Thursday, December 10, 2015

A tortured, milquetoast epistle. What she's describing, while leaning on the opinions of career coaches and scholars of management, is the wallflower's internal exile in response to fascism. But it's still the bookworm's concern for the fascism of bookworms, in the library, of Borges and the Church. The article is another symptom of the rot it so tenderly describes.

Literature teachers used to make their livings teaching books written by people who never went to university; teachers of philosophy teach books by people who never left. Criticism is engaged readership founded on an adversarial respect. Philosophers claim superiority to both artists and critics. Now every teacher is a philosopher or theorist or analyst. Just read the first fucking line. "In the course of interviewing some seventy graduate students in English for a book on the state of literary criticism,"
...I’ve encountered two types of people who are having trouble adapting to the field. First, there are those who bridle at the left-political conformity of English and who voice complaints familiar from the culture wars. But a second group suffers from a malaise without a name; socialization to the discipline has left them with unaccountable feelings of confusion, inhibition and loss.

Those in the latter group share a quality of inwardness. In interviews, they strike me as reflective, intuitive individuals, with English teacher written all over them. These are the people who say that something in this intellectual environment is eating them alive. Gina Hiatt, the president of a large coaching service for academic writers, tells me that many of her clients in the humanities have a similar experience. She believes these clients sense “an immorality they can’t put their finger on” in the thought-world of the humanities. They struggle as writers because talking the talk would make them feel complicit, yet they cannot afford to say, in Hiatt’s words, that “the emperor has no clothes.” Some keep their best ideas out of their scholarship for fear that if they violate certain ideological taboos, others will “hate” them (a verb Hiatt hears repeatedly). Hiatt describes these individuals as “canaries in the mine.”

...The reflections that follow focus largely on English, my home discipline and a trendsetter for the other modern language disciplines. These days nothing in English is “cool” in the way that high theory was in the 1980s and 1990s. On the other hand, you could say that what is cool now is, simply, nothing. Decades of antihumanist one-upmanship have left the profession with a fascination for shaking the value out of what seems human, alive, and whole. Some years ago Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick touched on this complex in her well-known essay on paranoid reading, where she identified a strain of “hatred” in criticism. Also salient is a more recent piece in which Bruno Latour has described how scholars slip from “critique” into “critical barbarity,” giving “cruel treatment” to experiences and ideals that non-academics treat as objects of tender concern.

...Halberstam’s article hardly represents the best theoretical work of the 1990s. I introduce this piece because it embodies, almost in caricature, a studied coldness that enjoyed a vogue in that decade and has influenced subsequent criticism. Readers who know the novel The Silence of the Lambs or Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation will recall the murderer Buffalo Bill, who fashions a cloak from the skins of his female victims. In a well-known reading of the film, Halberstam suggests that Bill is as much “hero” as villain. For he “challenges the . . . misogynist constructions of the humanness, the naturalness, the interiority of gender.” By removing and wearing women’s skin, Bill refutes the idea that maleness and femaleness are carried within us. “Gender,” Halberstam explains, is “always posthuman, always a sewing job which stitches identity into a body bag.” The corpse, once flayed, “is no woman”; “it has been degendered, it is postgender, skinned and fleshed.” Halberstam blends her perspective uncritically with the hero-villain’s posthuman sensibility, which she sees as registering “a historical shift” to an era marked by the destruction of gender binaries and “of the boundary between inside and outside.”

The management scholar Ann Rippin, borrowing an image from a fairy tale, describes the “silver hands” with which organizations endow their members. Recruits to professional organizations, Rippin writes, are trained in glossy but dehumanized ways of speaking and feeling. The work they learn to do “is silver service done at arm’s length, hygienically, through a polished, highly wrought intermediary instrument.”

...Finally, a small subset of work in ELH glamorizes cruelty in the name of radical politics, though this motif abates after 2006, perhaps because of a change in editorial leadership. The piece I find most troubling is an article on a short story by Henry James. This article proposes that if one faces a choice between having sex with children and protecting them, “perhaps one should let oneself desire the child, and—relinquishing the gratifications of protection—let the child die.” Sexually precocious children should “perhaps” be allowed a death of “innocence” that will supplant the pleasures of childhood with “other pleasures” delivered by adult lovers. James’s short story supposedly conveys this moral. But the lesson is said to apply in real life as well, wherever adults might be tempted to issue “calls for the protection of children.” The story is said to reveal “the dire results of protecting children from desire”—anywhere. For today’s anti-pedophile perpetrates the “potential violence” of “speaking on [children’s] behalf.” 
"Jack" Halberstamrepeats and repeats.  

this post continued, here
and jumping ahead, a day short of a year.


  1. Anonymous8:36 PM

    "Now every teacher is a philosopher or theorist or analyst." This.

    English departments have become the catch-all for everyone who wants to be a philosopher, but can't get into a 'real' philosophy department. Once 'English' became shorthand for 'cultural studies' it became a license to write about everything in society, without having the training to talk about anything empirically. They slide imperceptibly between cultural manifestations and society itself, as if they were one and the same, as if the former were not self-conciously artificial.

    I remember going to listen to a paper by someone summarising their thesis on Deleuze and ethics. It was about how 'recognition' involves doing violence to the world by imposing categories. I asked a question: if you were in Rwanda, don't you think it would be ethically important to recognise who was tutsi or hutu? Her reply, well, yes, of course, but...
    After that I lost her. An hour of scholastic poststructuralism, only to fold at the first pushback.

  2. Scholastic poststructuralism or scholastic analytics. One form of bullshit universalism or another. Your example of Hutu and Tutsi is the perfect lead in, though I repeat this so much I lose readers:
    "Once the theory of meaning is sharply separated from the theory of reference... meanings themselves, as obscure intermediary entities, may well be abandoned." Quine.

    If "evening star" and "morning star" refer to the same thing that's all we need to know. Other "imposed categories" are unnecessary at least until you have to come to terms with the plot of land called "Israel" and "Palestine".

    "doing violence to the world by imposing categories" Since there's no way for us not to do that, you'd think cultivating an ironic self-awareness and empiricism would be the order of the day. But after dreams of utopia the only irony available is nihilism. After giving up on fantasies of heaven the only option is a fantasy of hell. Earth isn't interesting enough, for analytics or poststructuralists. That's the root of the highbrow amoralism the author above is worried about. But Ludlow and McGinn are just as sleazy. It's all the same crap: curdled idealism, perfect empty order, perversity, autism. Historians have a name for it. We live in a mannerist age. But no one reads history and historians live in the past, so no one's able to point out the obvious.

    Cultural studies only works as reciprocal exchange. You can't study yourself. We need a return to empiricism, to history and philology and anthropology, and real politics. It's happening of course, but it won't be enough. People are lazy and technocracy gets things done. Whether what it gets done is destruction of the planet is another question.

    I've been making this rant since I was about 16. No joke.

  3. Anonymous12:10 AM

    That's why I put 'real' philosophy in inverted quotes. I know your aversion is equally directed at scholastic analytics. I happen to think they're less wrong than the scholastic continentals, since they at least try to be sensitive to empirics - I don't think it's wholly pretend.

    Two things:
    i) I'm not quite sure what my Tutsi/Hutu reference is the perfect lead in to - are you agreeing or criticising me? (I don't mind either way, but I'd like to know). My assumption is that the Quine quote supports my idea that distinguishing them was in fact important..?
    ii) What's mannerism, and what's the relevance here? I have no background in art history, though I've picked up a bit since I started reading you here. I know I could go and read your long pdf, but as I once said before, your writing is so self-referential (everything is repeats! ha!) that it's often obscure to the uninitiated layman like me. I follow one link to another, but I don't get to the bottom. Help a guy out.

  4. I'm agreeing with you. But we're both disagreeing with Quine. He has no interest in meanings (and his politics were predictably reactionary), but the multiplicity of meanings is simply a fact were have to face and deal with, stumbling along. No one in the west, and specifically in the US paid much attention to the situation of the Palestinians. The loyalty was to the European refugees who conquered them. The only thing that's changed our perceptions is immigration, mass communication and time. We have social connections to Palestinians we never had. It was the same in a sense with other minorities and gays and even women. They had to yell to get attention. And it was the yelling that worked, not the earnest conversation of the people being yelled at. Rationalists say change comes from above. Even when they say "We know now it comes from below!", they're patting themselves on the back. Evidence says change still comes from below. So when poststructuralists talk about the "other" they're simply observing an obvious relation. It's when they turn around and try to build a program out of finding a cure that things get PC and absurd. Philosophers all want to be judges. I want my own lawyer and I don't want him sleeping with the prosecutor. Our justice system is predicated on the fact of "others". Adversarialism is bloodsport, not theory. Everyone hates lawyers until they need one and that's doubly true for philosophers.

    I'll get back to you later on Mannerism. It's about culture not art history. But it's Friday and I need a drink. The links on the bottom of the post are a good start. And then the "Panofsky" tag. Or wait until tomorrow.

  5. I read sloppily last night. Also missed who you were.
    My repeats usually include links explaining the argument. There's nothing self-referential at all. I point to old arguments rather than restate them.

    Panofksy: Mannerism and the Counter-Reformation

    Reread the post you're commenting on and the links at the bottom. Do I really have to explain fascism? It's overdetermined formal moral political order, built on fear, loud proclamations of superiority predicated on the speaker's terror of the opposite. If someone says they're really happy do you believe them? If they're smiling manically and just won't shut up about how really, really, happy they are, maybe you begin to wonder that it's a sign they're not happy at all. Maybe their claims to happiness are a lie, and their public persona a pose. Mannerism is a culture of posing, of facades. But to recognize it you have to see and read for subtext. But there's no science of subtext. Was Logical Empiricism an independent intellectual movement or more a symptom of Weimar era decadence? Was it an engagement with the world or a desperate attempt to escape it. History will judge, but I'd say the latter.

    A philosopher is shocked, shocked!, by the opinions of a historian:
    "We must, he maintains, avoid treating ancient philosophy as if it were created in a “historical vacuum” even if this threatens most Presocratic scholars’ “control of their subject and the autonomy of ’doing philosophy’“

    Another historian lost patience:
    "he shared Cassirer's dismay at the blinkered approach of the analytical philosophers who dominated the Oxford scene: ignoring the historical context of thinkers such as Leibniz, the only thing they wanted to know was whether his statements were true according to their own criteria."

    "Doing philosophy" as if philosophy were like chemistry. And Quine wasn't an empiricist. He was a logician, not a biologist.

    You're read me enough. You've seen those quotes before. I think you've been having a bit of fun, but I think now I've answered your questions.

  6. Anonymous10:19 PM

    I can honestly say I'm not trying to take the piss, I'm genuinely interested.

    I say 'self-referential' because when you point to old arguments, it's often to another post that itself is larlely unelaborated quotes and/or links to repeats; I follow the repeats but I don't always hit bottom. Or when I do get there, the claims are very gnomic, and I'm not sure what the point is.

    I only comment on style because I want to cut through to substance. I won't mention style again, however - I've said it, you know my point.

    From now, on if I comment I'll only mention substance.

  7. I prefer to lead with facts and let ideas come on their own.
    My writing's called gnomic as often as I'm called a troll. Call it the consistency of hobgoblins.
    Have I succeeded now in answering your questions?

  8. Anonymous8:03 AM

    Better the hobgoblin one knows, I suppose.

    I don't think my questions are close to being answered, but that's mostly something I shall have to remedy myself. I'll keep reading, thinking, and will write again if something strikes me.

  9. I'm not very interested in simple truth, I'm interested in function and problem-solving. You could call that pragmatism, but every solution for a specific problem causes problems of its own if it's generalized. If the cops break into an apartment without a warrant and find proof that the owner is a criminal, the law says the evidence is inadmissible in court. The "truth" doesn't matter because we believe that cops should not be able to break the law to enforce it. We take is as a "truth" that power wielded freely over time becomes self-serving. Two forms of naturalism are in conflict. I prefer the naturalism of courts to the naturalism of scientists. I prefer the naturalism of law and lawyers, of Santayana and Kurosawa's Rashomon. I don't see how any of this is that confusing except to those who think of themselves as above unreason, beyond partiality. The rule of "reason" has led consistently to disaster.

    Ask me a specific question.


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