Men and Women in Black

The South China Morning Post calls them “anti-government protestors.” Le Monde calls them “des militants prodémocratie.” These terms are not necessarily convertible, of course. But it matters how you frame a thing.


“Literature With and Without Borders” 有/無國界文學

(ICLA Congress keynote address, Macau, July 2019)

I’ll begin, as I often do, by looking over at what the scientists are doing. Or at what some scientists are doing, as they notice what other scientists have been doing and not doing. My text for this exercise is short and non-technical. It comes, in fact, from the announcement of a talk given recently at the University of Chicago Center in Hong Kong, by one of my colleagues, Nipam Patel who runs the Marine Biology Lab. So although we work at the same institution, thanks to the incredible diversity of academia, a lot separates us. He’s in the water whereas I’m in the air; he’s on the beach for work, whereas I go to the beach on vacation; and there as many other contrasts as you can imagine. Still, I feel that he and I are bothered by the same things. Here is the announcement of his recent talk:

Scientists often depend exclusively on so-called model organisms, such as fruit flies, mice, and frogs, for their research.  While investigation of these animals has led to incredible advances in both basic and translational biology, they represent only a tiny slice of the diversity of life on earth.  Professor Nipam Patel will explore questions that can only be addressed by expanding the repertoire of animals that are studied.

You might be misled by the phrase “model organisms.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that these are the best examples to study, the most exemplary organisms, or the ones other organisms should aspire to emulate. The natural scientists I know are ticklish about questions of value and feel more comfortable concentrating on what is. “Model” is not here a normative term, as often in the humanities (if I say in a letter that my student has written a model dissertation, that’s strong praise and you should hire her right away). The word “model” is used here neutrally to refer to an empirical, historical fact. Organisms become model organisms not because of some intrinsic quality but simply because they have already been studied in depth, they’re well understood, and the results of this research are available for the whole scientific community to explore. The reasons for selecting these organisms come down, usually, not to their utility for pure science, but for other reasons: because of their accessibility (that’s the case for the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, with its mere four sets of chromosomes and its speedy reproductive cycle; it was first identified as a useful laboratory animal in the 1880s) or because of their economic utility to humans. If tobacco and corn were not basic to large profitable industries, I am sure their biology would not be nearly as well-known as it is, and as it happens more is known about tobacco and corn than about almost any plant. Although “model” is used in the natural sciences, as I have said, in a way that does not have the same strong connotations of perfection and desirability as it does in the humanities, there are still some value-based factors behind the choice of objects of study. We value our time, so we should start with organisms that are simply to understand, plentiful, or easy to deal with in a laboratory setting; and because we value things that make our lives possible or enjoyable, or that promise huge fortunes, it’s understandable that we would direct attention selectively toward the plants that serve such functions. 

There’s no problem with the fact that a few organisms get all the attention, as long as we don’t suppose that those are therefore the organisms that deserve all the attention. And Professor Patel’s point is precisely that attention can and should be distributed more widely. To quote the abstract once more: “While investigation of these animals has led to incredible advances in both basic and translational biology, they represent only a tiny slice of the diversity of life on earth. Professor Nipam Patel will explore questions that can only be addressed by expanding the repertoire of animals that are studied.” All right then! Here’s where I climb onto the coattails of my eminent colleague. For we in literary studies too have our “model organisms.” If I say the word “tragedy,” or “lyric,” or “novel,” you will certainly be able to come up with a description or even a definition of those genres, and because you are comparatists, you’ll have more than one example, from more than one period and language, for each; but at the back of our definitions is usually an example held by the people in our subfields to be the typical, or the most rewarding, or the most complete case of the thing we are talking about. Otherwise the conversation we are always having, the comparing and evaluating and appreciating, can’t happen. The model examples of our model examples are easy to locate. For the word tragedy, most of us will think back to Aristotle’s meticulous investigation of that Greek genre which took Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex as the ideal example. For epic, where would we look but in Homer? If, however, we extend our consideration to epics from other times and places, for example Indian or Turkic or Tibetan epics, we’ll soon be discovering the limits of our comparison-case. Not every epic behaves like a Homeric epic, and the differences are not necessarily flaws. It is surprising that, three hundred years and more after regular cultural communication among the educated people of the various continents has been opened, we are still reasoning about epic, lyric, drama, the novel, the Bildungsroman, the pastoral, ekphrasis, and so on, on the basis of a really very small set of examples. As a result, generic definitions are often either brittle or shallow. If you want to talk about the world novel, you have to start from the implication that a novel is something like Quixote or Pride and Prejudice or War and Peace, or else by positing a primordial shift from the epic mode of narration to the novelistic one, or some such gesture that gives you a basis whereupon to recruit your examples. There’s also often a claim of inheritance: the novel of 1800, or the novel in Indonesia, can be explained as an effect of emulation of the novel of 1700 or the novel in Spain, France, or England. The embarrassment is that among the world’s great novels there are quite a few that originate separately from such genealogies, don’t entirely fit the models provided by the traditions that are familiar to people working in European languages, and can in fact call into question the usefulness of the category “novel”: such as the Tale of Genji, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and so forth. This is what I mean by brittleness and shallowness: either your definition of the novel clings so tightly to a few examples that it will break if you try to detach it from them, or it covers all possible instances at the price of saying not very much about them. I’m not very happy about this condition of the critical language, and I’ve tried to deal with it as I can, in the same way many of us do, by putting in modifications. These modifications tend to segregate and specify. A good example is Walter Benjamin’s study, now nearly a hundred years old, on what he called Trauerspiel or “mourning play,” which is translated into English in the title of his famous book as “German Tragic Drama.” From the moment we read those words we know that we are not embarking on a discussion that puts those 17th-century German plays in the lineage of ancient Athenian tragedy, mostly because, put up against those classic examples, the German plays will sound awkward, contorted, corny, even comical. So by affixing a new name to this genre Benjamin could declare their independence from the classical models, and investigate them as a body of works having their own aesthetics, purposes, and effects. 

What is wonderful about this way of proceeding is that, after Benjamin had made strong claims for the singular qualities of these admittedly strange plays, his readers began to see the classical tradition in a different light. You might realize that, in their way, the plays of Aeschylus are Trauerspiele. Seneca might be aiming at effects that the German closet dramatists achieved as well. We see new things in familiar works, non-classical things in classical works. The intensive scrutiny that Benjamin gave to his model organism did in the end bring to literary studies what Professor Patel calls “incredible advances in both basic and translational biology.” Or rather—I quoted a little too much in the literal mode—“incredible advances in both theoretical and programmatic poetics.” Benjamin showed us, through his eccentric choice of model organism, how to value certain kinds of writing, previously undervalued, and how to outline ways of responding to drama that had not been tried yet but that might be exactly what certain writers and audiences needed. 

We all read a lot of dissertations, a lot of manuscripts submitted for journals, a lot of drafts by friends and colleagues. And you know just by being a member of a field what the “model organisms” permitting analysis and generalization in that field are. No one in American literature can escape the necessity of referring to the many analyses, including some classic analyses, of Walden, or Moby-Dick, or The Sound and the Fury. In your apprenticeship as a member of that field you study previous dissections of those corpora in order to learn how to do it yourself on the same or different corpora. No one in Chinese poetry can avoid analyzing Guan juor Qiu xing ba shou or Qian hou Chibi fu, or drawing on the canonical previous interpretations of them. These are the organisms that are best known, and that therefore make possible the smoothest and richest communication among people who share that knowledge. An unintentionally humorous reference to this practice occurs in Goethe’s novel The Sufferings of Young Werther, when Werther and Lotte stand together at the window watching a thunderstorm.

The thunder was passing by and a wonderful rain was falling on the land, filling the warm air with the most refreshing fragrance. She stood there resting on her elbows, gazing deep into the country about us; she looked to the heavens, and at me, and I saw there were tears in her eyes; and she laid her hand on mine and said ‘Klopstock!’ At once I remembered the glorious ode she had in mind…

It takes only one word, one poet’s name, to make a rich and dense communication possible: that’s the value of a shared model organism. It would have been better academic form, however, if she had said “cf. Klopstock.”

(There’s more, but this seemed like a good place to stop.)


Kalmyk Echoes: Between Two Poets of Empire

土爾扈特的回歸,普希金的流放: 詩人,帝國,遊牧民族的命運

(AILC/ICLA International Forum, Shenzhen, July 2019)

Pushkin’s self-epitaph “Exegi monumentum” imagines that his voice will live on in the many tongues of the Russian empire; post-mortem, he will be spoken anew by the Poles, the Finns, and by “the Kalmyk, friend of the steppes.” Pushkin knew a bit about the edges of empire, having been exiled to the Caucasus for irreverent speech. In his travels he had encountered members of the nomadic Mongol lineage known as the Kalmyks. Sixty years earlier, Ji Yun had been summoned by the Qianlong Emperor to compose an extempore ode on the return of the Torghuts, another branch of the same lineage that had wandered west, settled on the banks of the Volga, and eventually migrated back to China in order to resettle the frontier areas of Xinjiang depopulated by Qianlong’s campaign against the Zunghars. Taken together, these examples of “frontier poetry” stage a quasi-encounter in verse between the imaginations of the expanding Russian and Qing empires, at the expense of nomad groups that could hardly find recognition except as vehicles of that expansion.


Just When I Began to Feel Hopeful About Something

I sometimes think the Guardian exists to make us feel that voting is useless and there are no differences among candidates. Witness today’s article about Lori Lightfoot, the newly-elected major of Chicago. Lightfoot hasn’t been sworn in yet and won’t be for another six weeks, and Arwa Mahdawi is already trying to push her into the political graveyard.

Don’t let us catch you doing anything constructive, earthlings!

Is the Grauniad in a sulk? Or are they on a mission to teach us all learned helplessness?

Who will guard the Guardian?


Nullius in verba

People are jumping to conclusions about the Mueller report– which hasn’t been released yet. Trump supporters are, of course, spinning it their way, which is that the whole thing was a smokescreen and everyone who was expecting Trump to be indicted should go to jail instead. That’s what you’d expect from a bunch of people who have made no secret of their contempt for journalism, investigation, science, and rationality in general. But it’s more discouraging to see anti-Trump people turn bitter and pretend that they never expected it to be anything but a whitewash.

The crucial, the one crucial, fact is that the public has not yet seen the report in its entirety. Nothing less will do. Get on the phone right now, as I did, and call your Congressional representatives to demand that the report, the whole report, and no substitute in the form of a William Barr letter be put in the hands of every citizen with the patience to read it.

“Nullius in verba,” the Royal Society’s motto from the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution, means “We don’t take anyone’s word for it.” A good word to go on.


Time to Bracket that bracketing

A conference announcement recently received below. I can’t help noticing something wrong with the way they are framing this. Perhaps because the organizers forgot to use the word “lying”? They frame the matter as a tension between “liberal,” “top-down” “cosmopolitanism” and “bottom-up… supposedly excessive… nationalism.” The former “paradigm” is said to be “in crisis.”

“Under attack” does not mean the same thing as “in crisis.” Does the whole project of liberal society just collapse because a bunch of flat-earthers exist? Is US history to be rewritten because some neo-Confederates find the Emancipation Proclamation went too far?

If your social constructivism has told you to admit fascists to the company of reasonable people, perhaps you should stop listening to it. It served its purpose. Now find yourself a new “politics of truth.”


A crisis in ‘coming to terms with the past’?
At the crossroads of translation and memory

1-2 February 2019
Senate House, University of London

Over the past decade, a particular notion of ‘coming to terms with the past’, usually associated with an international liberal consensus, has increasingly been challenged. Growing in strength since the 1980s, this consensus has been underpinned by the idea that difficult historical legacies, displaced into the present, and persisting as patterns of thought, speech and behaviour, needed to be addressed through a range of phenomena such as transitional justice, reconciliation, and the forging of shared narratives to ensure social cohesion and shore up democratic norms. Such official and international memory practices tended to privilege top-down cosmopolitan memory in an attempt to counter the bottom-up, still antagonistic memories associated with supposedly excessive effusions of nationalism. In a context of the global rise of populist nationalisms and of uncertainty linked by some politicians to migration, this tendency is increasingly being challenged, capitalizing on populist memory practices evident since the 1980s and creating what might be seen as a crisis in this liberal approach to ‘coming to terms with the past’.

Yet rather than rejecting a politics based on such ‘coming to terms’, new political formations have in fact increasingly embraced it: a growing discourse of white resentment and victimhood embodied in the so-called ‘Irish slave myth’, the wide visibility of the ‘History Wars’ controversy in Australia, legislation such as the Polish ‘Holocaust Bill’, or the withdrawal of African states from the International Criminal Court are evidence of the increasing impact of a new politics underpinning memory practices, and reveal the ways in which diverse populist and nationalist movements are mobilizing previous tropes. Moreover, these new memory practices increasingly have their own alternative internationalisms too, reaching across or beyond regions in new transnational formations, even as they seemed to reverse the earlier ‘cosmopolitan’ functions of memorialization.

Scholars have for a time noted a renaissance of these memory politics in various regions, but an interconnected globally-aware account of this shift remains elusive. Building on an ongoing dialogue between two AHRC themes, Care for the Future and Translating Cultures, we aim to bring together the approaches of both translation and memory scholars to reflect on the transnational linkages which held a liberal coming-to-terms paradigm together, and to ask whether this is now in crisis or undergoing significant challenges. The event will reflect also on the ways in which institutions such as museums, tourist sites or other institutions are responding to the emergence of these new paradigms.

The conference seeks to historicize and chart the translations, networks and circulations which underpin these new memory paradigms of nationalist and/or populist movements across a range of political, cultural and linguistic contexts, welcoming contributions that chart its ideological origins and growth in transnational terms; address the ways it draws on techniques and tropes of former paradigms; analyse its relationship to new ideological formations based on race, nationalism and gender; and chart its current international or transnational formations.

Scholars might reflect on these themes in terms of:

• Education, museums, memorials and archives;
• Material cultures;
• Legal, economic and political discourse;
• Dark tourism and travel;
• Digital technology;
• Performance, rituals and new heritage practices;
• Actors and agents, e.g. migrants, activists, politicians;
• The growth of transnational networks or the translation of this new challenge, across borders.

We particularly encourage individual case studies focusing on a range of ethnic, cultural and national themes to foster a truly global and transnational discussion.

The conference is jointly organised by two Arts and Humanities Research Council themes: Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past, which affords an opportunity for researchers to explore the dynamic relationship that exists between past, present, and future through a temporally inflected lens, and Translating Cultures, studying the role of translation in the transmission, interpretation, transformation and sharing of languages, values, beliefs, histories and narratives.

Proposals of no more than 300 words, and a short CV, should be sent to Eva.Spisiakova@liverpool.ac.uk by 15 November 2018.

Funding opportunities for travel and accommodation are available, but we ask that potential contributors also explore funding opportunities at their home institutions.

Happy Halloween Anglicans

Somebody sent me this from a page called “Libertarian Catholic.” I gather that it was supposed to be snark. But I don’t think any Anglican is going to be offended. That’s one of the advantages that comes with not lying about your group’s history.

I thought it was funny enough. The Defenders of the Faith have been a pretty rum bunch from the get-go.


En effet

Nous ne sommes pas, hélas! dans une époque d’ironie. Nous sommes encore dans le temps de l’indignation. Sachons seulement garder, quoi qu’il arrive, le sens du relatif et tout sera sauvé (Camus, Actuelles I, 1944, p. 40).










The Unconscious is Structured like a Language

“Funny,” said my German teacher yesterday. “When you’re talking about eighteenth-century China, your vocabulary and syntax are perfect and I can follow everything you say. When you talk about daily life, I have to labor to figure out your meaning from the words you use and the sentence structures you begin but don’t complete.”

Said I, “That’s because eighteenth-century China doesn’t stress me out.”


Magic Erasers

Magic erasers! Also known as the “Brett Kavanaugh.” Will expunge all traces of many crimes including rape, treason, and fraud.

Caution: works only for members of a certain political party. May transform perfectly legal activities into crimes.


There’s an App for You

For the last few months I’ve been plagued by a high-pitched whine, like the sound made by an older refrigerator, in both ears. It’s louder sometimes, fainter sometimes, but never really switches off. I finally went in search of a specialist who could help do something about it. The first was an old-school psychoanalyst, a very kind fellow whose German was so classic I had no trouble understanding it. (I learned German to read the writers of 1770-1830, so my vocabulary tends toward the elevated and philosophical.) But I don’t have time just now to commute an hour each way for analysis terminable or interminable; it seemed a bit wide of the mark. He additionally recommended I look into chewing gum, yoga, massage, and iPod apps that mask, reduce or (unverified claim) reprogram the subjective noise.

I got one of those apps last night. It pipes white noise into your ears as a distraction; you can give the white noise a “brown” or “pink” tinge. You can also set it to play an indefinite loop of relaxation sounds, and mix different sounds until you find the thing that relaxes you best.

After half an hour of tweaking, I settled on a combination: Underwater + Bubbles + Monks + Wind. So now you know: the guy whose idea of relaxation is to hear monks chanting underwater, while haschischins tug on their hookahs and a four-knot gale blows, that’s me. In fact, that may be all you need to know about me.


Parciales Magias

The delights of the DSM. Reading about one’s problems in language so alien to the experience-near perspective that it calls to mind Sartre’s man “who sees people as ants.”

Consider this series of pearls (stating the obvious in language that makes it obtuse):

Seeking to change another person might be especially likely to be associated with hopelessness. As explained previously, change agents continue to want change even though their attempts to achieve it have been unsuccessful (Caughlin & Vangelisti, 1999). Melges and Bowlby (1969) argue that hopelessness occurs when people see themselves as incapable of achieving their goals but are unable to detach themselves from these seemingly unachievable goals. Recent research has demonstrated why people do not disengage (Hadley & MacLeod, 2010). Individuals high in hopelessness tend to engage in conditional goal setting such that they link a current goal to larger life goals such as being happy, fulfilled, or having a sense of self-worth. Therefore, they feel that if they disengage from an unattainable goal, they also are giving up other important life goals. Individuals in relationships may see their goal of changing the other person as important to their overall relational satisfaction and therefore keep wanting change even though they feel incapable of causing change…. Change agents might engage in relational disengagement behaviors as a coping mechanism for the hopelessness experienced in the conflict (Driver et al., 2003; Horton-Deutsch & Horton, 2003).
(Courtney Waite Miller, Michael E. Roloff, & Rachel M. Reznik, “Hopelessness and Interpersonal Conflict: Antecedents and Consequences of Losing Hope,” _Western Journal of Communication_ 78.5 [2014], 563-585)

Hilarious. Now, a word about the assumed fit between this generalizing language and particular cases. It may seem that the unfortunate “individuals in relationships” who want to “change the other person” are in a bad racket: manipulators and self-deluders. Of course, you’re thinking of a marriage in which one person wants the other to do or be something against the second person’s will. But what if the relationship is between parent and child? Namely, a relation based on the duty of the parent to shape the child’s personality and behavior, insofar as this can ever be done, in a positive way, so that the child can be a happy and productive member of society? If you, as parent, disengage from this goal as unattainable, you are indeed giving up on other important life goals, and that’s why saying “Stop hitting your brother” two hundred times a day to someone who responds with “You’re mean and stupid and I hate you” is soul-destroying.


When I consider how my light is spent

When I wake up at 3:20 in the morning with thoughts of climate change, the destruction of the rule of law, the erosion of voting rights, the return of overt racism to the political environment, the prosperity dishonesty enjoys, the collapse of the Atlantic alliance, etc., in my head, I go downstairs and write recommendation letters. It’s my way of saying, “Damn it, there will be a future, and these are the young people I choose to shape it.”


About Petitions

If somebody you know, are friendly with, or consider a close ally is accused of e.g. sexual harassment, plagiarism, or other scurrilous crimes, here are some things not to do if you’re invited to sign a petition in his/her defense.

— Don’t announce to the world that you know all the facts and evidence. You probably don’t, unless you are the accused or the plaintiff (and even then…).

— Don’t couch your petition in the mode “X is so brilliant and distinguished that s/he deserves special treatment unlike that meted out to ordinary mortals.” That won’t play well when the letter’s leaked.

— Even if you would probably say, on the street or in a bar, “I can’t believe X would do a thing like that!” do not write a letter in which you claim publicly that “The brilliant and distinguished X, whom I know extremely well, is incapable of such actions and therefore the accusations must be dismissed.”

— It would also be to your and the accused’s advantage not to try the tribalism move, i.e., “An attack on X is an attack on all who belong to our set (or: intellectual distinction in our age, all that is good and holy, etc.).” What if X turns out to be guilty? Then you’ve handed your entire tribe over to the hostiles (who may have no stake in the present accusation but will surely be glad for a chance to dunk their rivals in hot water).

— Above all, don’t attempt to blame the (professed) victim for causing the mess. It looks bad and may make you a co-conspirator in retaliation, should things come to that.

You may, I think, say how much you admire the person’s work, how vital his or her teaching is to an academic program, how deep your trust in him or her runs, how many times he or she has helped you with a problem– in other words, you can step up as a character witness. Not as a witness of fact unless you’ve observed facts. And don’t confuse character (ethos) with acts (praxis) unless you have a really ambitious theory of how the two intertwine. It’s easy to be taken the wrong way. A rule of thumb: if you would be outraged to read a letter if only it had been written in defense of a Republican, don’t sign it.


Spoken in 1945

And yet, we are oppressed by one nightmarish idea: if a dictatorship in Hitler’s style should ever rise in America, all hope would be lost for ages. We in Germany could be freed from the outside. Once a dictatorship has been established, no liberation from within is possible. Should the Anglo-Saxon world be dictatorially conquered from within, as it were, there would no longer be an outside, nor a liberation. The freedom fought for and won… over hundreds, thousands of years would be a thing of the past. The primitivity of despotism would reign again, but with all means of technology. True, man cannot be forever enslaved; but this comfort would then be a very distant one, on a plane with Plato’s dictum that in the course of infinite time everything that is possible will here or there occur or recur as a reality. We see the feelings of moral superiority and are frightened: he who feels absolutely safe from danger is already on the way to fall victim to it.

Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt (tr. E. B. Ashton), 93.

(“Technology” was not yet in use as a euphemism for computers. In 1945 it pre-eminently meant the atomic bomb.)