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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

02/9/14

The Unspeakable

Let’s talk about something that makes us uneasy. Retirement.

To raise the question is almost automatically to send each hearer into a private zone of calculation. Prisoner’s dilemma, self-constructed. For if I signal that I am ready to think about retirement, I am virtually abdicating my role in an institution, and I’m embarking on some risky financial and other calculations for which I’m perhaps not entirely prepared– so of course I don’t feel like making public my thoughts on the matter. (And I’m not, here: for the aficionados of the use/mention distinction, I am talking about what it would mean to talk about retiring, not talking about it.)

Another thing that makes it hard to talk about retirement is the awareness that when we go, the place we occupied is likely to go too. All right, if the Shakespearean on your campus departs, there will have to be another Shakespearean to step up into the role. But the less popular your field, or the more individual and experimental your way of doing scholarship, the less likely it is that your career will be prologue to another person’s comparable career. For people who spend a lot of time in the future (planning classes, writing books that somebody someday is supposed to read, wondering where the discipline is going), this is painful to contemplate, and I suspect that some of us who are old enough and wealthy enough to retire without disadvantage stay on because that’s the only guarantee that Etruscan philology or whatever will go on being taught.

Conversely, one of the powerful encouragements to pass the baton is the idea that somebody will be there to pick it up. And that idea is poorly supported just now. (I know why; you don’t have to tell me.)

Watching my own students throw themselves against the implacably locked door of the job market year after year, I wonder whether a collective agreement among senior faculty to move on, conditioned on an understanding that something tantamount to “replacement” will occur thereafter, wouldn’t moderate some of the pain and frustration. But that’s asking for the economically impossible: a future engagement on the part of a disaggregated (and internally competitive) group of employers to do something on behalf of people who, by the act of asking for this concession, are giving up whatever leverage they had. So we’re left with short-term calculations and actuarial endpoints.

02/3/14

Planetary Thinking of 1876

Ernest Renan (whose enormous body of work stands heaped in front of your correspondent) was “one of the few nineteenth-century writers to think on a planetary scale,” observes Simone Fraisse (“Péguy et Renan,” Revue d’Histoire littéraire de la France 73 [1973], 264-280, at 269). But planetary scale and prophetic futurity do not equal being a nice guy. Some excerpts from Renan’s Dialogues et fragments philosophiques (1876), with translation below:

Continue reading

01/27/14

Limerickly

There was an old man of L. A.
Whose motto was A = ~A.
When they called him contrary,
He cried: “Corollary!”
That intrinsic old man of L. A.

01/18/14

Jean Métellus, unshakeably

Jean Métellus has died. Better to put it that way than “is dead,” because he was the sort of person who did things in the active voice. Though I am sure he didn’t want to, he has gone into the great night after a sojourn among us that began in 1937. He was a year younger than my father and three years older than my mother. I felt for him the filial respect of a reader and the conditional identification of a translator (for I did translate him, but one of my reasons for doing so is that I felt a strong difference between his literary personality and my own). I am reminded of how he signed his letters:

“Indéfectiblement
Jean”

Indéfectiblement: what’s that in English? An indéfectible is someone who never gives up, never deserts. And that he was. Convinced that the wretched of the earth were never going to get a fair deal unless they stood up and risked death to demand it, writing his poetry every morning under a big bright picture of Toussaint Louverture, he was indeed indéfectible. A real lefty. Not a deserter. Unshakeable.

Le Monde has a short bio here. “Jean Métellus, 1937-2014, a figure of the Haitian intellectual scene.” I’ll have more to say about it later, but what does it mean to call a man “a figure of the Haitian intellectual scene” when he’s been living in France for more than fifty years? Headlines are rarely written by the journalist who wrote the corresponding article, but I must say that this way of putting things rather confirms than denies the accusation made by the great poet that “French racism is if anything more severe in 2014 than in 1959″ (see the article). Métellus? Black man, therefore figure of Haitian intellectual scene, therefore not our problem. Meanwhile, much more importantly, Philippe Sollers has changed his mind about something…

And further Le Monde, God love them, resorts to an esoteric vocabulary when describing Métellus’s book of odes to the heroes of black resistance to racism (e.g.: Rosa Parks, M. L. King Jr., Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela) as being touched occasionally “by angelism or Manicheanism.” That is? Decoded: Métellus occasionally simplified the record, making these resisters unambiguously good and the people against whom they struggled unambiguously bad. A grievous sin against subtlety… But in order to keep it all in the register of polite disagreement, Le Monde uses terms that will be understood by only a few. Is the French paper of record afraid of the Front National, so that they can’t call racism by its name any more? Looking back over Métellus’s broadsides against white privilege, I see the simplification as understandable and not the last word in a competition that has generations yet to run. I had no problem sympathizing with his sympathy. He hated to see good people condemned to live rotten lives because it was more convenient to someone else that it should be so.

Unshakeably. That should sum it up, Monsieur le Docteur Métellus, poète et citoyen éternel de Jacmel. Cher ami, porte-parole extraordinaire des Muses haïtiennes, général de l’armée des mots, may you have readers as long as words are read, and may they recognize your zeal for justice, which spoke through your personas of neurologist and poet. Ainsi soit-il.

01/12/14

“Comparative Literature: The Last Ten Years”

(Round table talk at the ACLA/MLA panel of the same name, Chicago, Jan. 11, 2014.)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a busy ten years. I approach today’s assignment in the spirit of the chastened soothsayer. Since I’m on record as having said a few things, in my section of the ACLA’s 2004 State of the Discipline report, about what Comparative Literature is, has been, and should be, I might now look back at which of those statements held up and which ones were dead in the water.

Continue reading

01/12/14

“Literature at the Macroscale”

(A response to papers by Andrew Piper, on “Wertherity,” and Hoyt Long and Richard So, on literary networks and the English-language haiku, MLA annual meeting, Chicago, Jan. 10, 2014.)

For lack of time, I will jump into the normative right away. Computers should augment human inquiry, not replace it: “augment,” that is, in a specific sense that I will try to elaborate. The point of using computers should not be to do the same sort of thing that scholars have been doing for a long time with file cards and dictionaries, only faster and larger. Let’s not frame the work of the Humanities in such a way that it throws the humans out on the street. My motive is more than protectionism. I hate wasted effort, even computer effort. Let us honor the tools by giving them work that only they—in combination with us—can do.

Continue reading

01/10/14

Cooper Union Lives or Dies Today

CooperUnion

Cooper Union – as a unique institution of higher education; as a legacy of  visionary founder Peter Cooper; as a dream – lives or dies today. Just so you know.

Free is Not for Nothing – The Vote to Save Cooper Union by alumni trustee Kevin Slavin:

If the vote goes one way, a new, lean, careful Cooper Union will tiptoe forward, tuition-free. It will require equal parts deep sacrifice, wild ambition, and straightforward pragmatism. And it will uphold a 150+ year tradition of free undergraduate education.

If it goes the other way, all of that will disappear. Not just the free tuition, but everything that was built on it. In its place we’ll find a tragic fraud. A joke. A zombie.

Here’s some background from Felix Salmon, who has been drawing attention to the foresight of Cooper’s vision and the perfidy of recent Presidents and Boards.

The Cooper Union story recapitulates, in miniature, a shockingly large proportion of the various aspects of the  global war on public-serving higher education. Here’s to hoping the tide is turning, today.

11/19/13

Toward a plural theory of Anthropocenes

easterFor all I know this has been said before, but: the anthropocene is a world-concept.

The normal way to understand the Anthropocene is as a historical period, defined more or less as the era when human beings acquire the capacity to affect the ecology of the entire planet, thereby opening the door to mass extinction, disastrous climate change, and, at the limit, the disappeareance of the species. Generally people want to date it to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, though you see arguments for dating it to the beginning of agriculture. Since the challenge we are facing collectively at the moment (and for the next centuries) is the immediate result of the dramatic expansion in carbon-based energy (oil, gas) use that comes from the Industrial Revolution, my impression is that most people are inclined towards that date.

But that’s just because the scope of this environmental event is in fact the entire planet Earth. I want to suggest that we become aware of/wish to designate the Anthropocene at this crucial moment precisely because of that scope, that because like the various other -cenes (the Pleistocene, the Holocene) this era involves ecological/geological/meterological activity that is planet-wide, we feel comfortable declaring it to be “epoch”-worthy. That is, the epoch (that which can be designated by the -cene, that which is a scene for the -cene) is partially a temporal metaphor for spatial scale.

This is true of all world-concepts, and trivial. But now what we can do is to scale down the Anthropocene from the world to world, and recognize that, unlike the Pleistocene or Holocene, we can use the concept to refer to any “world” (that is, any relatively closed totality, relatively closed because like our totality it can be potentially escaped from, in our case via rocket ships/space colonization) that is capable of producing self-extinction through the manipulation of its environment.

In that case there have been other Anthropocenes, some of them, perhaps, not even human. Any virus that kills its host too rapidly–before the host has a chance to infect others–is Anthropocenic in this sense. We might also think of the series of extinctions on Easter Island as one example of a quasi-Anthropocene (resolved by the arrival of European explorers). Or, an extreme and fanciful case, of a literary character like Raskolnikov.

I am not sure that it is politically useful to think of the Anthropocene this way — it may be that there’s more traction in terms of getting people to think about how to live, or die, in it if they can have the narcissistic pleasure of imagining themselves to be historically unique. But it may also be that philosophers and other humanists could benefit from a plural theory, a theory of Anthropocenes, both as a structure for comparative analysis and as a humbling reminder that self-desctruction, when it happens, is usually a matter of degrees of difference, not kinds, from ordinary life.