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.

 

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.”

 

11/25/14

“A Lot of Wildness and a Lot of Construction”

As anyone who has had more than three drinks with me has already heard, I used to cut grass for Mr. Allen Tate in Nashville, Tennessee. He must have been in his middle 70s, I in my early teens. When I was done cutting the grass, we would sit on the porch with a glass of lemonade and Mr. Tate would tell me about Paris in the 20s. Not only that, but he urged me to read Baudelaire, the best literary advice I ever got.

For a number of reasons largely to do with his identification with the antebellum planter society of the South, Mr. Tate is not talked about much these days. So it was a surprise just now to run across this series of fleeting glimpses, the walk-on version of a literary life: “Talking Tate: A Fake Oral History.”

mareymotion

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.

09/15/14

Hard Cheese

Tim Parks is a man who is pissed off because he had to do the footnotes for his own book. Big whoop. “It’s all available on the Internet, so why give page numbers?” Answer: Do you know how many dead sites there are on the Internet? Do you know how many “big” sites we all relied on are either gone or will be gone? Do you know how terrible the Internet Archive’s coverage really is once you start trying to use it for something useful? Do you know how often the “redundant,” “distributed” cloud services like Amazon AWS fail? Do you remember when Google just dropped its news reader service, used by countless millions? You probably don’t, Mr. Parks. Books are the original distributed database, seeded throughout the world in “austere libraries.” Wipe out one library, burn one book, the rest are still there. So put in those page numbers, and STFU.

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.