The future of the Little Magazine

I just read Sven Birkert’s meditation on his top-flight literary magazine,  AGNI, casting its lot ever more definitively with online over print. The one thing that sticks out is online’s lack of concern for the future. When you send out print issues, you are lodging them all over the world. They are seeds. A central server, on the other hand, can go down. Its contents may not be able to be restored, even when there are backups. (Printculture is a case in point.) An organization may close, or go bankrupt, or decide that it is not worth transcoding old material to ever-newer media. At that point, all of what has been produced dies. The Wayback Machine shows almost no evidence that any of the websites I produced in the 1990s ever existed. If “the center will not hold,” there is nothing. So I look at Sven Birkert’s guardedly self-congratulatory message, and think that the words have a SELL BY date and that afterwards, the electrons will disband and go back to their chaotic realms in the universe. This is not a way to record our literary history.


There is No Natural State of the Humanities

This is just to extend a point I made in “The Sky is Falling,” and to tease out some of its implications, so: there is no natural state of the humanities. There is only the state of the humanities in a situation.

Part of the argument I’m making is that the situation in which the humanities function in the US university has changed, in the following ways:

  1. Economically. There’s plenty of evidence to show that students and their parents are price-sensitive when it comes to choosing majors. The cuts in state funding following the 2008 crisis and the weak job market that continues to plague the US (don’t be fooled by the unemployment rate; labor force participation continues to decline) mean that students do not feel free to major in fields they know produce less certain financial outcomes than others.
  2. Culturally. A recent survey shows that 58 percent of Republicans think that colleges/universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country. We know why they think this, and we know they’re wrong. But obviously in a situation in which about 30 percent of the country identifies as Republican, this is going to affect humanities majors.

In both these cases of course the causes have nothing to do with anything particular to the humanities or to the work we do as professionals. And one solution to the problem would be to attack it at the two levels I’m describing above (via politics and state governments in the first case, and via the culture war in the second). But of course we have no special leverage at those levels, so attacking the problems there is hard. The question is how we might respond to them at the levels at which we do have some professional leverage. See my ideas in the piece.



Relative to what?

A few years ago I was on an outside review committee for a department of Comparative Literature at an Ivy-ish institution. Among the statistics we were given as part of our evaluation of the department was that enrollments in CL were down 11 percent since the last review. That seems pretty terrible!

Hmm, I said, and asked for statistics for all the other humanities departments. Turns out enrollments across the humanities were down 33 percent. So Comp Lit was actually doing pretty well!

The lesson for all academics and indeed all those of us who use and are used by statistics is: relative to what? All rates of change are relative, and deciding what the larger category of relation ought to be (humanities departments? the whole university? Comp Lit departments elsewhere around the country?) is of course critical to be able to understand one’s own situation.

All this by way of saying that the 44 percent decline in majors that took place at the U of Montana (see my last post) apparently took place in the context of a 33 percent overall drop in enrollments (not the same as majors, but still) at the university in general. So. My point about what one ought to do remains, but… shame on Montana and on me for not asking the right question.


Ob princeps legibus solutus sit

The legal argument in my title, articulated by late Roman jurists — “that the ruler is above the laws”– is one of the things we don’t believe in a democracy, and names a test American democracy is having to face. Not in order to fail it, I devoutly hope.

But at the moment I am perplexed by another kind of law that we seem to have abrogated in the favor of our clownish rulers: the rule that you should at least try to tell the truth, so as not to be despised by your community, and that you should try to make sense, lest you be classed as a fool.

To release your ruler, or your neighbor, from these obligations is to be in a very dangerous place indeed.


Majors down 44%; what to do?

Lots of justified outrage, fear, and anger on Twitter about the University of Montana’s plan to collapse its language departments and to cut 6 tenure-line faculty in English and 7.5 in the languages. The university’s president, who has an MA degree, is a former middle manager at GE. OK. All good.

But. The rationale for the cuts in the report is that majors in these fields are down 44 percent (since when it doesn’t say). So. Your majors are down 44 percent. I understand that it’s not your fault (you’re teaching the same thing you’ve always been teaching; your material didn’t suddenly become 44 percent less interesting). But … it’s your responsibility to attempt to change the situation, no? Even if it’s not your fault? And if you don’t (and maybe the good folks at Montana tried) or if you tried but couldn’t, then… what ground do you have to stand on when it comes to conversations with Deans and Provosts and Presidents?

I feel like my colleagues around the country are not addressing this issue: if your majors are down 44 percent, why should you keep the same number of faculty? How can you justify this, without resorting to claims about the “inherent value” of what you do that could be made equally compellingly by any department at the university?

My solution to this problem is to start trying new things, because it might be better at least to die fighting than to die inch by inch. More posts to come.



A Little Knowledge

Take identity-rhetoric, virtue-signaling, competitive outrage, Twitter-forwarding, and stir. You get something like this mob action about a high school student’s prom dress as cultural appropriation. The funny thing? Qipao are not even Chinese. The qi 旗 in qipao 旗袍 means “banner,” indicating the Manchu origin of this item of clothing: a “banner robe.”

The Manchus, for those who are operating with a comic-book understanding of world history, are a semi-nomadic people from the grasslands of southern Siberia who invaded and conquered China by stages in the seventeenth century, founding the Qing dynasty which ruled from 1644 to 1911. They were organized into “banners” (qi) or military tribes. The nomad origin of the qipao is visible in its tight sleeves and split skirt (it probably would have been worn over trousers originally): both features you want in your robe if you’re going to be riding a horse and shooting arrows.

The qipao became “Chinese” only as a result of the imposition of the norms of a colonial regime. Yes, the Manchus had the same eye, skin and hair color as the Chinese. But they were deeply resented by Chinese under their rule and committed the usual colonial acts of brutality. How soon we forget.


Engineering for the Arts and Letters Set

Sometimes I wonder if the past few decades of work in science and technology studies have made any deep impress on the minds of people whose work is mainly in literature and the theory of interpretation. I don’t claim any special knowledge of STEM disciplines, just a steady curiosity and a readiness to appropriate any models that I find lying around, if they provoke a train of thought. For some years I’ve been annoyed by the repetition in my circles of lit-and-theory people of a couple of phrases that imply knowledge of how engineering and technology work, and yet say the opposite of what anybody who has ever changed the brakes on a bicycle or attempted to fix a faucet knows.

  1. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Audre Lorde).  To believe this, you would have to believe that the tools are essentially and permanently the master’s– that tools always and exclusively do the bidding of the person who owns them. And that is simply not true. If they are tools, they are available to do any job that lies within their technical affordances. Even if you wrote on a crowbar, “FOR EXCLUSIVE USE IN SUPPORT OF WHITE PATRIARCHY,” that wouldn’t scare off a feminist or an anti-racist who took a mind to dismantle some housing with it. Tools are tools; they can’t be brainwashed or threatened, only locked up, and locks (which are tools) can be picked (using other tools). In fact, I would suspect that the tools best suited to dismantling the master’s house are the tools that were used to build it. (One precondition: that the tools must be out of the master’s hands. But that’s not difficult: if you’re a master, traditionally you have subcontractors to do the sweaty work for you.) Or to step out of allegory: the high-end education that benefited those in power from, say 1492 to the present, is the most desirable education for whoever wants to restructure the apparatus of social power. Luddites please abstain.
  2. “Strategic essentialism” (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak). To utter this slogan is to invoke the touching belief that strategies always work– that the person who commands the strategy is in control of its means and consequences. And (see the paragraph about tools above) that’s not the case. Strategies blow up in the strategist’s face; they always have. They lead to developments that nobody anticipated. And if you think that essentialism is a bad habit of mind, an oppressive psychological trick, an error that generates endless other errors, then you shouldn’t adopt it selectively at moments when you think it congratulates you. I am sure there are a lot of people who keep a loaded pistol in the drawer “for self-protection.” Thousands of people every year discover that it was a bad idea precisely because the pistol meant for self-protection wasn’t aware that it was dedicated to that use, and behaved as if it were designed to kill three-year-olds. Do not make this mistake.

I have a long list of fantasies about technology that cripple literary scholars in their dealing, not with technology per se, but with the apparatus and infrastructure of their own disciplines. But let these start the parade.


3-D Printing in 1891

From the Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences of Paris (Comptes rendus hebdomadaires de l’Académie des Sciences), vol. 45 (1891), 1496:

M. Antoine Cros presents for the Academy’s evaluation a paper entitled “The Teleplast. An example of the transformation of form into rhythm and vice versa. Transmission of shapes over distances, without transmission of matter.”

The transmission of images over the telegraph had already been performed by Bain, Bakewell and Caselli, and Antoine Cros’ brother Charles Cros had imagined using a similar system to send pictures to open communications with the denizens of Mars. I haven’t been able to find out much more about the Téléplaste, except that, characteristically, this advanced technological object was easily confused with mystical bla-bla involving the remote sensing of ectoplasmic entities.

In any case, the wheels may have turned more slowly in 1891 but they were moving.



I saw Isle of Dogs the other day and have been absent-mindedly following the press. Some viewers try hard to find something scandalous in the film’s use of Japanese culture. Does Wes Anderson exoticize, Orientalize, dehumanize Japan? Can we possibly get upset about something here? I find that after watching puppets move on a screen for two hours in a row, my own movements seem scarcely human to me, like the products of a painstakingly assembled but still slightly awkward stop-motion sequence. Perhaps being able to wield the term “dehumanizing” as an accusation isn’t a guarantee of moral magic after all. I’ll have to ask Viktor Shklovsky, or he’s not at home, Bertholt Mei Brecht Lan-fang.



Another Fifteen Minutes

You’ve heard the remark credited to Andy Warhol, that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. You might not know that Tristan Corbière (1845-1875) was there first:

“Va: tréteaux, lupanars, églises,
Cour des miracles, cour d’assises:
— Quarts d’heure d’immortalité!”

In flat paraphrase, this would give something like: “Go ahead: the stage, whorehouses, churches, / beggars’ den, criminal court: — / Quarter-hours of immortality!”


Insomnia Mashup

It occurred to me the other night that the Brahms Ballade no. 2, as rendered by Glenn Gould in 1982, is a missing John Fahey composition, played on the wrong instrument.


The Goldberg Variations Variations

Glenn Gould’s 1956 album of the Goldberg Variations– I’ve lived with that record for as long as I can remember. I also have Gould’s 1981 version, the thoughtful rather than impetuous one, but the 1956 record comes first. First chronologically, but (somehow) axiologically. When I hear other people play the score– accomplished artists with something to say– it’s as if every note comes marked with a little aside: “Glenn hit this one a little harder,” “Glenn sustained this one for a tenth of a second longer,” “Different from Glenn’s ornamentation,” “Glenn chose to bring out the tenor voice in this bar.” Not that I am a GG unconditionalist, but that’s the reference recording in my ear and brain, so help me Gould.

Now Sony has issued a 7-CD compilation of the session tapes that went into the making of the album, and it’s like looking into Flaubert’s manuscripts. Gould (23 at the time) put in long days at the studio, doing one take after another, trying out this way, that way, giving up after ten bars of something that he could see wasn’t going to be good enough, reminding himself of the bass figures, humming to himself (of course), going fast, then slow, with more or less attack, laying down competing tracks for later selection. You hear the variants that lay behind what was to become the canon. It’s like peering into the Language Module of someone’s brain, or a Borgesian library of permutations. And it’s like being in the house while someone practices Bach all day, which brings up some of the pleasantest memories I have.


Thoughts and Prayers

I realize that “thoughts and prayers” are being widely mocked as superficial and thoughtless. Prayer is far from useless, though. In a situation like last year, in which our best friend died of a brain tumor, losing her mind by inches, there was nothing empirical that we could have done. We could not have increased the efficacy of her treatment or the expertise of her doctors; we could not have altered the course of her cancer. It is in this kind of situation that prayer is useful because it goes beyond the usual channels of causation. Prayer addresses our Creator and asks Him to provide what we cannot supply ourselves.

Prayer requires focus and intention; it is not a little thought that from time to time surfaces in one of the eddies of the mind. Sustained prayer takes a while. On Yom Kippur, for just over a day, we do nothing but pray (except for the congregants gossiping and the kids running around in the synagogue courtyard); if we take the day seriously, we pray for our very lives. Now we feel it; our own lives may be forfeit in the coming year. Sholem Asch’s story of a fool/sage, “The Village Saint,” makes the stakes no lower; in the end, the fool/sage, who does not know how to read, communicates with God on Yom Kippur with a whistle, and it is enough to avert God’s severe decree.

But prayer does not substitute for action. You did not see the religious leaders of the SCLC, in the late 1960s, immure themselves in their churches and assume that their prayers would change everything around them. They had to go out, to march, to sit in, and to stand up. They had to stand up to the worst our society had to offer them, and they did so without regret. They likely did pray for their own lives and those of their congregants, but they went out and faced the policemen, dogs, and water cannons.

Most of the prayers I have made, either from the prayer book or my heart, have not been “successful.” It may have been due to my intention being less than complete, or to my having sinned in various ways and not taking care of that before my petition. It may have been due to hypocrisy on my part, or due to my having told someone of my intention to pray. And as for the greater problems that affect us in this country and this world, God may have already decreed that they take place. As the angel Gabriel says in the Martyrology on Yom Kippur, “You must accept this, my righteous, beloved ones, for I have heard from behind the heavenly screen that you have been ensnared.”

And yet still I persist — as some friends would say, holding an imaginary dialogue with a nonexistent old man with a white beard. The greatest effrontery of the “thoughts and prayers” locution is that prayer seldom takes place, even for a second. Perhaps if the “thoughts and prayers” people took ten or twenty minutes to pray from the heart, not to comfort themselves but to offer something up whose chances are unknown, the balance of our merits would change. Perhaps they would realize that it was still within their power to go out and change things and that the old man with the long, white beard was waiting for them.


My Cousin the Bot

One of the many reasons for unplugging from Facebook is the spectacle of many of my relatives avidly reposting falsehoods generated by Russian, Serbian and Montenegrin troll farms. They don’t seem to have the wit or energy to write up their own lies, but just push “Share” on items posted by nonexistent users like “jamesjo76415286,” “Survive Our Collapse,” “Sunday Gunday,” “@GenJohnKelly” (an acknowledged parody account) and “Kim Daskam.” Here’s how you relativize treason, by treating as facts a lie in multiple layers by the current occupant of the White House:

And here is how you make gun control sound like a bad idea: it “didn’t work,” supposedly, in the towns where a lot of black folks happen to live:

But an Ivanka Trump lookalike in a cowboy hat? Hell, give that girl a an AK-47 with a bump (heh heh) stock.

From an alternate universe in which numbers count for something, here’s a handy tally comparing gun laws and per-capita gun deaths. (Safehome.org.)

And here’s the international ranking:

For once, I’m not proud to see the USA as #1. (A roundup from Vox here.)

I’ve discovered that sending a friendly message suggesting that these relatives might like to check Snopes before posting doesn’t help– for them, Snopes is another liberal conspiracy, and there is no shame in being found wrong. As one cousin wrote to me, “You still believe Snopes? We don’t know anything.” If you don’t know anything, you aren’t responsible for anything, ain’t that convenient. So: The kid who shot 17 students at his former high school the other day did so, if you listen to some of my relatives, because Hillary bought him a gun and sent him out to use it, or because the FBI somehow set him up. There’s no abyss of stupidity too profound to be shared by these over-sharers, who somehow think they are saving the Republic by doing so. Team Trump over Team Truth!

Should I move to a cave in the mountains? Or am I already in a cave in the mountains and just don’t know it?

For example, a few days after the Parkland massacre, one of my relatives had this to say (or rather, repost):

So: the real issue, apparently, is not taking action to protect human lives. The important thing to do is nitpick about something Obama said, push the NRA’s long-discredited interpretation of the Second Amendment (“a well-regulated militia” was never about citizens’ right to resist their government), and cheer for upcoming civil war on our own territory. If a kid murdered people with an assault weapon, it was (a) somehow Obama’s fault, and (b) justified in the larger scheme of things, because if you disapprove of mass murder, you must have been brainwashed that way by Soros and the globalists. That’s what you might call some deep thinking from the world of suburban Southern white folks.

Another analysis shows you how my kinfolk work the moral calculus.

Fortunately, it’s just talk; but talk kills, with a little help from accompanying material factors.


Unlike Fine Wine

At an editorial conference today, trying to get my colleagues to see the point of a piece I’d written with a small edge of polemic, I realized that the argument in the piece is a version of one that I’ve been making for twenty-five years, and it’s still not getting anywhere. Not for any lack of empirical accuracy or logical consistency (I’ve checked). People just don’t want to hear it. Though stubborn, I don’t expect things to improve.


Faculty Psychology

I confess to a fondness for the old psychology of the faculties, where neatly differentiated components like Sentience, Judgment and Will are labeled, articulated and shown to work like the parts of a pinball machine. Assume that these faculties are housed in distinct organs, like the ones down in the belly, and phrenology is the result. Within the disciplines of the mind sciences, this way of thinking is way out of date, just one step up from the homunculus or “little man inside the head” model. But if we adjust the scope to focus not on the individual brain, but on the organized group, it begins to make some sense; and since, as Vygotsky, Dewey and so many others tried to teach us, thinking is a social act, the transfer from mind to social practice is easy.

I think of the newspaper– the classic newspaper developed under liberal-democratic governance, in stages from around 1750 to just recently– as an example of faculty psychology write large. It is a way of organizing intellectual labor for certain ends and against certain defects. To idealize somewhat (so don’t object that this is indeed an idealization), you have the Fact department, the Editorial department, and the Business office. The Fact reporters are out there working the pavement and the telephone lines. What happened, who did it, to whom, how, why, and what happened next. The Editorial writers sit in their cubicles wreathing elaborate smoke rings of fantasized verdicts and futures around the odds and ends brought in by Fact. What does this mean, what must we think, if we accept this, what possible objection will be have against that, where are we going. The Editorial writers have no business intervening with the Fact seekers. If anything, the Fact people have the right to go upstairs and spike a story concocted by the Editorialists if it turns out to be based on no facts or an incorrect assessment of facts given. Meanwhile, the Business office is drumming up advertising and subscription revenue– autonomously, it is expected. It would raise a stink if a story reported by Fact or a view suggested by Editorial were to be swayed by considerations of Business (say, by a threat on the part of a major tobacco advertiser to pull their full-page cigarette ads if the paper goes ahead and prints a story about smoking and lung cancer). It would also raise a stink if the editor-in-chief decided that an important piece of reportage needed to be shelved because the readers wouldn’t like it. Of course, when I say I idealize, I don’t mean that such interventions across the boundary of “church and state” (newspaper slang for the division between news and sales) never happened. Of course they happened, probably all the time, and it’s a wonder that the Fact people ever got their jobs done. But when we find out about it, we’re scandalized, and we are right to be so because the large-circulation newspaper, purporting to represent facts as they are together with opinions reasonably arrived at, is a form of thought-processing, and its corruption is a menace to the general interest. “Corruption” in the circles I inhabit means the subornation of the fact and judgment processes by the business process– not the other way around. (I suppose there are hard-core monopolists who usually take corruption to be the production of untoward facts by people heedless of the bottom line. Such people tend to denounce everything newsworthy as “fake.”)

Compare this differentiated and constitutionally hierarchicized processing of news with the non-transparence of e.g. Facebook. You don’t know where the facts come from, who represents them, and the role of money-making interest in publishing them is completely obscure. Enough reason to refuse to pay the slightest attention to that channel.

And as a further thought on the differences between Mother Jones and the New York Times on reporting the Steele/Russia/collusion story: it seems to me out of place to blame the NYT as a whole for shoddy work. I know this brings satisfaction to some; I have often hated the Times’s stupidity in reporting on and instigating American murderous intent and action in Haiti, Iraq, and a few other places. It would be good to know– for the health of the Times and of democracy in this country– exactly how the decision was taken to report in early November 2016 that there was no news about collusion, when every indication since then has been that there was.



The content of the remarks– don’t pretend you didn’t already know that that’s how the man thinks.

The purpose– to assert dominance. Over refugees and potential refugees, certainly. Over political opponents (shamelessness sends the signal “this is what I say and you can’t do a damned thing about it”). And, with the addition of a gaslighting episode on the day after, the power to assert control over reality (“it never happened if I say it never happened, see?”).

I hope some minds that needed changing are changed.


Man Sees Horse 人見馬 (Reprise)

In Ernest Fenollosa’s essay The Chinese Written Character as a Medium of Poetry, made famous by Ezra Pound, some quaint things are said about Chinese writing as a system of “shorthand depictions” of material things, “moving pictures” of objects and actions, and possibly the future language of the whole world. I’ve written about this primitivist paradox before, but never stopped to think what the Fenollosa/Pound piece would mean to people who really do experience language as a sequence of moving images. By that I don’t mean “the Chinese” (the only Chinese who qualify under this description would be scribes who have forgotten what languages they spoke) but, for example, Deaf people, and preeminently the poets who have wrestled ASL away from its status as an accessory language useful only for mediating English to non-hearing people. If you know Peter Cook’s work, you’ve seen ASL poetry in all its resourcefulness, grabbing, twisting and sculpting its signifiers and pointing toward meanings that it would take a long, patient gloss to make available to mere English-speakers like me. Here are a couple of short poems based on Chinese-character anecdotes taken from Fenollosa (Youtube, at 32:40; but you ought to watch the whole presentation).


Still Harping on about Factoids

From the 2018 MLA panel on science studies in the age of “alternative facts.”

Many of us have felt that we’re living in a time out of joint, when evidence and reasoned argument can be thrown aside by people with enough money to buy enough megaphones to promote their vested interests; this is not how it’s supposed to work, because facts are supposed to be stubborn things, and a lie should always be weaker than the truth. In his 2004 essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” and his recent Facing Gaia, Latour shows that if the unyielding stubbornness of the fact has been an article of faith for modern people, the invincible power of interest has caused many people to put their efforts into rolling back modernity, and in doing so they’ve echoed the language that many of us used to prise apart the grip that other vested interests held on such “facts” as immutable human nature, racial and gender determinism, the hierarchies of class, and so forth. As the Republican strategist Frank Luntz never tires of saying, in trying to gainsay the consensus on the part of geologists and climatologists that global warming is real and human industrial activity has accelerated it, one doesn’t need to offer a single fact in evidence; one merely needs to drum up a discussion that will be taken for a “lack of scientific certainty” about the conclusions. The climate deniers will create an ambiance in which the threshold for proclaiming something a “fact” is impossibly high, and then parlay that into an illusion that the spread of yes/no answers on the question is something like 50/50, when it is really something much closer to 100/0, although the preponderance of money and megaphones is with the minority that has an interest in perpetuating uncertainty and thus delaying any action to slow the pace of global warming.

I don’t endorse climate-change denial and I think the pretense of a debate around the issue is one of the more deplorable tricks in the history of manipulation. But I do acknowledge that some of the moves used by those manipulators have been indispensable to me in my own career of teaching and learning—and indeed they should be. Uncertainty, if I may echo James Bond, is my business, and it’s yours too if you want to make your hearers analytic rather than dogmatic thinkers. Whenever I come on a buried certainty in my repertoire of thought positions, I try to loosen it by asking: Is this really a regularity, or am I indulging in confirmation bias when I tell myself that “Xs always do Y?” Do the regularities amount to a rule, or a delicately cultivated anecdote? Do further examples confirm the scope of the category, or undermine it? Where are the counterexamples? And so on. Outside of my personal thinking and reading practice, I use such techniques in the classroom, always with the intent of dislodging, with this rhetorical WD-40, the frozen certainties of students who tell me, fresh as they are from family or hometown preconceptions, that individualism is un-Chinese, that God created Adam and Eve in preference to Adam and Steve, that men are rational and women are emotional, or what not. What about this counterexample? What about that fact? Are you so sure? Maintaining a lack of certainty about many positions that come naturally to the people of this or that milieu is how we in the humanities earn our keep. We make sure that debate goes forward, that positions don’t get dug in, and (maybe) that new kinds of identity and interest get a chance to speak up. We can do this without ever breathing the heady syllables of “postmodernism,” which some editorial-writers in a race to file copy by deadline have blamed for the era of “alternative facts” in which we now are said to live. As if a philosophical critique of one epistemological model had somehow paralyzed the critical faculties of a 350-million-member public and left us with no means of crying foul when nonsense is promulgated.

Latour’s solution is like that of the driver in the snow. You all remember the rule: when your car begins to spin and lose traction, don’t clamp on the brakes and try to achieve an already long-gone stasis, but turn the steering wheel in the direction of the skid and try to get out of it by going into it. Latour discerns in the appeal to facts-as-they-are a remnant of that old fact-vs-interpretation distinction, correlative to the nature-vs-culture distinction, that marked a long moment in the sociology of knowledge but was never really satisfactory anyhow, and now comes up against its nemesis, the newly tightened citizenship qualifications for admission to the realm of fact that exclude almost every possible candidate and leave us all floundering in a snowscape of “perceptions,” chacun à son goût. His proposal is to improve the quality of debate by agreeing that a fact is a socially constructed thing, but to point out that a social construction is by no means a fictive cobweb that can be dispelled with a gesture of the voluntarist hand. Criticism is never just a matter of pointing out the other person has got the facts wrong! Let us enlarge the definition of “society” that impels the social construction, by widening the group of stakeholders to include the agents and networks so prominent in his account of epistemological behavior. Let us not make everything hinge on the existence of facts, a supposedly apolitical starting point, but on the recruitment of a majority among these newly nominated agents.


As I read Latour’s recent work, they led me to think of two readings of the following passage from James Weldon Johnson’s great novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, first published anonymously in 1912. I’ll first introduce and read the passage, then summarize it under reading A, then under reading B.


[A Texan, a Yankee profiting from the Southern economy, a Unionist veteran, a Jew, and the novel’s title character, a mixed-race man able to pass for black or white according to the circumstances, are all together in the smoking car of a train discussing American racial politics. Some approve of segregation, some question it, some proclaim it a necessity owing to the inherent superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. After hearing out arguments to the effect that the Anglo-Saxon race never invented anything, does not deserve its present supremacy, and is fated to go down like every other master race in previous history, the pro-segregationist Texan answers by pulling out and passing around a flask of whiskey, saying, “Well, that may be, but facts is facts, and we’re not gonna have no colored people ruling over us, and that’s the end of it.”


            “The Texan’s position does not render things so hopeless, for it indicates that the main difficulty of the race question does not lie so much in the actual condition of the blacks as it does in the mental attitude of the whites; and a mental attitude, especially one not based on truth, can be changed more easily than actual conditions. That is to say, the burden of the question is not that the whites are struggling to save ten million despondent and moribund people from sinking into a hopeless slough of ignorance, poverty and barbarity in their very midst, but that they are unwilling to open certain doors of opportunity and to accord certain treatment to ten million aspiring, education-and-property-acquiring people. In a word, the difficulty of the problem is not so much due to the facts presented, as to the hypothesis assumed for its solution. In this it is similar to the problem of the Solar System. By a complex, confusing and almost contradictory mathematical process, by the use of zigzags instead of straight lines, the earth can be proved the center of things celestial; but in an operation so simple that it can be comprehended by a schoolboy, its position can be verified among the other worlds which revolve around the sun, and its movements harmonized with the laws of the universe. So, when the white race assumes as a hypothesis that it is the main object of creation, and that all things else are merely subsidiary to its well being, sophism, subterfuge, perversion of conscience, arrogance, injustice, oppression, cruelty, sacrifice of human blood, all are required to maintain the position, and its dealings with other races become indeed a problem, a problem which, if based on a hypothesis of common humanity, could be solved by the simple rules of justice.” — James Weldon Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), in Writings (New York: Library of America, 2004), 101.


Reading A: The doctrine of white supremacy is as absurd as the geocentric hypothesis. In cosmology there are facts, which everybody who is modern since Copernicus has already learned to accept. You white supremacists are, like the remaining geocentricists if there are any, backward, brainwashed, dogmatic and are wasting your mental energy trying to prove a thing that is inherently and obviously false. You are obsolete. You can go on deluding yourselves until the end of time, and if so, good luck to you, but you’ll never achieve anything that way. On the other hand, the simple rules of justice would do away with the problem (proving the superiority of the white race) and the means for its pseudo-solution (oppressing everyone who is not white).


Reading B: We, the actually existing majority, have agreed on a hypothesis (a matter of concern) that entails certain facts, and these facts are different from the ones that are required by your hypothesis; moreover, the consequences of the majority’s hypothesis are beneficial whereas the consequences of your hypothesis are entirely destructive, even to yourselves. At least one book that represents this point of view exists; it is in your hands, you have just heard our arguments, and others will follow to present better and richer arguments. We tell you therefore that you may have your so-called facts, but only to be voted down again and again, and the Occam’s Razor that will doom you to futility is the greater epistemic efficiency and broader appeal of the hypothesis we are putting forth.


– Faith in progress. The geocentric cosmos giving way to the heliocentric cosmos is not just an illustration—it is the example of examples, the displacement that put us all in our proper place and taught us how to think and observe. Social equality is inevitable, like the victory of science over ignorance.

As I used to read the passage, this was the main ingredient. Now when I reread it with attention to the orchestration of “matters of fact” with “matters of concern,” other components push their way forward and become more and more the drivers of the passage’s logic:

– Its refusal to engage in the reality of “races” (the vast domain of dubious “facts” that constitute race science, alas alive and well in popular thought today).

– Fantasy of democratic efficiency. If only voices were not suppressed, truth would out. The energy that currently goes to suppressing them could be reoriented to productive ends.


Whether you follow reading A, emphasizing the matters of fact, or reading B, emphasizing the social matters of concern, the persuasiveness of the paragraph still depends on logic and the summoning-up of an as yet imaginary forum to debate it all. And unfortunately, in the United States, as in many places, we are still trying to get a quorum for social equality, as we are struggling to get one for many other matters previously thought to be in the domain of scientific authority and now allegedly left up to the whim of lobbyists and billionaires. And the notion of a community of Latourian agents might not be a definitive solution to the problem of bought opinion, because, as we know today, money can buy you quite a few bots, virtual humans often taken by physical humans to be fellow-beings, fully qualified as agents under almost any reading of Latour’s account of the sociology of science, and quicker to multiply than you and I are, though their purpose is to confuse and drown out rival views.

Still, I think there is a purpose in summoning-up. That would be our job, as professionals of language and argument: a linguistic act that requires us to exercise the phatic, conative, and poetic functions, rather than make everything rest on the referential/constative dimension of language which is not traditionally within our docket. Latour’s critical performance in Facing Gaia summons us, as the people most receptive to his summons, to go out and summon up the enlarged public along lines he sketches out. I think there are few more timely tasks for the imagination.