Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A reply to Emile Blauche

(readers may first want to read comments here and here if they have not been following the conversation so far)

A long time ago "Emile Blauche" and I were making similar arguments, and we were enduring similar critiques by scholars who thought our arguments were worthless. This was in Ye Olde Days of the Internet , a legendary time of theory wars and heated argument over methodologies. It seemed like you couldn't disseminate anything in a forum like Interscripta without someone telling you that your argument lacked value from its very starting point, or that it was unethical, or was simply not as good or as noble or as pure as the kinds of analyses in which that critical someone was engaged (typically aesthetics, old fashioned historicism, and/or vaguely Christian didactic criticism). Emile tended to be more of an absolutist, and I more of conjunctivist when it came to these interchanges, but we both thought the future of medieval studies mattered.

Emile no longer feels that way. He's left the fold, under circumstances that were -- to say the least -- unhappy. I'm glad that he has found fulfillment and a sense of mission in social work and psychoanalysis. I'm saddend that he has begun to deploy a vocabulary of critique that he used to be at the receiving end of, a critique that devalues from the start the endeavors of scholars who do not satisfy themselves with inert texts ansd unpeopled worlds. His words against disability studies or literary critics who write about trauma echo nearly verbatim criticism that was once aimed against the two of us and against other then-young medievalists who were bringing cultural studies and continental philosophy into the field.

Emile now asks me to compare what I do with my reading and books and blog and classroom to what he does as he counsels the families of suicide victims or writes chapters on geriatric care for practical textbooks. Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin: I admit from the start that in the grand scales of cosmic justice, I with my decadent volumes and love of history and inclination to lose myself in philosophical abstraction cannot compete with how he helps veterans, hospital patients, children. When a college professor shoots himself in the head, no one is going to place me on the trauma team that rushes to assist the grieving family. So, Emile, I think that means you win.

But I'm not sure what you win, mainly because I never understood professors and social workers to be in some kind of competition to determine who is best for the ailments of the contemporary world. What I do as a medievalist and as a professor of English isn't often ameliorative. In fact I frequently aim to make my auditors and readers uncomfortable. I don't aspire to give anyone a better life. I cannot heal psychic wounds. I do have a strong sense of justice, but it is as often addressed to the dead and their textual traces as to the living.

Emile knows this. And yet Emile haunts this blog. His rhetoric has startled me, I admit. It's loaded with tired accusations, now launched from a different disciplinary base. But it is still an argument about boundary drawing. It is still police work, an attempt to discipline what others do -- because these other people do crazy / useless / unethical / wasteful things, unlike the Things That Patently Matter, things like helping the families of suicide victims, or aged vets; or because these others delude themselves into thinking that what they do is ethical, or useful, or world-changing. If they would only admit their own lack of worldliness, their love of the study over society, Emile writes in one of his first postings, he would be much the happier.

Eileen Joy answered Emile with more aplomb and insight than I could ever muster. A tack she did not take, though, was to question the supposedly self-evident superiority of Emile's new disciplinary grounding. Emile and I could in fact play all kinds of games in which we poke fun at the jargon of each other's field and talk about the production of useless research, the dissemination of empty knowledge, and the deployment of non-practical methodologies. We'd mainly be aiming at easy targets, as Emile does in his blanket condemnation of CFPs or as my colleague Margaret Soltan does at the University Diaries when she ranks psychology with leisure studies, communications, and spa studies as fields that are inherently not deep (she calls it "the flagrante stupido that is psychology"; see here for some UD links on the subject). Social work, let's be frank, is just as capable of manufacturing fluff, pablum and bullshit as any other academic field. It is not a discipline especially well known for its rigor or its philosophical depth. That says nothing about Emile, of course, just as Emile's invocation of self-deluded professors thinking that they are changing the world through scholarship says nothing about me or about Eileen Joy. But then again the invocation of such creatures does its rhetorical work.

Emile's venom for disability studies particularly irks me, because it reminds me so much of the sharp words I heard in grad school as queer theory was ascending, as feminism was making permanent inroads into literary studies. Emile might say that academic feminist and queer theory never helped real women and queers; I'd argue otherwise; he'd point to a plethora of esoteric articles about the queer feminisms of 19th C novels and ask me how such articles ever aided abused women or assisted stigmatized lesbians and gays ... and so on. We could get locked in an everlasting loop of intentional mutual misunderstanding, but at the end of the day I predict Emile would still believe that disability studies is useless, and I would believe it a philosophically weighty outgrowth of queer theory and feminism and all those other brilliant "-isms" that academics ponder so thoughtfully. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Robert McRuer, Michael Berube, Lennard Davis (to name just a few) are intellectuals whose work I greatly admire, far more so than the therapists and psychoanalysts that are the objects of Emile's ardor.

So why does Emile haunt this blog, considering that he evidently does not find much of value here? Steven Kruger's words in The Spectral Jew about the Christian idea of supersession come to mind. Medieval Christianity often thought of itself as having put Jewishness in the past, for Christianity was modernity itself. Yet that linear progress narrative was always interrupted by the fact that some Jews remained alive and seemed profoundly uninterested in conversion. Worse, there was even a lingering tinge of Jewishness in Christianity itself. I criticized Emile for his harsh binaries once before. I'll now add that even after Saul became Paul there was still a lot of Saul left in him. That lightning bolt from the sky wasn't quite the final revelation it announced itself to be. Emile, you remind me of Petrus Alfonsi, converted Jew, dismissing with icy words the blind Moses he used to be. This spectral Moses was silenced in the end, of course, but the brilliance of Kruger's book is that it so well demonstrates why Moses never in fact completely deserted the Peter who could no longer love him.

I'm not much given to negative critique. For the most part I find it nonproductive, even embittering; too often it amounts to a call for silence from its scorned object, like Peter dismissing Moses. As a consequence, I am certain that if you did a search of the word "brilliant" on this blog you would have to conclude that I am the most enthusiastic and uncritical of medievalists. That's not really true, of course (or at least I hope it is not true), but I will admit that I tend to quietly pass over that which fails to interest me. A critical praxis that is not affirmative isn't worth embracing. But that's just me.


Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, your revisionist history has missed the mark. When you and I were young medievalists, what we resisted was a failure to be recognized for doing something worthwhile in medieval studies. I never defended the work I was doing on moral grounds of the kind I have been asking you (and others) to defend your work. No one put pressure on what I did like I am now—it was qualitatively different. We, for example, endured the occasional mindless critique of Foucault just like Martin Irvine did when he published his medieval book. Martin asked me to write a review of his book; I did. It was never published. I challenged all the knee-jerk reactions to his “postmodernism,” and celebrated the book.

This is where you’ve gone wide of the mark: I stand by that review today. The difference between the old me and the new me is a shift in commitment to what I’ve been calling—in basic language—the real, the meaningful, that which has utility, and so on. How is that hard to grasp?

I do not consider theory empty. I consider empty theory empty. Do you? Does Joy? I don’t know. When you talk about “spectral Indians…in our own culturally turbulent times,” I have my suspicions you are not on the same page as me--critically or ethically. If you do consider empty theory empty, you haven’t said it in clear and certain terms. And you know bloody well that I am in a position to judge what’s empty and what is not.

Furthermore, how is it hard to grasp that I do not engage in the kind of the critique that was leveled at us and others, and to some extent still is? Where have I shown a willful benightedness about or, if we were lucky, misunderstanding of Deleuze or whomever of the kind we used to face? At what point, can you identify anti-intellectualism in my work? Where have I shown a sweeping dismissal of “theory”? I haven’t, and you know it.

My theory has shifted: Fonagy, Siegel, Maslow, Stern, Hayes, Lifton, Linehan, McCullough Vaillant, Lachmann and many others I have found to be of more explanatory value than more insipid writing by an English professor who thinks that his or her essay/book/conference paper constitutes an intervention into the real world.

(And on the question of theory: that’s a lame argument that Joy, and now you in a slighted twisted version, made. You write: “Social work, let's be frank, is just as capable of manufacturing fluff, pablum and bullshit as any other academic field.” Absolutely. You know enough of my critical acumen to know that I am right with you on that. In fact, I’ll go one better: Social work has more fluff, pablum, and BS than your chosen field. But here’s the difference, and pay attention to this: the good stuff in social work, in psychology, and psychoanalysis is light years ahead of the best stuff in your field. This is the only comparison worth making: the best versus the best. So your pointing to the shit in another field or Joy flatfootedly pointing to the fact that, hey, there’s theory and jargon in your field too, is ineffectual—and, frankly, kneejerk.)

What I suspect might bother someone in your position is that I can, and do, and will continue to, play the theory game, and play it well, at the same time acknowledging that there is a higher, dare I say, calling for intellectual work.

My argument is perhaps too simple, and that’s why it is so irksome: I have only been saying “Own up to what you do and don’t do.” If someone had said to me, as a young medievalist, “own up to the fact that what you’re doing is using medieval texts to think about issues that are not (all the time) fundamentally medieval,” I would have said “You bet.” “Own up to the fact that your real interests appear to be timeless human problems, rather than in medieval literature per se.” To that I would have said, “Absolutely.”

But, now, when I push on a medievalist who also is driven by a concern with issues that cannot be neatly contained in a medieval text or an author, I am taken to be a throwback to the kind of mindless critiques we once endured—or, worse, taken to be like those who dismissed queer and feminist studies in the academy. You know better than that, Jeffrey. Disability studies in the hands of literature scholars (get it?) is inherently a joke; queer and feminist studies are not, and never were. You created a strawman by saying I would point to queer and feminist studies and charge them with having never helped real queers and women. Again, you should know better. It’s interesting to me that you can defend (needlessly with respect to me) queer and feminist studies, but you cannot defend disability studies except to say that you admire, say, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson more than therapists or psychoanalysts that I admire. I’m glad you have a declared preference, but, seriously, her derivative crap on “enfreakment” versus, say, Fonagy’s pioneering work on mentalization and affect regulation? Here, I would say you are self-deluded.

To be fair to Professors Cohen and Joy, and I have said this in my exchange with Joy, you are not the bad guys. You both cannot yet grasp what it might mean to make an ethical judgment that puts you at full odds with your colleagues in literature departments, but I imagine you have your expedient reasons for that failure.

About the necessity of the book on spectral Indians, Jeffrey has written: “Yet to narrate history in a way that renders our understanding of it more truthful is something such a book might achieve.” I agree with you, man. I just think you’re kidding yourself if you believe that that “our” in your statement extends to anyone beyond other professors of literature and their graduate students (and the occasional highly motivated undergrad). This is the ground upon which you lose an argument about what’s “necessary.”

Jeffrey Cohen said...

But I think we have now entered into that endless cycle of willfully misunderstanding and misrepresenting each other. My argument doesn't bear much resemblance to what you just wrote, yours (you say) doesn't resemble my narration .... and on and on.

Sometimes I can't tell the difference between your commanding (me? us?) to "just own up to your failings as I have outline them!" and mere bullying.

I leave it at this. You say that you can well recognize empty theory. You say that disability studies as practiced by literary scholars is inherently a joke. I say that the last statement is repugnant, and makes me distrust the former.

Anonymous said...

"You both cannot yet grasp what it might mean to make an ethical judgment that puts you at full odds with your colleagues in literature departments, but I imagine you have your expedient reasons for that failure" - WOW, what a sense of superiority and condescencion!

Emile, not to get involved in an old argument with an obviously personal history, but you have moved me to post here for the first time. The fact is, all of your arguments are based on one of those misconceptions which bother me the most (and which, I might point out, Jeffrey addressed in his reply to you) - namely, the at best misguided assumption that fields which directly address contemporary material concerns and more "esoteric" fields are somehow in competition as to who affects history/reality the most, and that because one measures those effects in different ways, that one is necessarily better or worse than the other.
Yes, certainly, a social worker who talks people out of killing themselves every day has a more immediate impact on our society.
But also yes, a book like Said's ORIENTALISM can change the way an entire culture views another part of the world; this book in particular became assigned reading for US diplomats, policy-makers, and foreign-affairs consultants. In this way, it truly changed the world and the interactions between two important regions of the world.
How do you compare those two accomplishments? Why in the world would you want to, except through a deep sense of insecurity?
People contribute in their own ways, some more immediate than others, some more personal than others, some more financial than others. Is one paper on disability studies and the X-men going to change the world? Maybe not. Will the work of the field as a whole perhaps lead to something that can have a wider impact, or at the very least make people aware of the issues who can then go into the world and make others aware of those issues? Of course. Want to compare those incremental steps to someone who counsel suicidal people? Well, ok, if you really must. Personally, I don't see the point.
The problem with arguments about the immediacy of impact is that they can quickly be reduced to absurdity. Someone who exposes themselves to leporsy every day in remote Indian villages to stop whole villages from dying might well suggest that their work is ultimately more immediate and important than, say, a firefighter's in New York. As long as you drive a car and don't live in a tent, someone who has sold all their worldly belongings to give to the poor might accuse you of subscribing to a theory that is, to use your word, "empty" because you don't actually apply it to the fullest logical extent.
Silly comparisons, yes? Everyone contributes in their own way and to their own degree.

Anonymous said...

My sincere apologies if my language comes across as either commanding or bullying. I have tried to express myself in direct terms, and I have neither the wish to be nor the capacity for generating extended metaphors about Saul and Paul.

I am a bit surprised that you would drop debate immediately. Perhaps you are right, that we are at an impasse. I think it unfortunate that disability studies has become the fulcrum point here. I say it is bunk; you say it isn’t; you say it’s enjoyable reading; I say there are higher standards than entertainment value; I say it has virtually no real world consequence; you lump it in with feminism and queer studies, and denounce me (implicitly anyway) as a reactionary, or worse; I say compare the best work outside literary studies to the best work within that discipline and then judge; you say…well, you didn’t reply to that.

I would gladly debate the merits of disability studies as advanced by literary scholars. At the end of the day, though, one charge that I would level at “the best” of such study (its parasitical irrelevance) is a charge that no thinking person can in good faith level against the best disability work carried out by those in disciplines such as nursing, social work, medicine, and psychology. This is not to set up a competition; it’s to urge a little perspective.

You’ll have to explain to me sometime how I misunderstood your effort to lump me in with those who critiqued the kind of medieval studies I still do (limitedly) and you do prolifically. If anything, Jeffrey, I feel as strongly as I ever did about the weakness of such complaints against us. Your opening rhetorical move in your reply was dismaying.

It simply isn’t my complaint now against your work, your blog, whatever—that it isn’t real medieval work, and I stress that because that was the complaint, in its essence, that I/we heard. I lost a job because a certain senior medievalist believed that what I was doing wasn’t real medievalism. I don’t know exactly what you endured, but I sincerely doubt neither of us had to withstand serious claims against the global relevance of your work. What you got, like what I got, was flak about the relevance of our work within the discipline, defined as medieval studies or literary studies. I don’t recall anyone ever indicting theoretical medieval studies as morally suspicious or bankrupt. That charge wasn’t made because it would have blown up in the face of the critic.

Think about this, Jeffrey, before you write me off as regressive or a mere “specter” haunting your blog: judged within their own terms, there are certain brands of literary scholarship that are ethically responsible, and therefore commendable, and there are brands that are not. Example: medieval studies that aspires to and fulfills itself as a contribution to literary/historical study is commendable. Medieval studies that gestures toward real problems and their correction but does nothing substantive, or never attempts to place itself in a position to do something substantive, to correct those problems is not. It’s empty. I’m not immune to that critique—not by any stretch.

The same holds for any discipline. All that I would love to see is some self-awareness on the part of scholars. You, Jeffrey, are incredibly self-aware, and I love you for it. I always have. Fuck, you know that. I simply have a perspective I didn’t have before, and that perspective has made me more vocal about what is worthwhile and what isn’t. I have not undergone quite the conversion you imagine that I have. For example, Garland-Thomson’s work I have always found simple minded and tendentious. It’s just that now the stakes are higher for me.

I know the stakes are not so high for everyone. And I understand that the preachings of someone in some senses “born again” can be annoying, tedious, etc. Jeffrey, if you and I were having this conversation in person, I doubt it would seem so acrimonious. Know what I’m saying?

Kofi: Of course, there’s no competition over relevance and impact. I have not assumed there is. I guess I have simply asked the question: But what if there were one?. What if certain brands of study were put into their larger context? You obviously don’t see these as important questions. That’s your prerogative obviously. But I’d still like to hear a reason why we shouldn’t place things into perspective, given that certain literary scholarship pretends to relevance. I’ll say again, in the most direct way I can, what I’ve said several times here: most literary scholarship is what it is; it doesn’t pretend to any biopsychosocial relevance. I have no problem with that. What I am pointing out, however, is that the vast majority of the scholarship that does make such gestures, noise, and pretense absolutely fails to have relevance. And so I’ll give you Said. But, in all fairness to my overarching argument, pointing to an exception only proves my point. As for your assertion that “the work of the field as a whole [will] perhaps lead to something that can have a wider impact, or at the very least make people aware of the issues who can then go into the world and make others aware of those issues,” I would love to see the evidence for disability studies as carried out by literature scholars having any appreciable impact. Then compare what you find to the impact of disability work in nursing, or even a narrower field, gerontology. I am pleading, in part, for contextualizing this work, putting it into perspective. I understand why that might be troubling for you and others.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of stirring up this increasingly stagnant debate, which seems to have become more of a pool that a stream, and at the risk of touching on what seems to be a sore spot ... eb, I'd be interested to hear why jjc was wrong to group your critique of disability studies with critiques of feminist and queer studies. You seem to be articulating two modes of critique: 1) someone can argue against the relevance of certain thinkers/schools of theory/etc. within literary studies ("Foucault has no relevance in discussions of Shakespeare"), or 2) someone can argue against the relevance of certain thinkers/schools of theory/etc. outside literary studies ("Foucault has no relevance in the real world, compared to people working in hospitals and madhouses"). Your running argument in these exchanges, as I understand them, runs in the second category, and you generally seem to be critiquing jjc and Professor Joy for trying to respond to you in the mode of the first category.

But the issue of disability studies doesn't seem to fit with the generalizations I just gave:

Disability studies in the hands of literature scholars (get it?) is inherently a joke; queer and feminist studies are not, and never were. You created a strawman by saying I would point to queer and feminist studies and charge them with having never helped real queers and women. Again, you should know better.

Am I incorrect or overly hopeful in tracing back the double negative -- you would not, contrary to what jjc implies, say that queer and feminist studies did not help real queers and women -- to assume you would allow at least a modicum of "real world" relevance to feminist and queer studies? I ask because this seems like a moment that might offer a new direction in this debate.

I feel bad coming in in the middle of a debate, because you've been arguing and revealing yourself longer and I've dropped in and chosen to remain flinchingly anonymous. But I'm happy to position myself: in the two categories above, I'm hopelessly withdrawn into the first. I have much more invested in debates about Foucault's relevance to Shakespeare and literature departments than his relevance to real world hospitals and madhouses. I am happy to own up: My responsibility is first and foremost to the texts I study, and I feel that I am best equipped and most passionate for that study, not for producing concrete results in the "real world." I hope to eventually produce something useful in my field; were I to enter social work, I would have no passion, and would fall into one of the empty categories you describe. I pretend to no relevance. Misanthropes of the world, unite!

That being said, I wonder if -- when you reiterate and note as unanswered your challenge to jjc to "compare the best work outside literary studies to the best work within that discipline and then judge" -- something more productive than "comparing" or "judging" might be done. Comparison requires that one establish a ground: the "best" work inside literary studies might be the best because it has the most respect for a particular text, while the best work outside might be the best because, for example, it helped a distraught family psychologically heal. What if, instead of comparing the "bests", we put them in conversation with one another? What if, rather than weighing each one, we let one pick up on another and take it in a new direction? What if I work my whole life to honestly comprehend literary texts, and one of my efforts happens to have an impact on the "real world" because someone with different critical or ethical priorities is able to use the best of what I produce? This is where I am perhaps too optimistically hopeful your notion of feminisms and queer studies might fit in. Do you think that feminist and queer studies had an impact on the "real world"? If so, would it matter whether scholars working on feminisms or queer studies had formally declared their relevance (or irrelevance) before starting their study? Would it be possible for someone seeking only to understand women in C19 novels, for example, to unwittingly effect real-world change?

In short, is there hope for me?

Anonymous said...

Let’s see…good questions, anonymous. I resist lumping a critique of feminist and queer studies in with a critique of disability studies for several reasons:
1. Feminist and queer studies are disciplines that cross boundaries in particularly rich ways. The boundary, for example, between activism and theory (Foucault! for instance) was/can be porous, and the cross-talk was productive. It resulted in some real change, some real world effects. So, yes, your hopeful reading of my position is the correct one.
2. The best feminist and queer theory I have read is that produced by thinkers whose project was/is deeply and explicitly interventionist. This is why, for example, Friedan, Nussbaum, and Ehrenreich (just to name three) are more important, for me, as feminist thinkers than, say, Butler or Grosz. That being said, I do believe that Butler and Grosz have produced theoretical frameworks that could be of value in ways that extend beyond yet another reading of a cultural text using them. There are examples of such use; I just lament the fact too often literary scholars work as though they are oblivious to them. (N.B.: I have no desire to make an argument that Ehrenreich is more of a feminist than Butler--or substitute other names--I would merely point to the ways a combination of elements goes into what makes a scholar relevant, e.g., audience chosen, language used, cultural texts chosen for analysis, and so on.)
3. Positing that because I am against disability studies in the hands of literary scholars I am therefore like those who questioned the value of feminist and queer work in the academy is simply unfair to the work I myself have done in those very areas as a writer and teacher. In short, I am troubled that such a linkage could lead, against those who know better of my social and political commitments, to a belief that I am reactionary. One of the easiest ways to silence an opponent in a debate of this sort is to label the other person reactionary.
4. I maintain that there is a pretty sharp distinction to be drawn between much current disability studies and feminist and queer work. In my view, we’re talking about oranges and apples. I say that despite my understanding of the developing connections between these fields of inquiry. The ethical imperatives that drive good work in feminist and queer studies are, in my opinion, connected in meaningful ways to social justice, empowerment, advocacy, and so on. From what I have encountered in disability studies as produced by literary scholars, that ethical imperative (while present) does not appear to be the priority it is in the other fields. And, again, lip service to it ain't the same thing.
5. I understand the need to map new areas of inquiry in English departments, make new hires in those areas, and support those who are doing that work with research money, tenure, etc. The pressure to keep themselves in business, as it were, is markedly less for feminists and queer theorists, though they too, of course, of course, have their hurdles to surmount. One wonders, though, if the successes of the other disciplines is not attributable, at least in part, to their “felt” social value, even if that is sometimes unarticulated even by supporters. It would be strange, indeed, to have an English department tenure meeting, where the supporters of a particular feminist scholar said only, “This person must be tenured because her/his work is changing the way our community (in the broad sense of the term) thinks about women, power, and rights.” I wouldn’t hesitate to say that, and do so without feeling the need to reference how clever that scholar’s use of Irigaray is in his or her article appearing in differences. This is a rather nuanced point, and I don’t know that I’m making it as clear as I might: but I am saying it ought to be enough to make such a statement and have it carry full weight. There is a tendency to shy away from such declarations. Would you agree? That disturbs me. Now, with a disability studies scholar, one has a harder case to make. Is this due to the relative infancy of the field? Maybe.

Your other related questions deserve the best answer I give: yes, I think it matters if a scholar declares the relevance/irrelevance of their work at the outset. I would welcome declarations by scholars—in any field—that identified what they had at stake in their enterprise. Putting this in perspective across disciplines, it is worth noting that if one publishes an article in, say, The Journal of Gerontological Social Work, it is assumed that the scholar is committed to making the world better for elders. That is so not least because social workers swear an oath to uphold a Code of Ethics (http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/
code/code.asp). There is a shared value system in place. I’d rather not debate the merits of that; I just want to remind you and others that it exists and is taken rather seriously. Now, if one publishes an article in Critical Inquiry, the assumptions are more difficult to make about what precisely is compelling that scholar to undertake the work he or she is. Assumptions can still be made, but I would say they are less clear ethically.

You ask if it would be possible for someone seeking only to understand women in 19th c. novels to unwittingly effect real-world change. I think it is possible. My only complaint would be lodged against a scholar of 19th c. novels who insisted that his or her work had real world effects when there was no evidence affirming that. Or against a scholar who made use of a thinker like Agamben or Gramsci, and then, without explicitly insisting such work had real world relevance, was arrogant enough to think that just because these are politically engaged thinkers, then his or her work must be political.

There is hope. It would be a misreading of my commitments and past and ongoing work to assert that I think there is no hope. I am not suggesting you are misreading me that way, but just underscoring the extent to which I believe that humanist inquiry can be more…well, human.

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey has reminded me that there were indeed claims made against the kind of work we did on purely ethical grounds. So I stand corrected on that point. I wrote that "I do not recall" such claims, and now they've been brought back to me.

I remember best the claims that our work was not worthwhile with respect to the discliplines in which we were we trained. I see now how that itself was an ethical claim lodged against us.

I probably blocked out those criticisms because I lacked then a language to refute these claims.

For the record, I would try to refute them now. One thing to take into consderation, however, is that, back then, in "Ye Olde Days of the Internet," I lacked a vocabulary in which to make claims to the ethical in the first place. Now, because I do not, I would counter those arguments in more self-critical ways.

Anonymous said...

"My only complaint would be lodged against a scholar of 19th c. novels who insisted that his or her work had real world effects when there was no evidence affirming that" - so your only complaint is against people who make claims for which there is no proof? seems like a lot of space for such an obvious point.

as for your comment, "I would love to see the evidence for disability studies as carried out by literature scholars having any appreciable impact" - well, i think my point is precisely that such things CAN'T be measured using any appreciable measure, except immediacy - if that's yr only measure then sure, gerontologists do more immediate work. but mother theresa did more immmediate work than any gerontologists, so maybe gerontologists are the true posers - hence my point about the absurdity of such arguments.

however, you seem to just want to argue without REALLY taking the substance of oppositional comments into consideration (or just claiming "memory block", about something which you were obviously so passionate about and which you obviously spent a great deal of time thinking and arguing about, when confronted with something indisputable), so go to it.

Anonymous said...

I'm not the kind of academic who wants to change the world with my work. That said, I would like to make a plea for disability studies from the perspective of the *patient* rather than the *caregiver*, which is where eb is coming from. I have a disability, which means I engage with the medical profession all too frequently. Sure, disability studies doesn't give me any help with my particular issues, or with my insurance, or, if I were poor, with SSA or other assistance programs. What it can do is to *analyze* the discourse of the medical field *as a discourse*--one among many ways of describing and engaging with people's physical problems. And the minute that analysis starts to take place, the stranglehold that offical caregivers have over resources and indeed the very identities of patients and people with disabilities is broken. And in my view, a plurality of discourses is far, far better than the monologic medical mode of labelling and often stigmatizing patients. It might be good to remember that 'disability' is in fact a far more inclusive term than *either* feminist or queer (though I certainly don't think we are in any competition!): almost every human being will find him or herself disabled at some point, some permanently, some because of old age, some for a few months. That usually means becoming a "patient" of some kind, and entering into a bewildering world defined by words, languages, and concepts over which a layperson has no power. Sure, your average person isn't going to read equally offputting and abstract theorizations of that medical world or of his or her own condition. But a continuum of analytical discourse, from a humanistic and NOT a medical or social science perspective, on the complexities of living in a damaged or different body (particularly as it intersects with the professions designated to care for it and the state whose responsibility it ultimately seems to be [sad to say]), can only be a good thing in the long run. And frankly, if you'd spent as much time as I have on the internet with people with disabilities of all kinds, you'd discover that they will read *anything* relevant to their condition--big words or no, tough concepts or no--in the hope of finding ways to live with their bodies in this abled world. (Which, as I have discovered late in life, and as most people ultimately discover, is a fiction). So eb, I'm glad you are helping people. But I don't think that you can just reject disability studies without impoverishing human beings in general. Why should the social worker/doctor/otherwise medically privileged person be the only one who gets to define what it means to have a disability?

Anonymous said...

kofi: your argument about the absurdity of immediacy claims is purely rhetorical, and can only make sense only from an unreconstructed relativist position. Your basic point seems to be that immediacy shifts with each example one can produce, and therefore cannot function as a standard by which action can be assessed. I don't buy your relativist premise.

The social sciences have multiple ways to measure "impact," called outcomes, from lives saved to symptoms reduced to people housed.

Why you push an argument that you admit relies on "silly comparisons" is beyond me. This constitutes an "oppositional comment"?

Anonymous said...

anonymous: thanks for the thoughtful comments. You've provided a nice argument, from the patient's perspective, about why humanistic discussions of disability are vital. I guess I would say that much current disability work in fields outside of literature strikes me as truly humanistic in the best sense of the word.

I don't see an inherent opposition, or deep difference, between humanistic discourses and scientific/medical/therapeutic ones. My plea has been for a humanism that is actually human.

Ultimately, the patient is in the best position to determine what's useful and isn't, what's helpful and what isn't. And a good caregiver will meet the patient where he or she is.

Anonymous said...

It is always interesting to me that when someone like Emile comes around and rattles the cages of academics, that not a single one can seem to make distinctions between what is good and what is bad, what has social value and what doesn't. Suddenly, it becomes a show of how binaries are bad (ooh...that's Derridean deep) or an affirmation of relativism or pluralism. Suddenly, everyone's (except Emile's) powers of discriminaton are vanished. So Emile's distinction-making gets made fun of. I, on the other hand, find it sobering that someone like Emile points his finger at what he at one point called "derivative crap" and asks you to look at it, really look at it. There's crap in every field and always has been. Some novels are better than others, too. That's just a fact. Someone like the rather naive kofi might say that everyone contributes to their own ability, in their own way, and therefore it's all good. Such namby-pambyism is the antithesis of critical thinking. I don't agree with every point Emile has made, but I just want to thank him for being a gadfly .

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I don't think that the debate has become a stagnant pool after all (though that had, as our eloquent Shakespearian Foucaultian Anonymous points out, become a real possibility). I for one continue to learn from the conversation's unfolding, and appreciate the tenacity of Emile and Kofi. The easiest thing would be to give up; neither has.

Our Anonymous writing about disability makes clear the very stakes I see that the best scholars have in the field. And I do believe that for many practitioners writing about disability is inseparabble from other kinds of activism.

We could do without the name calling and silly "You can't take it when the truth hits you in the face!" message of our Anonymous at 1 AM (that kind of declaration only moves back into the slough).

Nonetheless I do want to say I admire how seriously the discussion has been taken by all parties.

Anonymous said...

"A concatenation of allegories is precisely what critical thought does not need."

But then again, who knows where it might lead?

A lot happens when you don't check your email for five days because you've been hanging out on the fringes of Rock Creek Park in DC with your sister who doesn't believe in having internet access at home [perhaps because she crunches phylogenetic codes on her G5 at work all day--at N.I.H.--where she works on malaria--which is "real," right?].

Sadly, I must now hop in my car and drive back to South Carolina, but I would like to try [later tonight] to argue that, yes, literary studies have the potential to make a difference beyond the graduate classroom [but only when refashioned a certain way that has to do with that "higher calling" and the "humanism that is really human" Emile refers to, as well as with Levinas's ideas regarding "la petite bonte"].

More later, Eileen

Karl Steel said...

No time to intervene intellectually in this debate, which has taken me probably a half hour I don't have to get through from its inception: I have a dissertation to finish, and I probably shouldn't think too hard about the utility of what I'm doing until I get tenure. But, Emile, 2 things, offered here as a kind of pause to this debate, which I hope can continue largely without the acrimony into which blog discussions so often devolve:

a) I did find Butler's discussion of gender and choice in Undoing Gender to be of some use to me and, by decrying the tendency to demand that people who want gender realignment declare themselves 'sick,' to provide some kind of ground for political intervention and better democracy. It may be that the work she's doing in that book is being done better somewhere, but hers is the book I read;

b) I read some Lennard Davis and found it exhilerating, not only for my own work, but also for forcing me to confront my own prejudices. If there's better stuff, I want to know about it. Help a student out if you have time: what 5 or so works would you suggest for an introduction to thinking about disability?

Anonymous said...

KtGM: a) Butler is a good 20 years behind the literature in the social sciences on the question of why the necessity of a self-declaration of "sickness" on the part of this population is bad. If you want cites, I'll have to dig them out.

b) I'll try to suggest some reading that might be of use to you (I don't know anything about your intended projects, but I will assume they are not empirical, thus I'll skip those cites).

Albrecht, G. L., Seelmen, K. D., & Bury, M. (Eds.) (2001). Handbook of disability studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hughes, B., & Paterson, K. (1997). The social model of disability and the disappearing body: Towards a sociology of impairment. Disability & Society 12(3), 325-340.

Linton, S. (1997). Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. New York: New York University Press.

Pfeiffer, D. (2002). Philosophical foundations of disability. Disability Studies Quarterly, 22(2), 3-22.

Porter, A. P. (2004). On being an inkblot: Disability meets euthanasia. Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 43(4), 338-343.

Two fine journals with TOCs for scanning are:
Journal of Disability Policy Studies and Journal of Special Education

Anonymous said...

P.S. I put Linton on your list, KtGM, because, while I have some problems with the book, it's still an very good & essential introduction to what disability studies (might) look like both in the academy and outside of it.

Anonymous said...

"kofi: your argument about the absurdity of immediacy claims is purely rhetorical" - i suppose this is true, but so is the entire argument in the first place. By your own admission, you were only posing a "what if" question, ie., a rhetorical one. if you want to move out of the realm of rhetoric, then my original question stands -why does this matter? why bother trying to decide who does the most important work of the most immediate benefit to the community?

"The social sciences have multiple ways to measure "impact," called outcomes, from lives saved to symptoms reduced to people housed" - again, measures of immediacy, the same measures you're saying you're not relying on.
and of course if you use the measures which the social sciences have produced, the social sciences will rate highly - the tests are created to measure factors which are important in that type of work. you seem to be subscribing to the same tendency you ascribe to lit scholars, namely making claims for the worth of your work based only on its own disciplinary contexts, rather than viewing it as part of a wide network of knowledge.

it seems to me that to suggest that disability studies in a lit department does NO good is just ridiculuous - what if disabled students take such a course and learn nothing more than that there is a literature and culture of disability of which they were not aware, and which could offer them an expanded support and cultural network - is this not the same kind of work that queer theory and postcolonial studies initally performed? is this not a worthwhile aim in itself? is my work only relevant if it is aimed at making the whole community as a whole better, or if i'm a social scientist studying better techniques for psychological adaptation. literary work is inherently different - not inferior, not superior, just different, and a different part of the same wider network of knowledge. if it perform the functions i listed above, and ONLY those, would it still not bne worthwhile? would it still not have made an impact, however small, on the world, even by your social science measurements?

Anonymous said...

kofi: I used to be a relativist like you. For example, I used to think one culture is not healthier than another; they are just different. Or, no one percieves the world more accurately than another, just differently, and so on.

But then I cut my teeth on the real world.

The questions you are asking (really they're all versions of the same tired question) are underlined with relativist assumptions. I have already said that I don't buy them.

I have one answer for you, and it should answer all your questions: Whatever little difference in the lives of others literary and theoretical humanists have made should be applauded, but if they suddenly stopped writing their books and articles on "crip theory," the world would not be worse off.

You speak of "networks of knowledge" as if that abstraction is meaningful. Frankly, I find such talk immature, oblivious to the ways people actually communicate. But that's my interest--how people actually communicate--and you have your investments in an allegory. But I say we're not merely different; I say you're living in a world of ideas upon which you apparently have only the most tenuous grasp. If all you can point to is literary humanists' contributions to the "network of knowledge," I submit your celebration is myopic.

You write: "and of course if you use the measures which the social sciences have produced, the social sciences will rate highly - the tests are created to measure factors which are important in that type of work."

This statement betrays a complete ignorance of social scientific process. The social science have never been in the business of measuring only themselves or the variables important to their work. The variables are not the provenance of the social sciences merely because these sciences have developed and tested ways to measure them. Reality isn't discursive, despite what your postmodernist mentors might have told you.

Anonymous said...

jjc-I should have said, had I been sober at the moment, that kofi's statements are rather naive. All apologies, old bean. Whether the poster named kofi is rather naive is unknown. Her arguments about measurement I am finding most humorous. Whether the poster is humorous is unknown. Have a good vacation.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe I'm finding myself in this position, ie, defending the idea that academic work does good in the world (because it usually leaves me with the shivers) but statements like this go too far:

"I have one answer for you, and it should answer all your questions: Whatever little difference in the lives of others literary and theoretical humanists have made should be applauded, but if they suddenly stopped writing their books and articles on "crip theory," the world would not be worse off."

That kind of statement evokes a world that operates according to a zero-sum philosophy, in which a resource given to one group *must* be taken away from another. In other words, resources are limited and have to be carefully parcelled out, as if we were all sitting around a kitchen table with a box of ice cream and six mouths to feed. Resources just don't work like that. People working on disability studies in the academy contribute to the general sum of human knowledge and by doing so, enhance the potential for everyone. Sure, impeach that by saying they aren't physically aiding people. But the students they educate--at my large university, often up to a hundred at a time--go off to a whole variety of influential jobs, some as stockbrokers, some as doctors, some as lawyers or activists. Some as moms. All of those people have the potential to change the life of the disabled for the better, and indeed might, based on the course they've taken and the theory they've read and struggled with.

This whole discussion reminds me vividly of the debates that used to take place within the feminist movement in the seventies and eighties about "real" activism and "empty" academic theorizing. People were equally ready to accuse each other of irrelevance, of not having an impact in the real lives of real women, etc. What the many meetings of various activist groups I attended tended to degenerate into was people trumping each other with their activisms--"I've been organizing with local abortion clinics" . . ."I've been reaching out to groups of (insert ethnic group here) activists" . . . "I've been helping women apply for welfare," etc. I think when you start comparing the good you are doing in the world with other people, you diminish the good you are doing.

It's also a fact that the goal of so many of the kinds of people that one "helps" as a social worker is to *get to college* and improve their lives: to have the chance to study at a university and to get some purchase on why their lives have unfolded in the way they have. Or maybe just to indulge a love of literature and to parlay that into a job they love someday.

The grandiosity of the kinds of theory EB is after gets to me too: it's obnoxious and annoying to read people adopt a morally superior tone because of the way they read literature. And I certainly agree that you ought to challenge them if they are pretending to be activists by being literary scholars. But to dismiss disability studies on those grounds is shortsighted. Powerful ideas have powerful effects in the world--and ideas always emerge from a lot of bad ideas tossed around until someone comes up with a really good one. It's worth having those bad thinkers and bad theorists out there; they might just be the ones to introduce the next Edward Said to Auerbach in class.

EB, let people have their "spectral Indians," empty or no. Call them out on the flimsiness of that idea, sure, but don't go so far as to get rid of whole schools of thought or areas of inquiry on the grounds that they don't do work in the world. Why not be kindly urging people to read the things you are now reading in your new life, encouraging an intersection between the disciplines that doesn't currently happen?

Karl Steel said...

EB: thanks for the bib. Butler may be, as you say, 20 years behind the times: but again, it's her work I read because that's what I'm likely to encounter in my discipline. I just hope you don't think of lit studies as some kind of sluice pit into which 'real' studies eventually finds their way. I'd like to think I can give something back to the world someday other than my own love for what I'm doing.

But I should say I don't really want to engage this discussion, because I just don't have time, which I suppose makes my comments here a bit of a hit and run. I'll keep reading, though.

So, again, thanks very much for the bib. It may or may not impact what I'm doing right now, but even if it doesn't affect my scholarship directly, I'd like to think that that reading will improve me.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Kofi is not, let me testify, naive. Nor is he immature in his intellectual development. Nor is he overly credulous of mentors who may or may not have inculcated relativism within him (I will wager did NOT). I hold his work in the highest regard.

I'm glad you retracted some of the more personal stuff, EB. Let's keep the tone civil here, everyone.

Anonymous said...

Feminist studies, queer theory, disability ["crip"] studies, medieval studies, cultural studies, whatever. I am not so much interested in the parts of this debate that have to do with whether or not particular theoretical disciplines have more or less socially beneficent "use-value" in the world outside of the academy [although please remember that I kind of loathe the whole inside/outside, and academy/real world construction as a way of thinking through, well, frankly, almost everything we've been discussing here for a while now], as I am interested in [even, seriously worried about] the larger question of the social use-value of humanities study in general [to keep it simple, let's say I'm mainly referring to literary studies, history, philosophy, art history, and the like]. While it would probably make my life easier to say I never pretended to care about anything beyond Foucault and Shakespeare and how the two might speak to [and illuminate] each other across various cultural, historical, etc. divides, and that I am perfectly happy dedicating my life to various esoteric and aesthetic and intellectual pursuits for their own sake, I'm afraid that, like Emile B., I want very very much for there to be a "higher calling" for my life's work, and I further believe that the argument can be made that humanities study can do *substantive* work in the real world. I believe cultural studies, as broadly envisioned as possible, can, in fact, *intervene* into, and even change, history. The hitch, though, for me, is that I don't think this argument is self-evident, nor am I sure humanities studies has yet [or ever] quite lived up to the claims I [and others] would like to make for it. Hell, I don't think much of humanities scholarship and teaching has lived up to the grand claims that have been made on its behalf for centuries now, and god knows plenty of books have been written on this subject [for example, James Anderson Winn's "The Pale of Words" and Bill Readings' "The University in Ruins"].

Much of my own scholarship, and the work I would like to do [note future subjunctive tense] with the BABEL Working Group has a lot to do with trying to figure out what, exactly, IS the humanities for? What is/should its raison d'etre/use-value/social purpose/public service role be? What is its relation to "humanisms," past and present, to "post-humanisms," past and present, to the category [social, psychic, cultural, historical, etc.] "human," to human rights, etc.? How, further, can the "humanism" *implied" in "the humanities" be "more human" [to take a cue, again, from Emile B.]? Many take for granted that the learning of, as well as the teaching and furthering the research of the humanities is inherently "a good thing," and that, somehow, to have to argue what that "good thing" is cheapens the whole enterprise. After all, isn't it about enriching the soul, or is it the mind, or is it the person--you know, those things no one has a right to quantify? [And this is where our arguments for the value of what we do often get, I would say, "pseudo-mystical."] Or, we go the other route [which Emile B., in part, rightly criticizes] of saying that the social good we do cannot be measured quantitatively or that all knowledge is somehow a valuable end in itself and therefore, why enter into debates over which particular knowledges are better than which other particular knowledges since it's "all good all the time" [and hence, Emile B.'s charge of relativism or "yet another Anonymous"'s charge of "pluralism" [although I know some political scientists who would really take offense at the idea that pluralism is not ethical or does not require, at times, ethical judgment]. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that I think the question of what the social use-value of humanities study might be is very important indeed, and it is partly why we created BABEL--not to engage in yet another round of trendy and ultimately empty academic posturing, but to actually dig deep into the very questions Emile B. has been asking us to consider--to take those questions quite seriously, in fact, while also insisting that we, too, have never stopped "cutting our teeth on the real world."

Really, I think Emile B.'s toughest questions, over and over again, have to do with audience [just who, exactly, do we want to reach through, let's say, our literary or cultural criticism--if we're going to claim we want a substantive impact beyond the graduate classroom, and, um, yeah, I kind of do], and some of us are going to have to think more about who our books and essays are really for, and even when we muse [as I often do] about the possibilities of so-called "public intellectual" discourses [as opposed to more narrowly-defined specialized academic discourses], we are going to have to also confront the fact that, even in the public intellectual realm, less and less people are paying attention. What might it ultimately mean, in other words, to try and impact social/cultural/historical realities [note emphasis on plural] through *writing* these days? So, even if I decide to write my scholarship for mainly lay audiences [and I do *do* this], who is that again? Of course, we could end up deciding that we are mainly happy writing for coterie-type audiences [or that we simply can't stop ourselves from doing this--it's a talent, a madness, a passion, a compulsion], but then also insist that when we are truly affected, even changed, by these writings, that we are going to DO something about that that isn't just . . . more writing.

Another of Emile B.'s toughest charges has to do with intellectual honesty--"owning up," as he says, to what it is we "claim" to be doing [impacting] and also taking on the challenge of critico-ethical judgment. I have said before I am a pluralist, but that does not make me ethically vacuous, nor does it mean I am unwilling to do the hard work of discriminating between the meaningless and what Emile B. calls "the meaningful, that which has utlity." While at the same time, I bristle a little bit at Emile B.'s negative valuation of literary studies as, apparently, being almost always of little social use-value, and more of a precious, pretty, perhaps thought-provoking, but ultimately somewhat empty end-in-itself. Okay, it can be "cool," or even elegant, and maybe even worth doing [Emile B. himself "does it"], but it shouldn't pretend to other thrones, so to speak. It's always "inside" and never really "out there" [but I've written enough on that before in other posts]. Whose life are we trying to save, anyway? Chaucer's? Our own? or someone else's? Or is that even the right question? Somehow, for me, it *is* the right question. Therefore, I listen to Emile B. very carefully, and I feel that, somehow, the case has to be made, almost from scratch, that, yes, literature matters, and so does criticism. But why rely on all the old, tired arguments? Why not invent entirely new arguments? For me, as stated before in earlier posts, one area that could help us do that is cognitive science--that's why I re-quoted Emile B. on the "concatenation of allegories": allegories are not just this thing we do in literary studies or in theory, they're everywhere, and may just be the most elemental congnitive building block of the brain. Literary studies could be about cultivating an affective, emotional intellect [as opposed to a rational, dispassionate intellect], which could do a lot of good in the world. But only if people read, and there's the rub.

Anonymous said...

I feel that, somehow, the case has to be made, almost from scratch, that, yes, literature matters, and so does criticism.

Very interesting declaration, Professor Joy. Although my investments are elsewhere, I sincerely hope you might inspire others to make the case that, frankly, needs to be made, as you say, from scratch.

To anonymous disability studies person: Sure, people should be entitled to have their "spectral Indians," if that's truly the only way they can conceive of contributing to humanity. I refuse to go the next step, however, and say their contribution is as good as any other, or, although that contribution is miniscule, it's A-OK because it contributes to some imaginary pool of knowledge.

Really, what is "the general sum of human knowledge"? How is that a meaningful construct for anyone--you guessed it--outside the academy? (I'd love to eavesdrop on a conversation between kofi and, say, a prison inmate or my daughter's 2nd grade teacher or my mailman or... about how his latest published writing contributes to the "wider network of knowledge.")

All of this exchange has been enlightening...thanks for thoughtful responses from Eileen, anonymous, and anonymous dsp. kofi, don't rest on Jeffrey's high opinion of you--based on what I've seen here, you've got a lot of intellectual developing to do.

Eileen, email me sometime...I've got an idea about how all this discussion could be turned into an argument(s) about pedagogy...hey, there's praxis, eh?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

kofi, don't rest on Jeffrey's high opinion of you--based on what I've seen here, you've got a lot of intellectual developing to do.

We could do without snideness like that. It tempts me not to weigh the argument its writer is putting forward with the seriousness they merit. Desired in this blog: humility, earnestness, good humor. The argument advances not at all via the rhetoric of the slam.

Perhaps we've reached, with Eileen's wonderfully expressive and carefully mediating post, an end -- for a while -- to this discussion? I think we all need a vacation.

Anonymous said...

Given what my writing and editing and teaching schedule was from last August through this May, participating in this discussion *has* been my vacation [haha]. But, point well taken. I should "rest" so I can finish my "year's work in old english studies" review [which was due Jan. 15]. Cheers, Eileen

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, your distate for negative critique and feedback is well known to me. Please understand that everything I have said here issues from the same set of values: judgment, persistence, appreciation of excellence, and hope.

We all have a long way to go intellectually, some of us more than others, and I would suggest that marks of being a honest intellectual include recognizing that fact and having the temerity to make distinctions based on it.

Understand that I have no enmity toward kofi. If I sized him up quickly as a certain type of thinker, maybe that categorization itself has value in a world--academe--where it happens all the time but rarely gets expressed in direct and sharp ways.

In sum, I would urge you not to mistake the prevailing decorum in the academy for true humility.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I don't.

And it isn't so much that I have a distaste for negative feedback or critique -- look at the opening of my first chapter of Medieval Identity Machines, which lingers over a famous medievalist in his blissful nudity and constricted identity politics. I admit that when I give such feedback, I do not tend to be as blunt as some other scholars, but I'm all about the honesty when it comes to expressing standards and measuring attempts to live up to high ones. It's more that certain dismissive judgments spoken as if they are empirically true do more work to aggrandiize their speaker than to characterize their subject usefully. They can -- intentionally or no -- amount to a silencing. That's why I have an especially hard time with the juvenilization of an interlocutor's argument ('if you were only more fully developed intellectually..." "if you'd only gained more distance from your mentors ..."), as if the culmination of such ripening were patently the position of the speaker. It ain't necessarily so, or else there wouldn't be anything to argue about.

Now (he says, throwing a final volume into the Bookmobile, narrowly missing the head of Kid #2), I am headed to Vactionland.

Anonymous said...

As penance (and the medievalists prick up their ears), I shall offer a little anecdote from this morning. It spoke to me about how I have intellectually/politically/ethically matured in the last 2 years.

I'm waiting at a corner bus stop that is in front of a mini-mart-slash-gas station. I'm heading north to campus, where I'll put in a day at the Center for Social Work Research. Two soldiers, in desert fatigues, with shoulder-bags and hands full of flyers approach me. One stops; the other heads on. "Do you want one of these?" he asks. "What are they?" I ask, having a pretty darn good idea what they are. "We're recruiting, and this outlines the bonuses for joining." "Oh, I'm too old, but thanks."

Then something unexpected, not bizarre, just unexpected happens...he doesn't hurry off to his next prospect. It's as if I invited him to stay. I have a moment to really scan him from head to toe...and I am struck by his youth. He's gotta be 19, 20 at the most.

"How's the recruiting going?" I ask. "Been doing it long?" "It's going allright; I just have to do it for two weeks," he replies.

From there, I mention that I just finished up 6 months at the VA Med Center in Houston, and worked with vets. I let him know, probably more in my tone than in other ways, the privilege I felt working with them. "Were they pretty messed up?" he asks. I explain to him that I mainly worked with Vietnam vets, though two of my individual counseling patients were in Mogadishu in '93, and I evaluated quite a few Iraq/Afghan vets. And, yes, they were messed up.

I mention briefly the difficulties the Vietnam vets are having now as they have reached or about to reach retirement age. We then talk about their reception and how difficult that was for them to get back from a war they didn't want to fight and be spit upon as they got off the plane. (I had about five patients who told me that exact story, and rooms full of vets who knew from experience exactly what it felt like to be called a "baby killer.")

The young soldier (John) says "Well, I think we've learned a lot since Nam. You can hate Bush right now and not hate the soldiers." "That is one thing we've learned," I affirm.

We chatted very briefly about the difference between the guys then, who didn't necessarily want to go, and the guys now, who, John tells me, at least have a choice. I tell him that while he's right that recruits make a choice to enter, it might always feel to them like there's a choice. I mention the army as a way out of poverty or a bad neighborhood. "You know what I mean?" "Yeah, I never looked at it that way," he says rather deliberately.

We shake hands, and John heads off to join his partner who's gone into the mini-mart. He passes by a young African American man, kind of shabbily dressed, and doesn't offer him a flyer.


There's nothing to take credit for here. But as I sat on the bus it struck me quite profoundly that 2 years ago or more I would have behaved totally differently, and justified that behavior with my pacifism (which I have not abandoned) or simply my sense that the military is some alien creature that I don't even want to get near. Two years ago or more I wouldn't have said a word, probably looking away quickly to send a signal that I'm not interested.

Today I was glad that I had that conversation and made that handshake. I take it to be a product of experience gained that was part intellectual, part emotional, and part moral.

This is just a small, small event, but it spoke to me perhaps more loudly in the context of this blog debate.

Karl Steel said...

Honestly not sure Emile what they says about you. My own experience with the military (brother's an officer, father a 23-year NCO, and much much more extended family in the military: but I suppose that's largely my class background), but thanks for your work. Especially given the longstanding contempt for the mental health of veterans among those who are most pro-war, you are doing the work on the angels.

Nevertheless, so far as I know, the spitting thing is a myth.

Had time only to read the Porter so far, by the way, and found some of it useful, but much of it intellectually unrigorous, and not only because of the Xianity. The switch to the 2nd person when he's discussing euthanasia is pretty specious.

Anonymous said...

I don't have a family military history. In my undergrad years I was an active anti-war and anti-CIA protester. I was arrested several times over the years for attempting to block CIA recruitment on campus. So, at least politically, it "weren't in my blood" to be open to thinking of anyone connected to the military or the CIA as victims.

On the myth of spitting: it makes good propaganda for the right and the left.

I believe it occurred, and the only "proof" I have is the vets' word for it, which is probably at least as good as proving the negative with an absence of documentation (e.g., extant police reports from the era).

Anonymous said...

Porter...I found it useful in connection with James Childress's work on ethics. You're right about its lack of rigor.

Get the Handbook. It wil keep you occupied.

Anonymous said...

Eileen Joy, extremely well said, and I will certainly second you in arguing that the humanities has a great deal of work to do in justifying itself and its work; I just have no time for the complete dismsissal of the field on the grounds that, according to some measures, it does less important work than other fields.
I also fully agree with your refusal of the academy/"real world" binary. Am I somehow more outside of the real world sitting at my desk than a computer programmer sitting at his desk? Or a mail-man?

Emile, you said, "(I'd love to eavesdrop on a conversation between kofi and, say, a prison inmate or my daughter's 2nd grade teacher or my mailman or... about how his latest published writing contributes to the "wider network of knowledge.")
Well, my latest article was on the brutal conditions endured by homosexual in the Caribbean, and an examination of how some of the literature has begun to suggest ways, rhetorical and otherwise, of creating a liveable space for homosexuals in the Caribbean. This work I hope will bring the problem more into the light and into the consciousness of the North American world, an important part of effecting change in many non-Western countries, as witnessed by the effect world opinion had on the end of Apartheid. The article is published in an internet forum so that it is widely accessible, and in fact I have been contacted by 4 non-academic gay men who have said that the article a) made them aware that others outside of the Caribbean knew and cared about this epidemic, and b) gave them hope that if enough light is shed on the issue people will take notice.

I am also in the process of editing an anthology of gay Caribbean writing which I hope will help to do much the same, namely expose the conditions gay Craibbeans live in, in their own words and through their own eyes. Sometimes, simple awareness of a situation can work to effect change, or varying degrees. Do I think my work will have a similar effect to toppling Apartheid? No. But no single writer helped topple Apartheid ewither - it was groups of writers working to bring the knowledge to outside people, along with politicians, diplomats, actors, musicians and comedians, who all came together to contribute to a "network of knowledge," the term you so disdain. I probably won't affect change on my own, but perhaps I will be part of a body of knowledge which effects change and action - for you to suggest literary scholars stop trying to do this is to say that all those black anti-Apartheid South African writers should have stopped wasting their time, because they couldn't possibly do any good - a patently absurd contention, as history has shown. Networks of knwledge arent a myth, they exist in the real world - you are a part of some of them as, of course, are all the theorists you recommend, and even the ones you react so violently against.

In relation to my suggestion that social science methods of measurement naturally show that the social sciences are the best, you said "This statement betrays a complete ignorance of social scientific process. The social science have never been in the business of measuring only themselves or the variables important to their work. The variables are not the provenance of the social sciences merely because these sciences have developed and tested ways to measure them. Reality isn't discursive, despite what your postmodernist mentors might have told you"

First, to reply with a bit of deserved snarkiness - all measurements are not static fact, despite what your ??? mentors might have told you. The question marks are meant to indicate that I have no idea who could have told you this, because of course one of the first things social scientists learn is that all measurements are affected by the their observers and their contexts - so while you might have claim for suggesting that "reality isnt discursive," I think you'd have to agree that measurements (stats, polls, surveys, data sets) are certainly discursive, in that their interpretation can vary widely across even social scientists workign in the same lab - so dont try and convince me that the social scientists mangaed to do what n one else in the history of mankind has done, namely build a totalizable and perfectly objective method of measuring their own accomplishments and place in the world. ANY system that claims this is immediately discounted in my books, including any literary scholar who would make the claim that the world can be understood primarily through literature. Of course your measurements will suggest that you're the best - this seems to me an obvious fact of any disciplinary, social, or cultural formation. And I never said that the social sciences are in the business of "measuring only themselves," merely that when they DO measure themselves, lo and behold, they rate themselves as among the best.
As I said, reality may not be fully discursive, but if you can't acknowledge that social scientific measurements are, then you're a bad social scientist.

"kofi, don't rest on Jeffrey's high opinion of you--based on what I've seen here, you've got a lot of intellectual developing to do" - this kind of condescencion (along with the thread of your argument at times) makes me wonder if you're not just saying stuff to get a reaction and/or to prove to yourself how superior you are to us lit folks.
And of course I have a lot of intellectual developing to do - we all do. Anyone who thinks s/he is done maturing intellectually and can thus dismiss others on that basis is also a bad scholar.

Karl Steel said...

Emile: right. Look, I'll just tell you. Your story about talking to the recruiters irked me because it came off as you condescending to speak to them. In other words, your post, to me, reeked of class privilege. But it's hard to make out the tone in which something's said here, on the Internets.

I also couldn't think of soldiers as victims, but for me, that had a lot to do with rejecting my upbringing, which ultimately got me out of my shithole town and into college and then, finally, a topnotch doctoral program. My brother apologized to me for joining the airforce, but he was on his own journey out, and how was he going to pay for med school otherwise? Since then, I've come round the other way for sympathy for members of the military outside my family, partially through blogs like Steve Gilliard's News Blog, which often covers military matters. What immediately strikes me is that if there were more respect for our military--which means actually respecting the fact that they are just as much living creatures as anyone not in the military--the powers that be would be less likely to send them to kill and be killed. As it stands, the pro-war groups simply don't respect life, but they're too much cowards to do the killing themselves. So they send off a group of people that's historically (since the Revolution) comprised lower to lower middle class people. It's sick.

The CIA is a different story, of course.

It struck me that what Porter's piece needs in Marcuse's 'Ideology of Death.' It's sort of a one-size-fits-all essay when it comes to knocking down pieces that rely on the inevitability of death as some kind of expression of God's will.

Kofi: Networks of knowledge arent a myth, they exist in the real world

This + the rest of your commentary leads me to remember Gramsci's concept of an 'organic intellectual.' You probably know it? Relevant to what you're saying in your post.

Anonymous said...

Poor interpretation, Karl. Did you miss this line?

"I let him know, probably more in my tone than in other ways, the privilege I felt working with them."

Your sensitivity to class has put you on guard against the wrong guy. It is perhaps comforting to level that charge against me, while I suspect you don't have the balls to openly charge your colleagues in your "top notch doctoral program" with classist elitism. If I'm wrong, then good for you and good for the academy. If I'm right, then you're nothing more than another coward who hides behind political banners that have meaning only in only the most narrow of contexts.

I guess you have to work with vets before you throw out the victim label--the Vietnam vets in particular felt like victims, receiving treatment for a mental illness that wasn't recognized until 1980 and then not really treated by the VA until the mid-90s. They didn't ask for PTSD either. My role was, in part, empowering them so they didn't feel like victims. So when I refer to victims, it's not a term of stigmatization.

You write: "if there were more respect for our military--which means actually respecting the fact that they are just as much living creatures as anyone not in the military--the powers that be would be less likely to send them to kill and be killed."

Absolutely, and well said.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I suspect you don't have the balls to openly charge your colleagues in your "top notch doctoral program" with classist elitism

C'mon. Can we not impugn? Can we do without the name calling (he asks desperately, for the millionth time)?

I do not believe that Karl is a castrato, but even if he were, I don't think that has anything to do with the potency of his argument.

Back to my lounge chair.

Anonymous said...

I think I made my point that argumentation that hides behind charges of classism is spineless. Not to mention, in this case, made with a reek of hypocrisy. (Perhaps Karl will tell us about his proud ascent from his "shithole town" to a "top notch graduate program"; I can imagine that will be instructive in so many ways.)

My message and style here have been aimed at calling attention precisely to the creative means reality-allergic academics have at their disposal to evade ethical decision-making. I have pointed to many examples of it that were generated in this very forum--ranging from naive moral relativism to empty calls for the study of spectral Indians.

The latest protests have been mounted by kofi whose arguments about social science methods are so crude as to be laughable. I'd be curious to hear how kofi would propose to measure real world effects in ways that are superior to, or even different from, those in the social sciences. Number of emails received?

Kofi holds fast to his "networks of knowledge" assertion and, in his latest post, pats himself on the back for publishing a web-based article and receiving 4 (count em) approving emails. It is amazing to me that kofi does not see how I have compelled him to justify his work, and what he offers is a theoretical construct that is so far removed from the reality of Caribbean homosexuals that he may as well have chosen to re-edit Beowulf.

Some pointed questions for kofi, then:

1. How many emails did you receive from Caribbean gay men?
2. Your anthology of gay Caribbean writing: academic press or not? Did you write the contract to specify Caribbean distribution? Does your introduction academicize the writing? What academic conventions are you answering to; did you think about that? How do you want this book to weigh on your c.v.?
3. What steps have you taken to ensure that your work gets into the hands of people who can affect change? Do you believe that "an internet forum" will be taken seriously by such people?
4. Do you believe there is just one network of knowledge (you talk as if there is just one big one)? If there are more than one, are some better than others? Are some, for example, invested with the power to save people's live, and others to harm them? Do some do a certain amount of good, e.g., go toward toppling Apartheid, and do others do more good, e.g., have bigger roles in the toppling of Apartheid? Do some simply have bigger audiences, more participants than others?
5. If some "networks" accomplish more than other "networks," why would someone choose to contribute only to the network that accomplishes less?

In short, kofi is a beautiful illustration of the literature scholar who has to convince himself that he is doing, well, some good by virtue of the fact that he is adding to an imaginary grand "network of knowledge." The best I'll grant is that kofi is doing no harm.

One of my favorite passages, which will serve as an example of kofi's straining to find some good in what literature academics do:

for you to suggest literary scholars stop trying to do this is to say that all those black anti-Apartheid South African writers should have stopped wasting their time, because they couldn't possibly do any good [is] a patently absurd contention

Allow me to take this apart:

1. Name 10 of those writers.
2. Tell me how many of them were literature scholars.
3. Tell me how many of them were literature scholars in the American academy. (Afterall, I've not made any claims about the reality-averse state of academia outside the U.S., nor would I pretend to.)
4. Tell me how many of them were read by American policy makers, politicians, statesmen, etc. I'll cut you some slack: anyone, outside of academics, who might have read these writings you refer to? (I ask because you assert, in your example of your Internet-based piece, that somehow "bring[ing] the problem more into the light and into the consciousness of the North American world [is] an important part of effecting change in many non-Western countries." Would that were true, btw. Balance that against the harm we've done and do.)

My argument is, and always has been, against the 99.99% of all literature scholars who are utterly disconnected from the biopsychosocial realities of the world.

Not a single one of my interlocutors, including Eileen Joy who gets in a deep sense the importance of my challenges and knows better than to defend other academics, is willing or able to pick up the gauntlet I've thrown down to the 99.99% of literary academics who are their colleagues, their patrons, themselves. And, to no surpise, no one has been able to demonstrate that they themselves belong in the category of an Edward Said, i.e., the .01% or less. Remember: I will make ethical distinctions. Furthermore, I will not apologize if they don't flatter an editor of an anthology of gay Carribbean writing or a medievalist whose mission it appears to be to generate more readings of texts.

Anonymous said...

I do not intend to speak on Kofi's behalf [unless Kofi has given up and is doing something more interesting, like downing a fifth of really good bourbon, or watching the World Cup matches, or falling in love, or something like that], but here is the list of 10 writers who helped raise awareness about apartheid:

J.M. Coetzee
Nadine Gordimer
Norman Rush
the writer-director of the film "A Dry, White Season"
Rian Malan

Okay, I'm not really going to continue with this list, mainly because I have been goofing off, drinking Sancerre, watching DVDs of "Fat Actress," and reading "Vogue" [Uma Thurman on the cover--ohmygod, she is *so* beautiful who even cares about what we are talking about here--what were we talking about again?], etc., and I do not really have this list at my fingertips [nor am I sure Norman Rush really counts, but I think he does], and I think E.B.'s more important question was how many of these writers who may have raised awareness about apartheid [and therefore helped, however tangentially, to change the system] were also literature scholars. I don't actually know the answer to that question, either [but it's likely "none" and E.B. knew that ahead of time], but what I do know is that much of the literature [fiction, poetry, plays, films, etc.] that came out of apartheid-South Africa that was politically-charged likely enjoyed a wider audience partly due to the literature professors who taught and promoted that work. It's not far-fetched to make that argument. Ultimately, I think the larger question might be whether or not, in times of political and/or global/human rights crises, *art* in general can actually make a difference. Like, what's the "real" significance of Picasso's "Guernica" or Kushner's "Angels in America"? [Actually, if you watch "Angels in America" while George Bush is president, and if you lived through those times in D.C. and half your friends died, as mine did, it can seem as if it made no difference at all--but is it the play that made no difference, or should I blame the failure on activists like Larry Kramer and the group "Act Up," of which I was an original member, or on a generation--mine--so awash in consumerism, designer drugs, and ennui that they can't focus on anything that matters?].

I like to think that when literary criticism is at its best, it kind of partners with the artists, to try and effect real social change [or, at a minimum, some kind of heightening of social awareness in the particular "publics" that choose to go to the theater, read novels, etc.]. Does everyone remember, though, when Susan Sontag went to Sarajevo and staged "Waiting For Godot" there, in the war-ravaged city? I've always admired Sontag and her more political writings, but I just cringed when I read about her "doing Beckett" in Sarajevo while it was still under heavy air-strikes and snipers were everywhere. On one level, it seemed brave and interesting, but then I was like, is giving Sarajevo "Waiting For Godot" the best Sontag can do as a public intellectual who apparently really wants to have an impact, through some kind of cultural intervention, on the "reality" of that country's ethnic conflicts and American foreign policy toward those conflicts? In the end, it just seemed silly [and even insanely insensitive and narcissistic], although it has to be noted, the citizens of Sarajevo loved it and made Sontag an honorary citizen. What to make of this? I'm not quite sure, except to say, maybe, that art does have an important *intervening* role to play in particular socio-political crises, and the literature scholar [Sontag was both artist and cultural critic], rightly envisioned, could have a critical role alongside the artists in such crises. E.B. would likely argue, well, why do you have to be a literature scholar to do that? Why not *become* the artist? Or better yet, go to Sarajevo as part of an N.G.O.? Why, increasingly, do literary scholars feel as if, in order to be literary scholars in this postmodern, post-historical, post-everything university, they have to reinvent themselves as, more broadly-speaking, "cultural critics," who can only write about literary and other "texts" in relation to "real-world" problems, oppressed minorities, etc.? But I would like to think, too, that there is something admirable in a literary scholar wanting to envision and practice a scholarship that does not confine itself to a kind of New Critical "appreciation" of texts for their own sake, or even to a New Historical "understanding" of texts as vectors for various socio-cultural forces, or to a more classical notion of "knowledge for knowledge's sake," but instead aims for a kind of integration of *thinking about texts* and *thinking about the real world* and all the "traffic" between the two. Again, though, E.B. will say, "audience, audience, audience"? Meaning: even if you believe that a certain kind of cultural criticism, well practiced and ethically grounded, can have an effect on "real-world" problems, crises, etc., you have to confront who it is, exactly, you are writing for. And if it's just for readers of certain academic journals [even online versions of those] or for your tenure committee, then it's as if you moved a ream of paper off your desk and through the window of your study where it fluttered and fell into that part of the university library marked, "storage." But E.B., you're being way too harsh when you castigate Kofi for being [somewhat] justly proud of the fact that his essay moved four people to write him. Four people, if they are non-academics who have some kind of stake in "being gay in the Caribbean," is enough. Four is enough. Hell, one is enough.

Levinas wrote about the "little act of goodness [la petite bonte] from one person to his neighbor" that is "the sole refuge of the good in being." Goodness is accomplished, in Levinas's view, not all at once when everyone all of a sudden recognizes their ethical obligations to others, but in those smaller singular moments when "the human interrupts the pure obstinancy of beings and its wars." This goodness is "little" and passes from one person to another, and while it is ultimately "fragile before the power of evil," it is, nevertheless, the only means available for ethical attention since goodness can never be "a regime, an organized system, a social institution." There are certain people who, because of certain talents they possess that are inherent, are drawn to literary, or cultural, studies, but who also feel, deeply, that they want to do something in the world that can be called "good." Yes, there are many academics who hopelessly and shamelessly posture as "political" who are nothing more than careerist sham artists, or who, for all of their fomenting about how they have affected students' interior/political selves, haven't really changed the world one whit. But any attempt to "be good," however small, or in a place seemingly cut off from the "real world," is, in my mind, one of the small miracles of this world. And it isn't just about "doing no harm." It's so much more than that.

Last year I taught a masculinity studies class ("Masculinity, Violence, and the Medieval Romance"), and for reasons I can't fully recall, I thought it would be fun to have my students read part of Konrad Lorenz's classic [though now mainly discounted] 1963 work, "On Aggression." For those who don't know, Lorenz was a biologist who studied rats, coral fish, pigeons, and the like, and he was really interested, especially, in group dynamics. I had no idea when I first started reading him, what a philosopher of the human condition he also was, and a beautiful writer. Here's something he wrote in "On Aggression" that, for reasons I can't fully explain, I think might be apropos to our dialogues here:

"Let us imagine that an absolutely unbiased observer on another planet, perhaps on Mars, is examining human behavior on Earth, with the aid of a telescope whose magnification is too small to enable him to discern individuals and follow their separate behavior, but large enough for him to observe occurrences such as migration of peoples, wars and similar great historical events. He would never gain the impression that human behavior was dictated by intelligence, still less by responsible morality. If we suppose our extraneous observer to be a being of pure reason, devoid of instincts himself and unaware of the ways in which all instincts in general and aggression in particular can miscarry, he would be at a complete loss to explain history at all. The ever-recurrent phenomena of history do not have reasonable causes. It is a mere commonplace to say that they are caused by what common parlance so aptly terms 'human nature.' . . . we are all so accustomed to these phenomena that most of us fail to realize how abjectly stupid and undesirable the historical mass behavior of humanity actually is."

A codicil to Lorenz [and I hope I'm being sufficiently suggestive, but not direct here, because there *is* no direct point here]: one of my favorite films is "Ghost World," and Steve Buscemi plays this real misanthropic character who declares to Thora Birch at one point, "I despise 99.9 percent of everyone." Ah, yes. But the other .01 percent? They're the reason I want to live.

Cheers, Eileen

Anonymous said...

I read Eileen's post, and I ask myself, in a rare myopic moment, "Am I throwing the baby out with the bathwater, when I charge literary scholars with being little more than ineffectual parasites?"

Then I say, "No, because there ain't no baby to throw out."

I find it remarkable that there is no shortage of literary academics who will claim for their work some political or social value after the fact of its creation, but there are precious few who will claim that their work was written with genuine political or social intent in mind before its inception. This is another dimension--call it a formal one--of why Jeffrey's last lines of his review of Kruger are so disturbing to me: it's like they're an afterthought. The review does not appear to be written with those in mind as guiding questions; if they served that role, it would have been an entirely different and, I like to imagine, better one.

Eileen raises, as usual, another, this time more broadly important issue:

Ultimately, I think the larger question might be whether or not, in times of political and/or global/human rights crises, *art* in general can actually make a difference.

I hesitated, and finally decided not to address this exact question to kofi, as I was interested to hear what difference gay Caribbean writing makes, even to those few hundred people who actually read it (you know, when it's not assigned). I'm sure he doesn't have an empirically-based answer (i.e., he has no data, thus no real clue), so there was little point in asking. Really the stakes are so pitifully low here, I have no interest in even entering into some discussion of the merits, literary or social, of such writing. My point is simply to ask: what does it mean to parasitically consume and repackage such literature?

I appreciate Eileen's introduction of the concept of little goodnesses or kindnesses. It beats the hell out of a pseudo ethical argument based on tiny, impotent contributions to the "network of knowledge" that simply must be valued no matter how small or how impotent. Having said that, I find it to be little more than the pretty shell of a description of person-to-person goodness that needs to be elaborated if we're going to get a handle what actions, character traits, and virtues can be said to comprise "goodness," even at, as social science has it, the micro-level.

And, so, enter positive psychology, which is virtually equated with Seligman but, as Seligman is quick to point out, encompasses hundreds of social scientists all working toward:
1) getting a handle on virtues, or what we think of as the core characteristics valued by moral philosophers and religious thinkers, e.g., justice, wisdom, temperance, and so on; and
2) getting a handle on character strengths, the psychological ingredients (processes or mechanisms) that define virtues. These are the distinguishable routes to displaying one or another of the virtues, e.g., wisdom can be achieved through such strengths as creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, and so on.

This is a relatively new field in the sense of a critical mass of thinkers all working toward specification of strengths and/or virtues. So, take "small goodnesses," which is rather fuzzy: instead, a social scientist such as S. E. Taylor (2000) would attempt to test whether a construct like "caring relationships with others" might capture the virtue of "humanity." As of now, social scientists have focused on the strengths of love, kindness, and social intelligence, in the attempt to think about 1) how might the strength be consensually defined, 2) what are the theoretical traditions (cross-cultural ones included), 3) what measures can be used and developed to study the strength, 4) how does the strengh in question manifest itself over the course of individual development, 5) what are the enabling and inhibiting factors influencing the strength's expression, 6) what are the gender, cross-national, and cross-cultural differences in the strength, and 7) what interventions might be employed to encourage the strength.

I've done a fair amount of reading in the psychological lit. on humanity, and will be happy to provide a bib to anyone who wants one. What I would say, vis-a-vis our discussion here, is that a notion like Levinas's is so general as to be useless for actually describing what it is that humans do and think and feel when they are "kind" to one another, in small--or, why not, grand--ways. I have always liked Levinas's contrast between the systematicity of evil and the molecular nature of kindnesses, but I would submit that if we are truly going to move forward in fashioning an ethics by which we can make judgments concerning what are the best parts of what it means to be human, then what is called for is greater rigor in spelling out those parts so we reach some kind of agreement that, yes, this act or this thought contributes to a virtue such as humanity and this one does not or, worse, this one impedes the achievement of humanity.

Thus, as you can imagine, four emails are not going to move me, let alone move the world. Poorly written op-ed pieces in your local paper get more responses. If this is one's life's work, I submit it's time to back off the social change rhetoric and either do something truly productive of change or stop patting oneself on the back for doing work that, unlike that of the graybeard in the next-door office who's been working on his definitive reading of Fielding for the last 15 years, is oh-so-engaged with the lived experiences of oppressed people who live in a place that most students (and our president) couldn't locate on a map. So it is that, say, the hip queer scholar and the Fielding expert are identical in ways that most of the academy--this present forum included--are more than just a little reluctant to acknowledge.

Karl Steel said...

Which I suppose is better than that fellow in Dostoyevsky who griped about hating people but loving humanity. Or was it the other way around?

Emile, can the balls talk. It's tedious, and that kind of macho posturing doesn't reflect well on you. You haven't convinced me that I have the wrong guy: the "privilege" line hardly exonerates you. Nor have you convinced me that the spitting thing is not a myth. Memory, you know, does funny things. At any rate, I'm not going to reherse my life here in any detail, for you, nor would I cry out against too strongly against the elitism in my or any academy, as that would be career suicide. And lacking the family supports that members of the elite have, that kind of suicide is a luxury I just don't have. Instead, I just seek out what colleagues I can who strike me as allies, in and outside my own academy. I'm happy to say that JJC is one of these, which is a large reason why I read this blog.

Eileen, thanks so much for your contributions. I love Ghost World too, but perhaps with a twinge of regret, as--and here I throw in a parenthetical as I don't want to talk about ethics, i.e., the actual content of the thread, right now--I would have loved to see Zwigoff get by without the Buscemi character as effectively as Clowes did in the original story: I find that kind of identification with an alienated cynical male (we all laughed at the "I hate sports" line) too easy, the sort of thing that drives most intelligent men of a certain class to swoon over Paul Auster and David Foster Wallace and to ignore Maxine Hong Kingston or Lydia Davis etc. I suppose it's different for a woman.

Karl Steel said...


I believe it occurred, and the only "proof" I have is the vets' word for it, which is probably at least as good as proving the negative with an absence of documentation (e.g., extant police reports from the era).

I'm sure he doesn't have an empirically-based answer (i.e., he has no data, thus no real clue), so there was little point in asking.

Anonymous said...

Let's do something constructive, Karl.

Let's propose a panel for the Zoo for 2008 (deadlines for 07 panels have passed, no?).

We'll debate the issues raised in this forum--you can even play second fiddle to Dr. Campbell, a role with which you seem comfortable. We'll see, for example, how something like the "illumination" of your 11:06 post holds up. Perhaps by that time you'll be less anxious about committing "career suicide"?

I don't pull punches when I detect hypocrisy, willful ignorance, or arrogance. Hmm, must be the classist in me...hehe.

Note to Jeffrey: this is not "name-calling," and, furthermore, your paternalism is not serving the new kids you're trying to annex to whatever empire you're building.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Note to Emile: I think you can't tell the difference between "not pulling punches" and needless playground one upmanship. Saying "you don't have the balls" IS name calling, and a silencing maneuver. Really, it's shameful. Sometimes you sound a lot like those guys on the Fox network, who are similarly in love with their own attitude.

Is it paternalistic to say such things? Call me daddy.

Anonymous said...

First, E.B., I offer you the following: at Kalamazoo 2007, BABEL has a round-table discussion session, which has already been approved, devoted to the question: "What Happened to Theory in Medieval Studies?" The question is meant to be provocative [i.e. can be answered: well, nothing has happened, or, a lot has happened, or, theory doesn't matter at all in medieval studies despite appearances to the contrary, or, why *should* theory matter, anyway, or, is this even the right question?], and was partly suggested by certain people who were telling me at Kalamazoo 2006 that theory was "dying" all around them, and in my own field, Anglo-Saxon studies, it barely came to life before we effectively let it die a quiet, whimpering death. My idea was to have persons on the panel who would have an "historical" viewpoint on the question--people like YOU, E.B. So far, we have the following committed discussants: Beth Robertson [one of the original founders of the Medieval Feminist Newsletter], Martin Shichtman and Laurie Finke [2007 marks the 20-year anniversary of their book "Medieval Texts and Contemporary Readers," Anna Roberts [author of "Queer Love in the Middle Ages"], and Steven Kruger and Michelle Warren as co-respondents. Al Shoaf is interested in being on the panel but cannot give me a definite answer until July [which is soon, anyway]. I have also asked Bonnie Wheeler but have not yet heard back from her. I wish Jeffrey could be there, but he can't do Kalamazoo this coming year, I don't think [but: couldn't we change your mind somehow, Jeffrey?]. The long and short of this, Emile, is that I would be honored if you would join this session in order to put in succinct and urgent formation the arguments you have been making here about the "uselessness" of literary theory viz. the "real world." This is not an empty gesture on my part. I would consider your participation [especially, with my wanting "historical" perspective, given your instrumental force in medieval "cultural studies" viz. Front 190, the conference at Georgetown in 1995 on "Cultural Frictions," your various articles and books, etc.]. What do you think?

I would like to spend some more time here defending Levinas's ideas regarding "small goodnesses" as not "fuzzy" at all--NOT AT ALL--but a friend is visiting today [another BABEL-er, actually, who has been avidly following these dialogues] and we plan to get really drunk. Isn't the summer wonderful [and yeah, I realize, only if you live in the non-real-world of academia]. So, more on Levinas later.

I would like to also point E.B.'s attention to a recent article in "The Believer": "The Happiness Doctors: Positive Psychology Tries to Apply Scientific Rigor to the Feel-Good Goals of the Self-Help Movement. Why Are Its Leading Proponents So Grouchy?" [by Strawberry Saroyan, April 2006 issue] The article is excellent and funny and Seligman does not look too appealing to me after having read this. There was mention of another psychologist, though, Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, who seemed really interesting.

Cheers, Eileen

Anonymous said...

I would not want to position myself as an apologist for the whole positive psych movement. I have read chiefly in three areas: religion/spirituality, humanity, and compassion. In those areas Seligman doesn't figure at all really: it's people like J. Tangney, P. Gilbert, and K.I. Pargament. Seligman gave a name to what was already well underway: a scientific investigation of emotion and ethical value. And we go back to Maslow....

Plus, most of these scholars also do work on the so-called negative emotions like shame: Paul Gilbert is an excellent example of such a thinker, who is equally invested in theory and therapy. There I found a rich discussion, useful for the book I'm writing on masochism in American post-war culture.

Bottom line: there's good work being done on some important human problems. I wouldn't overlook the literature based on Saroyan's report (which is, as you alude, funny as hell).

On the Zoo: very kind of you to invite me. I'll only come if I can have the opportunity to demolish Dr. Campbell publicly--just kidding, Jeffrey....hehehe. (But this is a playground, Jeffrey....)

Roundtable is not my favorite format only because, while I'm not adverse to generating them, I'm adverse to hearing soundbites. How much time would I be allotted? I'll seriously think about it...nothing I enjoy better than lobbing a few verbal grenades in the midst of some self-styled "theorists."

Anonymous said...

I like round-tables that are very organized and well-planned, and this one won't be an exception. In other words, I ask discussants to have comments prepared ahead of time [mini-essays, as it were; I don't want "ex tempore"/off-the-cuff/random ramblings sketched on airplane cocktail napkins while flying into Michigan]. Each discussant will likely have 10 minutes [6-8 typed pages, depending on your reading speed], and we may have an opportunity to publish these comments, in expanded forum, afterwards, so there would be a chance to be more "ample" and detailed in print, if that sounds appealing at all. We did this just this past year with two round-table sessions, "Is Beowulf Postmodern Yet?" and it turned out really really well. Cheers, Eileen

Anonymous said...

But what if I write my essay out on a cocktail napkin, or two?

OK, put me down for a paper entitled "Die, Theory, Die!"

P.S. 8 typed pages in 10 minutes? Good lord!

Anonymous said...

A word on "career suicide."

This statement, or versions of it, is offered often as the reason why Scholar X can't say or do what he/she wishes.

There are many problems with this excuse:

1. It's used by scholars at all levels--from lowly grad student to full prof chairs. This fact alone suggests that it has at most a tenuous relation to one's position on a hierarchy of "power." That is, the excuse cannot be used as a shorthand for saying "but it's too big a risk for me." Corollary: tenured prfessors are not modeling attitudes of dissent and change strategies for junior prfessors and grad students.

2. When such an excuse is used, the implicit idea is somehow that it's a fate to be suffered rather a choice someone has made. I will never buy the "my hands are tied; I couldn't possibly challenge the status quo" argument precisely because it was a set of choices from the beginning that led to that supposed "predicament." When a bloke like Karl imagines that the ticket out of his "shithole town" is to become someday a professor of medieval studies who reads dead languages and generates derivative readings of texts no one reads, that is a choice. It should be owned as such.

I have always presumed throughout this blog debate that the best scholars are those who could do something other than read texts, attend department meetings, publish, and teach. In other words, they can and do choose to do something else. Of course, I've argued there are more meaningful things to do, but at the very least it would be refreshing to see a scholar overcome his or her ego investments and admit he or she chose to do something less meaningful than something else. This is another version of my overarching argument against moral vacuousness.

3. The argument that only the elite, those, say Karl, who have family (presumably he means financial) supports in place, can take a stand against the status quo is hogwash. It's another creative excuse employed to make oneself feel better about his or her social or political impotence. History certainly does not support such a claim. This is a wonderful example of misdirected creativity: instead of inventing excuses like this one, why don't you invent ways you might actually influence the direction the academy is taking?

Anonymous said...

Emile B. wrote:

"I find it remarkable that there is no shortage of literary academics who will claim for their work some political or social value after the fact of its creation, but there are precious few who will claim that their work was written with genuine political or social intent in mind before its inception."

Emile B. also wrote:

"I have always presumed throughout this blog debate that the best scholars are those who could do something other than read texts, attend department meetings, publish, and teach. In other words, they can and do choose to do something else. Of course, I've argued there are more meaningful things to do, but at the very least it would be refreshing to see a scholar overcome his or her ego investments and admit he or she chose to do something less meaningful than something else. This is another version of my overarching argument against moral vacuousness."

It may be that we are approaching the law of diminishing returns, or perhaps just circling and circling and making no *real* headway in this discussion, and I think what I would ultimately like to see is an even more formal debate, or set of debates, that would actually move us--"ultimately ultimately"--in the direction of something like humanities curricula reform [which BABEL is aiming at], and even a re-envisioning of various ways in which cultural critics and artists can work together toward real social change, while at the same time, we'll have to cut some of our so-called "losses" and run with them--i.e., yes, yes, yes, some of us are not saving people in burning buildings or working for NGOs in Sudan or counseling war veterans and we do not want to argue that writing about Shakespeare and Foucault is more important, or let's say "socially useful," than those things--but this may be a moot point if we start all over and say something like, "it's not about deciding who is doing *real* cultural-social-political work and who is not, but is pretending to [after all, doesn't this smack, just a little bit, of the kind of privileging that can simply shut down possibly beneficent avenues of intellectual and other kinds of "work"?]; rather, it's about each individual recognizing what their true talents and gifts are, as well as commiting themselves to developing those talents and gifts in deep ways, and then plying their particular chosen 'trade' with as much ethical commitment as possible and also with the *hope* that what they do might matter somehow." It's a question of a seriously committed ethico-critical POSTURE as much as it is of supposedly measurable RESULTS, in other words. And yes, I'm talking about virtue. Which is not to say virtue cannot be measured--I realize that it can be, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Now if, as E.B. argues over and over again, that he just wishes people would "own up" more to what it is they are really supposedly all about [i.e., stop claiming your work is social or political when it's just writing about literature and has no "real world" effects], have you forgotten about Stanley Fish? Hell, he "owns up" to that all the time, and as a reult, is always rankling his critical theory/literary studies cohorts. Plenty of scholars own up to it all the time. As to those who do not, let's divide them into two groups, and say that one group spends a lot of time loudly declaiming the socio-political intent & impact of their scholarship, and get a lot of career mileage out of that as a result, and spend no time worrying about the fallout from the fact that they have't helped anyone but themselves, and they have expended a lot of ink and silicon chip power on words, words, words, words, words for . . . nothing [but hey, probably an overtstatement on some level, nevertheless, since the laws of physics teach us that any kind of expended energy at all has to "go" somewhere and "do" something, but still . . . .]. Let's say that the other group, which I very much believe includes myself, JJC, Kofi, Dr. Virago, and quite a few others, do in fact write their work "with genuine social intent in mind *before* its inception." I can't read a book like Prof. Cohen's "Medieval Identity Machines" and not see, because it is so obvious, that even though he may be writing about fictional (but also real) "characters," such as a Lancelot or a Margery Kempe or a Roland, that the work is written out of the very real desire, and I would even say, ethical hope, that his meditations upon and analysis of the culture and history of the Middle Ages can "open" those Middle Ages to the present in such a way that the present itself can be "thought differently," and therefore, also "lived differently." Even IF the audience for the book is likely "only academic," those are still lives in need of ethical and critical inspiration, and different persons, in different times and places, are in need of different sorts of ethical attention and care. Prof. Cohen's work is unique, of course, as we all know. It likely suits his particular and very personal and selfish temperament and bent of mind & life, but it is also a deeply imaginative, creative, generous, and moving scholarship. To be moved, however slightly, out of oneself, is the beginning of ethics. If we can achieve this in an hospice or the quiet of a scholar's study, it is a small miracle. And I say we have to do both, and when E.B. asks us to consider doing both--of course. Let's keep considering it, but together, and not apart, with amity, and not with rancor, with regard [and love] and not dimissiveness. Yes, it's important every now and the to call bullshit "bullshit" and to tell the emperor he is naked, but then . . . what next? Let's get together do that "something else" E.B. is referring to . . . together.

Cheers, Eileen