03/7/13

The Problem With Recognition

Hegel, as you know, started his account of social life with the struggle between master and slave. The master’s dependency on the slave meant that ultimately the slave was stronger. Alexandre Kojève (born Kojevnikoff) read this struggle as a combat for recognition, in which only humans could engage. Need a definition of “the human”? Recognition makes us human. At the ends of the spectrum of which ordinary human consciousness occupied the central band, you had pre-human animality (mere struggle for resources) and post-human dandyism (purely aesthetic competition, with no material stakes).

This always seemed to me a heretical revision of the Marxist-materialist account of society. But an immensely successful one. Napoleon used to marvel at how he could make men brave death for the sake of little plaques of metal tied to bright ribbons. By choosing to translate economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy into the common currency of recognition, Kojève launched a lot of ships, including a certain Lacanian armada and multiculturalism in its Charles-Taylorish version.

But there’s a problem with recognition: it works all too well.  Continue reading

03/7/13

Things My Great-Grandmother Used to Say

“That was funny the first time. (If then.)”

“It’s the thought that counts, but you could have thought a little harder.”

“This is Do-As-You-Please House.”

“From when you rock in your cradle till you ride in your hearse, / Things will never get better but they can get worse.”

Mabel Alcocke Norwood died five years before I was born, but it’s an index of immortality that I’m still repeating things she said.

03/6/13

Debatable Propositions in a Book I Otherwise Thought Important

If Bildung comprises a reactionary alternative to revolution, it shares this pacific spirit with modern human rights law. The French declaration of rights similarly articulated, after the event, how the revolution could have been avoided, and how future revolutions might be avoided through the reproductive mechanics of popular sovereignty. Although they emerged from the context of revolution, both human rights law and the Bildungsroman are reformist, rather than revolutionary… both human rights law and the Bildungsroman project individualized narratives of self-determination as cultural alternatives to the eruptive political act of mass revolt…

Both human rights and the Bildungsroman are tendentially conservative of prevailing social formations. Plotting novelistic and social evolution as an alternative to civil and political revolution, the idealist Bildungsroman narrates the normative constitution of the modern rights subject…. What emerges from the process is a socially contingent personality imagined to prevent certain antiestablishment collective and collectivizing revolutionary actions.

(Joseph R. Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc., pp. 115, 135, 136)

Continue reading

03/6/13

Not If You Do It Right

A bad antithesis in an article from last summer, on human rights as a topic of humanities teaching:

In the college curriculum, works of art are treated as objects to be studied in quiet places or consumed at leisure, but in a course on human rights, they assume a kind of urgency and immediacy that is not altogether aesthetic, as forms of witnessing, instruments for conveying in pictorial or narrative form the human realities associated with such abstract issues as dignity, the value of individual existence, and justice. Philosophy, religion, and history become in the context of human rights not just academic fields but distinct ways of thinking through real political, social, and moral issues. (Geoffrey Galt Harpham, “Human Rights in the Humanities“)

So without “the context of human rights,” “philosophy, religion and history” were not “ways of thinking through real political, social and moral issues”? News to me. I am skeptical of this before-and-after scenario, and also of the taken-for-granted definition of the “aesthetic.” Certainly dull, indifferent or lazy teaching presents works of art without any “urgency.” But people who can’t make works of art speak should find something else to do: students, you have a choice, desert their classes! And let’s recall that even the people generally derided as aesthetes– Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Viktor Shklovsky– had an agenda. A social agenda, since it affected other human beings and proposed a different organization of the world we inhabit and wrangle over.

If the point is that the phrase “human rights” magically confers moral seriousness on whatever it touches, I propose calling it the new verbal pixie dust. (Cf. “neuroscience,” among other no-knock additives.)

03/1/13

Pedaling Through the Gloom

I like things that work with pedals. So naturally I would be drawn to these old-timey bomb shelters with foot-powered ventilation systems. Low Tech and No Tech, two blogs locked in infinite dialectical regress (oh, if we could just attach a transmission belt to that feedback loop!), will help you think about what to do when personal autonomy is no longer an ideal, but a necessity. Let’s see some leg motion now!

02/28/13

Who’s Afraid of China?

I’ll be giving a keyonte at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s first annual Asian Studies Undergraduate Research Conference, title “Who’s Afraid of China?” One of the pleasures of writing the talk was the opportunity to go back to these sentences, which I wrote in 2002, whose context was the shift caused by 9/11, in which we went from potentially being enemies of China (you’ll remember the Belgrade embassy bombing of 1999 and the spy plane controversy of 2001) to being allies in the war on Muslim terror.

The insistence on Chineseness as a particularly odd combination of ancient past and scientific future has clearly demonstrated its ability to resurface when needed. Should the geopolitics change again, we will find ourselves right back in the middle of more “coming conflict” literature, perhaps this time forced to work against it in the face of events that will make its predictions seem all the more prescient.

I don’t make predictions much, but this one has come delightfully and perfectly true, so I feel obliged to brag about it. Of course, no one since 1600 would have ever lost money betting on the eventual appearance of anti-Chinese Yellow Perilist sentiment, which will make my back-patting fairly mild.

02/27/13

Dixit

Said Talleyrand: “Quand je me considère, je me désole. Quand je me compare, je me console.”
Somehow this translates better into classical Chinese than into English: 省己則困,方人則安。(First draft, correction by Gentle Reader barusk.)  But the race is on for a decent English rendering.

02/20/13

Scarcity Thinking in the Attention Economy

Talking with my class the other day about Franco Moretti’s famous “Conjectures on World Literature” (a must-read and excellent discussion stimulant), I was led once more to wonder why there hadn’t been more of a scuffle in the knowledge factory over, not the idea of “distant reading” itself (for on that, everybody seems to have lined up and had their say), but the way the necessity of distant reading was put to us. I have always felt that there was something wrong with the introduction of the problem, and the fact that nobody seems to have been scandalized may mean that nobody took it seriously or may mean a capitulation. If the latter, then I want the world to know that there is still one defender of the castle, waving a blunt butter knife against all comers.

Moretti presents the necessity for getting out of the “close reading” business thus:

Continue reading

02/12/13

When Beautiful Dreams are Bad Dreams


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Working my way through Conor Friedersdorf’s collection of 2012’s best nonfiction, I have come across a piece by Joshua Foer on a man named John Quijada, who has invented a language, Ithkuil, that attempts to fulfill the age-old dream of a perfect language.

At one point Foer describes what happened after Quijada read Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By:

For Quijada, this was a revelation. He imagined that Ithkuil might be able to do what Lakoff and Johnson said natural languages could not: force its speakers to precisely identify what they mean to say. No hemming, no hawing, no hiding true meaning behind jargon and metaphor. By requiring speakers to carefully consider the meaning of their words, he hoped that his analytical language would force many of the subterranean quirks of human cognition to the surface, and free people from the bugs that infect their thinking.

“As time went on, my goal began changing,” he told me. “It was no longer about creating a mishmash of cool linguistic features. I started getting all these ideas to make language work more efficiently. I thought, Why don’t I just create a means of finishing what all natural languages were unable to finish?

The piece is fascinating (though Foer’s prose is only really average, if by “average” you’ll allow me to refer to the general high quality of New Yorker prose). But it does go to show that dreaming big almost always means dreaming crazy. Quijada’s story is wonderful, and Foer includes just enough of the history of invented languages (you can get more, and have more fun, reading Arika Okrent’s book) to give the whole thing context.

Some flavor of both the lovely, bold, joyful craziness of it all and the desperate grasping for control that accompanies it can be gathered from these two paragraphs, which succeed one another immediately and appear three-quarters of the way through the piece:

He opened a closet and pulled out a plastic tub filled with reams of graph paper documenting early versions of the Ithkuil script and twenty-year-old sentence conjugations handwritten in marker on a mishmash of folded notepads. “I worked on this in fits and starts,” he said, looking at the mass of documents. “It was very much dependent on whether I was dating anyone at the time. This isn’t exactly something you discuss on a first or second date.”

Human interactions are governed by a set of implicit codes that can sometimes seem frustratingly opaque, and whose misreading can quickly put you on the outside looking in. Irony, metaphor, ambiguity: these are the ingenious instruments that allow us to mean more than we say. But in Ithkuil ambiguity is quashed in the interest of making all that is implicit explicit. An ironic statement is tagged with the verbal affix ’kçç. Hyperbolic statements are inflected by the letter ’m.

02/11/13

Air pollution in China: alpha/omega?

Useful and interesting discussion at China File on “airpocalypse now.”

Quote from Alex Wang to set up the discussion:

My own view is that China’s tipping point, in a sense, already arrived a few years ago. But the official response has been wholly inadequate to the task. Fundamental weaknesses in the way that China has approached its environmental protection efforts mean that the environmental crisis has continued to run amok.

Put all this in the “why I’m down on China” file, whose contents explain why my family will not be spending my 2013-14 sabbatical there.

02/11/13

Multigenerational social mobility

…is apparently less fluid than we tend to think. A really useful piece from the Economist updates us with the latest research from a variety of social scientists, and also–incredibly usefully–includes links to all the research it cites.

Money quote:

A second method relies on the chance overrepresentation of rare surnames in high- or low-status groups at some point in the past. If very few Britons are called Micklethwait, for example, and people with that name were disproportionately wealthy in 1800, then you can gauge long-run mobility by studying how long it takes the Micklethwait name to lose its wealth-predicting power. In a paper written by Mr Clark and Neil Cummins of Queens College, City University of New York, the authors use data from probate records of 19th-century estates to classify rare surnames into different wealth categories. They then use similar data to see how common each surname is in these categories in subsequent years. Again, some 70-80% of economic advantage seems to be transmitted from generation to generation.

It should by the way be mandatory for articles in newspapers and magazines published online to include links to the scientific papers to which they refer.

02/6/13

To Thine Own Self Be True

The Faculty Senate of the University of Düsseldorf has retracted the Ph.D (Education) awarded in 1980 to Annette Schavan, currently Minister of Education in the German government, contending that her dissertation was not original work. This is the second time a minister in Angela Merkel’s government has been found to have received a Ph.D, and to some extent built a career, on shoddy scholarship. But this time it’s the Minister of Education, who ought to have taken education seriously, back in the days when she was purportedly making a contribution to knowledge rather than just administering it!

Some details about the charges against Frau Schavan are given here. Die Zeit doesn’t go so far as to consider a motive established, but it does note that a large part of the “dissertation” consisted of passages recopied from existing secondary works, not always footnoted. The Faculty was sterner, according to the FAZ:

Die Häufung und Konstruktion wörtlicher Übernahmen, auch die Nichterwähnung von Literaturtiteln in Fußnoten oder sogar im Literaturverzeichnis hätten nach Überzeugung des Fakultätsrats das Gesamtbild ergeben, „dass die damalige Doktorandin systematisch und vorsätzlich über die gesamte Dissertation verteilt gedankliche Leistungen vorgab, die sie in Wirklichkeit nicht selbst erbracht hatte“, heißt es in der Begründung.

In my opinion the Faculty should give itself a slap or two too, for having accepted it in the first place. They should have known that the kind of person who turns in a collage-dissertation is bound to go far– farther in any case than the poor schmucks who think, analyze, and build.

And the best part? The dissertation is entitled “Character and Conscience: Studies on the Preconditions, Necessity and Requirements of Contemporary Moral Education” (Person und Gewissen: Studien zu Voraussetzungen, Notwendigkeit und Erfordernissen heutiger Gewissensbildung).

02/4/13

Best nonfiction of 2012

Per Conor Friedersdorf, who is not my favorite political writer, but still: a list of 102 very good to excellent nonfiction pieces for the year.

I’ll be reading through them when I can (though not this week!) but for now here’s a link to Cory Doctorow’s excellent piece on the future of computing. Opening paragraphs:

General-purpose computers are astounding. They’re so astounding that our society still struggles to come to grips with them, what they’re for, how to accommodate them, and how to cope with them. This brings us back to something you might be sick of reading about: copyright.

But bear with me, because this is about something more important. The shape of the copyright wars clues us into an upcoming fight over the destiny of the general-purpose computer itself.

02/1/13

Liberation Philology II

The incomparable comparison: “Ever since the fifteenth century the sciences having for their object the human intellect and its works have made no discovery to be compared to that which has revealed to us in India an intellectual world of marvellous wealth, variety and depth, in a word, another Europe. If we review our most settled ideas in comparative literature, in linguistic knowledge, in ethnography, in criticism we shall find them stamped and modified by this grand and capital discovery.” Ernest Renan, The Future of Science, p. 127.

“… true psychology would consist above all in the history of literatures…. I am under the impression that the comparative study of the different literatures has afforded me a much wider idea of human nature than that generally conceived. No doubt there is a good deal that is universal… But this universality is not where we believe it to be…” (Ibid., p. 163. The Renan of 1890 chides the Renan of 1848 for lacking “a sufficiently clear perception of the inequality of races,” a dubious acquisition of the later nineteenth century: see p. xix.)

“… when China, Judaea, Egypt shall have been restored to us in their primeval aspects, when we shall have finally arrived at the perfect understanding of the whole of human development [,] [t]hen and only then the reign of criticism will be inaugurated. For criticism will only proceed with perfect surety when the field of universal comparison shall be thrown open to it. Comparison is the great instrument of criticism.” (Ibid., p. 277.)

 

01/29/13

Imagining a New University

When I was younger I used to pass long car rides from home to college (7 hours, much of it on the PA turnpike) by doing two things (well, three if you count the constant masturbation, but who does?): narrating imaginary golf tournaments to myself (why? I have no idea… I’ve never actually played golf) and imagining the structure of a new university, to be funded by me after I won some enormous lottery jackpot.

(Reader, you are forgiven if, after reading this list, you said to yourself, “so, I guess really just one thing after all.”)

That is why I was delighted to read Lawrence Weschler’s piece imagining a new university in Public Books, which you should also go read. Here’s his vision for the core curriculum:

Hence the core, to be titled Play/Ground—a yearlong course that would take up at least half of the students’ (and the participating faculty’s) workload that first year. Every year, twelve members of the faculty would be peeled off to run the core (a different twelve each year, in a general four-year rotation), chosen to reflect the widest possible range of disciplines: a musicologist, say, and a physicist, a political theorist, a climatologist, a classicist, a microbiologist, a historian of Islam, a sculptor, an information scientist, an economist, and so forth. All the students and faculty in the core would gather together in a large lecture hall every Monday morning for a sequence of three-week minicourses offered, one after the next in turn, by each of the participating faculty, in which said teacher (the musicologist for three weeks, and then the physicist, the political theorist, and so forth) would be expected to take the class on a concentrated tour of one aspect or issue or controversy in their discipline. For the rest of the week, to further explore themes raised by that three-week series of lectures (and then the next and then the next), the class would be broken up into twelve seminars of ten to twelve students, each led by one of the participating faculty (groupings that would meet two or three times a week and stay together through the entire year). Key here would be the fact that in most cases, the faculty leader wouldn’t necessarily be any more conversant with the topic in question than his or her charges: he or she would just have a better sense of how to use the library, how to read, how to hone questions, et cetera. (Though one might imagine a parallel seminar in which the participating faculty themselves would meet on a weekly basis to receive added instruction and compare notes on how the course was proceeding.)

 

 

01/29/13

Meurdocque or Meurdochnichoff?

Le Monde reports that a handful of far-right personalities are on the way to striking a bargain with moneyed Russian ultranationalists to create a conservative TV channel in France– Fox News à la française, if you can imagine it. I’ve long felt that one of the reasons France feels like a sane country is that they don’t have Murdochified media. Plenty of gutter press outlets of course, but none yet with the ambitions, the money and the ruthlessness of News Corp.

I hope the clowning of Gérard Depardieu, trading his birthright for a mess of tax cuts, warns people off letting this happen.

But this is an example of the pseudo-democratization that goes around: manipulation of mobs around a handful of hot-button issues, buying off of the press and the parliaments, the assertion that “you have a right to your opinion (even if it’s uninformed and self-undermining)”– in short, Tea Party politics; basically, a set of techniques invented for getting around the institutions that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought would make rational representative politics possible.

Eventually, this sort of thing makes democracies into “démocratures,” dictatorships with a thin front of democratic process. I owe this word to an editorial in the Nouvel Observateur, but it seems to go back at least as far as a 1992 book by Max Liniger-Gourmaz. The problem with the Nouvel Obs piece, written to warn decision-makers not to take at face value the pretensions of Russia, China, etc., to be democracies, was that it seemed to proceed from the assurance that “we”– members of the European Union or NATO– are self-evidently not part of the democrature zone. But don’t kid yourself, democrature is a constant danger and possibility. After all, in this “great democracy” we weren’t that many votes away from it last November.