This blog is on the move! From here on in, tune your dial to: neilverma.net, where I’ll also be putting up content from other projects.
Flannery O’Connor didn’t live a flashy life – “from Georgia, liked birds, died of lupus” – says Jamelah Earle, who might not recommend Brad Gooch’s biography to you, unless you want to know how somebody comes up with a story about a bible salesman who steals a girl’s prosthetic leg …
In his critique of a new book on the financial crisis, Judge Posner notes a misreading: “The passage in The General Theory is not about excesses, and it does not argue that “animal spirits” should be damped down. It is about the danger of paralysis in the face of uncertainty …”
Next month is Eudora Welty’s centennial; Eric Banks describes preliminary celebrations.
“If this book had gone through the normal publishing procedures,” said the author, “it wouldn’t be worth writing.” Have you noticed how frigging fast they’re publishing public affairs books nowadays?
“The middle style is clear, clear, clear:” one of many true facts to be found among D. G. Myers’ classroom notes from J. V. Cunningham’s history of criticism seminar at Washington University in 1976.
They “found him in his room, blue with fright, his door barricaded with a chest of drawers and other furniture:” Nigel Beale on the daemonic Cecil J. Rhodes and his epiphany.
For a couple of months I’ve been trying to get a handle on a wispy problem that seems to be clouding debates about the current economic crisis. Something feels deeply wrong about how these discussions function as discussions, and I’ve been trying to pinpoint the shadowy rhetorical origin of this disquiet, if it exists.
I think that I’ve got my finger on a piece of it now, after listening to this morning’s coverage of the GM bailout. My hypothesis is that in discussing these big, unprecedented economic policy decisions we tend to make extraordinarily unstructured use of two very different languages – one having to do with fairness, another with pragmatic expediency.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with either of these terminologies or the types of meaning that they field. Both languages possess clear and predictable metrics of value, and neither will easily devolve into mystification. People know fairness in a deep way; they also understand expediency in their very bones. The trouble is that the way that we entwine these two registers of understanding lacks discipline, consistency and integrity. This dearth of true structure impedes consensus about what is at stake in our situation and confuses our decisions about how to proceed. As a consequence, unrest is increased by the very protocols of illuminated discussion that attempt to dismiss it.
Let’s consider an example.
Here is an excerpt of CNN’s story on today’s bailout plan of GM, which extends a lifeline to the company:
Some of Michigan’s congressional delegation weighed in after the announcement, laying out the stark reality the automakers that call their state home are now facing.
“The road ahead is going to be very difficult and painful, although, as the president said, there is potential for both companies to emerge from restructuring as stronger, more competitive companies,” said Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan. “I stand ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work.”
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Michigan, said he is confident the companies will meet Obama’s demands.
“We can do no less because the domestic automotive sector is the heart of the U.S. industrial base, and as the President said, ‘it is a pillar of our economy,’” he said in a press release Monday.
But not all politicians see the plan as fair.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-California, said Monday that it’s not time to “hollow out our manufacturing sector” while providing taxpayer dollars to AIG, which faced public backlash over multimillion-dollar bonuses.
“All of the creditors of General Motors are losing substantial amounts — even people who worked their whole lives expecting retirement benefits and health benefits when they retire,” Sherman said. “What about the rich and powerful that AIG was owed money to? They are getting paid every penny. They demand it, and it comes from the American taxpayer.”
Notice how Dingell and Levin use the language of hard-headed pragmatism: our situation is “painful” but there is potential for “stronger, more competitive” results, let’s “roll up our sleeves;” we have no choice but to intervene when there are threats to a “pillar” of the “heart” of our “base.” The mixed metaphor is pretty ugly, but all of its components have to do with infrastructure – the holy guts of human work, an obdurate world of hard facts and appropriate responses to those facts, of cost-and-benefit-analysis and circumstances-beyond-our-control.
If the “tone” of these two speakers seem saturated in pragmatism, that pragmatism results directly from language choices.
Contrast this with the story that Sherman lays out: a conflict between workers who are losing benefits and rich CEO’s who get paid come Hell or high water. This story is about good guys and bad guys, about who deserves what and why. By foregrounding a contrast instead of foregrounding a situation, Sherman summons a very different type of thought, one in which the reader is not called upon to understand a wrong but to right it instead. Perhaps Dingell pays too much attention to our woeful economic circumstances, but Sherman pays practically no attention to it at all.
That’s why, from a rhetorical point of view, Sherman not only fails to rebut Dingell and Levin, he does not even really abut Dingel and Levin. The two sides are having different discussions, because there isn’t one question on the docket, but two: 1) is this necessary? and 2) is this fair? And the prose has no way of separating one question from another, instead pretending that they are identical and simultaneous despite the fact that one side of the argument is going for a touchdown and the other is going for a home run.
The same schizoid tendency can be found in the context of a single point of view. Consider this post by Alan Wolfe at TNR. In this reproduction, I mark passages that seem to belong best to an expediency debate in bold and those that seem to belong to the fairness debate in italics:
History may remember Obama’s caution and unwillingness to punish those who got us into this mess as his finest hour. As we work our way through this crisis, one question is paramount: What is the best way to get money as quickly as possible into the hands of those who need it most? The interests of many need to be consider, but the interests of those who are losing their jobs, their live savings, and, in some cases, their lives themselves must be considered first. Justice demands nothing less. And so does economic recovery, which depends on the ability of struggling ordinary people to afford housing and medical care, let alone consumer goods and cars.
If punishing those guilty for sending the economy into its tailspin would help those victimized by their recklessness, the Obama plan would be the right way to go. But it is a fact of capitalist life that the rich and privileged can effectively blackmail everyone else to get what they want. This is one of those times when we have little choice but to give into their blackmail. Not doing so is a luxury the worst off among us cannot afford.
Yes, it is galling to see people not held accountable for greedy, if not criminal, actions. Their actions were inexcusable, and if there is a world beyond this one, one hopes they are punished for their deeds. But in this case, statesmanship requires gritting one’s teeth and doing what has to be done.
See how scattered this feels? At one moment we’re supposed to make judgments based on one set of outcomes (expeditious recovery) and the next moment we’re supposed to make judgments using an entirely different kind of analysis (just deserts for all parties).
I have no quarrel with Wolfe’s decision to foreground expediency over fairness. Actually, this is in many ways the most intelligent of approaches: openly and honestly sequestering the decisions over which we actually have a choice from those from which we do not. But I don’t have enough technical understanding to really make such a separation. And at any rate, my worry is that the reasoning is just too unstructured, organized so that the language of expediency and the language of fairness can only approach one another long enough to be vexing.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having one of these debates or having the other. Also, there’s no problem with having one debate then having the other. In fact, there’s no problem with arguing about whether one debate is more apt than the another. The problem arises when we try to have both debates at once without recognizing that’s what we’re doing, so that writers end up answering a pragmatism-based suggestion with a justice-based objection, and one statement barely darkens the door of the other. It is a practice that produces incoherent chatter that makes everybody involved seem like an unserious boob.
It also makes good answers pretty hard to come by. Because we erroneously assume that the question what we must do is identical with the question what is fair, the possibility that these two questions might actually have different answers will not compute.
So this is my 100th post, folks. Huzzah!
Writing duckanddrakes has been a rewarding pastime over the last year. During the next few weeks, I’ll be giving some thought to this blog and its future.
For the time being, here’s an index to a few posts that exhibit what I’ve been trying to do here.
The mission of this blog has been to entertain the notion that thought and writing are meaningfully synchronous, asking how they enhance, mystify and confuse one another in a series of concrete instances. I don’t have an axe to grind on this site, but I do have a modest mission statement here.
Some of the most popular posts on this blog belong my series on Jonathan Gottschall’s efforts to make litcrit more like the sciences (Part I, Part II, Part III and there’s also this), probably just because Gottschall got a lot of press last year. There has also been some interest in my series on Roger Scruton’s attack on “militant” atheists (Part I, Part II, Part III), although I personally don’t feel that the series is very well written.
My most popular single post is a critical look at Prof. Laurie Fendrich’s ideas about taste. My least visited post is this one on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road manuscript, and the man charged with keeping it in good condition.
A handful of my posts have been on word usage, like this one on using “taser” as a verb, and this one on the term”pushback.” I don’t do reviews often because this site is supposed to be about rhetorical choices, so I don’t feel like I can responsibly assess whole books. One exception is my review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works.
While I try to keep this party polite, I do get feisty sometimes. Here, I take issue with David Runciman’s ideas about political commentary; here, I critique an article about the relationship between crime and crime fiction; here I interrogate Saul Smilansky’s propositions about “sorriness.”
My favorite part about this blog is looking at propositions and rejoinders together, to uncover the underpinnings of a dispute – for an example, check out this post on Gerald Graff vs. Mark Bauerline. I also like to write about how questions are answered by the online public, as I feel that this process often helps to reveal deeper questions – here’s one on the relationship between science and ethics.
Thanks for reading! It’s been a joy to write this over the last year.
From argle-bargle to snollygoster: are these the 100 funniest words in English?
On this day in 1970, James Dickey published Deliverance. His son Christopher recalls: “it seemed to me then and for a long time afterward that forces of self-indulgence and self-destruction, which were always there in my father but held in check, were now cut loose.”
Check out Oronte Churm on Nabokov’s Pnin: “The presentation is all boldness, shining threads of gold, and beautiful mists, but it’s that “distance” that wreaks havoc…”
And another totally great reading: David Bordwell’s microanalysis of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, which is a movie that I think about often, even though I didn’t enjoy it at all.
“… but he is our academic peer…” Should James Franco give a commencement speech?
The 2009 Diagram Award for the Oddest Book Title has a winner: The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-Milligram Containers of Fromage Frais.
This is total bullshit. The Large Sieve and its Applications was robbed.
More handwriting: a gracious note from novelist Agatha Christie to filmmaker Billy Wilder.
Christie praises Wilder’s successful adaptation of Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, probably the strongest film version of her work that we’ll ever see.
You can buy the letter at this bookstore, if you’re in Baltimore and can spare $6,000.
You can find a new article extolling the value of the humanities just about every day of the week. Scroll down on this very site, stranger, and you’ll find a pile of links to such articles, many of which I’ve discussed during the year (!) that I’ve maintained this blog.
The preponderance of such articles is no mystery. There are few topics on which a historian of sixteenth-century Tunisian goat herders and a student of Tennysonian spondees can professionally converse, but both can grouse about how their pursuits are disparaged. And when you aggregate all the Tunisian ladies and Tennysonian fellows they form a real market, so there is an incentive to fill academic sites with occasional defenses of the category that unites them: the humanities.
Does there exist a study of the defense-of-the-humanities as a genre? It’s not hard to picture what such a study might turn up. Like all genres, the one has a recipe: start with signs of impending doom, add a recent report, stir in terms like “life of the mind,” then stew. Of course, variations exist – some insist that the humanities impart useful skills; others argue for an inherent value that is not reducible to utilitarian terms – but among even these writers there is seldom an explosive innovation in how one goes about writing such a defense.
That said, the genre is definitely full of interesting rhetorical lessons and it can be a fine vehicle for other propositions. This is the case in Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s recent paper in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, which shows some real hustle. In this post, I’ll consider how Harpham tees up the problem of valuing the humanities nicely but also fails to follow through. I don’t have a strong judgment about this effort, but I expect a close look at it will reveal a little about how the present economic crisis is beginning to affect how writers go about defending the humanities as a field of endeavor.
Harpham begins by citing a set of belligerent questions that he supposes are being asked by shabby administrators who dispute the “value” of the humanities:
Why should society support the humanities when so many people are suffering from the effects of the economic crisis? What claim do the humanities, or scholarship generally, have on increasingly limited resources? Shouldn’t such pursuits be considered luxuries at a time when we should be focusing on essentials?
Note that the imagined antagonist begins with a pivotal opposition – luxuries versus essentials – and it is only as a result of this binary that the humanities seems dispensable.
Also note that Harpham discusses the humanities as if it didn’t already exist, like a proposed hospital addition. Simply by using “why should” instead of “why is,” this paper announces that it will not explain the reasons why millions of reasonable people have already seen fit to support the humanities to the point that it is already embedded in our traditions. Instead, the paper will explain why people ought to support humanistic learning right now, as if it had suddenly occurred to them to do so.
So, at least one potentially valuable avenue of argumentation has been closed off. This move is not new. One major feature of the defense-of-humanities genre is that it tends to take the form of either a policy argument or a historical explanation. It is seldom the case that both kinds of propositions travel a single line of reasoning. Is this a problem? What motivated Harpham to diminish the story of how the humanities have contributed to the life of the nation even during times darker than our own?
Well, let’s see how the setup jives with Harpham’s central claim:
Our most immediate concerns cannot be our only concerns. While we are struggling through the morass of the present, we must retain both our memory, which sustains us, and our imagination, which must light the way forward …
Memory and imagination place us in the general domain of the humanities. And that leads to my main argument: The humanities are, if not the top priority right now, at least one of the areas that must be recognized as crucial, and supported accordingly. The present crisis does not eclipse the humanities but rather reveals the need for the skills, dispositions, and resources that the humanities, and only the humanities, cultivate.
After characterizing the debate as a policy question rather than a historical one, Harpham is free to associate the humanities not only with the fusty old tomes with which it is commonly associated (“memory”) but also with predictions of the future (“the imagination”).
Meanwhile, he has reformulated the choice before us. Instead of asking about luxuries versus essentials, the argument structures itself around different categories – (1) that which is “immediate” “right now” “present,” and (2) that which helps to “cultivate skills” and “light the way forward.” Because he has sidestepped the history of the humanities a little, Harpham has ultimately been able to promulgate a philosophy of history, one in which a society without humanistic learning is stuck in the present (a static situation) while a society with the humanities is capable of heading towards the future (a teleological situation). To embrace the humanities is to exist in forward-directed time capable of fruitful growth; that’s why it’s “cultivated.”
It’s a neat trick. Harpham develops it by getting deeper into what he takes to be the source of our present financial travails.
What was missing, some analysts have concluded, was a deeper understanding of the relationship between value and confidence. It was presumed that the value of, say, houses was always going to rise. Beneath that assumption was another, that the value had a certain solidity, like the house itself. However, as Paul S. Willen, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, recently noted, “The price of an asset, like a house or a stock, reflects not only your beliefs about the future, but you’re also betting on other people’s beliefs.” He went on, “It’s these hierarchies of beliefs - these behavioral factors - that are so hard to model.”
The key factor, then, escapes abstract models because it is human and social, not mathematical - a vast imaginative construction composed of hopes, fears, illusions, calculations, judgments. Unlike the house, the imaginative construction that determines the house’s value can be destroyed by a pinprick - hence the term bubble.
Harpham uses the term “projective retrospection” to describe the skills that humanists develop to assess forward-directed thought – hopes, fears, illusions, calculations and judgments – proposing that failures of projective reasoning are remediable by application of humanistic thought. Economists failed to understand what “confidence” really is, and that’s something we can help them out with. This is a much bolder claim than the old shibboleth that the humanities are good because they impart “critical thinking,” a term that only a scholar can love.
Alas, right after proposing that humanistic thought could be a crystal ball that shows the way forward, Harpham drops it. Instead of giving precise examples of the successful use of projective retrospection, he veers off course to explain how consumer confidence operates a lot like fiction, which is something that humanists can presumably help the public understand.
Sure, fine, okay. But this move buries the real achievement of this essay. Because he has pinned the value of his model of the humanities to an ability to amend errors in how leaders conceptualize human confidence, Harpham desperately needs to give a example of the improved process that he proposes, to turn projective retrospection from sorcery into science. Without doing so, the proposition seems just like ordinary retrospection and Harpham’s glass goes cloudy, which is a pity for such a promising paper.
Anyway, even if we credit Harpham’s idea, why should we even want to enable more effective speculation? Is that the only way to justify what we do?
For now, just in case, I’ll limit my impressive powers of imaginative projection to a hunch that another stirring new essay on the enduring value of the humanities has already appeared somewhere in the time it took me to assess this one.