us, as the people most receptive to his summons, to go out and summon up the enlarged public along lines he sketches out. I think there are few more timely tasks for the imagination.

 

12/8/17

In Astonishing Victory for Feminism, Democrats Hand Over Control of Women’s Bodies to Republicans for Foreseeable Future

We send people to Congress to do a job: to write laws, vote on laws, and make speeches about legislation. If they do this job badly, we vote them out and send somebody else. We don’t send them there to be saints, to exhibit perfection of character, to be celebrities, or to be mirrors of our ideal selves.

If you think celebrities are what character and political principle are all about, then I can’t help you.

Watch television, go on Facebook, but don’t confuse these recreational activities with the making of laws. Now millions of people will be enduring the consequences of this skewed sense of priorities.

If this sends you into a tizzy and you think you have to accuse me of covering up for rapists, etc., no, that’s not what it’s about; it’s about keeping score where score-keeping counts. Your Purity League is, for me, an annex of the Trumpist Party (which has no Purity League; they couldn’t care less about the virtue of their representatives). Objective allies, as we used to say.