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

(ICLA Congress keynote address, Macau, July 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Kalmyk Echoes: Between Two Poets of Empire

土爾扈特的回歸,普希金的流放: 詩人,帝國,遊牧民族的命運

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

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


Health Care: English Only

I happened to be reading the Federal Register and came across this choice gem. The Trump Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services is poised to modify Obamacare in a curiously Trumpian way. It is withdrawing health care facilities’ mandate to serve people who speak little or no English. No more multilingual placards. No more mail in a patient’s native language. No more translators to tell staff what a patient is saying and vice versa. This will make it much harder for people who know little English to find appropriate and safe health care, to be informed about the care that they are getting, and to give informed consent to that care.

The draft legislation, which is about 400 pages, can be found here:


At the top of the document is a big green button saying “SUBMIT FORMAL COMMENT.” Do it. Push that button, and write your heart out about about the inequity of treating people with limited English as pariahs, the false economies given as support for such treatment, and the consequences of letting someone into the ER who has Ebola who can’t tell you because he only speaks French and there’s no interpreter.

The closing date and time for comments is August 13th at 5:00 PM EDT. As of this writing, you have 16 days to submit a comment.


Just When I Began to Feel Hopeful About Something

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

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

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

Who will guard the Guardian?


Nullius in verba

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

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

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


Due Obsequies Prepare

The shortest Yiddish curse I know, excluding epithets, is “Geh’ in drerd!” It’s the equivalent of “Drop dead!,” but if we expand it a little, it means “Go into the earth! Die and be buried!” And that is what I wish for George Herbert Walker Bush. “Go into the earth!” He will not get a week of mourning, a month of mourning, or eleven months of mourning. All he gets is this day, which is nearly over. Tomorrow, the mail comes.


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.


The Big Hoax

I’ve been thinking about the Sokol2 hoax, in which various conspirators sent improbable manuscripts to twenty journals of “ethnic/identity studies.” Seven journals went ahead and published the manuscripts even though the manuscripts’ contents were avowedly nonsense. This builds on the work of Alan Sokol, who tried the same thing with literary theory journals, “showing” that their discourse was likewise nonsensical. Both of these moves attempt to discredit an entire class of journals by targeted attacks on a small sample of journals; the intended principle is contamination. This principle may not be applicable; there are those of us who have taken a brown spot out of an apple and eaten the rest.

I am helping a faculty member with a paper in an ethnic studies journal; there are four pages of painstaking comments from the editor, along with the mostly positive comments from two reviewers. I disagree with the editor, but I don’t think anything got by him; he had the extraordinary virtue of finding everything that was wrong or could be construed as wrong. I find it completely impossible that a nonsense article could have gotten by him. He would have rejected it, period, and it probably wouldn’t have gotten through peer review, either. The peer reviewers were pretty sharp, and one pointed out a legitimate hole in the argument that needed patching.

What was lacking from the ethnic/identity studies journals that published the Sokol2 papers? One guess is that they didn’t have enough money to hire a good editor with subject matter expertise and relied on an overtaxed board member to vet the article. But I have another guess.

Peter Elbow spoke of a reader who might play one of two games: the Doubting Game and the Believing Game. The editor whose commentary I was looking at was playing the Doubting Game at grandmaster scale – characterizing writing by what you can find wrong with it. This will induce fear and shame in the author, and the author will revise the paper ruing how bad it was. The faculty member whom I was working with had resubmitted the paper four times, and each time had gotten back pages and pages of withering “advice.” So, that’s one game. In the Believing Game, you focus on what’s right with someone’s writing. You err on the side of charity. You see what the author is getting at, and you help the author to get there. I am guessing that with some of these journals, one of the principles is to get the thoughts of underrepresented voices out in the world, and charitable principles mean a greater chance for the author to be heard. Sokol2 exploited this charity and used it as a weapon to attack the credibility of the journals and the views they stood for.

So, do we have to worry about Sokol3 perpetrators gaming more journals to disparage them? Yes. Should the journals spend an extra $90K a year on a master editor? (There aren’t that many of them around.) Should they play the Doubting Game to make themselves impregnable? Do they want to strike fear and shame into their authors, so that the authors regret having written anything at all? Or do we simply say that the Sokol2 perpetrators are like WWI German submarines: very effective at sinking ships, with very advanced torpedos, but sinking ships is in no one’s interest but theirs. No one is going to claim that the Lusitania was a legitimate target because she presented a very broad attack surface underwater.

Alas, there are no metaphorical depth charges that can be dropped on the perpetrators, and neither can the Humanities declare war against them. Probably the most solid defense against the perpetrators is PR — some kind of damage control operation, as used by rich people and corporations to mop up the consequences of their dirty business. Perhaps the MLA can put them on retainer. Nullify the PR explosion by investigating the perpetrators and publicly making clear what they have to gain. Explain the principles by which the journals stand. The perpetrators’ fraud will vanish into the dustbin of history. That is where fraudsters go; quick, without a Google search, who was Yi-Fen Chou?


En effet

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










The Unconscious is Structured like a Language

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

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


Magic Erasers

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

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


Parciales Magias

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

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

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

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


When I consider how my light is spent

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


Spoken in 1945

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

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

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