Hey you! Yeah, you.

The concept of “interpellation” is familiar to anyone who’s taken a course in literary theory, cultural studies, twentieth-century Marxism, postmodernity, etc. Most accounts of the word’s currency trace it back to Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970). I want to ask, how does the concept of interpellation, as currently understood, interpellate the reader? What kind of subject does it shape us into being?

In Marxist theoryinterpellation—the process by which we encounter a culture’s or ideology’s values and internalize them—is an important concept regarding the notion of ideology. It is associated in particular with the work of French philosopher Louis Althusser.[1] According to Althusser, every society is made up of ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) and repressive state apparatuses (RSAs) which are instrumental to constant reproduction of the relations to the production of that given society. While ISAs belong to the private domain and refer to private institutions (family, church but also the media and politics), the RSA is one public institution (police/military) controlled by the government. Consequently, ‘interpellation’ describes the process by which ideology, embodied in major social and political institutions (ISAs and RSAs), constitutes the very nature of individual subjects‘ identities through the process of “hailing” them in social interactions. (Wikipedia)

Interpellation is the constitutive process where individuals acknowledge and respond to ideologies, thereby recognizing themselves as subjects. … Althusser emphasizes the ubiquity of ideology and interpellation by noting how subjects are consistently constituted by Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) such as the family, educational institutions, and media such as literature, radio and television. (Cindy Nguyen, for The Chicago School of Media Theory)

The term interpellation was an idea introduced by Louis Althusser (1918-1990) to explain the way in which ideas get into our heads and have an effect on our lives, so much so that cultural ideas have such a hold on us that we believe they are our own.  Interpellation is a process, a process in which we encounter our culture’s values and internalize them. … Ideologies, therefore, play a crucial role first in constructing our identities and then giving us a particular place in society. (Christopher McGee, Longwood University)

Inasmuch as a person does so and embraces the practices associated with those institutions, she has been successfully “hailed” or “interpellated” and recognized herself as that subject who does those kinds of things. As the effect of these recognitions is to continue existing social relations, Althusser argued that a Dictatorship of the Proletariat is necessary so that Ideological State Apparatuses productive of the bourgeois subject can be replaced with those productive of proletarian or communist subjects. (William Louis in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Louis Althusser,” 4.2)

(Reiteration, the crudest form of word-magic, does a lot of the arguing in the examples I’ve clipped above.)

Anyway, you get the idea. Interpellation is supposed to turn the hearer into the object that it designates. The word “constitutive” does some not-negligible ideological work here. As in the theology that was Althusser’s first taste of philosophy, the God who created you of course has all authority to tell you what to do or be. If you have freedom in such a theological world, it is just freedom to fall, in other words, to become a bad example of the thing you were interpellated to be. But did nobody ever laugh at the pretensions of word magic? Popularizations of the theory of interpellation present it as something that constitutively cannot fail.

And apparently, it works, even on a higher level: The theory of interpellation, being itself a kind of interpellation, is supposed to turn the reader into the sort of person who cedes to authority the power to create and manage human subjects. Note the insistence on “we” and “our lives” in the above descriptions of the ensorcellment. Congratulations! You have been interpellated by yet another institution that counts on your passive acquiescence.

I think it can fail, but you’re on your own to figure out how.


Built on sand? (should have been a tent)

The ideal campus to which I alluded yesterday (Bigger Pond, Please) was attempted, not just once but several times– I think of Santiniketan, Beida in the 1920s, the Southwestern Associated Universities during the Pacific War, and Yale-NUS College, and I’m sure there are more examples out there.

Examples, I’d say, of open inquiry conducted by students and teachers in institutions sited in Asia, dealing with materials and questions specific to Asia, independently from and when necessary in opposition to the ruling authorities. This rough definition would exclude the kind of education conducted in places subjected to political constraints on subject matter and analytic approach; it would exclude education that is primarily intended to replace Asian modes of inquiry with imported ones seen as better or higher; it would frown on missionary, nativist and technicist programs alike. It would put aside models of education that conceive of the teacher and the textbook as authoritative and put the student in the position of accepting that authority. It would have as its basic activity the parsing of texts, the questioning of assumptions, the search for implication and application. The place where this activity occurs would be protected from political and economic threats and manipulation. Habits of creative and destructive hypothesis-formation, hierarchy-neutralization, and platform-sharing would go out into the wider society from the small society constituted by the educational project.

That’s more or less what the examples I mentioned were trying to achieve, each one, of course, in its environment and subject to different conditions.

I was shocked the other day to learn that Yale-NUS College was disbanded all of a sudden, in a single meeting at which faculty and students had no opportunity to speak. Students currently enrolled will be able to complete their degrees by 2025. Thereafter the whole purpose-built operation will be absorbed into the undergraduate programs of the National University of Singapore, which, though a fine institution, was not created to offer a small-group, liberal-arts option under conditions of cultural pluralism. Pluralism— including possibilities of dissent.

An admirable experiment vanishes by bureaucratic fiat.(*)  

Yale put the best face it could on the matter, since there wasn’t anything they could do. The venture was, contrary to popular belief, entirely paid for and owned by Singapore’s Ministry of Education. Yale lent its name and its expertise. Which is not nothing! Yale got, as far as I know, no financial benefit from the deal.(**) If the whole thing had crashed and burned somehow, Yale would have lost some prestige, but I don’t think Yale was expecting this dénouement: I think Yale had expected that an institution bearing the Yale name was such a catch that the Singaporean administrators would have been swayed to bend to Yale’s model of education, at least until some impossible conflict had forced them to the pass. I’m not aware of any such conflict. Perhaps it is just the inertial tendency of one-party states to crush or absorb whatever falls in their jurisdiction and is not theirs.(***) I suppose somebody in NUS or the MOE thought it was time to capture a pawn. 

It’s too bad that the pawn was unprotected.

There have always been nay-sayers. One favored avenue is to accuse the partisans of such institutions of “missionary zeal.” As if the underlying argument was: we in the West (or in the Ivy League) have this thing called liberal education, and out of the goodness of our hearts we have chosen to bestow it on a uniquely favored group of Asians, so that they will convert to our ways and lead their benighted societies toward the light. I find one mark of the prevalence of this argument in a bit of punctuation. (When something has filtered down to the level of punctuation marks, you can be sure it has acquired the power of unconscious assumptions.) The excellent article by Colleen Lye and Petrus Liu in Interventions 2016, “Liberal Arts for Asians,” is often cited with a question mark at the end, as if the very possibility were inherently dubious. I energetically reject that hypothesis. People in Asia are just as good at forming a liberal culture of discussion as people anywhere else. Circumstances have sometimes favored their doing so, sometimes not. There’s a long history to be examined.

Another kind of critique is the pseudo-absolutist one. “You say ‘free from constraint,’ but your institution is constrained from the beginning by the élitist economic assumptions that allow some students in but not others, validate some teachers as having knowledge but not others, and thus your supposedly egalitarian seminar room merely confirms the massive inequality of society– you might as well be the Tory Party at prayer.” Such an Original-Sin theory of institutions makes it hard to start small and build. Unfortunately, opportunities to issue a cry from the hilltop and achieve instantaneous demolition of all bad things are rare. I’ll take the gradualist approach over the comfort of “I told you it wouldn’t work.”

I never had the chance to teach at Yale-NUS College, but I was involved in the initial discussions and outlining of the plan of studies that the first generation of faculty refined and improved. There were six or seven of us on the committee to form the college’s intellectual skeleton. How many majors, and of what kind? What role would general education play, versus professional formation? How could we integrate, not in a tokenistic spirit but seriously, the understanding of Confucius and Machiavelli, Mudan ting and Shakuntala, the Heart Sutra and Russell-Whitehead? And how could we make an impractical, impolitic academic program desirable to the Singapore educational ministry, accustomed to measurable and cost-adjustable markers of success?

We knew that we were dealing with a bossy state with a history of bearing down on journalists and opposition figures through laws that were not open to fundamental discussion. Article 377 was a particular focus of our worry. That is the law, inherited from British legal codes, that makes “sodomy” (i.e., same-sex sexual relations) punishable. The ruling party interpreted Article 377 in such a way as to prohibit “advocacy,” i.e., normalization, of homosexual relationships. To tear out the corresponding pages of the multicultural canons that we wanted students to read would mean leaving a lot of binders flapping emptily. We heard assurances from the Singaporean partners that society was changing, it was just a matter of time, the law was a relic on the books and awaited a controlling court decision to be voided, one couldn’t risk alienating the Muslim minority, and so on. We got what we thought were satisfactory guarantees of freedom of speech, opinion, inquiry and research. Those guarantees were later tested in practice– as we expected them to be–and proved to be less than iron-clad. Some talented faculty and students left or stayed away for that reason. Meanwhile, in the US, we attended the same-sex weddings of our friends, observed that civilization did not collapse, and hoped the rest of the world would come to think the same way.

One sign that the cultures– not of Asia and the US, but of Singapore’s ruling party and of liberal democracy–were crashing and clashing was a course cancellation in 2019. I would not have made that call. I would have invited those made nervous by the course to offer a reasoned statement of their views and to deepen the college public’s understanding of what dissent and resistance mean. Of course, that’s why I don’t get invited to head colleges, not that I am in the running anyway.

What brought down Yale-NUS was not, as far as I can see or suppose, Article 377, unbridgeable cultural difference, or the wickedness of neoliberalism. It was bureaucratic overreach, standardization, the managerial intolerance of an exception. Admirers of the supposed efficiency of dictatorship were seen to gloat.

So, okay, imperfect conditions, plus a hope of refining imperfection through dialogue. Sounds like Habermas, but Mencius, Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming would feel at home too. Imagine that a disciple of Mencius or Xunzi had taken the uncompromising stance of some of the opponents of “liberal arts for Asia”: that of the various kings of the Springs and Autumns period, none was practicing the actual Way of the Sage-Kings, and so none was worthy of engaging in dialogue. That would lead to a Daoist-hermit mode of non-engagement, which is fine– let’s boycott those wicked kings, and remain pure!– and since it correlates with a stance of “letting the world be the world, and reforming nothing,” we putative Liberal Arts Pioneers can wave them off into the woods.

Confucius, bless him, said 三軍可奪帥也,匹夫不可奪志也。 Which is, being interpreted: “A vast army– you can capture its general and take him away. But an ordinary man–you can’t capture his conscience and take it away.” That realization is really all you need to found a program in the Liberal Arts: an awareness of the difference between institutionalized power and intellectual conviction. I do believe (and if you want to accuse me of missionary zeal, here’s a big target painted on my back, have fun) that the slow tendency of world civilization is toward the validation of the claims of individual conscience over those of institutionalized power. But it’s never been easy, and if you want an easy life, you should probably not get mixed up in this stuff.

(*) Bureaucratic fiat— not quite the right term, because “fiat” means “let there be,” as in the memorable creation of light by You Know Who; and this is rather the opposite, a “let there not be,” which as a Latinist I should like to call a “neget” or a “deleatur.”  But that’s cumbersome. How about “ne-fiat”?

(**) The finances of the College are not disclosed to the public, but it doesn’t seem that a reverse subsidy to Yale occurs. See https://theoctant.org/edition/vi-2/allposts/news/yale-nus-release-financial-reports/. However, it is a curiously obsessive theme with Yale-NUS College’s detractors that Yale must be in it to “make a buck.” Failure of imagination induced by ambient neoliberalism?

(***) Singapore has more than one party. But the effective control of affairs has been in the hands of one party, and indeed of one dynasty, ever since independence, and there are significant obstacles to anyone who might wish to challenge its dominance.


Bigger pond, please

The other day I read this tempting Nugget of Nerdy Knowledge in Prospect, a UK magazine that’s not supposed to be for illiterates.

“Early indexes, concordances and distinctiones had been around for a long time before the index blossomed into something like its modern form. It was the arrival of printed page numbers that helped firm things up. At the Bodleian Library, [Dennis] Duncan gets his hands on the first extant example of the printed page number, in a short sermon produced in Cologne in 1470, and describes it as ‘the most intense experience that I have had of the archival sublime’.”

Ha! It took me approximately 12 seconds to pull up an image of a Chinese printed book (an edition of the poems of Du Fu) with page numbers from some 250 years previous, https://www.loc.gov/resource/lcnclscd.2014514276.1A000/?sp=3&r=-0.067,0.247,1.362,0.558,0

And I make no claim for this book’s being the first of that kind. Sorry, Duncan, your “archival sublime” was grape juice mislabeled as Thunderbird.

My personal dream is to teach in a classroom where that kind of myopia doesn’t get off easy— where “the earliest one I know about” isn’t the same thing as “the earliest one in the world.” Or “the best,” “the greatest,” “the most significant,” etc., in the world; a classroom, in short, where we all know that there is a lot of history outside of what we’re used to seeing presented as History, and that such history is accessible and discussable.

But on that, more in another post.


Another elephant

And now Yu Yingshi 余英時 is gone. Nobody wrote more broadly, more searchingly or more wisely than he about the intellectual class of China, from ancient times to now. Though you might think of him as a pillar of the establishment, with his teaching posts at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, his membership in august learned societies and his distinguished prizes, he was remarkable to me for his skepticism about the worldly rewards that are sometimes extended to writers and thinkers. He was not easily impressed and certainly not intimidated. He left Yale for Princeton because he liked the East Asia library there. When people around him got excited, he had the calm tone, the command of counter-examples and the long view. He was careful to know what he was talking about. Push-button solutions did not enchant him.

I was lucky to be his student, in a peripheral sort of way, when I was young, curious and confused. I knew I wanted to do something about ideas and language in China. Armed with not much beyond the Chinese-philosophy manuals of Feng You-lan and Alfred Forke, and a couple of neophyte observations about Chinese grammar which, like all early-stage language-learners, I thought explained big things about Chinese thought, I sat in on his “Song Dynasty Classicism and Philosophy” seminar at Yale. I didn’t always grasp what the classroom discussions were about and floundered through the readings, mostly in Chinese. But being there was like being a child at the opera: no idea what was going on, but such a lot of goings-on! I turned in a rather cookie-cutter paper about Cheng Yi and Cheng Hao’s interpretations of the Yi jing, processed through a simplistic understanding of John Austin’s performative/constative distinction. He read it, didn’t leave many comments, yet was always friendly and open to conversations thereafter. I suspect my paper wasn’t even wrong, but he took a long and charitable view of this awkward student who might do something someday, or might not.

He left Yale soon thereafter for Princeton, trained up many fine students, ran a kind of salon in his and Monica’s house, was a prominent voice for decency and democracy against chauvinism and oppression, and had the honor of seeing his books banned in the PRC. He had a long and admirable life and leaves behind the gratitude of those who encountered him. Even the contingent and confused, like me.

Another elephant gone. The forest is poorer.

余英時著作余英時著作– AODUS

Ten years

We’ve been in our Chicago house for ten years now. Ten eventful years. This morning, out on my dog walk, I confronted this Benjaminian allegory:


A la mémoire du Père Fritz Lafontant

Je me méfie en général des gens aux opinions carrées et qui s’expriment sans ambages. Je me dis que le monde est trop compliqué pour être saisi dans des formules à l’emporte-pièce. Mais le Père Lafontant qui ne s’embarrassait pas de nuances quand il s’agissait d’exprimer la condition des pauvres d’Haïti a eu très tôt mon adhésion complète. Pourquoi? Parce que, en premier lieu, il avait toujours devant lui un cas d’inégalité scandaleuse. Les paysans du village de Cange, aux côtés de qui il a lutté pendant plus d’un demi-siècle, s’étaient réfugiés sur la crète aride de l’Artibonite après avoir été chassés de leurs terres par un barrage hydro-électrique. L’eau, l’un des besoins primaires de l’espèce humaine, avait saturé leurs vallées et elle leur était déniée. Et à quelle fin? Pour un projet dit “de développement,” une usine qui avait bientôt cessé de fournir le pays en courant électrique et qui en tout cas n’avait jamais livré un seul watt aux habitants de Cange. Pour qui voulait comprendre les ironies, les hypocrisies, les corruptions du développement “par le haut,” l’exemple était assez parlant.

Des étrangers bien intentionnés, aux solutions préfabriquées, il en avait vus. Je me souviens de sa formule cinglante: “Ceux qui nous parlent de ‘technologies appropriées,’ de ‘développement doux,’ veulent imposer de la merde aux gens pauvres.” Mais ce n’est pas seulement la force de son verbe qui a marqué tous ceux qui l’ont connu. Il donnait la preuve par l’action des principes qui l’animaient. C’est en se formant sur son exemple que les jeunes étudiants en médecine et autres partenaires qui se sont réunis dans l’association Zanmi Lasante ont résolu de rester au plus près des gens dans le besoin; de solliciter leurs initiatives, de les écouter et sans cesse de les incorporer aux suites de l’action; de s’engager pour le long terme, de ne jamais accepter qu’on eût fait “assez.” Plus et mieux, c’est ce que demandent les gens de Cange, et ce n’est que justice. L’injustice, c’est qu’on leur propose d’accepter moins et moins bien, au nom d’une répartition irrévocable des biens de ce monde.

L’amour, le respect, la bonté envers le prochain s’alliaient chez lui avec un humour taquin et une loyauté sans faille. Je suis convaincu d’avoir connu en lui l’un de ceux en qui “Le vent souffle où il veut, et tu en entends le bruit; mais tu ne sais d’où il vient, ni où il va. Il en est ainsi de tout homme qui est né de l’Esprit” (Jean 3:8). 


Ikea jacta est

The first and fifteenth of every month in our studenty neighborhood see a flowering of particle-board bookshelves, dressers, and chairs, plastic storage tubs, and chunky mattresses. People are moving out– moving back home, moving to another city, moving to a job or a grad school or the Army– and leaving their Ikea stuff behind.

The economic-rationality argument is double. This type of furniture is cheap enough that it makes sense to buy another suite (pronounced “suit,” at least by people on the radio when I was a kid) of the same stuff in Austin, Cleveland, Walla Walla or wherever you’re going. Cheap in the sense of price. And it’s cheap enough (cheap in the sense of quality) that you can’t give it away. The piles of Ikea furniture left in the alleyway will not, I warrant, be gathered by other students looking to fill a room. Especially if the rain has deformed the fiberboard.

And I’m sorry to say that it’s doubled by a social rationality. It used to be that when you moved, you took some furniture with you and you gave some to other members of your grad-school cohort, or whatever pod you swam with. I still have the odd pot that belonged to X, a bookshelf that once housed Y’s Hegel Gesamtausgabe, a pair of record crates from Z. Buying furniture was inconvenient and expensive enough that we kept it circulating in the gang. Some of my old junk may still be enjoying this form of distributed immortality. When I moved cross-country, my only regret was that I hadn’t given away more stuff.

Now when I see these heaps of Ikea detritus left on the street, I also see the intersecting curves of devaluation and social desolidarization. The “Bowling Alone” ethos leaves people with no one to give the stuff to, as the price/quality ratio gives no reason to take it. Recycling has devolved into decycling. “Bad for the planet!” you may say. Yes, and bad for the global villagers too.



Today, I read an article about Schuppanzigh, the leader of the string quartet that premiered most of Beethoven’s efforts in that genre. It was quite interesting to read about the cut-and-thrust of the various players and their tenure. But it reminded me of an old Beethoven story, which I believe I got from Maynard Solomon’s book. Schuppanzigh was complaining to Beethoven that the parts in String Quartet #12, Op. 127, were too hard for anyone to play. Beethoven responded with his usual acerbity: “I am communing with the Almighty, and you expect me to care about your damned fiddle?”

I could go on for years about the deracination and degeneracy of my local LA classical station KUSC, which now also runs KDFC in San Francisco. I can reduce it to a T-shirt slogan: Classical Music Is Not A Pacifier For Grown-Ups. Beethoven would surely have agreed with me. You will not find the quartets on any playlists except in the late evening. So many of its slots are now devoted to listener requests! The entire point of classical music broadcasting is to use the superior taste of the host to educate the public via his or her choices, not to propagate Twinkle Twinkle Little Star because Jane in Rancho Cucamonga says it’s her favorite piece every morning because her puppy Tiddles licks her when it is played. Pandering leads to a continually shrinking repertoire, which they have codified at 250 pieces. Add to that the latest crossover sensations, movie music, and, so help me, video game music.

I have a solution underway. I can now broadcast music to my stereo via Bluetooth. If I can rip 4,000 CDs to a very large hard drive — a Synology NAS is out of my budget — I can create playlists that will scramble 3-4 years of continuous music and still do a better job than the drive-time people. The only question is whether Apple will end-of-life Windows iTunes, and when. But it would be better to have those mysterious people called announcers do the work for me, as they are supposed to do.


A Voice for literary autonomy

Langston Hughes interrogated by the Committee on Un-American Activities, 1953: “That is a poem. One can not state one believes every word of a poem.”




And ne’er the twain shall meet

Today I saw a very odd listing from the University of California, Irvine, my former graduate school. It was a list of graduate programs that had fared well in national rankings.

Has UCI completely disentangled its English program from its Literary Criticism and Theory program? Terrific news! I can go back to English and work on belles lettres or else collate for the fourteenth time the existing editions of Shakespeare’s history plays. The late Hillis Miller once notoriously said that it would not be a tragedy if the libraries burned down, for then scholars would be free to write historical and biographical criticism all over again. I can testify that the books of that sort are not being read, so why not rewrite them? Brave move, UCI!



I’m reluctant to treat people as exemplars of a category, but here goes: did anyone else notice that the two mass murderers in this week’s headlines were both guys aged 21?

I was pretty ignorant at 21. I mean, I had learned several languages and read a lot of hard books, including the Phenomenology of Mind and The Interpretation of Dreams, but my understanding of the world was minimal. And egocentric.

The sort of weapons those young men used should be forbidden to anyone under the age of, say, 45. That might slow things down a bit. In a good way.

(Actually I would prefer to reserve them for people over the age of 102, but if it involves legislation, you have to water down your ideals.)

A continuation of this thought. It makes me wretched to think that these murderers were only 21. To have given up on life and other people to that degree, at only 21: how does that happen?

Aside from what we call mental-health issues. This is a seriously screwed-up place and time.

And then I thought some more. The “normal America” I refer to tacitly is the one where we have learned from some of our mistakes, repudiated Thurmond, Goldwater and Wallace, and started to figure out how to live together with and despite our differences. Everything since Reagan is for me a distortion and a lie: plutocracy, leukocracy, kleptocracy. But kids born in 2000 have known only this distorted country. And, for the record, the Summer of Love, 1968, is farther in the past to them than the Wall Street Crash of 1929 was for me, born in 1960.


Politics by Scandal

I didn’t like having my country’s character be identified with an illiterate, criminal loudmouth for the last four years. Nor do I like seeing it today identified with a drug-addled, 21-year-old racist mass murderer.

“He doesn’t speak for me” worked then as now.

Since I still choose to live and work here, I don’t have the luxury of seeing those lunkheads as anything other than aberrations. It’s the responsibility of every person with a shred of decency to abhor, abjure and execrate such schmucks. Get them off the air and into jail. Then let the rest of us repair the damage they’ve done.

When attention spans are short and analytical abilities are frayed, the loudest, most emotionally wracking spectacles take the place of historical perspective, judgment, comparison, and constructive courses of action. I can see the community of interest between Covid and schlocky journalism. If we are just eyeballs for sale, captive animals scrolling all day long, we bounce from scandal to scandal because nothing else is attention-worthy.

I don’t think it’s good. Which is not to say that I think the people who are having emotional reactions are wrong. I just am wary of the actions of keyed-up and suggestible people. All of them.

Then again, somebody I know (Asianist, not Asian) thought this was the designated moment to harangue his Facebook audience about the lack of MLA sessions devoted to Asian literature.* Academic self-promotion disguised as concern: classic opportunism. I guess every murder has a bright side for somebody.

* For those unfamiliar with the organization, the Modern Language Association began to take an interest in Asian literatures– and then only a small number of them– about ten years ago. The Association for Asian Studies is still the main forum for Asianists. Both are perfectly ok professional organizations. The latter includes anthropologists, economists, historians, and even a few soldiers, diplomats, and spies, making it quite a bit more interdisciplinary than the MLA. I have belonged to both organizations for about thirty years.


Empathy, Explanation, and Tagging

After the horrifying string of murders around Atlanta, we’ve seen demonstrations and statements against “Asian hate.” With reported hate crimes, large and small, against people of Asian appearance, on the rise in the last year and a half, no decent person can fail to join the “Stop Asian hate” campaign. I hope I may be excused for taking a closer interest in it.

“Stop Asian Hate.” Of course. (However, I don’t like the phrase “Asian Hate” because it is syntactically ambiguous and inert.) If taken as meaning “oppose the violence done to people just because they are Asian,” the slogan is compelling but it undercounts a lot of factors. It’s a tempting explanation in some ways, because it says to the pharmacist, the hedge-fund manager, the architect, the cowgirl, the life coach, the florist, who are of Asian descent, that whoever they are, recent immigrant or sixth-generation American, white-collar professional or minimum-wage laborer, they are liable to be attacked in public on grounds of appearance alone, that they are all equal in the face of this violence and that they must band together. That’s a powerful adhesive. But in its admirable universality it disregards a lot of things that I think are more significant actuators of the violence and so blocks us from figuring out what is going on (and thus, what to do about it).

Statisticians, start counting: when and where are incidents of aggression against Asian people committed? Who perpetrates them? If state databases don’t recognize the category of anti-Asian hate crime, then reconstruct it on whatever basis you can. And then, analysts of narratives and concepts, it’s your turn to examine each case and figure out what are the stakes and the apparent motives.

Continue reading

Deal No Deal

Tessa Morris-Suzuki writing in the Asia-Pacific Journal has drawn most of the possible educational value from J. Mark Ramseyer’s article on contracts signed by wartime “comfort women.” As Ramseyer’s article contends that the women entered into these contracts of their own free will, the implication is that there is nothing to get excited about, no harm done and nothing for successive Japanese governments to apologize for. Most of the response to Ramseyer’s article, now withdrawn, has dwelt on the obvious causes of outrage: the insult to the women’s memory, the minimizing of the harm done to vulnerable people, the reiteration, by the analysis, of an imperial bureaucracy’s devaluing of the lives of women deemed inferior (by class or nationality) to those to be “comforted.” It’s the kind of thing that attracts immediate emotional investment. And Ramseyer has gone this way before, so he obviously could have anticipated, maybe welcomed, the reaction. (A working paper on the same subject dwells on the cabal of “activist historians” and “leftists” whom he sees as having precipitated a “pile-on” and “censorship” of contrary views.) Some have suspected him of doing the bidding of nefarious and shadowy nationalists who resent Koreans, feminists, historians, and the like. Rather than raging at the scholar on moral grounds, Morris-Suzuki examines the scholarship and finds it flawed. This sets up Ramseyer to be critiqued, not for having the wrong opinion about comfort women (he’s entitled to his opinion however dismal it may be), but for ignoring, cherry-picking, and cooking the evidence in order to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. Why, I wonder, is that conclusion so valuable to him that he would undermine his own good name for it?

I suspect it’s an error to assume that Ramseyer’s aim is to curry favor with irredentist or revanchist elements of the Japanese political spectrum. Maybe it was; but that’s small potatoes and impugns only himself. More consequentially, I think, we can seek a motive in the desire to demonstrate, through this unpromising example, “basic game theoretic principles of credible commitments” (“Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” p. 7). For rational-choice theorists, every person is a free agent making bargains based on the best available information. Thus, if you’re a country girl from a family deep in debt, and someone comes along offering you a vaguely-worded contract for three years’ service as a “hostess” with payment up front, it’s your own problem if you find yourself a few weeks later in Rangoon or Shanghai receiving “visits” from twenty-five or thirty soldiers every day with no option of calling it quits. For rational-choice theorists, “whatever is, is right.” I wonder if Ramseyer has similar views on deceptive contracts in our own time and place — is the mere fact of a signature on a piece of paper adequate proof of legality? There are a lot of historical injustices out there that could be papered over in this way, sir; when you’re done squeezing all human history through the sieve of rational choice, there won’t be anything to get mad at.

Mindful of the gallery, Ramseyer even throws in a nod to “the intelligence and resourcefulness of the women involved” (p. 2). Oh yes, agency! We love that stuff. Especially when it puts the victims on the hook for their own troubles.


Peter Esty, Xavier Franque, obierunt 2021

The pandemic continues gnawing at the flesh of our society. In recent weeks it’s claimed a number of people who had little in common apart from being (for me, First-Person Narrator of this piece) adults and guides, people I was close to in the generation above mine. Just as when you lose your parents (Oscar Wilde reference please, to lighten the tone!*), the disappearance of these people makes it seem that part of the fence holding you back from the cliff’s edge has collapsed. I mentioned Hillis Miller the other day; now for two more I knew much better.

Peter Esty was my English teacher in my first year at Deerfield. I must have been a cranky subject. Mouth full of provincial accent, obsessive with a few literary references bigger than my britches (Dante, Milton, Yeats, Faulkner), ready to argue with, or rather monologue at, all and sundry, I needed taking down a peg. And Peter did that with such humor and grace that I didn’t notice it happening. My papers (typed; teachers had complained about my handwriting and I liked taking on the air of a pro) on Macbeth, Portrait of a Lady, and Ambrose Bierce stories came back with marginal notes that were masterpieces of the art of deflection–of deflecting a kid who was taking himself too seriously. A joke here, a ?! there, a “did you notice…” in another place, were Peter’s way of reminding me to take the time to listen to what the author and the characters had to say, as we should all listen to what other people have to say and, if we can, give them back something they weren’t expecting and possibly didn’t deserve. Unlike many in the teaching profession, Peter had spent ten years outside in the fresh air, working for Proctor & Gamble, and came back to the classroom with the certainty that that is where he wanted to be. He liked kids and he liked books. When I showed him my poems and stories, he pretended to appreciate them as a book-liker but I think he mainly saw them as a piece of the development of a kid he was determined to like. This was charitable of him in a way I couldn’t have seen rightly then.

I was determined not to get along with people (already something of a habit with me) and Peter’s diplomacy was essential to my having a successful second year, when I and a dozen other boys occupied the dorm part of a house with the Esty family on the ground floor. And when I had the lucky break of getting accepted to School Year Abroad (thus avoiding the third year of Deerfield), a further piece of luck was that the Estys were going too, Peter having been chosen as that year’s English teacher for the thirty or so American kids on the voyage. I remember hanging out in Normandy, poking around the Paris flea markets, and walking over the Cathar strongholds in the south, with Peter and various of his brood. Being in France was good for me. I had a chance to start over again. The things that made me hard to get along with didn’t matter so much there, or could be put down to general cultural difference. And French kids didn’t mind arguing about poetry and ethics and culture, however bizarre my starting assumptions must have seemed to them. I decided to petition to skip senior year, and I suspect Peter had a role in my petition being granted. It probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to try to fit me back in the old bottle for a year anyway, after being in France. Forty years of subsequent experience have given me some insight into the subtle, behind-the-scenes ways capable adults can influence a kid’s path.

Xavier was one of the people I got to know that year in France (it was 1976-77, for the paleontologists in the audience). The Desgrées du Loû family had an admirable tradition of hospitality, shown for example by hiding an American parachutist who’d landed on somebody’s potato field a few months before D-Day. Or there was the Polish teenager, Stachek, whose arm had been shot off in a battle, and who somehow found himself in rural Brittany and stayed with them for the duration of the war. As their numerous children grew up and moved away (most often to Paris, as Bretons must do) François and Anne Desgrées du Loû invited students into the empty bedrooms, which is how I, a fumbling, easily embarrassed stranger who understood three words out of ten of what was being said, came to be part of their family dinners. My first night there, a long and passionate discussion took place about who was greater, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. I couldn’t really join in but I knew these were the people for me.

Tynane (Anne-Françoise), the eldest daughter, lived around the corner with her husband, Xavier, and their three small children. Xavier had been working for Citroën and was just about to strike out on his own as a designer of electricity-generating windmills. His Aéroturbine was about the size and shape of a well-fed dolphin with a propeller on its nose and swiveled at the top of a steel stanchion about as long as a telephone pole. It could be swung down for repairs and was meant to be self-contained. It was ahead of its time and, I believe, rubbed the French electricity-generating monopoly the wrong way. The drawings for it were elegant, a mode of persuasion in their own right. Xavier traveled in France and abroad trying to get his invention installed. I thought I had found an ideal location, a hilltop medical center in Haiti without, at the time, a connection to the national grid. For various insurmountable reasons that installation never came to pass, but I think Xavier would have loved the Haitians, with their matter-of-fact piety, their creative exuberance, their love of rhetorical precision.

For Xavier was an engineer with an artist’s eye. He loved Italy for the way industrial objects there were never allowed to be ugly, as if ugliness would proclaim their adherence to mere function: it cost nothing more to make a Ducati Mach 1 or an Olivetti typewriter elegant, so why not do it? Design should never punish people for buying at the bottom of the scale, if they had to. His shed was full of machines in various stages of assembly and disassembly, including a couple of Citroën “spacecraft” cars, the DS and ID models that Roland Barthes commented on disparagingly for their exquisitely organic-seeming smoothness. For Xavier they represented a bygone era of French design, when designers weren’t afraid to defy the consensus and test out new solutions (like the DS’s central hydraulic system that replaced springs and shocks). He felt himself, I think, increasingly locked out of the mainstream of engineering and industrial production as economies of scale came to dominate all design choices. The Aéroturbine was his struggle to prove schlocky averageness wrong.

With Bob Lange, Bryan Simmons and other friends, I experienced a hospitality like no other among these people. Tynane, her parents, and many members of the family have been the readers I think about when I write, in whatever language (even Chinese), and the friends I seek out on the slightest pretext. They are good to be with, to talk with, to think with. Xavier’s hospitality extended to loaning me his beautiful red Olivetti manual typewriter in the summer of 1981 when I was banging out the first drafts of what became The Ethnography of Rhythm. I stupidly tried to clean it with “white spirit” (i.e., turpentine; if it had been labelled in English I would have known better than to use it) and marred the paint. This did not deter Xavier, a few months later, from contributing his welding talents to the fashioning of a long-distance touring bike out of a second-hand maybe-Peugeot. I needed a baggage rack and couldn’t find a solid enough one in the stores. Xavier, the champion bricoleur, liberated some steel tubing from a harvester, I think, and spot-welded it onto the seat stays. It lasted me all the way to Athens.

Courtly, inflexible on certain things, he saw himself in the role of Cyrano, that nostalgic swashbuckler. Tynane (on whom more pages must and shall be written) saved him from Engineer’s Disease as well as from the Antimodernism so well described by Antoine Compagnon. Tynane’s sense of faith and morals was more accommodating, less black-and-white, and her trust in the people she loved preserved their circle of international friends from sectarianism. For example, it was impossible for many years for Xavier to accept the existence of Bryan and Ralph as a couple, and I praise Bryan for never giving up. Tynane and Xavier enlarged the world of us foreigners with their unquestioning welcome, and I’d like to think that we made their world a little bigger too, kept them from sliding into Vieille-France nostalgia and pre-Vatican-II rigor.

At any rate, these are some of the people who educated me, or made me the sort of person who can be educated. Praise to them. And deep curses on Covid, the taker-away of good things.

  • Lady Bracknell: “To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” The Importance of Being Earnest, act I.

Hillis Miller

I just learned that Hillis Miller has died from Covid-19, at upwards of 90 years of age. He taught practically everybody in one way or another. And among his many life-changing deeds (life-changing for me anyway), he kept me in graduate school.

I was one of a too-big litter of young deconstructors in the Comparative Literature department at Yale in 1982. I had done all right, I think, in my first year, though I never heard much from faculty one way or the other. In winter of that first year I learned I had a fellowship to study in Taiwan. I told the dean, who promptly urged the department to terminate me on the grounds that “Chinese is not a Comp Lit language.” Hillis was Director of Graduate Studies and walked with me over to the dean’s office. I remember the red and blue oriental rug and Hillis’s folksy, joshing way with the dean: “It’s true, we don’t know what will come of this, but let’s give him a chance; he may never come back, but at least he’ll have tried something other people aren’t doing.” He succeeded, at least conditionally. That dean stepped down while I was away and no one ever contested my right to come back and finish my degree.

Hillis plucked me out of the discard pile. I will always be grateful. He was also one of the most graceful, attentive, constructive people who ever attended an academic conference. He wielded power, in the sense that scholars have power to make decisions about others’ careers, but wisely and gently.


Evasive Passive: Grand Prize

Here at the Nitpicker Grammarians and Style Sheet Hardliners (Amalgamated) Union, we had been thinking of “Mistakes were made” as the classic expression of the type, but that traditional favorite now has to move over for the cognitive-epistemic variety enunciated recently by Marjorie Taylor Greene: “I was allowed to believe lies.” Allowed by whom? — not by yourself, surely, for that would be admitting agency and responsibility… But hold on: aren’t you the gatekeeper of your own brain? (In whatever sense a “you” exists.) Or did the Rothschild lasers get in there and start fooling with your neurons? The progress of human discourse toward its final state of grayish slush has taken a great step. Or should I say, a great step has been taken?


School of the Ages

Dreamt last night that I received a package from my erstwhile neighbor Jeannie Bloom. In it were hundreds of sheets of foolscap covered with intricate sketches in fine-point black ink: characters from Shakespeare, the Bible, Dostoevsky, and so forth, linked in an unending procession of conversation. They were beautifully free and loose in their execution, characters individuated by gesture though not by face. I somehow understood that these were to have been a fresco painted on miles of wall, Harold’s unfinished life work. Rest well, Harold.