03/30/20

Remote Learning: Still Remote from Learning

Our kids’ school started remote learning today. It’s mediated by a platform called Seesaw which, despite having early notice of the likely surge in demand, hadn’t prepared the necessary servers and so crashed repeatedly (does this remind you of anything else?). We thus had three computers running different grades’ version of Seesaw remote learning, all timing out and crashing at once. The kids were already unhappy at the unexpected transformation of their parents into teachers. We know they can behave themselves at school, but they shed all those manners and pretenses of citizenship at the door, and now they had angry and impatient teachers who were beside them tapping at virtual buttons that were frozen, watching the precious fruits of twenty minutes’ coaxing suddenly vanish without a trace, and losing the point of the lesson (as well as any pedagogical authority). It was, in short, a rout, a fiasco, a débâcle, a hot mess, made worse by the thought in this parent’s mind that the graduate seminar due to be taught in a few days on an analogous platform will probably turn into a similar plate of slimy entrails.

It gave me a headache that is still going strong as of 8:13 pm.

There’s a form of learning that humans have engaged in for millennia: a bunch of learners, willing or unwilling, gather under a tree or in a room with a Subject Supposed to Know, who tells them stuff and maybe elicits questions better than the pre-planned palaver. Since remote learning is a skeuomorphic derivative of that, it is most effective when the game is played among people who have already developed the skills and instincts that go with sitting in a room with a bunch of other learners, giving side-eye to the loudmouths, locking eyes with the smartest or most attractive fellow seminarians, thinking (or not) before speaking one’s piece– it is therefore a foreign idiom to kids who are still learning to sit still and take turns. All the more when those kids are used to screens tempting and cajoling them with ready entertainment all the time: now, in an abrupt betrayal, it’s a dead video of their kindergarten teacher sitting on a sofa and trying to be cheery. To hell with that, they think, and behave accordingly. The parent, who has a million and two other things to do but is pushing them out of mind for the duration of the lesson time, gets stricter and stricter as discipline fails, and before long even a friendly inquiry (“is that how your teacher tells you to write an N?”) makes Child Two cut loose with a screaming tantrum and existential denunciations of all possible being and beings. I’d rather be on the golf course, and I hate golf.

Tomorrow, episode 2, and I wish I had a stash of happy pills.

03/24/20

From Sicily in Lockdown: Tino Caspanello Writes

Our correspondent in Pagliara (district of Messina), where the virus has not made itself known but the lockdown is strict as everywhere else in Italy, writes with a few reflections about the state of emergency.

If I think about the world in movement, excluding all physical definitions of “movement,” the one definition that comes to my mind is: production. A world in motion is a world that produces, whatever it may be that gets produced. From childhood on we are trained to produce, encouraged to do so and rewarded when we’ve made something, even a poop. Praise, candy, toys, pocket money—how many rewards do we receive from life? Action and reward. This pairing creates on one hand a condition of permanent immobility (society is stuck in childhood), on the other a persistent enslavement. At this point, to say that the world has stopped because of coronavirus seems to me no more than the recognition of a long-established fact: we haven’t stopped, we stopped a long time ago. The illusion of movement is given us as a “gift” by those in a position to manipulate the levers of government and production, those who are so good at manipulating them that we too carry them out in relation to ourselves and others, in the belief that no other worthy form of life is possible. To stop is frightening, because a world that stops its supply chains is, paradoxically, a world that breaks its chains and opens its cages, that reveals empty spaces that we no longer know how to fill, because we are trained to fill the gaps and we aren’t able to live in them, we have no idea how to do that. In saying this I do not intend in any way to express gratitude for circumstances that, like the current virus, attack life; I merely want to use this event as a pretext for shedding some light, for understanding the immensity of our error in binding our existences to the market, to business, to finance, and in making our lives depend on choices that are imposed on us together with the illusion that it is we who make those choices.

The adventurous history of the School of Chartres comes to mind, though I don’t know what prompted it: a School that tried to reread Aristotle in light of Christian thought. What sorts of ideas would have been active in the world if that School had not been censured? The same could be said of our system: was there no alternative? At that point there was some movement, but today our system no longer generates movement, and so, exactly as a virus does, it agitates below the surface to block movement, to forbid any human reaching toward abstraction, freedom, toward a form of growth concerning not only the economy but rather our consciousness of the self and of restraint. We have lost our own center, it has been hidden from us, our distraction from it has lost us our relation to the world. The illness begins here. After that come viruses, influenzas, downfalls. 

(Original text follows.)

Se penso al mondo in movimento, escludendo tutte le definizioni fisiche di qualsiasi “movimento”, l’unica definizione che mi viene in mente è: produzione. Un mondo che si muove è un mondo che produce, non importa che cosa. Fin da piccoli siamo educati a produrre qualcosa, incoraggiati a farlo e gratificati quando facciamo qualcosa, anche la cacca. La lode, la caramella, il giocattolo, lo stipendio, etc., quanti premi riceviamo nella vita? Azione e premio. Binomio che ha generato da un lato una immobilità permanente della nostra condizione (la società è ferma all’infanzia), dall’altro una perenne schiavitù. A questo punto, dire che il mondo, a causa del coronavirus, si è fermato, mi sembra soltanto la constatazione di un dato di fatto già in essere: non ci siamo fermati, siamo già fermi e da tanto tempo. L’illusione del movimento ci viene “regalata” da chi sa dosare gli strumenti del governo e della produzione, da chi sa dosarli così bene che anche noi li mettiamo in atto nei confronti di noi stessi o di altri, pensando che sia l’unico modo possibile per una vita dignitosa. Fermarsi però fa paura, perché un mondo che ferma la sua catena di produzione è, paradossalmente, un mondo che spezza le catene, che apre le gabbie, che mostra spazi vuoti che non sappiamo più come riempire, perché siamo educati a riempire i vuoti, non riusciamo a vivere in essi, non lo sappiamo più fare. Queste mie parole non vogliono certamente esprimere gratitudine verso gli incidenti che, come l’attuale virus, intaccano la vita, ma prendono spunto dall’incidente per cercare di fare luce, di comprendere quanto sia grande l’errore di legare la nostra esistenza al mercato, agli affari, alla finanza, di farla dipendere da scelte imposte con l’illusione di essere noi a farle quelle scelte.

Mi viene in mente, non so richiamata da cosa, l’avventurosa storia della Scuola di Chartres, dove si cercava di rileggere Aristotele alla luce di un pensiero cristiano. Quali idee avrebbero agito sul mondo se quella Scuola non fosse stata censurata? Lo stesso si potrebbe dire del nostro sistema: non c’era un’alternativa? Lì c’era del movimento, invece adesso il nostro sistema non genera movimento, anzi, proprio come un virus, agisce in profondità per impedirlo, per fermare ogni tensione umana verso l’astrazione, la libertà, verso una crescita che non può riguardare soltanto l’economia, ma riguarda esclusivamente la consapevolezza del sé e del limite. Abbiamo perduto il centro di noi stessi, ci è stato nascosto, ne siamo distratti e con esso abbiamo perduto la relazione col mondo. La malattia nasce da qui. Poi ci sono i virus, le influenze, le cadute.

03/17/20

Comes from reading too much Carl Schmitt

I was dismayed to see the quasi-automatic reply to the coronavirus situation registered by Giorgio Agamben, author of Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. For him, coronavirus has replaced terrorism as the Big Threat that legitimates totalitarian control– the new excuse for prolonging the “state of exception.” In his defense, I’d point out that it was posted on February 25, when there were only 219 cases reported in Italy and 11 deaths. But simple math would have permitted the distinguished philosopher to predict scenarios of transmission rate (in a range from worst-case to best-case) and consider whether measures to slow the spread were warranted. I think the reflex of likening every act of state power to the death camps of the Second World War has the disadvantage of blocking the question, where are the death camps we want to avoid? Are they visible in the empty streets of Rome and Palermo, or are they visible in the overcrowded ICUs of Bergamo and Milan where, lacking an adequate number of respirators, doctors have to decide which patients get a second chance at life?

It’s even more dismaying to see that, at that same moment, the kind of people whom Carl Schmitt would be cheering on to seize power and destroy the opposition in the name of the Ausnahmezustand were saying exactly the same thing as Agamben about pandemic hysteria advancing state encroachment. I put it down to coincidence rather than conspiracy. Schmitt happens. But good people find ways to keep Schmitt from happening. Flatten the curve, friends, even if the curve was a back-of-the-envelope schematic.

03/17/20

In a World This Brutal, Conviviality Has to Be Fought For

Geneviève Azam 

(Le Monde, March 13, 2020)

The world seems to be in a state of instability. Warnings pile up: unbearable inequalities, dependence on uncontrolled technical systems, the accelerating rate of climate chaos and of the extinction of living things, the uprooting of millions of people with no land to welcome them, pollution, a financial system on the verge of exploding, and now an epidemic: a long list of threats that undermine one’s confidence in the future, even the immediate future. We are not experiencing some momentary crisis, to be dealt with by means of a few corrective measures that will bring us back to “normal.” We face irreversible changes and outsize accelerations, exemplified in particular by ecological catastrophes. We are living in a time of collapse.

It is a political collapse as well. For decades now, states have sacrificed the public sphere, the commons, and have turned their societies into “appendices” of the market and the economy, following the expression of Karl Polanyi in his The Great Transformation (1944)—an economist who saw the vast “self-regulating” market as a “Satanic mill” and one of the causes of the fascisms of the 1930s. Since the coming of neoliberalism, the mill has expanded and overheated. As a result of adapting steadily to the laws of competition, life, in all its forms, human and non-human, is threatened—not just on a geological scale but on a historical one. History, which modernity conceived as the product of sovereign human action, no longer wholly answers to us. The earth and life forms strike back. We have triggered uncontrollable events that trigger one another. The neoliberal narrative of growing quality of life and health collapses as well.

Global capitalism responds to these events by a biopolitics like that already announced by Michel Foucault: the adaptation of populations takes the form of data collection, tracking, selection, confinement, walls, refugee camps, surveillance and repression. With the addition of artificial “intelligence” and algorithms, it is now carried out in more “rational” and industrial fashion.

But human creativity will not be controlled. Imagining collapse is also a shock that, far from paralyzing thought and action, seems on the contrary to liberate them from the progress-minded expectation of a future that sweeps us away from our presence in the world. It reveals the stakes and causes us to take leave of our illusions of a gradual transition, of an “end to the crisis” in linear and reversible time. It awakens the coming generations, whose concrete presence and whose commitments restore the meaning of world-making and shield us from apocalyptic fantasies that depend on the loss of meaning. To live in the world, to live on the earth, to reclaim lost territory, emptied, destroyed or defaced territory, is the common ground of many kinds of experience—concrete experiences of conviviality born from earthbound communities that include humans and non-humans and confront predatory, deterritorialized oligarchies.  

It is by refusing the techniques of catastrophe management, otherwise known as “reforms,” that a broken society can re-form itself, that other ways of life can take shape. The roundabout communities where “yellow vests” gather, those non-places of a life condemned to circulation without attachment, emerge from disaster. Conviviality rediscovered amid living things: it can come through ageoecology, agroforestry, permaculture, shortened production and consumption chains, workplace cooperation, social solidarity, simplicity and sharing, a welcome to migrants, occupation of territory, convivial, low-tech technologies. Society re-forms itself by abandoning the institutions of consumerism and the Uber-ized life, in such experiences of “pure, unalloyed joy” as were described by Simone Weil, observing the steelworkers’ strike of 1936. In place of the acceleration that shears off all attachments, rediscovered time takes its pace from living matter despoiled by the cadences of the industrial world. Conviviality becomes meaningful when lawyers on strike come together to secure law and justice, when teachers refuse to participate in algorithmic pedagogy, when railroad workers contest the dehumanization of closing ticket-windows, when over a thousand researchers call for disobedience, when the scale of local government becomes a political sticking-point of resistance to expanding urbanization. In a world this brutal, conviviality has to be fought for. 

Geneviève Azam (economist, essayist, member of the advisory board of ATTAC, www.attac.org) is also the author of Le Second Manifeste convivialiste, Actes Sud, 144 pages, 9.80 euros.

(Unauthorized, volunteer translation from the French by Haun Saussy. I welcome comments from the author, even grumpy ones.)

03/12/20

Making the Best of It

Parents of small children have written en masse to protest my latest song suggestion, so here’s something a little more uplifting. May it buoy you through the present crisis and obligation to perform “social distancing.”

P.S. Here’s a clip of R. Stevie not staying home:

03/8/20

Ineffective Affects

Like you (probably), I get about 60 emails every day from one or another political campaign begging me to send money. I hated the Citizens United decision the day it was announced, and I am reminded 60 times a day of why I hated it: the lifting of limits on campaign spending means that every candidate, even the ones who are against the disproportionate influence of money in politics, must constantly be on the treadmill of asking, asking, asking.

The campaign strategists know that the typical donor is receiving, oh, 60 emails a day asking for the same thing. So they need to get our attention. One method has been to go all Affect Theory and Drama Queen/King on us, staging freakouts in the subject line of the aforementioned emails.

I’m not unresponsive to affect, but the fakery and the emotional overdoing get on my nerves massively. I haven’t called anyone’s campaign hotline to say “You might have had my $5 because of the policies you push, but you alienated me with those ‘All is lost’ ‘Give up hope forever’ ‘Desperately asking for $2’ messages.”

One campaign, by a young fellow challenging a Republican stronghold out west, has been particularly egregious in playing the emotional card. The picture that comes with the email, of a well-put-together guy with a nicely-groomed beard, jars with the shrieking paranoia of the messages. A sequence:

confused

accepting defeat

DESPERATE –> Trump coming tomorrow

I can’t sleep

please help

emergency (please read – don’t delete)

shutting down our office

devastating

shutting down our office

Our hearts are EXPLODING!!

hey are you okay [NAME]?

CATASTROPHE — packing our bags — in complete shock

[CANDIDATE] is freaking out

Republicans HUMILIATED (incredible, [NAME]!)

[NAME], let me explain

The cumulative effect is a kind of emotional abuse. And delete as you will, block as you will, the campaigns always find a way into your Inbox with another sender name. Give me a candidate who’s level-headed and talks about the issues, not emotional states. There’s enough turbulent affect out there already. Talk to me grown-up to grown-up.

03/5/20

My Favorite Candidate Dropped Out Today

I don’t have a television. But I guess it’s reasonable for people who have one to treat presidential candidates as potential roommates and rank them on the relevant criteria: fun to be with? colorful personality? somebody you won’t argue with a lot? grouches about the same things you do? presentable to the neighbors? has his/her own car? For if you have a TV, this person is going to be your roommate for the next four years, yawping and squawking at all kinds of moments while you’re cooking, looking for your glasses, or wishing you were somewhere else.

Being televisually impaired forces me to put aside the likability and electability measures and make lists of policies. The presidential election is actually a job interview. What are the criteria? Can the person do the job (does the person even know what the job is)? What about disease, unemployment, debt, inequality? If X happened, what would you see as the top priority? The second priority?

Now that my top candidate has bowed out, those who cheered her on with me are talking as if there’s no hope, as if the remaining candidates are each a take-it-or-leave-it package of inferior executables. But we know that policy statements are just words on paper unless there are the majorities to enact them, and policy ideas don’t go away when a candidate folds up the campaign. We can actually (radical notion) separate the candidates from the policies and insist that the policies of candidate P become a goal for candidate Q as candidate Q goes from the primaries to the general election, because we won’t stand to have them folded up and recycled along with the lawn signs for candidate P. The primaries should be testing grounds for ideas, recruitment fairs for high-level appointments, and thus a forum where policies get traction, not a demolition derby where a cartoon character annihilates another cartoon character and all he or she stood for.

We have over-personalized the presidency, loaded it with too many launch buttons, and it’s time we started pulling back on the cult of personality. How about the cult of policy? Let a hundred wonks wonk, I say. Those who can’t wonk the wonk have no business talking the talk.

03/5/20

Narcissism, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Epidemic Disease

When I have to stop the many-colored pinwheel of daily tasks and ask who my four or five Real Enemies are, one that has always made the shortlist is American Exceptionalism. That is, the belief that we as a nation are special; not subject to the laws of nature or social development that drag down other, lesser nations; guaranteed a place in the sun by God Himself and destined to get our way, even if we have to throw tantrums and bomb cities to do it; and no matter what we get ourselves mixed up in, irrefutably, permanently, righteous. Though I would love to claim such bragging privileges for myself and my 400 million friends, I know it’s not fair, and fairness ought to come out on top.

A winter morning spent riffling through the DSM-5 will give us some new language wherewith to seize and band this rapacious volatile. “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.”

Yep, that’s us.

It goes on. The pattern is usually “established by early adulthood” (when would that be, in our 250-year history of legal existence? The War of 1812? The Jackson Administration? The Trail of Tears? The Missouri Compromise?):

… and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by the presence of at least 5 of the following 9 criteria:

A grandiose sense of self-importance;

A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love;

A belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions;

A need for excessive admiration;

A sense of entitlement;

Interpersonally exploitive behavior;

A lack of empathy;

Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her;

A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes….

I think we can check all 9 of the 9. Saying “the other nations do it too” isn’t a valid excuse: we’re talking about your maladaptation, chump, and you are, if the truth be told, a largish specimen of the kind.

With these personality distortions on our rap sheet, perhaps it was inevitable that we would sooner or later choose the most monstrous exhibit of these traits to be our face to the world. Be that as it may, now our national narcissism faces a problem that can be solved only by science, care, and cooperation– disciplines that the narcissist finds intolerable. For science is humbling (the virus doesn’t give a damn who you are), care requires sacrificing some of your infinite Me Time to look after others, and cooperation may involve accepting somebody else’s leadership (see above under: science).

National narcissism responds by “splitting” (I’ve gone back to riffling through the DSM, mixing the entries for narcissism and for borderline personality disorder), in an effort to divide the Me (entirely good, powerful, healthy, and blameless) from the Them (dirty, infected, flawed, repulsive). Let the walls rise! Cut off all communication, push the huddled masses back onto the boats! Feed the racist rabble-rousing! For the sake of nurturing disgust, fantasize about Chinese gulping down bat soup and similar unspeakables! Downplay the seriousness of the disease, because it can’t possibly affect a person like you and you don’t have empathy for the lesser breeds anyway. Deny it flat-out, because your words make reality, and the virus will fade into nothingness at your say-so. Get out that Sharpie and tell the winds which way to blow!

None of this is going to help. We are all in the path of the damn thing, and what will get us through is frequent hand-washing and accurate data collection and transmission. And a dose of blind luck.

My sympathies go to the people of Wuhan. Their troubles have been augmented by another national personality disorder, but I don’t feel like finger-pointing just now.

03/3/20

Advice from the King of Lifestyle Influencers

Hey there fans and inveterate enviers! I’m sitting on the top of the influencer world now, occupying my school-of-Stickley rocking armchair (bought second-hand in 2011 in St. Joseph, Michigan, $200) while electricity spills from flame-shaped bulbs (Ace Hardware, $6.99 for 6) after being generated from good old Sol (free; prices for photovoltaic setup and installation vary by locality). And in front of me is a copy of Walter Goffart’s Barbarians and Romans (Princeton University Press, 1980; paperback; $9 used from Powell’s Bookstore, 57th Street, yesterday afternoon). When I’m done with this I have a couple of reviews to check over for a journal and a backlog of student papers. Approximately four reviews and two papers from now, I will want lunch, and though it’s early yet I suspect this may involve some frozen green scallion pancakes from the Chinese market. I’m benefiting from free delivery of the bass track of some rap song, courtesy of my neighbors who are warming up their car. Life is good, especially when I consider all the less exciting things I could be doing.

There should be a word for the following situation, common in my crowd. I knew Walter Goffart for years as a pleasant person to have tea with at the Elizabethan Club in New Haven. We knew many of the same people (often medievalists, now that I think back to it: the Viking historian, the Old English philologist, the person reconstructing Anglo-Saxon pedagogy) but didn’t often talk shop, preferring to direct our mild jabs of irony at the Times from that morning, the latest idiocies of politics, and new novels that one or two of us had read and the others were putting on their to-read lists. But it turns out that this person I knew casually has written an astonishing book. The phenomenon I am referring to might be called the “The Crazy-Haired Dude Who Gave You a Quarter For Mowing His Lawn Was Albert Einstein” double-take.

It was just one of those things that I’d always known that Rome fell (476 AD, right?) to barbarian invasions. My ten-year-old was asking me about it the other day, which is part of why I was standing in front of the medieval section at Powell’s. I could draw you a picture of those barbarian invasions. Hirsute, armed to the teeth, mailed, fist-shaking, horsed, the rude strangers came pouring over the horizon and broke through the walls of one Roman city after another while senators and matrons ran screaming down the forum, tangling their feet in their long curtain-like clothing. But Walter asked what the records showed, and the story is different: groups of foreigners showed up, a few thousand per group, on the fringes of the Roman Empire, and asked to be taken in. They sometimes got allocations of land, sometimes received regular payments from the public purse. In short, it was the usual way that a powerful state, even a somewhat depressed one, handles an influx of refugees, and in time the refugees became a settled population of taxpayers. Goffart offers a story of “undramatic adjustments between Romans and barbarians” (p. 4). It is finely documented on the basis of local sources from across the empire, and makes one wonder whether the dramatic story of invasions and migrations might not be, as they so often are, a construction designed to prepare our minds for the inevitability of policies that seek to “close the floodgates” against the “barbarian tide” menacing Europe, or England, or Bognor Regis, as the case may be. “The attractive power of the empire, typified by the government’s welcome to foreign military elites, had a more certain role than any impulse from the barbarian side in establishing exotic dominations on provincial soil. When set in a fourth-century perspective, what we call the Fall of the Western Roman Empire was an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand” (pp. 34-35).

It’s always a part of the “Einstein and the Quarter” scenario that when the penny drops, you wish you were back in that clubhouse drinking tea with the man who wrote the provocative book, so you could ask more specific questions — thereby defying, if need be, the tacit rule against talking shop. I’m sure I will be mentally translating the Goffart doctrine into terms suited to Chinese uptake in the coming weeks.

(Like this lifestyle influence column? Guess what — there’s no link you can click on here that will scrape your data and accept your money! Just scrounge around your own neighborhood for used furniture and used books — on paper, please — that will make living through the next disaster or epidemic tolerable.)

02/12/20

Arid zone

After a few days in Arizona (beautiful sunlight, sharply-outlined mountains, constant reminiscences of Wile E. Coyote), I recall how many times the newspaper and conversations overheard around me attested to a general meanness. People talked about an “invasion” on the southern border as a matter of course. As if folks like them had not once been invaders! And grumbled about Californians “invading” as well, with their strange clothing and mores. The newspaper brought news of the state legislature attempting to get legal cover for punishing cities or districts that passed any local ordinances that ran counter to state policies. Or rather, not “any,” but specific ordinances seeking to protect migrants, undocumented people, minimum-wage-earners, and otherwise vulnerable humans. The state seeks to mandate meanness. A kind of absurd climax was provided by a proposed act that would disqualify most kinds of “emotional support animal” on public transport. “Owning the libs” at its finest. I would advocate separating people from their emotional support firearms in every context but the national defense, how about that? It wouldn’t even be mean.

01/12/20

Amen

From Joep Leersen’s Comparative Literature in Britain: National Identities, Transnational Dynamics 1800-2000 (Oxford: Legenda, 2019), 165-166:

Most critics seem to concur that the great value of literature is its power to make us think differently: to empathize, to imagine how life feels to others…. The internationalist climate of the post-war decades was obviously congenial to such a literary and critical stance. The decline of internationalism after 1990 has affected political and academic life alike (most notably in the dwindling funding for cross-national teaching and research in the humanities); it has coincided with a decline in foreign language teaching, a key competence for comparatists. Conversely, neo-nationalist populism is hostile to such educational and research practices that involve empathetic or critical thought, and instead thrives on anti-intellectualism, fake news, fact-free politics and post-truth memes….

[T]he spread of populist neonationalism… has occurred in tandem with the institutional decline of the humanities, including Comparative Literature, with their emphasis on transnationalism and on the power of the human mind–critical, empathetic, imaginative. The pedagogical need for people trained to think clearly and critically, and transnationally, has been proved beyond all doubt in the negative, much as the need for vitamin C was proved, in the negative, by scurvy. …

The pedagogical need to train personalities in transcending ethnocentric or narrow national tunnel-vision, in imaginative and critical flexibility of mind, in transcultural literacy and competence, is, then, made obvious by the very failures we are witnessing in the national and international political field over the last decades.

11/23/19

What Is Comparative Literature?

I thought you’d never ask.


Comparative Literature is the study of cultural expressions across languages, periods, genres, and disciplines. Experts in the field acquire familiarity with several languages, frame theories to enable connections among disparate domains, and propose new ways of understanding that arise from considering similarities, differences, and relationships encompassing these diverse objects. 


It is important to observe that Comparative Literature is an open project, not a discipline grounded on a single archive or method. It can be defined by contrast with such fields as English, philosophy, literature-in-translation, anthropology, linguistics, etc.— all of which it can include, but none of which circumscribe it. There are examples of Comparative Literature, but no definitive rulebook. We discover what it is by doing it. 

For more detail, you might like to look into:

Are We Comparing Yet? On Standards, Justice, and Incomparability. Bielefeld: transcript verlag /Bielefeld University Press, 2019 (Open Access copy available here).

César Dominguez, Haun Saussy and Darío Villanueva. Introducing Comparative Literature: New Trends and Applications. New York: Routledge, 2015. Spanish translation: Lo que Borges enseñó a Cervantes: Introducción a la literatura comparada. Trans. David Mejía. Madrid: Taurus, 2016. Arabic translation: Taqdiym al-adab al-moqarān, itijāhāt wa tatbiyqāt jadīdah. Trans. Fuad Abdel Motteleb. Kuwait: National Council for Arts and Literature, 2017. 

Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization: The 2004 ACLA Report on the State of the Discipline. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

“Comparative Literature?” PMLA 118.2 (2003), 336-341.

“The Dimensionality of World Literature.” Neohelicon 38.2 (2011), 1-7.

“Comparisons, World Literature, and the Common Denominator.” 60-64 in Ali Behdad and Dominic Thomas, eds., A Companion to Comparative Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2011.

“Axes of Comparison.” 64-76 in Rita Felski and Susan Stanford Friedman, eds., Comparison: Theories, Approaches, Uses. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. 


“Cosmopolitanism.” American Comparative Literature State of the Discipline report, 2014, available at http://stateofthediscipline.acla.org/entry/cosmopolitanism


“By Land or by Sea: Models of World Literature.” 61-69 in Jean Bessière and Gerald Gillespie, eds., Contextualizing World Literature. (New Comparative Poetics, 35.) Brussels: P. I. E. Peter Lang, 2015.


“Poetry — Universal? Progressively So? On World Poetry.” Comparative Literature and World Literature 1:1 (2016), 3-9.


“Trying to Make It Real: An Exchange Between Haun Saussy and David Damrosch.” (Including “Compared to What?” “Comparison — La Petite Phrase de Vinteuil,” and “Conclusion: L’ Inégalité des Dalles.”) Comparative Literature Studies 53 (2016): 660-693.  


“Comparative Literature: The Next Ten Years.” 24-29 in Ursula Heise, chief editor, Futures of Comparative Literature. New York: Routledge, 2017. 


“The Three Futures of World Literature.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue canadienne de littérature comparée 44 (2017): 397-406.


“A Poetics of Global Trolling.” University of Toronto Quarterly 88 (2019): 112-124.

That may not be enough, but it’s the best I can do now.

11/9/19

Adam Smith against multitasking

“A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to another. When he first begins the new work he is seldom very keen and hearty; his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for some time he rather trifles rather than applies to good purpose. The habit of sauntering and of indolent careless application, which is naturally, or rather necessarily acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life, renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application even on the most pressing occasions.”

The Wealth of Nations, book I, “Of the Division of Labour”

10/30/19

Cults

My rare close associates and I sometimes joke about our propensity to join or form cults. By that we mean tightly-knit groups of people who share some belief, attitude or proclivity not shared by the general public. Being a member of a cult will set you up for some harsh treatment by members of the bigger cult that the smaller cult defines itself against. That’s to be expected.

You could probably define me as the intersection of a certain number of cults. The larger the number, the sharper the focus on the individual. C’est la vie. If the Monster is sniffing down the Venn diagram maps, looking for me, this is where I am to be found. Why not make the Monster’s work easy?

The cult of poetry: Oops, just excluded 99% of the literate public (which is not 100% of the public, by any means). “I would die for poetry,” said my friend Lazik one day in 1994 or so, and I couldn’t find anything to say but: Yes, of course.

The cult of steel road bikes: Once upon a time, if you wanted to ride long distances and relatively fast, there was only steel. I rode several times from Brittany to Istanbul and beyond on an old steel bike, probably a Peugeot but painted over (why?) when I bought it; and then on a Bertin, the geometry of which was much better suited for getting one across the rocks and potholes. Already at the time carbon-fiber bikes existed, but solely for pro riders and bankers on holiday. Now carbon fiber saturates the market and it’s only the stubborn old-schoolers who ride steel, despite ample evidence that steel is better for you, holds up under rough treatment, can be whanged back into shape after a crash, etc. In this cult, my particular chapel is that of Rivendell bikes, beautiful creations that float across the gravel or pavement leaving behind an impression of “noble simplicity and simple greatness,” as the fellow said. When I have some spare change, it tends to go to them, unless there is an initiative going on at:

Partners In Health, an organization somewhere between a petition and an order of chivalry, that has been wearing down the jerks and assholes of this world for forty or so years with the notion that no human life is more deserving than any other of care, preservation, and prolongation. In a decent world PIH would not be the looney fringe but the uncontested consensus. Goes to show you.

Deconstruction, another of my observances, a word too oft used in vain to mean “vaguely throwing mud in the direction of something.” In the day I discovered and instantly joined this crew, it was used gingerly, because we were aware of the very real possibility that, like bomb crews, we might think we had defused the monsters of Western civilization but had only unscrewed their outer shells and perhaps carried them into the hiding-places of our opposition, where they might subsequently explode. It was never a safe assumption that anything had been adequately or indeed at all deconstructed. Since I was hanging out with epidemiologists during much of that era, which was also the era of AIDS, the two modes of wariness intertwined in my thinking as I realized that some diseases can only be managed, never cured. At any rate, the company of people who would go to any lengths to wrestle a metaphysical assumption to the ground gave me courage to go on and do whatever odd stuff the task of the moment seemed to require, though well-attested epistemologies might say it was impossible or worthless. The pleasure of confuting common sense was non-negligible.

Other affinities: … well, I would bore you. Let’s say there’s a pattern and leave it at that.

10/13/19

retrospective

I’m an impatient person. And I write impatient books, as it occurs to me on looking back over the series so far. They’re on the short side: except when doing anthologies, I like a book to occupy the thin edge of whatever wedge it is driving. They’re also written amid unending interruptions. The narrative voice (at least, the one I hear in my head whenever I reopen one of those books) is in a hurry: come on, get to the point, why do we need to know this, what’s the consequence? It is not the leisurely voice of a narrator who likes the sound of his own voice and expects that you have all day to listen.

Another aspect of the impatience: don’t tell me what I already know. I would hope that when you open these books you get, despite the relatively slender page count, a high ratio of novelty per page, per paragraph or per sentence. It would distress me to write pages that just endorse a consensus view. If there’s a consensus, I ignore it unless there’s a chance of unsettling it. This makes for a somewhat grouchy, chip-on-the-shoulder tone, I admit.

The impatience I confess to as a writer doesn’t mean that my process is rushed. It usually takes me years of drafts and reworking to get a book into shape. Its eventual form is usually a compromise between two or three story lines that arose independently. (The advantages of multiplexing: why buy a book on Zhuangzi and a book on translation theory when you can get two-in-one?) The major impatience is to get it said, get it out there, shed that skin and slither on to the next irritant.

In fact, each book has a different subject from the preceding one and usually a different archive lies behind it. This may indicate a plurality of interests or may indicate a fatal inability to do what the academic career path wants you to do, which is to build (or dig) repeatedly in the same spot until you have become the Expert In Something. I am sure I will one of these days become some kind of expert, but it will be in an X that has yet to be solved for and which intersects all my investigations. Just possibly, this X is something I can’t know and only someone else can, and perhaps it is ludicrously simple and obvious to everyone who is not me (cf. Kafka’s “Investigations of a Dog”). No, it’s not “Rosebud.”

I would like to tell you that my books are all sunshine and marshmallows, but I’m not made that way and neither are they.

But there’s no excuse for giving a slapdash reading to an impatient man’s books. Look at the chronotope, if the Bakhtinians will forgive me for borrowing the term. An impatient man’s book is broken into moments that are different from one another and impelled from A to B. No moment is just A or B. The journey, not the destination, matters, to quote that corny inspirational poster that hangs on your xerox-room wall.

So it’s rather disappointing to run, by chance, across an article in Comparative Literature Studies that relies on my work to make its argument about Du Fu’s poetics but gets me completely wrong. The person who wrote that piece apparently believes that if I quote someone else, it is because I agree with that person. Is there no such thing as doing the Problemsgeschichte, or a polemical set-up? The method of working through the previous scholarship in order to controvert its assumptions is one I share with Aristotle, Aquinas, and countless lesser figures; I’d have thought everyone over the age of twelve had encountered an argument framed in this way. Unable to detect the line of argument, despite the fact that I signal quite explicitly that my inquiry is framed, not as “what is X,” but as “how did there come to be a problem of X,” the author then scores a number of easy points that go completely beside the mark. I’m a bit shocked that people can get to such an advanced stage and still not know how to read. Well, I guess I can go back to being impatient about something else now.

10/12/19

Nominalism in extremis

These days bring back a memory of the Reagan years, an interval most of which I spent out of the country, disgusted by the beginnings of the legitimation of waste, brutality and greed that have become our new normal. A newspaper at the time reported that in anticipation of an all-out nuclear attack a new airborne command center had just been ordered for the White House: a Boeing jumbo jet with special transmission capacities, hardened against radiation, with room aboard for the President and a few dozen of his close collaborators. On the sides of this expensive new plane were painted the words, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. It immediately occurred to me that in the event of its use, the meaning of those words would no longer be, as it usually is, “This airplane represents (belongs to and bears the livery of) that federation of fifty states and three hundred million individuals that goes by the name of ‘The United States of America’”; rather it would be “The United States of America,” or all that would be left of them. 

I’m usually no enemy of nominalism, but wouldn’t like it to prevail on these terms.

10/7/19

Blank space on the map

Xavier Briffault, La fabrique de la dépression (The manufacture of depression; Paris: Armand Colin, 2010), is a useful book. It compensates for the individualism of DSM-style psychological symptomatology by devoting chapters to the social conditions that contribute to people experiencing depression; on the other end, it lays out evidence of the bio-chemical underpinnings of the thing. Both the social and the chemical angle bring relief from the self and from the insistence on thought reform, what I might call the orthopedic bias of the psychiatric trade. But here’s something one can’t help noticing in Briffault’s chapter on personality disorders. It includes a table pointing to an 80% lifetime prevalence of depression among people with a diagnosis of avoidant personality disorder — the highest rate of prevalence, the runner-up being borderline personality disorder with 61%. You might think, then, that a book entitled “the manufacture of depression” would spill some ink on those unfortunate people cursed with a Cluster C avoidant makeup. But no! Briffault goes into a detailed discussion of the more colorful borderline and bipolar patients, forgetting completely the population with the highest prevalence. A keyword search shows a similar feast-vs.-famine pattern in psychological research generally. Is Avoidant Personality Disorder simply not interesting, or does its symptomatology too closely track that of depression in general? Or have psychologists figured out that the avoidant aren’t going to make a big fuss if they’re ignored, but will just shrink back into the curtains? I wonder why the experts are so quick to avoid the avoidant.

10/4/19

It’s Out and there’s something wrong with it

I’m happy to announce the appearance of a new book by me, Are We Comparing Yet? The publisher has thoughtfully made it available in Open Access digital form.

I’m unhappy to announce that a sentence in a footnote, which I had hoped would be a moment of pleasant recognition for somebody, was erroneous. On p. 107, footnote 15, please correct “In 1990, the Moscow high schools” to “In 1988, some Moscow high schools.” The fuller story to which I referred (through memory’s fog) may be found here.

Mea culpa.