07/4/13

The Most Intellectual Jokes I Know

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.

2. -Knock-knock!
– Who’s there?
– He.
– 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.

06/26/13

Two Fairy Tales That Are Not Fairy Tales

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 [1981])

05/29/13

The Future of the University: A Vision

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

05/28/13

Something you probably didn’t know about satellite radio

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.

Still: amazing!

05/27/13

The Liberty to Deny You Equality

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.

Continue reading

05/16/13

It Took One to Know One

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.

05/14/13

Kleos Aphthiton

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.

Continue reading

05/13/13

Repurposing “Yujing”

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.

05/11/13

Berenice’s Hair: A Serial Essay

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.

 

04/24/13

False Flag

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.

Continue reading

04/20/13

Cuisine for Peripatetic Academics, Episode 1

Cuisine for Peripatetic Academics, Episode 1: 20 April 2013, United Airlines flight from RDU to ORD
Today’s afternoon flight is just slightly over two hours, so no on-board purchasable snack box satisfaction for me. This afternoon’s meal is thus:
– 1 Crunchy Peanut Butter Clif Bar from the newsstand outside Gate D5
– 1 bottle of Fiji water, also from the newsstand outside Gate D5 (I always get this brand in airports because I like the petite size and feel of the bottle in the palm. It makes me feel like, Wow, I am powerful with impressively large woman-hands.)
– 1 plastic bottle of La Maridelle Sauvignon Blanc purchased onboard the flight. (The flight attendant also offered me a Chardonnay. I looked at her with my disaffected “Really? Chardonnay?” eyes. She quietly closed the wine drawer and moved on.)
Tasting notes:
– There’s no year indicated on the bottle of wine. Fabulous. Let’s do this.
– Notes of waxed-cardboard-juicebox apple juice. Hints of airplane upholstery. (Realized while sipping that I don’t know how to spell “upholstery.” Used manual spellcheck. Felt dirty. Took another sip.)
– Suggested pairings: any episode of Survivor: Caramoan – Fans vs. Favorites. (I choose the recent “Blindside Time” episode.) Let’s also give the Clif Bar a whirl to see what this does to the wine.
[munching]
[Side note: Good job, Self, moving up a row in this highly-non-full flight to have a double-tray-table-situation that enables *both* Clif Bar wine picnic and laptop to coexist. The couple originally sitting next to me abandoned a First Class seat and the warm nuts that inevitably accompanied it (the man actually used the phrase “warm nuts” to describe what was left behind) in order to sit together in economy. Fie on your forsaking of the warm nuts, people behind me! I love my husband but would not forsake the warm nuts, and he would understand. Work on your relationship and your cultivation of each other’s opportunities for autonomy and independent growth, ye forsakers of the warm first class nuts.]
[munching]
– Crunchy Peanut Butter Clif Bar brings out notes of dough and chalk in the wine. I also get hints of mud.
[Side note: in the future, do not choose a Survivor episode that features a merging of the tribes, because there will be a feast, and that will make you bitter if there are no snack boxes available on the flight.]
[munching and then sipping]
– While watching scenes of islandy-landscapey-background, it’s possible to imagine that this peanut butter wine combination is a form of Thai food. Very, very undercooked leftover Thai food from right out of the fridge and eaten with a plastic spoon because it’s the only form of cutlery you have on hand, because you travel too much.
[Side note: Fantastic. I had to choose the one episode of Survivor that involves an immunity challenge devoted to eating disgusting foodstuffs. Stop smiling at me, Andrea-the-blond-smiling-Survivor-“Favorite.”]
[Side note: why did I not take the Chardonnay when offered? Oh, the folly of youth!)
[munching and sipping and munching]
They are eating beetle larvae on laptop-tv.I am getting undercooked cold Thai food with notes of larvae. Now they’re eating balut. [How do I know how to spell “balut” without any problems, but not “upholstery”?] Nice job choosing televised entertainment, Me.
And it’s Cochran and Malcolm in the finals. Pig brains.
And we’ve come to the final descent.
The Final Evaluation: Slightly more palatable than the worst Thai food you’ve ever had. Get the red wine, take a flight that’s three hours or longer to avoid the no-snackbox-situation, and stay away from Survivor episodes while you eat.
The Scholarly Recap: The sensorium is shaped by one’s perceptive environment. Observation of images and narratives effects a transformation of other aspects of affective experience and in turn generates new bodily sense-objects by materializing new networks of relationships.
04/20/13

Goof Gas; Or, Read Him His Rights

Remember that old Bullwinkle episode where Boris and Natasha dosed America’s finest brains with a secret gas that made them stupid? Goof gas has been discovered; it’s the word “terrorism.” Effective in 94% of people (personal observation).

The sordid trick of creating a special, sacred, untouchable category of people whose motives are supposed to be irrational and unknowable– or let’s say “evil,” for brevity’s sake– is having its predictable effects. The 19-year-old second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing has been labeled a Terrorist, and gray-haired elder statesmen are baying to have him thrown into Guantanamo; people I supposedly am friendly with, or friend-of-a-friendly with (by the standards of Facebook) are calling for him to be tortured (as if that would serve any purpose of investigation or law). And, most notoriously, a city of 600,000 people was on lockdown for 48 hours and thousands of police were swarming around as if he were Godzilla come back from the bottom of the sea.

If he and his brother had killed a policeman, stolen a car at gunpoint, exchanged fire with cops, and somehow set off explosives that killed three and maimed 120, while robbing a bank, we would be talking about them as vicious criminals, but we would be secure in the knowledge that we have courts and prisons designed to handle such cases, and handle them (let’s hope) dispassionately. But robbing a bank is, I guess, normal, and this other thing is somehow out of the sphere of humanity. But that’s absurd. People commit horrendous acts of violence and harm strangers all the time in their “pursuit of happiness.” Sometimes there’s a political or religious element to the wickedness, but not always. What they do can be described within the vocabulary of the police blotter and the criminal law, judges can hear testimony for and against them, they can have their day in court and their many days in prison, if found guilty. This is everyday life in a society that has laws.

No need to get all terroristic about terrorism. Read the poor SOB his Miranda rights, for heaven’s sake. Question him first, if there’s a likelihood that he has stashed further bombs that might be set to explode and hurt people. Question him about that. But don’t put him outside the reach of the law, deny him access to a lawyer or the right to remain silent, just to punish him. That actually wouldn’t punish him; it would reward him, it would make him from an American citizen (admittedly, not a very nice one) into a superman. Or Godzilla. And as far as a rational eye can see, he isn’t.

Jesse James was armed and dangerous. He was not a supernatural category. He was not evil incarnate. He was not a threat to all of our very existences. If you think little Dzokhar is, that’s the Goof Gas doing its work.

goofgas

 

Update: on April 22, the judge notified the surviving suspect of the charges being brought against him. Though indigent, he was informed of his right to legal representation. So somebody out there is reading Printculture. Good.

04/5/13

Where We Go

Sigal Ben-Porath, in a recent book of essays about schools (Education, Justice and Democracy, eds. Danielle Allen and Rob Reich), has some useful things to say. Some of it is just taking note of the general condition:

In deeply diverse societies, education that aims to develop common values is continually challenged by individuals and groups who subscribe to value systems that they assume would be upended by certain aspects of substantive democratic citizenship. The pursuit of commonality seems always to trigger concerns about the loss of identity. An important response to these concerns is offered by diversity liberalism… Liberal theorists thus tend to focus on containing diversity within the polity and define citizenship as a form of identity as a way of responding to challenges from individuals’ affiliation with other subnational (or supranational) groups. (“Education for Shared Fate Citizenship,” E, J and D, pp. 83, 86).

Fair enough. Or rather, “fair enough” enough. “Diversity liberalism” makes us all give up a little of what makes us special, so that we can all get along together. If I believe that those who worship a different deity from mine are heretics and should be burned alive, I must refrain from putting that belief into practice, and articulate that belief only as a historical relic (what a group used to believe), a view about a perfect world (in an ideal theocracy, here’s what would happen), or an intimation about a future world (when eventually the truth is revealed, you will see that I was right, and…). Or we keep our conflicts out of public spaces and complain in private. Or we agree on matters of procedure, so that the outcome, whatever it be, will be one that each of us owns and admits. Backing away from the idea that cosmopolitanism should replace powerfully held, nonreflective community beliefs, Ben-Porat holds up equality of participation and procedure as the antidote to accusations of brainwashing (p. 95).

Ben-Porat borrows from Bernard Williams the recommendation that “Having a sense of ourselves as members of a community of fate entails telling ourselves (true) stories about how we came to be connected” (cited, p. 88). This is good; thus a British citizen named Ng or Patel can forget about any supposed differences with the “native Britons” and add his or her story to the tale of the tribe as it came to be today.

“Shared fate,” however, is a mainly future-pointing category. This is the great change it brings to the theory of nationhood that emphasizes common origins. It sees the nation as “always a work in progress” (p. 91). What kind of a fate do we want to have, given that we will have it together and assuming that we can do something (through education) to affect it? Such a question addresses participants (particularly, schoolchildren) as having a stake in the future condition of the group.

As much as I like the idea of “shared fate,” it doesn’t address dimensions of inequality or religious diversity that have to do, very specifically, with the imagined future. Among “deeply diverse societies,” would Ben-Porat include the population of Israel and its occupied zones? Even the set of people holding Israeli citizenship includes a lot of people who are probably not conceiving of the future in the same way, or imagining themselves journeying off into it together–and I’m not just talking about an apocalyptic future.

Even less apocalyptically (but quite seriously), think of this mere policy measure: Social Security was invented to rescue people from the bad “shared fate” of getting through their old age without an income. For decades now, however, the gap in economic conditions between the people who are going to have to anticipate living on Social Security and those who have other irons in the fire is wide. Most of the influence over how we plan and discuss the future national budget resides with people for whom cutting Social Security benefits doesn’t involve any real or imagined pain, and who also probably can’t imagine a reversal of fortune that would land them in the category of Social Security dependents. Education, too, was invented, back in the cave days, as a way of preparing people for the challenges in their individual and collective futures. But if a certain pool of people are heading to a happy future along a path of well-designed, well-financed education, and another, larger pool are heading down a path of underfunded, incoherent, poorly-planned, incomplete education, and no conceivable future is there to switch people from one pool to the other, it will be hard to make the members of the two pools think of themselves as having a single “shared fate.”

Affirmative action was supposed to do this. Presumably, putting kids from different races in the same classroom would cause friendships to blossom and create a culture of mutual concern. I’m sure this has happened in many cases, but if you read the newspapers, you see a great deal of griping by well-off white people and the occasional half-hearted defense of the already weakened system. The reason, I suppose, is that nobody sincerely believes that people of all backgrounds in this country share a common fate. Some people here are going to heaven (or to the earthly image thereof) and some of us are going to hell. No wonder then that the weak devices meant to mitigate the parting of the ways aren’t taken seriously.

Only the North Koreans can bring us together with their indiscriminately destructive missiles. Or will the East Coasters consider this a problem for the West Coasters to deal with?

 

04/1/13

The Superlative Horse

In Lieh Tzu, chapter 7, we read the famous passage:

Duke Mu of Chin said to Po Lo: “You are now advanced in years. Is there any member of your family whom I could employ to look for horses in your stead?” Po Lo replied: “A good horse can be picked out by its general build and appearance. But the superlative horse — one that raises no dust and leaves no tracks — is something evanescent and fleeting, elusive as thin air. The talents of my sons lie on a lower plane altogether; they can tell a good horse when they see one, but they cannot tell a superlative horse. I have a friend, however, one Chiu-fang Kao, a hawker of fuel and vegetables, who in things appertaining to horses is nowise my inferior. Pray see him.” Duke Mu did so, and subsequently dispatched him on the quest for a steed. Three months later, he returned with the news that he had found one. “It is now in Shach’iu” he added. “What kind of a horse is it?” asked the Duke. “Oh, it is a dun-colored mare,” was the reply. However, someone being sent to fetch it, the animal turned out to be a coal-black stallion! Much displeased, the Duke sent for Po Lo. “That friend of yours,” he said, “whom I commissioned to look for a horse, has made a fine mess of it. Why, he cannot even distinguish a beast’s color or sex! What on earth can he know about horses?” Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. “Has he really got as far as that?” he cried. “Ah, then he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses.” When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal.

The late J.D. Salinger liked this passage so much that he appropriated it, in its entirety and word-for-word, from the 1912 translation by Lionel Giles, for his novella, “Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters.”

But to me it brings to mind the dangers of embarking along Kao’s path. It is possible to conceive of a generation trained to detect and track down superlative horses, ignoring the accidents of sex or color. With the death of Duke Mu, the rationale for the superlative horse goes away; perhaps there are now a few cars or motorcycles. And all people now want are horses qua horses — brown ones, female ones, strong ones — which the seekers of superlative horses are incapable of detecting, distinguishing, or delivering. Instead of Kao’s talent being the path, as the passage implies, to preferment, it is a path back to his origins, as a hawker of fuel and vegetables.

03/26/13

Qui aime bien, châtie bien

This week a piece by Emily Eakins on the New York Review blog discusses a new biography of Jacques Derrida by Benoît Peeters, the gist of which, according to the blog (I haven’t read the book), is that Derrida’s experience of being excluded from the French university system accounts for deconstruction, as a kind of philosophical idiom of the rejected remainder that keeps on coming back. A nice idea, but it isn’t framed in terms that fit the France of Derrida’s time (roughly 1950-2000). Derrida spent most of his career at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, not in any of the French universities. But this was no rustication. Normale Sup’ is one of the grandes écoles, the establishments that are the hardest to get into (entrance is by a daunting written and oral exam) and that, like the US Ivy League, give students a professional network and a guaranteed first good posting. (In this last respect, actually better than the Ivies.) The University, by contrast, admits a far wider range of students– not quite open admissions, but the gate is vastly wider than for ENS, Polytechnique, ENA and the like. Imagine the ENS as Swarthmore and the Sorbonne as CUNY; not exactly right, but it’s a start. After the student uprisings of May 1968, university reforms enlarged the enrollment but didn’t enlarge the budgets proportionately, with the expectable results: huge classes, apathetic students, many people getting stuck halfway. So being “excluded” from the university and parked on the rue d’Ulm was far from a bad thing.

The ENS curriculum (I sat in on Derrida’s courses and attended his seminar for two years there in the early 80s) was flexible and meant to guide students’ own research. Part of the program was set every year by the ministry of education, which accounts for some of the breadth of Derrida’s writing; he couldn’t just specialize in Husserl, but might have to teach Epictetus one year, Spinoza the next. Eakins says that his position didn’t allow Derrida to have doctoral students until he moved to the EHESS in 1984. This may be strictly true (the ENS does not confer the Ph.D) but gives a misleading impression, as all the people I knew from the seminar, many of them foreigners like me, were on or about to be on the path to a dissertation.

Likewise, the talk about Derrida’s marginality in France is an exaggeration. His books weren’t published by the ostensible “top” firm of Gallimard, but by Minuit, Seuil, and Galilée. To be selected by Jérôme Lindon, the heroic head of Minuit, was to be in the best possible company: Beckett, Blanchot, Camus, Genet. Le Seuil was the house of Barthes, among so many others. At Galilée he was at the center of the editorial team. If ever Derrida’s works come out in a Pléiade edition (they deserve to, for their virtuosic literary quality), that nec plus ultra of canonization, fragrant format of Proust, Mallarmé and Baudelaire, I’ll be surprised, but not shocked.

I doubt his picture appeared in the paper one-hundredth as many times as, say, Jean-Paul Sartre’s or our contemporary Michel Onfray’s. But he didn’t need that. He was demanding, he was no teddy bear as a teacher (I remember going to see him at office hours one day and hearing him complain to someone over the phone about what a pain in the ass it was to hold office hours), many people thought he was a nihilist or a hooligan, but enough people took him seriously and stared throughout his two-hour presentations like wildcats intent on prey that I would say, speaking from the outside of course, that life was good to him.

03/17/13

Thermocline

“A thermocline (sometimes metalimnion) is a thin but distinct layer in a large body of fluid (e.g. water, such as an ocean or lake, or air, such as an atmosphere) in which temperature changes more rapidly with depth than it does in the layers above or below. In the ocean, the thermocline may be thought of as an invisible blanket which separates the upper mixed layer from the calm deep water below.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermocline

I like to think of an octopus at night, reaching out when it gets chilly and arm by arm by arm by arm cuddling his invisible blanket around himself.

03/11/13

Antipodean Amities

Looking for something else in the library stacks, I came across Edouard Claparède – Hélène Antipoff, Correspondance 1914-1940 (ed. Martine Ruchat; Florence: Olschki, 2010). Claparède was a well-known psychologist in his day, founder of the Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau (a pedagogy research center in Geneva) and author of some studies of synaesthesia that everybody interested in sense perception should read. His family was connected with the Saussures and other august Genevan folk; the very last thing Ferdinand de Saussure ever wrote was a card regretting that he couldn’t attend a reception at the house of Claparède’s brother René.

Hélène Antipoff, the daughter of a Russian general, came to Geneva to study child psychology in 1912. After the revolution of 1917 her family was more or less destitute. She went back and taught in Petrograd until 1924, then was named Claparède’s assistant in Geneva; married a Spanish count, but dropped him after a few years and returned to Geneva; continued to have visa problems and finally emigrated with her son to Brazil in 1929. There she founded a pedagogical institute that still exists, at Belo Horizonte.

Adventurous people, Claparède from an extremely secure position in life, “Antip” from an extremely insecure one, they kept up an admirably vivid and affectionate correspondence, “professional” only in all but the boring senses of the word.