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.



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.


They Order These Things Better

A colleague at a conference gave a curiously incomplete description of the career of Lao She, and I wrote a friendly (at least, intended as friendly) email mentioning his suicide after persecution by the Red Guards, and alluding as well to the current push toward one-man rule, which I would have thought to be a matter of record. The reply read in part:

I’ve never met, on the PRC mainland, a Chinese who didn’t love Chairman Mao. And party members typically tell me that the censorship is not so much about politics as about resisting US consumer culture on the internet, that the CP want to maintain standards on education etc. that I personally find more sympathetic that American mass media.  Hong Kong resistance, for example, seems to me a combination of highly idealistic youth who are naïve about western “freedom and democracy” and disaffected businessmen who resent that Hong Kong is no longer the gateway to China’s markets. But all of us are struggling and all of us are concerned about the world we are leaving for our children.

Do you know, one of the best things we could do for our children would be to resist one-party rule of all kinds, especially those that depend on censorship for their appearance of legitimacy. The “US consumer culture” that my colleague deplores brings me, every day or week, The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Scientific American, not to mention permitting the delivery of The Guardian, Le Monde, and similar items consultable per Internet. My friends in China aren’t able to tap into such a range of information, and it seems patronizing to suggest that they are better off that way, under the paternalistic eye of the Party. I don’t know what makes my colleague so ready to accept this line of thought. Perhaps a traumatic interaction with a Disney character early in life is responsible. At my house, we keep “US consumer culture” at a distance– most obviously by not having a TV.

I should add that my colleague doesn’t speak Chinese but has a lot of professional contact with China. So perhaps this is a case of adapting one’s opinions to the source of one’s cornpone. In that case I would have appreciated a dose more cynicism.


Supplement (see: Supplement)

In one of the first reviews of The Ethnography of Rhythm (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016) to appear, Jenny Webb suggests:

I did find myself wishing for audible aids along with the visual. In a volume concerned with re-reading and reorienting prior expectations and conceptions, it does not seem like it would have been too far a stretch to include access to a few additional recordings (audio and/or visual) illustrating some of the more experiential items under discussion on a website, blog, or even YouTube channel. (Jenny Webb, review, _Recherche Littéraire / Literary Research_ 33 [2017]: 147.)

Splendid suggestion. Consider it already in progress. I’ll add a link here when it’s ready.


Arthur Platt, 1860-1925

In The Ethnography of Rhythm (p. 42) I briefly mentioned one Arthur Platt who responded with incredulity to one of Antoine Meillet’s best ideas, that the Homeric epics were composed out of stock elements passed down in professional lineages. “Things are said about the epic on p. 61 which make one stare,” was his brief verdict. I had a vague impression that I knew something, or should have, about Arthur Platt, but didn’t follow up at the time. I now make amends. The great A. E. Housman writes in his memorial piece that Platt

was a Fellow of the Zoological Society, frequented its Gardens, and inspired a romantic passion in their resident population. There was a leopard which at Platt’s approach would almost ooze through the bars of its cage to establish contact with the beloved object; the gnu, if it saw him on the opposite side of its broad enclosure, would walk all the way across to have its forelock pulled; and a credible witness reports the following scene. “I remember going to the giraffe-house and seeing a crowd of children watching a man who had removed his hat while the giraffe, its neck stretched to the fullest capacity, was rubbing its head backwards and forwards upon the bald crown. When the object of this somewhat embarrassing affection turned his head, Platt’s features were revealed.” (Housman, Selected Prose [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961], pp. 156-57)

Si monumentum requiris…


Word Needed

We need a pithy designation (one word would be best) for something that happens frequently in political and social life. The gist of it is as follows. People get furious about, say, the injustices of capitalism, and conditions license them to act. They can’t attack the actual capitalist, who lives on a yacht out in the bay, so they drag the owner of the corner store, who is barely more fortunate than they, out from behind the corner and beat him. What will we call this? Proximate resentment? Neighborly betrayal? Narcissism of small class differences? Power differential of the relatively powerless? I see a lot of it going on (viz., Chris Christie’s berating of school teachers and firemen for being featherbedders, which was well received by people who make about the same amount of money but can’t look forward to a pension; university politics…). Lexicographers, do me a solid, give that thing a name so we can direct more attention to analyzing it.


Free Speech in an Age of Trolling

At the University of Chicago, we’ve been discussing a report on sanctions for “disruptive conduct,” led by Randal Picker of the Law School. The committee had a difficult task: revising a code of conduct that itself derives from a university statute which only the Board of Trustees can amend, the so-called Statute 21, which hasn’t been revised since 1970. Lots of people wrote in to express their unhappiness with the very idea of sanctioning “disruptive conduct,” and saying, quite accurately, that sometimes disruptive conduct is the only way to get a point across. Here are my thoughts about the matter, prepared for today’s meeting of the Academic Senate, though I’m not sure I’ll be able to deliver them.

We are having a conversation about how the University should respond to disruptive incidents on campus: whether they should be treated as infractions of the student code, leading to disciplinary action, or should be accepted as free speech. This is naturally an issue about which each of us has passionate convictions. I want to address those convictions. I submit that the responses we have seen to the Picker Report are driven by implicit narratives—examples and scenarios of expected behavior. And many of these narratives are out of date. They miss an important point about the age in which we live: the age of free-speech trolling.

The U.S. Constitution, in the first of its Amendments, lays down that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Though this formulation is negative, subsequent legislation has established the freedom of speech as a right possessed by citizens and not to be abridged or restricted by other agencies, public or private, except under certain well-defined and limited circumstances. Other democracies have similar laws guaranteeing the rights of speech, publication and assembly. Such provisions are in fact one of the most reliable tests for determining whether a state is a democracy or not.

Yet nowadays “Free Speech” is a slogan often brandished by people who are in favor of, for example, expelling immigrants, denying the benefits of citizenship to black people, privatizing public education, demeaning cultures outside a fantasy construct of “Western Civilization,” rejecting the conclusions of natural science in regards to climate change, and so forth. How did this come about?

Recent incidents at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul and other institutions follow a regular pattern. This is not surprising, because these are anything but random events; they follow a pattern because they are scripted and designed to achieve a certain outcome.

A controversial right-wing speaker is invited to a campus to give a speech about the inferiority of certain races or cultures, or the vapidity of liberals, or how the men’s rights movement is imperiled by feminists. The invitation is issued, not by the university, but by a student group; nonetheless, it registers as “Anne Coulter speaking at Berkeley” or the like. And there is outrage. Students converge on the site of the event, or on the administration building in advance of the event, chanting, screaming, waving signs. Maybe someone breaks a window, occupies an office, punches a rival demonstrator, sets a police car ablaze. The demand—that So-and-So not be allowed to speak on campus—is met. Or it is not, and the person declines the invitation, citing safety issues. Or the person comes anyway, and is met by screaming, heckling, flag-burning, and what not. The incident goes on Fox News: “Out of control liberals deny free speech rights of others on college campus.” “The thought police in action.” “First Amendment shredded at City College.” This is exactly what was expected, and the so-called “liberals” and “leftists” have played exactly the role they were supposed to play. The anti-racist, anti-misogynist demonstrators have been comprehensively manipulated by the right-wing agitators. Meanwhile, campus precedent about free speech, picketing and the treatment of visitors haven’t provided adequate guidance for handling the situation.

The scenario that many of us have in mind is a 1960s newsreel. Students are on the march—against the war in Vietnam, for civil rights, for gender equality, for considerate treatment of the disabled. Touchy or unfeeling university administrators direct campus police to arrest them and then, after hearings of questionable objectivity, expel or fine them. We all agree that it is a terrible shame and we wish that the university had been more understanding of the scope and purposes of the First Amendment.

The present-day ruckus is of a different kind. The purpose is to create a disturbance and to score propaganda victories. The calculation is that if riots ensue, “leftists” (who are actually in their great majority simply non-fascist supporters of an inclusive democratic society) will appear as emotionally-uncontrolled, violent suppressors of free speech, colleges will appear as agents of suppression in the service of hysteria, and the “conservatives” (i.e. fascists) will appear as victims and reasonable adults, winning thereby support for their cause on Fox News and other channels of communication already lined up to spread this narrative. Whether the university steps in and breaks up the demonstration or stands by and lets it rage, Fox News gets a story about campus chaos either way. That is how “free speech” becomes a fascist slogan.

In such usages “free speech” is hypocritically deployed in the furtherance of only one kind of speech. These right-wing activists are not interested in guaranteeing anyone else’s right to speak freely, nor are they seeking to discover the truth through reasoned debate or to arrive at solutions for pressing problems in a way that excludes none of the stakeholders. Their aim is to create cover for actions on the part of political parties and corporate interests that shorten, impoverish and thwart the lives of people who might be standing in the way of their ideal, an America in which only certain people enjoy the benefits of self-government and prosperity. Denial of health care through fiscal and distributive means, punitive sentencing, restriction of the right to vote, defunding of public education, demonization of groups of citizens on the basis of their skin color, ethnic origin, language, religion, or political beliefs, and a raid on the public treasury are possible at present only when the dominance of the few is submerged in a pseudo-democratic veneer. As a step toward achieving those aims, it is important to discredit universities as bastions of free inquiry and disinterested knowledge. Once you have convinced the Fox News viewer that colleges are nests of spoiled snowflakes demanding to suppress speech that disagrees with them, you have made it easier to discredit research into climate change, gun usage, early-childhood poverty, epidemic disease, industrially-triggered cancers, and a host of other questions. By marginalizing universities, more space is won for irrational, self-interested, collectively harmful discourse. This is what free speech trolling is about. With so much at stake, we must look into the issue of free speech and disruptive conduct analytically, broadly, and with attention to consequences. I do not think that we are ready to do this without a further study to which every member of the university has an opportunity to contribute.


Free speech is important, yes, but I hold that it is never the goal of goals; every theory of the desirability of free speech posits that it is an avenue to reasoned outcomes in an unpredictable world and a channel for non-violent resolution of social conflicts. Those are the desirables which free speech seeks to guarantee. Universities have an important role as laboratories and life-size experiments in democratic governance, precisely because we are the place where speech is freest and no statement goes unquestioned. If there’s anything we need to safeguard, it’s that. But how to keep the “free-speech commons” open without delivering it into the hands of the hypocritical manipulators and wily agitators? This will require thought, policy, and consultation. As you might expect, I have some ideas…

Partial bibliography:

Pete Grieve, “Disciplining Disruption: Inside the High-Stakes Faculty Debate.” Chicago Maroon, April 13, 2017.

Pete Grieve, “Faculty Senate Creates New Disciplinary System.” Chicago Maroon, May 23, 2017.

Frederick Schauer, “The Wily Agitator and the American Free Speech Tradition.” Stanford Law Review 57 (2005): 2157-2170.

Stephanie Saul, “The Conservative Force Behind Speeches Roiling College Campuses.” New York Times, May 20, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/20/us/college-conservative-speeches.html



Chacun pour soi

« In like Flynn, » dit le proverbe irlandais, en d’autres termes: c’est passé comme une lettre à la Poste. Eh bien, pas cette fois-ci. Flynn est dehors comme un chien. Et à juste titre. Il avait tellement envie d’apporter de bonnes nouvelles à ses amis du Kremlin qu’il ne pouvait pas attendre le 20 janvier pour leur promettre la fin des sanctions. Las, ce genre d’intelligence avec l’étranger laisse des traces fâcheuses pour un futur directeur de la sécurité nationale.

Qu’il ait menti ensuite ne veut probablement rien dire; comment, dans une Maison Blanche remplie de mensonges, un menteur de plus serait-il impardonnable? C’est que la ficelle était pour une fois vraiment trop grosse. Peut-être y a-t-il plus dans cette histoire qu’un simple manque de confiance. J’y vois la confirmation d’une petite théorie qui me trotte dans la tête depuis des mois sur l’équipe Tr*mp.

C’est que ce businessman qui se vante d’être aux commandes, qui demande l’obéissance totale chez ses subordonnés, s’est entouré de gens qui ne rêvent que de faire passer leur coup d’état en douce, à la faveur de l’incurie du président touiteur. Flynn mettrait bien volontiers les organismes de sécurité à la disposition des Russes. Pour Bannon, c’est le KKK. Pour Tillerson, c’est Exxon. Pour Tr*mp, à la fin, c’est la marque Tr*mp. Chacun son petit coup d’état.

« Pour qui travaillez-vous? » Voilà la question qui devrait obséder le peuple américain. Ça peut commencer par Flynn. Espérons que ça continue.



A relative sent me a sheaf of family correspondence from the early 1930s. Imagine getting a seven-page epistle beginning as follows: it’s not the same sensation, is it, as receiving an email beginning “Hey.”

I am put in mind of Ignatius O’Reilly. Readers, please revolutionize your practice henceforth.


L’âme soeur

Depuis quelques jours nous avons un site correspondant (pas tout à fait un site miroir– plutôt “un autre soi-même,” pour citer Aristote) hébergé par Lemonde.fr. Il sera réservé aux commentaires en langues étrangères, que vous trouverez également ici. Bienvenue sur les deux.



Il y a quelque trente ans, pendant que je faisais la queue devant Louis’s Lunch, le stand à hamburgers célèbre de New Haven, j’ai entendu deux chercheurs en langues antiques se plaindre de ce que le glyphe qui revenait le plus souvent dans la tablette qu’ils étaient en train de lire ce jour-là était “hépatoscopie.” Apparemment, les Hittites, ou c’était peut-être les Akkadiens, pratiquaient l’art de l’aruspice à tout bout de champ.

Le procédé consistait à ouvrir le corps d’un petit oiseau ou d’un animal pour étudier la conformation de l’un de ses organes. Ce soir, je me suis soudainement rendu compte que ces Hittites, au lieu d’être simplement superstitieux, étaient angoissés par l’avenir, et qu’ils l’étaient toujours en dépit du nombre de prédictions qu’ils faisaient faire. Pour eux la conscience de ce que nous appellerions des “événements au niveau d’extinction” persistait malgré tous leurs efforts.

Nous autres Modernes, nous nous occupons de notre temps, et nous n’avons plus d’aruspices. Pendant un temps nous disposions de sondages et de têtes pensantes, mais désormais nous nous débattons dans le noir. Nos dieux étant à usage privé, il est difficile de les voir à l’oeuvre dans le monde. Nous avons la capacité de faire ce que les Hittites n’auraient pas pu faire: détruire le monde, rompre son mécanisme. Aucune civilisation future ne prendra la relève de la nôtre pour déchiffrer nos disques, nos rouleaux et nos bandes sonores, pour se pencher sur l’énigme représenté par ce glyphe qui revient sans cesse, “Tr*mp.”

Tr. H.Saussy


Judith Gautier, Victor Segalen, translation and printing technology

While looking for something else (as it usually happens), I ran across these notes for a talk I gave a few years ago about Judith Gautier’s pioneering translations from the Chinese. I never had the time to write them out in full, but somebody may be interested to see the train of thought. A shout-out to Steve Yao for the invitation, and to C. Bush and T. Billings, who made the day memorable as fellow panelists.

“Not Illustration: The Book as Object from Baudelaire to Pound, Via the East”

Hamilton College, April 12, 2012


[everybody is paying attention to circulation of literature, as a form of “world literature”; history of reproduction techniques is also part of this; but gets less attention. It would be reductivist to overrate, but naïve to underrate, the importance of printing in making possible communication of literary ideas between China and Europe. Here I focus on a few examples of an early stage of that communication in which the reproductive technologies are (with or without the authors’ consent) thematized.]

Continue reading


Tolérer, et non seulement

Les Saussy d’Amérique descendent d’une poignée de réfugiés. J’en suis fier. Et je reconnais que l’histoire est toujours plus compliquée qu’un dessin animé où les bons et les méchants sont faciles à reconnaître. Quelques réfugiés, parmi les millions de malheureux sur la planète, ont bénéficié d’un calcul, à la fois intéressé et généreux, de la part du gouvernement anglais du dix-huitième siècle qui leur a donné l’asile. John Locke a fourni les arguments de principe qui étayaient l’engagement diplomatique. Un livre récent de Teresa M. Bejan reconstitue la situation de fait autour de la Lettre sur la tolération de 1685 et en examine les conséquences pour nous. La séparation de l’église et de l’état fondait pour Locke la doctrine des droits de l’homme:

As Bejan notes, in the Letter Concerning Toleration (1685), Locke advocated a conceptual separation of church and state. The civil magistrate’s only duty, he asserted, was to “secure unto all the people in general, and to every one of his subjects in particular, the just possession of these things belonging to this life.” He concluded, “nobody therefore, in fine, neither single persons, nor Churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other, upon pretence of religion.”… For Locke and other tolerationist authors, then, state persecution was not just a violation of individual rights, but also a decision to treat individuals in an inhumane, uncharitable, and harmful manner.

Le compte-rendu de Catherine Arnold vire sans prévenir de ce sommaire anodin vers le registre de l’accusation: “John Locke is the villain of Bejan’s story: She argues that Locke-inspired calls for disagreement based on mutual respect and affection restrict public debate by excluding those who do not embrace these values.” Un point, donc, où il subsiste un certain suspense qui ne sera résolu que par la lecture effective du livre. Mais à partir de ce qu’en dit Arnold, on peut prévoir quelques motifs derrière la mise en cause de Locke, “le méchant dans cette histoire.” Bejan préconise-t-elle une tolération sans limites, qui tolère aussi bien ceux avec qui nous avons un accord fondamental que ceux pour qui la tolération elle-même est une hérésie à détruire (problème à la fois logique et opérationnel)? Ou veut-elle partir de la proposition que l’interventionnisme est en soi un mal dont la motivation par “le sentiment d’humanité” serait à critiquer?

Depuis le jour où Bejan a renvoyé le bon à tirer, je soupçonne, la donne a quelque peu changé. Dans un monde où Obama ou Hilary seraient les décideurs, la constellation philosophique autour de l’humanitaire gravite autour du besoin de déterminer où, précisément, le mieux devient l’ennemi du bien. On aurait alors de bonnes raisons de discuter la question pour savoir si les bénéficiaires de notre politique d’inclusion sont suffisamment “divers” quant à nous pour que notre inclusion soit véritablement inclusive. Dans un monde où l’action diplomatique, militaire, et humanitaire américaine est décidée par une politique orientée sans ambages par la discrimination de race, de croyance, de nationalité et de revenu, la leçon de Locke est, hélas, de nouveau nécessaire.


Reminiscences of Famished Chickens on the Edge of a Machine

(by Zhao Yuanren/Yuen-ren Chao)