The Black Box of Speech

— What’s in the box?

— Speech!

— Oh, that’s great. I love speech!

— Want to help me carry it across that border?

— Sure! And I know you were going to ask me if I wanted to see what’s in the box, but I love speech so much that I’m not even going to ask, to show you how much I love speech. Just tie that box right here, on the top of my backpack, and I’m off! See you later!

That is the role I feel I am being asked to play by many of my insistent friends who are outraged about the University of Illinois’ decision to rescind a job offer made to Stephen Salaita, previously an associate professor (thus, tenured) at Virginia Tech. The University of Illinois hasn’t made clear the specifics of the decision, and it’s unlikely that they will, since it was made at the level of the president’s office, and college presidents are permanently lawyered up and speak only through a mask of precautionary obfuscation. My pals are outraged at what they see as an anti-Palestinian, pro-Israeli decision, an affront to free speech everywhere, an unconscionable attack on the principle of academic freedom, and have been making scabrous personal comments on the people who have spoken in favor of the decision. Obviously, as a tenured academic interested in free speech I am supposed to jump to the aid of Professor Salaita.

Except that I don’t know what’s in that box.

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Cannibal Doctrine

From Ruth Margalit in the New Yorker I learn about the “Hannibal Doctrine,” a long-confidential directive in the Israeli army to let no soldier be taken captive. But not in the sense you might think (protect the troops at any cost, save Private Ryan, leave no man behind). Rather, an all-out attack is permitted, nay mandated, on any hostage-takers and their hostage, at the discretion of commanders in the field. This means, from the point of view of the average grunt, that you are quite likely to be killed by your own platoon if it looks as if you might be taken prisoner.

The doctrine was kept a secret because of its obvious bad effects on morale. Why go to war if the guys at your back are as ready to kill you, under certain circumstances, as the guys opposing you? But I want to think for a moment about its further effects on the army and its place in society. (In case you don’t know me, I’ve never been a soldier and have no credentials as a military historian. I just read history and think about how different societies are organized.)

Effect number one: the Masada complex. For a small number of soldiers, I guess, this doctrine– “better dead than a POW”– motivates them to all-out fighting and unconditional destruction of the enemy. Think about a high level of armament backed up by a suicide pact. To be affected by the Masada complex, though, you have to be powerfully indoctrinated: I am nothing, you have to think, except insofar as my life serves the State of Israel.

Effect number two: buyer’s remorse. For what is the problem about Israeli soldiers being taken captive? No one supposes they are treated like visiting dignitaries while being held, but the thing mentioned in the article is the public-relations problem that is caused for the army by the names and faces of captive soldiers being broadcast every night on the evening news. A source interviewed for the article acknowledges that the Hannibal Doctrine

sounds terrible, but you have to consider it within the framework of the [Gilad] Shalit deal. That was five years of torment for this country, where every newscast would end with how many days Shalit had been in captivity. It’s like a wound that just never heals.

So a moral calculus begins to come into focus. The death of an individual soldier, say Gilad Shalit, is weighed in the balance against the discomfort provoked in Israeli living rooms by five years of newscasts and found wanting. Perversely, sadistically, Hamas kept him alive. It would have been better, says this logic, for him to be killed right away. Better his family receive a terse telegram beginning “Greetings:” than that the army and the cabinet be pestered by citizens wanting to see Gilad Shalit released. Better that an Israeli life be snuffed out than that the government be seen engaging in negotiations with the enemy. If I were a young man in uniform, this would give me a very sour feeling at the pit of my stomach. A feeling that says, You stupid grunt, you’re worth nothing outside the purposes of the State of Israel.

Third effect: the corrosion of civil society. The Geneva Conventions and the history of custom leading up to them were meant to make war less hard on the fighting man. The founder of the Red Cross was led to his mission by seeing the wanton destruction of life and limb on a small European battlefield. For a long time there had been respect of the life and exchange value of officers; Geneva extended such protection to the enlisted man, a step consistent with the spread of democratic norms. Where there is a recognized status of prisoner-of-war, and a hope of decent treatment and return home (conditioned on acceptance of prisoner status), civilization wins a point even in the midst of war. Refusing to let the machinery of civilization operate even in this way, refusing to let one’s men be taken prisoner and to treat the prisoners one takes with the legal proprieties, enlarges the empire of barbarism. We all then move (as the US did in the 2000s) a step closer to the apocalyptic utterance of Conrad’s villain: “Exterminate the brutes!”

It’s been a long time since I was in Sunday School, but I seem to remember a certain monstrous idol named Moloch to whom the Hebrews were forced to sacrifice their children. Was Moloch’s only crime, in the end, to be identified with the wrong side?



Low-Information. High-Indignation.

One of my relatives is a reliable supplier of Tea Party propaganda. It’s useful to know what people think the hot issues of the day are, and how we as a nation should be responding to them. This morning I received the following item from my relative, forwarded from Soldier of Fortune magazine:



So it appears that some self-styled conservatives don’t know the first thing about how free markets work– and they are supposed to be the ones pushing the idea of free markets.

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GAZA: Beyond Conversation

I asked a Jewish-American friend to cover the situation in Gaza. This is what she wrote in response explaining why she can’t do it. I found the text fascinating and responsive to the difficulties of a sensitive, ethical and intelligent person trying to talk about the issue– precisely the type of voice much needed in today’s discourse. I asked to publish an excerpt from her email. Here it is, with permission:

“In answer to your question, I have been considering writing on the Gaza question for weeks. But I don’t think I will. There’s a whole part of my past that I have to process, about being raised in a synagogue that was rabidly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian. The things that were said there would not pass muster thirty-odd years later, and attributing them to their speakers would probably count as defamatory. That’s really my story: the part I can add that is not the past fortnight’s worth of partisan pontification, which I believe is available in copious supply already.

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The Communicative Action of Trolls

Habermas’s theory of communicative action rests on the idea that social order ultimately depends on the capacity of actors to recognize the intersubjective validity of the different claims on which social cooperation depends. In conceiving cooperation in relation to validity claims, Habermas highlights its rational and cognitive character: to recognize the validity of such claims is to presume that good reasons could be given to justify them in the face of criticism.

Thus spake the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Those of us who have been participating since, say, 1993 in humanity’s biggest communicative enterprise so far will recognize the problem: that there are plenty of actors who are not at all interested in “intersubjective validity” or “social cooperation,” but hijack the rituals of conversation. Trolls, griefers, astroturfers, bots of various make… One’s impulse is to treat such people as flies in the ointment, parasites, bugs, noise– exceptions that crop up alongside a better rule. But proper confrontation with any paradoxical consequence, not sweeping under the rug, is what is needed, if we are ever going to work out this rationality thing. What if we were all secretly trolls? How would that affect communicative behavior going forward?


Fish, Bicycles, etc.

Le Monde, nearing its 70th anniversary, has been running a series of “remember when” articles. Today’s is about the first time a woman was named to head up one of its daily sections. The section was Culture, the year was 1971, and the nominee was Yvonne Baby.

“How will she manage to show up for work at 7 in the morning, when we do the layout?”

“I was wondering how you’d handle the evenings out, theater showings, art galleries, cinema, and all that with your two boys at home.”

“Journalism is a hellhole of a profession… How old are you? Fine: at that age, you’re not going to have any more children.”

(Spoken to a journalist wearing a granny dress) “So you’re pregnant?”

C’est à vous rendre féministe! But at least they have the excuse that the date was 1971.




Irving Kristol famously said that a conservative is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” But when you look at the record of some of the people who proudly wear that slogan on their sleeve (e.g., Melanie Phillips, who doesn’t believe in vaccination or the dangers of climate change but thinks that Blair’s advocacy of war in Iraq “showed a very high level of courage and statesmanship“) it appears they were mugged by an alternate reality.

(Thanks, I guess, to Ellen for reminding me of this Murdoch scribbler.)


Ukraine/Russia and Ourselves

“The question is, where is Russia heading? This is the key problem with Putin — he is unable to deal with this issue,” said Pavel K. Baev, a Russia specialist at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. “Holding power has become the goal in itself, and there is a deep underlying feeling that this cannot end well.”

(Khodorkovsky & Lebedev Communications Center, June 9, 2014)

“Братие, друзи, славяне!” (“Brothers, friends, Slavs!”), so we were greeted weekly by Anna Stepanovna Novikova, our professor of Old Slavonic (known in the West as Old-Church-Slavonic) at Moscow State University, where many years ago I started on my academic path as a major in Russian language and literature. In my memory, I still see her vividly: a somewhat overweight, stout woman with a wild hairdo reminiscent of a coonskin cap sitting askance, dressed in a too tight brown costume, with a big black leather bag over her shoulder and a stack of books and papers under her arm. She always arrived at the very last minute, bursting into the classroom suddenly at the precise moment when our hope that the class might be cancelled this time would begin to dawn.

She used to interrogate us mercilessly about Old Slavonic verb paradigms and phonetic laws. Her frowning displeasure over mistakes was terrifying. Oppressive silence and an unforgiving gaze usually accompanied her disapproval. She was adamant that whatever we aspired to be, not knowing Old Slavonic was not an option. We were scared to death of her imperious ways. And yet, her weekly greeting sent to us from the door, with a big smile on her plain face, has stayed with me until now as a declaration of good will.

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Automatic Paper Generator (China Studies Version)

Insert your favorite X:

“ABSTRACT. This paper discusses the topics, goals, values and methods of Chinese X. It holds that the goal of the research in Chinese X is to reveal its structures, content, rules, and essential character, as well as to reveal both similarities and differences between Chinese and foreign X. The value of the research is to carry forward and develop the outstanding heritage of Chinese X. Its method is to annotate original works of Chinese ancient X with the tools of modern X in order to reveal both the particular nature and the universal qualities of Chinese X. The method also explores the differences and similarities between Chinese and foreign X. In recent years, research in Chinese X has developed considerably; it has also logged many important achievements. Future research will build on the merits of different kinds of X, promote Chinese X, and increase communication between Chinese X and foreign X.”

That ought to do it.

Reference: Sun Zhongyuan, “Meta-Research in Chinese Logic,” Frontiers of Philosophy in China 2 (2007), 50-69.


Do You Remember Where You Were When You Learned Archduke Franz Ferdinand Had Been Shot?

I have a copy of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. That’s not so special; lots of people do. Most everyone does, in a certain sense, now that it’s available in digital form (though done with bad OCR). The limp leather volumes from Cambridge University Press are nice, as is the thick volume of Index, and the type is crisp on the thin bible paper. This was the last Britannica to be written, article by article, by specialists and not by committees. But what I particularly prize is the Supplemental Volumes from 1921. Three thick volumes inventorying all the great things that had come about in the world between 1911 and 1920. Aerial Warfare. Chemical Warfare. Somme, Battle of the. Tanks. Verdun. And so on. Hard to believe in progress after you’ve flipped through those three volumes. Welcome to the twentieth century.

Born 46 years after the shot was fired in Sarajevo, I learned about it fifty-odd years after the event, I guess. The channel that opened my historical awareness was the song “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” released in 1966. The imaginative beagle took to the skies in his Sopwith Camel (I didn’t know what one was, but the name stuck) to duel with Baron von Richthofen’s red Fokker triplane. A red triplane, now there was a striking and improbable flying machine! I remember getting my father to buy me a plastic model kit of the Red Baron’s Fokker and taking out books from the library about the aces of the air. This was definitely a more heroic, aristocratic and archaic vision of the conflict than I would have had if Charles Schultz had decided to make Snoopy fantasize about long watches in the trenches, or machine-gun nests along the Chemin des Dames. It was a short step from there to the opening scenes of La Grande Illusion; pity I had to wait until college to see that.


In between, of course, Hemingway. It strikes me as strange that for a kid growing up in the 1960s, the First World War had more imaginative presence than the more recent Second. As for the war itself, it had a more comprehensively structured and tragic story going for it. A tiny act of terrorism perpetrated in a sub-prefectural town that merits two paragraphs (but an independent entry! spelt Serajevo) in the 1991 EB; an ethnic grievance far from the concerns of the major Powers; saber-rattling and appeals to honor; a pretext for self-reinforcing volleys of escalation and refusal to negotiate; deluded calculations (“we’ll be home by Christmas”); all the technology that could be thrown at a problem that was not in essence technical; unimaginable wastage resulting only in the end of the kind of world that had led to the initial revolver shot. The story matched the handbook definitions of tragedy in that the very thing that had kept the peace and been the basis of European political order for the preceding hundred years, the balance of powers and system of interlocking alliances, was exactly what brought it all down.  I suppose Gavrilo Princip got what he wanted, the dismantling of the eastern provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but at what a cost.


(Thanks to Jason Escalante for this last photo.)



The Second Amendment Is Just a Piece of Paper

One of my Tea Party-leaning relatives (yes, like all of you, I have them) sent me an image from some gun owners’ association. It shows a curly-haired young woman leaning against a wall with an assault rifle slung over her shoulder. In large type alongside her: “Because a Restraining Order is just a piece of paper.” With the www address of the National Gun Rights Association. (I’m not going to link to the webpage because I don’t want to give them the clicks.) The rhetorical move here seems to me so typical of our moment that our regular programming will be suspended while I indulge in a little rant.

The ad makes the claim that gun ownership is virtuous because it does something most of us would agree is virtuous— protecting women from abusive exes. That’s a blanket claim that would collapse under a cursory statistical examination: the number of female gun owners who have found guns as helpful as or more helpful than a restraining order, and who have not suffered the side effects of e.g. having the gun pointed at them, or seeing it harm someone in an accident, must be very small compared to all the other gun owners. It makes the classical move of Anecdotage– getting you to think that one possibly fictional example is The Example that extends to cover all cases. But that’s just ordinary BS-ing. What irks me is something else.

A gun would be useful against— whom exactly? The kind of person who thinks that a restraining order is just a piece of paper. Now what kind of person is that? Someone who has no fear of the police, no respect for the law, no concern about having to pay fines or do jail time, but who just wants to shoot his (it’s usually a “he”) way out of his problems. A psychopath, in short, like the famous copycat shooters who get their names in the paper for performing bloody commando operations against kindergartners in this country. You might think that that is the problem. But the ad endorses this nihilist view of the law. It tramples the law underfoot as “just a piece of paper.” And the solution to the problem that it has just created is what? To get a bigger gun, which is certainly not a piece of paper, so that you too can shoot your way out of the problem constituted by people who think that you ought to shoot your way out of problems.

This is a widespread move in the world this summer. Putin’s Russia has just violated its previous treaties in which it promised to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine, and among the justifications was this, that “the US did it too in invading Iraq.” The Chinese are installing oil rigs and artificial islands in the “exclusive economic zone” of other countries, and intimidating vessels of other nations, on the grounds that China is a powerful nation and this is what powerful nations always do (e.g., the colonial powers of the nineteenth century). The spoiled children who fly the Gadsden flag at every opportunity and suck up federal largesse at every opportunity also wave their guns around and threaten to kill people on the grounds that the Guvamint, somewhere, somehow, has used its awesome power against ordinary Americans like them. Everybody has to create enemies, so that they can claim justification for going out and being that enemy.

Well, I say: the Second Amendment is just a piece of paper. I also say that the rest of the Constitution is just a piece of paper. And the Bible, and Euclid’s Elements, and so on. But if you are going to respect any piece of paper, you had better get wise to the reasons that make that paper cogent. They might be logical reasons, legal reasons, social reasons. And if you are going to tear up some piece of paper, let’s hear an explanation for why we’d be better off without it.

The underlying theory of diplomacy, I surmise, is that everybody wants peace, other things being equal; war is much worse than the next better outcome. Of course, there are times when a group of people is so upset about something, or so mistreated, that they have to take up arms. There are also situations in which people are not terribly oppressed, but make the calculation that they can get something out of violence that they can’t get out of negotiations or legislation. These disruptors (to allude to the New Yorker piece that was much chatted about this week) have less stake in keeping things as they are than they do in a possible future world that gives them more advantage, and sometimes they have the means to follow up on their bravado (an advanced weapon, a population of sacrificial lambs, a weakened neighbor). Acts of bluff by such people, like the annexations and Anschlüsse of the 1930s, often go unanswered because the other players have more invested in keeping the peace. Those who would rather keep the peace quite naturally see the costs of a preemptive battle written in large letters, and hope the menace will go away.

Supposedly the collective security agreements of the UN and other bodies were designed to prevent another period of escalation like what we saw in the 1930s. But here we are, experiencing one, and not very clear on what to do about it. I think it would just continue to feed the monster if the US were to take unilateral action against any of these gamblers— just as it would be bad policy for the FBI or the IRS to attack Tea Party nihilists directly. (Of course those nihilists will always believe that the direct attacks are and have always been real.) Multilateral action to preserve the parts of the status quo that are pretty good for everybody, and policy, diplomacy, legislation, law enforcement and reasoned debate (based, but I know this is asking a lot, on scientific research) to improve the parts that drive people to violence for lack of better alternatives— this old incremental recipe is what needs reviving.




In the House of Advanced Primates

In French you can say, without blushing, “les sciences de l’homme”; in German you can say “Geisteswissenschaften”; but if you say “the human sciences” or “the sciences of the spirit” in American English, you have the feeling of perpetrating a mistranslation, a misconception, or even a fraud. Why is that? Well, one reason jumps off the page of Jamie Cohen-Cole’s The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014):

As it was originally organized, the National Science Foundation did not include a specific mandate to support the social sciences. This was because the public, Congress and many natural scientists either equated the social sciences with socialism or did not find them to be sciences at all. … Speaking for the “average American,” Congressman Clarence Brown (R-Oh.) [said]: “If the impression becomes prevalent in Congress that this legislation [for the National Science Foundation] is to establish some sort of organization in which there would be a lot of short-haired women and long-haired men messing into everybody’s personal affairs and lives, inquiring whether they love their wives or do not love them and so forth, you are not going to get this legislation.” (p. 96)

So that’s why anthropologists and others of that tribe have mostly depended on private foundation money in this country. And at the beginning, at least, the bargain didn’t seem Faustian at all. Private money was interested in generating innovative, consequential research, with a lingering aftertaste of the great interdisciplinary efforts that had won the last war for democracy. When there was bounty, the ideas bubbled quickly to the surface. Already in 1955, the Wenner-Gren Foundation was underwriting the founding conference of environmental studies, “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth.” Also a taboo topic today.

Though Cohen-Cole’s book is a bit repetitive and overuses the passive voice, it tells an important story from which I pull this corollary: The humanities and social sciences aren’t “irrelevant.” It’s the definition of “relevance” that shrank, as the community of interest and support behind academia changed its objectives from building worldwide support for “the American way of life” (pluralistic, democratic, plentiful, permissive) to guaranteeing the highest return on investment. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small” (Sunset Boulevard).


Keep On Keepin’ On

I sometimes wonder why I ever went to school and why I ever put so much money into books. I had a Mellon fellowship when I began school, and I was richer than I had ever been in my life. Naturally, the money all went for books — a complete Arden 2nd Shakespeare, a Kleine Pauly, the Revels series, a German-Latin Spinoza, a Colli-Montinari Nietzsche, and so on. But now, I am in a job that doesn’t use that part of my Ausbildung, and my wife and I sometimes wonder whether we could have fewer than fourteen bookcases.

Bad idea. This past week, I was asked to help write a paper on client communications modules — the software that lets real estate agents and clients communicate online about what houses the client would like to investigate or buy. I thought of this wonderful passage from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception:

In the experience of dialogue, there is constituted between the other person and myself a common ground; my thought and his are interwoven into a single fabric, my words and those of my interlocutor are called forth by the state of the discussion, and they are inserted into a shared operation of which neither of us is the creator.

And I put it in, certain that it would be taken out as being too high-flown for the purpose, even though it seemed ideal for expressing the relationship I had in mind. For whatever reason — probably the patience and tolerance of my boss — it stayed in.

So, don’t toss your books, even when you think you need the space. Your past is a part of you, and it should not be thrown away lightly. As Curtis Mayfield once said, “Keep on keepin’ on.”


Do Feed the Public Intellectual

(Introducing Paul Farmer, Human Rights Program Kirschner Memorial Lecture, June 5, 2014)

Good evening and welcome to tonight’s Kirschner Memorial Lecture. I’m delighted to see so many of you here tonight, a direct acknowledgment of the significance of our Human Rights Program and a hint that our benefactors’ generosity has not been totally misplaced. The questions examined in the Human Rights Program are among the most serious questions raised in a university, and I would say that for us, specifically, in this country, with our history and assumptions, the area of health and human rights has the greatest power to change the way we see ourselves and others.

For many of us in Paul’s and my generation in the United States, the first time we heard about human rights as a field of activism, it was in connection with the denial of people’s rights to free speech and assembly, their right to emigrate, their right to seek redress, their implicit right to representative government. And we learned about this in the context of the Cold War, when it seemed self-evident that people in some part of the world benefited from the recognition of those rights, while people lacked them in many other parts of the world—not only the Soviet bloc and China, but also Latin America, Asia and Africa, where the client states of the great powers all seemed to repress their dissidents with the greatest indifference. Of course, it didn’t stop there. The response to human rights activism by official representatives of the socialist countries and by some of our own home-grown leftists was to point out how inequitably the market system distributed such basic goods as food, housing, education and medical care, goods which, it was implied, were a fair trade for civil and legal rights. The funny thing about this answer is that it was taken just as a rebuke of the West’s hypocrisy. Despite some laudable exceptions, we did not experience, even in the Carter era which made such a noise about making human rights the driving force of our foreign policy, a large-scale effort to wrap social and economic rights around the uncontestable but rather abstract goods of free speech and fair elections at home. The struggle for civil rights and equality within the US, which had concluded in the courts with a handful of imperfect measures for instituting fairness in civil life, did not carry over into an effective War on Poverty. The Great Society spent most of its surplus on weaponry, with a small percentage allocated to nagging our rivals about their bad human-rights record.

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A Spacewalk With Joseph Frank’s “Spatial Form”

(For “The Novel as a Form of Thought,” a conference commemorating Joseph Frank, Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, May 15-16, 2014.)

Joseph Frank was fully developed before he came to the Committee on Social Thought. His essay “Spatial Form,” first published in the Sewanee Review in 1945, is an astonishing piece of synthesis when you consider the state of play at the time. Joe Frank, born in 1918, had already at age 27 the stylistic authority and the full deck of reference that we find in his older contemporary Clement Greenberg, for example; but Greenberg, who preceded Joe at Erasmus Hall High School, had a proper BA (Phi Beta Kappa) from Syracuse, whereas Joe cobbled together his few semesters of college education between bouts of paid work and was largely educated through talking with freelance or underemployed intellectuals. Later, joining the class of underemployed intellectuals as a copy writer for the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington D.C., Joe was again walking in Greenberg’s footsteps; Greenberg’s non-academic jobs were with various federal agencies until he became a full-time editor at Partisan Review and The Nation in the 1950s. And like Frank, Greenberg made a strong impression with an early essay, in his case “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939), which showed him to be fully up to date with the conversation about art, ethics and politics then underway in what would later be known as the Frankfurt School.[1]

Joe’s biography is too big a subject for me today. My reason for enumerating these facts and making the parallel with Greenberg is this. For people who came of age in the 1930s and 40s, art mattered in a way that we can hardly recover, even as a theme for nostalgia. It was important to discern what made modern literature and art modern, because in the adequate description of those representational artifices lay, one thought, a diagnosis of the spirit of the age, and it was important to get that right. Part of the reason lay in the contending teleologies of the day, theories of history with vastly divergent political formations behind them, structures of intention that claimed the power to determine one’s day-to-day actions and options. How we got where we are today, in a much weakened state of mind, onlookers if not scroungers at the remote edges of a frightfully well-financed commercial culture, is a complicated story. You have heard the recurrent laments for the demise of the public intellectual, specifically the sub-species of public intellectual whose habitat was outside the universities. From a U.S. point of view, the relative but steady rise in living standards, the massification and commodification of university education, and the cultural assimilation of previously excluded groups must all have had something to do with it, as these generally good things both undermined the cause of the Left as people of the 1930s understood it and broke down the difference between high culture and mass culture. If “Spatial Form” had been published in 1965, it would have been an academic, formalist exercise, and it’s often been mistaken for one since.

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