Nominalism in extremis

These days bring back a memory of the Reagan years, an interval most of which I spent out of the country, disgusted by the beginnings of the legitimation of waste, brutality and greed that have become our new normal. A newspaper at the time reported that in anticipation of an all-out nuclear attack a new airborne command center had just been ordered for the White House: a Boeing jumbo jet with special transmission capacities, hardened against radiation, with room aboard for the President and a few dozen of his close collaborators. On the sides of this expensive new plane were painted the words, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. It immediately occurred to me that in the event of its use, the meaning of those words would no longer be, as it usually is, “This airplane represents (belongs to and bears the livery of) that federation of fifty states and three hundred million individuals that goes by the name of ‘The United States of America’”; rather it would be “The United States of America,” or all that would be left of them. 

I’m usually no enemy of nominalism, but wouldn’t like it to prevail on these terms.


Blank space on the map

Xavier Briffault, La fabrique de la dépression (The manufacture of depression; Paris: Armand Colin, 2010), is a useful book. It compensates for the individualism of DSM-style psychological symptomatology by devoting chapters to the social conditions that contribute to people experiencing depression; on the other end, it lays out evidence of the bio-chemical underpinnings of the thing. Both the social and the chemical angle bring relief from the self and from the insistence on thought reform, what I might call the orthopedic bias of the psychiatric trade. But here’s something one can’t help noticing in Briffault’s chapter on personality disorders. It includes a table pointing to an 80% lifetime prevalence of depression among people with a diagnosis of avoidant personality disorder — the highest rate of prevalence, the runner-up being borderline personality disorder with 61%. You might think, then, that a book entitled “the manufacture of depression” would spill some ink on those unfortunate people cursed with a Cluster C avoidant makeup. But no! Briffault goes into a detailed discussion of the more colorful borderline and bipolar patients, forgetting completely the population with the highest prevalence. A keyword search shows a similar feast-vs.-famine pattern in psychological research generally. Is Avoidant Personality Disorder simply not interesting, or does its symptomatology too closely track that of depression in general? Or have psychologists figured out that the avoidant aren’t going to make a big fuss if they’re ignored, but will just shrink back into the curtains? I wonder why the experts are so quick to avoid the avoidant.


It’s Out and there’s something wrong with it

I’m happy to announce the appearance of a new book by me, Are We Comparing Yet? The publisher has thoughtfully made it available in Open Access digital form.

I’m unhappy to announce that a sentence in a footnote, which I had hoped would be a moment of pleasant recognition for somebody, was erroneous. On p. 107, footnote 15, please correct “In 1990, the Moscow high schools” to “In 1988, some Moscow high schools.” The fuller story to which I referred (through memory’s fog) may be found here.

Mea culpa.


Telling the sheep from the goats

The New Yorker recently ran an excerpt from an intellectual biography of Clarence Thomas. Near the top is this set of claims:

By consensus, Thomas is the most conservative member of the Court. So it’s surprising that the central theme of his jurisprudence is race. 

Why is it “surprising” that it should be so? When I read that sentence, it became obvious to me what presuppositions the author was working with: that the people who talk about race do so in order to complain about or repair the injustices inflicted by the majority on minorities. Thus to speak about “race” is implicitly to advocate for oppressed people, and to deny the category is to affirm the existing order. In other words, it is “surprising” only if all the people you know are SJWs within an affirmative-action context. That actually isn’t how the category of “race” operates in Thomas’s story, and the lesson might be, rather, that it is utterly unsurprising that a man obsessed with the mission of keeping the races separate is also a “conservative” by many other measures. Indeed, you don’t have to scratch a conservative very hard to get down to a racial ideology, whether that conservative goes around in a black or white skin, in a blue collar or a black robe, whether they natter on about hard currency or the missile gap or the graffiti on the subways.

Continue reading

This American Life

I wrote this in 2015, a year after returning to the U.S. I think it’s about time to let it air.

This American Life

After eleven years of living abroad, the early days of repatriation are mostly spent in panic and sometimes rage as we try to put our lives back together in this place I think I know, yet discover I don’t. I mix up streets, get the timing and grammar of driving wrong, become infuriated with customer service which, by Korean standards, is sloppy, slow, and rude. The customs agent upon arrival at SFO yells at me for “wasting his time” because I stop to wait for my eldest child, who has become separated from us by another group of travelers. Bank accounts, school registrations, vaccination records must all be translated, approved, stamped, filed, lost, found, re-approved, re-filed. By the time I get to T-mobile on a sunny summer day a few months into our American Life Reboot, I’m already in a foul mood from spending two hours at Bank of America trying to open a safe deposit box. The representatives at BofA are sweet but what Koreans would call “FM” or “field manual”: people who can only execute tasks step-by-step, with seemingly no sense of the big picture, or what they can do to speed the process.

T-Mobile is just on the other side of El Camino Real, the flat main artery lined with strip malls that connects this series of towns. I’m no longer used to driving and I’m nervous, weaving through a parking lot, making a U-turn, finding another parking spot. The sidewalks are bare. No one even loiters to smoke anymore.

The woman working at T-Mobile is a member of the second American Customer Service Type: the kind that, like the SFO Customs agent, thinks she’s above this work and acts aggravated to be called upon to do her job. She sighs with her whole body as I enter, and busies herself with the computer, the message “I am so over this” practically tattooed on her forehead. She’s an older woman, with a lined face, heavyset, skin neither white nor black; she looks out of place among the neon pink decor of the store and the large flat screen TV flashing images of young people, either very white or very black, living their hipster, T-Mobile-enhanced lives to a soundtrack of upbeat pop music and laughter. No one in this store looks like that.

As I approach she barely looks at me, as if I can be ignored into going away. I tell my issue and say that I’ve already been in here twice to deal with the same problem. She asks me who I talked to.

“Melissa, I think.”

“Oh, the Asian girl?” she says, her voice hard, definitive, commanding.

“I don’t know, maybe she’s half-Asian?”

“No, she looks completely Asian,” she informs me, and turns to the computer.

I hate that she’s so certain. Despite having two Chinese parents, I look physically ambiguous; even my own relatives make jokes about the milk man. I have double eyelids, dark brown hair, a rather Roman nose. Complete strangers tell me that I must be mistaken about my genetic heritage. You must have some white blood in you, they say. Or they make wild guesses about where I’m from: the South of France, India, South America.

The store feels very quiet to me. Her unhappy, dismissive movements feel personal and threatening.

“Do I look Asian?” I ask.

“No, you don’t look Asian at all.”

“But I am Asian. Completely Asian.”

At that she seems to understand that I am angry. Her movements become slow and tentative. She fixes my billing issues, yelling at someone over the phone on my behalf.

By the time I leave we have apologized to each other. Me, for “being touchy about race” and her, saying, “I’m a minority too, I should be more careful.” But I am shaking as I leave, and for the rest of the day I tread carefully.

I must have been seven or eight years old, wandering away from my parents and drooling brothers on the subway platform. I overheard others make ching chong jokes about them, not realizing that I was part of the same family. This is what I remember about childhood: always attending to how my family looked from the outside and being aware of their points of vulnerability. And all the ways I felt ashamed of them. And all the ways I felt protective of them.

3 pm. Peet’s Coffee, across from Palo Alto High. A young African-American boy walks in, wearing blindingly white, neatly knotted Converse high tops with puffy camouflage pants and a flowery baseball cap. The whole outfit says, I’m down with my people but I’m not a gangsta. I feel for this kid and also admire him: with this outfit he acknowledges, I know what you all are thinking when you see a black man in this town, but you don’t know shit about me.
This is my favorite part about being back in America: being able to read the subtle nuances of gesture, language, and fashion choice. I know what this boy means by his outfit (or I think I know), the way I know what the young blonde woman with the ponytail means when she wears her tight gray skirt-suit and large brown horn-rimmed glasses. It’s a sexy secretary look, one which says, don’t think I’m dumb because I’m blonde, but did you notice how beautiful I am? This is a local dialect of story-character-culture associations that you can only understand if you’ve lived in a place for a long time and are familiar with the rich tapestry of identities, references, jokes, languages.

Hilton Als’s book White Girls captures the complexity, the multiple dialects, the push and pull of race in America. It’s a sprawling, heterogeneous collection that resists categorization, moving between fiction, non-fiction, biography, auto-biography, and references to popular culture, even in the same sentence. It is a book about categories, a book which embraces categories of race and gender and sexuality while simultaneously disrupting them. If I had to pick one central tension in the book, it would be this: a man of color in America is always marked, always visible, always available to be read with the logic of certain cultural narratives. For instance, “Upon moving in, our neighbors phoned the police. It must have looked strange: two colored gentlemen moving furniture into a house.” Like Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric, White Girls records the way “a colored body is subject to all these narratives” and “caught between a state of invisibility and hyper-visibility.”

Als has said that chose the title White Girls partially as a response to Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; the books are marked by race from the beginning. Als also has said that he chose the title because black models in fashion shows were always called “the black girls” while the white models were just models. White Girls names and foregrounds the ubiquitous and invisible. It also acknowledges the centrality of that figure in the public imagination, as the star of a film and the object of the consuming gaze: “…why is it that when he tells a movie story, or any kind of story at all, he tells it from the point of view of the eye and heart that is following the white girl in the tale?” White Girls (and other categories) are mirrors. Als records himself feeling envious of white girls in one moment, and hating the way they make him feel about himself, with his “not-Liz Taylor skin and crinkly pubes,” in the next, an example which brilliantly demonstrates the complex topography of categories of race, gender, and sexuality.

Als tries to carve out a place in the language for his own “I,” by finding himself a twin in SL, (“Sir or Lady”). Their private dialect references art, ideas, culture: “Ooogga booga. Wittgenstein. Mumbo jumbo oogga booga, too, Freud, Djuna Barnes, a hatchi! Mumbo lachiniki jumbo Ishmael Reed and Audrey Hepburn.” And isn’t this what the language of that boy in Peet’s outfit was? A reference to the uniform of the Homeboy, with a twist. This how we all talk: with cultural referents as points of navigation. Real Housewives, Starbucks, soccer moms, bleeding heart liberals, generation x-ers, etc.

As a black man, Als inherits one set of stories and expectations; as a gay man, another, some of which are mutually exclusive. Some might say, for instance, that a black man who is artistic, flamboyant, who watches old movies, who follows fashion, isn’t a black man at all. His multiple identities exist in opposition, rendering him an enigma, or worse, invisible.

The precariousness of Al’s own relationship to blackness allows him to recognize the way in which the desire to belong, to perform a particular identity, can become a cage. When Als writes about Richard Pryor, he describes a man whose portrait of blackness became a subject position. In “You and Whose Army?” the unnamed narrator (“Richard Pryor’s sister”) criticizes Pryor for always “performing some version of ‘blackness’” and “helping to formulate the audience’s expectations whenever they see a black face onscreen, or on a book jacket.”

Als’s work tells me that there is a power in being conflicted, there’s a power in teetering on that ragged edge between insider and outsider, in never being completely comfortable on either side of the line. Als reminds us that, white or black or other, identities are situational and complicated and always, always part of some restless, human sense of yearning for intimacy, for love, for understanding. “Standing above me and around me I see how we are all the same, that none of us are white women or black men; rather, we’re a series of mouths, and that every mouth needs filling: with something wet or dry, like love, or unfamiliar and savory, like love.” We are the same, yes, always looking for something to fill us, to feed us, to make us whole, and that process, like hunger, is constant, ongoing. And like appetites, it is always changing.

My friend reads this essay and says, “This isn’t about race. This is about your own insecurity.” I am so hurt by this I want to punch him. Of course it’s about race. I never got to have an identity without the consciousness of race.

My friend says, “Every time I open my mouth in America, it’s assumed that I fuck my sister and have toothless, illiterate relatives.”

I hear: I’m not allowed to talk about my silences, my shame, my wounds, my repudiations. But race is about all of us. We are all implicated by that story-telling gaze, that story-telling impulse, the compulsion to look at one another and say, I want to be like that person, and definitely not like that other person. Race is an inescapable part of the way we see, the way we feel, the way we read, the way we interpret. To deny that is to deny that we are all hurt by it. To deny that is to stop the conversation before it starts.

I was quite young when I began understanding the ching chong jokes. When I knew why people stared at us as we refueled in rural towns in South Carolina, on our way to Florida for vacation. I was quite young when I understood that a compliment on my “big eyes” was also a comment about the speaker’s own single-eyelids. As a child I thought of myself as a fake American, yet I was not Chinese either. No one would let me be Chinese even if I wanted to embrace that part of my identity. Not my parents, not my relatives, nor any random bystander, except the random icky white men who made remarks about the girl from Indochine. (I’ve seen the movie, and I look nothing like her.) In college, I went to one of the Asian-American group meetings and people looked me up and down and suggested I join the HAPAs. I was not even Asian enough to be Asian-American. I may not always be visibly Chinese, but that Chineseness is at stake for me even when it’s not at stake for anyone else.

As a child, Cantonese was a language of secrets. It was the language my parents spoke to each other when they were fighting or when they wanted to discuss my misdeeds.

My parents raised me in English, even though theirs was imperfect and limited. My mother came to this country when she was eleven, my dad at eighteen. There were always words they mispronounced. I learned much of my vocabulary through reading, which means that I also mispronounced sometimes, which I found humiliating.

My parents turned their gazes away from Asia and didn’t look back. I could not speak to my paternal grandmother, who spoke a dialect that even my mother didn’t understand. I knew little about China except that, in my mother’s words, it was dirty, corrupt, and dangerous. She used to describe waking up to the sound of cockroaches scurrying in Hong Kong. She was born on top of boxes of ammunition as her mother escaped on a train from the Japanese in 1944. She talked about China like she was trying to sell me America. But because she couldn’t speak for America she spoke for China instead, and the picture she painted was uniformly bad.

Although my parents were successful professionally, their silent dismissal of their own mother tongue and their pasts in China led me to associate that language and that place with dirt, corruption, and a sense of inferiority. I watched those around me and imitated the best I could. Small mistakes were devastating because I felt they exposed some essential unworthiness, some fundamental inferiority that I had inherited and could never pull myself out of or overcome; I could only hope to cover it up.

In college, Judith Butler’s theory of performance, Donna Haraway’s image of the cyborg, and a wider postmodern embrace of hyphenated identities, enabled me to embrace my life as neither-this-nor-that. Everybody, I began to see, was full of partial selves, performing one identity or another. Being able to recognize how we are all chameleons was empowering. I told myself that masculine or feminine, Chinese or American, heterosexual or homosexual, techie or fuzzy — these were just guideposts in identity play, that none of us needed to navigate in any fixed relationship to them.

The problem was that I unthinkingly steered away from those points associated with Chinese-ness, because of my fear of those silences in my life, and because of the shame I could not quite confront or eradicate.

I married into Asia. I didn’t choose my husband because he is Asian, but I’m sure part of what attracted me to him (besides his nice ass) was the fact that he’s such a confident FOB. He came to America when he was eighteen, the kind of person for whom everything comes effortlessly (top of the class, good athlete) and who doesn’t seem to worry about how others might see him. He doesn’t have that chip on his shoulder that so many Asian-Americans have. And because he is Korean, not Chinese, it was easy to give myself permission to learn his language and culture and not be constantly looking over my mental shoulder. Getting to know my husband’s culture and language was safer; not being Korean I felt free to stumble and fail and claim impunity. I needed to take the step of learning Korea and Korean before feeling confident enough to take on China and Chinese.

I went to Asia for so many reasons, but the driving one was to confront those great silences in my life, the ones that had to do with the Asian part of my identity, which I never felt I could own. Early in our marriage, my husband and I would go for dim sum in Ann Arbor and see little girls tell their aunties, “You’re so stupid. You can’t even talk.” I didn’t want my kids to grow up this way, never knowing their grandparents as fully fleshed out, social beings, who have a fuller wisdom that comes from being a participating member of society, from being in a place long enough that they know, with a sense of intimacy, the lay of the land and the people in it. I wanted my kids to have a limb in each culture, to be culturally nimble. I didn’t want my kids to grow up with an unspecific fear of all things Asian. I wanted to fill silences with stories.

So we went to Korea. To my husband’s national and cultural home. Not China.

In the first few years of my first residence in Seoul (2003-2008), I walked around acutely aware of my difference, feeling marked and watched and judged at every turn. My Foreign identity was at stake in everything I did. THEY were all watching me, using my actions to judge and understand Americans. It was irking to me and yet also blissfully clear: in Korea, my difference was precise and namable. I was trying to fit in, and probably making a lot of mistakes, but this was only a version of what I had already done in America. I could be open about it in Seoul, and people would compliment me on my effort and my ability.

The way I dressed shifted first. In those early years there was more of a uniform, very black and white, red lipstick, and more formal: suits and trousers. I stopped wearing jeans and tee-shirts; I began ironing things, having trousers taken in to the right length, putting on makeup. People began to take me for Korean from behind, but once they’d see my face they would laugh with embarrassment.

As my language ability improved, the attention shifted to the nuances of gesture and facial expression. I reined in my wild hands and my facial contortions.

Meanwhile, Korea changed. More and more people, especially in my neighborhood, were spending time abroad or sending their kids to live there. More and more people were getting plastic surgery, widening the range of “normal” looks. Fashion trends diversified; no longer did all the women seem to wear the same uniform. Korea as a whole became more nationalistic, more interested in itself, and less (though still) self-conscious about trying to catch up, culturally and economically, with other countries like the U.S. or Japan.

Over time I found myself dressing in a way that was difficult to locate — not like an American, exactly (you can spot the Americans a mile away) but neither like a typical Korean. I dress more formally than I do in the U.S. but with more of an androgynous style, not the feminine, romantic style that’s fashionable in Seoul right now. I am casual, but not American-sloppy-shlumpy. I keep my face neutral but I retain my fast walk. I became fluent enough that my speech didn’t mark me as a foreigner. I found that once I better understood the ways Koreans looked at one other, I could anticipate some of what they might see in me, and play with those expectations. I tuning the dials, being purposefully difficult to pinpoint. I look Asian enough that people were no longer sure if I was Korean or not, especially after hearing me talk.

But I also lived in a neighborhood, and Seoul is particularly neighborhoody. I felt comfortable because I had lived there for so long and people knew me. My comfort there bled into my life even in the rest of the city.

In Seoul, I can do what that boy in Peets did: that is, acknowledge the expectation of foreignness while deconstructing it. I can play with that sense of being visible and invisible, of being simultaneously insider and outsider.

After five years in Seoul, I spent two and a half years in Shanghai. By the time I got to China, I no longer felt such a sense of anxiety about my ancestral home. It was just another place, another opportunity to learn. My identity of tentative Chinese-American had been replaced by that of guerrilla anthropologist. For the first time in my life I felt a sense of control over the way I was seen and the way I presented myself and I found it enormously powerful. And I began to identify, not as Chinese-American nor as a Foreigner, but as a chameleon, a traveler, an adventurer. I had learned to delight in the sense of being between worlds. With teetering on the ragged edge between insider and outsider.

After China we went spent another three years in Seoul. One day while waiting for the subway, I saw a young American man studying the line map with confusion. I walked over and asked him if he needed any help. He turned and looked at me with surprise. “Your English is perfect!” I laughed and congratulated myself for becoming a chameleon.

It hadn’t occurred to me then how much his interpretation of me had to do with larger context, with his panic at being surrounded by strangers, or the fact that the default in that subway station was Yellow. It wasn’t just because I am an excellent mimic.

Nor did it occur to me, that day in T-Mobile, how much that woman’s whitening of me had to do with the fact that she was behind the counter and I was the customer, the Money. Our interpretation of race is woven into other assessments: of context, emotion, status, power.

7 pm. Back to School Night at the local Palo Alto middle school. I know the usual fashion tropes for these things: capri pants and sandals, perhaps a button-down shirt from Ann Taylor or Chico’s, that kind of middle-America casual style. A floral skirt and beaded bag for the hippie-inclined. Artistic types will wear funky glasses, short hair, and prominent, geometric jewelry. For the dads, there’s the Dad Casual look: khakis and a polo shirt. Or the look that says, “I’m a Guy”: shorts and a tee shirt. Some will come in suits. Some will come in engineer-wear: jeans and a tee shirt with a dot-com logo and light North Face jacket. Some of the large groups of Indian and Chinese parents will dress this way, and some will come more formally attired, in dresses and ironed slacks. I try to pick an outfit that hits none of these notes. Slacks, classic in navy blue, with visible, shiny side-zippers which make them subtly fashion-forward. A white button down shirt with tuxedo paneling in the front, another update on a classic. Everything I’m wearing I bought abroad, a way of marking myself among the Gap and Chicco set. I am not a member of the Professorville group, nor the aging Bay Area hippies, nor the tech nerd crowd, nor a recent immigrant, nor old White Palo Alto, nor a member of the more working class, mostly Hispanic families.

I’m at the elementary school all the time, meeting parents and teachers and kids face to face, helping my second child assimilate, making him play dates. But parents don’t have the same visibility at middle school, they are not able to perform the same greasing of the social wheels, so as I take my seat at Back to School Night I am hoping to make some connections with the other parents. But their eyes slide right over me. They seem to hone in on others similarly dressed, as if in some “my values are your values!” subconscious matching process. There are high-fives, there is loud laughter, reminiscing about soccer leagues and country clubs, and I sit silently, remembering what middle school is like. Middle school is like this. Years of invisibility, during a time of life when visibility is everything.

If there’s anything I learned from living abroad, it’s that when you get to a new place you have to put yourself out there. Find a community. So I tiger-mom my oldest son into doing football (a sport he’s never even seen) and volunteer to be Team Mom. I figure I can meet other parents and also spy on my son, who claims he doesn’t know how to talk to white people and won’t tell the names of any of the people with whom he eats lunch. (“I dunno. I just call them all ‘dude.’”)

At the games the parents gather in small groups. The African-American nanny by herself. One set of parents, whose hats, exposed butt cracks, and clothes suggest a different social class, sit separately. The WASP-y business-casual dads stand in a cluster of khaki pants. The moms with Lulumon pants and firm asses stand together. As Team Mom I feel I have permission to speak to them all, and they are all perfectly nice, and, I think, eager to speak with one another. But something holds them back — is it fear? lack of a common social language? or the lack of a common social habit?

I’ve been back in the U.S. for six months and I still can’t stop looking at the sky. So Hollywood blue, usually cloudless, surreal. I have almost forgotten the sound of rain. People walk around in their yoga pants, love handles on display, hair uncombed, tee shirts stained and ripped. Take me as I am, they seem to say, looking at one another in the street, in the cafe. You gotta problem with the way I look? With my weight, with my color, with my job? This is America, man, it’s a free country. You don’t get to judge me.

There is something self-congratulatory in the air, something boastfully modest, as people meet in cafes in their business casual attire, talking in loud voices about the next killer app or this or that VC funding. This is Silicon Valley, this is Stanford, this is the best country in the world, the best state in the country, and we live here. We believe in individuality, in equality, and that anyone can be anything. So why do we talk so loud? Why is there so much fear in our eyes? Why do we look around, to see who is watching? Behind cocky laughter we are looking out of the corners of our eyes, aware more than any other generation, maybe, that everything we wear and eat and enjoy is made from the blood and sweat of the global underclass, that with every step on the gas pedal we abuse the Earth. We are the Lucky People, and it’s all downhill from here.

I am lost. I spent eleven years in Asia to confront all those silences and that unspoken shame in my life. I thought I was done. Whole. Healed. Why is it so difficult to be back?

My son asks, “How can I be Asian and not look at all Asian?” I tell him, jokingly, “Welcome to my world.” His friends keep asking him, he insists. I tell him what I usually say, about how not all Asians look the same, that we are diverse and that the demographics of movement in Asia is complicated and therefore, so are the genetics.

He looks at me blankly. I tell him to say he’s been bitten by a radioactive spider.

I used to spend hours watching people in the streets and buses and subways in Seoul and Shanghai. Here, I go to cafes. The man sitting next to me at Starbucks is old and white, with thinning, gray, greasy hair. His canvas shoes are frayed, torn, and faded, as are his pants and button-down shirt. He looks eroded, like a stone left on the beach, and I think he must be homeless. But he carries a tall drink and a black laptop, which he uses to read the news and type emails. I find this happening in cafes and sidewalks all over town: I can’t tell whether someone is destitute or just a sloppy dresser. After living in places where the battles for status-recognition are so open, such an accepted part of life, it is strange to be Stateside, surrounded by shlumpily-dressed folks who might be dot com millionaires or homeless people. The more successful you are here, the more you struggle to disguise it.

Korea and China are full of restless hunger, in the throes of development, not just economically or socially but also psychologically. It is ok, in Asia, to be focused on money, to push your kids to have a better life, to thirst for a better house and better car — more so than it is in America – the competition for status, and the status-comparing, is done out in the open. I’m back in Seoul for a visit, and my mother-in-law scolds my father-in-law for trying to go to his doctor’s appointment in casual pants. “You’re meeting the doctor,” she says. “You need to dress for that!” He wears suit pants, a polo shirt, a sports jacket, and a beret. Aspiring to upward mobility requires putting all your cards on the table, acting the part.

Seoul’s signs declare, “The cultured citizen obeys the rules for taking a train,” “The road that one person cleaned is the road that ten people enjoy,” “The one light bulb I save fattens our country.” It’s a landscape of signage that expresses a restless hunger and a belief in progress. It’s impossible, dodging scooters in the sidewalk, bumping people in the subway, listening to the bells of trash collectors, watching security guards engineer sixty cars into a parking lot built when almost no one owned a car, to ignore that every day, things are changing. For many, it’s a feeling of being in the midst of incredible improvement. My husband’s childhood fantasy was to eat more than one banana. But for many people, these messages cultivate desperation and despair. You can’t opt out of the arms race in education, in money, in clothes. You cannot stand still in a place like Seoul. You can’t retreat. The signs place its audience within a narrative of progress and a sense of monolithic collectivity, for better or for worse.

I drive up and down El Camino Real, making trips to Costco, dropping kids at various athletic fields. A new Hilton is being constructed; what was here before? Patio World used to mark the turnoff to our old apartment; now it’s Barbecues Galore. Changes are slow, a replacement of one brand for another.

When I talk to the grocery store clerk, or the school janitor, or the woman selling tickets to some tourist attraction, like the woman from T-Mobile, they have that haughty, defensive, annoyed air. As if to say, I can disdain this dead end job even more than you can, or even before you get the chance. And to make up for the indignity of asking this person to do work in a job that garners little respect, I find myself doing what so many people around me do: speak to them with overly bright, effusive, compensatory gratitude. “Thank you soooo much! I really appreciate it.”

We believe in individuality. We believe that each person is special, that we each must be true to our selves. That makes it hard to assume the role of a customer service agent, or janitor, or house cleaner; the lines between identity and role are unclear. We believe in equality but not everyone has the same job or the same amount of money or the same lot in life. And we, as a nation, seem to be profoundly uncomfortable with that.

I stop at Safeway to use the bathroom. Someone in the stall pants, the weight of her body palpable from the sound of her pained movement. We avoid each other’s eyes as she exits, but I feel a cloud of anger around her. I think that she’s daring me to look. To judge. To condescend. 
 So many bodies in pain. So many fraught moments in this American Life. Were they always this way? Was I just better at pretending they didn’t exist?

I grew up with “Mississippi Burning,” and “Pretty in Pink.” “Mississippi Burning” gave me a taste for burning, righteous anger. Teenagers are black and white like that; teenagers have that desire to burn, to move the world. America, I thought, is the place where we fight the good fight. But where did I fit in, me neither black nor white, nor even really Asian?

“Pretty in Pink” (and its John Hughes-shaped cousins) were written along an insider/outsider dynamic: the upward movement of loser to popular kid, from ghetto to success, from small town to financial power. That dream of upward movement was a dream of individual escape from group dynamics, about overcoming origins. In America, we believe that anybody can become anything. But in that process of becoming, you have to leave your group identities behind and become something unique. Something uncategorizeable. You have to transcend.

“This essay is not about race,” my friend says again. “Appalachians and Italians,” he jokes. “The only people in America you can make fun of television and get away with it.” I hear this kind of declaration a lot from people who feel discarded or marginalized but don’t have the historical luxury to complain about it — conservatives, religious fundamentalists, rural Americans.

I walk through the streets, watch people in cafes, attend school meetings, and people’s smiles seem fragile. They look like I feel: lost, expecting to be put down, put in a box, dismissed. In the absence of psychic violence, I am unsure of my own edges in this place I once called home, but now feels less than comforting. It is easier to be angry. Anger is clean, anger clarifies. I cleave to the anger, to the sense of righteous indignation when it comes. But most of the time, it does not. Most of the time, I’m just waiting. I’m no longer sure what I want to be: a chameleon, a guerrilla anthropologist, a spy? Because I also want to be: Special with a Capital S. Unique. Me. As Rankine says, “In interactions with others you’re constantly waiting to see that they recognize that you’re a human being. That they can feel your heartbeat and you can feel theirs. And that together you will live—you will live together. The truce is that. You forgive all of these moments because you’re constantly waiting for the moment when you will be seen.”

America, you make me profoundly uncomfortable, and exhausted. America of reality TV and booty is the new black, Americans with their endless cries for attention, for recognition. As I move through the shopping malls and cafes and restaurants and school meetings I hear: I am me, I am special, look at me; and yet there is a fear behind that, the fear of being vain, of being haughty, of being uppity. We want it bestowed on us, the world to recognize it, while we bow our heads in modest affectation. (Except for Kanye West, maybe.) That is the battle of America: a battle for mediocrity. The promise of equality means that you cannot overstep your bounds. Do not sit here, do not presume. And yet we presume all the time, we wait in shadows for someone to overstep, so we can have that thrill of being able to say, you were wrong, I was right. This is a passive aggressive country, a place where you gain status points by waiting for someone else to make a mistake. Where we delight in the overthrow of the monarchies of popularity, and root for the underdog: that is democracy. That is the pleasure of this place, and its curse: you have to work for your labels, all the time. Nothing is irrevocable. Nothing is permanent.

Maybe you’re right, it’s not about race, I want to say to my friend. It’s about pain. It’s about the pain which blankets this place, under the blue sky, under the business casual. It’s about the discomfort I feel here, my Differences no longer so clear, now thrown back into the teenager self I was once, longing to have that clean sense of righteous anger, unable to express why I am so upset in this moment or the next, walking through a landscape in which relationships are full of smiles and tentative glances, where we are all afraid to offend and glad to be offended because it offers a temporary name and outlet for all those wounds.

It isn’t just about race. You cannot unname the race part of This American Life; you can’t erase those wounds. But they aren’t the only ones that exist, and it’s not only those who are clearly marked who have those wounds.


All of the Above

A dream the other night, traceable I think to a discussion I’d read on Metafilter, one of those absurdly Millennial Moments that the medium delivers.

I was sitting in a courtroom waiting to testify as an expert witness. It seemed that the accused had ignored a “MEN WORKING” sign and driven a car straight into a worker, who happened to be a woman. The lawyer for the defense was mounting the argument that the sign was contractual and did not include or imply women workers, therefore no offense had been committed. To hold otherwise was to identify women as men, an intolerable injustice to women and to men alike. I was expected to testify for the prosecution on the history of pronouns in various languages, demonstrating through the magic of philology that gender identification is not primordial to having existence as a person.

The worst of it is that when I woke up, I figured that a majority of the present Supreme Court would probably think that the defense’s sophistry was a pretty cool way to deny an injured person benefits and damages.


Deferred Maintenance

When I went to Yale in the early 1980s, I remember going to Geoffrey Hartman’s office hours one rainy day and seeing a bucket on his desk, receiving the regular drops from the ceiling. The 1890s neo-Gothic tower was showing its age. And we thought this was normal. Nobody complained. A sense of impending doom was widely shared, but the feeling wasn’t one of crisis or outrage; it was just the way things were. We entered New Haven through a cement-block tunnel that ended in a galvanized-metal shed because Metro-North had closed the Beaux-Arts station for indefinite repairs. The gym had squash courts, to be sure, but the idea that a college is supposed to be a spa or a cruise ship had not yet dawned in the rusty Northeast. Anyway, the college students were better treated than we were. The point of coming to Yale was not to be pampered but to be initiated into a way of thinking and seeing that admitted the nitty-gritty, the uninspiring, and the fact that it’s not all about you. One of our teachers had said:

The dynamics of the sublime mark the moment when the infinite is frozen into the materiality of stone, when no pathos, anxiety or sympathy is conceivable; it is, indeed, the moment of a-pathos, or apathy, the complete loss of the symbolic.

(Paul de Man, “Kant’s Materialism,” in Aesthetic Ideology)

And as we looked into the future, the loss of the symbolic seemed a good bet.

Technically correct rhetorical readings may be boring, monotonous, predictable and unpleasant, but they are irrefutable… consistently defective models of language’s inability to be a model language.

(“The Resistance to Theory”)

“Consistently defective” just about summarizes the world we entered when we took up residence in New Haven. We knew that there were other schools where the plumbing worked and the faculty entertained you. We just didn’t think that that was the way to face the apocalypse, the end of the book and the beginning of writing, late capitalism, the collapse of the Imaginary into the Real, or (choose your own adventure).

Many episodes later, here I am again confronting the consequences of deferred maintenance to house and body. The end of summer has brought us up to baseline, or so I permit myself to hope. The cracked flashing has been sealed, the water damage it caused (peeling surfaces and bulging woodwork) scraped, filled and repainted, the hinky plumbing has been repiped, the upstairs bathroom retiled, some circuits rewired. My hearing, disastrously defective in the upper registers, is now supplemented by a pair of sporty and expensive hearing aids. The second of two teeth I cracked by biting on the wrong things has received the titanium post for its implant. I wouldn’t exactly say that all’s right with the world, but the bucket is momentarily off Mr. Hartman’s desk, and my checking account is a good bit lighter. On to the next challenge, entropy be damned!


Said the Spider to the Fly

I don’t know if you’ve seen this opinion piece from the nether regions, but the NSA wants US business to develop its technology, build its infrastructure, and staff its projects. There is actually a compelling reason for this, which I will get to shortly. The given reason is that the clear and present dangers facing the intelligence community, and, by extension, the world, warrant it. These dangers also warrant weakening the Fourth Amendment in order to save it, a point of NSA argument which one could see coming a mile away.

Here is the actual reason the NSA wants US business to hand over its technology, infrastructure, and staff. It is one of the worst places to work in the tech industry. It couldn’t keep talent if it tripled its pay and brought in massage chairs and free dry cleaning. The word from my friends in Silicon Valley is that they are besieged by NSA workers longing for freedom (and higher pay). This means not just the hot young talent who can field offers from Facebook and Google, but the “lifers,” the people who crafted the MS-DOS exploits of the 1980s in hand-tuned 8086 assembler. They all want out. First of all, management has done for creative hacking what the TSA has done for air travel. They were stung by Snowden, so they are consumed by making sure the exact same thing never happens again. That means an environment of complete distrust by management, insertion of cumbersome steps into processes to make them “more secure,” and interrogations of harmless workers to make sure they feel the heat. I cannot think of a worse place for people who have to be supremely creative and imaginative. Second, I cannot imagine what the NSA is being asked to do under the Trump administration. I cannot see the bottom of it, and probably most of the remaining employees can’t, either.

So, the NSA wants US businesses to do its recruitment, training, and retention. This means that no one has to work at the NSA. They will work at the Big Five, or perhaps as defense contractors. But NSA HR, government pay scales, and the puppet masters themselves are not supposed to be visibly part of the deal. It’s the kinder, gentler way of getting to know everything about everybody; Facebook has collected this information from citizens voluntarily for more than a decade. As for the clear and present dangers, it’s between them and climate change. Simon and Garfunkel wrote, “When you’ve got to choose/Every way you look at this you lose.” Cold-War-style “We’ve got to keep up before they do to us what we want to do to them” has no traction compared to implacable climate change. By the time the NSA achieves its goal of total information hegemony, Fort Meade will be underwater.


Fall Cleaning

We’ve just purged our user database of bot/one-shot logins, and there have been quite a few of them. If you’re not an agent working for one of the nation-states we’ve crossed over the years, or a running dog of dictators, feel free to create a new login and comment.


And Yet, It Moves

National Weather Service
1325 East West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Dear Sir or Madam:

Your cowardice under fire from a tweet will make you the laughingstock of every downstream consumer of your data and products, many of whom have both your data and your algorithms. I daresay that you have also earned the derision of every doctoral program in meteorology in this country.

Subordinating empirical data to political dictates is never a good idea – look at the biologist Lysenko in the Soviet Union. There are people on this planet who have undergone the keenest hardship to maintain the integrity of scientific theories and information. The greatest example of this has to be the Pisan astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was forced to recant and spend the rest of his life imprisoned in his house because of his idea, derived from that of Copernicus, that the earth revolved around the sun. Privately, he did not recant, saying “Eppur si muove.” History does not make much of that Pope and his Inquisitors; it has made Galileo both a secular martyr and one of the first true scientists.

The next time you get a nastygram on Twitter, trust in your data and your algorithms, and forecast accordingly. I realize that you have spouses and children, and have to eat, but there are many jobs you can do, out of the sphere of the public trust, that will feed you adequately.

Remember Galileo!

Yours, jkcohen


One Word Theory

It should have surprised nobody that the “gay gene” doesn’t exist. I’m probably what might be considered a member of the control group, a heterosexual, cis-male individual with no particular fetishes, practicing the mid-century American model of serial monogamy, currently partnered, trauma history unremarkable, libido neither too low nor too high, still in procreative age — and I find sex extremely complicated, with at least four hundred little switches that must be turned on or off, together or in sequence, for the slightest sexual act or even frisson of interest to occur. (And that’s just on my side!) So how could there be one master switch to set somebody’s system on a definite path (one which branches infinitely anyway, like all other life paths)? The simple-mindedness of such assumptions reminds me of the bartending lady in The Blues Brothers, who, asked what kind of music is played in her club, answers, “Oh, we have both kinds — country and western.”

Something analogous happens in the world of humanistic studies, and it’s been annoying me for decades. This is the “one word” pattern of academic renown. Okay, one word or one phrase. People become famous for a three- or four-syllable expression that serves as synecdoche (or replacement) for their body of work. Laura Mulvey? “Male gaze.” Gayatri Spivak? “Subaltern.” (Actually that was Gramsci, but few remember.) Derrida? “Différance.” Tom Gunning? “Cinema of attractions.” Walter Benjamin? “Aura.” Jürgen Habermas? “Communicative rationality.” Edouard Glissant? “Relation.” Jacques Rancière? “Distribution of the sensible.” Alain Badiou? “Event.” Bruno Latour? “Actor-network theory.” Franco Moretti? “Distant reading.” And so on. It’s not that these bumper-sticker-sized labels are wrong — they can, after all, be discovered in the published writings of the authors they attach to — but that the word or phrase as unit of thought is static, unsubtle, makes people think that to utter the magic word is as good as following the path of argument, and that’s never true. Nonetheless, I see that people who are trying to make a reputation for themselves strive to coin a phrase or hit on a word that will do this magic for them. You want to be the man or woman who can be identified with just such a little tag — and so famous for that tag that people are freed of the requirement to read more of your work than the ten or fifteen letters it contains.

It seems to me a big and important ethical task, if we are going to keep the enterprise of complex thought going, to refuse such handy little tags. Trace the activity of the phrase or the word through the person’s corpus, if you must, take it as a tracer molecule, but don’t suppose that it will tell you what you need to know. The habit of expecting every argument to undermine itself at some point (usually the point where it becomes most urgent), the fated resurfacing of ambiguity, is the correct reflex for the critical mind. Basically, I say, if you can fit it on a T-shirt, it’s spinach and to hell with it. You need to pursue a thought beyond the noun phrase, beyond the sentence, through labyrinths of paragraphs and examples that will challenge and baffle you, or you are throwing away all those years of education for a style of speech that consists of brandishing pennants of conformity. All right, Wittgenstein, “what can be said at all can be said clearly,” but you can’t test an expression for truth or falsity unless it is at least a complete sentence, and it takes more than one sentence to get past the zone where merely grammatical tests of wellformedness fade away and leave us to wrestle with the way things are.

I would even say that the failure to come up with a fetish-word is a qualification, not sufficient of course but plausibly necessary, for interestingness. Or at least that is where my unfinished education leaves me today.


North and South

Insomnia sets you up for some funny discoveries. A few weeks ago I was reading through a literary history of China (not entirely off my own bat; it was a commissioned review) and came across this quaint piece of type-casting:

“Chinese civilization resulted from the gradual fusion of multiple sources . . .  however, the Yellow River Valley culture obviously played a dominant role” (pp. 1–2). “Harsh living conditions” in the north compelled the members of that culture to “gather their dispersed people together into large and powerful communities”; thus “the ideology of the state reached maturity there far earlier than in other regions” (p. 2). 

“In the Yangtze valley, the climate was hot and humid . . . it was relatively easy to lead a simple existence there. Consequently, even though there was a similar need to form large, powerful communities, it was . . . by no means as pressing as that in the north. Thus, in the Yangtze valley . . . the ideology to preserve social order and strengthen community power through restraining the individual was not as well developed as that in the north” (pp. 4–5). In the culture of the North, “music, dance and singing were regarded as the means to regulate community life and to carry out an ethical purpose. . . . The main functions of the arts of Chu are represented, however, in providing the satisfaction of aesthetic pleasure, and in this way fully display the dynamism of human emotions” (p. 33).

I’m quoting from A Concise History of Chinese Literature by Luo Yuming, translated by Ye Yang (2 vols., Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011).

I already sent in my review, but insomnia led me to read Yen Hsiao-pei’s dissertation on paleontology in China. Splendid dissertation, by the way. And in it one finds this:

In his famous article, “Why Central Asia?” of 1926, [Henry Fairfield] Osborn presented a full picture of his idea of human evolution. Developed on Matthew’s framework, Osborn argued that “in lowlands in tropical and semi-tropical regions, where natural resources were abundant, the process of evolution was hindered and even retrogressive; only dry and open regions could stimulate the development of intelligence. The dry uplands of Mongolia and Tibet in Central Asia offered the perfect invigorating environment for the evolution of our ancestors.”

So now you see the measure of academic progress. A theory propounded on racist grounds (for Osborn was eager to refute the out-of-Africa hypothesis about human origins, hence he preferred the dry uplands of Asia as our original homeland) in the 1920s survives as the armature of a literary history in the 2010s. There must be a higher standard.


Poet and Person

Philip Larkin was a nasty man. Sylvia Plath was ambitious. Robert Frost could be a jerk. Ezra Pound… well, no need to state the obvious. Robert Lowell, nuts. Sam Johnson was a sweet and kind guy, but we wouldn’t know that were it not for Boswell, who drank too much and was lecherous. Literary biography leaves few looking good, and the funny thing is, in the case of poets a nicely scandal-ridden volume can outsell the complete works of the poet by a factor of a thousand or so. How many who know about Larkin’s racism and misogyny from the bios also own a book of his poems?

Iggy Pop said it well. Iggy Pop doesn’t have a lot to hide.

Pop has never imagined a traditional domestic life for himself. (In 1969, when Pop was twenty-one and living in Ann Arbor, he had a son, Eric, with Paulette Benson. Eric was brought up by his mother, in California, and lives in Berlin now.) In part, this is why it matters so much to him that his work remain vital. “It’s gotta be fucking good,” he said. “This is what you’ve sacrificed a lot of things for, dude, and this is what you were doing when you weren’t always there for other people, so it’d better be good.”


What Does a Hongkonger Want?

As with the famous question posed by Freud (“What does Woman want?”), the best answer is always “Ask one.”

光復香港 is one of the things they want. The Guardian translates it as “Reclaim Hong Kong,” which at least has the advantage of not being particularly inflammatory, but misses the point, the flavor and the jibe.

I should mention that some 1.7 million people, about a quarter of the population of Hong Kong, were out in the street peacefully supporting this and a few other slogans this past weekend. That’s quite a turnout.

Various persons who seemingly have an interest in making the protesters’ demands unacceptable have been turning the slogan into something it’s not. “Secession,” they make it say, and mutter darkly about how an independent nation of Hong Kong would be easy prey for the capitalists to recolonize, and so on.

That way of putting things makes China the protector of helpless little Hong Kong, unable to detect where its true interests lie, and the bulwark against the opium-peddling gweilo. But a closer acquaintance with Chinese and Hong Kong history marks that fantasy as dishonest. Even if the alternatives are imperfect, Hong Kong people know enough to choose.

And that’s exactly the point of using guangfu 光復 in a slogan. Go to your dictionary. It means “recover [as in lost territory or lost reputation], restore.” Ever since 1949, one of the mottoes of the Guomindang on Taiwan was guangfu dalu 光復大陸, “recover the mainland,” a prospect that became less and less likely as the years went on. One of the stated policy aims of the People’s Republic since the same time has been to guangfu Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, seen as colonies violently severed from the motherland. Reportedly in 1997, owing to a handover agreement, the PRC did just that. There was rejoicing in Beijing and a much more measured response in Hong Kong.

It’s not that Hong Kongers have gloried in the title of “Crown Colony” or sought to be dominated from afar. They are sick and tired of being a pawn in someone else’s game. What they are asking is to be let alone: to keep the system of relatively accountable government under law, fairly large freedoms of speech and association, and pluralism in other sectors of life, that they have become accustomed to. They are not eager to join such aspects of the “China Dream” as one-party rule, non-reviewable judicial decisions, broad definitions of sedition and subversion, and integration into the pending system of “social credit.” They would like to elect their own representatives from a genuinely diverse spectrum of opinion and manage their own affairs to a greater degree than either Great Britain or China has ever conceded them.

Guangfu Xianggang turns the Chinese-patriotic slogan around in precisely this way. It means “Let Hongkongers recover Hong Kong for themselves.” A high degree of regional autonomy is absolutely possible under the Basic Law of 1997. It’s even guaranteed by it. Beijing, on the other hand, has an interest in portraying differences of opinion as disloyalty and making them punishable. For if Hong Kong got to expand its envelope of democratic rights, what would happen to the rest of China? Isn’t it unthinkable that Shanghai, Chongqing or Urumqi would enjoy such basic rights?

It’s not unthinkable. But it takes a lot of imagination.


Gone is that Muzak

I’m still living with the inverted timezones that you get after a couple of weeks in Hong Kong: sleepy in the afternoon, unstoppable at 3 am. And my fondness for that place, its umbrellas and fearless kids in black, is unaffected one way or the other by distance. Here’s a little homage by Hong Kong to itself. Normal getting and spending suspended (sorry, Bally and Dior, you have prices but no value), the tacky Muzak aufgehoben, even the air conditioning, I imagine, overcome by gasps of astonishment. Seid umschlungen, 7.2 Millionen!



An essay of Nima Bassiri’s calls me back to an episode of my past.

Still, Foucault’s real impact for historians of science has been mediated through the work of history-adjacent scholars like Ian Hacking and Nikolas Rose.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1990. The boom in housing prices was taking off steeply, and an assistant professor’s salary would get you a two-room house thirty miles away from my workplace by freeway. Having grown up as a relatively prosperous person in Nashville, with a few years of no-frills but comfortable existence in New Haven, I was unprepared for the demands that California would make on the pocketbook. It was then that I learned the construct [proper-noun]-adjacent, as used by real-estate people. “Beverly-Hills-adjacent” meant a house on an alleyway, facing the garbage cans of a luxurious restaurant, but separated by an imaginary line from the city of Beverly Hills, its glories and fleshpots (including the right of admission to BH High). You can always dream, from across the line!

So Nima’s construction makes me imagine Ian Hacking, who for forty years has been for me the guy I wish to be when I grow up, as a renter whose last pennies every month go to keeping up the appearances of being, almost, a resident of the realm called History, where the grass is green and the living is easy. Save your bottle caps, Ian! One day you will walk in Ferragamos.

(No shade cast on Nima. All in good fun, people.)


“Literature With And Without Borders” 有/無國界文學, Part 3

Progress without freedom? Is that a willful paradox? Certainly not: we should by now be familiar with the changes in the social fabric around the world that promised freedom to people who would cast off their old ways, and delivered some technological and economic advances that had at best an extremely indirect, and sometimes a contradictory, relation to freedom. I don’t lay the responsibility for this lamentable situation at Goethe’s feet; after all, he was born in 1749, and the world of his adult years was just discovering the concept of progress. But I do note that his model for the inevitable progress of world literature is entangled in a family of concepts that has been put to extremely dubious political and social uses.

            Comparative literature, as has been observed countless times by people present here, their teachers, their teachers’ teachers, etc., has long been intertwined with the idea of world literature. Is comparative literature indissolubly wedded to it? Do we have an alternative genealogy, a different schema to orient our research and our action in the world?  

            We do. Not that we need to claim an ancestor for every idea we put forth, but the fact that someone else conceived of the work of comparison in different ways, as enabling different consequences, should give us heart. Many of you know of Hugo Meltzl de Lomnitz, the German-speaking comparatist who together with the Hungarian-speaking mathematician Samuel Brassai founded the first comparative literature journal in 1877. I do not think it has been adequately noticed to what degree Meltzl’s programmatic editorials are directed against the notion of world literature as put forth by Goethe and his successors. This was, alas, necessary: many of those who praised Weltliteratur in the years of the resurgent Prussian Reich saw in it the triumphant advance of specifically German literary culture to cover first Europe and then the globe.

Meltzl attached comparative literature to what he saw as the interests of humanity in preserving cultural diversity from imperial oppression and the tyranny of bigness. He states:

a journal such as ours makes in principle allowance for every still minor literature, or every literature that is still counted as minorIndeed, from the comparative-literary standpoint, the importance of one literature at the expense of others ceases completely; – they are all equally important, whether they be mental creations belonging to European or non-European, or cultured or so-called savage, peoples. Indeed, for the languages and folk-song culture of certain small tribes of Europe, which are hated, derided, or, in the best case, regarded with indifference by the larger peoples of Europe with a race-antagonism that can otherwise only be observed in relation to the savages of exotic countries, the comparative principle will offer asylum to the oppressed, and it will be just as accommodating and helpful to all others. [Here we mean especially Jews, Armenians, Gypsies, Chizeroths and Burins (in France), smaller Slavic dialects, Finnish and other Turanian tribes, such as Laplanders; also the dispersed fragments of greater nations, such as: Csángó-Hungarians in Moldavia, and Transylvanian Saxons etc. etc.] In these small and minute folk literatures … there often lies hidden a complete and magnificent world of the most informative and primeval ethnological-literary-historical reminiscences and similar treasures.

As Meltzl observes elsewhere, for a linguist there are no unimportant languages, and a literary scholar should not let hierarchies of value and restrictive notions of genre be the excuse for ignoring vast domains of human history and intellect. His frank hatred of nationalism blends into his contempt for Eurocentrism in such passages as this: “One cannot say that any nation is inferior to another. Cannibals, for example—are they any worse or any poorer than we are? Certainly not, my skeptical friend; they are to be ranked above us Europeans who are so good at murdering each other with the utmost refinement of our torpedoes, our Krupp guns, etc., and equally good at ruining each other with the most shameless usury.” Meltzl’s journal aimed to create awareness and appreciation of writing in Hungarian, an island of difference among the other interrelated literary languages of Europe. Offering translations from the Hungarian, essays in Hungarian, and arguments in German for the value of this supposedly minor literature, Meltzl’s journal demonstrated some of the tendencies of its time in Austro-Hungary, the moment after 1867 when the Kingdom of Hungary got its own parliament back and the notion of relative national autonomy within a federative empire was in the air. Conflicts around ethnic leadership continued to plague Austria-Hungary; in that context, the first comparative literature journal’s policies appear firmly on the side of openness and equality. It frequently published translations of and articles on poetry in dialects, such as Sicilian, Provençal, and Scots, that were being pushed off the map of newly unified and standardizing nations. In a time of pogroms and anti-Jewish hysteria, it celebrates manifestoes of tolerance like Lessing’s drama Nathan der Weise, the object of a special number in 1879.

There is however one noticeable exclusion among the calls for openness. Meltzl refused to count Russian among the ten languages to be used in his journal. Given that the 1870s and 80s were a time of tremendous creativity in the Russian language, with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov all active, this exclusion may seem perverse, and Meltzl offers no explicit reason for it. We can however read fairly clearly between the lines of his editorials, when he says on the one hand that “a very significant political role fell to Russian among the Slavic languages: but this is completely irrelevant in relation to purely literary and comparative-literary-historical matters. Classical and truly universal creations of the mind precisely cannot be created through diplomatic or undiplomatic, through bloody or peaceful, military campaigns.” More energetically, in the second part of Meltzl’s editorial he protested against the tsarist government’s suppression of the “little languages” of the empire. 

Our secret slogan is rather: let nationality, as the individuality of a people, be holy and inviolable! … For a human population, however unimportant it may be from the political standpoint, is and remains from the standpoint of comparative literature no less important than the biggest nation. Just as the most imperfect remains of a language can offer the most precious and instructive examples for comparative philology, so is it as well with the spiritual life even of peoples without literature(as we call them), whose national individuality we not only must refrain from disturbing with our missionary meddlesomeness, but which we are obliged to preserve by every honorable means and maintain in the most unaltered condition. (From this comparative-polyglot point of view, the previously mentioned order of the Russian Interior Ministry of May 16, 1876, forbidding the literary use of the Ruthenian or Belorussian language, must still be accounted no less a sin against the Holy Ghost if it had been perpetrated against the folksong traditions of an obscure Kirghiz tribe, instead of against a nation of 15 million.)

With language, of course, went culture, religion, group identity, and the basis for demanding political autonomy; and in 1877, as you’ll recall, the Poles, Finns, Lithuanians, Latvians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Moldavians, and a host of other nationalities, not to forget the Jews, were held tightly and uncomfortably in the grip of Greater Russia. In order to halt the process of nation-building, the minority-language press in Russia was tightly controlled when not, as in this case, simply closed down. Meltzl deems this a “sin against the Holy Ghost,” I suppose because the Holy Ghost is said to inspire both prophecy and translation, and because it is written in the Gospel of Matthew (13:21) that blasphemy against the spirit shall not be forgiven—strong words for Meltzl to be using against a tsar who liked to invoke the will of God as backing for his autocracy. In terms of cultural accomplishment, there was little to distinguish Ukrainians from Meltzl’s Hungarian neighbors: two peoples with a long history of writing and publishing, with libraries, churches, philosophers, poets and dramatists, only one people was subjugated to a harsher empire than the other. But Meltzl’s point is that even if directed against a tiny group with an exclusively oral culture, the offense is equivalent. With his sensitivity to this sort of injustice, Meltzl, I think, would feel quite at home in our age of species extinction, language death, the tyranny of majorities, and the clear-cutting of small cultures.

I would go as far as to say that Meltzl’s little, obscure text offers a cure for Goethean world-literature. Rather than telling us that literature is a competition where bigger will always be better and the weak go to the wall, Meltzl’s vision is of a democracy of letters where nobody is too small to count. 

What goes wrong, I think, in the discussion of comparative and world literature is the confusion of cosmopolitanism with bigness, power, wealth, fame, and success. Marx and Engels were not the first, nor the last, to point out how similar the Goethean model is to patterns of global trade and colonization. A similar slide is noticeable in the scholarship. Studies of world literature quickly become studies of the circulation of literature, which means literary markets, the pursuit of prestige, the competition for market share, and that absurd prize they used to give away every year in Sweden. All that is worth knowing and part of the reality of literature, but the literary critic who’s not careful will get swept into “seeing like a state,” as James Scott put it, into thinking that the knowledge that maximizes power is the knowledge that’s naturally most desirable. I am now in a position to define what I meant by “literature with and without borders.” The Goethean program, too, is directed towards a goal that would be a literature without borders. But it would result in one huge literary culture with global circulation, a culture that had surpassed the now obsolete national literatures (“Nationalliteratur will jetzt nicht Vieles sagen.”) Meltzl’s picture of comparative literature disregards the borders because it knows that within and across every border are cultural units that are not accounted for by the borders—the Kirghiz, the Bielorussians, the peasant cultures that he evokes merely schematically; alien cultures surrounded by majority cultures that think of them as backward and undeserving. Previous scholarship on Meltzl has tended to catch itself on the two horns of universalism and nationalism.

But the model of Meltzl’s undertaking is actually somewhat more complicated than is indicated by such polarities and paradoxes. It can be exemplified concretely—I’ll start doing so with an analogy. By drawing up my title as I did, I wanted, of course, to pay homage to Médecins sans frontiers (Doctors Without Borders), the medical charity originating in France and now active in many parts of the world. We probably think of what we do as Literature Without Borders. Yes, but how do we get that way? It’s not enough to pretend to disregard borders, or to apply a psychological eraser to them. Borders are a pesky fact, and for doctors in particular—for doctors are educated in national medical colleges, licensed and renewed by national medical associations, they apply treatments and prescribe medicines according to national schedules, and so forth. Doctors, in short, are very much withborders in the normal way of things. The exception involves a story. Médecins sans frontières began in a crisis. Between 1967 and 1970, the Nigerian government was dealing with a rebellion in the southern province of Biafra, where much of the country’s oil wells were located. They used military raids and blocked the entry of food and supplies, resulting in a disastrous, intentionally-caused famine. A few French doctors sent by the International Red Cross to attend victims of the famine were shocked by what they experienced and when they returned home, broke the tradition of professional discretion, not to mention the carefully maintained neutrality of the Red Cross, and denounced what they did not hesitate to call a genocide. Expecting trouble from the Red Cross, they founded a new organization in 1971 that became Médecins Sans Frontières. Throughout the history of the organization—well chronicled by Peter Redfield—the mandate to serve populations and to testify to their oppression have been in tension. It has often happened that the MSF mission in a country is expelled for what is termed political meddling, a meddling that the MSF personnel feel is necessary in order to prevent greater injustice and suffering. 

This schematic history shows us something rather different from the merely categorical or dialectical transcending of a conceptual limit. A crisis occurs, as in Biafra, when people within a set of borders are being deprived of the protections they need to survive. People outside those borders notice. They offer support, guided by the idea of a common humanity or a shared potential that everyone has. And in offering that support they may incur the wrath of the authority that polices the original border and that was causing the deprived population to suffer. This pattern, as I’ve put it in the broadest outline, is common to the origin-story of MSF and to the origin-story of comparative literature if we take Meltzl’s editorials as our canon. The Bielorussians and Ukrainians of 1876 were deprived of their spiritual-material basis, their language and literature; scholars outside the Russian Empire, even though unable to read anything written in those minority languages, rally to the support of the oppressed speakers and writers; and although nothing concrete may be achieved thereby (the ukaz against minority languages was not lifted until 1905), a bond of common humanity is affirmed and the support network is readied for the next time a group of people are barred from speaking and writing in their language, whatever that language may be. If Goethean Weltliteraturhas often been likened to the organs of international commerce, Meltzl’s comparative literature has the profile of an NGO. The latter suggests an identity for Comp Lit that is a little less like Coca-Cola and more like Amnesty International. 

Though Amnesty was created in the depths of the Cold War and Médecins sans frontières emerged from the interethnic struggles that followed decolonization, NGOs were a product of the nineteenth century. They go on being necessary even as the element that gave them some leverage—public opinion—fades to insignificance. They will be needed as long as borders are used to block communication, exclude undesirables, and frustrate transparency. The tyrants of the nineteenth century were nothing to those of the twentieth and twenty-first. The prohibitions against which Meltzl rails so vividly—“sins against the Holy Ghost” and so forth—resulted in the deaths or banishments of a few thousand Poles and Ukrainians. That is already too many, but if you think about the means that were put in the hands of the successor states of the tsarist empire, and of other empires and confederations around the world, they shrink in comparison. Nobody, I suspect, in 1877 could have imagined the extermination campaigns, forced resettlements, and forced assimilations of the twentieth century, or that a million or so people could be herded into concentration camps, pressed to forsake their language and culture, and watched at home and in the street by means of human and mechanical spies for any sign of suspected disloyalty; we have made possible an entirely different scale of brutality. So, to sum up: The topic of “world literature” usually goes in the direction of opposing nationalism to cosmopolitanism, the particular to the general. But the emergence of institutions “without borders” has typically involved a different logic: a detour through the subordinated or unwilling national, in the name of whom a cosmopolitan public can be summoned to action or sympathy. Just as Médecins sans frontières arose to confront that form of modern biopolitics that consists in the deliberate abandonment of populations, so Comparative Literature included among its beginnings advocacy for writers muted by national language policies. Though he is infinitely less famous, writing in an obscure self-published periodical for fellow specialists, Hugo Meltzl deserves some of the fame and attention that has gone to Goethe for his statements on “world literature,” and by tracing their different paths we can better understand the powers of our discipline. It is, moreover, Meltzl’s model that stands the better chance of raising “questions that can only be addressed by expanding the repertoire.”


“Literature With And Without Borders” 有/無國界文學, part 2

But in the reading of all these dissertations, manuscripts, drafts and articles, we can’t help noticing the same names coming up. Homer. Quixote. Hamlet. Jane Austen. Proust. Kafka. And the tradition of criticism and theory has its all-stars. Benjamin, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, just to stay in the register of those who have already passed on. And within those critics’ long list of publications, just a few items come up for repeated citation. Indeed, we comparatists have our model organisms and we are often content to keep on extracting new information from them. But whatever the “incredible advances” that may have come from reading and rereading the same books, isn’t it also worth finding out if there are, as Professor Patel promises in his realm of study, “questions that can only be addressed by expanding the repertoire of animals”—sorry, works of literature—“that are studied”?

            Here though we get into a different realm of problems. For once we have admitted that we really ought to study a more diverse range of literary works, the suggestions come pouring in, for many among the thousands of neglected works have their advocates. (There is a school of thought that says we should hand off the unread works to computers, to graduate students, or to native informants to read for us, but I reject that as being inequitable and a sure way of keeping the existing hierarchies in place.) Should we sort the available reading material by authorial gender, skin color, religious affiliation, citizenship, class status? Fine; but are those criteria created to suit the picture of the world we already have, or are they apt to disturb the pre-existing categories? There are national interests promoting the Great Writers of this or that country, as allegedly there are delegations sent to lobby the committee members of the Nobel Prize for literature. There’s some justice in this. Here we are talking about the issue of literary cosmopolitanism in a Special Administrative Region of China. It would not be a bad thing if every member of the ICLA had spent at least a week reading the great poets and novelists of China before coming. I don’t know if that has happened. I recommend it though. However, even if you acquire those works in translation or spend a few years learning enough Chinese to read them in the original, you will still have to work out the conceptual apparatus with which you’re going to handle these texts. What in them strikes you as good or bad may not have much to do with the good or bad as judged by Chinese readers of different eras. What seems meaningful or artful to you may not have ever caught the attention of a Chinese reader. Not that the non-Chinese reader must abide by the judgments of Chinese readers; but when you’re dealing with a different intellectual world, I think you should at least figure out what the local expectations are, even if in the end you depart from them. Or imagine that you are a Chinese student embarking for the United States or Poland or Egypt to study literature. You have in your bag the eighteenth-century novel Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber), a well-worn copy that you’ve been reading since you were a teenager. To explain to your teachers and fellow students in that foreign land what you’ve found precious about that book will be no easy task, as the terms of value you’re used to using don’t have easy equivalents. You may have to fall back on the most general sort of recommendation (“read it, it’s great, we all love it”). Or you can describe it in the terms circulating in the classrooms where Homer, Proust, Defoe and the gang are taught, an alienating and possibly exciting experience. Translators, of course, have to use the terms of the language they translate into. The same goes for interpreters. David Hawkes, the extraordinary English translator of the first two-thirds of the Story of the Stone, tried to express something of what he had experienced by reading and thinking about that novel for several decades when he dubbed it “a Symbolist novel.” Now of course the literary histories will tell you that Symbolisme is a particular outgrowth of certain cultural and intellectual trends in Europe, etc., and that the application of the term to a Chinese document can only be a kind of analogy. Nonetheless, if you know what Symbolism is, Hawkes’s use or misuse of the term directs you to certain properties of the novel that are at least more interesting as a description of its world than would be, say, “realist,” “romantic,” “allegorical,” or a handful of other words that have been offered as blanket descriptions of this tremendous and internally variegated book. Hawkes did what he could and his can never be the final word. But the imperfections of his strategy remind us that it’s not enough to read exotic books, we have to have a new or at least an open-ended terminology, a poetics, with which to understand them. You would not get much out of Chinese drama if you came to it with the expectations of a person familiar only with Greek, Shakespearean, or Brechtian drama; the conceptual vocabularies afforded by that prior experience would not get you far, and you would need to learn more from the plays and from the people who have given them their attention over the years. Not only what to read, but how to read must be controversial; and in choosing how to read we can’t be led by authorities, for the same national, class, religious, gender and other partial interests are just as eager to impose on us the official way to read as a woman, as a Korean, as a nomad, as a proletarian, and so forth. Since disagreements make the life of culture, let us not, in the name of diversity, imprison ourselves in a new type of uniformity. Now what does this mean for practical undertakings? What should I tell you to do? (As if a room full of highly-accomplished, autonomous people will ever do as they’re told.) What would be good for the field, what should we encourage and what should we stop doing? I don’t think we need to mandate diversity, require people to read more texts from previously under-discussed cultures, though doing so is beneficial. Nor should we stop giving prizes for books about Proust; I’m sure there are still great books about Proust to be written. This kind of diversity slating involves a predefined set of criteria and can be gamed, like any diversity mandate, to achieve results that are only superficially diverse— what one of our confrères has called “a compromise between foreign [i.e., European] form and local materials.”

If it has to be a compromise, I would prefer it the other way round. What we should reward is reading that seeks to make discoveries, to put what’s known on one side, to circumvent the inherited definitions. This desire admittedly puts us on boggy intellectual ground: if we can’t be sure that we have a definition of literature that is cross-culturally valid, how do we shepherd the examples into the Noah’s Ark of comparative literature? The vague rule of thumb that seems to operate permits the continued recruitment of poems that look like those of Goethe or Wordsworth, novels that look like Trollope’s, and so on. Let’s imagine a more abstract definition and see what it includes. You know such previous attempts at an abstract definition as Shklovsky’s, Tynianov’s and Eikhenbaum’s, definitions that could contain quite a lot of phenomena that were not recognized as suitable objects of study by faculties of literature in their time. Maybe these can serve as opening moves in our attempts to find what we can learn from the verbal culture of this or that non-mainstream population. What are the uses of language in culture X that cause it to do more than proffer information or convey demands? What specific kinds of relation obtain between the merely functional acts of speech and those that are memorable or impressive for some other reason? What is the biggest scope of variety that we can anticipate among cultures X, Y, Z and on to infinity? On what scales, with what instruments, can we recognize our new model organisms?

            I see these perplexities about what to read and how as being already inscribed in that foundational text for many of us, the conversation between Goethe and Eckermann in 1827 that launched the term Weltliteratur, “world literature.” I’m sure you already know it and so I can be brief in outlining the problem areas. Eckermann finds Goethe reading a Chinese novel and says, oh, how strange that must be, and Goethe replies that it’s actually not a bit strange, but quite like the novels of Richardson and the like: tales of civilized conversation and flirtation between men and women, only of course with a lot of unusual cultural background. And then Goethe goes on to predict that the age of world literature is at hand, and that national literature is already rather meaningless: everybody does and should read books from all around the world. So far so good. Then Goethe seems to take a step back, because he says that where aesthetic criteriaare concerned, the only way is to take our bearings from the ancient Greeks, who were and are the true classics. “We must not think that the Chinese are the thing, or the Serbians, but in our need for something exemplary we must always go back to the old Greeks…” All right then! The inventory of things to read is wide open, but the methods, the standards, the how and why to read—those we have already in the form given us by the ancient Greeks. 

            Reassuring, isn’t it, as a program for world literature? You can read anything, but you won’t have to learn any fundamentally new tricks. In fact, if you are tempted by the norms and modes of Chinese, Serbian, etc., literature into thinking there may be some new aesthetics and hermeneutics out there worth acquiring, you should strenuously withstand that temptation. The true image of humanity in its beauty, says Goethe, has been discovered once and for all. Other nations can at most provide quaint diversions; only the Greeks can be our guides. So enjoy diversity from the safe harbor of uniformity.      As a description of what people actually do, I think this is not far off, but it doesn’t describe what I think we should do if we want to enlarge our repertoire of “model organisms.” And something else in this Goethean program is as if calculated to get my back up. That is the rhetoric of the inevitable march of history, the subsumption of local differences into a unity, the consigning of what local, idiomatic and specific to the past: “National literature is now nearly meaningless… the age of world literature is at hand… everyone must contribute to hastening its approach.” Such language has, to my ear, a tyrannical ring, the chant of progress without freedom. “There is no alternative” (Margaret Thatcher); “we will bury you” (Nikita Khrushchev); “resistance is futile” (the Borg, from Star Trek); bigness wins and wins absolutely.


Men and Women in Black

The South China Morning Post calls them “anti-government protestors.” Le Monde calls them “des militants prodémocratie.” These terms are not necessarily convertible, of course. But it matters how you frame a thing.


“Literature With and Without Borders” 有/無國界文學

(ICLA Congress keynote address, Macau, July 2019)

I’ll begin, as I often do, by looking over at what the scientists are doing. Or at what some scientists are doing, as they notice what other scientists have been doing and not doing. My text for this exercise is short and non-technical. It comes, in fact, from the announcement of a talk given recently at the University of Chicago Center in Hong Kong, by one of my colleagues, Nipam Patel who runs the Marine Biology Lab. So although we work at the same institution, thanks to the incredible diversity of academia, a lot separates us. He’s in the water whereas I’m in the air; he’s on the beach for work, whereas I go to the beach on vacation; and there as many other contrasts as you can imagine. Still, I feel that he and I are bothered by the same things. Here is the announcement of his recent talk:

Scientists often depend exclusively on so-called model organisms, such as fruit flies, mice, and frogs, for their research.  While investigation of these animals has led to incredible advances in both basic and translational biology, they represent only a tiny slice of the diversity of life on earth.  Professor Nipam Patel will explore questions that can only be addressed by expanding the repertoire of animals that are studied.

You might be misled by the phrase “model organisms.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that these are the best examples to study, the most exemplary organisms, or the ones other organisms should aspire to emulate. The natural scientists I know are ticklish about questions of value and feel more comfortable concentrating on what is. “Model” is not here a normative term, as often in the humanities (if I say in a letter that my student has written a model dissertation, that’s strong praise and you should hire her right away). The word “model” is used here neutrally to refer to an empirical, historical fact. Organisms become model organisms not because of some intrinsic quality but simply because they have already been studied in depth, they’re well understood, and the results of this research are available for the whole scientific community to explore. The reasons for selecting these organisms come down, usually, not to their utility for pure science, but for other reasons: because of their accessibility (that’s the case for the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, with its mere four sets of chromosomes and its speedy reproductive cycle; it was first identified as a useful laboratory animal in the 1880s) or because of their economic utility to humans. If tobacco and corn were not basic to large profitable industries, I am sure their biology would not be nearly as well-known as it is, and as it happens more is known about tobacco and corn than about almost any plant. Although “model” is used in the natural sciences, as I have said, in a way that does not have the same strong connotations of perfection and desirability as it does in the humanities, there are still some value-based factors behind the choice of objects of study. We value our time, so we should start with organisms that are simply to understand, plentiful, or easy to deal with in a laboratory setting; and because we value things that make our lives possible or enjoyable, or that promise huge fortunes, it’s understandable that we would direct attention selectively toward the plants that serve such functions. 

There’s no problem with the fact that a few organisms get all the attention, as long as we don’t suppose that those are therefore the organisms that deserve all the attention. And Professor Patel’s point is precisely that attention can and should be distributed more widely. To quote the abstract once more: “While investigation of these animals has led to incredible advances in both basic and translational biology, they represent only a tiny slice of the diversity of life on earth. Professor Nipam Patel will explore questions that can only be addressed by expanding the repertoire of animals that are studied.” All right then! Here’s where I climb onto the coattails of my eminent colleague. For we in literary studies too have our “model organisms.” If I say the word “tragedy,” or “lyric,” or “novel,” you will certainly be able to come up with a description or even a definition of those genres, and because you are comparatists, you’ll have more than one example, from more than one period and language, for each; but at the back of our definitions is usually an example held by the people in our subfields to be the typical, or the most rewarding, or the most complete case of the thing we are talking about. Otherwise the conversation we are always having, the comparing and evaluating and appreciating, can’t happen. The model examples of our model examples are easy to locate. For the word tragedy, most of us will think back to Aristotle’s meticulous investigation of that Greek genre which took Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex as the ideal example. For epic, where would we look but in Homer? If, however, we extend our consideration to epics from other times and places, for example Indian or Turkic or Tibetan epics, we’ll soon be discovering the limits of our comparison-case. Not every epic behaves like a Homeric epic, and the differences are not necessarily flaws. It is surprising that, three hundred years and more after regular cultural communication among the educated people of the various continents has been opened, we are still reasoning about epic, lyric, drama, the novel, the Bildungsroman, the pastoral, ekphrasis, and so on, on the basis of a really very small set of examples. As a result, generic definitions are often either brittle or shallow. If you want to talk about the world novel, you have to start from the implication that a novel is something like Quixote or Pride and Prejudice or War and Peace, or else by positing a primordial shift from the epic mode of narration to the novelistic one, or some such gesture that gives you a basis whereupon to recruit your examples. There’s also often a claim of inheritance: the novel of 1800, or the novel in Indonesia, can be explained as an effect of emulation of the novel of 1700 or the novel in Spain, France, or England. The embarrassment is that among the world’s great novels there are quite a few that originate separately from such genealogies, don’t entirely fit the models provided by the traditions that are familiar to people working in European languages, and can in fact call into question the usefulness of the category “novel”: such as the Tale of Genji, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and so forth. This is what I mean by brittleness and shallowness: either your definition of the novel clings so tightly to a few examples that it will break if you try to detach it from them, or it covers all possible instances at the price of saying not very much about them. I’m not very happy about this condition of the critical language, and I’ve tried to deal with it as I can, in the same way many of us do, by putting in modifications. These modifications tend to segregate and specify. A good example is Walter Benjamin’s study, now nearly a hundred years old, on what he called Trauerspiel or “mourning play,” which is translated into English in the title of his famous book as “German Tragic Drama.” From the moment we read those words we know that we are not embarking on a discussion that puts those 17th-century German plays in the lineage of ancient Athenian tragedy, mostly because, put up against those classic examples, the German plays will sound awkward, contorted, corny, even comical. So by affixing a new name to this genre Benjamin could declare their independence from the classical models, and investigate them as a body of works having their own aesthetics, purposes, and effects. 

What is wonderful about this way of proceeding is that, after Benjamin had made strong claims for the singular qualities of these admittedly strange plays, his readers began to see the classical tradition in a different light. You might realize that, in their way, the plays of Aeschylus are Trauerspiele. Seneca might be aiming at effects that the German closet dramatists achieved as well. We see new things in familiar works, non-classical things in classical works. The intensive scrutiny that Benjamin gave to his model organism did in the end bring to literary studies what Professor Patel calls “incredible advances in both basic and translational biology.” Or rather—I quoted a little too much in the literal mode—“incredible advances in both theoretical and programmatic poetics.” Benjamin showed us, through his eccentric choice of model organism, how to value certain kinds of writing, previously undervalued, and how to outline ways of responding to drama that had not been tried yet but that might be exactly what certain writers and audiences needed. 

We all read a lot of dissertations, a lot of manuscripts submitted for journals, a lot of drafts by friends and colleagues. And you know just by being a member of a field what the “model organisms” permitting analysis and generalization in that field are. No one in American literature can escape the necessity of referring to the many analyses, including some classic analyses, of Walden, or Moby-Dick, or The Sound and the Fury. In your apprenticeship as a member of that field you study previous dissections of those corpora in order to learn how to do it yourself on the same or different corpora. No one in Chinese poetry can avoid analyzing Guan juor Qiu xing ba shou or Qian hou Chibi fu, or drawing on the canonical previous interpretations of them. These are the organisms that are best known, and that therefore make possible the smoothest and richest communication among people who share that knowledge. An unintentionally humorous reference to this practice occurs in Goethe’s novel The Sufferings of Young Werther, when Werther and Lotte stand together at the window watching a thunderstorm.

The thunder was passing by and a wonderful rain was falling on the land, filling the warm air with the most refreshing fragrance. She stood there resting on her elbows, gazing deep into the country about us; she looked to the heavens, and at me, and I saw there were tears in her eyes; and she laid her hand on mine and said ‘Klopstock!’ At once I remembered the glorious ode she had in mind…

It takes only one word, one poet’s name, to make a rich and dense communication possible: that’s the value of a shared model organism. It would have been better academic form, however, if she had said “cf. Klopstock.”

(There’s more, but this seemed like a good place to stop.)