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.

08/28/19

Poet and Person

Philip Larkin was a nasty man. Sylvia Plath was ambitious. Robert Frost could be a jerk. Ezra Pound… well, no need to state the obvious. Robert Lowell, nuts. Sam Johnson was a sweet and kind guy, but we wouldn’t know that were it not for Boswell, who drank too much and was lecherous. Literary biography leaves few looking good, and the funny thing is, in the case of poets a nicely scandal-ridden volume can outsell the complete works of the poet by a factor of a thousand or so. How many who know about Larkin’s racism and misogyny from the bios also own a book of his poems?

Iggy Pop said it well. Iggy Pop doesn’t have a lot to hide.

Pop has never imagined a traditional domestic life for himself. (In 1969, when Pop was twenty-one and living in Ann Arbor, he had a son, Eric, with Paulette Benson. Eric was brought up by his mother, in California, and lives in Berlin now.) In part, this is why it matters so much to him that his work remain vital. “It’s gotta be fucking good,” he said. “This is what you’ve sacrificed a lot of things for, dude, and this is what you were doing when you weren’t always there for other people, so it’d better be good.”

08/19/19

What Does a Hongkonger Want?

As with the famous question posed by Freud (“What does Woman want?”), the best answer is always “Ask one.”

光復香港 is one of the things they want. The Guardian translates it as “Reclaim Hong Kong,” which at least has the advantage of not being particularly inflammatory, but misses the point, the flavor and the jibe.

I should mention that some 1.7 million people, about a quarter of the population of Hong Kong, were out in the street peacefully supporting this and a few other slogans this past weekend. That’s quite a turnout.

Various persons who seemingly have an interest in making the protesters’ demands unacceptable have been turning the slogan into something it’s not. “Secession,” they make it say, and mutter darkly about how an independent nation of Hong Kong would be easy prey for the capitalists to recolonize, and so on.

That way of putting things makes China the protector of helpless little Hong Kong, unable to detect where its true interests lie, and the bulwark against the opium-peddling gweilo. But a closer acquaintance with Chinese and Hong Kong history marks that fantasy as dishonest. Even if the alternatives are imperfect, Hong Kong people know enough to choose.

And that’s exactly the point of using guangfu 光復 in a slogan. Go to your dictionary. It means “recover [as in lost territory or lost reputation], restore.” Ever since 1949, one of the mottoes of the Guomindang on Taiwan was guangfu dalu 光復大陸, “recover the mainland,” a prospect that became less and less likely as the years went on. One of the stated policy aims of the People’s Republic since the same time has been to guangfu Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, seen as colonies violently severed from the motherland. Reportedly in 1997, owing to a handover agreement, the PRC did just that. There was rejoicing in Beijing and a much more measured response in Hong Kong.

It’s not that Hong Kongers have gloried in the title of “Crown Colony” or sought to be dominated from afar. They are sick and tired of being a pawn in someone else’s game. What they are asking is to be let alone: to keep the system of relatively accountable government under law, fairly large freedoms of speech and association, and pluralism in other sectors of life, that they have become accustomed to. They are not eager to join such aspects of the “China Dream” as one-party rule, non-reviewable judicial decisions, broad definitions of sedition and subversion, and integration into the pending system of “social credit.” They would like to elect their own representatives from a genuinely diverse spectrum of opinion and manage their own affairs to a greater degree than either Great Britain or China has ever conceded them.

Guangfu Xianggang turns the Chinese-patriotic slogan around in precisely this way. It means “Let Hongkongers recover Hong Kong for themselves.” A high degree of regional autonomy is absolutely possible under the Basic Law of 1997. It’s even guaranteed by it. Beijing, on the other hand, has an interest in portraying differences of opinion as disloyalty and making them punishable. For if Hong Kong got to expand its envelope of democratic rights, what would happen to the rest of China? Isn’t it unthinkable that Shanghai, Chongqing or Urumqi would enjoy such basic rights?

It’s not unthinkable. But it takes a lot of imagination.

08/11/19

Gone is that Muzak

I’m still living with the inverted timezones that you get after a couple of weeks in Hong Kong: sleepy in the afternoon, unstoppable at 3 am. And my fondness for that place, its umbrellas and fearless kids in black, is unaffected one way or the other by distance. Here’s a little homage by Hong Kong to itself. Normal getting and spending suspended (sorry, Bally and Dior, you have prices but no value), the tacky Muzak aufgehoben, even the air conditioning, I imagine, overcome by gasps of astonishment. Seid umschlungen, 7.2 Millionen!

08/10/19

[Noun]-Adjacent

An essay of Nima Bassiri’s calls me back to an episode of my past.

Still, Foucault’s real impact for historians of science has been mediated through the work of history-adjacent scholars like Ian Hacking and Nikolas Rose.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1990. The boom in housing prices was taking off steeply, and an assistant professor’s salary would get you a two-room house thirty miles away from my workplace by freeway. Having grown up as a relatively prosperous person in Nashville, with a few years of no-frills but comfortable existence in New Haven, I was unprepared for the demands that California would make on the pocketbook. It was then that I learned the construct [proper-noun]-adjacent, as used by real-estate people. “Beverly-Hills-adjacent” meant a house on an alleyway, facing the garbage cans of a luxurious restaurant, but separated by an imaginary line from the city of Beverly Hills, its glories and fleshpots (including the right of admission to BH High). You can always dream, from across the line!

So Nima’s construction makes me imagine Ian Hacking, who for forty years has been for me the guy I wish to be when I grow up, as a renter whose last pennies every month go to keeping up the appearances of being, almost, a resident of the realm called History, where the grass is green and the living is easy. Save your bottle caps, Ian! One day you will walk in Ferragamos.

(No shade cast on Nima. All in good fun, people.)

08/5/19

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.

07/31/19

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.

04/6/19

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?

03/25/19

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.

11/3/18

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.
10/31/18

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.

10/9/18

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).

 

10/5/18

偶感

 

。。。。。。興

。。。。。。清

。。。。。。撞

。。。。。。丁

09/22/18

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.”

09/17/18

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.