09/30/14

Meeting the Boss

And now for a word from our sponsor. Here is the Coffea arabica tree, just starting to bud. I owe these green leafy fellows more than I can say. O Kaffeebaum, O Kaffeebaum, the forest shade thy berries!

coffea-arabica

09/18/14

Announcing “Travel Pentimento”

For a fee, we will take away the unnecessary things you’ve packed (as you realize, having arrived at your destination and sized up the weather or the social expectations), fly to your closet back home, pull out the things you should have brought, and bring them back to you, wherever you are. How much of a fee? If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be asking.

09/15/14

Hard Cheese

Tim Parks is a man who is pissed off because he had to do the footnotes for his own book. Big whoop. “It’s all available on the Internet, so why give page numbers?” Answer: Do you know how many dead sites there are on the Internet? Do you know how many “big” sites we all relied on are either gone or will be gone? Do you know how terrible the Internet Archive’s coverage really is once you start trying to use it for something useful? Do you know how often the “redundant,” “distributed” cloud services like Amazon AWS fail? Do you remember when Google just dropped its news reader service, used by countless millions? You probably don’t, Mr. Parks. Books are the original distributed database, seeded throughout the world in “austere libraries.” Wipe out one library, burn one book, the rest are still there. So put in those page numbers, and STFU.

09/14/14

Childcare in the Mode of the Gift

“We recognize that all tamariki come to us with their own mana. As such, the mana of our tamariki will be respected and kept intact at all times and in all situations. We preserve their mauri and their wairua alike.”

Sign me and my tamariki up! And if it’s not an impiety to do so, list Marcel Mauss as godfather.

09/14/14

Thrown For a Loop

The disorientation of the first days in a new country is familiar. The vowels are different; the natives have their own ways of packaging yogurt; you don’t know how to pay for the bus; people around you are helpful, amused, impatient, or all of these. But to look up into the night sky and see different stars– that’s almost the stuff of science fiction.

09/6/14

The Hoax of the Hoax

I was bracing myself for a round of Sokal-ish denunciations of “theory” and its supposed empire after it was revealed that Slavoj Zizek had lifted some paragraphs from a white-supremacist publication in an article he published a few years ago in Critical Inquiry. But maybe it was summer (the equivalent of the weekend in national news) and nobody was noticing. Or maybe nobody cares enough to shout. Continue reading

09/5/14

Everybody’s Crying Mercy

A. If he had tweeted, “Condoleeza Rice. Justifying racism since 2000,” I hope you would have been offended, even if you don’t like Condoleeza Rice.

If he had forwarded a tweet that called for Nicholas Kristof to be stabbed in a dark alley, I hope you would recognize this as a threat to journalistic freedom, even if you think Nicholas Kristof is a bit of a bore.

B. If a Provost is groping around for a Value on which to build a free-speech doctrine that will exclude the harmful stuff and enable the good, “respect” is a terrible candidate for such Value-mongering. Every small-time bully goes around looking for “respect.” The Geocentrists are offended that Heliocentrism is taught to freshmen. The religious misogynists are convinced that the provision of gynecological services to adult women on campus is an affront to their need for “respect.” Everyone’s appetite for “respect” is infinite. There is no way such a Value can contain a check on tyranny.

What you should have done, O Provost in charge of speech policy, is enunciate clearly the kinds of speech that are not protected. Threats of violence or retaliation, expressions of group hatred, that sort of thing. You don’t want to have a chilling effect. Thinking and exchange can and maybe should disturb, if they are to be effective. But the “freedom” to bully diminishes the freedom of the bullied and corrupts the space of conversation. And you don’t want to give yourself an unchecked authority to decide what demands for “respect” are going to be honored, and which not. Unless that was the point.

C. Brothers and sisters in the profession, “academic freedom” is not “the freedom you have because you’re an academic.” It is the freedom to do and say certain things without fear of retaliation, in the service of teaching and research. One grants the distinction readily in cases of cheating or plagiarism– such people have forgone the academic purpose. I think it would be neither wise nor moral to grant ourselves special caste prerogatives. People resent us enough already.

 

09/3/14

“Oh yes. English. Am not concerned with royalty though. Or patriotism in any form. Or soccer.”

In memory of Michael Toussaint Stowers (1963-2014)

Olga Solovieva became friends with Michael Toussaint Stowers on January 17, 2011 (FaceBook)

My friendship with Michael Stowers was fully and totally electronically mediated. I saw him at a conference in Cambridge in June of 2008: a somewhat baggy figure of a guy in dark blue jeans and a dark blue T-shirt with longish hair wandering around the lecture hall. He drew my attention because of his typical look of a lefty, alternative intellectual as I have known them only in Berlin. In the corporate American academic establishments that have been suffocating me for years you won’t meet free spirits, but in England you still can. So he drew my attention, nostalgically, reminding me of my European past and the type of people I loved to hang out with. Continue reading

08/31/14

Michael Toussaint Stowers

We at Printculture mourn the death on August 29 of our sometime contributor, questioner, joker, friend and all-round gadfly. If ever proof was needed that electronically mediated friendships can be as solid as those In Real Life, Michael’s many friends can provide it. Michael, we are hobbled without you.

1957747_10202518271893907_1097430362_o

I met Michael at a conference at Cambridge where the remit was to show how the humanities and sciences could learn from each other. My piece was an attempt to reread Dilthey’s famous distinction between the natural sciences, which explain, and the human sciences, which interpret– and I forget what new spin I was trying to bring to the familiar chestnut. Michael came up afterwards and, in that quiet, diffident tone that in England usually signals that the speaker really knows what he’s talking about, confessed to being an engineer and raised a few questions about my talk, easily the best questions I got on that outing. We got into the habit of email exchanges about methodology, music, medicine, melancholia, and other marvels, and I’m proud that here on PC we occasionally said something that made him rush to his keyboard. He was someone I was counting on hearing from for many years to come.

08/29/14

But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.

While flying late this summer, I noticed while boarding that most of the passengers were frequent flyers, of the Gold, Silver, Platinum, Titanium, Molybdenum, Diamond, Sapphire, Emerald, Ruby, and Peridot varieties. They all boarded first, followed by customers of various airline alliances, followed by people who had paid $21 to follow them, followed by the ragtag rabble such as myself. My brother, who just missed out on Platinum this year, has explained that because all the airlines have merged, all their frequent flyer programs have merged as well. This has the effect of creating a permanent underclass of infrequent leisure travelers. I suppose, if there is anything to be thankful for, it is that the airline I flew did not arrange for passengers to deplane in order of rank, as I would have surely died of apoplexy.

08/20/14

War Theology

Karl Barth was studying theology in Berlin in August 1914. He later recalled that

The actual end of the 19th century as the ‘good old days’ came for theology as for everything else with the fateful year of 1914.  … One day in early August 1914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war-policy of Wilhelm II and his counsellors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. (Barth, “Evangelical Theology in the Nineteenth Century,” The Humanity of God, p. 14)

The “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three” was probably copied from press releases of the propaganda department. It strikes the usual notes of hypocritical humanism: no German soldier ever committed an atrocity, it was “with aching hearts [that they] were obliged to fire a part of the town [of Louvain], as punishment,” the “wild Russian hordes” are the real danger to civilization, and so forth. Anything bad you might have heard about the German armies is just a fantasy of the perfidious British and French propaganda units. Bits of it are still being recycled today, wherever the bullets fly and after-action press conferences are held. 

Here is the university library of Louvain, before and after the passage of the troops:

la-bibliothc3a8que-de-louvain-avant-lincendie1

pc-belgium-louvain-destruct-72

The main author of the “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three” (published apparently in October, not August 1914) was Adolf von Harnack, the historian of early Christian dogma, first president of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gesellschaft (precursor of modern research institutions), etc., etc. Now a German professor of the nineteenth century had to be one of the proudest individuals on the face of the earth. His wife made him coffee; his adoring students poured him tea and copied down his every remark; he was the lord and master of his seminar room; he wrote books of never less than 1000 pages in order to confute his enemies; he went about in a silk hat and was addressed as “Herr Doktor Professor” or, if he had an administrative appointment, as “Eminenz.” If one was Harnack, one made a special point of insisting that no institution, no Church or State, could prevail against the demands of the individual conscience (see Das Wesen des Christentums [1902], pp. 171-172). Here is Harnack at the dedication of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gesellschaft in 1911, walking on the left side of the Kaiser, in his silk hat:

Einweihung des Kaiser-Wilhelm-Instituts in Dahlem

A proud man, a fine man, a much respected man, but not, in this instance, a very courageous or independent man. Rather, he assumed that the wind was at his back and that everybody thought the way the General Staff thought.

So before signing a petition that all your friends are signing, pause to think about Adolf von Harnack. And about Karl Barth, who went back home and tried to live out his personal reading of the Gospels by joining a workers’ cooperative. (Lucky man, he had a Switzerland to go home to.)

schweiz

08/19/14

How We Ended Up Doing It Ourselves

When we first moved to Southern California, one of the biggest challenges was finding a synagogue. We found to our dismay that a great deal of the problem centered around money. Synagogues are not like churches, where the plate is passed every time worship happens. Rather, you give all your money up front, in the form of a membership, which includes the right to enter the synagogue and worship on the holiest days of the year: the High Holidays. We did not have that kind of money as graduate students — thousands of dollars — and so we were at pains to find someplace to worship on the High Holidays. The synagogue with which we have been affiliated since then was good enough to give tickets outright to those with university IDs. But on graduation, we ran into the same problem. Luckily, by that point, we had found the synagogue choir, and were enthusiastic participants. There were a few years of pushback from the Rabbi, as my wife is not Jewish, but we had a wonderful time singing with other members, who became our friends. Once we put on the white robes, no one asked us for tickets. But there were the occasional attempts to “make us legal” — to take us on as scholarship cases to whom membership was donated. I accepted this — it seemed to make people happy — until one night, the synagogue secretary called and said that we needed to send money — that the synagogue had been keeping track of the money it had spent on us and wanted more of a contribution from us. To my disturbance, I found out that our seats did not have a marginal cost, which was next to nothing, but that the charity the synagogue had extended to us was in “real money.” In other words, real donors had put in real money to pay for the synagogue’s list price for the seats. And at some point, we would be expected to pay the synagogue back. It was an impossible situation, but our friends in the choir smoothed it over, in the interests of our staying. So we stayed for a few more years. But one year, the nature, function, and experience of the choir changed in a permanent way, one which we could not accept. And my wife was simply too tired, after so many years, to get through the rehearsals. I struggled on for a couple more years, for my friends’ sake and for the sake of the seats, but I couldn’t do it. What finally ended it was that I lost my sense of pitch, and I could not hold a tune anymore.

In this way, our affiliation with the synagogue tapered off. One year, one of our friends asked the Rabbi why we weren’t there, and the next year we got tickets, but I am tired of living off charity. We’ve asked whether there’s some way of earning back our tickets in kind, but they are not set up for it. The truth is that we do not belong there; we will never have enough money to belong there and to pull our own weight. Everyone has been very, very kind to us — the Rabbi, the Cantor, our friends in the choir — but in the end, everything really is dependent on the money the synagogue brings in. They cannot operate the synagogue at the high level it’s attained, with a religious school, social action programs, a beautiful building, etc., if people get in for free more than once in a blue moon. We were in the choir for 15 or 16 years, but you can’t rest on your laurels forever.

So, this year, we’re going to do it ourselves, as we did in the past. We have the prayerbooks, we have the order of service, and we know where the singing goes, as choir members do. It is difficult to have the illusion of a communal experience, which these holidays truly must be. It is hard to pray alone, and to have a sense that it means what it did in the synagogue. But the fact is that charity, no matter how kindly offered, is double edged, and that someone always pays, somehow. We have gotten used to an experience that is better than we deserve, and now it is time to make our way according to our own deserts. In the end, perhaps we will be less distracted by the externals, and find in our own hearts and spirits that which we require. The U’netane Tokef prayer says, “But repentance, prayer, and righteousness may avert [God's] severe decree.” One does not need infrastructure for any of those things, only an open heart and a willing mind. And it may be that God’s severe decree is coming for us, no matter how good our intentions, where we celebrate, or how much we pledge in the Kol Nidre Appeal. It would be so much simpler if we were an upper-middle-class or lower-upper-class all-Conservative-Jewish family with two great jobs and two kids. But if God had meant us to do things the easy way, and come in by the front door, he would have surely led us along that path. Our path is different.

08/16/14

The Grey Lady Chooses Sides

It is a little disturbing when the Grey Lady chooses sides. In the old days, “without fear or favor” was the journalistic watchword, as was the adoption of whatever could approximate “reportorial objectivity.” But such things must have disappeared with the rise of “advertorials,” the general enmeshing of the news and financial departments, and the desperation caused by the implosion of print newspapers in general. For we see that in its coverage of the labor dispute at the Metropolitan Opera, the Times has become the unashamed mouthpiece of the Met’s director, Peter Gelb. It is just too bad.

To me, the conflict is very simple. The musicians, choristers, and stagehands are being paid wages which were adjudged as fair at the last contract negotiations. When I hire someone to fix my refrigerator, he charges me $100 for labor and we agree, that is the price of the repair plus parts. If he comes back two years hence to do the same repair, I might foreseeably pay him $125 for labor. But under no circumstances would I try to force him down to $75. That is ungentlemanly and likely to get me a knock in the head for my troubles. If I feel the impulse to plead poverty, I need to either do the repairs myself or consider putting the repairman’s fee toward the cost of a new refrigerator. Impugning the character of the repairman — claiming that he lives a life of ease and sufficiency and therefore neither needs or deserves his wages — is beside the point and should garner me another knock in the head.

The job of the choristers, musicians, and stagehands at the Met is to put on operas. This they have done with surpassing skill, no matter what dogs of productions Gelb throws at them. (I am thinking in particular of the most recent Ring Cycle, with an undulating, erratic, mechanical stage floor that seemed to have been designed by a defense contractor in terms of both its functionality and its cost overruns.) It is Gelb’s job to fill the seats and get the donors to write checks. If he cannot do this in a way that meets payroll, he has failed, and should get out of the way in favor of someone who can do the job. Sadly, the Met’s board has given Gelb’s approach a vote of confidence with a ten-year contract extension and millions in bonuses.

I imagine that looming in the minds of all parties are the events at the Minnesota Orchestra, which just barely survived a year-long lockout but only did so because the musicians had allies on the board. Even so, it has emerged in a weakened state, and might not have emerged at all. But instead of taking this to heart, both sides believe that they can play “chicken” with it. If a lockout comes, it will put a stake in the heart of the institution. Unless Gelb believes that he can transport the Met to Shenzhen and outsource the duties of the Met’s performers and stagehands to Foxconn, where they can be automated and/or performed by starving wretches who will rehearse for fourteen hours a day without food, that will be it. We will have to put our ticket money into CDs or a subscription to the Sirius Metropolitan Opera Channel, and relive the past instead of cultivating the future. What a prospect! And yet, through all this, the Times issues a sussurrus of rewarmed Gelb press releases and lets flow the voices of pundits who will tell you, as Necker once did, that the peasants are insufficiently taxed. The Times is the very voice of reason to the faithful readers who see it as their main source of information. When the Met falls, this will be laid to the workers. The alternative — that an equitable settlement will be reached — seems less likely daily.

08/14/14

The Black Box of Speech

– What’s in the box?

— Speech!

— Oh, that’s great. I love speech!

— Want to help me carry it across that border?

— Sure! And I know you were going to ask me if I wanted to see what’s in the box, but I love speech so much that I’m not even going to ask, to show you how much I love speech. Just tie that box right here, on the top of my backpack, and I’m off! See you later!

That is the role I feel I am being asked to play by many of my insistent friends who are outraged about the University of Illinois’ decision to rescind a job offer made to Stephen Salaita, previously an associate professor (thus, tenured) at Virginia Tech. The University of Illinois hasn’t made clear the specifics of the decision, and it’s unlikely that they will, since it was made at the level of the president’s office, and college presidents are permanently lawyered up and speak only through a mask of precautionary obfuscation. My pals are outraged at what they see as an anti-Palestinian, pro-Israeli decision, an affront to free speech everywhere, an unconscionable attack on the principle of academic freedom, and have been making scabrous personal comments on the people who have spoken in favor of the decision. Obviously, as a tenured academic interested in free speech I am supposed to jump to the aid of Professor Salaita.

Except that I don’t know what’s in that box.

Continue reading

08/7/14

Cannibal Doctrine

From Ruth Margalit in the New Yorker I learn about the “Hannibal Doctrine,” a long-confidential directive in the Israeli army to let no soldier be taken captive. But not in the sense you might think (protect the troops at any cost, save Private Ryan, leave no man behind). Rather, an all-out attack is permitted, nay mandated, on any hostage-takers and their hostage, at the discretion of commanders in the field. This means, from the point of view of the average grunt, that you are quite likely to be killed by your own platoon if it looks as if you might be taken prisoner.

The doctrine was kept a secret because of its obvious bad effects on morale. Why go to war if the guys at your back are as ready to kill you, under certain circumstances, as the guys opposing you? But I want to think for a moment about its further effects on the army and its place in society. (In case you don’t know me, I’ve never been a soldier and have no credentials as a military historian. I just read history and think about how different societies are organized.)

Effect number one: the Masada complex. For a small number of soldiers, I guess, this doctrine– “better dead than a POW”– motivates them to all-out fighting and unconditional destruction of the enemy. Think about a high level of armament backed up by a suicide pact. To be affected by the Masada complex, though, you have to be powerfully indoctrinated: I am nothing, you have to think, except insofar as my life serves the State of Israel.

Effect number two: buyer’s remorse. For what is the problem about Israeli soldiers being taken captive? No one supposes they are treated like visiting dignitaries while being held, but the thing mentioned in the article is the public-relations problem that is caused for the army by the names and faces of captive soldiers being broadcast every night on the evening news. A source interviewed for the article acknowledges that the Hannibal Doctrine

sounds terrible, but you have to consider it within the framework of the [Gilad] Shalit deal. That was five years of torment for this country, where every newscast would end with how many days Shalit had been in captivity. It’s like a wound that just never heals.

So a moral calculus begins to come into focus. The death of an individual soldier, say Gilad Shalit, is weighed in the balance against the discomfort provoked in Israeli living rooms by five years of newscasts and found wanting. Perversely, sadistically, Hamas kept him alive. It would have been better, says this logic, for him to be killed right away. Better his family receive a terse telegram beginning “Greetings:” than that the army and the cabinet be pestered by citizens wanting to see Gilad Shalit released. Better that an Israeli life be snuffed out than that the government be seen engaging in negotiations with the enemy. If I were a young man in uniform, this would give me a very sour feeling at the pit of my stomach. A feeling that says, You stupid grunt, you’re worth nothing outside the purposes of the State of Israel.

Third effect: the corrosion of civil society. The Geneva Conventions and the history of custom leading up to them were meant to make war less hard on the fighting man. The founder of the Red Cross was led to his mission by seeing the wanton destruction of life and limb on a small European battlefield. For a long time there had been respect of the life and exchange value of officers; Geneva extended such protection to the enlisted man, a step consistent with the spread of democratic norms. Where there is a recognized status of prisoner-of-war, and a hope of decent treatment and return home (conditioned on acceptance of prisoner status), civilization wins a point even in the midst of war. Refusing to let the machinery of civilization operate even in this way, refusing to let one’s men be taken prisoner and to treat the prisoners one takes with the legal proprieties, enlarges the empire of barbarism. We all then move (as the US did in the 2000s) a step closer to the apocalyptic utterance of Conrad’s villain: “Exterminate the brutes!”

It’s been a long time since I was in Sunday School, but I seem to remember a certain monstrous idol named Moloch to whom the Hebrews were forced to sacrifice their children. Was Moloch’s only crime, in the end, to be identified with the wrong side?

 

07/31/14

Low-Information. High-Indignation.

One of my relatives is a reliable supplier of Tea Party propaganda. It’s useful to know what people think the hot issues of the day are, and how we as a nation should be responding to them. This morning I received the following item from my relative, forwarded from Soldier of Fortune magazine:

oil

 

So it appears that some self-styled conservatives don’t know the first thing about how free markets work– and they are supposed to be the ones pushing the idea of free markets.

Continue reading

07/28/14

GAZA: Beyond Conversation

I asked a Jewish-American friend to cover the situation in Gaza. This is what she wrote in response explaining why she can’t do it. I found the text fascinating and responsive to the difficulties of a sensitive, ethical and intelligent person trying to talk about the issue– precisely the type of voice much needed in today’s discourse. I asked to publish an excerpt from her email. Here it is, with permission:

“In answer to your question, I have been considering writing on the Gaza question for weeks. But I don’t think I will. There’s a whole part of my past that I have to process, about being raised in a synagogue that was rabidly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian. The things that were said there would not pass muster thirty-odd years later, and attributing them to their speakers would probably count as defamatory. That’s really my story: the part I can add that is not the past fortnight’s worth of partisan pontification, which I believe is available in copious supply already.

Continue reading

07/26/14

The Communicative Action of Trolls

Habermas’s theory of communicative action rests on the idea that social order ultimately depends on the capacity of actors to recognize the intersubjective validity of the different claims on which social cooperation depends. In conceiving cooperation in relation to validity claims, Habermas highlights its rational and cognitive character: to recognize the validity of such claims is to presume that good reasons could be given to justify them in the face of criticism.

Thus spake the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Those of us who have been participating since, say, 1993 in humanity’s biggest communicative enterprise so far will recognize the problem: that there are plenty of actors who are not at all interested in “intersubjective validity” or “social cooperation,” but hijack the rituals of conversation. Trolls, griefers, astroturfers, bots of various make… One’s impulse is to treat such people as flies in the ointment, parasites, bugs, noise– exceptions that crop up alongside a better rule. But proper confrontation with any paradoxical consequence, not sweeping under the rug, is what is needed, if we are ever going to work out this rationality thing. What if we were all secretly trolls? How would that affect communicative behavior going forward?