05/17/15

Listen to Your Elders

Jean-Luc Godard, at 84, can still do a good enfant terrible. See Sofilm #30 (May 2015):

–Since you’re interested in History, what do you think about the Greek demand that Germany pay them war indemnities?

— They’re completely right to do so! And I suggest you watch Chris Marker’s film The Owl’s Legacy” which shows how we owe everything to Greek thought, which lasted two thousand years. He even shows it influencing Japan. Give yourself one evening to watch “The Owl’s Legacy” and you’ve solved the Greek-European-German problem. Europe and Germany ought to get down on their knees and say thank you to Greece. That’s all. Every time you utter a sentence and you use the word “therefore,” the Greeks ought to get ten dollars of royalties, and that would take care of the Greek debt.

— Do you consider yourself an “auteur”?

— These days everybody’s an “auteur.” The guy who claps the clapperboard wants to be the auteur of the clap. This question of royalties has swollen to grotesque proportions, especially with the Internet. … I got paid, and I don’t have any further rights in it. Afterward, let people do what they want. If they want to make off with the film, it’s not my business. A director should know how much he wants to be paid for his film, and once he’s received that, he can just hand over the excess to Amnesty or the Red Cross. …

The whole idea of intellectual property, of patents and copyrights, goes right over my head. I don’t even know who came up with three quarters of the dialogues in my films, I don’t write them down. I take snippets that interest me and I don’t care about the rights. If somebody sues me– but nobody ever has; sometimes I’d have welcomed a lawsuit. Once Anne-Marie [Miéville] and I were imagining she might sue me, just to create the precedent… Bottom line, it’s just literature, because it doesn’t exist except through texts, on paper. When the judge sentences you and says, “By virtue of the law such-and-such,” somebody is the author of that law too, and often the law bears the name of its author, the Tom-Dick-and-Harry Act, and so on. In France, there’s the Evin Act that regulates smoking. Somebody should ask the judge, “And how about you, are you paying royalties to M. Evin?”

— So the idea of the “auteur” is misused?

— Absolutely, but there’s a lot of money riding on this kind of thing, they put a sixty-year limit on it, pretty much the same time they put on archives before they’re declassified. What about news agencies, what royalties do they handle? Plenty of dead people have never seen a penny of their royalties. Three-quarters of the pictures in the paper come without a statement of ownership, you see a guy in poverty, a drowned girl. The TV stations and newspapers could put a little money aside and try to find out who really owns that. When there’s a close-up on the front page of the paper, the photographer got his salary, but the crash victim, she never got a penny. There are thousands of cases like this.

— The industry’s terrified of the Internet.

— Yeah, but “the industry,” it’s like “the market,” it’s made up of men and women. People say “the markets” the way they’d say “the dragons.”…

— Why did you give up your studio?… And are you happy like this?

— If you’re even slightly well-off, if you have a roof over your head, if you manage to think a little on your own, and have a few people around you that you can talk to, some landscapes and a dog, that’s such a huge stroke of luck that in some ways you just say: this is an amazing world. Because for a long time, it was changing and nobody saw it change; today, three-quarters of people can see that it’s changing right before their eyes. Whether it’s climate, politics, whatever…. People feel that it’s changing, and it’s beyond their control. …

Merci Jean-Luc.

(Translated HS. In the spirit of the interview, I didn’t ask anyone’s permission.)

 

05/7/15

Taking and Giving Offense

Something came full circle the other day. On a mailing list for historians of France, H-FRANCE, someone had asked for good teaching materials about the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent events. Many suggestions came forth, including some of the commentaries that blame the Charlie journalists for being Islamophobic (a view more common in the US and UK than in France). And this too:

As a former journalist in Charlie, really offended by what I read about my ex-magazine (a real antiracist newspaper who just did laugh about fanatics of all religions), I would love to be part of the discussion by adding this article : http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/7185898

Thank you, Caroline Fourest

I would never deny Caroline Fourest the right to be “offended” by what she reads. I don’t doubt that her feelings are sincere. “Offended,” in this case, means “outraged to read things said about this group that I, as a member of the group, am sure are not true.”

Being offended has become the primary channel of response to works of art and the intellect, it seems to me sometimes. Not that everyone acts on their offense by pulling out the automatic weapons, mercifully; but rare it is that anybody bothers to pause and think about how something might have been constructed, or how one’s own perception delicately interacts with properties of the message proposed, or whether there is a looming situation or context that predetermines the way something will be taken– in short, whether there are mitigating factors. People are offended, they demand that the offending word be taken back or eliminated, and they usually preface their declarations with an “As…” clause. “As a former Comcast subscriber,” “As a graduate of a non-Ivy institution,” “As a sufferer from myopia,” I hereby announce to you that your words or images have the effect of demeaning me in the eyes of the world, and I call on you to retract, apologize, and right this wrong.

The judgment of offense is easier to put forth than the judgment of taste (at least as Manny Kant formulated it) because the latter seeks recognition as a “universal,” whereas to be offended, all you have to do is name yourself as a member of a group and claim that your particular group is wronged. And far from being “universal,” the judgment of offense can’t be subjected to dialectical testing (I can’t say “no, you’re not offended”; I can barely say, “you have no reason to be offended,” but that’s not often going to be accepted). Moreover, the relation between the truth and falsity of the representation at issue can be completely flexible. I might denounce your account of me because it is inaccurate, or I might denounce it because it is too accurate (but I don’t want to argue about its accuracy): the shriek of being offended obscures the matter of fact. If you wanted to prove that Charlie was not a racist periodical, there are ways of doing that. You show examples, you quote statements of policy, you do statistics, you tell stories about the editorial board (which counted several people of a non-Vieille-France background). But being “offended” seems to be beside the point.

Especially since the point of Charlie— and of so many journals that came before it, on the right and on the left– was to offend.

Is nothing sacred?

05/6/15

De Selby Evolution

It was the first handshake that told me we were in De Selby territory. The dentist held out his wrist to me, as we do in bike repair shops. Only a bike repairman extends the wrist because his hand is covered in black grease, and Dr. Bellaiche’s were in green gloves.

The purpose of our little get-together was to extract a cracked eyetooth and replace it with an implant. I expected drilling, discomfort, time spent staring up at a bright light. I hadn’t anticipated such great strides forward on the path outlined for us by De Selby so many years ago.

I was aware I would leave with new substances filling new hollows in my body: metal, resin, fiberglass, even gutta-percha. But the fully realized De Selby moment came when the stalk for the implant was rooted, and the dentist screwed the crown on it: twist, twist, twist, and a last hard half-twist.

We mammals, unlike our friends the snails and shellfish, don’t have a lot of body parts with a spiral structure. Hard ones, at least (the labyrinth of the ear forming a semi-counterexample). This must have to do with the medium we spend most of our time in, the air, which is more easily parted than wet sand. The combatant creatures with twisted horns, like the gazelles and narwhals, are the other counterexample, and I don’t know whether the torsade is there for piercing effectively or for reinforcement.

So the tapping of a screw course into my upper jaw and the movement of a bolt-shaped object up it confirmed that I am conclusively on the way to a merger of man and bicycle. What sort of part could it be, the torsaded stem, if it had to serve as unit of human and cycle biomechanics simultaneously? I thought that as we have 32 teeth, and 32 spokes is a good number for a wheel (though less stout than a 36-spoke cross-laced), then today’s centaurification must have begun with a spoke, as good a place as any.

The repair was over. I rose to my feet, said thank you and staggered home. If you see me falling to the ground after abruptly jerking my head to the left or right, you’ll know that the transmutation is advancing.

04/20/15

My good opinion, once lost, is lost forever.

Dr. Elizabeth Bennett
Registrar
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA 92697

Dear Dr. Bennett:

In the course of job applications, I have recently requested transcripts from my undergraduate institution, Yale, and my graduate school, UCI. Both were obtained through the National Student Clearinghouse. The Yale transcript cost $7, without a convenience fee. UCI’s cost $17, with an additional convenience fee of $2.65.

I realize that it may be a point of Anteater pride, but surely you do not believe that UCI’s transcript is worth two-and-a-half times the price of Yale’s! Insofar as I can tell, the quality of the data, paper, and ink is the same. Given that I may require a dozen of these documents in the next six months, the added expense is both real and onerous. Please consider this when setting your fees.

Respectfully, Jonathan Cohen, MA ’91

 

[I have received no response to this message.]

04/6/15

Dicta

1. The things that make life most worth living are “cost centers.”

2. One is human exactly insofar as one does not fit into someone else’s “business model.”

04/5/15

Massacre Relativity

Some of my friends are outraged by the fact that one media story after another comes along analyzing to the nth degree the known facts in the case of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot who committed suicide and took 150 strangers along with him, while at the same time the cold-blooded, deliberate murder of 148 university students in Kenya merits only a passing mention. Depending on your media feed, your results may differ: I’m not in the US and only rarely pick up the NYT, so I’ve seen less Lubitz and more Garissa– but not enough to make me feel that a just equality of attention has been applied to these two stories, analogous by number and by horror but different in so many other regards.

The hasty conclusion is that the Kenyans’ deaths matter less than the Europeans’ because they were black. And relatively less well-off (though as university students they were part of a lucky minority in their home country). To better gauge the proportion of sheer racism, however, read “The Structure of Foreign News” (1965) by the great peace scholar Johan Galtung, where it’s reported that the importance given to a news story will be a factor of geography (is it close to us?), of identification (did it happen to people like us?), legibility, confirmation bias, and other features– go read the article, it’s better than my ability to summarize today. So obviously for European media, the Germanwings crash ranks higher than a Kenyan massacre on many of these scores. But Galling wasn’t just observing that this is the way of the world: he was convinced that if this is the way of the world, it is wrong, and we should counterbalance our egocentric news media in order to give reality to the sufferings of people distant from us on this or that axis.

And another reason for paying more attention to Kenya and less to Germanwings. What happened in the Alps was a one-off thing, extremely unlikely to happen to you (though of course it could, despite whatever new security measures are installed). What happened at Garissa is a lamentably frequent thing these days, and could indeed happen to you, maybe not this week or this year, but sooner or later, if something is not done to rein in the free romp of heavily-armed religious madmen. I don’t specifically mean the madmen in the Villains of the Week Club; there’s a lot of madness to go around. Let us stop funding one bunch of madmen in the hopes that they will do something more agreeable to our interests than whatever the last bunch of madmen (possibly funded by us, or by people in competition with us) did. And (a far more subordinate issue) let us stop whingeing about whether the diagnosis of depression in the co-pilot’s case is stigmatizing for other depressed people, and blabbering about it with such frequency that this seems to be the major problem facing humanity at this moment. (People do tend to talk about what concerns them, and they like to fill the air with whatever they have expertise in, but enough is enough.) Let the ancient formula of damnatio memoriae be applied to Andreas what’s-his-name, and let the students of Garissa, the women of Nigeria, and all such victims of armed bigotry occupy our attention most urgently.

04/3/15

Good Friday

I was just flicking through Tolstoy’s writings on Christianity. Not very interesting reading, because I couldn’t find much to disagree with. The anarchist Count thought, as I do, that if your religion tells you to kill, torture, starve and maim people, it must not be a very good religion–it must rather be a tool of the devil. Whereas there is apparently a significant fraction of opinion today that conceives that killing people, the more the better, in the name of your religion glorifies that religion.

I do find it hard to turn the other cheek to that kind of diabolism.

(Some unintentional humor about Tolstoy’s break with religion here.)

04/2/15

A Long Fuse

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), last chapter:

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now built on the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.

And then what?

03/30/15

Sunny Flat

Perhaps you’ve been tempted by an announcement for a “Sunny Flat in Paris” (airbnb). Or perhaps you’ve clicked on item #57214 (sabbaticalhomes.com). I would recommend looking further, for example on a site directed to French consumers like seloger.com; or even biting the bullet of a finder’s fee and dealing with a real estate agency (agence immobilière, they call it in the local parlance). The difference is that with a non-localized site like airbnb, you are outside of any jurisdiction, and recourse will be difficult in case it turns out that the apartment you’ve rented is small, dirty, ill-equipped, and does not have the nice view you were counting on. Say you were attracted by a charming urban vista like this:

front-balcony

and arrived with baggage and children after many hours of flight to look out the window at this:

rear balcony

You would, I think, wish you had taken another apartment. It’s been known to happen.

George Akerlof (co-laureate of the 2000 Nobel Prize) analyzed this situation in his classic paper “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism” (Quarterly Journal of Economics, 84 [1970]: 488-500).

There may be potential buyers of good quality products and there may be potential sellers of such products in the appropriate price range; however, the presence of people who wish to pawn bad wares as good wares tends to drive out the legitimate business. The cost of dishonesty, therefore, lies not only in the amount by which the purchaser is cheated; the cost must also include the cost incurred from driving legitimate business out of existence. (495)

Akerlof continues: “Dishonesty in business is a serious problem in underdeveloped countries.” Well, perhaps the judicial void in which many Internet businesses operate is, for all its technological smoothness and the quality of its air-conditioning, in these terms still an “underdeveloped country.” Akerlof sees in traditional “underdeveloped” societies, with their wide disparities in quality among instances of a like commodity (one grain dealer will put pebbles in the rice to add to its weight, another won’t), a function to be filled by the entrepreneur or merchant, the person who makes a living from assessing good quality and bringing it to the end user. But as everyone knows, the great value of Internet commerce has always been to put you in direct contact with the primary seller– who may have as his or her rule of practice “Let the buyer beware.”

 

03/21/15

Indiscriminate Discrimination

A friend wrote to ask me to sign on to a petition demanding that the Modern Language Association, a scholarly society with “over 26,000 members in 100 countries,” apply the policies of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement toward Israeli universities and academics. I wrote back as follows:

I’ve been meaning to write you back but haven’t found the time or the words to do it right. I’m more than a little ambivalent about BDS. I share in the signers’ horror and anger about the occupation, continued settlement-building, harassment, denial of basic rights and necessities, etc., that have been the daily lot of most Palestinians for decades now. And Netanyahu’s promise to kill the two-state solution, which resulted in his reelection, just slams the door on the reasonable aspirations of all Palestinians. In all of this I’m with the proponents of BDS. But I can’t see myself as a co-signer because I don’t believe in boycotts based on nationality. In denying a platform to Israeli academics generally, a boycott would deny a platform to the “good Israelis” (the ones who are for peace, diplomacy, and neighborly relations with a Palestinian state) no less than to the “bad Israelis”; and since the “good Israelis” are in the disadvantaged position just now (the “bad Israelis” won’t give a damn about our boycott and will continue to appear in such fora as joint sessions of the US Congress), BDS would have the perverse effect of strengthening the dominance of the “bad Israelis” over political discourse concerning the future of Israel-Palestine. Although the statement says that it is directed at the Israeli state and not at individual Israeli academics, how is one to tell an Israeli colleague who has, let’s say, applied to give a paper at the MLA annual meeting that “it’s nothing personal” but s/he is not going to be accepted because of his/her nationality? I don’t think this is a good path for the MLA or any scholarly organization to go down. Free and open discourse, that’s what we should be about. I know that Palestinian intellectuals are routinely denied a platform for their views, and I am ready to protest and agitate for their freedom to travel, speak and have normal relations with their colleagues across the world.
You’ve probably heard all this before.
Anyway, that’s how I feel about it– it’s a little more complicated than “yes” or “no.”

We are living in horrible times. I don’t have a solution. But I can recognize a counterproductive measure.

02/14/15

The American Academy

I am at the 2015 AAAS conference in San Jose with my wife, Natasha, to see for myself the decadent state of American biological science. Now that Putin has rehabilitated Lysenko — the traitor Sakharov would spin in his grave to hear it — there is no limit to our future. We attended the plenary lecture of one Daphne Koller, who is supposedly a “big cheese,” but I have not heard of her, as she has never received the Order of the Badge of Honor. Next to us was a young, American, red-haired scribbler with a laptop — doubtless some kind of junior graduate student — and despite the enormous screens with Koller’s image on them, I found myself looking over his shoulder to see what he was writing. To my horror, at the end of the lecture, I found that I had remembered every word he had written, but none of Koller’s lecture. To get it out of my mind, I am reproducing what he wrote in its entirety:

I’m at the plenary session with Daphne Koller, founder of Coursera, one of the two major MOOC companies. It’s a straight-on paean to the things, rosy beyond all belief, and even more rosy in 2015 than in 2012.

There are a few slight problems with MOOCs, which is one of the reasons there’s been almost no time allotted for questions.

MOOCs make it possible for only a few professors to teach hundreds of thousands of students; grading is taken care of either by computer (for most structured question types) or peer grading (for everything else.) Crowdsourcing, usually acquired for free, is used to accomplish most other tasks, such as translation of course material into multiple languages. Coursera’s investment is mainly in its computer infrastructure, including mobile apps and sophisticated analytics, and secondarily in the acquisition and filming of “talent” to teach its courses.

If indeed Coursera continues to grow, a few things will happen to its supporting ecosystem; like most colonialist enterprises, it pays little attention to the ecosystem that has made it possible. The academic enterprise, in my conception, consists of three things: preserving knowledge, transmitting knowledge, and extending knowledge. The only thing anyone understands needs to be paid for is transmitting knowledge: teaching and grading. In a world where only a few professors are teaching and where no one, adjunct or otherwise, is grading, the ecosystem will fail. There will be no more “star” professors to teach the MOOCs (or to do other research), there will be no graduate students or postdocs to follow along after them, and there will be few undergraduates, distance or otherwise, who will care to enter into such a tenuous enterprise as post-secondary education. We would need something like a “Farm Bill,” where, just as farmers are paid not to plant corn, professors, adjuncts, and graduate students are paid not to teach or to grade. Try getting that through a Tea Party Senate. Coursera parasitizes off the top of the existing academic system; its instructors have appointments at their own institutions, the names of the institutions are used to add prestige to Coursera’s courses’ certificates of completion, and the lure of the classes is that they are taught by conventionally, prestigiously educated people. When Coursera starts to “eat its own dog food” and feature premium classes taught by people possessing no credentials other than their own certificates, perhaps then they will begin to be in earnest.

But perhaps they are already doing this, in a sense. All non-objective grading in Coursera is done by groups of five peers. None of these students may know the right answer. It is entirely likely that a few of them will know the wrong answer, which they will transmit to their less-certain peers. This is why, in more conventional institutions, feedback is provided by people more knowledgable and experienced than the students themselves. Here, though, Coursera risks transmitting ignorance; what it gains, however, is that grading is not a cost center — at all. Ms. Koller, who, by the way, seems to have obtained every achievement and credential one could possibly have short of a Nobel Prize, was a little shy about admitting that Coursera hasn’t made any money yet. That day will come, and some very important part of the educational chain will very quickly become very expensive — likely after conventional instutions have fallen by the wayside.

But, in the audience, I could see people nodding. “Science has grant money for professors and postdocs. Teaching and grading are inconveniences. As long as we get grants, they’ll leave us alone, and perhaps we can make some extra money on the side by teaching one of these courses.” But an ecosystem is an ecosystem. The failure of one of its parts means the inevitable, wrenching alteration of the rest of its parts. They just don’t see it yet.

01/17/15

And Now the Conspiracy Theorists

Komsomolskaya Pravda opened its columns yesterday to the head honcho of the French far-right, anti-immigrant party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has theorized that the murder of the Charlie Hebdo editorial board was permitted, if not actually orchestrated, by the French government as a means of discrediting the Front National. (Charlie was relentless in satirizing that bunch of neo-fascists.) This is likely to be received as a rational analysis in a country where not only are conspiracies stranger than fiction a matter of course, but the government itself weaves elaborate counter-scenarios to deny its involvement in things it almost certainly has been involved in.

And in the suburbs of Paris, a teacher is heard (and recorded) telling her students that “nobody ever saw the bodies of the journalists” and the “so-called dead policeman” was just a puppet in a soap opera dreamt up by the French government to incriminate the Muslim religion–which religion, by the way, “authorizes killing if it’s necessary to defend religion.” She was immediately fired. I’m sure people will leap to her defense, as to Dieudonné’s.

Meanwhile, in a Marseilles high school, some students elaborate. The whole thing was a manipulation by the French secret services, to destroy Islam. And simultaneously, it was a trick of the Mossad, to punish France for its recognition of the Palestinian proto-state. “A Muslim who dies in the course of the story, that makes it more believable, doesn’t it? And the dead policemen, one French, one black, one Arab. How symbolic!”

No one has a completely open mind. Our prior beliefs act as filters on new information. When a piece of information comes at too high a cost– when accepting it would mean sacrificing some long-held beliefs or elements of identity– people will confabulate until the (sacred) cows come home. This observation also suggests a test for the kinds of beliefs that compel an exorbitant expenditure in ad-hoc theories in order to defuse new information; and for me, perhaps an economic rationalist for today, that would be the sign that maintaining such beliefs would be a losing proposition. But the literature on “cognitive dissonance” shows that people’s behavior is otherwise: a challenge actually reinforces the unlikely belief. I suppose there are people who would be more comfortable living their lives in a village of fifty people, where little information trickles in from outside. But here they are, carrying their village explanations onto the world stage.

01/17/15

Feasibility Study

How can you have anti-blasphemy laws in a country with more than one major religion? What is permissible for one group will be forbidden to another, what is obligatory for you is optional or absurd or immoral to me. You can’t be a good pluralist and mandate inoffensiveness.

A story comes to mind, told me by a Maronite friend from Lebanon. As children, he and his friends used to gather on the corner and play marbles. There were Christian kids, Muslim kids, maybe a Druze or two. And as they played, they shouted at each other in Arabic, learning each other’s favorite swear words and oaths. The little Muslims said: “Mother of God, I will knock your marble out of the circle!” The little Christians said, “By the beard of the Prophet, that was a good shot!” The parents heard this and had a little meeting: henceforth, when they played, the children would have to speak French or English.

But what if there’s not another language to take refuge in?

01/2/15

Big Dill.

There’s a kind of writing– I’d call it Pninian– that challenges translation in its specificity. Not, as some theories of the untranslatable would have it, because it calls on utterly singular and irreplaceable qualities of the language it uses, but because it is made of the interweaving of two languages at a specific moment of their histories. In Nabokov’s Pnin, it’s the combination of 1950s American English and early-twentieth-century émigré Russian that creates the discordia concors. In Lydie Salvayre’s Pas pleurer, a new novel I unwisely bought for a friend who was seeking to raise the level of her French, it’s the overlay of Spanish and French, or the revelation of the Spanish hidden in French, that brings the savor. I particularly loved the device whereby the narrator makes this stylistic effect a sign of both character and plot (motivirovka, the O.PO.JAZ would have called it):

Depuis que ma mère souffre de troubles mnésiques, elle éprouve un réel plaisir à prononcer les mots grossiers qu’elle s’est abstenue de formuler pendant plus de soixante-dix ans, manifestation typique chez ce type de patients, a expliqué son médecin… Elle qui s’était tant évertuée, depuis son arrivée en France, à corriger son accent espagnol, à parler un langage châtié et à soigner sa mise pour être toujours plus conforme à ce qu’elle pensait être le modèle français (se signalant par là même, dans sa trop stricte conformité, comme une étrangère), elle envoie valser dans ses vieux jours les petits conventions, langagières et autres. (82-83)

This gives such sentences as:

Et moi je grite encore plus fort: Je me fous qu’on m’ouit, je veux pas être bonniche chez les Burgos, j’aime mieux faire la pute en ville!… Plutôt morir! (14)

To translate this into, say, English, one would have to either imitate the effect of Spanish-tinged French– by appropriating the characteristics of Spanglish, say; but this kind of similarity soon points up the dissimilarity of associations between the two kinds of interlanguage. French-speakers readily recall the influx of Spanish-speakers following the defeat of the Spanish Republic in 1939, but the associations of North American Spanglish have to do with different conditions of migration and resettlement. Another, braver, method would require finding an analogous situation valid for the relation of Spanish and English and then rewriting, or restating, the whole novel as a function of that. Does anyone want to reimagine Pas pleurer as a story of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans (etc…) residing in San Diego as a consequence of their difficult history?

Lydie Salvayre, Pas pleurer. Paris: Seuil, 2014. Awarded the Prix Goncourt.

01/1/15

Performatives That Look Like Constatives, And Their Consequences

The difference between performatives and constatives was articulated by John Austin fifty-odd years ago, and has kept us busy in all cultural domains, usually extending the reach of the former at the expense of the latter. As you’ll remember, there’s not always an explicit marker of performativeness. Some performatives look exactly like constatives, and it’s only the context that makes the difference. For example: “He is not guilty” (said by a newspaper reader in reference to some ongoing trial), versus “Not guilty” (said in the course of entering a plea). When entering a plea in court, “Not guilty” does not mean “It is a fact that I am not guilty of the matter I am charged with”: if it did, pleas could become subject to charges of perjury, and defendants who were later found guilty would undergo extra punishment for having attempted to assert their rights in court; which is repugnant to the idea of a fair trial. Rather, it means, “I hereby challenge you to lay out the most convincing proof you can to the effect that I am guilty.” It’s one of those speech acts that can only be answered by another speech act, one that says, “I accept your challenge and here’s my brief.” An old but good article by Carl Selinger, “Criminal Lawyers’ Truth: A Dialogue on Putting the Prosecution to Its Proof on Behalf of Admittedly Guilty Clients,” clarifies the distinction.

01/1/15

An Unlikely Solution for an Impossible Problem

Over the last few months, we’ve seen a number of rape accusations on college campuses, and some significant muddying of the waters by the colleges themselves, by journalists, and by people passionately taking one side or the other; and also a lack of will on the part of law students and faculty to spend much time considering the judicial treatment of such egregious offenses as rape. I’m fortunate not to be in an administrative role that requires me to be making decisions about such matters, but I can’t help feeling that the present means for dealing with sexual offenses on campuses aren’t working.

Continue reading

12/29/14

The Blood Will Tell

I was walking around a big European museum with my four-year-old son lately. He wanted to know what the hell was going on with all the beheadings, cauterizings, arrow-piercings, massacres of the innocent and kindred spectacles that make up such a big part of European art before 1700. Now here is a puzzling task. He deserved an answer, but which answer to give?

a) “People in those times did a lot of horrible things.” (This I know will prompt the follow-up question, why then are these scenes painted in such loving detail with gold-leaf backgrounds?)

b) “The victims are martyrs and the pictures celebrate their suffering.” (Now explain the concept of martyrdom.)

And because this was an excellent Franconian museum with a rich medieval collection, four or five unavoidable, life-size and powerfully affecting Jesuses hung on their crosses in every room, not to mention the ones being mourned by Mary in Pietà poses or laid in the tomb by the last few disciples. A lot of blood and nails, and a lot of faces howling their grief. Continue reading

12/8/14

Old Trunks and Papers

The French National Archives have mounted a show about collaboration, 1940-1945, and it couldn’t be more timely. The far-right parties, apparently on the way to general normalization and acceptance, are back at their old themes of “Vichy wasn’t so bad” and “cosmopolitanism is the death of France.” This exhibit, stuffed with artifacts and papers as you’d expect from an archive, displays all the pettiness, resentment, willed ignorance, infighting, cowardice and opportunism of those years. Lessons for the present are there for the taking.

A few reflections.

The authorities of occupied France and the “free zone” of Vichy put the Nazis in an unduly favorable negotiating position out of fear, because they had persuaded themselves that it lay in the Germans’ power to annihilate France, and it was a special mercy, for which the French should be duly grateful, that they had not done so. From this starting position, anything becomes acceptable. You want our foodstuffs? Well, at least it’s not our lives. You want our young men to work in your factories while yours are fighting the Russians? Well, at least you’re not drafting them directly. You want our Jews? How many? Would you take a few more? With their attitude of fear they made themselves absolute straw men.

The legal framework of Vichy stank (it has this in common with many contemporary governments). On the wall in one of the rooms of the exhibition is a two-page proclamation outlining the prerogatives of the head of the French State (chef de l’Etat Français). He commands the army and navy, names and retires ministers, receives the ambassadors’ letters of accreditation, decides the budget, and so forth. Signed: Philippe Pétain, head of state. (And he uses the royal “we”!) This is wonderfully nonsensical, because authority doesn’t generate itself: it can only be transferred from one source to another. Now a majority of the Assembly had voted to give Pétain full powers, which I suppose they had the right to do, but to see the consequence of having done so in this brief document is to watch tautology in action. One thinks of Emperor Norton. (If only all autocrats were as harmless as he.)

The Germans very cleverly kept not one, but multiple nationalistic parties going in occupied France, each with its charismatic leader, its panoply of badges, buttons, sashes, armbands, flags, etc.. All of these parties huffed and puffed about recovering the greatness of France, and doing it on their own (sc. without the help of “the Anglo-Saxons”); none of them had any chance of accomplishing this, and they all cancelled each other out. When one or another of these chauvinistic parties got too popular, the Germans would think of a way to decapitate it. They dealt with Jacques Doriot by getting him to go fight on the Eastern Front with a French volunteer battalion, making quite clear to any patriot that he was not his own man. (Doriot’s trunk and German army overcoat occupy an interesting place in the exhibit, staged in a plexiglass case from which they are visible from both the “micro-parties” subsection and the “fight against Bolshevism” section. Doriot, like so many fascist sympathizers, started out on the far left; he was elected as a communist in the 20s.) The “spoiler” technique is still relevant, as parties that decent people would not admit voting for nonetheless garner a big enough fraction of the vote to compel the two major parties to make concessions to them, not to mention the general strategy of frustrating all initiatives of the European Union.

Bad economic times drive people into fascistic patterns of thought. People are impoverished, unemployed, afraid, and they appreciate a good scapegoat. One room is full of appalling propaganda against Jews, appalling because it plays on the actual discomforts of the population and transforms them into anger. For example, a cartoon showing a fine, tall, slender young man who has just been demobilized after the armistice. He presents himself in an office populated by thick-lipped, hirsute, overweight Jews sitting on sacks of money; they tell him, “You’re looking for a job! You must be joking!” Now there were certainly a lot of idle demobilized young men in 1940-45, as there had been for much of the previous decade, but I doubt that obesity was much of a problem among the Jewish population of Paris at the time. Imagine walking down streets lined with such imagery, and having the kind of mind that would be persuaded by it: horrible. But of course today the anger of populations is still easily decanted into simple solutions. Those who think austerity programs are a necessary evil ought to have a good long look at this room.

Propaganda always treats the viewer as an idiot. But sometimes the visual style is especially brutal. After a while spent with these posters and leaflets, one can pretty well gauge the ideological direction of the cause by mere exposure to its visual rhetoric. (I have not yet been able to digest this sensation into a formula.)

Opportunism and compromise are fraught, mixed, messy currents. One reaches for the firm boundaries of evil and virtue. Look at Pierre Laval on the one hand, Jean Moulin on the other. But what is really instructive, not in the sense of providing dogmatic guidance but in the sense of reviving the perplexities of such times, is a case like that of Colonel de la Rocque, the leader of the Croix de Feu, another of the many nationalistic parties. It is true that the Croix de Feu marched around in an intimidating way, talked about banishing Jews (though they were willing to make an exception for those who had been in France for generations), and their leader stayed on good terms with Pétain until quite late in the war. So far, so fascistic-looking. But La Rocque tore into Pétain for his collaboration and in June 1940, at about the same time as De Gaulle’s London broadcast, came out with a speech urging French people to resist at any cost. It is also reported that La Rocque never lost his commitment to legality and parliamentary government, and when he had an opportunity to overrun the National Assembly, he told his troops to stand pat. Arrested and deported by the Germans, he came back home the day after V-E day, only to be put in “administrative detention” for another six months while the Resistance organized the new government. It does give the impression that La Rocque’s major crime, seen from the postwar perspective, was to have been an anti-Gaullist nationalist resister. If you want to understand what people were thinking, and how they were being swayed this way and that in that dark period, a case like La Rocque’s opens many cans of worms.

12/6/14

Victim Mentality

I don’t have anything useful to add to the outrage generally felt (in the nearer nodes of my social network anyway) about the string of recent deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers. I think Jon Stewart absolutely nailed it when he threw Fox News’s accusation back at them: the “victim mentality” is a fixture of conservative politics. Not only conservative politics, of course: playing the victim is a perpetual strategy used to turn the tables or motivate violence, and it’s particularly dangerous when the self-styled victim is in fact the more powerful party in an interaction. But do we have a good language for describing the parts of this role-play? It seems to me that the advantages of self-victimization depend on there being an audience, a third party deemed to hold the power of legitimation. (In the most frequent dramas of victimization and retaliation which it is my privilege to witness, the “third party” is the parents to whom small children appeal for recognition or swift justice: “He pulled my hair first!”) And that third party, ladies and gentlemen, is us: Public Opinion. We can’t do much directly, as drops in the sea of Public Opinion, but we can try to push the drops around us and form a current, so to speak, that would flow away from the themes and obsessions that make it seem OK for a white man with a gun to kill a black man on the slenderest pretext of feeling “threatened.” We are the grander grand jury, but thus far a disorganized and slow-moving one.

11/29/14

Unpacking My Imaginary Library

The French paperbacks that I used to buy always contained a little card from “La Maison des Bibliothèques,” rue Froidevaux, Paris. The card showed a wall covered with shelves all crammed with books, the commercial assumption being, if you were the sort of person who would acquire modern fiction in the collection “J’ai Lu,” you would sooner or later fall for the products of La Maison. I was a nomadic boy then, but used to imagine that one day I would have an apartment somewhere with walls covered with shelves, each shelf crammed with books, and me feasting my eyes on print as long as the light lasted.

Eventually, it happened. I had plenty of walls and got them covered with shelves, then packed the shelves with books, and sat reading day in and day out. That should have been the happy ending of the story– the closed circuit of desire– but no one can ever leave well enough alone. Now here I am thousands of miles away from those hard-won shelves, thinking about a book that contains a piece of information I need, complemented by a sheet of scribbled paper wedged in at exactly the page where that information resides. But thinking doesn’t make it come back; it’s a material thing, that scribbled note, and I can’t quite make myself think again the thought it contains. And from the book I surreptitiously glanced at in a bookstore today, hoping to substitute for the missing information in my all-too-physical book at home, there fell out a colorful advertisement for “La Maison des Bibliothèques.”