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?



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.


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.



“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.


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.


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


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.


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)

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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.)


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!


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.



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.


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


When Beautiful Dreams are Bad Dreams

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.


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.


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.