Legs, standing

Generally, Stanley Fish’s blog is interesting and on point. In this most recent post, however, he reviews a book, and defends its thesis by piling up blather and empty phrases. The comment section is full of exasperated comments. Read the post and you’ll understand the exasperation. Here is the direct link and this is an excerpt.

Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.

Human capacities

On his blog, Stanley Fish reviews Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s new book, Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion. Smith is a marvelous writer, who is generally admired in this household and her new book sounds intriguing as well.

Her point, stated frequently and in the company of careful readings of those who might reject it, is that while science and religion exhibit different models, offer different resources, display different limitations and enter into different relationships of support and (historically specific) antagonism, they are not, and should not be seen as, battle-to-the-death opponents in a cosmic struggle. Nor are they epistemologically distinct in a way that leaves room for only one of them in the life of an individual or a society: “There is nothing that distinguishes how we produce and respond to Gods from how we produce and respond to a wide variety of other social-cognitive constructs ubiquitous in human culture and central to human experience.” Which is not to say that science and religion are the same, only that that their very different efforts to conceptualize and engage with very different challenges have a common source in human capacities and limitations.

Churchill, third

My third and last post (#1 and #2) on Ward Churchill’s trial, who has correctly won his suit against the University of Colorado, but I want to draw attention to Fish’s nuanced account of the affair on his blog.

How did a garden-variety academic quarrel about sources,evidence and documentation complete with a lot of huffing and puffing by everyone get elevated first into a review of the entire life of a tenured academic and then into a court case when that academic was terminated. How and why did it get that far? (…)

It was the jury’s task to determine whether Churchill’s dismissal would have occurred independently of the adverse political response to his constitutionally protected statements. In the ordinary academic course of things would his writings have been subject to the extended and minute scrutiny that led to the committee’s recommendations? (…) The answer seems obvious to me and it has now been given authoritative form in the jury’s verdict.

Boycott & Bankruptcy

Stanley Fish, while providing one of the more balanced statement on the unbelievable and odious call for a boycott of Israeli academics, opts for moral bankruptcy in his column.

The American Association of University Professors ties itself up in knots explaining that while its own history includes “support for divestiture during the anti-apartheid campaigns in South Africa,” it nevertheless opposes this boycott. The rationale seems to be that South Africa was a special, one time case — “South Africa is the only instance in which the organization endorsed some form of boycott” — but that is hardly going to satisfy those who are prosecuting the “if-you-protested-injustice-then–you-should-protest-it-now” argument.

The better course would be for the AAUP and other boycott opponents to accept the equivalence of the two situations, and repudiate what they did in the past. Not “what we did then is different from what we decline to do now,” but “we won’t boycott now and we were wrong to boycott then.”

Whether or not divestiture and other actions taken by academics were decisive in, or even strongly contributory to, ending the apartheid regime is in dispute. What should not be in dispute is that those actions, however salutary and productive of good results, were and are antithetical to the academic enterprise, which while it may provide the tools (of argument, fact and historical research) that enable good and righteous deeds, should never presume to perform them.

Fashionable Hoaxes

Fish discusses Goldstein‘s hoax and revisits the Sokal affair in his blog. Here‘s what he closes with:

A hoax, after all, is a piece of theater. (Blackburn tells the story of an actor who gave a meaningless and nonsensical lecture on mathematical game theory and physical education to approving audiences made up of medical professionals and psychologists.) It’s like a magic trick: one hand does the misdirection, the other does the work behind the scene. Think of “Witness for the Prosecution,” “The Sting,” Clifford Irving’s “authorized” biography of Howard Hughes and the many successes of forgers, counterfeiters and imposters. If a hoax comes off, and there is praise to be bestowed, it should go to the ingenuity of the master illusionist who has set the whole thing up.

So high marks to Goldstein and Sokal for being able to construct a stage setting that produced a calculated effect; but no marks for any claim that what they were able to do had implications for anything beyond its own performance.

Just dumb

Well. Yesterday I was poking fun at Nigel Beale’s absurd idea of how to read literature and art. This is from the first post of his on this topic.

Based on what we have here, what I know of Proust’s life , and my experience reading Holmes and Coleridge, Marchand and Byron, Ellmann and Joyce, Steegmuller and Flaubert, for example, I’m with Sainte-Beuve. Knowing about Coleridge’s life struggles, his politics, his relationship with women (and I’m relying on the accuracy of Holmes’ research), knowing Coleridge this way, enriched my experience of his work, influenced the way I understood it, and increased my appreciation and enjoyment of it. The text remains the same. Its intrinsic aesthetic qualities remain the same, what changes is my reception of them. Because of the biographical information additional layers of interpretation open themselves up to me. Because of the new tenderness I feel for the man, my reading is more sympathetic. Biography obviously doesn’t replace close reading, it augments it.

Well. If you look at yesterday’s post, you’ll notice that actually, in his case, as in most cases, it may open layers of interpretation, but it closes many many more. In my reading experience as a reader of literature and as a reader of literary criticism, inclusion of biographical facts almost always leads to a narrow interpretation.

I hold that the critic is free to consider biographical material for inspiration. But it can never, ever, turn up later as a way of argument. Beale doesn’t understand this crucial division, as is visible in his own abysmally poor remarks, for instance on Picasso. Moreover, such a biographical reading should never be mixed up with a marxist reading, such as Lucien Goldmann’s take on Racine and Pascal in Le Dieu Caché (which is fraught with errors of its own, but that’s a different story). I think I sorted the two out somewhat in this essay.

Biography, in short, doesn’t augment close reading, instead it hampers it. Thousands of essays done this way are ample proof of this, pick up any one of it, I have never read one that wasn’t frustrating, after all was said and done. If you want an example: Gwiazda’s book on Merrill and Auden is exasperatingly bad, not because the author’s such an idiot, but because you can see how the author’s bothered by the weights imposed on him by the biographical details, so much indeed, that the whole book reads like a bizarre experiment in bad literary criticism.

It’s a whole other kettle of fish, of course, when you are reading for fun. I have, personally, read dozens of biographies, I am currently aswim in the wonderful letters of Schwartz and his publisher Laughlin. When literary criticism is not concerned, it’s different. Then, often, it’s also less about the texts as texts, instead, the texts are part of the biography, even as the biography can never be part of the texts.

Nigel Beale, it appears, is a twat.

Election and Feminism IV (rant)

It’s not yet clear which prejudice will infect the presidential contest more — misogyny or racism.

Well. I have written on this topic thrice before. This is a difficult issue. Both the racial as well as the gender divide appear to be at work here and both blacks as well as women have repeatedly complained of expectations of loyalty to Obama/Clinton based on their gender/race. For those weirdos who think like that the situation of black women appeared to be particularly fascinating. CNN reports

Within minutes of posting a story on CNN’s homepage called “Gender or race: Black women voters face tough choices in South Carolina,” readers reacted quickly and angrily.
Readers want media to focus more on the candidates and how they feel about the issues not their gender or race.
Many took umbrage at the story’s suggestion that black women voters face “a unique, and most unexpected dilemma” about voting their race or their gender.
CNN received dozens of e-mails shortly after posting the story, which focuses largely on conversations about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that a CNN reporter observed at a hair salon in South Carolina whose customers are predominantly African-American.
[…]
An e-mailer named Tiffany responded sarcastically: “Duh, I’m a black woman and here I am at the voting booth. Duh, since I’m illiterate I’ll pull down the lever for someone. Hm… Well, he black so I may vote for him… oh wait she a woman I may vote for her… What Ise gon’ do? Oh lordy!”

For a while it appeared as if voters were divided along two tough lines of bigotry, so that, for instance, analysis seemed to show that whole ethnic or racial groups could be expected to vote for/against Obama because of his race and because of his race only. see for example this early February analysis:

Yesterday’s primary voting laid bare a profound racial and ethnic divide among Democratic voters, with African Americans overwhelmingly preferring Sen. Barack Obama and Latinos largely favoring Sen. Hillary Clinton.

In this discussion Bill Clinton’s infamous remarks fit squarely:

Clinton reminded reporters out of the blue that “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice, in ’84 and ’88. And he ran a good campaign. And Senator Obama’s run a good campaign here. He’s run a good campaign everywhere.”

This is of course as close to a slur as Clinton could allow himself to get. And everyone noticed the inappropriateness of this remark and of similar remarks, even Internet comedians mostly stayed away from that, unless the souce was downright hostile to Obama’s campaign. Putting down Obama because of his race wasn’t permissible.

However, it seemed easily permissible to riff on Hillary’s gender. Comparing her to Tracy Flick, for example, as in this collage, or discussing endlessly the degree to which Hillary Clinton is feminine enough and whether her tears have won her New Hampshire, and no, it’s not suddenly a better idea just because the Clintons embraced it themselves after winning. In case you’re interested, here‘s a piece that explains the difference between the polls and the surprising outcome.

If this post sounds confused, well, that’s because the whole issue has become really strange. On the one hand the racist hatred that tricks even pollsters and then, on the other hand, stuff like this:

In a webcast, prestidigitator Penn Jillette talks about a joke he has begun telling in his show. He thinks the thunderous reaction it gets from audiences shows that Hillary no longer has a shot.

The joke goes: “Obama is just creaming Hillary. You know, all these primaries, you know. And Hillary says it’s not fair, because they’re being held in February, and February is Black History Month. And unfortunately for Hillary, there’s no White Bitch Month.”

This last quote, as well as the quote at the beginning of this muddled post is taken from an insightful article by Maureen Dowd, which doesn’t answer that question though.

So. Where are we? To clear this up: no, I am not telling people to vote for the person who is most discriminated against. That’s absurd.

No, this is about the astonishing extent to which misogyny has become a part of our culture. Or (to turn again) is it about misogyny? To a certain extent, sure. Many of the journalistic instincts, how to ‘explain’ results best, are more or less sexist and insulting. Yet, as Stanley Fish has pointed out here and here, Hillary Clinton-hating contains elements of sexism but is an all-out attack on her person and that of her husband. So, isn’t it about sexism after all?

I am, again, not so sure. The fact that she has become such a widely hated person has to do with anti-Clintonianism that simmered still in the public. However, that does not explain the vehemence, the furor, which accompagnies these Anti-Clinton attacks these days. It just doesn’t. I say her gender is not the only but it is the central part of Hillary-bashing. And the worst thing about this is the fact that it is not recognized as offensive, especially compared with racism. Dowd relates an interesting anecdote:

Elaine Sirkis, 77, an Obama supporter, confided that she just isn’t sure she’s ready for a woman president. Betty Conway, 83, a Hillary supporter, confided that she just isn’t sure she’s ready for a black president.

As Conway walked away, Sirkis smiled sheepishly. “I’m sorry,” she told Berman sweetly about her friend. “She’s a bigot.”

I am pretty sure that this situation is not reversible. Isn’t that sad? Misogyny is still normal, a smaller offence, good clean fun, as they say. Boys will be boys. Ah doesn’t it make you want to puke?