Monday, February 28, 2005

Plucking the philosophers

Here are versions of some classics of early modern philosophy, prepared with a view to making them easier to read while leaving the main arguments, doctrines, and lines of thought intact.

Thus Jonathan Bennett who's been doing this for a decade. (Well, you don't come to this site for breaking news.) His proposition: students today can't read the original texts of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, Spinoza - that old gang. What gets in their way: archaic words, unfamiliar syntax, references to their wrong-headed contemporaries. Bennett's versions remove what he considers inessential to the philosophical argument. He argues, plausibly, that since the arguments are what matter to his students, he doesn't want them distracted.

It's a while since I taught anything 18th century, but I'm chronically familiar with students who can't - or in some cases, won't - read Shakespeare. But Hume? Hume who practically defines clarity in English prose? And Bennett is moving on to J.S Mill.

What will he do, I wonder, when he gets to Austin?

Too depressed to pursue this right now. It's one thing for the cultural pundits to talk brightly about a 'post-literate age'. It's quite another, now that we begin to see its outlines more clearly, to confront the new order.

Update 15.12.2005: cut some boring stuff.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

LibLab wheedles

Politics again, but this time on the wordpatch.

John Holbo recommends a strategy for Democrats

. . . work constantly to expose [that] conservatives are deeply unserious about conservatism. Expose their inauthenticity. On every front. Don't point up contradictions. Socratic logic-chopping leaves the electorate unmoved. Show the voter that your Republican is a creature who'll talk the talk but won't walk the walk. . . . This is the sort of 'contradiction' that actually bothers people.

In Oz we have a government which describes itself as liberal and conservative. Last week, it signalled again that it wants to take over industrial relations from the states. Not conservative, because it proposes a massive change for no clear gain; not liberal, because the change would reduce diversity and variety. The government's motive is plain and undeniable: centralise control, so as to 'reform' the system.

Whether or not you think that reform desirable, there is only one fitting word for such a government: authoritarian. Wanna put that on your masthead, Mr Howard?

But remember what John Dawkins and Labor did to the universities in the late 1980s. Nobody's forcing you, they said, you don't have to join the national unified system, they said, you're free to go it alone, which is to say, die.

My wife, who works in health, is always attending 'seminars' in which state bureaucrats ask health providers to justify doing what's been imposed on them - by the bureaucrats. The angry subtext of course is: we're doing this because we have to, so let's go back and do some real work. But if that were voiced, the bureaucrats would be very sad: aren't they consulting the people at the coalface?

I think I'd rather be ordered about than wheedled into compliance. But wouldn't it be nice to have other options?

Friday, February 25, 2005

Sentence of the week

There’s a lot to be said for communication and so many problems we can’t talk about simply go away after a while, such as the problem of mortality, for example, but a writer’s duty is to keep trying, to wake up every afternoon and saddle up the mare and bear the sacred plume de literature over the next ridge, and here, to show I’ve been on the job and not just sunning myself in Denmark, is a book, collecting in one neat pile some stories, poems and letters mostly written at the time of Ronald Reagan, the President who never told bad news to the American people.

Garrison Keillor, We are Still Married, rev. ed. Faber, 1993, xiii.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Foggy, foggy politics

Mine, that is – but maybe a general point will emerge through the murk.

On a tip from Mark Bahnisch I took the moral politics test: highly recommended. Decades ago, I took Hans Eysenck’s similar test (no, no, settle down, this isn’t about race). Eysenck tested the correlation between personality types and political allegiance. He used three axes of personality: tender-mindedness/tough-mindedness[1]; introversion/extraversion; libertarian/authoritarian.

I came out just left of centre. And all these years later, I came out just right of centre. Wishy then, washy now.

People like me - you know who you are, or you will soon when you’ve gone over the arguments – people who thought of themselves as centrists now dither chronically about where we are on the map. Labor shifts right – whoops, we’re on the left of the party. But the Left doesn’t want us, because we abstain, and leave meetings early to pick up kids, and need time for our so-called selves. Meanwhile, the Libs also shift right, so that our beloved compromises now involve too big a stretch. (“OK we’ll lock up the asylum-seekers but we don’t want wire.”) Yah, ya Soaking Wet.

So what is this Centre that we’re told the parties both woo? Code for the marginals? Or is it time we admitted that the Left Right stuff just doesn’t work across the full range of political beliefs? Does that leave us with a particularist patchwork?

No more about politics: it makes me break out in alliteration.

[1] I typed ‘touch-mindedness’: uh huh. Maybe we could replace questionnaires with spelling errors?

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Last words on Sawyer

Student who works part-time at the local bakery cafe murmured a few months back that she liked reading old books, and asked what I thought, in general, about old books? I said I thought, in general, that they were pretty interesting, and we took it from there. Yesterday she finished The Count of Monte Christo (which she went on to after The Three Musketeers). Read it in a week, after hours & between parties.

She said: that the resolution of The Count of Monte Christo is both painful and rigorous and dead right (the emptiness of revenge). And yet, she said, you can't wait for our hero to knock off his enemies, one by one, and there's a deep pleasure each time he does . . . Which means we get the shock that Dantés does when it leads him to nothingness. She wasn't convinced by Haidée, the exotic lady Dantés gets as consolation prize; the whole narrative strand which concerns her felt wrong.

At university she’s doing psychology. I wonder if the formal teaching of literature ever had a simple (let alone a causal) relationship with what people actually read or how they actually respond? Here’s a ‘natural’ reader of literature, if ever there was, reading simply, personally, perceptively. The sad part is that she would be actively damaged by taking English at a university today. She has nothing to gain by learning that Haidée is a typical male fantasy in the mode of orientalism. She already knows it’s phony stuff, & if she keeps coming across such creations – she will, she will – think of Conrad’s women, Dickens’ younger ones – she will make her own generalisations. Then and then only is the time for Edward Said.

The groves of academe are full of students who have never studied poetry at all taking subjects with titles like ‘Rethinking Romanticism’ . Who has power in that tutorial room? More broadly, why are English Departments always, always illiberal?

Friday, February 18, 2005

Sentence of the week

Unfortunately, the reference has been lost, but this week's sentence is the opening of a 'Talk of the Town' piece in a New Yorker from the 90s.

The rise of the women's goat cheese movement comes at a time of general crisis in American cheese.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

How to read a text for matriculation

Over at troppo armadillo, Sophie Masson describes the latest demand on her son to produce an essay on Cloudstreet. His English teacher supplied instructions, which included an introduction to critical theory. Xavier Masson was asked to apply various theories to the text. Apparently he resents this because he liked the book - whatever that means. To help Masson fils and his friends do it properly, here is a text with sample analyses.

Polly put the kettle on
Polly put the kettle on
Polly put the kettle on,
We'll all have tea.

Sukey take it off again
Sukey take it off again
Sukey take it off again,
They've all gone away

Gender-based: you can't tell what gender the speaker is, which is good, and the other two persons in the text are both female which is also good. (Until the total number of females and males in all texts everywhere are equal it's OK to play catch-up.) But it is probable that the speaker is male because of the objective power-balance of patriarchy. So there he is ordering them about (no 'please' even) and they don't speak. So there are Silences, even after the third line in each section where the comma signifies a chance to break in. The kettle could be male or female, depending on whether you consider the container part or the spout. According to queer theory however (which is my chosen ideology for this paragraph) everything I've said so far is a crock.

Socio-political: the society implied by this poem is incredibly privileged. One person has two servants to put on and take off the kettle (respectively) and the reference to 'all' shows that a lot of people are coming so the servants will have to wait on them hand and foot. Nothing is said about the event itself. This shows that the event is actually seen through the eyes of the servants. For them the 'party' or whatever is just more lifting and carrying. This shows that the writer is on the side of the servants. I'm not, because in this paragraph my ideology is fascist.

Post-colonial: This is a blatant example of Western appropriation. The stolen text is an ancient legend from China. 'Polly' is of course 'Po Li' and Sukey 'Soo Chi', a guest-worker from 'Burma'. The mandarin's wife who gives the orders has been effaced (rubbed out) by the '(era)-sure of difference' (Spivack) and her place is taken by a figure we can't identify. That is how power is perceived by the colonised, as a free-floating set of orders which must be obeyed. The hopeful side of this text is that the 'ordering' person has to say things three times before anyone does anything. Powerless people resist indirectly by behaving 'lazily'. In this text, they have also failed to send out the invitations, so nobody comes to tea which is why the story lacks a middle part. I am between ideologies this afternoon so all I can say is I might have believed what I just wrote, or might believe it tonight, but just now I haven't a clue.

Psychoanalytical: Notice here first the repeated lines, fixed, rigid behaviour which betrays the anxiety of the speaker. (We shall see that the anxiety is fully justified.) Will Polly and Sukey do as they are told? (issues of control). Evidently someone has 'put the kettle on' but it could just as well have been the speaker, desparing of being obeyed. Are Polly and Sukey really there? Perhaps we have here a game in which the young, anxious speaker consoles herself (in my experience, most people are female) by murmuring the rituals she heard in her bourgeois childhood. The tragic depths of the case come out in the silence between the two parts of the text. It is tempting to imagine people arriving, tea being consumed, cheerful conversation, but this reading would make the text 'normal' which is not theoretical. I reckon the speaker will not tell us about the incident (if there was an incident - see above). It will have to be got out of her. She could be someone recalling a trauma: no-one came to the tea-party. The kettle boiled dry many times, so many times that Polly is too exhausted to go, and another servant has to replace her. The cakes withered on the plate. Hope dried in the young woman's heart. Everybody hated her, it was all true what her mother had said. It's really, really sad.

My ideology with ten minutes to go is a bit of all these theories (including all the ones I did not mention) because they all contain important insights and tools which can be applied to texts to get anything you want out of them, so I agree with everything I've just written and so must you. Pretty good handwriting, huh?