Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Anarchy, rebellion, and Chomsky

            On pages 23-24 of The Banquet Years, The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, Roger Shattuck writes, "The atmosphere of permanent explosion in artistic activity is evidence not only of anarchistic tendencies but also of the fierceness of its experiments.  New reviews appeared, principally La Vogue . . .  the long-lived Mercure de France, and the Natanson brothers' Revue Blanche. . . The Salon des Independents outgrew one building after another with more and more work from young painters, while ethnological museums were being filled with astounding art from Africa, the Pacific, and Egypt.  The new Schola Cantorum brought back old church modes, and composers began to collect the ancient songs of France.  Modernism coincided in significant fashion with primitivism.  Gauguin's 'flight' to Tahiti in 1891 may not have produced his best work but it reveals the integrity of his desire for another vision.  Anarchism itself can be seen as a form of political primitivism trying to return to an earlier stage of social evolution.  What one can overlook most easily in all this demonstration is its stubborn purpose to change the aspect of both life and art.  There was a connection and a difference between the irrepressible frivolity of the upper classes and the resolute gaiety of young artists.
            "Deep down at its center of gravity, however, the center turned slowly despite all this ferment.  It changed its pace for no man.  Artists who strained forward into the future found that their fresh trail was rarely being followed in a prosperous and complacent France.  In response they did what was only natural: they banded together for support.  They constituted what we have come to call the avant-garde, a 'tradition' of heterodoxy and opposition which defied civilized values in the name of individual consciousness.  They developed a systematic technique of scandal in order to keep their ideas before the public.  It amounted to an artistic underground, which began to break through to the surface in the latter part of the Banquet Years."
            COMMENT:  The "scorn and hate of every hierarchy of society" carried over from politics to art.  Artists, much like the political agitators, were not so much interested in a better system as in expressing their "scorn and hate of every hierarchy of society."  The political agitators ended up under the guillotine or in prison, but the artists, were inclined more toward the pen than the sword.  They concentrated upon scorn rather than hatred.  They wanted not only to produce something new but to shock the "powers that be" out of their complacency.  Why?  Why does the young son of today come home with a spiked hair cut and an ear-ring?  Why does the young girl come home with a tattoo?  They get noticed.  They get attention. 
            If Shattuck is right in seeing anarchy as not merely a reaction to the status quo, but as a seeking after the primitive, we can ask whether this is a good thing.  I don't know whether Anarchists ask themselves this question.  If one is caught up in the anticipated shock when mom sees that tattoo, the daughter may not have asked herself whether it is a good thing.  They step beyond "art for art's sake" and seek "art for shock's sake."  Not merely that, of course, the best of them wanted to be good, to be genuinely creative, but they enjoyed being shocking as well, and perhaps shock was all the lesser talents had going for them.
            I paused in writing this to eat dinner, and while eating watched the first part of a Netflix movie, Against the Dark.  Steven Seagal tells his fellow vampire hunters, "we're not in this to determine who's right and who's wrong, we're in this to determine who lives and who dies."  While the French Anarchists probably didn't pose the same threat that the vampires did in the movie, the threat did exist.  The French Anarchists did kill people and the French state didn't bother overly much with the idea of whether the Anarchists might be right, they determined that they should die.  They were a patent threat to French people, especially French leaders; so they were sent to the guillotine. 
            The threat of modern day Anarchists, the anti-Americans such as Noam Chomsky is not as severe.   He is a political agitator to be sure, but he isn't given to violence.  He isn't in it for the shock value like the Anarchist artists, the Avant-Garde, he truly hates America and sides with its enemies whenever possible.   One of the distinguishing marks of the American Anarchist is to hold American guilty in the present for sins committed in the past, and Chomsky has all those old sins memorized.   Chomsky hasn't the ability to step back and wonder whether all nations do or have done similar things to what America has, and he hasn't the ability to see improvement in America. 
            Furthermore he isn't willing to exercise that part of his social contract which allows him to immigrate to another nation should he so choose.  Why doesn't he leave?  Surely it isn't good for him psychologically or physically to stay in a nation he hates so much.  I can answer that question for him.  All nations are pretty much the same, that is, they have human beings in positions of authority, humans with a representative number of flaws -- flaws like everyone else has.  They make decisions which may be wrong.  Chomsky thinks it was wrong of American to remove the Saddam regime, for example.  His opinion wasn't universal.  The pros and cons were argued before the American people.  There were good arguments for removing Saddam.  Chomsky later wrote a book called Hegemony or Survival, America's Quest for Global Dominance, in which he refers to America's invasion of Iraq as a monumental crime.  George Bush was just like Joseph Stalin.  He wrote his book in 2003 when his arguments seemed plausible to some.  He was convinced Iraq would go from bad to worse.  Like so much of what Chomsky wrote, he was wrong.  Iraq is turning out to be what George Bush hoped it would be, a fledgling democracy, perhaps a democratic example to other nations in the Middle East.  Saddam Hussein had been a threat in the region.  I won't revisit the details, but other nations were afraid of him.   Now he is gone and Iraq is well on its way toward being a democracy.  Is Chomsky interested in that?  I suspect not.  I doubt that he will write a sequel entitled, "America's sacrifices for the good of Iraq and the Middle East."
            My point here isn't that the Anarchists should agree with me, but that they should understand that there were potent arguments of America doing what it did.  America isn't "guilty" simply because Chomsky assumes that it is.  He makes his assertions about America's guilt time after time, but he presents no argument.  He tells us invading Iraq is wrong, therefore America is guilty.   Is he capable of wrestling with the pros and cons of invasion as Kenneth Pollack did in The Threatening Storm, the case for invading Iraq?  That doesn't seem to be one of Chomsky's skills.

RE: Chomsky in the light of French Anarchism.

            Billy Blogblather (see his comments below) introduces some interesting considerations.  He writes, "No one has authority over anyone but that one agrees by the will of another or of some groups."  I'm not absolutely sure what that means, but it sounds like the individual is free to abrogate the social contract he has with his nation if he disagrees with it.   Billy says that he has no intention of abrogating his, but that may be a personal decision.  His "principle" if he has created one, seems to leave that open to the individual.  Correct me Billy, if I'm wrong.
            Without studying the matter exhaustively, what I have studied suggests that every nation has done something that some citizens object to.  According to the Billy Blogblather principle (assuming I understand it).  Those citizens, much as the French citizens who resorted to Anarchy, have the right to abrogate their social contract and take some sort of action against their nation.  The French Anarchists of the 1890s liked to throw bombs at their leaders.  Noam Chomsky likes to go about the world giving speeches.
            Interestingly, Chomsky, and Billy, aren't concerned about America changing its ways and doing better in the future.  They both hold America to account for past sins.  Most Protestants believe there is no unforgiveable sin, but that isn't the case with Chomsky and Blogblather.  They reserve the right to severe their social contract (should they choose to, which they don't) based upon past sins -- sins America no longer commits.  Of course there are new sins they object to, but are they not being inconsistent by bring up past sins?  Every nation has bushel baskets full of those.  We who admire Liberal Democracy admire its ability to correct its mistakes.  Look, we used to believe in Slavery, but we don't any more.  Shouldn't we get some credit for abrogating slavery?  Not by a long shot, say Chomsky and Blogblather.  Don't forget Wounded Knee either.  So what would it take, Chomsky Blogblather, for you to become reconciled to Liberal Democracy such that you quit bringing up those past sins.
            As to acquiring a "compassionate moral code," we are quite a bit more compassionate than we used to be.  Also, for example, what is "compassionate" by one person's standards may be "criminal coddling" by another's.  We get to vote on all those matters and if our representatives represent us and the Supreme Court doesn't overrule us, our opinions become law.  Surely you aren't saying that if we get out voted, our social contract with our nation is null and void.


Billy Blogblather has left a new comment on your post "Chomsky in the light of French Anarchism":

And #2 daughter was right. No one has authority over anyone but that one agrees to abide by the will of another or of some group. And that agreement can be rescinded at any time. Most of us no longer believe in the divine right of kings or any other ruler -- even of God many would say. This seems to me to be the bedrock value of liberal democracy. I can yell "fire" in a crowded theater, I can blow up buildings because I'm angry, I (as a nation) can invade countries because I desperately need their resources. I can make $300 million dollars a year while millions go under nourished. It's liberal democracy. I wouldn't have anything else. Except liberal democracy with a compassionate moral code. I think this is all that Noam Chomsky ever argued. The military evil we unleashed in Latin America and Vietnam, the economic evil we unleashed in the US through slavery and Jim Crow, these are but the most egregious offense against our credo of equality, justice and (the French, god love 'em) fraternity. For the sake of money this nation has committed many crimes. We've not starved millions as Stalin did in the Ukraine, nor as Mao executed after the Revolution or during the Cultural Revolution, we have no Babi Yar to account for -- well, there's Wounded Knee and The Trail of Tears and many other massacres, but they were just Indians and that was long ago. Bunches of blacks got hanged, but that's all history now. Over all, we're quite a Christian nation. Love your neighbor and all that. Chomsky bickers. He seems to think that we have had other motives in mind besides Justice, Equality, (and yes, the French again) Fraternity. All Chomsky is asking is that we stop being idiots at look at what's going on. But when you're comfortable, why should you do that?

Chomsky in the light of French Anarchism

            Knowing that Noam Chomsky was an Anarchist didn't inspire me to go off and study Anarchy, but I ran across an interesting mention in Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years, The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, (written in 1958) Shattuck begins his book by describing how everything is going well.  Oh yes, there was the death of Victor Hugo, the affair of General Boulanger, the Dreyfus affair, the constant dueling and fist-fights, but there were the salons and cafes and Sarah Bernhardt and everyone in France seemed to be having a giddy good time, with one exception. 
            "The most turbulent force of all is almost forgotten.  Anarchism had been seething for many years in the south, principally in the industrial city of Lyon.  Its way was prepared by the surge of antimilitarism after the war of 1871 and by the fresh memory of the Commune.  Traveling inexorably northward, the libertarian movement finally shook Paris in a series of bomb explosions and controversial trials.
            "'Anarchists come from the most varied backgrounds.  But a specific mentality links them -- the spirit of revolt and its derivatives, the spirit of examination and criticism, of opposition and innovation, which leads to scorn and hate of every commitment and hierarchy in society, and ends up in the exaggeration of individualism.  Decadent literature furnished the party with a strong contingent; in recent years there has been, especially among young writers, an upsurge of anarchism.  (Maurice Boisson, Les attentats anarchistes.)'
            Boisson wrote in 1931, but his description seems to fit Chomsky rather well.  There was much in France at the time we might look back and criticize or make fun of, but French people seemed to enjoy being French.   Freud  told us that one of the things a nation does when it thinks extremely well of itself is build a gigantic phallic symbol.  It was in 1899 that they built their Eiffel Tower, the tallest man made structure in the world for half a century.  But Anarchists as Boisson's description tells us are never happy in happy times.  Shattuck continues, "First Ravachol, with five murders behind him, blew up the homes of several magistrates in 1892.  He was caught in a restaurant, brought to trial, and let off with penal servitude for life.  Then another jury, intimidated by public outcry, reversed the decision and sent him to the guillotine.  The end of the same year Vaillant, of illegitimate birth and hysterical disposition, tossed a weak bomb full of nails into the Chamber of Deputies from the visitor's gallery.  None of the deputies was killed, and Vaillant, pleading in his defense that the bomb was intended only as a 'warning,' quoted Darwin, Spencer, Ibsen, and Octave Mirbeau in support of his doctrine.  After his execution he was widely acclaimed as a martyr.  At a literary banquet the evening of Vaillant's bombing, the polemical critic Laurent Tailhade was interviewed about the violence in the Chamber.  'What do a few human lives matter,' he replied' 'si le geste est beau?' Two years later he lost an eye when a bomb exploded in the restaurant where he was eating, and the next morning's paper chastised him with his own Nietzschean sentiments.  Yet his sympathies were shared by many."
            "A few weeks after Vaillant's death, a young intellectual of good family named Emile Henry exploded a bomb in the Cafe Terminus in the Gare Saitn-Lazare.  He had to be saved by the police from being lynched on the spot.  The trial brought out the full challenge of anarchist convictions.  Judge (in red robe): 'your hands are stained with blood.'  Henry: 'Like the robes you wear, Your Honor.'  His coolness on the stand allowed him to discuss the precise chemical composition of his bomb and regret that it had not taken the lives of more victims.  He died bravely under the knife crying, 'Vive l'anarchie,' and it was discovered that he had spent his last days in prison reading Don Quixote."
            Shattuck provides some other examples, which I will skip, then he writes, "By 1894 most sympathizers realized that the defiance of the anarchists exceeded defensible bounds, and the outrages died out quickly.  But their effects remained.  Anarchism served not only to unsettle the political smugness of the Third Republic, but also to challenge any formulated aesthetic. . ."
            The challenges to the formulated aesthetics of the time are also interestingly described, but, as far as I know, Chomsky has not engaged in anything equivalent.  Still, one can't but help but be aware of the faddish changes in clothes and music as each new generation resents and rebels against the previous.  Is it of the same spirit as anarchy?  A better question might be to ask whether " the spirit of revolt and its derivatives, the spirit of examination and criticism, of opposition and innovation, which leads to scorn and hate of every commitment and hierarchy in society" isn't derived from something like sibling jealousy.  My number two daughter often said to the number one daughter, six years her senior, with great heat, "you're not the boss of me." 
            Do the Anarchists have some system that they think is better than Liberal Democracy.  Chomsky says that he does.  But I doubt that anyone takes his system seriously.  What he does better than anyone else is to tell all and sundry, "you're not the boss of me."  He heaps scorn and hate upon every commitment of the American Liberal Democracy.  Every exertion of economic or military success is opposed by Chomsky who in effect says, "you are not only not the boss of me, you ought not to be the boss of anyone else."  Chomsky phrases his scorn and hate much better than my number two daughter did, but my daughter was only a child at the time.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

R. G. Collingwood, is he still worth reading?

            In the current issue of the London Review of Books is a review of History Man: The Life of R.G. Collingwood by Fred Inglis.  The review was written by Mary Beard and entitled "No More Scissors and Paste."  It is not available on line.

I'll quote a bit from it and comment below: 

            "For all the engaging enthusiasm of the book, two important questions about Collingwood’s achievements and his academic profile remain only half convincingly answered. First, how important is The Idea of History, the posthumous book which remains his most famous work? Second, what was the connection, if any, between the two academic sides of his career, the Romano-British archaeology and the philosophy? What, in other words, does the Roman Inscriptions of Britain have to do with The Idea of History, let alone the Essay on Metaphysics?
            "The Idea of History has had some very distinguished supporters. By his own account, it was the book that inspired Quentin Skinner at the start of his own historical career – and Skinner of course went on to give his own distinctive spin to Collingwood’s slogan about all history being a ‘history of the mind’. And, if only in the absence of much competition (it is a classic, as Collini has observed, ‘in a field not over-supplied with classics written in English’), it used to be the theoretical standby of undergraduates reading history at university, or of sixth-formers wanting to do so. It still appears on general bibliographies and is warmly recommended to their pupils by ambitious schoolteachers (though when, a few years ago, I asked a group of about 50 third-year students studying history in Cambridge whether any of them had read it, not a single one put up their hand). . . ."
             "Rereading The Idea of History after some 30 years or so, I found myself less impressed than I had been as a student, or at least more counter-suggestible. His image of the mindless, unquestioning narration of ‘scissors and paste’ history, and of generations of historians being content merely to stick one source after another, now seems very largely a self-serving myth. It did not require the birth of narratology or the return to fashion of ‘grand narrative’, to realise that historical narration is always selective and always posing questions about the evidence. No history – not even the most austere chronicle – has ever been as unquestioning as Collingwood paints his imaginary methodological enemy. . . ."
            COMMENT:  Beard implies that Collingwood's work on History and hermeneutics was hardly worth doing, that he wasted time stating the obvious or attacking straw men.  I have a very different opinion from having read Collingwood.   If he spent time stating the obvious, why is it that previous works of history, say prior to 1895 have the very flaws that Collingwood described -- a mere stating of facts without drawing us into the events of the time?   I once spent quite a lot of time reading works of history about the Middle Ages.  I don't recall if Norman F. Cantor was a fan of Collingwood, but in his Inventing the Middle Ages, he demonstrates that works of history written prior to about 1895 are no longer worth reading.  Historians prior to that time didn't know who to write them.   So if Collingwood was stating the obvious, it wasn't obvious to historians who wrote prior to 1895.
            Mary Beard is certainly qualified to write about history -- at least about certain segments of it.  She is "a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge and classics editor of the TLS. Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town won the Wolfson History Prize for 2008."  On the other hand we know something else about this particular historian: (The following is from Wikipedia)  "Shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Beard was one of several authors invited to contribute articles on the topic to the London Review of Books. She opined that many people, once "the shock had faded", thought 'the United States had it coming', and that '[w]orld bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price' (the so-called 'Roosting Chickens argument'). In a November 2007 interview, she stated that the hostility these comments provoked had still not subsided, although she believed it had become a standard viewpoint that terrorism was associated with American foreign policy. '
            That Beard was wrong about 9/11, and I sincerely believe that she was, doesn't necessarily mean that she is wrong about Collingwood, but I believe she was wrong about him as well -- at least insofar as works of history written about the Middle Ages.  Perhaps historians who wrote prior to 1895 about Pompeii were more perceptive.  I wonder how much Mary Beard has read by or about Collingwood besides The Idea of History and this biography by Inglis; which she finds too adulatory.
            As to the subject question,  Mary Beard believes that Collingwood is dated.  I on the other hand share the opinion of Inglis, Skinner, Collini and others that he is still worth reading.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The River at dawn

We had an usually day at the river yesterday – which might be of modest, puzzling, interest.  Ginger will be 7 and Sage 5 in May and we’ve been going down to a dry river bed several times a week for the past several months, but the weather has been getting warmer so I decided to try getting used to going down there shortly after dawn.  At noon when we usually go down, we rarely see anyone, but that wasn’t true of dawn – at least not yesterday’s dawn.
As I drove the Jeep down a rutted path toward the river we saw a man and woman with at least 8 tiny dogs or puppies (I initially had the impression they were small dogs and not puppies, but upon thinking it over I am not so sure).  I had the impression they were all the same breed but I was too far away to see what it was.  The small dogs were scurrying about so it would have been difficult to count them.  They also had one large German Shepherd, presumably to protect the small dogs from coyotes and feral dogs – if the couple was familiar with the area – or, perhaps it was the GSD’s pups.  The man stopped at the crest of a hill and scowled back toward us as we continued on away from him and his brood.
Since it was a bit cold I decided not to head under the oak and poplar trees as we usually do but to stay out in the open, walking up stream (a figurative term since there was no water in the river).  We weren’t 15 minutes into our hike before Sage started barking furiously – something she has never done down there before.  I checked to see what she was barking at and on the other side of some bushes saw a young man walking along holding a paper up before him – looking to neither the right or the left as he walked along.   I have no idea what he was up to, but it didn’t strike me as threatening.  I called Sage too me and the three of us (Ginger was already near me) entered some brush away from this strange fellow.  This is a bit remarkable in view of a past discussion I started on the matter of Ridgebacks becoming “soft.”  Ginger and Sage were definitely softer than my previous Ridgeback, Trooper, but Sage has shown signs of rising to the occasion when some sort of protection was required – at least in her opinion.  Ginger, on the other hand, has never shown any sort of protectiveness – other than producing a steady stare at strange behavior; which seems to be unnerving to some people. 
Ten or fifteen minutes later we popped out of the brush.  I looked back and this fellow was now following in our direction.  I assumed that his car was up on the road East of us; so I veered off toward the South to give him a wide berth.  Also, we walked on far enough to give him plenty of time to get to his car if that is where he was going.
At one point on the way back I saw that someone had tacked a paper plate on a tree and painted a large dot in the center of it.  Upon inspection I could see several 22-sized holes in it.  The paper showed no signs of being weathered; so it was probably tacked up that morning.  A bit further along I heard some gun fire.  Did the target shooters hide in the brush until we passed by.  That doesn’t seem likely else Sage would have nosed them out and barked at them.  Was he the strange fellow holding the paper up before his eyes.  Perhaps the paper was a target.  Perhaps the gunfire was from another location.
On the way out, not too far from the Jeep, I saw a piece of deadwood lying in the sand that I thought might be turned into a hiking stick; so on the way back I stopped and cut off the piece I wanted.  When I finished and looked up I could see an old pickup truck perhaps a hundred yards behind us.  It looked as though it had been heading in our direction, but seeing us there, the driver decided to turn about and avoid us.  But as he did so, he got stuck in the sand.  The truck had a tarp over the back.  I don’t know what was under it or why he wanted to avoid us.
The sun was nice and warm by the time we got back to the Jeep.   I can’t say for sure that the girls saw any rabbits.  At one point they chased after something I thought might be a rabbit, but a moment later a roadrunner scurried out of the brush and took briefly to the air.  Once the girls saw him doing that they gave up.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Britain's Lobbying Scandal

Some might say that I should have rather implied (as CNN did), that this is the Labour Party’s scandal.  The Tories are certainly in a position to take advantage of it.  But I’ve been reading Edward Said who while he has a special brief for the U.S., would swear a pox on all the Liberal Democratic houses. 
And there are others who claim that Liberal Democracy provides increased opportunities for corruption on the part of those who lead in business, government and the military.  And yes, it is possible for anti-Democratic activists to wax indignant when they encounter a scandal like the above.  The response I would make to them is that there is no form of government that is free of scandal and corruption.  And totalitarian forms of government aren’t immune, although they might seem to be because they are able to censor their presses.  A story like the above wouldn’t appear in a nation with a totalitarian government.
We are probably all aware of the corrupting influence of temptation.  Even the fictitious person who has never given in to temptation knows the sound of its siren call.  And “power” is an especially corrupting temptation as all nations know.  But what form of government handles its corrupted officials quite so well as the Liberal Democratic?  None!  It is being handled precisely right in Britain (if the CNN article is accurate and I assume that it is).  The press was permitted to engage in its interesting “sting” (and will suffer no repercussions, I trust) and once the four MPs were shown to be willing to sell their influence, they were suspended by the Labour Party.
The political careers of these corrupt MPs seem to be over.  We see unremitting attacks against Liberal Democratic forms of government coming from China, the Russian Federation, and various Muslim nations.  Let them pretend they have no corruption in their governments if they can, but let us strive to remove (as Britain just has) corrupt officials as soon as they are discovered.   Our system will work as long as we continue doing that.  Their systems will work, presumably, as long as they can keep their scandals hushed up.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Re: Edward Said and Serial Killers

allard has left a new comment on your post "Edward Said and Serial Killers":

Lawrence, you wrote

'Would we have fewer or less fearsome monsters if we followed Heidegger’s advice and turned back from chaos in order to seek authentication in our traditions? I’d like to think so.'

Is there any way that this could be expressed other than as a tautology?

Do you have any evidence, any evidence at all, that we could have sought 'authentication in tradition' and yet the number of serial killers remain the same

If you can't imagine that, can't conceive that it is logically possible that that should occur, you owe your readers an account of the connection you see between our not having done that, and the recurrence of serial killers?

So far, this is just hand waving.

Thanks, and best regards.


A few minutes later he left another comment:
allard has left a new comment on your post "Edward Said and Serial Killers":

I wrote

Do you have any evidence, any evidence at all, that we could have sought 'authentication in tradition' and yet the number of serial killers remain the same (roughly as it is now); that is, is it some sort of logical truth that this could not happen?

Do I need Positivist-type evidence to assert that if Moral Authority is eliminated from a society, immorality will increase? 
Edward Said describes and applauds the removal of standards and traditions.  Traditions in the major sense that Said describes, the “Humanism” exemplified by “The Great Books,” the great works of Literature and Philosophy that we “traditionalists” lay claim to in the Western tradition. 
Edward Said was an opponent of the “Western Tradition.”  He was an opponent of Western standards.  He enjoyed the dilution of standards exemplified by the inclusion of the multiplicity of cultures and standards in each nation.  He welcomed the dissolution of the Western Tradition.
I applaud the spread of Liberal Democracy in the world; which means that the world is becoming more and more “multiculturalist,” that doesn’t mean that each nation of the world would be well off if it turned itself into a mini-world – that is that it became as multiculturalist (within the nation) as the world is outside of the nation.
One of our losses, if this tendency continues, is “the place of authentication” that Heidegger describes – not in the Positivist terms that you demand but as something the people he wrote for understood.  There is surely something good in the traditions of each nation in order for the citizens of these nations to love them.  Do you love France?  Why?  You answer that sort of question by delving into French tradition, picking and choosing until you find your authentication.
As to why we are seeing a proliferation of Serial Killers in the world, I believe it is associated with a lessened belief in and adherence to “standards.”   I do value the Heideggerian “place of authentication,” but I make Said’s ideas the rheostat for the increase of serial killers.  He wasn’t the cause, but be applauded the dissolution of the Western Tradition with its standards, and further applauded the multiplicity of beliefs and traditions within each nation.  Let all beliefs, languages, opinions have an equal say, Said implies.  But if we do, I ask, what standards shall we live by.  Said can’t produce any, if all the variations of the world have an equal say. 
The Serial Killer like the Atheist can then ask, “with so many standards (or religions) out there claiming to be the true one, how shall I find the right standard (or religion) to select.”   Quite right, Hannibal – better make up your own.

Edward Said and the dissolution of the West

On pages 44 and 45 of Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Edward Said wrote, “For scholars and teachers of my generation who were educated in what was an essentially Eurocentric mode, the landscape and topography of humanistic study have therefore been altered dramatically and, I think irreversibly.  Whereas T. S. Eliot, Lukacs, Blackmur, Frye, Williams, Leavis, Kenneth Burke, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards, and Rene Wellek – to cite a few authoritative and familiar names almost at random, names that are in fact often far apart politically and personally – all inhabit a mental and aesthetic universe that was linguistically, formally, and epistemologically grounded in the European and North Atlantic (E. P. Thompson called it the Natopolitan) world of the classics, the church, and empire, in their traditions, languages, and masterworks, along with a whole ideological apparatus of canonicity, synthesis, centrality and consciousness.  All this has now been replaced by a much more varied and complex world with many contradictory, even antinomian and antithetical currents running within it. . . .”
COMMENT: In his Orientalism, Said argued over and over that there was something wrong with European scholars being the ones to study the orient.  Orientals ought to be doing it, and to a large extent Said got his way in American studies.  Said’s ideas so influenced MESA that it used actual Middle Easterners as the American Scholars who under Title VI were supposed to keep American Governmental officials apprised of the political situations in the Middle-Eastern nations.  As it happened, these Middle Eastern scholars, while accepting American money to study the Middle-East, mistrusted the American government to such an extent that the information they provided, if they were willing to provide any at all, was worthless.  And worse than worthless in that these Title IV area scholars did not provide any warning prior to 9-11 that there was anything in the Middle-Eastern political mix that America need worry about.
Knowing this, from Orientalism, as Said’s view on the Middle East, why does he take a different view when he looks at the West.  He doesn’t want the Middle East to be adulterated by the West, but he wants the West to be adulterated by the “more varied and complex world” that he clearly approves of. 
Earlier, Said says that he doesn’t believe in determinism, but is this an example of his escape from Marxism?  I don’t think so.  Why does he think this dilution if not disillusion of the West is a good thing?  Because he sees it in the class terms of Marxism.  Notice the term “empire” (singular) in the above.  What does he mean by that?  Is he referring to the Holy Roman Empire, the French Empire, and the British Empire?  I don’t think so.  I think he is willing to attribute “empire” to the ascendency of the West who in his estimation has Lorded it over the rest of the world for far too long.  He seems to believe that like the German Reich after world War Two, it needs to be broken up and kept weak else it will rise up and wreck havoc on the world once again.
Some might think I’m being unfair to Said.  When he wrote Humanism and Democratic Criticism he was already suffering from the disease that was to kill him in 2003 – the year before this book was published.  Perhaps he like Ulysses S. Grant was attempting through the writing of books to provide for his family after his death.  But even if that were so, and I don’t know whether it was, Said has been consistent, much as Noam Chomsky has, in his opposition to America and the West.  In Chomsky’s case he sounded like a Marxist in much of his early writings, but morphed at some point into something few people ever heard of, an Anarcho-Syndicalist.  Argue against that if you can.
But what was Said?  Said like so many refugees from Marxism is clearer when he writes about what he is against than about what he is for.  He isn’t as crude as Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn who just wanted “revolution” with no coherent plan for where their revolution was to end up.  My impression is that they wanted a Communist revolution, but later when Stalinism failed they wanted a Communist Revolution without the mistakes that the Russians made – a “better revolution” as Dohrn said.  Did Said want that? 
But let’s move away from what Said and the other anti-Americans might be for and consider the prospect of the dissolution of the West.  Would that be a good thing?   Having so recently spent time with Heidegger’s ideas, I wonder first where one would go, if the West ceased to exist, for one’s authentication.  Said of course would say that seeking such authentication is merely a return to a reactionary past, but some of us in the West are uncomfortable seeing our nations tending more and more toward the standardless multiculturalism that belongs to the world at large, we view the idea that there is for each nation, each culture in the West an “area of authenticity,” where whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, where anything excellent and praiseworthy may be sought out and returned to (to paraphrase Phil 4:8) may be found.  Do I need to specify in greater detail where and in what these areas of “authenticity” consist?  If I do, then why don’t the anti-Westerners need to specify where they want to end up? 
Fortunately we can say a lot about our Western areas of authenticity.  They to some extent reside in the very “canon” that Said would like to see dissolved, the Great Books that he would like to see replaced by the writings of minorities, gender studies, labor treatises, and by the multiplicity of cultures that are non-Western.  Why not let the non-Westerners draw comfort in their own “areas of authenticity”?  Why can’t they find fulfillment in something that doesn’t demand the disillusion of ours?
Said is right in seeing the dissolution of the West as being in progress.  He foresaw a time when the West ceased to be what it has been and becomes what all the other cultures are – all at once.  Our masochistic desire to whip ourselves with the past sins of colonialism and slavery preclude our ability to see that while colonialism and slavery are indeed “back there” all that is good about the West is back there as well.  Have we lost the ability to discern good from evil?  Perhaps we have.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Edward Said and Northrop Frye

I’ve toiled a bit further in Said’s Humanism and Democratic Criticism.  On page 39 he gets around to attacking Northrop Frye.  Said writes, “. . . humanistic education was in the end all about a certain unstated idea of freedom that was believed to derive from a noncoercive, albeit triumphalist attitude towards our supposedly ‘better’ reality.  The climax and at the same time the strangely exasperated transcendental expression of this elaborate, not to say febrile machine was the publication in 1957 of Northrop Frye’s summa, The Anatomy of Criticism.  Its purpose was nothing less than an attempted Blakean-Jungean synthesis of the humanistic system organized into a mini-life-world with its own seasons, cycles, rituals, heroes, social classes, and utopian pastoral as well as urban settings.  The core of Frye’s amazing invention is what Blake called the human divine, a macrocosmic man doing service as the embodiment of a Judeo-Christian Eurocentric norm, all of it with reference to precisely the same literature that, for all their differences, Arnold, the New Humanists, and Eliot favored, though without the invidious rankings that crippled their findings and rendered their schemes unpleasantly elitist.  Frye too claimed to be talking about literature humanistically, liberally, and democratically, as his admirers Angus Fletcher and Geoffrey Hartman emphasized.”
The tone of Said’s treatment of Frye is clearly critical, but aside from all those Blakean-Jungean syntheses, what exactly was wrong with Frye’s book?  In the next paragraph Said tells us:  “Certainly the notion that there was a genre called ‘women’s’ or ‘minority’ writing never entered Frye’s system, nor that the humanistic world of agency and work whose quietly militant conclusions he represented.”  And that isn’t all he tells us.  He goes on to find Frye to having fallen far short of Said’s own ideals which are clearly Marxist. 
Note that Said finds it telling that Frye is in agreement with critics he under other circumstances disagrees with.  Said mentions Arnold and Eliot.  What does Said mean by this?  He means that all these reactionary fellows had the temerity to judge a work in accordance with its merits and not in accordance with (as Said does) political presuppositions.  Notice that Said makes no claim that the writers who proliferate Said’s genres have produced works of high literary quality such that they ought to qualify as members of Frye’s syntheses.  Said’s writers are politically (according to Said’s politics) correct and not writers who produce works of high literary merit.  Let me hasten to add that I have nothing against writers who are women or members of some minority, but if we are to criticize their works, let the standard be literary merit and not the fact that they are members of some politically-correct group.
I’ve read several books by Frye over the years and rummaged about in my library and found half a dozen, but not The Anatomy of Criticism.  So I resorted to Wikipedia where I found “Frye also accuses a number of methods of criticism (e.g. Marxist, Freudian, Jungian, Neo-classical, etc.) as being embodiments of the deterministic fallacy. He is not opposed to these ideologies in particular, but sees the application of any external, ready-made ideology to literature as a departure from genuine criticism. This results in subjecting a work of literature to an individual's pet philosophy and an elevation or demotion of authors according to their conformity to the pet philosophy.”   How outrageous of Frye to hold that literary works should be judged according to their merit and not according to their political-correctness.  No wonder Said draws and quarters him in his book.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Edward Said and Serial Killers

On page 24 – 25 of Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Edward Said writes “In South Africa alone, there are now eleven official languages, which educational institutions must somehow take into account.  The actual composition of America is not much different in diversity and multiplicity of cultures, although one unfortunate consequence has been the felt need to try to homogenize all this into an assertive, not to say bellicose and positive American identitarian unanimity.  The invention of tradition has become far too thriving a business.”
Edward Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935.  His father was an American citizen and interestingly, fought under General Pershing in World War I.  His parent’s ancestry was Palestinian Protestant.  His father’s business took him between Palestine, Cairo, and the U.S., and depending upon the politics of the region, Edward was educated in Palestine or Cairo – until in 1951 he was banished from Victoria College for being a ‘troublemaker’ and shipped off to a college preparatory school in Massachusetts.  Edward settled down, did well and got his BA in 1957 from Princeton and his MA (1960) and Phd (1964) from Harvard.  Edward Said was raised a multiculturalist.
Said was born a U.S. citizen but didn’t like what he found in the U.S.  He didn’t like the sort of American that he found here.  We have a history of intellectuals feeling much the same way and escaping the American backwardness for European enlightenment.  One thinks of T. S. Eliot whom Said deplored, by the way.  But there was also Henry James and many others who made that journey and while most of them never gave up on America, they did clearly find something superior in Europe, especially Britain.  But Said came of age after that, after a time when Europe had lost its luster.  There was no place for him to go where he could find a culture superior to the American; which didn’t keep him from disapproving of it.
There is something chaotic about Said’s multiculturalism.  He would have approved of the elimination of English as the primary language in America.  We here think of ourselves as a nation and expect those who come here to live to accommodate themselves to our customs to some extent.  Said found these expectations constraining.  As few as our standards are, he wanted to be free of them.  While nations such as China and the Russian Federation deplore the chaotic freedom they see in the U.S., deplore it as “license,” Edward Said found the few rules that perhaps only an American citizen would be aware of as constraining.  He wanted America to be free of them. 
Multiculturalism, by definition, involves a certain element of chaos.  Said would have us go beyond the freedoms of Liberal Democracy.  He would have us disentangle ourselves from what little tradition we find in our history so that we can be more genuinely multicultural.    The West is moving in the direction of Multiculturalism – not just in the accepting of all cultures, but in the accepting of all of them within each nation; so when we look for our monsters (all cultures throughout all recorded history have had monsters) today we find describe them as serial killers, and the more chaotic our societies, the less rule-bound our serial killers
Just the other day I finished watching “Harper Island” on Netflix.  It took me three days to get through the thirteen episodes.  The Netflix description made it sound a bit like Agatha Christies And then there were none, so I watched it, but after a while I feared that they were going to make the least likely character the serial killer: the one everyone on the island would have voted to be the least likely choice as the serial killer.  I hoped they weren’t going to do that, but they did.  And the motives they give him for his killings were psychologically preposterous. 
A hundred years before Freud, Esquirol implied that “mentally ill people were not ones who had lost their reason but were rather dominated by a kind of hidden inner reason independent of their will, a sort of unconscious mind.”  Esquirol wrote down his theories in 1805 and modern ideas have not diverged much from this point, that the mad have their own rules and their own logic. 
If we read about actual serial killers, and how can we not when they are such a fascination to news reporters everywhere, we discover that they do have rules of sorts.  The police call these rules their modus operandi, and once these killers are captured, psychologists seek to extract from their “unconscious minds” the “hidden inner reason” behind their desires to kill.  “Harper Island” approaches chaos more closely by providing the killers with “inner reasons” that are scarcely plausible.  Perhaps in the “horror” genre, plausible rules are dispensed with, I don’t know, but I found the thirteen episodes a waste of time.
If Edward Said were still alive and happened to read what I have written, he would say that I have taken him much too far.  He would admit to having “standards” but he would strive to show that they are superior to American standards and traditions, the stuffy old constraining standards embraced by such reactionaries as Alan Bloom.   
Are you worried about a serial killer on the Oregon coast? http://www.kval.com/news/content/41351642.html .
Perhaps you’d like to read about the ghastly-ghoulish & sickening serial killer victim mementoes of Rodney Alcala http://incoldblogger.blogspot.com/2010/03/ghastly-ghoulishsickening-serial-killer.html .
Are you concerned about the serial killer of homosexuals in Chicago?  You should be.  He hasn’t been caught yet.  http://www.wbbm780.com/Murders-That-Shook-Gay-Community-Remain-Unsolved/6604571 .
But if you live in Pretoria, you’ll be relieved to learn that one of your serial killers has been arrested: http://www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=3102&art_id=vn20100317042710837C907957#more .
Serial killing has become a cottage industry, and why not since we have abandoned (or are abandoning) our standards.  One of Freud’s students, Theodore Reik, argued that the Nazis would pay a price for using dead bodies to make soap.  Making soap is not something humans do with dead bodies.  Humankind treats their dead with respect.  The Nazis thought they could dispense with previous standards and create their own.  Reik was being Freudian in arguing that we have “superegos” and they are functioning whether we like it or not.  We might think we can turn dead bodies into soap, but our superegos founded in our traditions and standards tell us that we cannot.
We have always had monsters, but when we read about them, about dragons, witches, goblins and skinwalkers, don’t they all sound rather tame when compared to Pedro Alonso Lopez, Henry Lee Lucas, Ottis Toole, H. H. Holmes, Gilles de Rais, Luis Alfredo Gavarito,  Hu Vanlin, Pee Wee Gaskins, Javed Iqbal, (just to list those credited with killing more than 100 victims per http://www.mayhem.net/Crime/serial1.html ).
  Would we have fewer or less fearsome monsters if we followed Heidegger’s advice and turned back from chaos in order to seek authentication in our traditions?  I’d like to think so.

Was Edward Said a great intellectual?

David Barsamian has written The Pen and the Sword: Conversations with Edward Said, due to be published 4-1-10.  http://www.amazon.com/Pen-Sword-Conversations-Edward-Said/dp/1931859957/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1268899427&sr=1-1
I have yet to read a review, but there is a little block on page 10 of 11 March 2010 issue of the London Review of Books lauding it, or rather lauding Said and implying that Barsamian provides “an accessible engaging introduction to Said’s thoughts . . .”   The Independent is quoted as describing “Edward Said” as “one of the greatest intellectuals and public activists of our time.”
What a poor crop of intellectuals we have if Edward Said is “one of the greatest . . . of our time.”  One can quote Said almost at random and find slanted superficial assertions that don’t bear up under examination.  One of the Said books I’m bogged down in is his Humanism and Democratic Criticism.  I was recently involved in a discussion on Humanism and, ever the optimist, thought Said might have something useful to say on the subject.  But not so.  One of the first scholars he takes to task is Alan Bloom.  If one believes what Said says about him, Bloom should be read as advocating “the closing of the American Mind” rather than deploring it.  I read his book shortly after it was published and was mightily impressed by it.  Bloom held up the standards of Western Literature and deplored the fact that they were being replaced in universities across the U.S. by politically-correct women’s and minorities’ studies.  Universities were including literature because it represented these and other minorities and not because it was the finest the West had to offer.
Said finds Bloom’s thesis deplorable.  Surely only a minority, an “elite,” can master Bloom’s body of Western literature and philosophy; therefore, Said implies, Bloom is advocating the narrowing or closing of the American Mind.  I read Bloom’s book about 20 years ago, but I wonder if Said read it at all.  Maybe we can’t read all the great works of Western Literature and Philosophy, but this is no reason for casting these works aside and opting for the faddish and political correct of the current time.  At one time anyone who strove to become educated spent time with many if not most of the great writers of the Western Tradition.  I certainly have.  Perhaps that is why I can see that Edward Said is not one of “the greatest intellectuals . . . or our time” and whoever wrote those words for The Independent cannot.
Said writes on page 20 of Humanism and Democratic Criticism, “. . . if Bloom and his followers were to have their way, a carefully engineered curriculum and scrubbed-clean and tiny student body would set right most of the problems.  Only by proper education could a new elite come into being, and this elite, given the style and undoubted popular audience solicited by the ultra-astringent Bloom, is, peculiarly enough, supposed to have a mass appeal.  Soon even Bloom’s relatively sophisticated rhetoric was overtaken by William Bennett’s thumping oratory about reclaiming a heritage and a core of traditional values, which also attained great popular acclaim.” 
One finds this sort of writing throughout Said’s book: slanted, sarcastic, abusive and wrong.  What sort of mind would describe a book that strives to preserve the Humanistic tradition, the great works of Western Literature and Philosophy, as a call for a “carefully engineered curriculum”? 
One might gather, if one has been educated with all the fads and political correct writings of these modern times, that what Bloom has done is create a new and dangerously right-wing sort of censorship.  What Bloom actually did was create a potent call that our Western Tradition, the great works of Western Literature and Philosophy not be abandoned in favor of whatever is currently popular or politically correct.
Said goes on to excoriate the desire to reclaim  our “core of traditional values.”  He adds that “These have once again been trundled out in the aftermath of 9/11, as a way of justifying America’s apparently limitless war against evil.”  Was America’s war against those who attacked us on 9/11 ever a “limitless war against evil”?   One can give Said a slight benefit of doubt by assuming he is referring to Bush’s reference to an “Axis of Evil” and not just the Islamists, but time has borne out the fact that this “axis” has colluded in attacks on the West.   Bush has been replaced by Obama but the change in American administrations hasn’t withdrawn our forces from Iraq or lessened the perceived threat of the two remaining members of the “Axis of Evil.’ 
It is a characteristic of Edward Said and those who were in agreement with him such as John Esposito, that they make light of the Islamist threat.  What they worry about is the ongoing reaction of the West, especially the U.S., and not the aggression of the Islamists or Middle Eastern “rogue” nations.  Who thinks like that?  Who attacks the U.S. and then blames the U.S. for responding?  This occurred with some regularity during the Cold War.  The USSR could move against Hungary or Czechoslovakia or encourage North Korea to invade the South and little of a critical nature appeared in the Western Press, but let the U.S. come to the aid of an ally the world Press wrings its hands at our “outrageous acts.”   
On page 21, Said writes, “ Read through most of the lamentations of today that decry the absence of standards . . . that keep talking about literature sequestered from the world of human history and labor, that decry the presence of women’s and gender studies, of African and Asian literatures, that pretend that the humanities and humanism are the prerogative only of a select handful of English-educated people uninfected by illusions about progress, freedom, and modernity, and you will be hard put to explain how such a refrain is sounded in a radically multicultural society such as America’s.” 
Perhaps this a bit is harder to see through, but Western Literature has not been “sequestered from the world of human history.”  What Said means is that Bloom et al would not update the curricula in U.S universities simply in order to have the latest of “human history and labor” or the most political correct of “women’s and gender studies.”  Bloom was concerned about the worth of the literature and not about what was most “politically correct” in the modern world.
When Said implies that a desire to value the great works of Western Civilization comprises a contradiction in a “radically multicultural society such as America’s,” he is ignoring America’s actual history.  America is the greatest modern promulgator of what has become known as Liberal Democracy.  Yes we invite people from around the world to become citizens, but pause at that word “citizens.”  We do not say we will become citizens of every nationality that wants to live here.  We say the reverse.  If you want to live here then you must become a citizen of our nation.  We do have a few standards and some of us will agree with Heidegger that there is value to seeking after what is most “authentic” in our tradition. 
Perhaps it is helpful to view this controversy in terms first of a Conservative wish to preserve what is best (authentic) about our traditions, including the Western Traditions, the great works of literature and philosophy which we brought with us.  Opposing this “Conservative wish” are “progressives” such as Said who don’t see the “great works of Western Literature” in quite the same way.  Said would like to see this body of Literature as a work in progress; which in a sense is fair.  Harold Bloom would say that as well, but Harold like Alan deplored the addition of writers just because they represent women or gender or racial issues.