Thursday, February 11, 2010

Celebrity intellectuals

If you want to be known world-wide as wise and insightful, being wise and insightful is not enough -- or maybe even necessary. Consider the case of Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French philosopher currently being pummeled for making a dumb mistake in public. From Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed.: :
Ten years ago, Pierre Bourdieu coined a term for certain French intellectuals whose writings counted for less than their TV appearances. He called them “ les fast-thinkers.” Everyone knew who the sociologist had in mind as the prototype of this phenomenon. Long before the American public got used to hearing references to J-Lo and K-Fed, the French press had dubbed him BHL. His books, movies, TV appearances, political interventions, and romances have been a staple of the French media for more than three decades. But only in the past five years has he become as much a fixture in the U.S. media as the French....

The role of the intellectual as famous, full-time spokesman for the Universal is well-established in France. It began with Voltaire and culminated in Sartre, its last great exemplar. (Not that other philosophers have not emerged in the meantime, of course, but none has occupied quite the same position.) From time to time, Lévy has mourned the passing of this grand tradition, while hinting, not too subtly, that it lives on in him. Clearly there is a steady French market for his line in historical reenactments of intellectual engagement.

It seems surprising, though, to find the BHL brand suddenly being imported to these shores after years of neglect -- particularly during a decade when Francophobia has become a national sport.

But like the song says, there’s a thin line between love and hate. Lévy has capitalized on American ambivalence towards France -- the potential of fascination to move from “-phobia” to “-philia” -- by performing a certain role. He is, in effect, the simulacrum of Sartre, minus the anti-imperialism and neo-Marxism.

“Lévy plays on both registers,” explains Goldhammer. “At the height of anti-French feeling in the U.S., in the period just before the Iraq War, he positioned himself as a philo-American. He made himself the avenger of Daniel Pearl. Arrogant he might be, airily infuriating in just the right way to confirm the philistine's loathing of the abstract and abstruse that philosophy is taken to embody, and yet there he was, pouring scorn on "Islamofascism" and touring the country with the New Yorker reader's nonpareil Francophile, Adam Gopnik.... Lévy chose his moment well. He insinuated himself into the American subconscious by playing against type.”

"Historical reenactments of intellectual engagement." Wow! That is the most cutting thing I've heard since...ever. This implicit characterization of life at the "top" of the intellectual "heap" (or is it "intellectual" heap?) may console you for not being part of this particular club.

Image: Voltaire -- bad example?

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Sunday, February 07, 2010

"All the fuss we made over these writers, as if what they said was a matter of life and death to us."

I have just finished reading one of the most remarkable books I've read in a very long time: Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is a difficult book to describe; one might say it is a memoir, perhaps somewhat fictionalized, of an upper-class Iranian woman, partly raised in Britain and the United States and now living in the USA, which focuses on what it was like to teach English literature in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq. In particular, she talks about her interactions with some of her students during this period. Nafisi comes across as a secular person, and she sees the Islamic revolution as nothing but a disaster. For instance page 119, when she talks to one of her students, a Khomeini supporter, about the trial of a supposed counterrevolutionary:

I told him they had no proof that the gentleman in question was a CIA agent, in any case I doubt if the CIA would be foolish enough to employ someone like him. But even those whom he called the functionaries of the old regime, regardless of their guilt, shouldn't be treated this way. I cannot understand why the Islamic government had to gloat over these people's deaths, brandishing their photographs after they had been tortured and executed. Why did they show us these pictures? Why did our students every day shout slogans demanding new death sentences?

Mr. Bahri did not respond at first. He stood still, his head bent, his hands linked in front of him. Then he started to speak slowly and with tens precision. Well, they have to pay, he said they're on trial for their past deeds. The Iranian nation will not tolerate their crimes. And these new crimes? I asked as soon as he had uttered his last word. These new crimes? Should they be tolerated in silence? Everyone nowadays is an enemy of God -- former ministers and educators, prostitutes, leftist revolutionaries: they are murdered daily. What is his and his had these people done to deserve such treatment?

His face had become hard, and of the shadow of obstinacy has colored his eyes. He repeated that people had to pay for their past crimes. This is not a game, he said. It is a revolution. I asked him if I too was on trial for my past. But he was right in a sense: we all have to pay, but not for the crimes we were accused of. There were other scores to settle. I did not know then that I had already begun to pay, that what was happening was part of the payment. It was much later that these feelings would be clarified.

This book has been criticized for giving a very negative view of the Islamic Republic of Iran, of women and even more men in Iran and even of Islam itself. Notably, Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz (another Iranian academic based in United States and writing in English) accuses Nafisi of promoting a neo-Orientalist agenda and confirming all the old clichés of the backward, static and exotic East. I don't see it myself. There's nothing exotic about the presentation of life in Tehran in this book, and there's plenty of action and change. What is really wrong with the criticisms I've heard is that they assume that Nafisi had to write the book that the critics wanted to read, or have other people read. This is a very personal memoir, not the history of revolutionary Iran. It tells Nafisi's story of how the revolution affected her as a teacher and scholar, and how it seemed to affect some of her more memorable students -- and not just the ones he liked. I have yet to read a review that picks up on what I think is very important point: this memoir might easily be about the Cultural Revolution in China, or the Jacobin revolution in France, or any other number of similar upheavals.

The quotation at the head of this post tells the story as I read it. It is about reading, teaching, learning, speaking about intellectual subjects when it is really important and far from easy. Again, p. 338:

I said to him that I wanted to write a book [after she left Iran] in which I would thank the Islamic Republic for all the things it had taught me -- to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom. I said, right now it is not enough to appreciate all this; I want to write about it. He said, you will not be able to write about Austen without writing about us, about this place where you rediscovered Austen. You will not be able to put us out of your head. Try, you'll see. The Austen you know is so irretrievably linked to this place, this land and these trees. You don't think that this is the same Austen you read with Dr. French -- it was Dr. French [probably at U. of Oklahoma], wasn't it? Do you? This is the Austen you read here, in the place where the film censor is nearly blind and where they hang people in the streets and put a curtain across the sea to segregate men and women. I said, When I write about all that perhaps I'll become more generous, less angry.

If you like that sample of Nafisi's writing, there is lots more where that came from.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

No sympathy from Professor Dutch

Professor Steven Dutch, a geologist at the University of Wisconsin--Green Bay, has a web page where he has collected complaints he's got from student evaluations and replied to them. I suspect he actually has a rather small number of complainers who use up an inordinate amount of his patience. That's consistent with my experience. One clueless student can take up as much out-of-class time, to no good end, as the entire rest of the class.

Anyway, I really liked this part, which applies to more than students:
I Disagreed With the Professor's Stand on ----

The time to deal with this issue is when it comes up in class. I have no respect for anyone who complains on the course questionnaires.

But the professor might put me down, or the students might laugh at me. Not too likely, but even if it happens, so what? If you don't have courage in the safe setting of a classroom, when exactly are you planning to develop it? When your boss asks you to falsify figures or lie under oath? When someone throws rocks through your minority neighbor's windows? When the local hate group burns the synagogue?

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The dangers of academic history

Sometimes it is amazingly inaccurate. Sometimes it is amazingly corrupt in its values.

I am currently reading about government in ancient India, in particular the views of Kautilya (a kind of Machiavelli figure from the third century BCE). The book I am reading, which I will not name, is the product of an Indian scholar who lectured on this material for decades before writing it down. He sees Kautilya's Arthasastra, a book on how a monarch can create an ideal state, as an actual description of something that really existed, an ancient welfare state. Not only does this scholar think that Kautilya's prescriptions were actually carried out, he has nothing but good to say about Kautilya's ideas.

On taking prescription as reality, here is what he says about preparations for putting out fires:

The master of the house had to keep ready tubs full of water, ladder, leather bags, winnowers, hooks; but besides individual house-owners government saw that at places near crossroads thousands of pitchers filled with water were kept always ready to fight any outbreak of fire. Thus something like modern fire brigades were available at short calls.

Imagine that!

Then there is this policy, which the author finds quite understandable, though in need of some defence.

According to Kautilya, "traders, artisans, musicians, beggars, buffoons, and other idlers who are thieves in effect if not in name shall be restrained from oppression of the country people." It was with this view of protecting the simple village folk that Kautilya provided that no ascetic other than a vanaprastha, no company of other than of local birth, and no guilt of any kind other than local cooperative guild will find entrance in the village; nor shall there be in the village buildings intended for plays or sports, nor in view of procuring money, free labor, commodities, grains and liquids in plenty, shall actors, dancers, singers, drummers, buffoons, and bards make any particular disturbance to the work of the villagers, for helpless villagers are dependent upon their fields. Indirectly these provisions highlight the state's deepest concern for production the villagers even at the cost of depriving mirth, frolics and entertainments available in the cities.

This was written in 1976, the "year zero" of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. I once read a collection of official documents of the revolution, and it sticks in my mind that the official economic plan promised that after years of slave labor the surviving population of Cambodia would eventually, after the revolution was a success, be provided with extra dessert several times a year.

I have nothing against the welfare state that really is a welfare state, but it angers and terrifies me that smart people cannot or will not see the difference between dealing with preventable or predictable problems, and this kind of serfdom.

Image: Kautilya

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Scholars, beware!

Academics young and old are laughing with various degrees of heartiness at this Simpsons clip:

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A linguistic anthropologist delivers his spiel

Stephen Chrisomalis at Glossographia revisits an old debate. A couple of tasty passages:

I do not believe there are any grounds at all to believe that there is such a thing as ’science’ to be made clearly distinct from ‘the humanities’ – that at best these are used to designate semi-useful collocations of perspectives, and at worst, they are self-serving labels used to isolate oneself and to denigrate others. ...

[C.P.]Snow lived and worked at the height of modernism in the academy: for the social scientist, behaviorism, functionalism, and structuralism were all in full bloom. What he did not foresee, and could not possibly have foreseen, is the emergence of the ‘Science Wars’ or ‘Culture Wars’ in which two camps defined themselves in opposition to one another. Starting in the 1970s (or earlier or later, depending on who you ask), ’science’ was severely criticized from various angles that we might generally label postmodern or poststructuralist. The response from ’scientists’ (do people really call themselves ’scientists’ unironically any more?) ranged from ignoring the new trend to bafflement to outright hostility. Certainly the response from the scientific community followed the initial criticisms of the humanists.

In fact, however, the label ‘war’ is quite inappropriate since very little of the academic discussion that we might now define under one of these terms actually involved academic debate between the two camps. Rather, the sides served as useful straw men to be marshalled in front of one’s fellow-travelers, serving as an emblem of clan identity (as a shibboleth). Moreover, drawing these boundaries allowed one to safely ignore that which lay beyond them as unnecessary, irrelevant, or just plain wrong. Just as we recognize that you can’t draw a line around ‘a culture’ without asking who is doing the defining and for what reason (and in whose interest), I believe that there is ultimately very little behind the distinction between Science and Humanities that cannot be explained in terms of a rather narrow set of interests, both internal and external....My question ultimately rests on how distinct the humanities and the sciences were as concepts, prior to World War II, and what explanation we might give if they have become increasingly distinct over time. I proposed, only half-jokingly, that to define the humanities as a bounded group of disciplines allows Science to define ‘those whom we do not have to fund’, and to define Science allows the humanities to define ‘the object of our newfound ire’.

There is quite a bit more at the blog, in this and other posts. Glossographia is a blog we could easily have more of if the author wasn't, you know, doing real academic work (as most interesting academic bloggers are).

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Friday, July 11, 2008

The future of academic publication

In my usual daily wandering through a number of blogs, most of them concerned with foreign policy and American politics, I ran across this post at the blog Open Left. It is a response by Chris Bowers to another blog post by David Appell that basically argues, in an unfortunate ad hominem fashion, that blogs are worthless for discussing any serious issue. (The critic includes his own blog in his rather sweeping statements.) Rather, he says one should go to serious magazines and journals for the real stuff since what you find there is backed up by in-depth investigation.

I could reply to Appell myself, but I am more interested in something that Bowers says in defending his own devotion to blogging:

I have a personal stake in this, of course. Before I became a blogger, I spent my entire 20's trying to become an academic (English and critical theory was my focus). While I struggled to produce a handful of conference papers or publishable articles during that decade, in my four years as a blogger I have published about 4,400 articles that have received about 50,000,000 direct page views, 46,000 incoming links, and over 100 Lexis Nexus mentions. Had I stayed in academia, none of this would have been possible, and I would have continued to receive an endless series of rejections from the gatekeepers. The "experts" that Appell describes did not see the same value in my writing huge numbers of other people clearly have. Either they were wrong about my writing, or I just wasn't writing about the best topics for me. Probably a combination of both, but I'm pretty sure the balance of evidence shows they were wrong. (Man, I am still really angst ridden about this.)
It seems likely that somewhere in Bowers's soul he thinks of himself as a failed academic. I, as an employed and high-ranking academic at a small but respectable academic institution, think he has nothing to apologize for (I am talking about activity level, not the specific things that he has written.) He does talk about important issues. And I note that if he and others like him had left it to the established media to cover and interpret what is going on in the world, things would be much worse than they are now. But again that's not the point of this post. The point is this:

50 million freaking direct page views!

In that fact I see the doom of the academic journal as it now exists, in particular the paper version thereof. Fifty million direct page views!
I don't fear for the academic book actually, because I think books, at least good ones, provide an in-depth experience that nothing else has been able to rival so far. But when it comes to investigating the small pointsthat lead to the big insights, or clear up the small mysteries that clarify the big picture, why not do it all electronically? (Preservation questions apart of course; again, nothing beats paper yet. And there are other practical questions to be considered.)

I am quite aware that most so-called academic blogs, including my own, are made up of snippets that may or may not be developed into some important scholarly contribution -- and usually not. But blogs and the habit of reading them is a rather new thing. See how they grow.

One example of the direction they might go can be seen in the medievalist group blog In the Middle. Here some like-minded scholars, with a penchant for complex literary theory that sometimes leaves me behind, are throwing out some of their best new ideas in what might be seen as half developed form, so that their blog partners and any passing reader can think about them and comment, favorably or unfavorably. This is not instead of the usual academic activity. Material on In the Middle relates directly to conference papers, potential articles, and monographs being worked on by the blog owners, material it should be noted that otherwise I never would have heard of (being a more or less conventional historian). I'm part of an unexpected audience that was attracted to the blog by a reference to some other blog. And there must be many others, all of whom are in a position to comment, at whatever length. Who knows what some half-random reader may say that may contribute to this remarkable productivity?

This is just one way the Web can work for you.

Working academics who are reading this: be honest. When was the last time you sat down with a congenial group and really kicked around an idea that appeared in an academic article? There's nothing better for getting the intellect really working, for shooting down mistaken ideas, for putting together half-formed thoughts into useful ones. But they are rare, those in-person opportunities. But the Internet, for us lucky ones, is always available. And damned cheap to compared to paper journals.

PS: what about copyediting, you ask? It's dead anyway, as I'm here attest on the basis of much recent reading of ink-on-paper publications by big-name scholarly presses.

Image: Fifty million marks, Germany, 1923.

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