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.

09/26/19

Telling the sheep from the goats

The New Yorker recently ran an excerpt from an intellectual biography of Clarence Thomas. Near the top is this set of claims:

By consensus, Thomas is the most conservative member of the Court. So it’s surprising that the central theme of his jurisprudence is race. 

Why is it “surprising” that it should be so? When I read that sentence, it became obvious to me what presuppositions the author was working with: that the people who talk about race do so in order to complain about or repair the injustices inflicted by the majority on minorities. Thus to speak about “race” is implicitly to advocate for oppressed people, and to deny the category is to affirm the existing order. In other words, it is “surprising” only if all the people you know are SJWs within an affirmative-action context. That actually isn’t how the category of “race” operates in Thomas’s story, and the lesson might be, rather, that it is utterly unsurprising that a man obsessed with the mission of keeping the races separate is also a “conservative” by many other measures. Indeed, you don’t have to scratch a conservative very hard to get down to a racial ideology, whether that conservative goes around in a black or white skin, in a blue collar or a black robe, whether they natter on about hard currency or the missile gap or the graffiti on the subways.

Continue reading
09/14/19

All of the Above

A dream the other night, traceable I think to a discussion I’d read on Metafilter, one of those absurdly Millennial Moments that the medium delivers.

I was sitting in a courtroom waiting to testify as an expert witness. It seemed that the accused had ignored a “MEN WORKING” sign and driven a car straight into a worker, who happened to be a woman. The lawyer for the defense was mounting the argument that the sign was contractual and did not include or imply women workers, therefore no offense had been committed. To hold otherwise was to identify women as men, an intolerable injustice to women and to men alike. I was expected to testify for the prosecution on the history of pronouns in various languages, demonstrating through the magic of philology that gender identification is not primordial to having existence as a person.

The worst of it is that when I woke up, I figured that a majority of the present Supreme Court would probably think that the defense’s sophistry was a pretty cool way to deny an injured person benefits and damages.

09/13/19

Deferred Maintenance

When I went to Yale in the early 1980s, I remember going to Geoffrey Hartman’s office hours one rainy day and seeing a bucket on his desk, receiving the regular drops from the ceiling. The 1890s neo-Gothic tower was showing its age. And we thought this was normal. Nobody complained. A sense of impending doom was widely shared, but the feeling wasn’t one of crisis or outrage; it was just the way things were. We entered New Haven through a cement-block tunnel that ended in a galvanized-metal shed because Metro-North had closed the Beaux-Arts station for indefinite repairs. The gym had squash courts, to be sure, but the idea that a college is supposed to be a spa or a cruise ship had not yet dawned in the rusty Northeast. Anyway, the college students were better treated than we were. The point of coming to Yale was not to be pampered but to be initiated into a way of thinking and seeing that admitted the nitty-gritty, the uninspiring, and the fact that it’s not all about you. One of our teachers had said:

The dynamics of the sublime mark the moment when the infinite is frozen into the materiality of stone, when no pathos, anxiety or sympathy is conceivable; it is, indeed, the moment of a-pathos, or apathy, the complete loss of the symbolic.

(Paul de Man, “Kant’s Materialism,” in Aesthetic Ideology)

And as we looked into the future, the loss of the symbolic seemed a good bet.

Technically correct rhetorical readings may be boring, monotonous, predictable and unpleasant, but they are irrefutable… consistently defective models of language’s inability to be a model language.

(“The Resistance to Theory”)

“Consistently defective” just about summarizes the world we entered when we took up residence in New Haven. We knew that there were other schools where the plumbing worked and the faculty entertained you. We just didn’t think that that was the way to face the apocalypse, the end of the book and the beginning of writing, late capitalism, the collapse of the Imaginary into the Real, or (choose your own adventure).

Many episodes later, here I am again confronting the consequences of deferred maintenance to house and body. The end of summer has brought us up to baseline, or so I permit myself to hope. The cracked flashing has been sealed, the water damage it caused (peeling surfaces and bulging woodwork) scraped, filled and repainted, the hinky plumbing has been repiped, the upstairs bathroom retiled, some circuits rewired. My hearing, disastrously defective in the upper registers, is now supplemented by a pair of sporty and expensive hearing aids. The second of two teeth I cracked by biting on the wrong things has received the titanium post for its implant. I wouldn’t exactly say that all’s right with the world, but the bucket is momentarily off Mr. Hartman’s desk, and my checking account is a good bit lighter. On to the next challenge, entropy be damned!

09/5/19

One Word Theory

It should have surprised nobody that the “gay gene” doesn’t exist. I’m probably what might be considered a member of the control group, a heterosexual, cis-male individual with no particular fetishes, practicing the mid-century American model of serial monogamy, currently partnered, trauma history unremarkable, libido neither too low nor too high, still in procreative age — and I find sex extremely complicated, with at least four hundred little switches that must be turned on or off, together or in sequence, for the slightest sexual act or even frisson of interest to occur. (And that’s just on my side!) So how could there be one master switch to set somebody’s system on a definite path (one which branches infinitely anyway, like all other life paths)? The simple-mindedness of such assumptions reminds me of the bartending lady in The Blues Brothers, who, asked what kind of music is played in her club, answers, “Oh, we have both kinds — country and western.”

Something analogous happens in the world of humanistic studies, and it’s been annoying me for decades. This is the “one word” pattern of academic renown. Okay, one word or one phrase. People become famous for a three- or four-syllable expression that serves as synecdoche (or replacement) for their body of work. Laura Mulvey? “Male gaze.” Gayatri Spivak? “Subaltern.” (Actually that was Gramsci, but few remember.) Derrida? “Différance.” Tom Gunning? “Cinema of attractions.” Walter Benjamin? “Aura.” Jürgen Habermas? “Communicative rationality.” Edouard Glissant? “Relation.” Jacques Rancière? “Distribution of the sensible.” Alain Badiou? “Event.” Bruno Latour? “Actor-network theory.” Franco Moretti? “Distant reading.” And so on. It’s not that these bumper-sticker-sized labels are wrong — they can, after all, be discovered in the published writings of the authors they attach to — but that the word or phrase as unit of thought is static, unsubtle, makes people think that to utter the magic word is as good as following the path of argument, and that’s never true. Nonetheless, I see that people who are trying to make a reputation for themselves strive to coin a phrase or hit on a word that will do this magic for them. You want to be the man or woman who can be identified with just such a little tag — and so famous for that tag that people are freed of the requirement to read more of your work than the ten or fifteen letters it contains.

It seems to me a big and important ethical task, if we are going to keep the enterprise of complex thought going, to refuse such handy little tags. Trace the activity of the phrase or the word through the person’s corpus, if you must, take it as a tracer molecule, but don’t suppose that it will tell you what you need to know. The habit of expecting every argument to undermine itself at some point (usually the point where it becomes most urgent), the fated resurfacing of ambiguity, is the correct reflex for the critical mind. Basically, I say, if you can fit it on a T-shirt, it’s spinach and to hell with it. You need to pursue a thought beyond the noun phrase, beyond the sentence, through labyrinths of paragraphs and examples that will challenge and baffle you, or you are throwing away all those years of education for a style of speech that consists of brandishing pennants of conformity. All right, Wittgenstein, “what can be said at all can be said clearly,” but you can’t test an expression for truth or falsity unless it is at least a complete sentence, and it takes more than one sentence to get past the zone where merely grammatical tests of wellformedness fade away and leave us to wrestle with the way things are.

I would even say that the failure to come up with a fetish-word is a qualification, not sufficient of course but plausibly necessary, for interestingness. Or at least that is where my unfinished education leaves me today.

08/28/19

North and South

Insomnia sets you up for some funny discoveries. A few weeks ago I was reading through a literary history of China (not entirely off my own bat; it was a commissioned review) and came across this quaint piece of type-casting:

“Chinese civilization resulted from the gradual fusion of multiple sources . . .  however, the Yellow River Valley culture obviously played a dominant role” (pp. 1–2). “Harsh living conditions” in the north compelled the members of that culture to “gather their dispersed people together into large and powerful communities”; thus “the ideology of the state reached maturity there far earlier than in other regions” (p. 2). 

“In the Yangtze valley, the climate was hot and humid . . . it was relatively easy to lead a simple existence there. Consequently, even though there was a similar need to form large, powerful communities, it was . . . by no means as pressing as that in the north. Thus, in the Yangtze valley . . . the ideology to preserve social order and strengthen community power through restraining the individual was not as well developed as that in the north” (pp. 4–5). In the culture of the North, “music, dance and singing were regarded as the means to regulate community life and to carry out an ethical purpose. . . . The main functions of the arts of Chu are represented, however, in providing the satisfaction of aesthetic pleasure, and in this way fully display the dynamism of human emotions” (p. 33).

I’m quoting from A Concise History of Chinese Literature by Luo Yuming, translated by Ye Yang (2 vols., Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011).

I already sent in my review, but insomnia led me to read Yen Hsiao-pei’s dissertation on paleontology in China. Splendid dissertation, by the way. And in it one finds this:

In his famous article, “Why Central Asia?” of 1926, [Henry Fairfield] Osborn presented a full picture of his idea of human evolution. Developed on Matthew’s framework, Osborn argued that “in lowlands in tropical and semi-tropical regions, where natural resources were abundant, the process of evolution was hindered and even retrogressive; only dry and open regions could stimulate the development of intelligence. The dry uplands of Mongolia and Tibet in Central Asia offered the perfect invigorating environment for the evolution of our ancestors.”

So now you see the measure of academic progress. A theory propounded on racist grounds (for Osborn was eager to refute the out-of-Africa hypothesis about human origins, hence he preferred the dry uplands of Asia as our original homeland) in the 1920s survives as the armature of a literary history in the 2010s. There must be a higher standard.