Archive for May 2005
Apparently, the Guardian thought it’d be valuable to bring the brothers Hitchens together for a nice chat. I do like that they left the following in the transcript:
Female audience member
Excuse me. I’m not usually awkward at all but I’m sitting here and
we’re asked not to smoke. And I don’t like being in a room where
smoking is going on.
CH (smoking heavily): Well, you don’t have to stay, do you darling. I’m working here and I’m your guest. OK . This is what I like.
IK Would you just stub that one out?
CH No. I cleared it with the festival a long time ago. They let me do it. If anyone doesn’t like it they can kiss my ass.
(Woman walks out)
Contrarian as evah.
So, David Brooks has an, um, interesting column today in the Times in which he encounters / poses as Karl Marx – in order to deliver to the even-minded readership of the sunday paper a quasi-Marxist sermon. Here’s the middle parts:
The educated class reaps the benefits of the modern economy –
seizing for itself most of the income gains of the past decades – and
then ruthlessly exploits its position to ensure the continued dominance
of its class.
The educated class has torn away from the family its sentimental
veil and reduced it to a mere factory for the production of little
meritocrats. Members of the educated elites are more and more likely to
marry each other, which the experts call assortative mating, but which
is really a ceaseless effort to refortify class solidarity and magnify
social isolation. Children are turned into workaholic knowledge workers
– trained, tutored, tested and prepped to strengthen class dominance.
The educated elites are the first elites in all of history to work
longer hours per year than the exploited masses, so voracious is their
greed for second homes. They congregate in exclusive communities walled
in by the invisible fence of real estate prices, then congratulate
themselves for sending their children to public schools. They parade
their enlightened racial attitudes by supporting immigration policies
that guarantee inexpensive lawn care. They send their children off to
Penn, Wisconsin and Berkeley, bastions of privilege for the children of
the professional class, where they are given the social and other
skills to extend class hegemony.
The information society is the only society in which false
consciousness is at the top. For it is an iron rule of any university
that the higher the tuition and more exclusive the admissions, the more
loudly the denizens profess their solidarity with the oppressed. The
more they objectively serve the right, the more they articulate the
views of the left.
OK, even-minded reader (like the Dad in those obnoxious tv ads the Times puts on – know what I mean?), this is a bit confusing isn’t it? What’s Brooks – who, after all, is the official mouthpiece of enlightened neo-conservativism at the paper of record – up to? You’re especially thrown by the strange, italicized conclusion of the piece:
I don’t agree with everything in Karl’s manifesto, because I don’t
believe in incessant class struggle, but you have to admit, he makes
some good points.
Bizarre. So, the "thinking man’s conservative" has turned Marxist – or almost. (Weird line that, about the "incessant class struggle" from a guy whose bread and butter is the "red/blue" divide in the US…)
Anyway. One of Atrios’s apprentices has put on her/his decoder ring so that you don’t have to:
There really is a class war (though Brooks doesn’t believe in it)!
But it’s not between the moneyed classes and everybody else; it’s
between those latte-sipping liberals in their ivory towers and
This seems just about right. Oldest play in Brooks’s book, right. He makes his living writing pieces that seem reasonible – even seem to contradict the party line that he’s purported to represent. But between the lines, when you look very closely, it’s always the case that somehow he’s pinned it all the more tightly on the left – or at least upon the coastal elites, the bobos, the hihis, the nynys… Whatever…
That’s absolutely what’s going on here. But still – begs the question doesn’t it – there’s a serious grain of truth in what Brooks is saying here… In the end, this is how the class system works in America, isn’t it?
When are the universities here going to wake up to the system that they’re entangled in, perpetuating.
It’s funny. When you’re on your way out of an "elite" institution, bound for a position at a state university, everyone slaps you on your back, tells you what a meaningful thing you’re doing. Teachers at "elite" insitutions complain all the time about the nature of the students – the "less than diverse" population.
Isn’t there anything more we can do about it than complain? Something more than applauding gratefully when we hear of a single-digit increase in minority enrollement (better all the time!). Brooks nails the financial aid alibi in the piece:
The median family income of a Harvard student is $150,000. According to
the Educational Testing Service, only 3 percent of freshmen at the top
146 colleges come from the poorest quarter of the population. The
educated class ostentatiously offers financial aid to poor students who
attend these colleges and then rigs the admission criteria to ensure
that only a small, co-optable portion of them can get in.
Why can’t we do something about this? Why can’t the Harvard faculty start doing something about this? Like stop what we’re doing, along with all of the hallway nervous joking, and not come back until, I don’t know, everything’s changed…
Idle fantasy, I know… Here…
From a photo series a few days ago in the Times:
Specialist Jason W.
Huff, 28, joined the Guard after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. He
never much liked school, Specialist Huff said, recalling how his
father, a marine, disparaged a college education. "Dad would always
talk about the people who were from college, and he didn’t like them,"
he said. "He said they knew more about books than about the job." His
wife, Amy, carried their daughter, Karly, in seeing him off.
Went to the optometrist today, because it’s time for reading glasses. (Was glad that the new floater, just at the focal point of the right eye, was the “good kind of floater” rather than the “bad kind”…)
Anyway, you know when the optometrist (or ophthalmologist, if you’re a snob like that) puts you through the “this one or that one” “one or two, two or three, three or four” game with the lenses. Well, one or two?
And they went back over their lives.
They’d both been failures, the one who’d dreamed of Love and the one who’d dreamed of Power. How had it come about?
“Perhaps it was lack of perseverance?” said Frédéric.
“For you maybe. For me, it was the other way round, I was too rigid, I didn’t take into account a hundred and one smaller things that are more crucial than all the rest. I was tooo logical and you were too sentimental.”
Then they blamed it on bad luck, the circumstances, the times in which they had been born […]
So one Sunday, while everyone was at Vespers, Frédéric and Deslauriers, having previously got their hair curled, picked some flowers in Madame Moreau’s garden, left by the back way over the fields, took a roundabout path through the vineyards, came back via the fishery and slipped down to the Turkish woman’s house, still clasping their large bouquet.
Frédéric held his out like a sweetheart offering flowers to his bride-to-be. But the heat, fear of the unknown, a vague feeling of guilt, and even the thrill of seeing, at one glance, so many women at his disposal, upset him so much that he went very pale and stood rooted to the spot, unable to speak. The women were all laughing, amused by his embarrassment; thinking they were making fun of him, he turned tail and fled; and since he was holding the money, Deslauriers was obliged to follow him.
They were seen leaving the house; the scandal this aroused still lingered on three years later.
They told each other the story at great length, each filling in the details left out by the other, and when they’d reached the end:
“Ah, that was our best time!” said Frédéric.
“Could be? Yes, that was our best time!” said Deslauriers.
Yes, society must go on; it must breed, like rabbits. That is what we are here for. But then, I don’t like society–much. I am that absurd figure, an American millionaire, who has bought one of the ancient haunts of English peace. I sit here, in Edward’s gun-room, all day and all day in a house that is absolutely quiet. No one visits me, for I visit no one. No one is interested in me, for I have no interests. In twenty minutes or so I shall walk down to the village, beneath my own oaks, alongside my own clumps of gorse, to get the American mail. My tenants, the village boys and the tradesmen will touch their hats to me. So life peters out. I shall return to dine and Nancy will sit opposite me with the old nurse standing behind her. Enigmatic, silent, utterly well-behaved as far as her knife and fork go, Nancy will stare in front of her with the blue eyes that have over them strained, stretched brows. Once, or perhaps twice, during the meal her knife and fork will be suspended in mid-air as if she were trying to think of something that she had forgotten. Then she will say that she believes in an Omnipotent Deity or she will utter the one word "shuttle-cocks", perhaps. It is very extraordinary to see the perfect flush of health on her cheeks, to see the lustre of her coiled black hair, the poise of the head upon the neck, the grace of the white hands–and to think that it all means nothing–that it is a picture without a meaning. Yes, it is queer.
OK – it’s obvious that one wins. Not really fair. But why these two together? Both Flaubert and Ford, at the end of L’Education sentimentale and The Good Soldier are involved in the long secularization of literature that some like to call “modernism.” Flaubert after the romantically-inflected bildungsroman, and Ford after the society romance – the health-spa idyll or whatever it should be called. Straining the fluffy elsewhereness and otherwisity out of the forms – turning these forms so deeply affiliated with the event back toward the everyday.
But what’s interesting, I think, is the way that Flaubert’s everyday is always haunted by the event that explodes out of it – even if it never quite (never does) escape the gravity of the everyday. Starting from Madame Bovary, about the codependency of the two terms – what’s learned in his (first) novel of “education” is that what comes after the brotherly brothel episode
Ford has to turn his anticlimactic climax baroque – gothic – in order to sell it… Imagine leaving out the stuff about Nancy in the paragraph above. Ford wants – needs – the flatly round world of the secular and quotidian to cap his “exposure” of the base reality behind the appearance of the “good people” who hangout at German resort towns.
This dirty little bit of madwoman come down out of the attic to dinner, tea-party between Humbert Humbert and a lobotomized Lolita – it spoils the antiseptics of Ford’s novel, it’s true (if mindnumbingly tedious) modernity…
Anyway, just trying to figure out what to say about Ford, because I think I’m going to teach The Good Soldier in the fall… Hadn’t read it in awhile, and it’s not the most teachable book in the world…
Make your way over to the new group blog – Long Sunday. Proud to be a member of what promises to be an exciting new forum… It’s got all your favorites on board: Charlotte Street, pas au dela, Alphonse van Worden, Commonplace Book, I Cite, CProbes, Fort Kant, Infinite Thought, Observing the Observer, and even the reincarnated Young Heglian…
And it has nothing at all to do with this.
OK. Maybe it does a little bit. At least that got the emails a flying…
I’ll be posting something there soonish. But do add it to whatever does your reading for you…
…but the Hitch seems to have pulled it off. Review today of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism in the NY Times. Sounds like he’s been hanging around The Valve lately – right down to the title of the piece, slathered in Holbirony.
Anyway, a selection of Hitch’s penetrating, substantive critiques of the guide and those who have a spot in it:
Words continue to lose their anchorage in meaning as one turns the
pages. ” ‘The question of gender is a question of language.’ This
statement is Barbara Johnson’s . . . and her succinct formulation of
the relationship between gender and language does much to characterize
the approach of a group of feminists who draw upon the discourses of
poststructuralism.” What, apart from its brevity, is ”succinct”
about an assertion — not at all a formulation — that asserts both too
much and too little and that proves nothing? If it is indeed true that
such a remark characterizes a school of thought, then so much the worse.
Ouch – really got her there. And then there’s this bit on Spivak:
Sometimes an unconscious humor infects the leaden pages: ”The
sometimes formidable challenge of Spivak’s work as a whole derives
partly from the effortless and eclectic way that she draws on
discourses as diverse as. . . .” Hold it right there. Does the
mercurial Prof. Gayatri Spivak really want to be depicted as
”sometimes” formidable? And isn’t ”effortless” a bit backhanded?
The three words ”as a whole” are a sheer waste of text. ”Eclectic,”
however, seems more or less right.
Hitchens seems to like sniffing out "unconscious humor," as he ends with a trademark zinger of this sort:
In another unconsciously funny entry, on the Kenyan Marxist Ngugi Wa
Thiong’o, Nicholas Brown appears to praise his subject for a
postcolonial essay entitled ”On the Abolition of the English
Department.” Like the other contributors to this shabby volume, Brown
ought to be more careful of what he endorses. The prospect of such an
abolition, at least in the United States, becomes more appetizing by
This is a lot like the attacks on "theory" that you find on Crooked Timber, the Valve, and in certain musty corners of American academia in general. Theory is written badly, the bad writing serves no purpose, it’s elitist but inelegant, self-promotional, etc… We learn that by "1980, Althusser had been exposed as the utter fraud he later confessed himself to be," and that Raymond Williams is an "exploded figure… wrongly credited as the pioneer of cultural studies." News to me, on both counts.
But the one thing we don’t find is an actual approach to the contents, arguments, assertions of the works themselves. Hitchens botches his closest attempt, when he misunderstands the place of Bodies that Matter in the course of Judith Butler’s work:
So the dancer and the dance are not the same after all. But does one
really require a new language or theory to disprove the claim — made
by whom, incidentally? — that gender is a mere role, or only a costume
for that role?
Well, the answer is Butler herself – Bodies that Matter is a refinement or clarification of her previous work… Gender Trouble, which asks the question "What… foundation categories of identity – the binary of sex, gender, and the body – can be shown as productions that create the effect of the natural, the original, and the inevitable." The refinement is to ensure that we hear both the "create" and the "effect" in that sentence.
Anyway, whatever. Too late for Hitchens now. But do wonder how he felt when his own boundaries were so devastingly transgressed by Galloway’s less than unconscious humor:
Before the hearing
began, the Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow even had some scorn
left over to bestow generously upon the pro-war writer Christopher
Hitchens. "You’re a drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay," Mr
Galloway in formed him. "Your hands are shaking. You badly need another
drink," he added later, ignoring Mr Hitchens’s questions and staring
intently ahead. "And you’re a drink-soaked …" Eventually Mr Hitchens
gave up. "You’re a real thug, aren’t you?" he hissed, stalking away.
Boo hoo, Mr. Contrarian.
Ok – way too early to say it – but I’m reading this right now, and it includes two bonus Lovecraft stories at the back of the book. While I’ve read everything by Houellebecq, I’ve never before tonight read a single thing by Lovecraft. So I skipped to the back and read "The Call of the Cthulhu"… (The other included story is "The Whisperer in the Darkness.")
Don’t be angry if you’re a huge Lovecraft fan, but I just don’t get it. Guy finds uncle’s documents, lots of people are acting strange, sailor finds exactly what we would expect him to find… Just not working for me. (I had the same reaction to The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers…) Anyway, I tried… I’m already wondering if it’s not one of those weird Gallic over-reactions to American lit – a la Paul Auster. Perhaps Lovecraft gains something in translation…