Do you know why I would like to be named director of the Imperial Roman Space Agency? So I could launch the Petronius Orbiter.
I know Anne Fadiman, and she’s not stupid, blinkered, or chauvinistic. Yet how impenetrable English-speakers can sometimes be to the fact that other languages exist, and count as means of communication and record! See her New Yorker piece on not liking wine, which mentions by-the-by that
Haut-Brion is generally considered the first wine ever to receive a review—by the diarist Samuel Pepys, who visited London’s Royall Oak Tavern, on April 10, 1663, and, as he noted in his journal, “here drank a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.” Haut-Brion was drunk by Dryden, Swift, Defoe, and Locke. When Thomas Jefferson was the American minister to France, he bought six cases of Haut-Brion and sent them back to Monticello.
“Generally considered” by people whose world is bounded by the approximately five hundred years of the English language that’s easy going for non-philologists, I guess. Isn’t it a pity that over the four thousand or so years that wine drinking has been going on, none of the Greeks, Romans, Italians, French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc., ever conceived of the idea of writing down their thoughts about a particular vintage? Or does something count as a “wine review” only if it’s written for English-speakers? Good thing that Pepys, Dryden, Swift, Defoe, Locke and Jefferson were on the job, otherwise the world would never have known of Ho Brian. And it’s really a pity, then, that Odysseus’s words were wasted, inasmuch as he spoke them in a remote provincial palaver unknown to humanity:
With me I had a goat-skin of the dark, sweet wine, which Maro, son of Euanthes, had given me, the priest of Apollo, the god who used to watch over Ismarus. And he had given it me because we had protected him with his child and wife out of reverence; for he dwelt in a wooded grove of Phoebus Apollo. And he gave me splendid gifts: of well-wrought gold he gave me seven talents, and he gave me a mixing-bowl all of silver; and besides these, wine, wherewith he filled twelve jars in all, wine sweet and unmixed, a drink divine. Not one of his slaves nor of the maids in his halls knew thereof, but himself and his dear wife, and one house-dame only. And as often as they drank that honey-sweet red wine he would fill one cup and pour it into twenty measures of water, and a smell would rise from the mixing-bowl marvellously sweet; then verily would one not choose to hold back. (Odyssey, book 9, tr. Murray)
And likewise the consumer report filed by Archilochus:
I know how to strike up the fine dithyrambic song of Dionysos,
when I’m blitzed with wine
For locals only?
C’est parce que, dans ce pays lointain et peut-être imaginaire, il se trouve quelques centaines de passionnés des lettres pour s’en entretenir comme cette bande d’énergumènes. J’ai bien dit “lettres,” pour souligner le fait que ces lecteurs emballés ne se confinent pas à la “littérature,” mais discutent (et bien) de la philosophie, de la théologie, des lois, de plusieurs époques de la littérature latine et grecque, pour critiquer comme des supporters de foot les choix et le calendrier de la série “La Pléiade” de chez Gallimard. Leur amour sans provincialisme des choses de l’esprit me fait revivre.
“If the President does it, it’s not illegal.” Back in the Watergate days, we used to hoot at that assertion, because we recognized it as a formula for dictatorship. And we’re a country of laws, not of men, or so said the civics textbooks. In our back pocket was the ultimate argument, the courts. And the Constitution, which with its separation of powers and brokering of functions, protected us from would-be dictators. We slept securely with that knowledge.
So Kennedy, the occasional swing vote on the Court, has retired. Within a few months– probably before the midterms– we will have to come up with answers to the slogan, “If the President does it and the Supreme Court condones it, it’s not illegal.”
The newspapers are all about the likely outcomes for Roe v. Wade. An important liberty was established by that decision, but not the only liberty. Let’s not forget what else might happen.
First, corruption, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the quashing of civil liberties, draconian anti-immigration measures and other devices to ensure an aging minority of very rich people retains the whip hand in this country. The Bill of Rights will be declared unconstitutional by a majority on the Court that won’t care about stare decisis, case law, controlling instances and other technical matters where law regulates itself (boiling down to such imperatives as “face the facts” and “be consistent”). The First Amendment will be reconstrued in ways that limit permissible speech and cripple the investigative powers of the press. The Second Amendment’s “well-ordered militia” clause will be reinterpreted restrictively, enabling the unlimited possession of arms by bands of irregulars, call them Tontons Macoutes or Siloviki, who terrorize the unarmed population in support of whatever the dictator’s hate campaign of the month is. And so on. If you want to know the future, look to Russia these days, or perhaps the Israel-Gaza relationship: an utterly asymmetrical power ratio between the rulers and a significant party of the ruled, and a lot of pillage going on with the approval of rubber-stamp courts.
But so long as there is enough to eat, five hundred channels of television, and some ongoing celebrity scandal, people will be cool with it, I guess. Those who aren’t cool with it are likely to put up resistance, and it will hurt. I don’t want anybody to get hurt, which is the deep reason for my belief in democracy and the separation of powers: they make it possible to mediate conflicts without the spilling of blood.
Further evidence that progress is a thing of the past: George W Bush’s Cabinet was full of Nixon-era revanchists. Trump’s is full of WWII-era revanchists.
— is not a good argument. It’s a Republican talking point, which in itself warrants suspicion. But more than that, it distracts our attention from policies to personalities. Obama was good in many ways, but he wasn’t perfect, and like any American president he let some terrible policies be enacted in his time. It was (and is) our job as the American public to let Obama and any successors know when things are going wrong and justice is not being served. Our job is not to cheer on the sidelines of some fantasized Obama-Trump or Hillary-Trump smackdown.
Disgust, ethologists since Darwin and Richet tell us, is an emotion rooted in self-preservation. You have an instinctive aversion to tastes, sensations, and things that are likely to be harmful. (The history of the concept by Wilfried Menninghaus is worth a read, though it’s definitely the work of a Germanist.) Moral disgust, I suppose, is the same emotion projected onto an ideal body, the body of laws, habits and conventions that make us an “us.”
I find the repeated experience of moral disgust to be corrosive, and thus undermining of the supposed original purpose of the feeling. But there’s no way to let go of it. Perhaps it will outlive me.
For hundreds of years, people who were unable to write attested their consent by scratching an “X” on documents they were unable to read. Why X? Why not A, or I, or O?
Of course, there’s the thought of the cross, which in Christian countries might stand as the sign of any individual.
I’ve long thought— perhaps whimsically— that the validity of “X” as a marker of intention comes from its intersection of two opposite lines. Anything, even a branch falling from a tree, can scratch a diagonal line on a surface, but to do the same thing in the opposite direction and have the two lines meet at a point bespeaks awareness and intent, which a judicially recognized signature aims to confirm. The second line of the “X” is supposed to be a minimal extra added on to nature, and once you’ve done that, you’ve started to act in the world, to “persist and sign” as they say in French.
I often think denouncing others from a position of self-asserted moral purity is a narcissistic way of engaging with an imperfect world. Here’s something from today’s Inbox that reminds me of how things can go askew. The allusion to current US policy is particularly well-aimed.
Lavengro: Scholar, Gypsy, Priest by George Borrow, first published in 1851, is a sort of autobiography, with sections that cross over into the domain of the novel and others that reek of polemic or lyric. As autobiographies go, it is as non-standard as Tristram Shandy, in its own way, is. We could not affix to it the subtitle Wordsworth gave his Prelude,“The Growth of a Poet’s Mind.” Nor could we see in it, as in Augustine’s Confessions,the steady underhanded working of Providence. Nor even the working-out of the destiny that matches a character, as with Rousseau. The narrative proceeds by chance events, coincidences, and one long-term addiction. Borrow’s first-person narrator is born into a military family in Norfolk and relocates again and again through the British Isles with the reassignments of his father’s regiment. The father is a conventional Englishman who honors King and Country and hopes that his son will find secure employment, perhaps in the army, perhaps in the Church, or as a clerk to a lawyer (Lavengro133). But the son is useless in any useful employ. His passion is for language. Posted to Ireland, his father’s regiment passes a couple of drovers who say something that makes a young officer ask, “Strange language that! What can it be?”
I just read Sven Birkert’s meditation on his top-flight literary magazine, AGNI, casting its lot ever more definitively with online over print. The one thing that sticks out is online’s lack of concern for the future. When you send out print issues, you are lodging them all over the world. They are seeds. A central server, on the other hand, can go down. Its contents may not be able to be restored, even when there are backups. (Printculture is a case in point.) An organization may close, or go bankrupt, or decide that it is not worth transcoding old material to ever-newer media. At that point, all of what has been produced dies. The Wayback Machine shows almost no evidence that any of the websites I produced in the 1990s ever existed. If “the center will not hold,” there is nothing. So I look at Sven Birkert’s guardedly self-congratulatory message, and think that the words have a SELL BY date and that afterwards, the electrons will disband and go back to their chaotic realms in the universe. This is not a way to record our literary history.
This is just to extend a point I made in “The Sky is Falling,” and to tease out some of its implications, so: there is no natural state of the humanities. There is only the state of the humanities in a situation.
Part of the argument I’m making is that the situation in which the humanities function in the US university has changed, in the following ways:
- Economically. There’s plenty of evidence to show that students and their parents are price-sensitive when it comes to choosing majors. The cuts in state funding following the 2008 crisis and the weak job market that continues to plague the US (don’t be fooled by the unemployment rate; labor force participation continues to decline) mean that students do not feel free to major in fields they know produce less certain financial outcomes than others.
- Culturally. A recent survey shows that 58 percent of Republicans think that colleges/universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country. We know why they think this, and we know they’re wrong. But obviously in a situation in which about 30 percent of the country identifies as Republican, this is going to affect humanities majors.
In both these cases of course the causes have nothing to do with anything particular to the humanities or to the work we do as professionals. And one solution to the problem would be to attack it at the two levels I’m describing above (via politics and state governments in the first case, and via the culture war in the second). But of course we have no special leverage at those levels, so attacking the problems there is hard. The question is how we might respond to them at the levels at which we do have some professional leverage. See my ideas in the piece.
A few years ago I was on an outside review committee for a department of Comparative Literature at an Ivy-ish institution. Among the statistics we were given as part of our evaluation of the department was that enrollments in CL were down 11 percent since the last review. That seems pretty terrible!
Hmm, I said, and asked for statistics for all the other humanities departments. Turns out enrollments across the humanities were down 33 percent. So Comp Lit was actually doing pretty well!
The lesson for all academics and indeed all those of us who use and are used by statistics is: relative to what? All rates of change are relative, and deciding what the larger category of relation ought to be (humanities departments? the whole university? Comp Lit departments elsewhere around the country?) is of course critical to be able to understand one’s own situation.
All this by way of saying that the 44 percent decline in majors that took place at the U of Montana (see my last post) apparently took place in the context of a 33 percent overall drop in enrollments (not the same as majors, but still) at the university in general. So. My point about what one ought to do remains, but… shame on Montana and on me for not asking the right question.
The legal argument in my title, articulated by late Roman jurists — “that the ruler is above the laws”– is one of the things we don’t believe in a democracy, and names a test American democracy is having to face. Not in order to fail it, I devoutly hope.
But at the moment I am perplexed by another kind of law that we seem to have abrogated in the favor of our clownish rulers: the rule that you should at least try to tell the truth, so as not to be despised by your community, and that you should try to make sense, lest you be classed as a fool.
To release your ruler, or your neighbor, from these obligations is to be in a very dangerous place indeed.
Lots of justified outrage, fear, and anger on Twitter about the University of Montana’s plan to collapse its language departments and to cut 6 tenure-line faculty in English and 7.5 in the languages. The university’s president, who has an MA degree, is a former middle manager at GE. OK. All good.
But. The rationale for the cuts in the report is that majors in these fields are down 44 percent (since when it doesn’t say). So. Your majors are down 44 percent. I understand that it’s not your fault (you’re teaching the same thing you’ve always been teaching; your material didn’t suddenly become 44 percent less interesting). But … it’s your responsibility to attempt to change the situation, no? Even if it’s not your fault? And if you don’t (and maybe the good folks at Montana tried) or if you tried but couldn’t, then… what ground do you have to stand on when it comes to conversations with Deans and Provosts and Presidents?
I feel like my colleagues around the country are not addressing this issue: if your majors are down 44 percent, why should you keep the same number of faculty? How can you justify this, without resorting to claims about the “inherent value” of what you do that could be made equally compellingly by any department at the university?
My solution to this problem is to start trying new things, because it might be better at least to die fighting than to die inch by inch. More posts to come.
Take identity-rhetoric, virtue-signaling, competitive outrage, Twitter-forwarding, and stir. You get something like this mob action about a high school student’s prom dress as cultural appropriation. The funny thing? Qipao are not even Chinese. The qi 旗 in qipao 旗袍 means “banner,” indicating the Manchu origin of this item of clothing: a “banner robe.”
The Manchus, for those who are operating with a comic-book understanding of world history, are a semi-nomadic people from the grasslands of southern Siberia who invaded and conquered China by stages in the seventeenth century, founding the Qing dynasty which ruled from 1644 to 1911. They were organized into “banners” (qi) or military tribes. The nomad origin of the qipao is visible in its tight sleeves and split skirt (it probably would have been worn over trousers originally): both features you want in your robe if you’re going to be riding a horse and shooting arrows.
The qipao became “Chinese” only as a result of the imposition of the norms of a colonial regime. Yes, the Manchus had the same eye, skin and hair color as the Chinese. But they were deeply resented by Chinese under their rule and committed the usual colonial acts of brutality. How soon we forget.
Sometimes I wonder if the past few decades of work in science and technology studies have made any deep impress on the minds of people whose work is mainly in literature and the theory of interpretation. I don’t claim any special knowledge of STEM disciplines, just a steady curiosity and a readiness to appropriate any models that I find lying around, if they provoke a train of thought. For some years I’ve been annoyed by the repetition in my circles of lit-and-theory people of a couple of phrases that imply knowledge of how engineering and technology work, and yet say the opposite of what anybody who has ever changed the brakes on a bicycle or attempted to fix a faucet knows.
- “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Audre Lorde). To believe this, you would have to believe that the tools are essentially and permanently the master’s– that tools always and exclusively do the bidding of the person who owns them. And that is simply not true. If they are tools, they are available to do any job that lies within their technical affordances. Even if you wrote on a crowbar, “FOR EXCLUSIVE USE IN SUPPORT OF WHITE PATRIARCHY,” that wouldn’t scare off a feminist or an anti-racist who took a mind to dismantle some housing with it. Tools are tools; they can’t be brainwashed or threatened, only locked up, and locks (which are tools) can be picked (using other tools). In fact, I would suspect that the tools best suited to dismantling the master’s house are the tools that were used to build it. (One precondition: that the tools must be out of the master’s hands. But that’s not difficult: if you’re a master, traditionally you have subcontractors to do the sweaty work for you.) Or to step out of allegory: the high-end education that benefited those in power from, say 1492 to the present, is the most desirable education for whoever wants to restructure the apparatus of social power. Luddites please abstain.
- “Strategic essentialism” (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak). To utter this slogan is to invoke the touching belief that strategies always work– that the person who commands the strategy is in control of its means and consequences. And (see the paragraph about tools above) that’s not the case. Strategies blow up in the strategist’s face; they always have. They lead to developments that nobody anticipated. And if you think that essentialism is a bad habit of mind, an oppressive psychological trick, an error that generates endless other errors, then you shouldn’t adopt it selectively at moments when you think it congratulates you. I am sure there are a lot of people who keep a loaded pistol in the drawer “for self-protection.” Thousands of people every year discover that it was a bad idea precisely because the pistol meant for self-protection wasn’t aware that it was dedicated to that use, and behaved as if it were designed to kill three-year-olds. Do not make this mistake.
I have a long list of fantasies about technology that cripple literary scholars in their dealing, not with technology per se, but with the apparatus and infrastructure of their own disciplines. But let these start the parade.
From the Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences of Paris (Comptes rendus hebdomadaires de l’Académie des Sciences), vol. 45 (1891), 1496:
M. Antoine Cros presents for the Academy’s evaluation a paper entitled “The Teleplast. An example of the transformation of form into rhythm and vice versa. Transmission of shapes over distances, without transmission of matter.”
The transmission of images over the telegraph had already been performed by Bain, Bakewell and Caselli, and Antoine Cros’ brother Charles Cros had imagined using a similar system to send pictures to open communications with the denizens of Mars. I haven’t been able to find out much more about the Téléplaste, except that, characteristically, this advanced technological object was easily confused with mystical bla-bla involving the remote sensing of ectoplasmic entities.
In any case, the wheels may have turned more slowly in 1891 but they were moving.
I saw Isle of Dogs the other day and have been absent-mindedly following the press. Some viewers try hard to find something scandalous in the film’s use of Japanese culture. Does Wes Anderson exoticize, Orientalize, dehumanize Japan? Can we possibly get upset about something here? I find that after watching puppets move on a screen for two hours in a row, my own movements seem scarcely human to me, like the products of a painstakingly assembled but still slightly awkward stop-motion sequence. Perhaps being able to wield the term “dehumanizing” as an accusation isn’t a guarantee of moral magic after all. I’ll have to ask Viktor Shklovsky, or he’s not at home, Bertholt Mei Brecht Lan-fang.
You’ve heard the remark credited to Andy Warhol, that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. You might not know that Tristan Corbière (1845-1875) was there first:
“Va: tréteaux, lupanars, églises,
Cour des miracles, cour d’assises:
— Quarts d’heure d’immortalité!”
In flat paraphrase, this would give something like: “Go ahead: the stage, whorehouses, churches, / beggars’ den, criminal court: — / Quarter-hours of immortality!”