11/22/22

Dog Culture

The notion that culture is specifically human– that animals may have instincts and typical behaviors, but do not transmit them through some animal pedagogy– may be brandished by people claiming a hard-headed approach to reality, but “instinct,” when you get down to it, is not much more material than the soul.* Where are the neural correlates of nesting behavior, of seasonal migration, of pecking orders? I can agree that anthropomorphism isn’t a good way to talk about animal minds, that it makes us talk like missionary ethnographers, but when I critique something, I like to have something better to put in its place. For now, unfortunately, the cupboard is bare.

When theory fails, go back to description, which is where I was early this morning when this train of thought started down the track. I was watching Mila, to whom I am connected by affective bonds and sometimes a blue leash, go about her business in the neighborhood. She sniffs; goes, impelled by some deductive process I can’t follow, from one sniffing spot to the next; and moves on. The tree trunks, rocks, and lintels that boy dogs have peed on get most of her attention. But every now and then she picks a spot, positions her hindquarters at an angle, and applies a little jet of pee; then takes up her walking again.

It was the little jets that got my attention. Pardon me if this is vulgar, but when I pee, I am taking care of a physical need– an animal need, some might say. I have liquid in my bladder and I want it out. A satisfactory pee is one that empties the bladder entirely. If something interrupts me halfway through– someone coming in or the phone ringing– it’s not at all comfortable to postpone the second part of the program. An animal action, in the sense I’m designating now, is a behavior that aims at meeting a need and is accomplished when the need is met.

But Mila makes her bladder stop when she’s posted just enough to let other dogs know she’s been there, and goes on her way to drop another of her liquid Easter eggs halfway down the block. This is semiotic behavior, a kind of communication, achieved by modifying– even frustrating– the animal behavior which it takes as its raw material. Dogs have culture, all right. It’s not animal. It’s a culture they perform for each other’s benefit. Shaking hands, standing on their hind legs, wearing cute little hats, are not dog culture but an imposition from ours that other dogs must find meaningless. Maybe this dog culture has something instinctive at its base– there we are again with the hot potato of “instinct”– but the ability to interrupt and control an animal process in order to do something generically unrelated to that process is culture. (I wonder if an objective description of human culture would differ much from that.)

Brillat-Savarin said: “Les animaux se repaissent; l’homme mange; l’homme d’esprit seul sait manger.” I trust the distinctions he’s drawing by the verbs more than I do the distinctions drawn by the nouns.

=====

* Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals: “It is notorious how powerful is the force of habit…. This applies to the nerves of motion and sensation, as well as to those connected with the act of thinking. That some physical change is produced in the nerve-cells or nerves which are habitually used can hardly be doubted, for otherwise it is impossible to understand how the tendency to certain acquired movements is inherited.” “Otherwise it is impossible to understand”: in other words, I don’t understand it, but I have only one hypothesis to go on.

11/18/22

Philology in the Bedchamber

Last night in a dream I solved one of those problems that, as that old tease Thomas Browne said, “although puzzling… are not beyond all conjecture,” namely “what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women.”*

The answer that came to me was obvious: Sheila.

Why? In French, Achilles is “Achille.” A little transposition, and voilà!

It made perfect sense under dream-logic. Next up, “what song the Syrens sang.”


* Sir Thomas Browne, Hydrotaphia, Urn-Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk.

11/2/22

Almost but not quite

Nan Z. Da, Intransitive Encounter: Sino-U.S. Literatures and the Limits of Exchange (Columbia UP, 2018)

Madhumita Lahiri, Imperfect Solidarities: Tagore, Gandhi, Du Bois, and the Global Anglophone (Northwestern UP, 2021)

Adhira Mangalagiri, States of Disconnect: The China-India Literary Relation in the Twentieth Century (Columbia UP, 2023)

Do I detect a theme here?

11/1/22

How I Benefited from Affirmative Action

I’m not going to make the gesture, beloved of gotcha!-debaters and the “check your privilege” crew, that I have benefited my whole life long from being situated in a certain class, gender, Pantone color range, and so forth, that made access to academic institutions easier. Partly because it’s self-evidently true, and I don’t like to waste time on the obvious; partly because, even if it’s true, a whole lot of people can exhibit exactly the same social and phenotypical traits as me and not pursue, or seek to pursue, a whole lot of academic rewards.

My purpose is not to bemoan and regret the advantages I have had through that kind of affirmative action, but to celebrate the good things the other kind of affirmative action has brought me and others, and most of all to point out to the Supreme Court the hundreds of ways the likely outcome indicated by their lines of questioning and, indeed, the case they agreed to hear, are misconceived.

College before the 1960s was in most cases an extension of the country club, to hear our elders tell it. Kids from comfortable families went there to network, to play sports, to major in beer, to eyeball potential marriage partners, and of course to get those all-important draft deferments. If your family could pay for it and you met the minimum standards, the question “Why do you belong at the University of X?” did not have to be asked. Of course there were exceptions: places where physics nerds or philology freaks congregated, places with a professional orientation, and the outstanding women’s colleges that did not specialize in the M.rs. degree. I suspect the HBCUs were an exception to this pattern, but they too probably harbored a number of jocks, networkers, and inheritors. A college had its traditional target population and drew from it. Life went on, pretty much the same from generation to generation, with football drawing most of the attention and professorial research being a kind of institutionally tolerated hobby.

With the requirement to show that they were taking concrete and “affirmative,” yes, steps, and implementing them “with all deliberate speed” (ah the lawyerly knack of concocting phrases that sound apodictic but are vague in application!), those same colleges started to have to ask the question, “Why does Student N belong in our programs?” And they had to ask it in a new way: not the way that implies that you have to be “their type,” and they know what that type is. I’ve never worked in an admissions office, but what I hear suggests that there was always an active search to pull in those students whose admittance would result in donations for the institution (thus, legacy kids and the children of the rich); to that type of background research was now added the requirement to show that the institution was making an effort to diversify its draw. “Diversify,” according to preset criteria; and we all know how crude those criteria can be. (How high does an Okinawan planning to major in art history rate against an Ojibwe planning to major in ethnic studies, and how are the percentages of blood inheritance to be calculated?) But it was actually a good thing, however crude the machinery invoked to make it happen.

I went to school with a lot of kids who differed from me along many axes. Let’s start with gender: by the early 1970s the august New England institutions had broken down and admitted women. When I went to my good Southern college in the late 1970s it had crossed that bridge a long time ago, and others: I found myself studying with and befriending kids who had discovered that they were attracted to people of the same sex, and so forth. (I had fairly bohemian parents, so the existence of gay folks was not a surprise to me, but the fact that people could be out and not confidential about it was new.) The fraternities and sororities were maintaining 1950s gender theory with all its associated behaviors, but I had no interest in joining. In fact my main reason for refusing to apply to any of the schools where I would have been a legacy was that my relatives wanted to write to the fraternity chapter of the school concerned; and to get a call from the local SAEs, or whatever, was the last thing I wanted. I felt, in fact, unease with people of my own class and background, and avoided them whenever possible. I regret that I lost touch with some marvelous people who landed on the wrong side of this instinctively drawn line. People who were going to graduate and go straightaway to work in the family firm, even if they were, technically speaking, smart enough to get a high score on their SATs (and not all of them were), did not have anything to say that I wanted to hear. Without having a theory about it, I hung out with people who were unlike me according to the superficial race-class-gender criteria, but like me according to the criteria that mattered. These were the people who could tell me things I didn’t already know. When we read Baudelaire or Livy together, I could see how the same string of six words would bring up different associations for us. Not to mention the late-night discussions after falafel and Stroh’s, where we got into the how and the why and the what-to-do of everything. That was my real education.

It never occurred to me to pick my friends on the basis of their racial category or any other generalized label. If I had X many black friends, the number of black kids with whom I didn’t feel a particular vibe was many multiples of X; and that’s the way selection operates on the personal level. The institutional level is important because the group of people admitted presents to the individual student the roster of possibilities. If you go to a school where a large degree of homogeneity obtains, you’re not going to meet those kids who had to split one can of Husband-Pleasing Ranch Style Beans four ways for supper, or the ones whose parents had had to barricade the door against the Klan. I’m grateful to Duke University for thinking (or having to be forced to think) about whom to admit in a way that people of the 1950s could not have imagined.

The effects of bringing a population of 18-year-olds who have experienced widely different life courses, and I don’t mean some who went to Exeter and some who went to a Swiss finishing school, are vast. When the 1980 version of myself asks, “How do I know that my point of view is the right one?,” I have lots of examples of other points of view in mind. As I go into professional life, whatever that life may be, I have at least been called to notice other people’s lives and to see that those lives matter to them.

The Supreme Court, following in the steps of the famous Bakke decision, envisions college admissions not from the point of view of an administration that wants to create the most stimulating and various environment for its students, but from that of the one student who got rejected from Harvard despite having test scores that were at least as good as some other person’s who did get admitted. That student will think that he or she has been wronged, because he or she lacks the ability to imagine that a life in which s/he went to Williams, or Arizona State, or Stanford, was equally good and possibly even better. This one-track mind is, I suspect, the common vice of most right-wing activists. “I want what I want because I want it, and I have a right to get it!” They suppose that in the world of the 1950s (the world as it ought to have been, they think), they would have naturally been granted this or that thing, and that now that they are not going to get that thing, the world having changed, their lives are damaged and they must sue for redress. My advice for anybody who wants to keep their brain active and flexible is not to think that your life course is so inevitable. It would be good for you to meet some people who are not the people your parents, or your sociological category, think you ought to meet. I am grateful for what affirmative action has done to me. And for me. I am concerned that future kids may not have that intensive exposure to other young lives. So I am waiting for a Supreme Court with fewer blinkered party hacks to take the long view and return to considering the common good in the broadest sense.

Affirmative action never took anything away from me. What it gave me is immense, and I reap the benefits every day, in friendship, ethical awareness, and ability to think. Not that I’m perfect in any of those domains.

10/24/22

Shirking controversy

The flood of bills in state legislatures seeking to prohibit “divisive concepts” in the public schools must be deeply gratifying to those who long for the good old days of McCarthy and HUAC. If concepts such as inequality of opportunity and the existence of gay people are so scandalous, just imagine what history books will be like when they’re satisfactorily sanitized of any truthful or uncomfortable content. Or don’t bother imagining: my friend Bryan has dug out a textbook used in Tennessee schools in the 1960s-70s, where in the chapter about Reconstruction we read the following:

“The Ku Klux Klan started in May 1866… The declared aim of the order was ‘to protect the innocent, the weak, and the defenceless’… Other aims were to support the United States Constitution, and to aid in the execution of all constitutional laws…. The Klan had a restraining influence on the excesses of the Loyal Leagues, and of extremists in the Freedmen’s Bureau.” 

Mary U. Rothrock, This Is Tennessee: A School History (Knoxville: Rothrock, 1963), pp. 310-311.

I shudder to think of the people who would find such an account inoffensive. But that’s what we’re headed toward if we don’t stop these educational gag orders.

Underneath the manufactured crisis of “parental authority” vis-à-vis the public schools is a combat for memory. Public memory is implicitly always contested and contestable. It contains memories that are suppressed, oversold, neglected, ignored, criminalized, the concern of a coterie, falsified, or merely potential– all in a constant competitive roil and boil. And it matters what you remember. Ask someone from Eastern Europe. Or one of the imprisoned scholars of China. Or someone from Latin America, or Africa. If these interlocutors are too exotic, or too busy to talk to you, then get in touch with a Tennessean of any color, gender, or age.

10/2/22

Paul Before Paul

(pronounced at the conference “The Moral and Intellectual Legacy of Paul Farmer,” Harvard Medical School, October 1, 2022)

“It is incomprehensible, the fact that someone can become something so quickly. I’ll never forget the moment when what used to be my father arrived in an urn of fake marble.” That is Paul Farmer speaking, in 1985, from a letter I’ve been keeping, like all of his letters, through countless moves and life changes. Like all of you, I can’t bear to see Paul turn into a thing, and one way of forestalling that is to make his words resound again.


            I had the astonishing good fortune to befriend Paul in 1978 or 79 and to keep up with him ever after. We exchanged a lot of letters (for the younger ones in the audience, a “letter” is a document often written by hand on paper and sent through an agency called the “post office”). Whether in person or by letter, conversation with Paul was a constant laser-tag stream of jokes, questions, gossip, reflections, and grandiose plans. I don’t want to claim excessive privilege from this long acquaintance, which I’m certainly not alone in having, but today it allows me to let Paul speak for himself from the time before he was Paul, so to speak.

We’re talking today about Paul’s moral and intellectual legacy, Paul as a world-historical figure, as Arthur Kleinman said this morning. Yes, we must. I think Paul really came into his own when PIH demonstrated, first, that MDRTB was infectious and could be cured, even in the poorest communities; and second, that HIV could be controlled, also in the poorest and least-equipped communities, if only the necessary drugs were made available. These two victories (owed to many, but many who were inspired or led by Paul) solidified his position in global health and made his so-called idealism look like practical common sense. But I want to take you back to a time when Paul was just a guy named Paul, so to speak, when nobody knew about him and he had little but his own stubborn energy and commitment to go on.   

            One of the characteristics that made him so endearing was his ability to focus on the particular person in front of him, not caring at all about whether that person was important or influential—since every person is important to him or herself, and he could adopt that perspective. An example. 1983, and Paul was back home from Brooksville after a stint in Haiti—recovering from malaria, as I learned later. But he found time to write me a succession of missives chronicling his erotic pursuit through the swamps of an elusive blue heron named Great Blue—a sort of comic allegory of one of our frequent topics of discussion, our ongoing late-adolescent girlfriend problems. My problems were not serious in any sense, but he cared enough to give me therapy through parody. He wrote from Haiti after a brief visit to Boston that he was “relieved to be free of Jack Frost and his foliage-hating henchmen.” A month or so later, from Boston: “I am going to Haiti in 19 days (Ba-m nouvel zanmi ou!) for a site visit, as they say in development set jargon, and I wish it were for 19 years.” I got to travel around Haiti with him, got to know and admire the great Father Fritz Lafontant who was Paul’s strongest local supporter, and saw for myself how completely dedicated he was to the place and to all Haitians (the zanmi, “friends,” he mentioned were some Haitian neighbors of mine in New Haven whose lives and extended family he never failed to enquire about). Some of the pictures you’ve seen this morning were taken by me in 1983, starring a gangly, grinning, excited Paul, in his real country and in his element. I only wish I had taken more. In 1983 Haiti was still in the grip of the Duvalier kleptocracy, and we had to be careful what we said and to whom, because Baby Doc’s informers and enforcers were everywhere. That changed in 1986 with the déchoukaj or eradication of the Duvaliers. Paul wrote me: “Still celebrating about Haiti. Touch and go for a bit, as Père was ‘missing’ for 10 days (‘Li kache nèt!’). He resurfaced, quit the maquis, the day after the Baby left.” As you know, the ebullience didn’t last. A junta took control and declared Paul persona non grata for several years, forcing him to remain, unhappily, the prisoner of Jack Frost and Harvard. Those were hard years for the clinic in Cange: years of intimidation and scarcity. Then came, in 1994, the chance to go back. Paul’s first act was to give the clinical staff time off: “On Friday, it was my great pleasure to send the bulk of the medical staff—two doctors and two nurses—home. No problem, I said—I can cover both the general and the women’s clinic. The first couple of hours was fun, straightforward (malaria, bronchitis, one case each of typhoid and TB, diarrheal disease, some dermatoses, impetigo, etc.). But then came a tibial fracture. As you know, the X-ray machine is down, so I had to set it manually and cast it (thanking all the while my ortho tutor)… Less than an hour ago I delivered my first post-Titid baby.” “I arrived to find no asthma meds (mine are gone now too…), no metronidazole, no cipro, kanamycin, no sterile saline solution, no catheters, and no morphine. Ringer’s lactate is the only IV solution available. The women’s health clinic is poorly stocked…” “The health crisis is unprecedented… Cange has the only functional medical care in the entire central plateau. Three years ago, it was one of 7 comparable institutions.” 

            The harm done by those harsh years took time to repair. Merely repairing was never on Paul’s agenda, though: “There are enough new cases of AIDS in the central plateau, and enough horror stories, to warrant the building of a small hospice. This is something Fritz and I had discussed last year, and it seems, more than ever, a noble idea….” That noble idea led to the provision of advanced therapies that brought HIV patients in the Cange clinic back to life and health and proved the naysayers wrong. 

            You know the story from then on. We are all grateful to Paul. Even if we were not his patients, he did cure us, many of us at least, of our depressions and hopelessness, of the feelings and thoughts of futility and resignation that disarmed us before the injustices he wouldn’t accept. It seems to me that he knew from the start, from his gangly, giggly start, what he needed to do. I was fortunate to have him for 43 years as my reality check, my moral compass, the person I could count on to read my messy drafts, the friend I could tell anything to. Every one of you, I know, can say something similar. 

            Paul sometimes reminded me of his namesake, the apostle Paul. You remember, the one who said that the wisdom of the world is folly in the eyes of God and the folly of the inspired is the true wisdom. Surely it took more than a grain of folly, or wisdom, to fail to understand why people in Haitian villages should not expect the same quality of healthcare that the well-heeled citizens of Cambridge, Mass., expect. As Confucius said: “I need two kinds of people, crazy ones and careful ones. Crazy ones to forge ahead; careful ones to avoid making mistakes.” (必也狂狷乎, 狂者進取, 狷者有所不為; Analects 13) Paul could be as careful as anyone, but his soul, if I may speak in such terms, was with the craziness. He loved defying passive acquiescence. Some of his more stinging phrases hang for me as brightly as warning comets in the sky: “managing inequality,” “socialized for scarcity,” “medical nihilism.” And on the bright side: “the hermeneutic of generosity,” “the preferential option for the poor,” “expert mercy.” Paul’s priorities were: prisoners first, then patients, then students. You can analogize to fit your own sphere of action. I always try to do so.

08/5/22

Stump speech (Stemwinder Version)

The MLA invited me to contest the position of Second Vice President this year. Why not, I said, and then learned that the two other nominees were dear friends of mine– so I can go into this election, unlike most of the elections I vote in, knowing that no outcome is undesirable.

The MLA asked me for a statement of professional concerns. Hoo boy, do I ever have some! But they limited my statement to 250 words. Here’s the statement as it stood before I cut it down. There are a lot of things to fix or grouse about, both in the Association and the world it inhabits, but have a look at my shortlist.


The MLA is a hybrid of learned society and professional organization. A learned society exists to advance the interchange of ideas through meetings and publications; a professional organization exists to advance the collective practical interests of a professional group. In good times, the liveliness of discourse and the growth of the profession seem to be two aspects of a single process, and membership in the guild affords access to both; but in hard times, that bond weakens. I hear from my students, who have been facing a remarkably scanty job market for years, that they plan to join the MLA when they have a professional foothold—not, as before, in order to get one. How can we give them a better reason to join and stay?

It is no secret that the career of language and letters, the rise of which was contemporary with the founding of the MLA, is under material threat for reasons beyond our control. Budget-cutting legislatures, boards of trustees influenced by newspaper accounts of the futility of humanities degrees, administrators tempted to balance the books by hiring adjuncts rather than regular faculty, and now heavy-handed attempts by politicians to prescribe what may or may not be taught in schools and colleges make it hard to predict that a viable number of young scholars will enjoy freedom of research and secure employment a generation from now. At such a time the professional organization’s purposes must be manifested clearly.

I look forward to working with the MLA’s staff and membership in arguing for the value of humanistic knowledge. Of primary urgency is combating bans on books, subject matter, and styles of scholarship. We must join other organizations in defending colleagues and programs that defy racial and gender biases inscribed in law and society. But beyond negating the negation, we must put forth and advocate a vision of the good in matters of culture. Some years ago, in the midst of the Bush wars, I was honored to be a member of the committee that published “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World” (Profession, 2007). We demonstrated the benefits of expanding and diversifying the teaching of other languages, ranging from recognizing the value of immigrant communities to lowering the antagonism of political discourse. It is time to revisit these questions, and others. 

For the values to be defended are not exclusively tied to foreign language learning, but encompass all facets of reading, debate, critique, and information access. Book bans endanger the very possibility of an informed public. Conscious and persistent lying by political figures undermines the idea of deliberative democracy. Xenophobic myths flatter a public that wants to externalize blame and sees difference as a threat. Defunding cuts off the development of talent and curiosity. We need to counter these threats with such powers as we have: the knowledge of language, semantics, rhetoric, composition, translation, and our readiness to listen to every kind of speech community. I think these powers are adequate to fuel a lasting resistance to narrow-mindedness and exclusion. 


E poi basta. A bon entendeur salut.

05/6/22

The Paul Farmer Index

Tracy Kidder heard Paul say it, and so did I: “he murmured something about how much could be done in Haiti if only he could get his hands on the money that the first world spent on pet grooming.”

Pet grooming? According to the Census Bureau,

Over the decade ending in 2017, sales of pet care services doubled, to a total of $5.8 billion, according to the latest Economic Census statistics.

The pet care services industry (NAICS code 812910) includes services such as grooming, boarding, training and pet sitting. It does not include veterinary services, boarding horses, transporting pets, pet food or other pet supplies.

With over 100,000 pet care service businesses, this industry increased its number of establishments by more than 60% since 2007, for both employer businesses and self-employed (nonemployer) businesses.

I propose a Paul Farmer Index. Let a percentage of pet-grooming expenses be set aside every year to build free hospitals and clinics for the poor. Get your pets professionally groomed, the more often the better! The best-looking pets will then indeed be man’s best friend and not humanity’s most adorable competitors.

04/18/22

“Yo yo” cry the deer

I salute the birth of a sister blog: Barbarism as Method, animated by Elvin Meng. If you heard an echo of Asia as Method (Takeuchi Yoshimi, Chen Kuan-hsing) and of Barbarolexis (Alexandre Leupin), you’re in the right neighborhood. You’ll find intensely material attention paid to old books in languages few speak, with interludes on the Book of Changes, monks with guitars (okay, qins), and dogs that do and don’t bark.

I sometimes think the promise of the Internet faltered at the precise moment when people deserted blogs for the shorter, easier, and often non-verbal communication of FB, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so forth. If a few brave scribblers are ready to get back on the leaky vessel of the blog, that’s a good sign. You have enough space in a blog to say something that goes beyond the knee-jerk, and may even involve such turn signals as “But,” “however,” “nonetheless,” “considering that…” and “At the end of the day.” And if you are moved to add a comment, it had better bear comparison with the foregoing, or you’ll feel that you showed up to the party with nothing but an empty trick-or-treat sack. So join the party. In the words of the Book of Songs,

“Yo yo” cry the deer
As they feed on wild bracken.
I have a noble guest:
With harps and strings sound the welcome!

04/15/22

From a talk about Paul Farmer

I went to Johns Hopkins the other day to give a talk about what I chose to call “Medical Humanity” (the singular was intentional). One paragraph from the talk, I think, gets the point across:

Taking a phrase from his Haitian interlocutors, Paul often spoke of “stupid deaths”— deaths brought about by human negligence, fecklessness, miserliness, obstinacy, and the like. Death comes to us all, of course, but the point is to forestall the avoidable deaths. Medicine in the immediate sense and in the larger sense of social medicine tries to do that. But are any deaths not stupid? Attempting to fix a meaning on a death is a task that should be approached with the utmost forbearance and caution. But from Gilgamesh on, the job of the humanities has been to surround death with auras of potential meaning. If we who deal in words and images and ideas are unable to hold off stupid deaths, we can at least avert the stupidity of those deaths. Pluck the flowers from the chains, my fellow humanists! Our assumption should rather be that all deaths are stupid, consummately stupid, until proven otherwise. 

43 years of friendship have at least taught me that much.

“Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?”

03/10/22

daed si luaP

At one point in my childhood, records were being played backwards and speculations were rife about a certain pedestrian photographed crossing the street outside the Abbey Road Studios barefoot.

Now the question that agitated us then has a different referent. One much more important for me. I can’t adjust to the loss of the sole person to whom, for 43 years, I could tell everything, try out any stupid idea, appeal for a reality check or an ethics consult.

I am at a loss. Lost in loss.

02/5/22

The right enemies to have

The ethnic entrepreneurs are at it again! Now a bunch of blackshirts are parading outside a Boston hospital protesting that social justice measures amount to “anti-White genocide.”

I am proud to have such goons as enemies. Genocide, shmenocide. Wouldn’t want them on my side in any case. Even as insecticide.

02/1/22

Tigers

Let me tell you about tigers, said Zigong. If you shave the hair off it, a tiger or panther skin is no different from a dog’s or sheep’s.

This little moment from the Analects must reflect a prior debate about the kinds of things that bothered the thinkers of 5th-C BCE China. There were those who insisted that if only people followed the rituals of the ancients, and made sure that all the definitions were reflected in actual practices, things would be just dandy. And there were those who sneered at the archaizers as being mere specialists in smells and bells, with no grip on reality (economics, warfare, policy). Two words served as rallying flags in the polarized debate: 質 or substance, and 文 or pattern. In the way such debates around slogans go, everyone was getting stupider by the minute, trying to insult the other side by calling them aesthetes or cavemen, depending on where you started.

Zigong thought of an example that rebuked all of them alike for thinking that they could separate substance from pattern, pattern from substance. A panther’s or tiger’s skin is beautiful, conveys majesty, is worth a lot– but if you were so nihilistic as to shave it bare (removing the evidence of its stripy or spotty patterns), it would be no different from a dog’s skin, and only a fool would do that. The world had not yet advanced to the stage where the possessors of tiger skins would shave them defensively, to avoid being accused of wearing something finer than dog skin. In Zigong’s world, the reminder not to lose sight of what makes for distinction was enough.

I wish you all a happy year of the Tiger, and patterns commensurate with your substance.

01/29/22

White Discomfort

Now that state legislatures are lining up to ban books and forbid teaching on the history of inequality in the US (including such troubling topics as slavery, sale of persons, segregation, lynching, and the creation of an underclass with its attendant phantasms), I’ve identified a new career path for myself. For the fulcrum of the issue seems to be “white discomfort,” the fear that knowing the truth about our society and its past might make some people feel bad about themselves. And on that, I have specialized, intimate knowledge!

Most likely, the nightmare scenario is that an angry Black person (other ethnicities eligible as well) will appear, in person or as the narrative voice of a book, and cause the lily-white children seated in the classroom to feel accused or critiqued. Maybe, for many people, this has never happened before. Maybe they would like to prevent it from happening. Well, if an actual Black person is too scary, let me propose myself as a witness to the very discomfort they want to avoid.

Hi! I am a white southerner whose family has been here for over 300 years. You can guess what that means. I have been through the classic stages: obliviousness (it was just the way the world was), recognition (huh! I get to occupy this position in life without having done anything to earn it? that’s weird), rationalization (surely it’s never been so bad, people do exaggerate, maybe the conditions are changing, perhaps there is something worth preserving in the old ways after all), abandonment (no, there was nothing in that system worth keeping, and if I can’t completely eradicate its traces in me, I can start other people on the path of vigilance). The things to avoid are complaining and bragging, the two chief ingredients in social-media personality. Consider how much better life can be if you don’t have anything to brag about and are reluctant to complain! In other words, if you put acknowledgment of wrong forward and don’t expect people to admire you for it. I can reassure the anxious white folk that there will still be room in the world for them after they have embarked on the anti-racist journey, that it will lead them to a better and less paranoid worldview, and that being able to set that horror at a distance will give them kinds of peace that they can never attain by protesting against the very possibility of self-knowledge.

01/25/22

Ostranenie

I haven’t taught Descartes for twenty-odd years. When I pulled down my book I was intrigued to see in the margins of the Sixth Meditation a note reading “> Shk.” What could that possibly mean?

The passage in question:

… je me persuadais aisément que je n’avais aucune idée dans mon esprit, qui n’eût passé auparavant par mes sens. Ce n’était pas aussi sans quelque raison que je croyais que ce corps (lequel par un certain droit particulier j’appelais mien) m’appartenait plus proprement et plus étroitement que pas un autre. Car en effet je n’en pouvais jamais être séparé comme des autres corps; je ressentais en lui et pour lui tous mes appétits et toutes mes affections; et enfin j’étais touché des sentiments de plaisir et de douleur en ses parties, et non pas en celles des autres corps qui en sont séparés. (Translation by the duc de Luynes.)

… In this way I easily convinced myself that I had nothing at all in the intellect which I had not previously had in sensation. As for the body which by some special right I called “mine,” my belief that this body, more than any other, belonged to me had some justification. For I could never be separated from it, as I could from other bodies; and I felt all my appetites and emotions in, and on account of, this body; and finally, I was aware of pain and pleasurable tickling in parts of this body, but not in other bodies external to it. (Translation by John Cottingham.)

The cryptic abbreviation, I realized, had to mean “greater than or equal to Shklovsky.” Shklovsky, who in “Art as Device” had proposed that the most intimate aim of writing is to alienate you from what’s taken for granted, to cause you to see things in a new light and question old assumptions. Shklovsky’s favorite examples come from Tolstoy, who often narrates rituals or formalities as if from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know what they’re about, who witnesses the behavior but not its meaning; and in one case he gives the narrative voice over to a horse, who is a piece of property to his “owner” but doesn’t recognize the meaning of “property” at all. Ostranenie or estrangement unsettles our social arrangements by describing them without assenting to them. But Descartes in this passage tells us what it’s like to be embodied in the words that would be used by someone for whom it’s not at all obvious that a living person inhabits a body, or that the body has sensations that are felt by the person whose body it is. The effect is profoundly alienating in its half-hints that if things were otherwise than they chance to be, our selves might wander from body to body or pluck a string of sensation from this or that random flesh-envelope on the horizon. The reader of such a passage wants to know “why?” about something that had never been questioned before. It’s of a pair with this other wondrously alienating passage from the Second Meditation:

… si par hasard je ne regardais d’une fenêtre des hommes qui passent dans la rue, à la vue desquels je ne manque pas de dire que je vois des hommes… et cependant que vois-je de cette fenêtre, sinon des chapeaux et des manteaux, qui peuvent couvrir des spectres ou des hommes feints qui ne se remuent que par ressorts?

… But then if I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I just happen to have done, I normally say that I see the men themselves… Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons?

01/14/22

Reading Without Distance

The other day a colleague of mine refused to advise an undergraduate thesis that was partly about Hegel. The reason? “Because Hegel was a racist.” Well yes, and most Europeans who lived between 1770 and 1830 — even the ones who campaigned against the slave trade and recognized the dignity of Asians, Africans, and Native Americans — had no less racist ideas knocking around their brains and writing-desks. The question is whether there was anything else in there. And Hegel, whose detractor I am proud to be every day, had a lot going on.

It’s just one data-point, just one senior professor at a top university refusing to help a student understand one canonical philosopher, but how typical!

Typical of what?

Professors of literature don’t like to read books. That is the melancholy conclusion to be derived from several of the latest trends in theory, which amount to devices for avoiding the book-reading that is the actual experimental basis of our criticism and analysis. Computer reading and the use of summaries (or translations); studies that slot authors into race and gender categories as a preliminary to determining their importance; postcolonial naming and shaming — all give us ways of handling books by means other than reading, whether it is a matter of delegating an algorithm to pluck out their word-frequencies or pontificating on them by referring to the adjectives attached to their authors, in other words, by relying on gossip. 

I like to read books. I am fascinated by them. Just as there are crate-diggers who will give every scratched LP its chance, however obtuse or cheesy the album-cover looks (the weirder the better!), so I’m willing to open any book and read at least a few pages in order to hear out the author’s claim on the world’s attention. The best service a book can render me is to challenge my preconceptions. I don’t like to push them away with an excuse in the style of “Oh, that’s Southern Gothic. I don’t do Southern Gothic.” I may read a few pages and arrive at a provisional judgment, “Aha, two parts Anne Rice and one part Flannery O’Connor, but the ingredients aren’t well-mixed,” and put it aside for someone else. But at least I give the book its chance.

I also try to be aware of what I don’t know: the dark side of the moon, the submerged part of the iceberg, the part of the joke that went over my head. There’s my ethic of reading. It doesn’t start with a preconception that I am ethical and set the standards. It starts from a readiness to find out what others have to say for themselves. It being unlikely for me to approach literature with an attitude of mastery, the best I can manage is an attitude of curiosity and the energy to carry it forward. 

But, someone will say, isn’t life limited and the number of books to be read practically unlimited? Well, of course, I may speak as if every book has a right to someone’s attention but that doesn’t mean it has an equal claim on mine. It’s probably best that I don’t live in a huge used bookstore. I pursue certain kinds of excitement and avoid certain kinds of dullness. Taste, or preferences, lead me to drop some books after a glance and to put some on the pile for intensive scrutiny. Experience makes me sensitive to certain signals that ping my likes and dislikes. Epistemologically speaking, a lot of books have nothing new to say to the person who has already had a certain kind of literary experience, so conformation to an existing category is a sign that the book belongs on the discard pile. But discordant signals that imply a different relationship to that category may keep alive an interest in the book. Hasty dismissal is as much to be avoided as the repetition of tautological banalities.  

If the message of the “no reading required” schools is that you don’t actually have to read a book in order to say acceptable things about it, the thought that directs my activity is that we don’t know what literature is, in an empirical way, yet; at best we have some intuitions that can be applied inductively, but on condition that they not hinder us from doing the empirical labor. And enjoying it, if we are so set up. If you don’t enjoy reading and discovering new books, you should probably find another line of work, though the absence of actual performance standards makes this profession a tempting one for the effort-adverse.