Saturday, December 16, 2017

D. G Hart at Old Life broaches the topic of the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and an in-bad-taste send up of a well-known holiday song about Santa

Now as a musician and hobbyist composer I'd say that if we don't lead with the observation that the song was written by Frank Loesser and Lynn Gardner, an at one point husband-and-wife team who wrote the song as a playful party skit and that Loesser was one of the better known composers of what we now know as the Broadway musical, then the whole date-rapey dread people understandably have about this song in the 21st century misses the history lesson that explains how the song ever became a hit.

For those with just enough familiarity with the conventions of the American musical you have to hear this song within that context to understand what's going on.  It's a shrewdly economical musical play in which conventions are upheld long enough to subvert them in the end.  The woman puts up resistance but, as is shown by song's end, wants to spend the night with her beau at his place, even though "people will talk". 

Hart gets there soon enough, really, but with some necessary prep for those who, being non-musicians, wouldn't already know this song's interesting backstory.  We're looking at what might be one of the most brilliant microscopic operas in the American songbook.  An entire narrative plays out not just within in a single act but a single song. 

I've been thinking about how a lot of holiday songs from the 20th century that seemed cute and innocuous back then seem creepy now.  Santa Claus is Coming to Town would be the champion, really, because anyone with some knowledge of musical theater and some of the work of Frank Loesser can appreciate that when the "wolf" part is taken up by a Ray Charles or a Ricardo Montelban that it's not the same as a 21st century post-Cosby "read". 

In the wake of the War on Terror and in the context of mass social media use such as Facebook and Twitter and Instagram "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" just seems creepy, in a context where we have the capacity for a massive surveillance state and people voluntarily sink time into online games and quizzes via Facebook that are simply data-mining projects.  So even though as a rule I tend to not be sympathetic to newer Christmas songs that tend to be merely about older Christmas songs and holiday pretexts for torch songs or songs about erotic longing, I did write a send up of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" filtered through the tropes of American action/adventure scripts and a bunch of terrible jokes about the nature of social media usage.

By way of a prelude, when you stop and think about the basic idea of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" it might as well be read as "shut up kid, or we're not getting you anything this year." 

So if you don't mind a kind of "Lone Wolf and Cub" assassin take on Santa-as-Krampus ...

you might as well pout
you might as well cry
you might as well shout
cuz you're gonna die
santa claus is taking you down
he don't need the list
he won't check it twice
already knows that you are not nice
santa claus is taking you down
he sees you when you're sleeping
he knows when you're awake
he knows that you've been bad, not good
so he comes your life to take
he sharpens the blades
that will slit your throat
you might as well be
a sacrificed goat
santa claus is taking you down

and then when he's done
there won't be a sound
except from your corpse
when it hits the ground
santa claus is taking you down
he follows you on twitter
you're in his g.p.s.
his punishment is bitter
and he comes to kick your ass
and then when he's done
there won't be a sound
except from your corpse
when it hits the ground
santa claus is taking you down
and so on ...

Seeing as Bruce Willis is in a Death Wish remake ...

This song lyric is probably more what Santa would be like in an Argento film, maybe.

Friday, December 15, 2017

another haiku

Even our power
To bring forth life still contains
A seedling of death

Alastair Roberts recent post about the politics of deference links to a John McWhorter interview about Coates, and along the way quotes Girard, which reminded me of a Jewish counter that Girardian scapegoats aren't what the Torah is getting at

This post is mainly going to end up being about Coates, because that's how it played out as I wrote it, but the inspiration for this post was something Alastair Roberts posted recently about headlines and op-eds to the effect that black women voted against Roy Moore.
If a person can tick off more boxes than you on the intersectional checklist, you must ‘just listen’ and morally defer to them. It seems to me that just this sort of thing is increasingly occurring in certain sections of Christianity and even evangelicalism, where people are elevated, deferred to, shielded from criticism, or otherwise treated as morally superior in no small measure because they belong to some historically oppressed class.

The politics of deference, by elevating victim classes beyond such things, and by constantly performing its ‘genuflections’ towards writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, can end up implicitly demeaning the agency and the thought of people of those classes. People and ideas emanating from that class are deemed morally superior and held to be immune to robust challenge, which patronizes members of those groups who want their agency to be taken seriously, rather than merely pandered to. John McWhorter discusses this dynamic in the clip below:

There's a forty-minute discussion between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter about Coates (you know the one) that is part of the larger post.  I won't quote much from that or the post itself.  As someone of mixed lineage, both white and Native American, I've found Coates' popularity and acclaim a bit puzzling.  He's a talented stylist and I frankly loved "The Insufferable Spider-man".  He's great fun to read on superheroes and pop culture.  His writings about racist seem, well, kinda racist, but racist in a kind of way that is venerated by those who believe that the only conversation we can have about race or should be having in the United States must be along the most literal as well as metaphorical black and white categories of thought. 

When I read "The Case for Reparations" I thought it was a powerfully worded emotional appeal but that I have enough of a Native American lineage that my first thought was, "Hey, if this kind of stunt was going to work at all could we do it for the American Indians first?"  Because in order to make room for whites who owned blacks as slaves some natives had to be displaced, or isn't that a fairly standard understanding of how the history of the United States gets presented?  While blacks were enslaved and slave owners resorted to enforced breeding efforts the aim with American Indians was to simply exterminate them.  There aren't as many Native Americans around as there are African Americans so why couldn't they be the first beneficiaries of Coates' proposed reparations case? 

Or does Coates even care about the plight of Native Americans at all?  I've read his stuff at The Atlantic but not his books, so I don't know if in any of his books Native Americans even matter enough to get mentioned in a single paragraph.  I got the impression that for a writer like Coates the subject of race is so literally as well as metaphorically black and white the racist narrative (depending on which race we're told to prefer) pretty much ignores the Native American populace as if there might as well have never been Native Americans living on this continent to encounter white people or to, say, own blacks as slaves, too.   While I like reading Coates essays from time to time I consider him more a master of emotionally charged rhetoric than a careful thinker.  Now if Coates has mentioned Native Americans someone can correct me if I have made an inaccurate guess.  I would think that at some point a case for reparations for blacks would have to consider the deals the United States made with Native American tribes.  Even if the federal government promises to do X for group Y how certain can you be that they will do it? 

The case for reparations, assuming there's a case to be made, has to be based not merely on an invocation of sins past but on the hope that the reparations will actually work.  If Coates regards the pervasiveness of white supremacist ideology as being as entrenched as he seems to think it is then there are two ways reparations, if ever even implemented, can boomerang.  On the one hand, if reparations don't work (and Obama, by Coates own account, seemed dubious that the kinds of reparations Coates has called for have ever worked anywhere in the history of humanity), Coates could say the reparations weren't good enough.  But if the reparations were effective to some degree couldn't a writer like Coates eventually conclude that if reparations by the United States under, say, a white president, worked that this somehow could be construed as a kind of blood money apologetic for the system?  Coates' case for reparations can contain within it the kind of double bind that is heads he wins tails you lose.  If the situation is as bereft of real hope as Coates sometimes seems to think it is then asking for reparations seems to depend on the kind of hope that Coates would seem to believe doesn't really exist, in which case why did he make a case for reparations to begin with?

To put it another way, why note make a case for reparations for the Native Americans first and get to the African American experience later?  There's a sense in which a person could say that Coates' plea for reparations would have been more potent and powerful if he had made it on behalf of a group of peoples whose skin color doesn't even correspond to his.  For as much as he has written about black bodies red bodies might be worth thinking about, too.  Depending on what statistics you consult, though African Americans are most likely to be shot by law enforcement the people most likely to be killed by law enforcement relative to the size of their respective populations can be Native Americans. 

If there's a case to be made for reparations based on sheer guilt about mistreatment the nearly massacred Native American population could deserve cuts in line for what Coates proposes even if we accept without any potential counterargument that the case for reparations is unassailable. As bad as things have been for people of color Coates' case seems narrow in its sight.  For instance, as bad as things often were for African Americans how old is jazz as a musical form?  To put it another way, let's look at Native Americans to see if they have anyone like the great writers and musicians in the African American tradition.  Who's the Stevie Wonder of Native Americans?  Who's the Native American Duke Ellington?  Who's the Native American Douglass, duBois, Ellison or King Jr?  Who is the Native American Langston Hughes?  Sherman Alexie?  Eh ... a fine storyteller but not the greatest poet.  There's never going to be a Spokane Renaissance the way there was a Harlem Renaissance to go by cultural activity over the last century. 

When my Native American relatives described the American Civil War to me they said the white racists assholes in the North fought the white racist assholes in the South about how to treat black people and once that was sorta settled everyone agreed it was time to kill off the Indians.  Technically Charley Patton is considered by blues historians to be black but also at least part Native American so, hey, if we abandon the notion of racial purity across black and white lines than American Indians played a role in bringing the blues tradition to life.  But the larger point still stands, a writer like Coates can look at the rich intellectual, cultural, literary and musical tradition of African Americans in the United States and by contrast, what exactly comes close to that legacy of achievement in the Native American scene?

If you grew up with a Native American account of the American Civil War that I summarized in the last paragraph, it raises a question that Coates' case for reparations didn't address in his published article.  It has to do with how seriously he really takes his idea about white supremacy defining American society.  If you grew up being taught there was no good guy team in the American Civil War then part of the foundation to which Coates must appeal for reparations dissolves.  If there's no good guy white team to appeal to in terms of white guilt because they were all guilty then why even make the case for reparations at all?  Either white America is so racist there's no point in even making the case for reparations to begin with,  or it's not so racist that an appeal for reparations cannot be made.  To go by what Coates has written and what people say about what he's written he's accused of having the former view despite the impossibility of avoiding the implication that his real view in practice has to be the latter since he went to the trouble of writing and publishing "The Case for Reparations."

Loury and McWhorter seem to stop just short of proposing that for a man like Coates to argue for reparations as he has while having the view of the white establishment that he does could only be made in bad faith, but it's simmering as a concept to consider in their differences with Coates and his ideas.  Everybody's in process and discovering things so, of course, Coates doesn't have to be thought of as having thought through this kind of stuff to the degree that he's going to just start writing about this kind of thing in The Atlantic next week, or maybe ever.  Who knows? 

Now I think that in a sense Roberts missed something about the recent election and Moore.  Yes, victimology is kind of a thing but I would suggest that the quest for representation seems more salient within the United States and I think it's possible, admittedly at an abstract level, that what is being sought in representation and intersectionality is a common goal, one in which the popularity of a writer like Coates may be relevant but first .... let's get to Girard and something Roberts wrote:

But, in fact, the real reason for this blog post has to do with Girard.

Alastair Roberts says:

Yes, the quotes are all from the latter part of that book. My thoughts on mimetic violence and Girardian theory have developed over the last decade. I might blog on it at some point, but I am increasingly ambivalent about his approach.

This post was written in just over an hour, so it didn’t take long (it helps that it is largely quotations). When I know what I want to write, I can write 2,000 words or more an hour.

As soon as I saw this I was reminded that over at The American Conservative Noah Millman stated that his difference with Girardian notions of the scapegoat had to do with how that conception of the scapegoat has little to do with Judaism. Millman's post gets literal about things in the very title "You Don't Kill the Scapegoat."

I haven’t read any RĂ©ne Girard since college, but I remember the experience, and so I was interested to hear that my colleague Rod Dreher has been reading him lately. Among other things, it provides me an opportunity to trot out an old hobby horse of mine: our common misunderstanding of the scapegoat ritual.

In common parlance, a “scapegoat” is an entity that takes the blame for problems that are not truly of their making. By giving the community a target on which to vent its rage and violence, the scapegoat unites the remainder of the community and makes it possible to endure through whatever problems the scapegoat was blamed for.

But as the name clearly implies, the scapegoat isn’t destroyed — it escapes. [bold emphasis added, italics original] And, indeed, in the original Israelite ritual from which we get the concept, there are two goats chosen: one for the Lord and one for Azazel. But it’s the Lord’s goat that is killed. The scapegoat is sent off into the wilderness.
Leviticus 16:7.         Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the LORD at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting;
16:8.         and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the LORD and the other marked for Azazel.
16:9.         Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the LORD, which he is to offer as a sin offering;
16:10.     while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the LORD, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.
16:11.     Aaron shall then offer his bull of sin offering, to make expiation for himself and his household. He shall slaughter his bull of sin offering,
16:12.     and he shall take a panful of glowing coals scooped from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of finely ground aromatic incense, and bring this behind the curtain.
16:13.     He shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, lest he die.
16:14.     He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger over the cover on the east side; and in front of the cover he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.
16:15.     He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood behind the curtain, and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the cover and in front of the cover.
16:16.     Thus he shall purge the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness.
16:17.     When he goes in to make expiation in the Shrine, nobody else shall be in the Tent of Meeting until he comes out.
When he has made expiation for himself and his household, and for the whole congregation of Israel,
16:18.     he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and purge it: he shall take some of
the blood of the bull and of the goat and apply it to each of the horns of the altar;
16:19.     and the rest of the blood he shall sprinkle on it with his finger seven times. Thus he shall cleanse it of the uncleanness of the Israelites and consecrate it.
16:20.     When he has finished purging the Shrine, the Tent of Meeting, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward.
16:21.     Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man.
16:22.     Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.
The scapegoat is not the object of communal violence, so that violence cannot be providing a  kind of redemptive communal release of tension. [emphasis added]

Moreover, if sacrifice is about the release of these communal tensions, then how does one explain thanksgiving sacrifices, which are also blood offerings? The most extensive sacrifices outlined in the biblical text are those for Pentecost, a harvest festival of thanksgiving.
My read on the meaning of biblical blood sacrifice is different from Girard’s. Blood, as the carrier of life, is a powerful substance. That power can be harnessed — to transfer the residue of transgression from one entity to another, for example — but it needs to be treated with the proper respect, particularly respect for its origins: with God. This is explicitly laid out in Genesis 9:4-5.

In the earlier stages of Israelite religion, all killing of animals took the form of a sacrifice — without performing a sacrifice, you couldn’t eat meat. (This is the subtext of Saul’s transgression in 1 Samuel 13.) Sacrifice was a way of making the killing ok — because it meant returning the life to God. In other words, sacrifice wasn’t something you resorted to when the prohibitions failed — it was part of the system of prohibitions: a way of saying, you can only kill if you follow the prescribed rituals.

This is why, once ritual sacrifice was centralized, such that it was no longer practical to say that you can only eat meat after performing a sacrifice, the law had to change. In Deuteronomy, it says that if you slaughter an animal, you have to pour the blood on the ground and declare its return to God. Because you could no longer perform the sacrifice at home anymore, you couldn’t use the power of the blood. But you still needed to remove the blood in a ritualistic manner that made it clear that you respected the life that was being taken, and returned that life to its source.

Moreover, this prohibition was sufficiently strong that it even lasted into the early years of Christianity, vis Acts 15:20. The gentiles didn’t need to take on the bulk of the food-related prohibitions of Judaism when they converted — but they did need to abstain from blood.
So what’s the scapegoat about?

The scapegoat ritual is about cleaning the filter. The scapegoat is indeed removed from the community, but it doesn’t take the blame for transgressions — it takes the toxicity that  transgressions leave behind. This is not a ritual act of violence, any more than trash pickup is a ritual act of theft. It’s more comparable to cleansing the house of chametz during Passover than it is to “The Wicker Man.”
Next week maybe I’ll explain how everybody misunderstands Genesis 22:13.

Not too surprised Alastair had a comment early in the comment section for this one.   None of this is to suggest there's nothing useful or insightful about Girard, whose work I haven't read so I'm not going to claim there's something bad about his concept of the scapegoat just because an author points out that a Girardian conception of the scapegoat is not necessarily a Jewish one.  It might be possible for Christ to fulfill a scapegoat role by taking on our sins, for instance, despite the fact that Christ was crucified on the cross.  In a sense someone might propose, and this seems to be what people on the alt right have proposed, is that within the realm of intersectionality the white establishment is supposed to admit to the sin of being white and let those with intersectionally greater righteousness contribute and play roles in the foundations of power.  White nationalists don't want this to happen while advocates for intersectionality do want it to happen but what neither team seems particularly interested in debating or exploring is whether the power they all seem to want part in is actually all that legitimate.  This is perhaps most germane to Coates and his case for reparations because of the nature of the "ask" and the significance of what the reparations are supposed to be reparations for and ultimately "who" he wants the reparations to be made by. 

Whether Roberts blogs more about his ambivalence about Girardian categories in the future remains to be seen.  But since he mentioned Girard recently, it reminded me of something Millman blogged. 

Now, back to the matter of what representation, intersectionality and the popularity of a writer like Coates may be pointing to.

Intersectionality is not quite like the old political correctness from twenty years ago.  There's a new element in which variants of minority demographics have additive or multiplicative dynamics.  So if you're black you're not white and are not part of the hegemony of the white patriarchal cisgender establishment if only by dint of the not being white part.  But if you're a cisgender male who's a dudely dude, well, within intersectionality terms you're not "that" special.  You may be able to work out where the demographic "math" goes at this point. 

What this has to do with representation is an observation that in the priestcraft of academia and entertainment it would be better if more of these demographics who have historically not been given the power to get things done in those industries (let's just call academia an industry the way entertainment is an industry). 

Where this has the potential to go that I think someone like Roberts can appreciate, and certainly commenter cal here at this blog, is that all this adds up to a set of ideologies that implicitly or even explicitly propose that the establishment would be just fine as long as it had more diversity and representation of historically marginalized groups.

Anyone who actually thinks that is or will be or should be the case is a moron.  It gets to one of the reasons I find Coates' case for reparations weak sauce, the aforementioned double bind of either being not enough or being blood money.  Even if reparations were doled out and they "worked" (however anyone wants to define that) they would still be able to be dismissed as blood money on the general principle that what may get done in this century "could" have been done centuries earlier but wasn't because of racism.  Someone could take Coates' approach about white and black and point out that even if reparations worked that could still be the white establishment having bought off its own blood guilt with reparations.  You can't un-kill people, after all, and in that sense Coates' case for reparations might even have to assume that, at some level, that there's a price tag or a level of reparations to pay out that would somehow balance the scale.

Now Coates is an atheist so he's probably not going to agree with or follow that this doesn't exactly fit with what Christians have called sin.  The effects of a sin never end, even if the sin itself seems to be a small one.  It might really be a small one but a small failure at the level of one or two O-rings can lead to an exploding space shuttle, right?  Think of all the lives of the black men and women whose lives and bodies and hearts and minds were destroyed by the effects of institutional racism and slavery?  Has Coates stopped to think about how his case for reparations has to, in the end, argue that the United States government can really put a price tag on that?  If he has I'm not really sure how he could then proceed with a case for reparations and it's got nothing to do with the nature of the moral appeal based on how evil the treatment of black people was.   

This may seem like a tangent but it has a point. Christians understand that our sin and its effects are so ghastly in scope and eternal in never-ending consequences that Christ died for our sins; furthermore, in the age to come Christians believe there will be a new heaven and a new earth--too many arguments against Hell focus and fixate on objections to the eternal punishment part as if that was the primary message of Revelation for systematics, the promise is of a new heaven and earth, a whole new cosmos in which sin and sinners have no place and what is colloquially known as "Hell" or the lake of fire can be thought of as where those go who want no part of eternal life with Christ in the new Jerusalem.   But the key here is that in Revelation we are told that Christ returns and God in some sense reformats and reboots the entire cosmos. 

For someone like Coates life is precious because it isn't forever and because this life is the only one we have, but even so ... a case for reparations of the sort Coates has made at some point tacitly admits that there's a limit, and if there's a limit then a price can be put on something because it's not priceless.  Sure, Coates might deny this is an implication of his argumentation if directly pressed on the matter, but it seems impossible to evade.  The kind of price tag we would have to put on black bodies and souls for any reparations of the kind Coates wants to be made to get paid would seem to trivialize the horror of what was done to so many men, women and children over centuries.

By Coates' account, Obama told him that there's no evidence reparations would work and that whatever we do to remedy race relations in the United States has to set out on a different path and a different praxis.  Meanwhile the dead are still dead, and that Coates' appeal for reparations has to put a price tag on the souls of those who died (not that Coates necessarily believes in souls) might make it seem to those who believe that humans have dignity and bear the image of God that what Coates is making a case for is, in terms of human dignity, weirdly trivial.  The loss was terrible and in principle incalculable but a case for reparations has to concede that, well, there is nonetheless a measurable price tag. That seems to soft-pedal the magnitude of the sin committed against blacks by what I, as a Christian, regard as a literally eternal magnitude.  It's not that there's no case to be made for reparations, really, it's that Coates' particular formulation of his particular case seems sketchy if you start to think about it some more.  It has to do with a double bind that is imposed against his own case by his own reading of American history and the role of the white establishment as its understood power base.

If white racists destroyed black bodies through their actions and defended those actions by ideologies what does Coates' case for reparations have to appeal to?  Guilt, real guilt, but reparations as a solution become a hand-out based on established guilt about things done in the past given to people who are alive now.  If this is formulated in terms of an appeal to give to Americans what is promised in principle through the founding documents and the ideals of the Founding Fathers and the Framers of the Constitution then, fine, I could agree with that even if I have doubts that reparations will "work" in addressing that. 

But that's precisely where Coates' survey of white racism suggests that he can get stuck, because if the aforementioned is not the real idea of the Constitution or the Amendments and so on, then attempting to appeal for reparations comes back to making that appeal to a group Coates could seem to have described as predicated in racism.  If he really thinks white America is that racist why did he bother making a case for reparations to begin with?  The case only makes any sense even on its own terms if Coates can assume, at base, that white America and/or the power of the United States of America is both able and willing to make good on a case he's made for reparations, otherwise the whole stunt is made in bad faith or at least astonishingly sloppy thinking. Either he in some way agrees with Dr. King about the arc of history/the universe tending toward justice, however long, at least enough to bother making a case for reparations to begin with or he doesn't believe this and he can ultimately look like an idiot for, nonetheless, insisting on making a case for reparations anyway.

But Dr. King had some comments about the United States and Vietnam, didn't he?  That gets to something else that seems to be a fracture point in a Coates case for reparations.  Where's this wealth really coming from?  Consider how much our wealth has come from warfare, mineral extraction, resource exploitation and so many other things, too.  Coates' case for reparations has to assume that the United States is an empire that will be better if it just pays out reparations but where does this wealth come from?  Who in some other country may end up dead because the American empire decides to finally dole out reparations because Coates made a case for them? 

Just because the United States at some point may pay reparations wouldn't make it a more just empire just because Coates got what he wanted.  But that's a risk Coates has to take in the formulation of his case for reparations, that if the United States did this thing he wants done that that could be a significant step toward establishing that this current empire is okay, after all.  Someone who's read even a little of Augustine could say that this is just another iteration of the City of Man, a new iteration of Babylon the Great. 
As Loury and McWhorter put it in their clip, Coates is a gifted, talented writer but not a particularly deep or clear thinker.  I'd say I agree with that. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Fredrik deBoer on the Elena Ferrante investigative journalism incident and the problem of conflating being a jerk with aggression against womankind

Elena Ferrante and the Politics of Deference

Rehabilitating the concept of the asshole
Not too long ago, I joined many others in being suddenly, oddly angry at an obscure Italian journalist. That journalist, a man named Claudio Gatti, had published an article in several languages that purported to reveal the identity of the celebrated Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. The author, whose work has in recent years become as critically adored as any living writer, has been open about her pseudonymity and about very little else. In the rare interviews she has granted, she has argued that remaining pseudonymous allows her work itself to command attention, granting her the ability to concentrate on writing without the trappings of literary celebrity. Gatti, it appears, has robbed her of that freedom. In his essay, Gatti detailed the great lengths he had gone to complete his investigation, digging into the financial records of both the woman he names as Ferrante and that woman’s spouse. I suppose it’s worth saying that I find his claims about Ferrante’s true identity persuasive. I also find his work invasive and gross.
Certainly my affection for Ferrante’s writing plays a part here. Ferrante is truly a giant, one of the rare living writers whose hype is proportional to her talent. She is an achingly exacting stylist, her books have a particular moral vision that seems truly unusual in today’s politicized artwork, and she practices a rare kind of subtle, unassuming irony. Still, even if I wasn’t as taken with Ferrante’s writing, I would feel angry at Gatti and his self-aggrandizing essay. For one, Ferrante’s rare stand against celebrity, in a world where even those who complain about it clearly hunger for it — see Franzen, Jonathan, for a prime example of a writer who complains about celebrity while pursuing it relentlessly — shows immense integrity. By denying it to her, and by calling her attempts to maintain her anonymity the very reason for his investigation, Gatti essentially forecloses on the possibility of artistic engagement that stands outside of the celebrity industry. Gatti’s investigation into financial records takes him close to violating real ethical standards of privacy. It’s one thing for journalists to dig through the records of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, both in a bid to become the most powerful person in the world. It’s another to treat the salary of a pseudonymous novelist like the Watergate scandal.
Gatti’s justifications, meanwhile, are self-serving and unconvincing. He writes that “by announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown.” Really? “In a way?” In what way, Claudio? This is not an argument; it’s a sleight of hand, and yet it fills an essential space in Gatti’s justification for his efforts. To be clear: I don’t think that Gatti broke the law, and I must grudgingly agree with Deadspin’s Hamilton Nolan that journalists have the right to investigate the identity of a famous writer. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or that I can’t judge Gatti and his weird justifications.
I was therefore pleased, at first, to see a lot of the Internet joining me in condemning him. Many of the tweets, posts, and essays I read expressed the same unhappiness I felt over this brilliant writer having to endure such a grubby act of voyeuristic journalism. Over time, though, the conversation about Ferrante’s true identity and the conduct of the reporter took a familiar turn. As seems to happen more and more often, the case against Gatti became politicized in particular terms: he was not merely guilty of journalistic impropriety, or of being a jerk, but of abuse, of gendered abuse, of a particularly noxious, particularly taboo kind. Social media lit up with accusations that Gatti’s essay was sexist, harassment, a kind of gendered violence, even comparable to domestic abuse or sexual assault. The New Republic’s Charlotte Shange declared the outing sexist, arguing that Gatti’s justifications “echo the most chilling claims of men who physically violate a woman while claiming the resisting woman wanted it and had it coming.” An activist site dedicated to cataloging victim-blaming declared Gatti’s essay “part of the continuum of violence against women and girls.” Tom Geue called Gatti’s actions a “reactionary bid for repossession,” comparing them to antiquated traditions of men enslaving their wives. The message from all corners was clear: Gatti was not just guilty of a particularly ugly invasion of privacy, but of something much darker.

What to make of this? More than anything, it strikes me as a matter of people actually trivializing accusations they seek to take most seriously. To compare a journalist revealing the real identity of a wealthy writer to domestic abuse, enslavement, and sexual assault is to disrespect the victims of those horrible crimes in the comparison. What happened to Ferrante was unpleasant, even exploitative; it was not the same as physical or sexual abuse. This distinction is necessary if we’re to preserve the status such crimes have rightfully earned as uniquely worthy of moral condemnation. Outrage is a finite resource; to attempt to generate it over and over again ensures that it will be harder and harder for it to mean anything in the future. Similarly, while I don’t doubt that gender is implicated in this story — gender is implicated in everything — I don’t think it’s productive to cast Gatti’s actions as sexist. Creepy and malicious will suffice.

Have to agree with the statement that conflating a journalist revealing an identity to domestic violence and sexual assault does trivialize precisely the accusations that we want to take most seriously, and deBoer has a point saying that those who would conflate and collapse the distinction between a mercenary journalist and a wife-beater ultimately trivialize accusations of the latter when they collapse the former into a smaller spectrum of what's regarded in public discourse as aggression against women. 
I would propose that part of what makes these rhetorical flourishes troubling is that by insisting that Gatti's journalism constituted a kind of symbolic violence against women and girls altogether is that in order to take this to be the case it requires what is at a foundational level a totalitarian collapse of categories.  Would similar laments have been raised about an A-list Hollywood actress depicting a Margaret Thatcher in a period of physical and mental decline?  When Slate featured a piece that declared that the white women voters betrayed the sisterhood by voting for Trump it wasn't really clear whether the sisterhood, as a designative term employed by writers who write for Slate, was necessarily much larger than the coterie of journalists who live in the New York area and/or can write for Slate.  When Hanna Rosin made an observation about the inherent limitations of rich white ladies opining about all women as if knowing what all women feel like it wasn't exactly taken as winsome by other writers in the journalistic orbit in the United States.
But deBoer raises another point that is worth touching on, that outage is a finite resource.  The internet leverages outrage pretty consistently and yet thanks to generations of partisan propaganda in the two party system the outrage that is the default weapon of choice to turn against the other team is what the insider seems most adept at being inoculated to when the matter is one's own team.  To put it in depressing terms informed by last year's presidential election, it could seem we were asked to choose between two people who over the years have been accused of being a perpetrator of sexual harassment and an enabler of sexual harassment.  It's something to keep in mind now that we're on the other side of an "I'm with her" campaign that clearly didn't win over the electoral college.  Depending on your perspective both the big ticket candidates came across like they felt at some level entitled to the Oval Office.  But whether that entitlement is a sign of self-aggrandizing narcissistic tendencies or a kind of political destiny worth of a Oscar-bait Hollywood production may just depend on which side you've invested yourself in. 
It looks like we're in an era in which merely saying someone seems creepy and malicious is frequently felt to be not enough.  It's like we need something more apocalyptic. 

Even Forbes has figured out this year that hip hope is the dominant musical genre in the United States


Nielsen Music recently released its annual mid-year report, which takes a look at how the music industry is doing halfway through the year and lists which songs and albums are performing the best. This time around, the report revealed some fairly unsurprising stats, including the fact that streaming is still exploding, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” is the most popular track and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. is the album that the American public simply can’t get enough of. All of those could have been predicted, but there is one standout piece of information embedded in the document that is somewhat shocking.

For the first time since Nielsen started measuring music consumption in the United States, rock is no longer the top genre in terms of overall consumption. Instead, the combined genre of R&B and hip-hop has taken the crown, and while the two styles are fairly close to one another when it comes to percentages, the latter has pulled ahead, and it seems like it will continue to distance itself from the competition in the coming months and years.

According to the report, R&B and hip-hop are now responsible for 25.1% of all music consumption in the U.S., while rock claims 23%. Looking at the rest of the numbers listed that dissect how people are consuming these styles of music, it’s clear that streaming is to thank for the swap in ranking. Rock is far and away the winner when it comes to album sales—the genre claims 40% of all album sales in the country—but the total number of records actually purchased dwindles every year, so while that percentage may remain steady or even climb, it’s not representative of how Americans are truly consuming music.

Hip-hop/R&B, on the other hand, is responsible for just over 29% of all on-demand streams across the country, and that is the only field that is growing noticeably. In fact, R&B/hip-hop is almost as popular on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music than the next two genres (rock and pop) combined. At least seven of the top 10 most popular songs on streaming platforms in 2017 fit squarely into the hip-hop field, while another, Bruno Mars' "That's What I Like," blends pop and R&B. 

Probably no one who reads this blog will be surprised that I really hate the Ed Sheeran song and have riffed on revisions that include lines such as "I'm in love with your kidneys", "I'm in love with your Achille's tendon", "I'm in love with your ligaments", or "I'm in love with your lower intestine."

Meanwhile, very probably classical and jazz are at the bottom of the sales listings like they were a few years ago.  Now might be a time to point out that if high art musical idioms like jazz and classical have comparatively 1 or 2 percent of the sales they at least have that prestige, right?  Or do they even have that?  That's something I might write about more later ... maybe.

over at Slate Christina Cauterucci muses upon Hollywood's long tradition of casting 20 and 30-something actors and actresses as "teenagers"

Now of course someone over at The Baffler dissents that this should be so, but Cauterucci leads an article with an observation about how Lady Bird, this season's critical darling, features a teenager who is fairly typical for teenage protagonists in many respects except for one.

This season’s most-acclaimed film, Lady Bird, checks off all the standard entries on a high school movie to-do list. As the title character, Saoirse Ronan shops for prom dresses, applies to college, falls for an arrogant loner, and clashes with her mom—like any other teen movie heroine. But she has at least one thing nearly every other protagonist in the genre lacks: pimples.

Ronan told Vanity Fair that her skin “wasn’t great” during production. When the Lady Bird makeup artist asked Ronan, then 22, if she’d be OK letting her acne show, she agreed. “I thought it was a really good opportunity to let a teenager’s face in a movie actually look like a teenager’s face in real life,” Ronan said. Writer-director Greta Gerwig claims she was tired of seeing teenage girls in movies with “perfect skin and perfect hair, even if they're supposed to be awkward,” when the average teenage experience is beset by zits and French braids.

The impossible beauty of teen characters in film and TV is partially attributable to Hollywood’s aspirational human palette, which represents a limited range of acceptable physical characteristics. But it’s also an inevitable upshot of an industry that routinely casts actors in their mid-20s or even their 30s as bumbling pubescents. In a culture as shaped by media imagery as ours, the systemic misrepresentation of an entire age group has real consequences for how adults conceive of typical adolescence, and how teens measure themselves against it.

With a few exceptions like Saved by the Bell and Skins, which were deliberately cast with actors around the same ages as their characters, the best-known on-screen teenagers have been brought to life by far older bodies. Carrie starred 26-year-old Sissy Spacek as a high-schooler a decade younger. Ingrid Bergman was well into her 30s when she played the teenage lead in 1948’s Joan of Arc. In Grease, a timeless archetype of high school dramedy released in 1978, the lead roles were played by a 24-year-old John Travolta, a 29-year-old Olivia Newton-John, and a 34-year-old Stockard Channing. With the exception of then-17-year-old Mischa Barton, the chief clique of The O.C. was populated by actors in their early and mid-20s. Mean Girls featured a 25-year-old Rachel McAdams as a high school bully; Amy Poehler, who played her mother, is just seven years older.

This custom goes back a few decades, of course.  When Mystery Science Theater 3000 did their send up of Teenagers from Outer Space, it was noted early in the film that these so-called teenagers all looked like they were handsomely in their 30s and even early 40s.

These aren’t isolated examples. This spring, Broadly calculated the respective age differences between the characters and actors in 11 popular films and TV shows set during high school, including The Breakfast Club, Clueless, and this year’s Riverdale. Teens playing teens make up a tiny minority of those in the study, for whom the average age gap ranged from 3.7 years (Gossip Girl) to 8.25 years (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The cast members of Glee (average age gap: 8 years) were almost all past college age when they started as high school sophomores on the show, prompting creator Ryan Murphy to graduate the characters in real time, after the third season. “There’s nothing more depressing than a high schooler with a bald spot,” he said when he announced the plan.
Meh, there's plenty of things more depressing than a high schooler with a bald spot but the attempt at humor is noted. Memory is fuzzy here but some cast member on Buffy the Vampire Slayer joked that when you're 30 you're finally old enough to play a teenager in high school on TV.
Bald spots are not the issue for teenaged viewers, though. It’s the more conventionally sexualized parts of adult bodies—breasts, hips, upper body musculature—that can give teenagers unrealistic points of reference for their own development. Beth Daniels, a developmental psychology professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, remembers that some teen shows used to feature actors who, while still older than the characters they were playing, could actually pass for high schoolers—like baby-faced Alexis Bledel, who was 19 when Gilmore Girls premiered. “In contemporary teen shows today, they have actors who don’t even physically resemble teenagers,” Daniels said in a phone interview. Their faces are framed by high-relief Adam’s apples and square, stubbly jaws; their smooth-skinned, un-stretchmarked bodies have no trouble filling out adult-size lingerie. “So now the expectation, or the standard, is way out of line with actual teen bodies, and the possibility for body dissatisfaction jumps up.”

This reminds me of stuff someone said from the pulpit more than a decade ago about how women negatively compared themselves to fashion models who were often just teenagers; "if" that's the case for grown women teenagers can see hours of television in which adult men and women are presented as if teenagers.  It may just be that wildly unrealistic depictions of the human experience are just how the entertainment industry works. Except for journalism and arts criticism, of course.
There are several reasons why casting directors tend to choose legal adults to play teenagers on screen. First on the list is labor law. Minors can only work limited hours and require additional accommodations for schooling and break time, while adult actors can spend longer, more efficient days on set. Adolescence itself, characterized by unpredictable changes, is itself an obstacle. “The lived reality of puberty does not play well on screen,” said Rebecca Feasey, who teaches gender, media, and film studies at Bath Spa University in the U.K. “This is not about aesthetics, but rather about continuity—continuity which would be challenged by developing bodies and deepening voices.”
Older actors can also perform the kinds of sexual situations that provide much of the drama of contemporary teen narratives without raising ethical concerns. Pacey Witter was only 15 when he started sleeping with his high school teacher on Dawson’s Creek, but Joshua Jackson, at 19, was above the age of consent. In other cases, age gaps buttress a show’s believability. On Gossip Girl, the very adult sex life of 16-year-old Chuck Bass seems more plausible when portrayed by Ed Westwick, who was a very self-possessed 20 when the show debuted.
Given Cauterucci writes for Slate framing the conclusion in terms of how society treats women is not hugely surprising.  It may just be the start and end for someone who has written so much for Double X, though it isn't actually that way for a moderately large swath of what she writes.

And it doesn't have to just apply to women.  Part of the charm of Tom Holland's turn as Peter Parker in this year's Spiderman: Homecoming had a lot to do with his looking baby-faced enough to pass for an actual teenager who really shouldn't have been looking to get into aerial battles with a seasoned criminal. 

And while the article doesn't touch on this directly, a show like Buffy or Gilmore Girls can present another unrealistic standard, one that's fairly routine in mainstream Hollywood productions--teens who talk like adults.  I might go a step further and propose that after a few seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer all of the characters can start to sound like a single character whose lines are pertly distributed across the cast so as to sound plausibly like a set of characters.  I know, I know, the show's venerated by its fan base but after twenty years it "is" possible to highlight that Joss Whedon's feminist cred can seem resolutely pro forma these days. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

revisiting The Patrologist for a post noting the too "swept under the rug" treatment of some more recent cases of academic plagiarism

I quoted from The Patrologist blog a couple of years ago on academia as an honor/shame society.  This was the statement.

It’s blindingly obvious that Academia runs as a microcosmic honour/shame society because the one thing that ranks just below actual scholarship in scholars’ concern is prestige or honour as accorded them by their peers.

This is what drives almost all academic endeavours (beyond the actual desire to study): conference papers, journal and monograph publishing, etc..

Every act of publishing is an attempt to gain the symbolic capital of prestige among academic peers, via an act of heroism, which is the public display of scholarly prowess.

Well, here in 2017 The Patrologist had some comments about relatively recent cases of plagiarism in academia.

In 2016 the sad news emerged that three commentaries written by Peter O’Brien, a respected New Testament scholar, had been pulled following an investigation finding them guilty of plagiarism. See Eerdmans’ post here.

Sad, because it’s clear to all who know him that Peter is indeed a formidable scholar and gracious Christian person, and this is a major academic transgression. But it was not treated as such. It was quietly ‘dealt with’. The books were pulled, a few people made some mutterings about how it was indeed possible to ‘unintentionally’ plagiarise, especially in the realm of commentary writing, and everyone ‘moved on’.

(No one who has taken notes ought to find it difficult to believe that poor note-taking practice could lead to unintentional plagiarism, but this is merely to understand the fault, not to excuse it)

As of this year it may be that any coverage that deals with Driscoll refers to, perhaps, some plagiarism controversy about alleged plagiarism but regards the allegations as only having been allegations.  That the first edition of Real Marriage isn't the same as the second edition might be evidence that something changed between editions, maybe even a few things. 

There may be a new approach these days from the Driscoll side of things, or not so new, talk about forgiveness and how even David had his sins.  Yeah, but David accepted Nathan's rebuke and accepted as legitimate that one of his children would die and that the sword would never depart from his household,  i.e. he'd have a dynastic legacy full of bloodshed and strife within itself. 

Moving on as though nothing all that important happened or that what happened is in the past may not just be the status quo for academic publishing. 

a review of Mark McGurl's The Program Era led with a statement that there was a boom in creative writing programs in 2009 and here in 2017 writing and English lit faculty seem to be fearing the end of their time

It's trippy, in light of the piece we looked at earlier about the teacher of English literature becoming extinct, to consider a lead from an article that appeared back in 2009 reviewing some books, one of which was Mark McGurl's The Program Era. Charles McGraths article opens with a sentence that, almost a decade after the 2008 financial crash, seems almost startling as a lead.

One of the biggest growth areas in higher education these days is creative writing. In 1975, there were 52 degree-granting writing programs in American colleges and universities, and in 2004 there were more than 300. In his new book, “The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing,” Mark McGurl, an associate professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that for this to happen in an era when American education has generally become more practical and vocational is not quite as odd as it seems.
Creative writing programs are themselves vocational training of a sort, he points out, and most of the people teaching in them are themselves holders of advanced degrees in creative writing. Probably a majority of American writers make a considerable part of their living not by writing, in fact, but by teaching others how to write and how to teach writing.
Now here is where McGrath goes in a direction that Paul Hindemith almost went in on the subject of music education in America, bitterly remarking that American music educators were mostly only good for making yet more American music educators rather than educating the populace at large in an enjoyment of music.  Hindemith's devotion to the promotion of amateur music-making is probably not very well-known because nobody knows or cares who Paul Hindemith is these days.  But I mention him because where McGrath goes next is to propose that McGurl never considers that maybe the creative writing academic scene is ...
That there might be a Ponzi element in all this is something Mr. McGurl never considers. He thinks that writing programs are the best thing that ever happened to American fiction, and he pursues his case not on economic grounds — the great number of writers whose careers have been subsidized, in effect, by the university — but aesthetic ones. The programs, he says, have enabled a great flourishing of postwar American fiction, and from the merits of the work he deduces the merits of the system that fostered it.
In many ways his case is inarguable, if for no other reason than that writing programs are now an inescapable fact of cultural life in America. It’s hard to think of a single important American writer to come along in the last 30 years who didn’t log at least a couple of semesters in an M.F.A. program somewhere.


In “The Program Era,” Mr. McGurl does have some smart things to say about the evolution of this creative writing movement — he documents it as part of the rise of progressive education in general — and about the many paradoxes involved when universities get in the business of trying to structure, codify and reward artistic endeavor. Not the least of these is that few of even the most ardent teachers of creative writing believe it can really be taught. Probably the best that can be expected is that the programs identify and nurture talent that is already there. The downside, though no one seems terribly worried about it, is that with new programs springing up every year, a lot of costly nurturing of nontalent takes place as well.
What this means is that we are conceivably approaching a state in which there are more writers in America than there are readers and, even more alarming perhaps, in which writing detaches itself from the marketplace and becomes, as it was back in the 17th century, a profession practiced only by teachers and by those who can afford to do it for nothing.

If someone were to try to put this prognosis in brutally economic terms, the writing program scene was a bubble and that bubble would have to burst at some point.  The comment on teachers is worth dwelling on a little more because for those who recall a controversy back in 2015 the poet Sherman Alexie was involved, in his defense of publishing a poem by a white guy who pretended to be Asian-American was because he liked the poem and also because he felt that poetry compilations were reaching a point where the only people getting published in them were and are, well, poetry teachers.
Rule #9: I don't want to fill the damn book with poetry professors. I really want to choose some poets who work outside of academia. But I also don't want to bias myself against any poems because they happen to be written by poetry professors, so I will not read any biographies or contributor notes about any poets.

So, okay, as a result of these rules, what did I do with Best American Poetry 2015?
        Approximately 60% of the poets are female.
        Approximately 40% of the poets are people of color.
        Approximately 20% of the poems employ strong to moderate formal elements.
        Approximately 15% of the poems were first published on the Internet.
        Approximately 99% of the poets are professors.

This is something to bear in mind before we turn to someone else who reviewed the McGurl book (which I've been curious enough about to check out from a local library).

Someone named Jameson has a different angle on the McGurl book.

The secret Mark McGurl discloses is the degree to which the richness of postwar American culture (we will here stick to the novel, for reasons to be explained) is the product of the university system, and worse than that, of the creative writing programme as an institutional and institutionalised part of that system. This is not simply a matter of historical research and documentation, although one finds a solid dose of that in The Programme Era: it is a matter of shame, and modern American writers have always wanted to think of themselves as being innocent of that artificial supplement to real life which is college education, to begin with, but above all the creative writing course. Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. Think of the encomia of European intellectuals like Sartre and Beauvoir to the great American writers who didn’t teach, didn’t go to school, but worked as truck drivers, bartenders, nightwatchmen, stevedores, anything but intellectuals, as they recorded ‘the constant flow of men across a whole continent, the exodus of an entire village to the orchards of California’, and so on.
There is the real, and then there is the university; and of course in one sense (the best sense) the university is that great vacation which precedes the real life of earning your living, having a family, finding yourself inextricably fixed in society and its institutions. The campus is somehow extraterritorial (McGurl identifies that relatively new genre, the ‘campus novel’, and he also compares the enclave experience of the university to that now ubiquitous cultural activity, which has itself become an economic industry, called tourism); and the life of the student, when he or she does not have to sacrifice it in finding the tuition fees (the cost of living that life), is one of freedom, freedom from ideology (class interests have not yet come down like an iron cage), the freedom of discovery – sexuality, culture, ideas – and in a more subtle sense, perhaps, the freedom from nationality, from the guilt of class and of being an American. What the ‘real’ writer wants to write about is not that kind of free-floating freedom, but rather the realities of constraint (the campus novel has the vocation of reintroducing that constraint back into the apparent freedoms of university life). So somehow the shame of being ‘taught to be a writer’ (itself a kind of insult) is bound up with the guilt of a freedom your subjects (the ‘real people’ in your novels) are not able to share.
There is more. Those European writers envying earlier American writers who, like Hemingway, were not university students and very far from any thought of writing courses and learning technique – those writers were citizens of societies in which universities were part of the state, and in which attending school was a social activity, sanctioned by society and classified among the official social roles it distributed. But of course in those systems there were no creative- writing classes, an invention with which McGurl credits the United States. What the European university produced were not writers but intellectuals, and here we hit on the deeper reason for the American’s shame at the country’s institutional dirty little secret: American anti-intellectualism.
It is a very old tradition here, which is however not to be explained by some cultural characteristic or peculiarity, since in fact it expresses that most permanent dynamic of all societies – namely, class consciousness. Left intellectuals have the most trouble understanding this, insofar as they expect the content of their ideologies to shield them from the resentment of those with whom they identify. But anti-intellectualism is a form of populism, and it is the privileged position of intellectuals that is targeted and not their thoughts. Universities are part of that target as well, and the writers who feel guilt about their academic associations are also at least symbolically attempting to pass over to the other side, to dissociate themselves from idealism as well as privilege. Indeed, so omnipresent is symbolic class struggle in these matters that we find it at work in all the binary systems that run through McGurl’s magisterial book, even though the class identifications shift position according to the concrete national situation. Thus the ubiquitous realism/modernism debate is coded and recoded perpetually, depending on whether realism is identified with bourgeois positions (as in Europe) or with the European coloniser (as in African and many other postcolonial societies). Gender itself is recoded over and over again, depending on whether it stamps literature as feminised and passive (as for the first modernists) or identifies feminism as a militant and oppressed position (as tends to be more the case in many countries today) ...
The unavoidable class opposition even recurs within the university: thus McGurl lets us understand that his restriction of the topic of American writing to the novel is itself a vehicle of class meaning. The poets have a nobler calling, and tend to look down on their lowly storytelling cousins; even theatre dissociates itself from this humbler and more proletarianised vocation, while yet a fourth alternative – journalism – offers the would-be writer an escape from literature and its connotations altogether. The judgments of each of these ‘specialisations’ on each other are no less harsh than that of ‘ordinary Americans’ on the university system in general. (To which we must add the stifling presence of the university itself as an institutional actor, within an already ominously bureaucratised and institutionalised society.)

The point is not so much to argue the ‘pros and cons’ of these social connotations (which McGurl would like to avoid as much as possible), but rather to see how for the writers, in their new postwar situation as inevitable dependants of the university’s largesse, the problem of escaping such coding and such identification is a profoundly formal one, which offers several alternative and seemingly contradictory solutions. It is these solutions and their systemic relationship to each other which The Programme Era proposes to explore and triumphantly does so.

I sort of dimly remember the English majors who were into poetry were snobbier than the English majors into novels and the journalism students I knew, the few I knew in my not-so-giant college, might as well have not been English majors at all because, really, none of them were that I can readily recall, at least. 

But I'm skeptical about whether or not anti-intellectualism is the primary explanation for a shame about American creative writing programs having produced so much postwar literature.  That could be a part, but we could also be seeing a part of that shame being associated with ideas such as that "you can't teach X", with X being whatever art or literature or music is simply too divine to really be "taught".  We may be more residually Romantic in our ideologies and mythologies regard the arts and artists than to be at peace with what McGurl has described as The Program Era of American literature.

But it would seem like a Jameson could easily make a guess that resentment of writing teachers in higher education could have a class-based resentment.  College literature professors can be thought of as teaching stuff that is required reading for college students and maybe also required reading for high school students but for all those to whom reading was a chore teachers can be those men and women who would, if they could, insist you have to read stuff to get further in life because they have the power to say so.  Academics may not feel like they're power-brokers if they compare themselves to people in banking or even school administration, but professors and teachers are absolutely power brokers for any child or adolescent who understands that "that person can decide my grade in a way that determines whether I can get out of this school." 

Were more of those people who get dubbed anti-intellectual to see what scholars sometimes have to say about their field they might resent intellectuals even more.

It’s blindingly obvious that Academia runs as a microcosmic honour/shame society because the one thing that ranks just below actual scholarship in scholars’ concern is prestige or honour as accorded them by their peers.

This is what drives almost all academic endeavours (beyond the actual desire to study): conference papers, journal and monograph publishing, etc..

Every act of publishing is an attempt to gain the symbolic capital of prestige among academic peers, via an act of heroism, which is the public display of scholarly prowess.

Now I do love to read stuff and I love to study but things pile up, dear reader.  That a 2009 review of a Mark McGurl book led with a proclamation that one of the biggest growth areas in 2009 for higher education was creative writing and, well, I guess this doesn't mean all those creative writing students aren't still studying literature along the way.  But it's interesting to see American liberal arts academics lament what seems to be the fall of the tradition when in just a previous decade it seemed as though the arts scene was booming.  It's as though the possibility that a real estate bubble could have a corresponding arts bubble didn't come up. 

Then again, in the 1990s the music industry was worried it was collapsing.  Depending on how long-form a view we take Western society as a whole might turn out to be a bubble and many of the efforts to salvage or save Western civilization may be trying to save a seemingly deflating bubble by inflating it more when, well, we have all those disaster movies and so on, and climate change predictions, the bubble may just have to burst.  And when that burst happens patronage of the arts is not really going to be a big concern.


Conor Friedersdorf writes a rebuttal to Judith Butler regarding freedom of speech, hate speech, and campus controls

I try to make a distinction between libertarians in a more Ayn Rand go Galt sense and civil libertarians.  The former have what I consider to be a delusionally optimistic notion of the baseline of human instinct and ethics.  The latter I can sympathize with because it's too easy to forget that the protection of the First Amendment as we currently take for granted in so much internet discourse is way, way more recent relative to the history of the United States than we can tend to think. We'll get to that eventually but for a starter ... here's Conor Friedersdorf recent response to Judith Butler expressing reservations about one of her proposals about freedom of speech absolutism as some call it.


Butler’s instincts are different than mine in part because she believes that wrongheaded speakers wield extraordinary power over college students, and implies one cannot really oppose bad values without suppressing the expression of them.
She stated:
If free speech does take precedence over every other constitutional principle and every other community principle, then perhaps we should no longer claim to be weighing or balancing competing principles or values.
We should perhaps frankly admit that we have agreed in advance to have our community sundered, racial and sexual minorities demeaned, the dignity of trans people denied, that we are, in effect, willing to be wrecked by this principle of free speech, considered more important than any other value. If so, we should be honest about the bargain we have made: we are willing to be broken by that principle, and that, yes, our commitments to dignity, equality, and non-violence will be, for better or worse, secondary. Is that how we want it to be?
But all people are created equal and endowed with dignity by virtue of being human. A trans student’s dignity—their quality of being worthy of honor or respect—is not something an anti-trans speaker can take away; Butler is wrong to write as if their dignity is so contingent that an anti-trans speaker can somehow abscond with it (but not if he’s denied a campus platform and says the same words elsewhere?). Trans students will spend decades in a world with folks who attack their dignity. They are done a horrific disservice if the message they get at university is that their dignity is thereby diminished every time.

(Straight white males are meanwhile tremendously advantaged by the cultural message that they receive on college campuses: that they should brush off any attack directed their way because no one has the power to alter their trajectory. A message contrived with their empowerment in mind could hardly be more effective.)

Butler is wrongheaded in implying that if one always permits speech that attacks a dearly held value one may as well give up on defending it as a primary  value—as if one cannot hate something a person says, defend their right to say it, and employ other tools, like logic, or satire, or protest, or organizing, to ensure that their view doesn’t prevail. It is especially strange that Butler suggests excessive protections for speech might threaten Berkeley’s commitment to nonviolence; suppressing speech with the coercive power of the state is the position that not only threatens but is antithetical to principled nonviolence. [emphasis added]

Finally, Butler ignores the likelihood, born out in history, that any speech restrictions that Berkeley employs will be disproportionately enforced against marginalized students, thereby exacerbate inequality rather than advancing equality.

Henry Louis Gates’s counsel is still right: Let them talk.”

Gates wrote considerably more than just those three words, of course.

My brother was telling me in the last year or so about how he's been reading about legal theories, particularly in connection to crime and punishment and also on the subject of rights.  He was telling me that for a time in American and British legal thought, it might have been during the interwar period of the 20th century, that natural law was sorta frowned upon.  There was some interest on the part of some in the United States in having a criminal-justice approach closer to a Scandinavian model.  All that might be me misremembering some stuff but the crux of the model was that it isn't based on what's known in Anglo-American traditions as that of natural rights or natural law.  The idea, instead, is that a citizen has whatever rights or privileges or opportunities the state confers to them and not until and not otherwise.  In a way, I guess, some of the headlines coming from California have had me wonder whether in some sense American legal thought and jurisprudence has shifted from a natural rights/natural law convention to a more statutory approach where you only have the rights the state says you have and not on any kind of inalienable basis.  Not sure if that's anything more than mere speculation.

But the speculation seems pertinent in the sense that when people are concerned that free speech absolutists will open up opportunities for hate speech there isn't even a mere implication that granting freedom of the press or expression to unsavory groups will be harmful, it's more of an assumed fact.  If Friedersdorf is certain all humans are created with dignity by virtue of being human he's probably also aware of legal and philosophical traditions that say precisely that this isn't the case, that people have dignity if the state grants it to them.  Just because it's not a popular view in American contexts doesn't mean nobody's ever thought of it or ruled by it.  

One of Gates' observations was that our contemporary understanding of the First Amendment is that, contemporary.  By contrast, the barest and most literalistic reading of the First amendment was that Congress would pass no law establishing a church or restricting expression but that states could and Gates explained that states did pass such laws consistently. 

Remember how the Oregon constitution explicitly denied citizenship to blacks?  There wasn't necessarily anything in the bluntest and most literalistic reading of the First Amendment to say that the original form of the Oregon constitution and charter documents violated the First Amendment.  The 1857 form of the Oregon constitution doesn't seem to have been thought of as breaching anything about the First Amendment.  Despite language explicitly excluding blacks from rights of citizenship Oregon was accepted into the Union anyway and there was no First Amendment conflict. So if free speech advocates seem really, really insistent that attempts to argue for the necessity of constraining speech seem needed now to combat racism those who argue that this approach is dangerous have been saying that it's dangerous because we already know that when states and institutions are given the freedom to suppress freedom of expression that has come to be understood as part of our civil rights these suppressions have historically played against rather than for minorities and marginalized groups. 

As Friedersdorf and others have put it, the civil libertarian concern about law and the power of the state can be starkly framed as follows, do not pass any law unless you're willing to live with the fact that enforcing that law could involve the state using lethal force to enforce it.  You have to be willing to grant that the laws you want enforced are laws that the state would be willing to kill people.  Why?  Well, broadly speaking because that's what so very often happens and even more so, perhaps, these days.  It's not like we never hear about cops shooting people who thought, so far as can be reported ,they were cooperating willingly with law enforcement demands. 

Or as someone named Paul put it, the governing authority does not bear the sword for nothing.  Paul, to go by the epistle to the Romans, understood that the very nature of the power of a governing authority was its use of the sword.  At some point American progressives and liberals may need a reminder that the power of the sword is the nature of the beast and that a commitment to non-violent enforcement of any policy is at some point going to be oxymoronic.  If you want a policy enforced, the sword will at some point be involved.  It doesn't always have to involve lethal force in the most literal way, but the power to enforce is still what it is.   Even if we try to have a bunch of people use tools like shame and peer pressure (which, obviously have their place and are powerful incentives) that's still a kind of force.

It's probably because I have been in a glum funk this year about a few things but if both the right and the left can propose there are limits to speech when it suits their particular concerns it's like Roger Williams didn't write the Bloody Tenet.