Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

rising up and rising down

Richard J. Evans summarizes Pankaj Mishra’s argument:

“After a long, uneasy equipoise since 1945,” Mishra says, “the old west-dominated world order is giving way to an apparent global disorder.” We have entered an “age of anger”, in which established forms of authority and legitimacy, already seriously weakened by the forces of globalisation, have been challenged by history’s losers. We are experiencing “endemic and uncontrollable” violence, fuelled by a range of hatreds – of “immigrants, minorities and various designated ‘others’” – that have now become part of the political mainstream. In response, there is “a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism”. Societies organised for the interplay of individual self-interest mediated by the state have plunged into tribalism and nihilistic violence. To Fukuyama’s Panglossian vision of the future, Mishra opposes a nightmare.

And yet Steven Pinker continues to argue that we are simply not “experiencing ‘endemic and uncontrollable’ violence,” that, globally, violence continues to decrease. The notion that violence is on the rise may well be one of those illusions I discussed the other day.

I don’t know, of course, but I’m inclined to suspect that physical violence is on the decline while verbal violence, especially on social media, is on the rise. It is indeed an age of anger, but perhaps people are largely content to express that anger online. Almost infinitely more people cheer the punching of Richard Spencer than would actually punch Richard Spencer. One or two acts of mild violence — videoed on smartphones and watched on loop — might be enough to slake most people’s bloodlust.

And so the anger dissipates, and “enterprises of great pitch and moment / With this regard their currents turn awry, / And lose the name of action.” Twitter is the opiate of the masses.

P.S. My post title.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Tolkien's riddles

The Riddles of the Hobbit is a riddling book about a riddling writer, a philological exercise concerning the works of a philologist. I wish there were more books like this. Literary critics tend to stick firmly (ruthlessly) with the standard critical idiom even when the texts they’re writing about are fundamentally incompatible with that idiom. I admire Adam for letting Tolkien’s habits of mind pull his (Adam’s) prose into an eccentric orbit. There’s a very funny imaginary dialogue between the Sphinx and Oedipus in which Oedipus refuses the Sphinx’s interpretation of its own riddle (“your riddle mixes metaphor and literal application in an inconsistent manner”); and an especially nice turn near the end where Adam comments that “the early medieval romance Ringe describes its hero as ’ane hubbity-duppety fellowe yclepit Fraodo, þat wiþ greete heorte did þe Ringe of powre destrowe” — to which he adds, in a helpful footnote, the information that “There is, of course, no actual medieval romance entitled Ringe.”

But these are not mere jokes, though they’re good jokes: they’re also ways of reflecting on riddling and the pursuit of riddles (including the kind of riddle-pursuit that in humanistic scholarship we call “source-hunting”). The book offers much more sober insights into Tolkien’s tale-telling and language-playing habits, too, but it always wears its critical hat at a rakish angle. I loved it and felt that it did more to get me thinking tolkienially (to coin a term) than almost anything I’ve read about old JRRT, Tom Shippey’s wonderful work alone excepted.

Here I just want to take up one of the secondary themes in the book, which is the relation between Tolkien’s preference for riddles and his deep commitment to a religion, Catholic Christianity, which has at its heart certain mysteries. Adam is quite clear that riddles and mysteries are not the same, but he doesn’t say what I’m going to say here, which is that each is the mirror image of the other. The proper relation between riddle and mystery is absolute opposition.

We can start with two points. First, Adam quotes Robin Chapman Stacey’s claim that “riddles function, in almost every culture in which they appear, as a means by which one person lays claim to power over another”; and second, at one point he pauses to comment that “one of the things this book is trying to do is … to engage imaginative ingenuity as the proper idiom of riddles.” Putting these two points together we see that in contests of riddles ingenuity is the form that power takes: especially since, as Adam also points out, the stakes of riddle-games are so often life and death, to pose a riddle to someone — and equally to accept a riddle-challenge — is to bet your life than you are more ingenious than the other person.

When Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the creature flings itself off a cliff to its death; conversely, his inability to solve the riddle of his own birth leads to his mother’s suicide and his own self-blinding and exile. Similarly, when in The Libation Bearers Orestes comes to kill his mother Clytemnestra and a servant cries out “The dead are killing the living!” — because Orestes was believed to be dead — Clytemnestra replies, “Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.” But she hasn’t done well: she never penetrated the riddling words of Cassandra, or she would not have acted as she did. And now her understanding of her own peril arrives too late to save her life.

The word there translated as “riddle” is ainigma. A form of that word appears also in the New Testament — only once, but in an especially famous verse, 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” — en ainigmati, in obscurity, enigmatically, as though riddled to — “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The key point here, I think, is that this is not a condition we can remedy through our own efforts — not even the most ingenious. In order to “see face to face,” to “know fully,” we must wait along with the whole Creation which (paraphrasing the second half of Romans 8 here) awaits its deliverance from enslavement to decay. When we are all delivered, redeemed, when the expectation of the children of God is realized, when the “great mystery” — Ephesians 5:21, not just a mysterion but a mega mysterion! — of the marriage of Christ and his church is consummated in glory, all of that will happen as an unveiling, a revelation: apokalypsin (Romans 8:21).

Paul returns to this theme in the very last verses of the letter to the Romans, where he looks forward again to the apokalypsin mystēriou — the unveiling of the mystery, the sacramentum. And when will this happen? In 1 Timothy 6 we learn that God the Father will bring the “manifestation” or “revealing” of Jesus Christ, kairois idiois, in his own good time, at the opportune moment. And that cannot be forced or hurried or even known by anyone else.

It sounds like I’m preaching a sermon here, but I’m actually trying to lay out a semantic field, one part of which is occupied by riddles, enigmas, which human beings can at least in principle solve, and the other part of which is occupied by mysteries that are not even in principle soluble, by obscurity that we cannot dissipate: rather we must wait for God to unveil those mysteries in his own time. This is the sense in which I claim that riddles and mysteries oppose one another.

I said in my previous post that Pynchon is a riddling writer, but he is also concerned with those insoluble obscurities that cannot be fought but must simply be waited out. Thus in the last paragraph of Inherent Vice Doc Sportello is simply waiting out a thick California coastal fog — and hoping that when it clears there will be something else there, something other and better than the world he knows. At the end of The Crying of Lot 49 Oedipa Maas — Oedipa! — simply takes a deep breath and awaits what the “crying of Lot 49” will reveal. And in one of the most beautiful passages in all of Pynchon’s fiction, the passage that I think will give my book on Pynchon its title, we hear a (relatively minor) character say:

“It is always a hidden place, the way into it is not obvious, the geography is as much spiritual as physical. If you should happen upon it, your strongest certainty is not that you have discovered it but returned to it. In a single great episode of light, you remember everything.” … He did not pause then so much as wait, as one might before a telegraph sounder, for some affirmation from the far invisible.

Waiting — waiting “for some affirmation from the far invisible” — not striving. No ingenuity here; just patient hope.

After all this it is interesting to return to The Hobbit, and especially the conclusion of the riddle contest between Bilbo and Gollum. Bilbo wins “more by luck (as it seemed) than by wits,” Tolkien says in his Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, and in more than one way. First of all, he can only even get his last chance to stump Gollum because, in trying to ask for more Time to think, he stumbles on the answer to the game’s penultimate riddle. (He finds the answer but never knows the answer.) And then, of course, “What have I got in my pocket?” is even more problematic, within the rules of the game, than the Sphinx’s inconsistencies. Again from the Prologue to LOTR: “The Authorities, it is true, differ whether this last question was a mere ‘question’ and not a ‘riddle’ according to the strict rules of the Game; but all agree that, after accepting it and trying to guess the answer, Gollum was bound by his promise.” And by so accepting Gollum put himself in a position where his power over Bilbo — his superior physical strength and shrewdness of riddling — are trumped by … well, by something else.

If what Bilbo has is luck it is extraordinary luck — too extraordinary for Gandalf to accept that explanation, as he says to Frodo: "Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it." In fact, then, the riddle-game is resolved not by ingenuity (which Bilbo lacks), and not even by luck, but by some unnamed force who has decided that the kairos moment, the Appointed Time, has come. What we have in Bilbo’s discovery of the Ring is not cleverness or skill or bravery or any other human virtue, but an apokalypsin mystēriou, the unveiling of a mystery. The riddle-game marks the end, in this tale, of the sovereignty of riddling.

Pynchon's riddles

In the opening chapters of Against the Day Pynchon hints at certain oddities in the space/time continuum of the book. Consider this:

The Chums of Chance could have been granted no more appropriate form of “ground-leave” than the Chicago Fair, as the great national celebration possessed the exact degree of fictitiousness to permit the boys access and agency. The harsh nonfictional world waited outside the White City’s limits, held off for this brief summer, making the entire commemorative season beside Lake Michigan at once dream-like and real.

As though the Chums come from some other world, some (to us) fictional world, and cam only have "access and agency" in a place as fanciful and make-believe as the White City of the World’s Columbian Exhibition.

Just a couple of pages later we are introduced to the detective Lew Basnight:

Lew looked around. Was it still Chicago? As he began again to walk, the first thing he noticed was how few of the streets here followed the familiar grid pattern of the rest of town— everything was on the skew, narrow lanes radiating starwise from small plazas, tramlines with hairpin turns that carried passengers abruptly back the way they’d been coming, increasing chances for traffic collisions, and not a name he could recognize on any of the street-signs, even those of better-traveled thoroughfares … foreign languages, it seemed. Not for the first time, he experienced a kind of waking swoon, which not so much propelled as allowed him entry into an urban setting, like the world he had left but differing in particulars which were not slow to reveal themselves.

“Like the world he had left” but somehow not that world. It is a theme which recurs throughout the novel, which seems particularly interested in thin places conceived not on the model of Celtic spirituality but arising from the creation of modern physics, from the theories of relativity to the multiverse hypothesis. And as he had done in Mason & Dixon Pynchon seems to be suggesting that the work of science does not reveal the world we live in but actually brings it into being — with somewhat different worlds being brought into being in the universes next door, into which and out of which his characters sometimes slip.

The language I’m using here — “suggest,” “seem,” “hint” — indicate that this is a riddling sort of book, and indeed Pynchon is a riddling sort of writer. I think of a verse from Auden: “When have we not preferred some going round / To going straight to where we are?” Pynchon seems always to prefer “going round” because “where we are” is also where we might not be. Perhaps more apt still would be the great conclusion of Wallace Stevens’s “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”:

                                             A more severe, 

More harassing master would extemporize 
Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory 
Of poetry is the theory of life,

As it is, in the intricate evasions of as, 
In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness, 
The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.

The intricate evasions of as — evasions which are also revelatory, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

And then as I was reflecting on Pynchon as the great Riddler what should turn up in my mailbox but a copy of Adam Roberts’s The Riddles of the Hobbit? I shall comment on that in my next post.

Monday, January 23, 2017

recency illusions

In his book Days of Rage, Bryan Burrough writes,

Imagine if this happened today: Hundreds of young Americans — white, black, and Hispanic — disappear from their everyday lives and secretly form urban guerrilla groups. Dedicated to confronting the government and righting society’s wrongs, they smuggle bombs into skyscrapers and federal buildings and detonate them from coast to coast. They strike inside the Pentagon, inside the U.S. Capitol, at a courthouse in Boston, at dozens of multinational corporations, at a Wall Street restaurant packed with lunchtime diners. People die. They rob banks, dozens of them, launch raids on National Guard arsenals, and assassinate policemen, in New York, in San Francisco, in Atlanta. There are deadly shoot-outs and daring jailbreaks, illegal government break-ins and a scandal in Washington.... 

In fact, the most startling thing about the 1970s-era underground is how thoroughly it has been forgotten. “People always ask why I did what I did, and I tell them I was a soldier in a war,” recalls a heralded black militant named Sekou Odinga, who remained underground from 1969 until his capture in 1981. “And they always say, ‘What war?’”...

“People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States,” notes a retired FBI agent, Max Noel. “People don’t want to listen to that. They can’t believe it. One bombing now and everyone gets excited. In 1972? It was every day. Buildings getting bombed, policemen getting killed. It was commonplace.”

Why do so many people today — including the newly elected President — believe that the social fabric is more seriously frayed now than at any point since the Civil War? To some extent we must blame the historical ignorance with which Americans are congenitally afflicted. But I lived through the period that Burrough describes, though I was young, and while I remember many of the events he describes I also remember not being alarmed by them; nor did I know anyone who was. People were concerned, to be sure, and saddened, and puzzled, but not alarmed.

And yet on social media today everyone is in a state of high alarm all the time. Which leads me to something I didn’t mention explicitly in my year in technology post: my efforts to get onto a longer news frequency.

Those who are interested in history will remember events like the Battle of New Orleans, fought weeks after the Treaty of Ghent had ended the War of 1812 because word of the treaty hadn’t reached the armies. Since then, thanks to a series of well-known technological changes, the news cycle has grown shorter and shorter until now many people get their news minute-by-minute.

If the frequency that led to the Battle of New Orleans was too long, the Twitter-cycle is far, far too short. People regularly get freaked out by stories than turn out to be false, and by the time the facts are known a good deal of damage (not least to personal relationships) has often already been done — plus, the disappearance of the cause of an emotion doesn’t automatically eliminate the emotion itself. In fact, it often leaves that emotion in search of new justifications for its existence.

I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion. So I’m not just staying off Twitter, I’m cutting back on the news sites in my RSS feed, and deleting browser bookmarks to newspapers. Instead, I am turning more of my attention to monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and books. I’m trying to get a somewhat longer view of things — trying to start thinking about issues one when some of the basic facts about them have been sorted out. Taking the short view has burned me far too many times; I’m going to try to prevent that from happening ever again (even if I will sometimes fail). And if once in a while I end up fighting a battle in a war that has already ended ... I can live with that.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

reconstituting the Republic of Letters (or not)

Here I want to follow up on my previous post on academic publishing and the patronage system.

First, just a note that the article by Stanley Fish that I cited in that post created an interesting conversation that can be found here, at least for those with JSTOR access.

Now, back to the main issues raised by Wellmon and Piper: As I mentioned in my earlier response, their work brings a welcome historical dimension to the issues they raise, identifying the ways in which the rise of the modern research university, starting in the late 18th century in Germany, sought to avoid or transcend the limitations of a patronage regime but ended up (largely, though not wholly) reinscribing such a regime in a disguised and more systematic form.

It was what we might call a Weberian development: a community or network of scholarship — the old Republic of Letters about which Anthony Grafton, more than anyone else, has written so eloquently — that depended a good deal on the charisma of individual figures, from Petrarch to Erasmus to Voltaire, was gradually rationalized and systematized. Wellmon and Piper and I are the heirs of that rationalized system, and for better or worse have to function within it. But as a professor at a private Christian university, as opposed to the public institutions that Chad and Andrew work at, my ties to that system are slightly looser. The epistemic world of Christian scholarship in the humanities overlaps with the larger scholarly world but has various regions that lie well off that map. At Wheaton, where I taught for 29 years, an English or philosophy professor could (might not, but could) get tenure while writing only for specifically Christian journals and presses; at Baylor, where I now teach, that would not be possible, but some publication with Christian scholarly outlets is usually acceptable.

So from where I sit the rise of the modern research university, with its national and often international standards of accreditation and prestige, is a mixed blessing, and I am tempted to wonder whether, in the university as it is currently constituted and likely to be constituted for the imaginable future, any serious alternative to the current epistemic regime can be achieved.

If such an alternative regime is ever to be realized, then it might well need to involve reflection on what elements of that Republic of Letters could be reconstituted. In contrast to the research university the Old Republic was characterized by

  • locally variable interests and approaches
  • dependence (as noted above) on individual charisma
  • loose and variable social ties among its members
  • loose and variable relations to intellectual institutions
  • a common language (Latin) for much of its history
  • private and locally variable publication technologies
  • dependence on postal service for most of its exchanges of ideas

For a time it seemed to me that the internet might allow for the formation of structurally similar networks of scholars, more-or-less loosely related to but not confined by academic institutions. I remember, ten or fifteen years ago, hearing fairly regularly from people who didn’t hold academic positions but who nevertheless — or perhaps not nevertheless but rather consequently — offered interesting ideas that I did not come across in my regular academic reading. (These people often held advanced degrees but did not have academic jobs, for a variety of reasons.)

The success of these networks depended on a reliable means of exchanging ideas, something that, early in internet’s history, was enabled by various technologies: the BBS, the newsgroup, the listserv. But when we moved from those technologies to the World Wide Web, and thus to comment-enabled blogs, things started to go seriously wrong, largely because ignorant and/or malicious people, who didn't even have to sign up for a listserv in order to share their opinions, drove the more measured and thoughtful people out of comment threads. Then, at about the time that everyone started to figure out the necessity of comment moderation, Twitter arose, and suddenly commenting on blogs seemed burdensome to people.

For instance, the number of comments on this blog has steadily declined, though for a while, until I began emphasizing that I don't read Twitter replies, people would respond there — inevitably more briefly, and therefore less clearly and cogently, than they would have if they had chosen instead to comment on the blog itself. Now I get very few responses at all to what I write here. I think the rise of social media, and especially Twitter, has done great damage to any hopes for an online Republic of Letters that could provide a kind of epistemic counterpoise to the Academy. Perhaps when Twitter burns itself out — which I believe it will do, and fairly soon, thanks to the crass indifference of its leadership to the abuse that goes on there — some new possibilities will arise, or old ones come back into view.

But without some such counterpoise — some intellectual ferment going on outside the disciplinary powers of the research university (and I mean “disciplinary” primarily in a Foucauldian sense) — then I doubt whether we’ll see a significant alteration in how the university works.

Let me return now to the question that Wellmon and Piper ask: “What are the epistemic effects of a system in which academic prestige is so unequally distributed and how might we, as an academy, foster a more intellectually diverse space of academic communication?” I want to suggest one possible answer to that question: If we want the university to become a more intellectually diverse space, then maybe we need to find ways to strengthen and vivify intellectual discourse outside the university. Because it is only when serious alternatives to the epistemic practices of the university are being cultivated elsewhere that the university is likely to reconsider how it does its business. In this way a major investment of academic intellectual resources in the world outside the academy could constitute, at one and the same time, a public service and a means of self-invigoration.

publication, power, and patronage

Here’s a PDF of an important article by Chad Wellmon and Andrew Piper, soon to be published in Critical Inquiry. And here’s what the journos call the nut graf:

Historically, university reformers from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century have touted publication as a corrective to concentrations of power and patronage networks. An increased emphasis on more purportedly transparent or objective measures provided by publication have long been cast as an antidote to cronyism and connections. As we will show, however, current data suggest that publication patterns largely reproduce significant power imbalances within the system of academic publishing. Systems of academic patronage as well as those of cultural and social capital seem not only to have survived but flourished in the modern bureaucratic university, even if in different form. When, as our data show, Harvard and Yale exercise such a disproportionate influence on both hiring and publishing patterns, academic publishing seems less a democratic marketplace of ideas and more a tightly-controlled network of patronage and cultural capital. Just as output-focused advancement is older than we might expect, patronage-based advancement is more persistent than we might like to acknowledge.

And then Wellmon and Piper bring the data that show just how institutionally concentrated academic publishing is. After they had “surveyed over 45 years (1969–2015) of publication data from four leading journals in the humanities — Critical Inquiry, New Literary History, PMLA, and Representations,” they discovered, among other things, that “authors with PhDs from just two universities, Yale and Harvard, accounted for one-fifth (19.95%) of all articles.” (Just for the record, Chad’s PhD is from Berkeley, Andrew’s from Columbia, mine from UVA.)

There are many ways one might explain this state of affairs, and, especially if you’re associated with Harvard or Yale, you might want to start by pointing out that the graduate programs of those schools have their pick of the most talented student applicants, so therefore it shouldn’t be surprising that those students go on to be productive professionals, some of whom then return to Harvard and Yale and select the next generation of graduate students — it’s a kind of circle, yes, but not all such circles are vicious ones. So the argument might go. And we can grant a measure, and even a large measure, of truth to those claims and still be concerned for the various results of such a system.

Among those various results, the ones that Wellmon and Piper are most interested in — and not just in this article, but in the larger project of which this article is merely the first installment — may be seen in this sentence: “The broader question we want to ask, which we can only begin to raise in this essay, is: What are the epistemic effects of a system in which academic prestige is so unequally distributed and how might we, as an academy, foster a more intellectually diverse space of academic communication?” (Emphasis mine.) Yes, there are social and political effects, but tangled up with those and never fully extricable from them are surely epistemic consequences: a kind of scholarly Overton window of acceptable topics of study, methods, conclusions, all monitored and disciplined by a clerisy that doesn’t acknowledge its own power or interests. A fascinating element of the essay is its brief history of how the whole endeavor of academic publishing arose largely in order to provide an “objective” discursive arena in which the intrinsic merit of scholarly work could be properly assessed — which, however well or badly it served its announced purpose, enforced a system that valued writing above speaking: “advocates of a new university model assumed that written and, most importantly, published material had a higher value than oral exchange or other less broadly public media.” That this system of value concentrates the power of the clerisy may well be, as the Marxists like to say, no accident.

I am very eager to see where Wellmon and Piper go with further research along these lines. Here are a couple of questions I am mulling over and that I would love to see them consider:

1) I wonder if the prestige-distribution system in the publishing of academic books works in the same way that it does within the network of academic journals. My own experience suggests otherwise. Fairly early in my career I discovered that it was far easier and more rewarding to write and publish books than to go through the endless rigmarole of trying to get journal articles published — so I stopped doing the latter. My suspicion is that, unlike journals, university presses need to make money, or at least to avoid losing much money, which gives them a rather different set of priorities. That’s just a suspicion, and one derived from only one person’s experience; but still, I wonder.

2) One of the responses to Wellmon and Piper’s work will surely be that they have exposed a false meritocracy and we therefore need to come up with some way to create and sustain a true meritocracy. Perhaps some will insist that places in graduate programs be determined by GRE scores, or by some imagined replacement for the GRE that more objectively determines merit. To which others will reply that the concepts of “objectivity” and “merit” are and will always be ideological tools by which the entrenched clerisy will sustain itself. Thus the academic profession’s old oscillation between the political and transcendent will simply be renewed.

I take my framing of that opposition from an essay that Stanley Fish wrote in 1979 and published nine years later, “No Bias, No Merit: The Case Against Blind Submission”:

The true and proper view of literature and literary studies defines itself against academic politics, which are seen by the aestheticians as being too much like the politics of “actual life” and by the new historicists as being not enough like the politics of “actual life.” The complaint is different, but its target - the procedures and urgencies of professional activity - is the same, and so is the opposition underlying the different complaints, the opposition between an activity in touch with higher values and an activity that has abandoned those values for something base and philistine. Whether the values are generality, detachment, disembodied vision, and moral unity on the one hand or discontinuity, rupture, disintegration, and engagement on the other, the fear is that they will be compromised by the demands that issue from the pressures of careerism, the pressure to publish, to say something new, to get a job, to get promoted, to get recognized, to get famous, and so on. In the context of the aesthetic vision, these pressures are destructive of everything that is truly intellectual; in the context of the historicist vision, they are destructive of everything that is truly (as opposed to merely institutionally) political. Not only do the two visions share an enemy, they share a vocabulary, the vocabulary of transcendence, for in the discourses of both we are urged to free ourselves from parochial imperatives, to realize the true nature of our calling, to participate in that which is really and abidingly important. It is just that in one case the important thing is the life of the poetic mind, while in the other it is the struggle against repression and totalization; but that is finally only the difference between two differently pure acts, both of which are pure (or so is the claim) by not being the acts of an embedded professional.

Fish is playing the provocateur here, of course, as always, but I think he has rightly identified the constant temptation of the reformer, whether academic or religious or any other kind, which is to seek a purity of purpose and action that escapes the downward-dragging gravity of the grossly political. For Fish, it seems, there are three options for organizing the prestige-conferring, patronage-distributing system of the academic humanities: a falsely-pure aestheticism, a falsely-pure revolutionary politics, and a cheerfully impure intra-profession politics.

Now, even if we agree with Fish that we need to avoid the sham purities, the simulacra of transcendence, that our profession tends to embrace, and accept instead the inevitably political character of our profession, that doesn’t get us very far. In fact, by arguing that we should all just accept and work within professional norms without claiming that they are anchored in transcendent values, Fish simply avoids asking questions about how those norms are created and perpetuated: to Wellmon and Piper’s point about how our models of scholarship ground value in national and international publishing rather than in oral and local engagements, Fish could reply only with a Wittgensteinian shrug. But his warnings against utopian illusions should be noted and heeded by all would-be reformers.

(more forthcoming in another post)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

fear and loathing in recent American history

It’s been said — I wish I knew who said it first — that fantasy is always about disenchantment, about the draining of magic from the world. Certainly disenchantment is one of Pynchon’s obsessions, and the fantastic elements of his stories tend to emphasize loss. There’s a moment late in Mason & Dixon, when our heroes are returning from their adventures in the wilderness, and they discover that their companion the poet Timothy Tox is accompanied by a Golem:

But as ’twill prove, the closer they escort Mr. Tox to the Metropolis, the less Evidence for his Creature’s existence will they be given, till at length they must believe that the Poet has either pass’d, like some Indian Youth at the Onset of Manhood, under the Protection of a potent tho’ invisible Spirit,— or gone mad.

The city’s powerful engines of disenchantment overwhelm and dissipate the magic that arises from the unregulated wilderness. Experiences of the supernatural must thereafter be either invisible, indiscernible to the Sensorium, or a token of insanity. And then after a while those who had had such experiences wonder whether they even happened at all. They eventually “fade into the light of common day.”

Where has it gone, the glory and the dream? And can it be recaptured? This sense of being in-between haunts Pynchon’s fiction: I find myself thinking of Matthew Arnold “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.”

I think one cause of this tendency in Pynchon’s fiction is generational. Pynchon is roughly the same age as Ken Kesey, who once said that he was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie — that is, his life fell between two excited and excitable movements of countercultural possibility. Kesey tried to overcome that in-betweenness by main force — the main force of an artificial community, the LSD-fueled Merry Pranksters. And of course it didn't work; it couldn’t have worked. There are a lot of people like the post-Pranksters Kesey in Pynchon’s fiction: old druggies like Zoyd Wheeler or Doc Sportello, becalmed, in the doldrums, waiting out the coastal fog as Doc does at the end of Inherent Vice, hoping for something, anything, to happen. Pynchon’s characters are often half-remembering or hoping to remember some idealized past, some lost Lemuria or Atlantis, and half-watching for some Vision to appear on the horizon of the future. The Second Life-like video game DeepArcher in Bleeding Edge is an attempt to enforce this Vision by the main force of digital technology: the technological sublime, accessible always to the connected user!

In the Sixties the “connected users” were potheads and acidheads, and if Kesey was the chief Merry Prankster of such secular hope in the latter part of the decade, following the pioneering work of Timothy Leary, its dark Joker was Hunter S. Thompson. An early paragraph in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas goes,

The sporting editors had also given me $300 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

If that won't immanentize the Eschaton, what will?

But Thompson actually knows that it’s all bullshit, that he is continuing practices and habits that he doesn't believe in any more. At one point he pauses in his wild trip through Vegas to say,

We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the Sixties. Uppers are going out of style. This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously. After West Point and the Priesthood, LSD must have seemed entirely logical to him... but there is not much satisfaction in knowing that he blew it very badly for himself, because he took too many others down with him.

And Thompson is one of those. Elsewhere in the book he writes the true epitaph of the Sixties, in a passage whose tone might be quite recognizable to those on today’s left trying to reckon with Trump, in a passage that Thomas Pynchon could have written:

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time – and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened. … There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Monday, January 9, 2017

growth and form

D Arcy Wentworth Thompson 1860 1948In my previous post I explored some of the biological contexts of the idea of morphosis, form-changing, in Pynchon’s work. But I also hinted at the moral, the theological, and the literary-imaginative uses of the immensely rich concept of form.  In light of all this it’s worth noting that by general consent the most remarkable endeavor in the history of biological morphology is D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s massive and magisterial On Growth and Form — over 1100 pages in its second edition of 1942.

Pretty much everything about Thompson is fascinating, but I’d like to call particular attention to the fact that he was a classicist as well as a biologist and mathematician. Legend has it that at the University of St. Andrews he was offered his choice of professorships in classics, mathematics, or zoology (though his very versatility, and the unpredictable views it spawned, meant that he was never hired at Oxford or Cambridge, though he applied several times for jobs at those universities).

He became a hero and model to, among other scholars, Stephen Jay Gould, who in 1971 published a wonderful essay about Thompson — and published it in New Literary History, later to become the leading journal of literary theory. In that essay, a revised version of Gould’s senior undergraduate thesis at Antioch College, Gould comments that

D'Arcy Thompson's mathematics has a curious ring. We find none of the differential equations and mathematical statistics that adorn modern work in ecology or population genetics; we read, instead, of the partitioning of space, the tetrakaidekahedron, the Miraldi angle, the logarithmic spiral and the golden ratio. Numbers rarely enter equations; rather, they exemplify geometry. For D'Arcy Thompson was a Greek mathematician with 20th century material and insights. Growth and Form is the synthesis of his two lives: eminent classicist and eminent zoologist. As he stated in a Presidential Address to the Classical Association (1929): "Science and the Classics is my theme today; it could hardly be otherwise. For all I know, and do, and well nigh all I love and care for (outside of home and friends) lies within one or the other; and the fact that I have loved them both has colored all my life, and enlarged my curiosity and multiplied my inlets to happiness.” 

(“Multiplied my inlets to happiness” — what a delightful phrase.) The geometrical character of Thompson’s biological mathematics keeps him close to the sensually accessible character of actual creatures: he uses geometry to describe things we can actually see. And this positions his work within the same ambit as literature and ordinary language, something he was quite aware of. Gould’s essay takes as its epigraph at important sentence from the latter pages of On Growth and Form: “Our own study of organic form, which we call by Goethe’s name of Morphology, is but a portion of that wider Science of Form which deals with the forms assumed by matter under all aspects and conditions, and, in a still wider sense, with forms which are theoretically imaginable” (emphasis mine).

This notion of a “wider Science of Form” was immensely attractive to Gould. In The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, his attempt, published just weeks before his death in 2002, to write his own magnum opus along the lines of On Growth and Form, Gould makes an interesting comment on the sources of his mature thinking about evolution:

I read the great European structuralist literatures in writing my book on Ontogeny and Phylogeny. I don't see how anyone could read, from Goethe and Geoffroy down through Severtzov, Remane and Riedl, without developing some appreciation for the plausibility, or at least for the sheer intellectual power, of morphological explanations outside the domain of Darwinian functionalism — although my resulting book, for the last time in my career, stuck closely to selectionist orthodoxy, while describing these alternatives in an accurate and sympathetic manner.

That “selectionist orthodoxy,” which he would later call "Darwinian fundamentalism,” became for him the chief enemy of a truly universal science of form, the kind of thing that Thompson had imagined, an account that could potentially be equally useful in illuminating the structure of crystals, the petal arrangements of roses, the  shape of a novel’s plot.

I don’t yet know, but I have a suspicion that meditation on these themes will be useful to me as I try to come to grips with Thomas Pynchon’s body of work. And I have this sinking feeling that at some point I'm going to have to reckon with Goethe's role in this history....


Here’s a passage from my review of Adam Roberts’s edition of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria:

As the culmination of the long repudiation of [David] Hartley’s thought, Coleridge famously opposes this Imagination (later divided into Primary and Secondary) to the “Fancy,” which “has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites.” The Fancy indeed merely plays with the “counters” that have been given it by the memory; “it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.” If we were reliant only on the Fancy, we would indeed be Hartleian beings, shuffling our fixed and defined impressions like cardboard coins; but as beings made in the image of God, Coleridge says, we can do more: “The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”

The importance of this distinction is evident from Coleridge’s redeployment of it in other terms elsewhere in the Biographia: “Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις [morphosis], not ποíησις [poiesis]” — shaping, not making. Roberts, whose background in classics serves him very well as an annotator of Coleridge, points out that “when Coleridge uses [morphosis] in the Biographia he has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the King James version translates as ‘form’” — mere form, as it were, mere appearance. And it may be also that Coleridge is thinking of the New Testament uses of poiesis and its near relations as well: for instance, when Paul writes of human beings (Eph. 2:10) as poiesis theou — “God’s workmanship”; God’s poem.

(Not incidentally, Adam's blog is called Morphosis.) I’ve just discovered in my Great Pynchon Re-Read that the word “Morphosis” is used five times in Mason & Dixon, though not, it seems, in Coleridge's sense of the term. Here's the best example:

If you look at the OED entry for the word here's what you see:

(You might have to right-click or control-click on the image and open it in a new window or tab to see it properly.) The very bottom is the first relevant thing here, since, in the passage earlier cited from Mason & Dixon, the apostrophe at the beginning of the word suggests that it is an abbreviation of "Metamorphosis" — and indeed, all five uses in the novel employ the apostrophe. 

But it's also worth noting that Maskelyne — this is Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal from 1765 to 1811 — clearly uses the word in a pejorative sense: morphosis is "veering into error." (I can't help being reminded here of the root meaning of hamartia — the New Testament word for sin, and Aristotle's word for some trait of the tragic hero that no one has ever been able reliably to identify — is to "miss the mark." This is all very Pynchonian, who is obsessed with vectors, especially tragic ones.) And most of the meanings of morphosis listed in the OED are either subtly or clearly pejorative: John Owen's identification of Catholicism as an inadequate morphosis of true faith, which is clearly derived from the biblical meaning of mere semblance; but also the medical sense of a "pathological" or "morbid" change of form — the most obvious example of which being a malignant tumor, which is nothing other than unchecked morphosis: the healthy organ does not so change, but rather retains a stability of form and function. 

What makes all this especially interesting for the reader of Mason & Dixon is that three of the five uses of the term occur within a few pages, and all refer to Vaucanson's famous Digesting Duck, who plays a significant role in the story by virtue of having become animate and articulate: the duck refers to this as his 'Morphosis. And this should call to mind an earlier post about the Bad Priest in V. and her "progression towards inanimateness." To be animate, to be organic, is necessarily to undergo morphosis, and so life itself, in this account of things, is therefore intrinsically malignant, cancerous. 

The view shared by the Bad Priest and the animate duck is perhaps the opposite of that articulated in the famous closing sentence of Darwin's Origin of Species: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved" (form being, of course, μορϕή). For the Bad Priest evolving, changing, is itself an evil — perhaps the root of all evil — and certainly not something to take delight in, as Darwin did. 

And this preference for the inanimate over the animate may be interrogated from another perspective as well. In a wonderful essay from many years ago — one which I cannot, alas, find online — Wendell Berry describes his encounter with an advertisement celebrating a John Deere tractor as an "earth space capsule" that fully isolates its driver from the outside world with all its changes of weather. Berry finds it both curious and sad that farmers, of all people, would desire to be so separated from the natural world. And he comments, more generally, 

Of course, the only real way to get this sort of freedom and safety—to escape the hassles of earthly life—is to die. And what I think we see in these advertisements is an appeal to a desire to be dead that is evidently felt by many people. These ads are addressed to the perfect consumers: the self-consumers, who have found nothing of interest here on earth, nothing to so, and are impatient to be shed of earthly concerns.

After all, the perfect "earth space capsule" is the coffin. 

Pynchon's novels return again and again to this fear or hatred of organic life, of time and change, not to celebrate it, but to understand it. I suspect that for him this repulsion is at the heart of technological society, of a culture-wide compulsion to trust in and defer to the inorganic and the human-made — which is, ultimately, a form of idolatry: as the Psalmist says, "They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them." 

There is much more to be said about all this, and I hope to say some of it in this book on Pynchon and theology that I am trying to write. For now I'll just note that my respect for Pynchon's acuity on all these matters — respect that was already verging on awe — has just been significantly increased by my reading of Jessica Riskin's astonishing book The Restless Clock. I can't say too much more, because I have just written a lengthy review of Riskin for John Wilson's forthcoming joint Education and Culture, and I'll link to that review in due course (probably in a couple of months); but the combination of reading Riskin and reading Pynchon has seriously altered my understanding of the last five hundred years of intellectual and cultural history, and has significantly intensified my belief that the only truly theological account of modernity is one deeply immersed in the technological history of this past half-millennium. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

those darn millennials?

Stories like this one by Frank Furedi are ubiquitous these days. It’s a refrain sung by many:

Back in 2003, Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors of the study Millennials Go to College, advanced the thesis that this generation is far less mature and resilient than previous ones. They noted that the millennial generation is far more “closely tied to their parents” than the students that preceded them, and they also insist on a “secure and regulated environment.”

Howe and Strauss concluded that as a result, students today find it difficult to flourish in the relatively unstructured environment of higher education. The assessment that the millennials find it more troublesome to make the transition to independent living on campuses than previous generations is widely held by educators on both sides of the Atlantic.

All I can say is that none of this has been my experience. I’m a pretty tough grader, so I’ve had many complaints about grades over the years, but not discernibly more now than in the past. Once a parent called to yell at me after I failed her daughter for plagiarism, but that was 25 years ago. Some professors complain that they can’t assign long books any more because students won’t read them, but I’ve always assumed that few students of any description will read long books unless you hold them accountable with reading quizzes, so that’s what I’ve been doing since I started teaching literature in 1983. (I learned the practice from my undergraduate mentor, John Burke of the University of Alabama.)

Perhaps — perhaps — my students today are a little more sensitive about criticism than my students of decades ago. But I’m not convinced of it.

So why does my experience differ so greatly from that of many others? Some possibilities:

1) Rosy retrospection by the professorial complainers.

2) Institutional location A: I have spent my career at a highly selective liberal arts college (Wheaton) and a selective program within a university (the Honors Program at Baylor). So my students have been very, very good, but perhaps have not had the unbroken record of triumph that some students from the cultural elite have had: they understand the value of hard academic work but don’t think that perfect success is their birthright.

3) Instututional location B: Wheaton and Baylor are both (though in rather different ways) Christian schools, which means that most of my students come from Christian homes, where they are more likely than many young people to be taught respectf for authorities. Which could mean that they accept the validity of my decisions, or that they complain as much as students elsewhere but not to me. Also, I think that in Christian families academic success may be important but it is never the only thing, and rarely the most important thing: there’s a bit of perspective built in. (It may be noteworthy that here at Baylor the students who have expressed to me the deepest anxiety about grades come from non-Christian homes, but my sample size isn’t large enough for me to conclude that.

Obviously these possibilities are not mutually exclusive; and I may have left out something significant. Any thoughts, friends?

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Apologies, friends — I had to delete this post. Too much material that's really central to the book-in-progress. I'll figure all this one one of these days.