Today is August 24th, St. Bartholomew’s Day. Ernest Renan said it: there are some things that every French person needs to forget, such as the crusade against the Albigensians or the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Renan meant that these old grievances, if opened anew, would set French people to fighting amongst themselves rather than building a common Republic or warding off outer enemies.
One of the things I am always asking France– because, vous savez, lovers are always full of questions– is why the ideas that are taken to their worst extremes of actualization elsewhere have so often begun here. France, mère des arts, des armes, et des lois, I know. But that’s not all. Alongside a lot of civilisation and rayonnement, égalité and parité, it was on French territory that the theory of the fascist state grew to completeness (so that Mussolini could then borrow it from the Action française), that racism and antisemitism took their modern forms (Gobineau, Drumont), that the most eminent medical researchers, decorated with Nobel prizes, advocated a strong eugenics program (Charles Richet, Alexis Carrel). But in comparison with other places, France had a mild case of fascism, antisemitism, racism, eugenics, etc. These could achieve a loud minority, a persistent subtheme, but not (so far) domination of French political life.
You might say: Vichy. But Vichy was a capitulation to invaders who came waving a monstrous growth of bad French ideas. Vichy is an example of what happens when the precarious balance of things that kept people like Maurras and Barrès on the loud lunatic fringe got broken. And no, I am not denying the existence of plenty of nasty racists and exterminationists in la grande patrie, some of them elected officials.
How were moments of crisis averted, by and large, the moments when the same ideas jumped into the saddle elsewhere? My theory is not that French people are uniquely virtuous or that France has some secret ingredient (too bad for me; I could be writing best-sellers and New York Times Magazine pieces about the special Frenchness of the French!), but just that the democratic process kept going here despite the many coups, restorations, revolutions, wars and invasions. Not immaculately; just enough. We can all take encouragement from that.
Just thought you might like to know.
I’m always interested in the question of whether a social process limits itself or goes on escalating indefinitely. As an example of self-limitation, consider an epidemic that kills so many victims that there are no new bodies left to infect. Or, more optimistically, consider the “asymmetrical” modes of struggle described by Bateson, which he thought ensured greater social stability than symmetrical modes, always apt to escalate into violence without limit. The proposals we’ve been hearing over the last few months for arming more and more people, from kindergarten teachers to garbage collectors, would make the US a society of damagingly “symmetrical” conflicts, in which anyone could shoot anyone for anything. And some people are just fine with that.
I wonder, though, what skills or accomplishments brought a Wayne LaPierre to the head of the National Rifle Association? Was he a recognized Top Gun, a grandmaster of the Bushmaster? I suspect not; he probably got to the top of that particular heap by being good at public relations, communication, rhetoric, and in particular by being more hardline and “on message” than lesser mortals. But even a “hardline” PR man is soft when you compare him to a real gunslinger. I propose that, going forward, the NRA should recruit all its spokesmen and officials from its membership through a system of ranked duels. Any member can challenge another member, just like competitors in tennis or chess, and claim a recognized rank, but only after engaging in a fight to the death.
Setting up this system will be interesting and gratifying for the fans of the gun, and will create jobs in the betting industry as non-gun-owners rush to get in on the excitement by laying odds. There will be symbolic upsets and mythic confrontations. (Can Clint Eastwood really shoot, or is it just for the movies? How about Charlton Heston?) Best of all, the ranks of the NRA will be thinned of the sort of people who just like macho posturing but are not actually good at shooting: these probably pose the greater danger to the public in armed confrontations, so we all benefit. And anyone who demurs from a challenge will be allowed to exit the NRA, taking their year’s membership fee with them.
Let’s see some real bullet democracy at last. (For my part, from behind a thick wall of sandbags.)
Living in the UK and in North America as an ethnic minority, I am often asked in different situations: “Where were you from?” And in fact, with the growing ethnic, linguistic and cultural complexity of the Hong Kong population, I was asked that question fairly frequently even there. How this question is being asked of course indicates different sociopolitical presumptions and connotations of the questioner. While some people are sincerely and genuinely curious about who I am, others often turn the conversation into a kangaroo-court-styled investigation, making me feel not only uncomfortable, but also violated.
We’re at war and don’t know it. Attention, energy, and lives are being wasted on defending against an “enemy” who doesn’t really have the capacity or the will to do us that much harm (if you define harm in terms of citizen lives)– i.e., “terrorists.” But the war we should be attentive to is going on all around us. Prosecuting this war is going to be complicated. It has an infinity of fronts. The enemy is a shadowy, formless, crafty, non-state actor. You probably shook hands with members of this invisible army yesterday, or watched them on the TV. And you weren’t aware that they killed or maimed American citizens in many multiples of the number killed and wounded in military service.
Let us first figure out who they are, and then find a way to stop them. Nothing could be stupider than to be at war and not know it.
The very Republicans who are dug in to a scorched-earth, never-never-never position on any piece of legislation or nominee brought forth by Democrats have found that the reauthorization of massive spying on American citizens is a cause they can put themselves behind, linking arms for once with the White House. Isn’t bipartisan concord beautiful, especially when it occurs at the expense of those civil liberties that, as we used to say, “made America great”?
A bit of infinitely valuable advice from Atul Gawande (The New Yorker).
We’ve been talking a lot about the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case around the house. I am in no hurry to visit a state with a Stand Your Ground law, simply because I don’t know what would happen if an armed inhabitant decided I posed a threat to his well-being or existence. I’m fairly pale and usually go around in button-down shirts, which would tend to put me in the statistical category of individuals at low risk of being shot by vigilantes, but what if Floridians and Texans woke up one day to the real and present danger posed to their well-being by bankers and arbitrageurs? Whatever I try to do about it, I still look a lot like a banker. So I’m staying in the relatively enlightened state of Illinois, where legislators have been trying to reduce the number of firearms on the street (no thanks to the Supreme Court).
However, other than wave our hands and scream about racism, vigilante anarchy and unequally applied laws, and withhold some tourism dollars, can Printculture contribute to nudging our insane body politic toward sweetness and light? Of course we can– through critique of language. I knew you’d breathe a sigh of relief. Let’s go below the fold.
There’s a contest on– you can see the results here. I humbly offer for the delectation of posterity my favorite innerlekchul rib-ticklers and side-slappers.
1. Why did the Hegelian chicken cross the road?
To get to the side he was already on.
– Who’s there?
– He who?
– He who say ‘He who’ belong in Confucius joke, not knock-knock joke.
Thanks for listening. If you have a Nobel Prize for me, just slip it under the door.
I learned about these from an article by Georges Dumézil on the Druids, Celtic traditions, and writing. Grab a teddy bear and settle in, kids:
[From the Welsh story of Lludd and Llevelys:] The evil sorcerers known as the Corannieit tyrannized over the kingdom of Britain. So artful were they that no conversation could be held anywhere on the island, no matter how softly one tried to speak, that they would be unable to overhear, if only the wind blew past. So no one could rise up and resist them. The king of the island, Lludd, furious at this state of affairs, wanted to get the help of his brother Llevelys, the king of France, to overthrow the sorcerers; so he went to visit him in France and yet even there, there was no privacy. The two kings put their heads together to find another way to communicate in such a way that the wind would not intercept the words traveling from mouth to ear and carry them back to the Corannieit. So Llevelys had his artisans make a long copper horn, through which the two brothers could chat securely. But the copper tube created echoes, noise, and static, so that whatever was said into it was turned to ugly and disagreeable words or a meaning opposite to that intended. Suspecting foul play by the devil, Llevelys washed the copper horn with wine, scaring the devil away, and thereafter it worked reliably. Llevelys gave his brother a magic formula for exterminating the Corannieit, which he did.
[From the Tales of E. T. A. Hoffman:] Albertine had three suitors. They were invited to choose one of three chests, one of which contained her portrait (and thus the promise of her hand) and the other two of which were consolation prizes. Tusmann, the nerdy suitor, opened one chest and found in it only a blank parchment book. At first infuriated, he was invited to put the notebook in his pocket and think of any book he wished he had. “I’m thinking of the Tractatus politicus by Thomasius, which I foolishly threw into a pond when I was contemplating suicide.”
“All right, now pull the notebook out of your pocket and take a look.”
“It’s the Tractatus!”
“Now think of another book you wish you had read.”
“How about The Battle of Composition and Harmony, an allegory about the invention of opera?”
“Now look in your pocket!”
“Hooray! It’s The Battle!”
“So you see now, with this magical book you have inherited the most complete and magnificent library in the world, and you can carry it with you wherever you go. All you have to do is make a wish, and the book you desire will magically appear in your pocket.”
Forgetting instantly about Albertine and his disappointment, Tusmann dropped into an armchair in the corner of the room, buried his face in the little book, and was from then on the happiest man on earth.
(Georges Dumézil, “La tradition druidique et l’écriture: le vivant et le mort,” Cahiers pour un temps, 3 )
Some people think MOOCs are bad, some people think they’re good (though I know almost none of the latter). But what you really need to know is: what’s going to happen to the university in the next twenty years as a result of innovations in content delivery?
Luckily for you I have had a vision of the future. I don’t like some of it, but I think it’s accurate. If I were a dean or a university or college president I would be thinking about what I could do right now to respond to the changes that are coming. And if you teach in a university, or attend one, or plan on having friends or children who do, then you need to know what’s coming, because it will affect (and indeed transform) the entire institutional structure of higher education in the United States (and probably worldwide). I’ve put it all in an eay-to-read Q&A format, so no excuses for not following along.
As a bonus at the end I’ll tell you what’s happening to public education at the K-12 level, and offer some suggestions on how to keep the most disastrous vision of the future from coming true. Continue reading
So let’s be clear: satellite radio is MUCH MUCH better than regular radio. If you drive as part of your job you should get satellite radio immediately.
That said something you probably didn’t know is that satellite radio has a pornography channel. I listened to it for about 15 minutes (at least that’s what I’m admitting to) during an 11-hour car drive from Springfield, Illinois to State College and heard two kinds of shows:
1. A show with three female hosts in which one of them discussed in detail a three-way she had with her two roomates. The description was surprisingly graphic, and then the other hosts were asking things like, “tell me exactly how you were positioned–were his balls in your mouth or just banging on your chin?” and so on… and then exclaiming things like “oh that’s so hot” and so on. Kind of amazing.
2. Another show in which people call in and tell the hostess what they’d like to do to her. “If I were there I’d be doing bla bla bla,” followed by “Oh, that sounds amazing–I wish you were here right now, I’d totally suck up all your cum,” etc. I honestly could only listen to this for about 20 seconds before becoming too embarrassed so I have no idea how the show goes beyond that.
The demonstrations against “marriage for all” have shown a surprising side of French democracy. If you’d asked me three months ago, I would have said that France was immune to Tea Party stratagems. They have worked out a social order with ample (never adequate, because there’s no such thing as adequate) provision of life’s essentials, and a political system with an imperfect (like all of them) representation of a wide variety of interests through four or five major political parties, whose bases and alliances shift with time but who have a lot of consensus among them; and they recently threw out a plutocratic president suspected of illegal campaign financing, among other things, in favor of a bland but decent technocrat from the squishy Left. It didn’t seem to me that there were the ingredients for intense polarization of the electorate by politicians who had recently lost a vote and wanted to get even. The ranters and extremists were focused on immigration, the reliable hot-button issue in those prosperous countries that have relied for two generations on cheap labor from nearby poorer countries.
But “Mama and Papa” have done the job, it seems.
The latest in from France (those boats are slow sometimes): Simone de Beauvoir has written a review of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. The result is a charming philosophical duet. Not heretofore translated into English, as far as I know. Gendered pronouns as in original, so if you have problems, tell Simone.
One of the essential goals that early education assigns itself is to make the child lose the sense of his presence in the world. Morality teaches him to deny his subjectivity, to renounce the privilege of affirming himself as an “I” against the other; he must consider himself as one human being among others, subjected, like the others, to universal laws inscribed in an anonymous heaven. Science orders him to escape from his own consciousness, to turn away from the living and meaningful world that that consciousness had unveiled for him, which science will now do its best to replace with a universe of frozen objects, independent of anyone’s gaze or thought.
From the New Yorker‘s reportage on the MOOCs that people (well, the stockholders of Coursera and the like, anyway) claim will make the brick-and-mortar university obsolete:
“I could easily see a great institution like Harvard having a dynamic archive where, even after I’m gone—not just retired but let’s say really gone, I mean dead—aspects of the course could interlock with later generations of teachers and researchers,” Nagy told me. “Achilles himself says it in [Iliad,] Rhapsody 9, Line 413: ‘I’m going to die, but this story will be like a beautiful flower that will never wilt.’ ”
The speaker is Gregory Nagy, a scholar I’ve been reading for at least thirty-five years and who’s been personally encouraging to me; and I can’t help feeling there’s something sad about the quotation. Greg Nagy has been covered with every honor the world of American learning can dream up. He was tenured and promoted to full professor at Harvard at a young age, he has been the director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, been lauded, fêted, cited, and nonetheless has time to go out for coffee with random visitors and talk about ideas for books that may never be written. Among his many students are some of the most lively minds in Classics; they have generally done pretty well on the perilous career path of that always menaced field. He doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as a dead language. For what it’s worth, I like him immensely. And yet when he thinks about the shortness of life, about the recompense that Achilles received for his early death in battle– undying fame through Homer’s songs– he envisions his own berth in the Elysian Fields as a set of computer videos, chunked into twelve-minute segments, each followed by a quiz: his MOOC on the Greek hero.
If you pay attention to all the publications of contemporary Chinese cinema and media from the People’s Republic of China in the last ten years or so, or if you have the experience of advising graduate students who studied in mainland China, you may notice a buzzword: yujing (语境; linguistic context). The term yujing is actually composed of two words, yu (语; language) and jing (境; terrain or border). The word jing also carries a quasi-religious connotation of the term jingjie (境界; level of self-cultivation). Hence, when I first heard of the term yujing, I was struck by a certain aura around it, as though it were some state of being that one can achieve only through hours of yoga and daily exercises of Tai chi.
But then, if you were familiar with how the term yujing has been used in media researches, you would find the term incredibly dull and earthly. In all honesty, the term is often employed quite unimaginatively. For example, when some says “Hou xiandai wenhua yujing nei de Zhongguo dianying” (后现代文化语境内的中国电影; Chinese cinema in the postmodern yujing), the term yujing can be roughly understood as the linguistic (cultural, social, political, or literally, linguistic) environment or context within which postmodern Chinese cinema has been produced. The effect of hearing the term yujing is therefore not quite different from our hearing a term such as “discourse.” Very much like the case with discourse, after having read the term yujing in over several hundred book and article titles, you begin to feel indifferent towards what the term can potentially do.
So what is yujing? None of the books that use this term would give me an answer. Likewise, none of my advisees could tell me exactly what they mean by inserting this term conveniently in their sentences––albeit very convincingly. If the term yujing were to be understood interchangeably with the term discourse, it falls short of questioning the dispositif that is crucial in making the term discourse not only a descriptive one, but also a critical one.
Therefore, one day, I decided to ask H. Saussy.
Thanks to him, I now realize that the term “linguistic context” came from the anthropological studies of Bronisław Malinowski of the Kula ring—an institution of trading and gift-exchanges in the French-colonial Trobriand (now the Kiriwina) islands––when he, being a subject of Polish descent, was stranded during the First World War (1914-1918) as an “enemy.” The term “linguistic context” was initially conceived when Malinowski was asked to write his seminal article “Kula; the Circulating Exchange of Valuables in the Archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea” by the editors of the magazine Man in 1920 (not the gay pornographic magazine under the same name). The question at stake was: How could Malinowski, as a European man, communicate with the “natives” when no linguistic commonality could be found among them? Malinowski’s answer is: via linguistic context. On the surface, the idea of the linguistic context can be interpreted simply as the syntactical context that precedes and succeeds an utterance (often translated into Chinese as shangxia wen). It can also be extended to the use of facial and bodily gestures that help the addressee understand what she or he has failed to comprehend verbally.
In this sense, the term yujing is not as empty-headed as I almost thought it would be. In fact, I believe that we should treat it quite seriously as a different way of thinking about what we mean by a discourse, especially in media studies.
Notice that yujing presupposes a semantic gap or absence that a human or technological medium can help contextualize. In the Chinese context, this could be an interesting form of intervention. The Chinese term of “media” are meti (媒体) or meijie (媒介). The word meiti was most likely borrowed from the Japanese term baitai, which—at least in Chinese—places the emphasis on a ti (tai; body) that conveys something or negotiates the relationship between two beings, objects or events. The word meijie can be traced back to the “Zhang Xingcheng zhuan” (“Biography of Zhang Xingcheng [587-653]”) in the Jiu Tang shu (Old Books of Tang, Liu Xu, 941-945). It literally means “through the intervention of a go-between.” The term puts the emphasis on the act of intervention, which produces a synergy that would otherwise be missing if two persons or objects were to act alone. The term yujing therefore indicates either a go-between body that sutures discrete linguistic modes or understandings by conveying certain meanings or values between two agents of communication, or a synergy that sparkles between two bodies as a go-between intervenes into a conversation.
Not only that, Malinowski considers the process of mediation as a process of gift-exchanges. For Malinowski, in this process of gift-exchanges, what being transacted are neither “utilities” nor “ornaments”; rather, they are “valuables” that carry no “surreptitious” value other than a certain reconfirmation of a bond between members of a community who are of the same social status. It also has the effect of distinguishing the inside and outside of a community by negotiating the boundary between those who can partake of the process of gift-exchanges and those who are excluded from it (99-100).
A very interesting part of the Kula trade is that the vaygu’a (valuables) are indeed traded for the purpose of stimulating “a desire for wealth, for ownership.” Yet, for Malinowski, the “conception of value and the form of ownership … are different from those current among us.” Malinowski observed that many of these vaygu’a are traded not for the purpose of accumulating them as “capital”; rather, they often circulate the trading ring as tokens for expressing the communal needs, sexual desires, friendship and social recognition (103-105). In other words, the term yujing in fact refers to an economy of social exchanges that are conducted for the purpose of maintaining a certain circulation of desire.
When media scholars use the word yujing to talk about a mediascape, what they have in mind is probably a geopolitical or cultural territory that is being mediated by the various mechanical and electronic media. But what the term implies—perhaps subconsciously—is a set of hierarchical limitations or socio-legal prescriptions that intervene our media space. For example, what our social media (e.g. Facebook, Youtube, Tudou and Weibo) do today is not necessarily open up a fully democratized and free-for-all process of mediation. Rather, they reinforce a process of gift-exchanges or information-exchanges that would consolidate our individual and collective social spaces and in-group affiliations. It also maintains certain distances between media communities that are separated physically by means of their verbal languages, cultural values and political conditions—and more importantly, the semantic gap that is often presumed to be unbridgeable or un-mediable in verbal understanding
Hence, in some ways, this idea can be seen both positively and negatively. On the positive side, the term yujing communicates a hope that contemporary media, through both verbal and non-verbal interventions, can somehow circumvent the linguistic differences between various geopolitical communities and achieve a certain form of mutual understanding. On the negative side, it simply indicates that these differences need to be acknowledged––and to some extent, maintained––in order to corroborate our existing international order and hierarchy of political power. In fact, mutual understanding, in this “negative” interpretation, can be understood as a social consensus that is achieved through the intervention of the state or corporate power.
So, next time when we use the term yujing, it would be interesting to explore further what implications such term might have on the way we understand how our private opinions, sensations, affects and emotions are in fact mediated—or in some cases, failed to be mediated. And more important, out of the very semantic gap between the term yujing and discourse, we may be able to come up with a different kind of critical intervention––a new linguistic context or terrain that can open up new potentialities.
For your interests:
Malinowski,Bronisław. “Kula; the Circulating Exchange of Valuables in the Archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea.” In Man, vol. 20 (1920): 97-105.
In the spirit of experimentation with form and with the possibilities of translation, I’ve begun a serial essay on the hair of Queen Berenice II. I’m aiming to post a new episode weekly until it seems time to end my relationship with Berenice (at which point I’ll declare the project Done). You can find the first episode at the Stanford Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies here.
The title of this post is itself a bit of a false flag. I’m not interested in the theories that cheaply and easily reverse the responsibility for crimes and terrorist attacks on the ostensible victims. Not that such things don’t ever happen (the Maine; the Reichstag fire), but that such rationalizations are too obviously a shortcut to eliminating cognitive dissonance. Their logic is roughly: “The group I identify with is accused of having done a despicable thing. But because they’re the group I identify with, they can’t have done it, so it must be an evil and despicable plot designed to justify attacks on the wonderful and upstanding people who are my team.”
Rationalization, then, is the thread I’m following.