Rehearsal for July 16

DONNY. Vlad, I really admire what you’ve been able to do. Strong leadership, not a peep out of your national press, the Duma is 100% behind you, and you can just reach out and grab Ukraine by the Crimea, and no problem, everybody’s fine. What’s your secret?

VLAD. Easy. I get people in a position where I have leverage over them, and then I have them poisoned if they don’t do as I say.


VLAD. Now about those emails…


Ad astra

Do you know why I would like to be named director of the Imperial Roman Space Agency? So I could launch the Petronius Orbiter.


Creeping Monolingualism

I know Anne Fadiman, and she’s not stupid, blinkered, or chauvinistic. Yet how impenetrable English-speakers can sometimes be to the fact that other languages exist, and count as means of communication and record! See her New Yorker piece on not liking wine, which mentions by-the-by that

Haut-Brion is generally considered the first wine ever to receive a review—by the diarist Samuel Pepys, who visited London’s Royall Oak Tavern, on April 10, 1663, and, as he noted in his journal, “here drank a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.” Haut-Brion was drunk by Dryden, Swift, Defoe, and Locke. When Thomas Jefferson was the American minister to France, he bought six cases of Haut-Brion and sent them back to Monticello.

“Generally considered” by people whose world is bounded by the approximately five hundred years of the English language that’s easy going for non-philologists, I guess. Isn’t it a pity that over the four thousand or so years that wine drinking has been going on, none of the Greeks, Romans, Italians, French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc., ever conceived of the idea of writing down their thoughts about a particular vintage? Or does something count as a “wine review” only if it’s written for English-speakers? Good thing that Pepys, Dryden, Swift, Defoe, Locke and Jefferson were on the job, otherwise the world would never have known of Ho Brian. And it’s really a pity, then, that Odysseus’s words were wasted, inasmuch as he spoke them in a remote provincial palaver unknown to humanity:

With me I had a goat-skin of the dark, sweet wine, which Maro, son of Euanthes, had given me, the priest of Apollo, the god who used to watch over Ismarus. And he had given it me because we had protected him with his child and wife out of reverence; for he dwelt in a wooded grove of Phoebus Apollo. And he gave me splendid gifts: of well-wrought gold he gave me seven talents, and he gave me a mixing-bowl all of silver; and besides these, wine, wherewith he filled twelve jars in all, wine sweet and unmixed, a drink divine. Not one of his slaves nor of the maids in his halls knew thereof, but himself and his dear wife, and one house-dame only. And as often as they drank that honey-sweet red wine he would fill one cup and pour it into twenty measures of water, and a smell would rise from the mixing-bowl marvellously sweet; then verily would one not choose to hold back. (Odyssey, book 9, tr. Murray)

And likewise the consumer report filed by Archilochus:

I know how to strike up the fine dithyrambic song of Dionysos,
when I’m blitzed with wine
(fragment 120)

For locals only?


Pourquoi j’aime la France

C’est parce que, dans ce pays lointain et peut-être imaginaire, il se trouve quelques centaines de passionnés des lettres pour s’en entretenir comme cette bande d’énergumènes. J’ai bien dit “lettres,” pour souligner le fait que ces lecteurs emballés ne se confinent pas à la “littérature,” mais discutent (et bien) de la philosophie, de la théologie, des lois, de plusieurs époques de la littérature latine et grecque, pour critiquer comme des supporters de foot les choix et le calendrier de la série “La Pléiade” de chez Gallimard. Leur amour sans provincialisme des choses de l’esprit me fait revivre.


Last of the Swingers

“If the President does it, it’s not illegal.” Back in the Watergate days, we used to hoot at that assertion, because we recognized it as a formula for dictatorship. And we’re a country of laws, not of men, or so said the civics textbooks. In our back pocket was the ultimate argument, the courts. And the Constitution, which with its separation of powers and brokering of functions, protected us from would-be dictators. We slept securely with that knowledge.

So Kennedy, the occasional swing vote on the Court, has retired. Within a few months– probably before the midterms– we will have to come up with answers to the slogan, “If the President does it and the Supreme Court condones it, it’s not illegal.”

The newspapers are all about the likely outcomes for Roe v. Wade. An important liberty was established by that decision, but not the only liberty. Let’s not forget what else might happen.

First, corruption, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the quashing of civil liberties, draconian anti-immigration measures and other devices to ensure an aging minority of very rich people retains the whip hand in this country. The Bill of Rights will be declared unconstitutional by a majority on the Court that won’t care about stare decisis, case law, controlling instances and other technical matters where law regulates itself (boiling down to such imperatives as “face the facts” and “be consistent”). The First Amendment will be reconstrued in ways that limit permissible speech and cripple the investigative powers of the press. The Second Amendment’s “well-ordered militia” clause will be reinterpreted restrictively, enabling the unlimited possession of arms by bands of irregulars, call them Tontons Macoutes or Siloviki, who terrorize the unarmed population in support of whatever the dictator’s hate campaign of the month is. And so on. If you want to know the future, look to Russia these days, or perhaps the Israel-Gaza relationship: an utterly asymmetrical power ratio between the rulers and a significant party of the ruled, and a lot of pillage going on with the approval of rubber-stamp courts.

But so long as there is enough to eat, five hundred channels of television, and some ongoing celebrity scandal, people will be cool with it, I guess. Those who aren’t cool with it are likely to put up resistance, and it will hurt. I don’t want anybody to get hurt, which is the deep reason for my belief in democracy and the separation of powers: they make it possible to mediate conflicts without the spilling of blood.


Philosophy of History

Further evidence that progress is a thing of the past: George W Bush’s Cabinet was full of Nixon-era revanchists. Trump’s is full of WWII-era revanchists.


“Obama Did It Too”

— is not a good argument. It’s a Republican talking point, which in itself warrants suspicion. But more than that, it distracts our attention from policies to personalities. Obama was good in many ways, but he wasn’t perfect, and like any American president he let some terrible policies be enacted in his time. It was (and is) our job as the American public to let Obama and any successors know when things are going wrong and justice is not being served. Our job is not to cheer on the sidelines of some fantasized Obama-Trump or Hillary-Trump smackdown.


O’erleaping Itself

Disgust, ethologists since Darwin and Richet tell us, is an emotion rooted in self-preservation. You have an instinctive aversion to tastes, sensations, and things that are likely to be harmful. (The history of the concept by Wilfried Menninghaus is worth a read, though it’s definitely the work of a Germanist.) Moral disgust, I suppose, is the same emotion projected onto an ideal body, the body of laws, habits and conventions that make us an “us.”

I find the repeated experience of moral disgust to be corrosive, and thus undermining of the supposed original purpose of the feeling. But there’s no way to let go of it. Perhaps it will outlive me.



Signature Event Conte( )t

For hundreds of years, people who were unable to write attested their consent by scratching an “X” on documents they were unable to read. Why X? Why not A, or I, or O?

Of course, there’s the thought of the cross, which in Christian countries might stand as the sign of any individual.

I’ve long thought— perhaps whimsically— that the validity of “X” as a marker of intention comes from its intersection of two opposite lines. Anything, even a branch falling from a tree, can scratch a diagonal line on a surface, but to do the same thing in the opposite direction and have the two lines meet at a point bespeaks awareness and intent, which a judicially recognized signature aims to confirm. The second line of the “X” is supposed to be a minimal extra added on to nature, and once you’ve done that, you’ve started to act in the world, to “persist and sign” as they say in French.



A Fine Kettle

I often think denouncing others from a position of self-asserted moral purity is a narcissistic way of engaging with an imperfect world. Here’s something from today’s Inbox that reminds me of how things can go askew. The allusion to current US policy is particularly well-aimed.

Statement by the AAS Officers on the 2018 AAS-in-Asia Conference

A controversy is developing among the AAS membership with regard to the AAS-in-Asia conference in Delhi, following the decision of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of the Government of India to deny visas to all Pakistani scholars. The AAS-in-Asia conferences began as an experiment four years ago. Two questions now face our membership: 1) Should the experiment to hold AAS-in-Asia conferences be terminated? and 2) How should AAS handle the current situation?

With regard to the first question, AAS members need to consider two sets of difficulties that arise in holding AAS conferences in Asia. The first is finding host institutions that are willing to provide the faculty, administrative staffing, and funding involved in organizing a conference that is now being attended by some 1,000 scholars. This is a challenge everywhere: even the smaller regional conferences affiliated with AAS stateside are finding it difficult in this age of budget cutbacks to find campuses willing to serve as host institutions. Securing a partner for a much larger event involves extended discussion of logistics, responsibilities, and finances.

The second major set of problems is political. With the possible exception of one or two countries in Asia, it is difficult to find a politically uncomplicated country to serve as a conference venue, so that issues of visas and academic freedom do not arise. As we know, the problem is no less acute in the U.S., where the latest iteration of the federal government’s travel ban puts restrictions on visitors from five predominantly Muslim countries and adds limits on certain travelers from two non-Muslim countries.

With regard to the second set of problems, AAS is coming under attack for two reasons: 1) for its decision to proceed with the conference being co-hosted by Ashoka University and 2) for the AAS’s failure to inform its members as soon as it learned of the Indian government’s decision not to grant visas to any scholars from Pakistan.

AAS and Ashoka University have been working on this conference since 2014. The AAS board felt that it was important to rotate the conference across the four regions into which AAS is divided, to counter the apparent East Asia bias in the previous conferences, which were held in Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Despite the many dynamic educational institutions and exciting scholarly research being carried out in South Asia, few scholars from that large region had been participating in the AAS-in-Asia conferences. When faculty and administrators at Ashoka University said they were willing to take on this responsibility, AAS was delighted. The board felt that Ashoka’s offer was an exciting opportunity to deepen scholarly exchanges across Asia , and we agreed to use a multi-tiered fee structure that made participation less expensive for scholars from South Asian (and some other) countries.

The AAS board did discuss issues of academic freedom prior to signing a memorandum of understanding with Ashoka University. Ashoka was firm in its commitment to the selection of panels on the basis of academic merit and breadth of participation across institutions and countries. These principles were honored in the selection of panels. We also raised the question of the difficulty of obtaining visas for individual scholars to travel to India; we did not, however, anticipate a blanket refusal to issue visas to all scholars from a given country. Nor did we know that the Indian government would also include in this prohibition people of Pakistani origin who hold other passports.

As soon as we learned of the MEA’s decision in early March of this year, back-channel efforts were begun to have the MEA’s blanket ruling reversed. In the third week of March, the Pakistani scholars whose panels had been selected for presentation at the conference (a total of eight people) were informed about the MEA ruling. They were offered the option of presenting their papers via Skype, as a way of ensuring our commitment to academic freedom and salvaging their valuable contributions as far as possible despite the MEA’s ruling. The MEA letter was posted on the conference website on March 6, and the subsequent letter from the Home Ministry, which arrived on April 6, was posted on April 9.

Scholars are now signing a petition not only denouncing the Indian government but also criticizing the way AAS has handled the situation and calling for us to cancel the conference. We acknowledge and understand those who question how AAS has handled the situation, and we respect their views as to how we should deal with it now. For those aware of the history between India and Pakistan, the fact that the MEA has denied visas to Pakistani scholars is, however reprehensible, not unexpected, given the tensions, border skirmishes, and three full wars between the two countries over the past seventy years. Knowing that there was even a possibility that the Indian government would deny visas, should AAS never have agreed to work with an Indian university to hold AAS-in-Asia in India? Further, knowing that there are political complications involved in virtually every country in Asia, should the AAS-in-Asia experiment be terminated?

While there are financial costs in canceling a conference for which reservations were made over a year in advance, there is a broader question to be addressed: Is there merit in working with Asian institutions in the hope of helping to strengthen academic freedoms and civil society, recognizing the contexts of current limitations? We might also go further to ask if scholars should refuse to participate in international conferences held in any country with problematic government policies. This would include the U.S., which has a blanket ban on potential participants from seven countries.

The current officers of the Association are in agreement with those among our members who urge us to oppose restrictions on scholarly exchange across borders and to challenge such restrictions wherever possible. At the same time, we recognize the complex political climates in which many of our colleagues function. We believe that fostering intellectual exchange is often the best means of support, even though in many instances this will involve compromises rather than stances of absolute moral purity.

Media Reports on This Issue

The Wire (India), “Ban on Pak Scholars Against Open Exchange of Ideas: Asian Studies Conference Organisers”

Inside Higher Ed (United States), “No Pakistani Scholars Allowed”




Lavengro: Scholar, Gypsy, Priest by George Borrow, first published in 1851, is a sort of autobiography, with sections that cross over into the domain of the novel and others that reek of polemic or lyric. As autobiographies go, it is as non-standard as Tristram Shandy, in its own way, isWe could not affix to it the subtitle Wordsworth gave his Prelude,“The Growth of a Poet’s Mind.” Nor could we see in it, as in Augustine’s Confessions,the steady underhanded working of Providence. Nor even the working-out of the destiny that matches a character, as with Rousseau. The narrative proceeds by chance events, coincidences, and one long-term addiction. Borrow’s first-person narrator is born into a military family in Norfolk and relocates again and again through the British Isles with the reassignments of his father’s regiment. The father is a conventional Englishman who honors King and Country and hopes that his son will find secure employment, perhaps in the army, perhaps in the Church, or as a clerk to a lawyer (Lavengro133). But the son is useless in any useful employ. His passion is for language. Posted to Ireland, his father’s regiment passes a couple of drovers who say something that makes a young officer ask, “Strange language that! What can it be?”

Continue reading


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.