11/5/12

Preface to the Chinese Translation of The Hypothetical Mandarin

This summer I wrote a preface to the Chinese translation of The Hypothetical Mandarin. I figure it will never see the light in English unless I put it online, so I’m putting it here. One thing I noticed is that beginning with the second paragraph my sentences begin to reflect an awareness that my translator is going to have to get them into Chinese. I also am more candid than I usually am about what I was trying to do in the book. 

The translation of one’s work is an opportunity to think about the activity of one’s own writing practice, to face up to the particularities of one’s style and to acknowledge, or feel apologetic for, the difficulty of one’s prose. Somehow the task of translating work into another language—in which one confronts the fact that one’s work has created difficult labor for someone else—clarifies the value of the choices one makes.

At first therefore I am tempted to apologize, both to the reader, and to the translator, Yuan Jian, for the unusual and perhaps difficult style of this book. But, perhaps because I am an unusual and difficult person, I have decided that apologizing would be a mistake. After all, the book was intended to be unusual in English as well. I do not want to write like anyone else. Indeed, part of my goal as a writer is to write in a prose style that has an active force in the work, that makes readers aware not only of a personality behind the writing and argument, but makes them wonder if in fact the argument might also be happening at the level of style itself.

Literary scholars take the idea that the argument of a work might happen in its style as a perfectly normal aspect of their work. I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing that the prose style of Jorge Luis Borges or Lu Xun or whoever has something to do with the content of the fiction or the essays they write. The same is true for literary criticism: no one will argue that Derrida’s prose style has nothing to do with his ideas.

Why then do most critics write as if their style had nothing to do with their ideas? Perhaps they are not ambitious enough. Perhaps they do not think of themselves as artists. I am not sure I am an artist, but I know that it is important to me to try to act like one. This means taking myself seriously—not because I am sure that my work is, finally, serious, but because I am sure that the ethical practice of writing begins with believing that writing can matter, that writing is itself a form of thought.

That is why I am especially grateful to Yuan Jian for all his work. As far as I can tell (my reading ability in Chinese is not very good, but I had a friend read me some of the work aloud, too) he has done a remarkable job capturing the feel of my writing in Chinese. If it sounds foreign to you, dear reader, do not worry—it is supposed to sound foreign, sometimes, to native speakers of English. Things that never sound foreign run the risk of being too familiar. They will therefore fail to break the habits, the common sense, of the reader’s eye and ear. But scholarship, like the work of art, should have as its most basic goals to break the habits and defeat the common sense of its audience.

I wrote the book partly to undermine the habit that Europeans and Americans have of thinking that the origin of their most important philosophical concepts lies entirely inside the national and cultural boundaries of the West. I show here that in the case of the development of sympathy, such an idea is simply untrue. I also show how the idea of China helped Europe “think” through and understand a variety of important ideas about modern life, including concepts of world history, religious syncretism, the relation between state and personal cruelty, between science and primitivism, and between the body and the self. In each of these cases the history of a European or American concept can be shown to rely on a certain version of China that did important cultural and philosophical work. This book is a history of that labor.

A certain version of China, yes. But not a version in relation to some true or actual China to which we should return. There is no real China. There are only ideas of China. Chinese people also have those ideas, which we can easily see if we compare some of the common ways in which we describe the language Americans call “mandarin Chinese”: 普通话,汉语,国语,中文. The first of these relates universality to the nation ; the second describes an ethnic principle; the third a Taiwanese resistance, via ambiguity (which 国?), to the mainland; the fourth a tribute to the classical conception of Chinese centrality. None of these names the actual or real Chinese language; each of them expresses an idea of that language. Which one we choose depends on what we want to do. This use reflects competing notions of Chineseness, both in greater China and abroad. We need more work that would help us understand how the ideas of China work.

Continue reading

11/1/12

Self-titled URLs for academics: obnoxious or ok?

I demand that the Printculture community weigh in on the matter. I have become dissatisfied with the structure/updatability of the Penn State pages, and am thinking about creating a set of professional pages using WordPress, which would allow me easily to update announcements about talks, books, and so on, while still also creating a structure for my syllabi, writing tips, and so on.

The free option is something like ehayot.wordpress.com, but unfortunately that keeps you from changing the design too much. The cheap option is to buy (for $12) erichayot.org, and host the site here on the Printculture servers (which any of the regulars could do if they wanted with their own names, btw).

But I’ve always been a little wary of the www.myname.org thing; it feels a bit self-aggrandizing. If it’s the only way to have an easily updatable and good-looking website, I may just do it anyway.

Thoughts?

10/29/12

The Late Bookstore

A couple of people have let me know that my piece on the demise of the former UCI Bookstore has readers in the outside world, something I never would have guessed from the comments section here. Their reaction has been, “This is terrible! I never knew about this! How do we get our UCI Bookstore back? Do we protest, boycott, Occupy? You tell us to ‘despair.’ That can’t be right.”

The short answer is that it’s simply too late. There was a period of so-called “public comment” about a year ago which had a small number of takers. I think that the people who commented were, like me, ignored and put off, but that would have been the right time to raise a hue and cry.

At this point, the store has sold off practically all of its extant book inventory — tens of thousands of books. (I think there may still be a few hundred book SKUs (items) in the system that aren’t textbooks.) Some titles were sold to customers at reduced prices, some more recent titles were returned to the publisher at their original cost, and everything else went to a jobber who paid pennies on the dollar. The store has doubtless taken a big loss on those books, but consigning them has meant the store can free up shelf space for more profitable inventory, like plush anteaters.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a Save The Bookstore movement coalesced, and had at the top of its list of demands: “Bring back our books!” From a business perspective, this cannot be done. You cannot liquidate inventory at pennies on the dollar and then bring back the exact same inventory in at the regular wholesale price of 25-40% off list. If I were the Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, I would fire the Bookstore director who did such a thing. The only way out would be if a director could make a compelling case that the store could sell, say, at least three copies of each book every year. That is far in excess of the sales rate of the average trade book at the former Bookstore, which was .75 to 1 copy per year.

If the director were to commit to selling three copies of every title every year, the customers of the store would have to make a commitment to buy them. I could see a sort of Kickstarter-style campaign, where people would agree to reserve $25, $50, or $75 book gift certificates, good for one year and not redeemable for cash, in their names. If the inventory were funded up to or over a certain level, say, $75,000, the donors would be charged, the certificates issued, and the inventory purchased. Without such a setup… we know what that looks like already, where well-intentioned people loved the Bookstore so much, they bought all their books online. When I think about the Bookstore in this respect, I think of Abie Glassman, the Jewish peddler from John D. Fitzgerald’s Great Brain children’s books. Glassman came to stay and sell notions in Fitzgerald’s fictional Mormon community. He cared about his customers, and he was beloved. Nonetheless, he starved to death because nearly everyone went to the official Mormon ZCMI store; it was simply more expedient for them to do so.

The idea of a crowdsourcing campaign gets to the bottom of “how to get our store back.” The argument for the destruction of the Bookstore was economic; any counter-argument, at least in the current reality, will have to be economic as well. A university bookstore is a business. It brings money into the University. When that money dwindles, it means that there is less to support University programs, and, especially when State money keeps getting scarcer, administrators have to fill the gap, period. Anyone who wants to bring the UCI Bookstore back will have to come up with a realistic business plan of his or her own, one that fills that gap over the long term, or comes very close.

I said, “at least in the current reality.” In the world of principles, which is where many readers reside, things are — or, should be — different. Access to books, and the promotion of higher forms of literacy, should be parts of a university’s mission. Libraries, by their nature, go only so far with this mission; every book acquired must be argued for, and every book acquired must help develop a collection. A real university bookstore is not under these constraints; people are exposed to the streams of fiction and non-fiction in real time, and they can get what they want without contending with someone else’s loan period. What is that worth? Could a university bookstore be operated, not as a profit center, but as the part of the educational enterprise that encouraged reading? Those who play the zero-sum game would ask, “Which would you rather have: a real university bookstore or more students getting financial aid?” I invite you to think your way out of that question.

***

This is, perhaps, too harsh a place to end, so I will return to an earlier time. When I was a graduate student and entry-level worker at the Bookstore, there was a frequent customer from the English department named Professor Homer Obed Brown. He was known at the store both for his benevolence and amiability, and for his besottedness with books. When, in my capacity as a graduate student, I would go into his office, every horizontal surface would be piled four or five feet high with books, the library’s mingled with his own. When, in my capacity as a Bookstore worker, I would walk with him through the store, we would talk, and he would absentmindedly slip books into his basket, until at last he would present himself at the register with some twenty-odd books at a time. I would like to think that, if he were alive today and had known of the Bookstore’s problems, he would have solved them by buying up the literary criticism section outright.

10/22/12

Lost Vegas

I just spent three days in Las Vegas, to which I must reluctantly return in another three days for another conference. I have to say that it’s the most horrible place in the world.

People

This is, I recognize, a feeling profoundly mediated by social class. The word “vulgar” kept coming to mind. And of course it came to mind about other people (though not just people) who were clearly having the time of their lives in Vegas. It would be a mistake to confuse those people with America–to take all this as the felt symptom of a difference between me and them that would reinforce precisely the suspicious class structure of the word “vulgar.” Instead it would be good, with compassion, to figure out who exactly loves Vegas, and to ask ourselves what needs are being met by it–what forms of inadequacy in their own lives makes the forms of Vegas an adequation or a salve. A project for some other time.

Environment

Even the outside feels like it’s inside. It’s in this sense that it’s like Disneyland–the sense of a fully consistent experience, of living inside a Gesamntkunstwerk, is common to both. No escape, visually, spatially, aurally.

I have never been in a place that felt so contemptuous of its living environment. The absolute and total violence of the disregard for the living desert–which I can only imagine, since at this point it’s completely dead–is what allows someone to build up buildings that smash down and erase every trace of the land and its otherness. That done, of course, you need to build a new outside, which the hotels have done, in the form of interior gardens designed to approximate living spaces the builders do respect. These of course borrow their architecture and flora from southern Europe.

Adventure

We’re at a ridiculous and expensive steakhouse in the Bellagio. (We had made reservations at a Japanese place in the same hotel but somehow the reservation got switched.) Fifteen minutes in, we have drinks and are talking. A woman comes up and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I take your picture to celebrate this occasion and these beautiful ladies [handwave at the XXs of the group]?” No, of course.

But for whom is the picture meaningful? For someone for whom this is a memorable occasion, someone for whom the memorialization of a once-in-a-lifetime meal turns it into an “experience.” I was reminded of the photographs that are automatically taken at the roller coasters in amusement parks, so that one gets off the thing and looks at the pictures, delighting in the expressions of fear, horror, and pleasure as they were recorded only minutes ago. Perhaps the Bellagio can move to such a system in the future, so that guests would leave the restaurant to spend minutes looking at photographs of themselves eating, drinking, talking, or, in some undreamt-of but surely plausible future, of themselves looking at photographs of themselves eating and drinking and talking, or of photographs of themselves looking at photographs, looking at photographs, looking at photographs.

10/10/12

Hey, I just met you, and this is kooky, but here’s my number! Tongue Labouti!

Top Ten Scandalous-Sounding Names For Fictional Intimate Acts Generated By Putting Chinese Transliterations Of Terms From A Fourteenth Century Collection of Mongolian Documents Through Google Translate This Afternoon:

10. Martha and The Black Mahama
9. The Fire of the Original Clean
8. Wipe Tuo
7. Scattered Jill Police
6. Tongue Assassination
5. The Black Dingban of Ghana
4. The Wood Answer
3. Satisfied Door
2. Satisfied Speed Children
1. Kazakhstan Tongue Labouti

10/9/12

The Crisis in the Humanities: Solutions and Non-solutions

I have found myself struggling these days with the ethics of recruiting graduate students to our PhD program. Given the terrible academic job market in the humanities, how can I justify convincing a smart young person to give over years of his or her life to the PhD when I know that half the students who start don’t finish, and half who don’t finish don’t get tenure-track jobs?

(These are not our local statistics; they are generalizations of averages; go elsewhere if you want the specifics… the point is: the odds are bad.)

I wonder whether we should just cancel the PhD program. Or whether places with lower-ranked PhD programs than ours should cancel theirs. I wonder how many PhD programs it would take to simply meet the existing demand for tenure-line faculty in Comparative Literature.

And then I realize that if I had been in charge of the world in 1993, I would never have ended up as a professor, because the relatively low-ranked (but wonderful) graduate program I attended would have been shut down.

Now, n=1, and anecdotes don’t equal data, and so on: but I feel like I owe it to thoughtfulness to think about why I think about creating a world that I wouldn’t survive in, or in which people like me (and the large number of other happy, tenured PhD graduates my program) would never have the chance to make it as professors, because we would have been unlucky (or lazy) somewhere along the path from grade school to college. (After a highly privileged primary, secondary, and college education, my derailment–at least according to rankings–occurred at the graduate school stage of things.)

I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks; in fact in the new Printculture one of my self-assigned “beats” is going to be the various ideas about remaking graduate education today. One of the most prominent has recently come out of Stanford: a suggestion (which you can read about in this recent Leonard Cassuto essay in the Chronicle) to “track” PhD students in the humanities after the second year, allowing them to choose an emphasis on a research career, teaching career, or career outside the professoriate, with appropriate changes to the degree requirements as necessary. Students wanting to get a PhD and go into high school teaching, or publishing, for instance, might not have to write a dissertation.

Some commenters on the piece compare this “lite” version of the PhD to already existing alternate degrees–the Ed.D. (according to some), or the mythical Doctor of the Arts, a sort of super-Master’s degree.

The other thing Stanford is thinking about–though I doubt they’ll do it–is mitigating the ethics of having PhD programs by seriously cutting down time to degree, ideally to 4 years. (I do think I would feel less conflicted about graduate education if it only used four years of someone’s life.) But of course after 4 years it’s hard to imagine anyone, especially a student in Comp Lit, where most students need at least another extra language, doing enough work to put themselves in a position to get a professorial job (of any type). So… you’re back to 5 or 6 years.

Are there ways out of this dilemma? Why are grad programs in the humanities structured the way they are? How much of the master narrative of the “crisis in the humanities” should we try to be responsible to–especially once we recognize its manufactured, abusive qualities? To what degree is the fundamental hope and idealism required to begin a PhD program in the humanities something that should be nurtured and praised, regardless of the job situation?

I’ll be dealing with all these questions and more over the next months. I invite the other PC writers to take up these topics and begin a longer dialogue with me and others on them.

10/6/12

My Bookstore

From the second year of graduate school until about five years after I left, I worked for my university’s bookstore. I did a variety of things, ranging from heaving medical textbooks onto the shelves for $6.15 an hour to working as the “Internet Projects Manager,” which basically meant that I was a one-man web development shop in direct competition with Amazon.

It was a wonderful place, with visionary people. We had a classical music CD department, an anime department, and about 100,000 books on the shelves in academic and non-academic subjects. We had an ongoing reading series with authors from our MFA program, like Maile Meloy, Glen David Gold, Aimee Bender, and Michael Chabon. My bosses turned me loose on web technology a couple of months after the final bits were dry on the first web browser, NCSA Mosaic. We were one of the first bookstores to try e-commerce, and my bosses and I wound up on the cover of the June, 1996 cover of American Bookseller and in the LA Times.

Amazon put an end to our nascent, at times Rube-Goldberg-like efforts, and I struggled with the limitations of being one person trying to fight an e-commerce battle I had no chance of winning. One boss left in frustration, then I left, and the second boss retired a couple of years after that.

After that, the focus of the store shifted away from strategy and towards operations. By the time a few years had passed, without anyone at the store completely realizing how quickly it was happening, Amazon had eaten our store’s lunch. Together with its competitors, it had peeled off too many of our textbook customers. It was because of a monopoly on textbooks and their profits that we’d been able to do all this great stuff; without that monopoly, the number of students coming through our doors started to dwindle and our margins started to thin.

The end of the store soon followed, brought from on high by administrators who were frustrated that the store was no longer a cash cow. There was a sham of “consultation” with the University community — my letters were met with form letters — but management consultants were brought in, and they made the brutal suggestions that you would expect. My friends there who cared about books and literary values were forced out, along with all the employees over 50. The store has now been emptied of books. It is now selling textbooks, plush animals, and sweatshirts. It has been, in a word, deconsecrated; the word “Bookstore” has been taken out of the name.

So here is a photograph of the shelves that used to hold literary criticism and philosophy, now filled with plush anteater mascots. Look upon it and despair.

Shelf of Anteaters

Shelves where the books used to be: UCI Bookstore, now “The Hill.”

 

NOTE: I’ve published a follow-up piece to this article at http://printculture.com/the-late-bookstore/.

09/28/12

Why Johnny Can’t Write

The Atlantic has a nice debate up on the history of the teaching of writing that ought to interest several of our posters and commenters. As part of the series, Judith Hochman writes:

I have learned that celebrating writing is not the same as teaching children how to write — how to craft good sentences, develop a well-formed paragraph, and improve their work. Too often, teachers merely tell students to “add detail” or “summarize.” Frustrated students don’t know what to do, and many teachers haven’t learned the proper teaching skills in their graduate or professional development classes to effectively help them.

Make no mistake — done right, good writing instruction can extend learning. Diagramming sentences or doing page after page in grammar texts does not automatically result in better writers, although more able students enjoy these types of activities. There is evidence that confirms that teaching grammar in isolation does not lead to better composing. But research does confirm that when students begin to write more complex sentences, their reading comprehension improves. When they develop outlines, their organization and knowledge of text structure improves. When they respond to verbal questions using the prompts Tyre describes in the article, their oral language becomes more precise and sophisticated.

Stylish Academic Writing