06/11/14

Keep On Keepin’ On

I sometimes wonder why I ever went to school and why I ever put so much money into books. I had a Mellon fellowship when I began school, and I was richer than I had ever been in my life. Naturally, the money all went for books — a complete Arden 2nd Shakespeare, a Kleine Pauly, the Revels series, a German-Latin Spinoza, a Colli-Montinari Nietzsche, and so on. But now, I am in a job that doesn’t use that part of my Ausbildung, and my wife and I sometimes wonder whether we could have fewer than fourteen bookcases.

Bad idea. This past week, I was asked to help write a paper on client communications modules — the software that lets real estate agents and clients communicate online about what houses the client would like to investigate or buy. I thought of this wonderful passage from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception:

In the experience of dialogue, there is constituted between the other person and myself a common ground; my thought and his are interwoven into a single fabric, my words and those of my interlocutor are called forth by the state of the discussion, and they are inserted into a shared operation of which neither of us is the creator.

And I put it in, certain that it would be taken out as being too high-flown for the purpose, even though it seemed ideal for expressing the relationship I had in mind. For whatever reason — probably the patience and tolerance of my boss — it stayed in.

So, don’t toss your books, even when you think you need the space. Your past is a part of you, and it should not be thrown away lightly. As Curtis Mayfield once said, “Keep on keepin’ on.”

06/6/14

Do Feed the Public Intellectual

(Introducing Paul Farmer, Human Rights Program Kirschner Memorial Lecture, June 5, 2014)

Good evening and welcome to tonight’s Kirschner Memorial Lecture. I’m delighted to see so many of you here tonight, a direct acknowledgment of the significance of our Human Rights Program and a hint that our benefactors’ generosity has not been totally misplaced. The questions examined in the Human Rights Program are among the most serious questions raised in a university, and I would say that for us, specifically, in this country, with our history and assumptions, the area of health and human rights has the greatest power to change the way we see ourselves and others.

For many of us in Paul’s and my generation in the United States, the first time we heard about human rights as a field of activism, it was in connection with the denial of people’s rights to free speech and assembly, their right to emigrate, their right to seek redress, their implicit right to representative government. And we learned about this in the context of the Cold War, when it seemed self-evident that people in some part of the world benefited from the recognition of those rights, while people lacked them in many other parts of the world—not only the Soviet bloc and China, but also Latin America, Asia and Africa, where the client states of the great powers all seemed to repress their dissidents with the greatest indifference. Of course, it didn’t stop there. The response to human rights activism by official representatives of the socialist countries and by some of our own home-grown leftists was to point out how inequitably the market system distributed such basic goods as food, housing, education and medical care, goods which, it was implied, were a fair trade for civil and legal rights. The funny thing about this answer is that it was taken just as a rebuke of the West’s hypocrisy. Despite some laudable exceptions, we did not experience, even in the Carter era which made such a noise about making human rights the driving force of our foreign policy, a large-scale effort to wrap social and economic rights around the uncontestable but rather abstract goods of free speech and fair elections at home. The struggle for civil rights and equality within the US, which had concluded in the courts with a handful of imperfect measures for instituting fairness in civil life, did not carry over into an effective War on Poverty. The Great Society spent most of its surplus on weaponry, with a small percentage allocated to nagging our rivals about their bad human-rights record.

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05/17/14

A Spacewalk With Joseph Frank’s “Spatial Form”

(For “The Novel as a Form of Thought,” a conference commemorating Joseph Frank, Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, May 15-16, 2014.)

Joseph Frank was fully developed before he came to the Committee on Social Thought. His essay “Spatial Form,” first published in the Sewanee Review in 1945, is an astonishing piece of synthesis when you consider the state of play at the time. Joe Frank, born in 1918, had already at age 27 the stylistic authority and the full deck of reference that we find in his older contemporary Clement Greenberg, for example; but Greenberg, who preceded Joe at Erasmus Hall High School, had a proper BA (Phi Beta Kappa) from Syracuse, whereas Joe cobbled together his few semesters of college education between bouts of paid work and was largely educated through talking with freelance or underemployed intellectuals. Later, joining the class of underemployed intellectuals as a copy writer for the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington D.C., Joe was again walking in Greenberg’s footsteps; Greenberg’s non-academic jobs were with various federal agencies until he became a full-time editor at Partisan Review and The Nation in the 1950s. And like Frank, Greenberg made a strong impression with an early essay, in his case “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939), which showed him to be fully up to date with the conversation about art, ethics and politics then underway in what would later be known as the Frankfurt School.[1]

Joe’s biography is too big a subject for me today. My reason for enumerating these facts and making the parallel with Greenberg is this. For people who came of age in the 1930s and 40s, art mattered in a way that we can hardly recover, even as a theme for nostalgia. It was important to discern what made modern literature and art modern, because in the adequate description of those representational artifices lay, one thought, a diagnosis of the spirit of the age, and it was important to get that right. Part of the reason lay in the contending teleologies of the day, theories of history with vastly divergent political formations behind them, structures of intention that claimed the power to determine one’s day-to-day actions and options. How we got where we are today, in a much weakened state of mind, onlookers if not scroungers at the remote edges of a frightfully well-financed commercial culture, is a complicated story. You have heard the recurrent laments for the demise of the public intellectual, specifically the sub-species of public intellectual whose habitat was outside the universities. From a U.S. point of view, the relative but steady rise in living standards, the massification and commodification of university education, and the cultural assimilation of previously excluded groups must all have had something to do with it, as these generally good things both undermined the cause of the Left as people of the 1930s understood it and broke down the difference between high culture and mass culture. If “Spatial Form” had been published in 1965, it would have been an academic, formalist exercise, and it’s often been mistaken for one since.

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04/15/14

It’s How You Say It

Further thinking about the difference between Soviet speech and this new, pseudo-Orthodox (OrthoFOX, can I say it?) claim to defend Western civilization and Christendom against the hordes of gender studies and moral relativism. Soviet speech was internationalist, universalist. The style was that of people who are sure they’re right and will eventually triumph worldwide. In contrast, this claim of exceptionalism is the style of people who know they’re wrong and just want to set up a rule that will preserve them from rational critique. As we say in Chinese: “cover your ears to steal a bell,” 掩耳盜鐘, you’re deceiving nobody but yourself.

04/15/14

Black Picture Indeed

The Russian media these days are full of denunciations of European modernity. “Western civilization puts on the same level families with many children and same-sex partnerships, faith in God and faith in Satan. Excesses of political correctness have reached such a level that one seriously discusses the registration of parties whose goal is propagating pedophilia. People in many European countries are ashamed to talk about their religious beliefs in public” (Vladimir Putin, trans. OBC).

Funny thing that, because a lot of the most brilliant and challenging modernity came out of Russia. Malevich’s famous installation in the Constructivist exhibit of 1915 was just denounced by one Sergei Andriaka, art director of the Moscow School of Watercolor, for blasphemously putting the Suprematist black square in the place where, in a conventional Russian home, an icon would be installed.

malevich1915 copy

 

Blasphemy charges! Fear of gender studies! The War on Watercolor! It’s as if Fox News had got control of a state and its media and was promulgating cultural policy.

04/9/14

I, Too, Can Push National Boundaries Around

Cook County Clerk David Orr
Bureau of Vital Records
Attn: Current Records
P.O. Box 641070
Chicago, IL 60664-1070

Dear Mr. Orr:

            I wrote your office a few weeks ago to note that the Certificate of Live Birth issued for my son Kirill Anatole, born March 19, 2014, lists his mother’s place of birth as “Russia, United States.” This seemed a bit strange to me. Not that I am a Russian patriot (I have no reason to be one), but I do want to spare my son the trouble of explaining an apparent absurdity for the rest of his life.

It is generally recognized that Russia and the United States are distinct countries. In fact they have never been the same country (excepting Alaska, which was a Russian territory before being sold to the United States in 1867). There is no such place as “Russia, United States.”

After I pointed this out and requested that the birth certificates be reprinted with more accurate information, I received a telephone message from someone in your office that I will transcribe integrally:

 Hi, Haun. This is Tina with the Cook County Clerk’s Office. I received your letter about your child’s, ah, birth record. There was no error made by anybody. The error was made on you reading the birth record. If you read the birth record carefully, it says Mother, ah, country of birth, Russia. Underneath there it says mother, co-parent, residence. That means where the mother is living. The country is the United States, and she’s living in the State of Illinois, in the County of Cook, in the City of Chicago. The birth records are correct. You did not read the birth record correctly. If you have any questions you can give me a call at area code 312-603-6623. So, there is no error on the birth records. You just didn’t read the birth records carefully on what section you are in. You can give me a call. My name is Tina. Bye.

Now I am willing to believe that the “birth record” contained separate blanks for “Mother’s Place of Birth” and “Mother’s Place of Residence,” filled in as Tina says. But the “birth record,” wherever it is, is not visible to me or to any other reader of the birth certificate, which says, absurdly, that Kirill’s mother was born in “Russia, United States.” Perhaps this is a problem that should be addressed at the level of reporting and transcription. Chicago has long been a city of immigrants (a reason for local pride), and I’m sure ours is not the only family with members born in a foreign country. Do other people’s birth certificates list their parents’ place of birth as “France, United States,” “Australia, United States,” “Czechoslovakia, United States” and the like?

I am enclosing the faulty birth certificates along with a stamped and self-addressed envelope, in the hope that you will see fit to correct the record and reprint the birth certificates. If that is not the case, then please return the birth certificates to me. But I hope you, too, believe in getting things right.

                                                Yours sincerely,

 

04/4/14

And His Eyes Have All the Seeming

… of a demon’s that is dreaming, if you remember the old Edgar Allan Poe verse.

We all know the purposes that are served by demonization. By making someone or something the cause of an absolute evil, we mobilize loyalties and energies against it. The US political machinery found it useful against Saddam Hussein, against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, against the Taliban, and so on. But as in the story of the boy who cried wolf, when used too many times, this technique creates a cynical response. One begins to ask, “Who’s the villain of the month and what’s really behind this?”

On the other hand, what purposes are served by accusations of demonization? That is, arguments that have the form, “X is demonizing Y,” or “Stop demonizing N”? These arguments should send us back to the prior question, “Is Y or N really being demonized?” Is there an area of blame, censure or protest that amounts to telling Y or N that they’ve done something wrong and shouldn’t continue, without making the improbable and in sum theological argument that Y or N is pure evil and any opponent of Y or N, for whatever reason, is therefore an agent of good?

When there has been some legitimate cause of protest, the accusation of demonization comes across as childish and petulant. It amounts to saying, “Any criticism of Y or N is inherently a total rejection, and as such, unreasonable.” Or even: “You claim I am totally bad! But you must be wrong (because nobody is totally bad all of the time)! Therefore your criticisms are null and void! I’m actually totally good!”

Such absolutism leads nowhere but to the stupidity of black-and-white thinking. It is amusing to note that the protests against demonization occur within a political and media environment of relative pluralism (more than one political party within reach of power, an independent judiciary, press organs owned by bosses who disagree amongst one another sometimes, etc.) and are meant to protect single-party state apparatuses from criticism. Those apparatuses, that is, that can really put on the dog, demonization-wise, with their monopoly on media channels and governmental power, and are prone to do so when it suits them. Deem on…

(and, footnote: it is amazing that an article in The Nation should quote Henry Kissinger as an authority on diplomacy)

03/29/14

When Speech Has Consequences

Back in the Cold War times, we used to say that Russian writers were significant because they’d get punished for what they wrote; American writers, who could write and say anything, were treated as insignificant. That was the irony: the freer the speech, the lower its value. As if “free as in speech” really were the same as “free as in beer,” and the economic law of supply dictated its price. Not that any of us wanted to see speech restricted, and therefore more precious.

In Putin’s Russia, publishing an op-ed can secure you dismissal from your teaching job and a new but dangerous career as a “national traitor.” Let’s hear it for the new generation of Enemies of the People! In one step aimed to force the traitors out into public visibility, the Ministry of Education has, I hear, distributed to all schoolteachers a stack of PowerPoint slides and directed them to use class time to present the official view on the annexation of the Crimea and Russian destiny.

This is no joking matter. Nor should those of us who live under a less coercive regime envy, even for a moment, the dangerous meaningfulness of the Russian public intellectual.

Meaninglessness? Follow me. In February 2003, I was one of about three million people worldwide marching against the invasion of Iraq. It was already obvious that the purported “weapons of mass destruction” were a pretext and that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks–obvious, at least, if you didn’t watch TV but read The Nation. We brandished handmade signs and cluttered up the main arteries of certain cities. I was coincidentally in New York, so got to exercise my voice and legs, not to mention my free speech rights, on Broadway.

We were, of course, ignored. “Taking it to the streets” used to be a powerful mode of action. Now it’s just a traffic jam on the way to whatever destination our Fearless Leaders have determined for us.

But it shouldn’t be this way. The right of the people to express grievances and offer policy advice does not reduce to punching one or another pre-set alternative on a ballot every four years. Americans and Europeans have become passive, acquiescent, mere spectators in the political forum,  because the rulers have treated them as such and folks can tell when they’re wasting their time. Frustration and outrage burst out in other ways, for example in voting for nonsensical “protest candidates” or in ill-directed episodes of violence.

The Occupy movement was something of a self-righteous kitchen sink, but it was healthy and ought to be revived. Now that temperatures are moderating, who wants to go to the park and chant “Down with” something? (Hey there, students of Taiwan.)

03/28/14

Write What You Know (That You Know)

I don’t often say “shoemaker, stick to thy last.” A lot of what’s made my life exciting has come from fiddling around with things I didn’t understand, or understood only within a narrow path-dependent spectrum. But sometimes I’m forced to suggest that folks just write their movie reviews and live a nice life within those bounds.

Exhibit: Richard Brody, writing about Heidegger and what he calls “deconstructionism.” (In my experience, those who call it so, with or without the capital D, are rarely going to give it a fair hearing. Making it an “ism,” rather than a technique or a style, promotes it to the status of Public Enemy.) He takes exception to something his New Yorker colleague Louis Menand had said last week about deconstruction and other modes of literary theory as being like nuclear physics, too recondite and abstruse for the ordinary person to understand. Brody’s objection:

The crucial difference is that, when a physicist splits atoms, they’re not the atoms of the chair that he’s sitting on or of the equipment that he’s splitting them with. Deconstruction pulls the chair out from under the reader, compels the reader to undermine his own habits of reading. By dissolving the overt categories of reading—plot, story, style, character, moral—deconstruction wrenched literature away from the amateurs and delivered it to the sole care of academics, who alone had the tools with which to approach it.

Brody is correct about atomic physics, but only on the narrow view that makes atom-splitting a technical operation, like splitting this or that piece of wood. However, that’s not what physicists do. You don’t roll up to the physics building and say, “Hello, is there a post-doc in there who can help me split these atoms?” They split atoms with reckless disregard for whose or what’s atoms they are, since the point of performing the technical feat is to prove something general about all atoms anywhere. (Well, actually they tend to choose the kinds of atoms that are easiest to split or give the most reliable results under the conditions of this or that apparatus. The New Yorker was onto a related topic a few days ago.)

And when you ask what happens generally within the atom, not just the ones that happen to have endured splitting, you get writing like this, which does, indeed, attack the chair that the physicist is sitting on and the paper on which the experiment is reported too:

My… table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed; but their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself…. There is nothing substantial about [it]. … The whole trend of modern scientific views is to break down the separate categories of “things,” “influences,” “forms,” etc., and to substitute a common background of all experience.

A matter of consistency, you see. If you’re enunciating a general law, you’d better be aware that the observer is contained under it, as is the observed. This fearsome piece of ontological nihilism comes to us from Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1929), quoted by that arch-deconstructor, that purveyor of post-Husserlian gloom, that crypto-European, John Crowe Ransom (from God Without Thunder, 1930, pp. 225-226).

Appealing to bluff common sense as the primary reality, or the only reality suitable for literature, will get you only so far. Even as an “amateur”!

PS. I often like Brody’s movie reviews and am willing to offer as tit-for-tat a clumsy, silly, uneducated cinematic response of my own.

 

 

03/19/14

With Lucky Words

It’s known that Milton’s “Lycidas” is a mosaic of quotations. One piece of its puzzle fell into place for me this morning. Toward the beginning of the poem, the speaker is winding himself up to deliver a full-bore elegy that will bear comparison to the great examples of antiquity, simultaneously elevating his subject (Edward King, a Cambridge graduate drowned at sea) and himself (an obscure Cambridge undergraduate known for his delicate manners, here taking the role of a sheep-herding “uncouth swain”). He says:

He must not lie upon his watery bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.
Begin then, sisters of the sacred well
That from beneath the feet of Jove doth spring;
Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.
Hence with denial vain and coy excuse,
So may some gentle Muse
With lucky words favor my destined urn…

The word “unwept” flashes back to Horace, Odes 4.9:

Vixere fortes ante Agamemnona
multi; sed omnes inlacrimabiles
urgentur ignotique longa
nocte, carent quia uate sacro.

(Many strong men lived before Agamemnon; but all such go unknown into the long night, bereft of mourning, because they lack a holy bard.) The heroes of remote antiquity are “ungrievable,” as Judith Butler might say, not because there’s anything wrong with their birth or character but for the technical reason that no specialist in commemoration through language had yet arisen. The one word “unwept” carries the allusion to Horace and assigns the speaker of Lycidas a task that, if correctly carried out, will put him on a level with Homer– if we know how to hear it, and I didn’t until about an hour ago.

03/18/14

My Mama Done Tole Me

It’s not enough to decide things by majority vote, said my mother to me in (I’m guessing) about 1967 or 68; there also have to be guarantees that the rights of the minority will be protected.

My mother didn’t have a degree in political science, and she may have just been voicing something that was much in the air in those days of desegregation and anti-war protests; but hers is the best test of effective democracy I’ve heard of so far.

She forgot about the special character of referendums carried out under threat of armed attack, but in those days we were still under the spell of the post-1945 dispensation and thought that we’d found a way to keep fascism from recurring.

How nice it was to be innocent and optimistic in those days!

03/9/14

Pages of Illustrations

Wallace Stevens’ poem “Connoisseur of Chaos” begins with two propositions:

A. A violent order is disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)

The parenthesis promises pages of illustrations, but the poet’s manner makes clear that not only is he not going to give us those illustrations, but they never were meant to exist in the first place. Descending to the particulars would vitiate the connoisseurship of chaos. In another poem Stevens makes a French book title the target of a parallel complaint:

Livre de Toutes Sortes de Fleurs d’Après Nature.
All sorts of flowers. That’s the sentimentalist.

The negative gesture—the negation of illustrations and enumerations—tells us a lot about what is negated. Complaining about inventories, as Stevens does here, recognizes that such lists exist and have a long history of practice in or around literature, and it is that history that I will attempt to sketch here by interrogating a few examples and their differences. Not a full catalogue of “toutes sortes de fleurs d’après nature,” by any means, but an effort to express what these objects of our collective curiosity—“collections, lists, series and archives”—have to do with literary writing.

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03/5/14

Sideswiped

The great editor Helen Tartar was killed two days ago by an errant driver.

What is more random than a traffic accident?

What is less random than the taste, dexterity and care that Helen brought to the reading of proposals, drafts, manuscripts, reports and editorial memos?

I trusted her more than almost anyone else (which doesn’t mean we never disagreed). We worked on many overlapping projects, almost continuously, for twenty-four years. She was my friend and I worried about her.

She was ferocious in the defense of things she thought precious and endangered– for example, first books by academic authors. She could be tough. She could be brittle. She worked herself ragged. Something was always new and exciting. She traipsed from conference to conference, drinking endless cups of bad coffee, knitting while she listened to an infinity of tedious papers, in pursuit of the beautiful book somebody had in them without knowing it.

Nobody can replace her. Who can carry on her work?

field-museum

03/2/14

Learn to Think Like a Professor in Two Hours or Less!

Michèle Lamont’s How Professors Think (2009) doesn’t really deliver what the label announces. It doesn’t unveil the distinctive cognitive mechanisms of the strange tribe that gets to wear “Prof.” in front of their names. It’s about only one particular kind of professorial thinking: the discussion and judgment that come out in panels appointed to award fellowship money to selected research proposals– hardly the leading kind of “thinking” among professors, or (I’d hope) the most characteristic.

Even when we limit the scope to something like How Professors Deliberate About Grant Applications, admittedly a less exciting title, there’s something missing from the ethnographic standpoint. Lamont, bless her, keeps her observer’s point of view pretty close to the participants’ and reports their self-evaluations without heavy irony. The questions she asks are: how do people on these panels see themselves as working cooperatively to achieve the fairest outcomes and reward the best proposals? How do they recognize quality? Does the Matthew principle (“unto him that hath, much shall be added”) stand in the way of an open field and no favor? The professors may disagree about such matters as whether there is any such thing as objective merit or whether people can judge work outside their own specialization, but the scenario is still one in which there are no crooked cops and no one was paid to throw the World Series.

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02/24/14

The Self-Awareness Trap

Quoted in an Atlantic article about Asperger’s and the new DSM:

“Just like that, Asperger’s was gone,” [Robison] wrote in an essay on New York magazine’s Web site. “You can do things like that when you publish the rules. Like corrupt referees at a rigged college football game, the APA removed Asperger’s from the field of play and banished the term to the locker room of psychiatric oblivion.”

Now try it again without the adjectives: “Like referees at a college football game…” How is what Robison is doing any different from what he over-vehemently denounces?

02/22/14

The Vault Opens

Courtesy of Gambit.

Courtesy of Gambit.

Y’all been meaning to go to New Orleans, I know, and here’s a reason that doesn’t have much to do with Mardi Gras. Mel Chin has pulled together forty years’ worth of his work, occupying five or six rooms of the high-ceilinged neoclassical New Orleans Museum of Art. There are pieces I’ve lived with in my mind since they were just being talked about, and others I haven’t fully taken in yet. Each of them does something to you in the immediate and plants a slower-acting barb. If you can’t make it down to the mouth of the mighty Mississippi, get the elegant catalogue.

fundred vault

 

02/15/14

From Folk to Folk

…When and how did ‘oral literature’ become an object of discourse? To that question I have an answer—the curious history I promised you.

Presumably oral literature itself goes back as far as language. Oral literature becomes something that people write about at moments when their written culture bumps up against a non-written culture that for some reason impresses or frustrates it. You wouldn’t find a lot of attention given, in ancient Greek and Roman texts, to the fact that the villagers of Boeotia don’t spend their evenings curled up with a good book. The illiteracy of the peasantry is absolutely taken for granted. The relative literacy of urban dwellers in the ancient world does get some attention—usually when someone has a complaint about it. The following text from Julius Caesar’s narration of the Gallic Wars is exceptional and I will linger over it for a while:

The lore [disciplina] of the Druids is thought to have been transmitted to Gaul from Britain, where it originated. Those who most eagerly wish to acquire it go there for the sake of study…. There, they are said to learn by heart a great number of verses, and not a few of them spend up to twenty years in study. Nor is it considered in keeping with divine law to commit these verses to writing, though [the Gauls] use Greek letters for almost all other kinds of public or private business. It seems to me that this rule was established for two reasons: one, that they did not wish this lore to be acquired by the common people, and two, that they did not wish the learners to rely on letters and therefore apply themselves less strenuously to memorization, as generally happens to those who, through the help of writing, lose their facility of learning and their memory.

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02/13/14

Calling All Bards

As you know, the two main divisions of scholarly labor are nailing jelly to a wall and herding cats. I will be doing both today. The jelly I am taking in hand is the concept of “oral literature,” and the pack of mutually antagonistic cats includes Julius Caesar, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Gottfried Herder, Michael Silverstein’s teacher Roman Jakobson, and many less famous thinkers, mainly from the last two centuries.

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