Sunday, June 02, 2013

QOTD -- Philology and the Pascalian wager

by KARL STEEL

In a fit of self-satisfied annoyance yesterday, I tweeted the following:


Anticipatory annoyance, as it turned out. That evening, I cringed at Examined Life when Martha Nussbaum invoked "the background of feudalism, when all opportunities were distributed unequally to people according to their class, their inherited wealth, and their status." Okay, I guess, with some editing. If we drop the word "feudalism," if we think with, say, Kathleen Davis's Periodization and Sovereignty, to identify this "feudalism" as being a 17th-century development accompanying the development of modern models of absolutist kingship, if we think of the long history of class warfare via, say, Corey Robin, if we think "so it was mostly ever, whatever the name we give to it," then maybe we're getting somewhere. But--despite the considerable value of Nussbaum's arguments--"feudal" isn't going to help unless we want to feel smug about our modernity.1

For more on wagering on knowing the past, and the value of the humanities more generally, reread Jeffrey on The Swerve, and reread Alex Huang below, and see this engagement with the theory-blaming, canon-defending "austerity pedagogy" of Mark Bauerlein, and read, if you didn't get it 4 years ago, Sheldon Pollock's "Future Philology: The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World" (PDF; Critical Inquiry 35.4 (2009): 931-961). Thanks to Julie Orlemanski for turning me on to this essay. Here's an excerpt, which is today's QUOTE OF THE DAY, today:
what is uncertain in today’s world, and what has contributed to philology’s fall, is whether the past has any meaning at all that still matters. And here a sort of hermeneutical circularity confronts us: only once we have acquired the means, through the cultivation of philology, to access the textuality of the past can we proceed to dispute the value of knowing it. But we would never bother to acquire the means unless we were already convinced that such knowledge has intrinsic value. There is no simple way out of this circle; arguments about the value of remembering can easily be offset by arguments about the ethics of forgetting. The only exit available is offered by those who have made a kind of Pascalian wager, who provide clear demonstrations of the value of knowing the past by showing that you can eventually win something big (950)


1 I'm also reminded of my tweet here about a review article on the Turkish protests, which speaks of the "
mostly failed strategies used by regional dictators." Busting an anti-neoliberal occupy-style defense of public space? To a New Yorker, sounds less like distant "regional dictators" than it does my own mayor

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