I’ve been reading Camus’ La Peste, hoping to obtain some insight into one of the great crises of the present, and finding him commenting on a completely different one. At the height of the epidemic of the novel, the narrator comments on the aspect of the silent, immobilised city, and expresses resentment toward the statues that are permanently in that condition.
La grande cité silencieuse n’était plus alors qu’un assemblage de cubes massifs et inertes, entre lesquels les effigies taciturnes de bienfaiteurs oubliés ou d’anciens grands hommes étouffés à jamais dans le bronze s’essayaient seules, avec leurs faux visages de pierre ou de fer, à évoquer une image dégradée de ce qui avait été l’homme. Ces idoles médiocres trônaient sous un ciel épais, dans les carrefours sans vie, brutes insensibles qui figuraient assez bien le règne immobile où nous étions entrés ou du moins son ordre ultime, celui d’une nécropole où la peste, la pierre et la nuit auraient fait taire enfin toute voix.
The huge, silent city had become nothing morethan a collection of solid, inert cubes, where the taciturn effigies of forgotten benefactors or ancient great men were suffocated forever in bronze, evoking a solitary, degraded image of what man had once been. These mediocre idols, enthroned under a thick sky, in the lifeless crossroads, unfeeling beasts that symbolised well the immobilised realm we had entered, or at least its ultimate order, that of a necropolis where plague, stone, and night would have finally silences any voice.
I’ve commented before on how odd it is that, just because some of our ancestors chose to cast their images in heavy bronze or marble and plonk them down at significant sites in our cities, that we should feel obliged to keep them there. But I assumed that the current attacks on statues of racists was unrelated to the pandemic situation, mere coincidence of crises, except perhaps that the lockdown left people with lots of pent-up energy.
But maybe there’s something about coping with an epidemic that inspires iconoclasm?
I was just listening to physicist Sean Carroll’s podcast interview of epistemologist Quassim Cassam. The interview mainly concerned Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political, but at the end it touched on his new book Conspiracy Theories. He remarked on the widespread belief that conspiracy theories are becoming increasingly widespread, and politically influential, and then made this Chomskyan comment
leaving aside the question of whether conspiracy theories are more or less prevalent, it’s true that conspiracy theories are popular and influential across the world and particularly in the US…. I’m actually much more interested in the idea that conspiracy theories or at least the sort of big ticket conspiracy theories are really forms of political propaganda, that what they really do is to advance a political agenda and that’s really their role.
So, you may think conspiracy theories are just arising naturally, but actually there are dark shadowy figures manipulating belief in conspiracies for their nefarious ends.
One small point: Carroll started the interview by remarking “I know a little bit about epistemology, not that much”. Which struck me as a deeply ironic remark, to which I yearned in vain for Cassam to reply “You may know more about it than you think you do.”
This article about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on air travel mentions social-media criticism of millennials (of course!) for ignoring public health advice by taking advantage of lowered airfares for inessential travel. It occurred to me, though, that the well-publicised observation that the virus seems hardly to affect children and young people at all may create different incentives for different age groups.
And that reminded me of The Subtle Knife, book 2 of Phillip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials about Oxford scholars (and children) exploring the multiverse. A significant portion of that book is set in a parallel world that has been overtaken by “spectres” that attack and devour the minds of adults, but leave children unharmed. So children run wild and the few remaining adults are in hiding.
There’s a lot of competition for the weirdest moments in the Ukraine bribery-extortion-political meddling affair that underlies the current impeachment hearings, but for me there’s not much that can compete with the testimony of diplomat David Holmes that he overheard hotel-magnate-cum-ambassador Gordon Sondland telling Trump that Zelensky would “do anything you ask for” because Zelensky “loves your ass”.
My first reaction on reading this — I may have understood it differently had I heard it spoken — was that it was most bizarre for a head of state to be commenting (favourably or unfavourably) on the intimate anatomy of the US president. And that Trump didn’t strike me as someone particularly concerned about his toned glutes.
I quickly realised that this is not actually an erotic compliment, but rather an application of the somewhat gangster argot that uses “ass” as a general intensifier. I am reminded of the section of Gravity’s Rainbow titled “On the phrase ‘ass backwards’”, where the literal-minded Berlin drug dealer Säure Bummer asks a group of AmericanS
Why do you speak of certain reversals — machinery connected wrong, for instance, as being “Ass backwards”? I can’t understand that. Ass usually isbackwards, right? You ought to be saying “ass forwards,” if backwards is what you mean.
After a typical digression about umlauts and helicopters Seaman Bodine replies
“‘Ass’ is an intensifier, as in ‘mean ass’, ‘stupid ass’ — well, when something is very backwards, by analogy you’d say ‘backwards ass.’”
“But ‘ass backwards’ is ‘backwards ass’ backwards,” Säure objects.
“But gee that doesn’t make it mean forwards.”
I’m still not exactly sure what “he loves your ass” actually means and, in particular, whether it conveys an erotic charge.
I very much enjoyed the new film Yesterday, a romantic comedy with a crudely drawn science-fiction premise — What if The Beatles never existed, but one lone musician still remembered their songs — but I felt disappointed at how philosophically tame it was. At various points perplexing questions are raised about the authorship of the Beatles songs in this alternative reality.
One of my favourite short stories is Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote“. In Borges’s best pseudo-academic prose it recounts the life of French author Pierre Menard, whose most important (and least known) works are “chapters nine and thirty eight of the first part of Don Quijote, and a fragment of chapter twenty-two”. The life project of Menard, it seems, was to write a modern Don Quijote. Not to write a new version of the novel, and not to copy the original, but to write the same novel, from a modern perspective. That is, he wants to lead himself, through his intellectual and life experience, to write the same words that Cervantes wrote three and a half centuries earlier. The narrator then proceeds to analyse Menard’s Quijote, and compare it to Cervantes’s version. The (very serious)’ joke is that the words are identical, but the interpretation is radically different, because of the context in which the words are being written. Continue reading “Pierre Menard and Jack Malik”
I’ve become fascinated by the early-20th-century Austrian writer Hugo Bettauer, author of the prescient satire on antisemitism Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City without Jews). It’s a fascinating look at how Nazism (and allied antisemitic movements) appeared, a decade before it came to power in Germany, when it still seemed a tolerable subject for humour. Among the more striking features of the novel: The Austrian chancellor who proposes the law describes himself as a great friend and admirer of the Jews, in a frighteningly devious speech. The middle-class Viennese women, in Bettauer’s depiction, are distraught at the loss of the Jewish men, with whom most of them were having sexually adventurous and lucrative extramarital affairs. The Jews themselves are portrayed as essentially indifferent to their expulsion (with one important exception), and many of them move to the obviously more tolerant and cosmopolitan Germany. And when the Jews are ultimately allowed to return it is not because anyone has any sympathy for them, but only because it has become clear how useful they are for the economy, and how boring life in Vienna is without them. In one of the weirdest bits of rhetoric, an elderly lawyer, speaking to the salt-of-the-earth waiter in the now empty (because mainly Jews used to populate the cafes) traditional Viennese cafe, remarks
Wien versumpert, sag’ ich Ihnen, und wenn ich als alter, graduierter Antisemit das sag’, so ist es wahr, sag’ ich Ihnen! Ich wer’ Ihnen was sagen, Josef. Wenn ich gegessen hab’, muß ich, Sie wissen’s ja am besten, immer mein Soda-Bikarbonat nehmen, um die elendige Magensäure zu bekämpfen. Wenn ich aber gar keine Magensäure hätt’, so könnt’ ich überhaupt nichts verdauen und müßt’ krepieren. Und wissen S’, der Antisemitismus, der war das Soda zur Bekämpfung der Juden, damit sie nicht lästig werden! Jetzt haben wir aber keine Magensäure, das heißt, keine Juden, sondern nur Soda, und ich glaub’, daran wer’n wir noch zugrund’ geh’n!«
Vienna is rotting, that’s what I say, and when an old dedicated antisemite like me says that, you can believe it. Let me tell you something. After I eat, you know I always have my little bit of bicarbonate of soda, to fight the stomach acid. But if I didn’t have any stomach acid, I wouldn’t be able to digest anything, I’d just croak. And you know, antisemitism was just the soda to fight against the Jews, so that they didn’t get too annoying! But now we have no stomach acid, that is, no Jews, but only soda, and I think we’re all going to perish.
Curious about his life, I had a look in Wikipedia, and found numerous brief remarks that each seemed like there was material for a feature-length movie hidden behind it, if not for a whole miniseries. The son of a wealthy stockbroker, Bettauer ran away from home at the age of 16 to Alexandria, “where the Austrian Consul sent him straight back again”.
In Zürich he married the love of his youth, Olga Steiner, with whom, after the death of his mother, he emigrated to the United States. During the crossing, in a disastrous speculation Bettauer lost his entire fortune.
Unable to find work in the US, despite acquiring US citizenship, Bettauer and his wife moved to Berlin, where he became a prominent journalist.
In 1901 after the suicide of the director of the Berliner Hoftheater, whom he had accused of corruption, Bettauer was expelled from the Kingdom of Prussia
Following a divorce and then remarrying during another eventful crossing to America, and half a decade as a journalist in New York, he returned to work for the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna, where he was then excluded from army service in WWI because of his US citizenship. In one of the oddest turns,
In 1918, after an altercation caused by a defective typewriter, he was fired from the Neue Freie Presse.
He went on to become a prominent and controversial novelist — Greta Garbo’s first international film was based on one of Bettauer’s novels — until he was assassinated by a Nazi dentist in March 1925. The assassin was declared insane, and released after 18 months in a psychiatric clinic.
I’m fascinated by the way ideologies get hardwired into language, so that the ideology becomes unchallengeable and yet invisible. And sometimes you only notice it when you observe how words have changed their meanings or their valence over time.
Thus I was brought up short by this remark of George Washington (quoted in Michael Klarman’s wonderful new account of the origins of the US Constitution The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution) expressing his concerns that the first Congress, considering the clamour for a Bill of Rights and other immediate amendments would produce such
amendments as might be really proper and generally satisfactory without producing or at least fostering such a spirit of innovation as will overturn the whole system.
I’ve never seen the word innovation used to express something to be avoided, rather than something to be promoted and praised. (The one exception is in time-series analysis, where the “innovation” has a purely neutral technical sense.) There is a whole world-view wrapped up in our modern veneration of “innovation”.
I’ve just been reading a book of collected essays by Tony Judt, the wonderful historian of the 20th century who died in 2010. The book was from 2006, and some of his observations seem remarkably prescient, while others… have not aged well.
On the plus side is this, from the introduction:
It was in large measure thanks to the precautionary services and safety nets incorporated into their postwar systems of governance that the citizens of the advanced countries lost the gnawing sentiment of insecurity and fear which had dominated political life between 1914 and 1945.
Until now. For there are reasons to believe that this may be about to change. Fear is reemerging as an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Fear of terrorism, of course; but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.
Few democratic governments can resist the temptation to turn this sentiment of fear to political advantage. Some have already done so. In which case we should not be surprised to see the revival of pressure groups, political parties, and political programs based upon fear: fear of foreigners; fear of change; fear of open frontiers and open communications; fear of the free exchange of unwelcome opinions.
Those inclined to see Donald Trump as a sad symptom of decline for what was once a party of Republican giants, would be disappointed (in the extremely unlikely event that they would read this book) by his portrayal of Nixon’s foreign policy — in the context of reviewing William Bundy’s book on the subject — as a first-time-tragedy adumbration of Trumpism:
His criticism concerns deception, and the peculiar combination of duplicity and vagueness that marked foreign policy in the Nixon era. “The essential to good diplomacy,” Harold Nicolson once suggested, “is precision. The main enemy of good diplomacy is imprecision.” And, paradoxical as it may seem, the main source of imprecision in this era was the obsession with personal diplomacy…
[Nixon] was so absorbed in the recollection and anticipation of slights and injustices, real and imagined, that much of his time as president was taken up with “screwing” his foes, domestic and foreign alike: Even when he had a defensible plan to implement, such as his “new economic policy” of 1971…, he just couldn’t help seeing in it the additional benefit of “sticking it to the Japanese”. He warned even his allies against offering unwanted (critical) counsel… He surrounded himself with yes-men and hardly ever exposed his person or his policies to open debate among experts or more than one adviser at a time.
Purely neutral in the prescience-stakes I was amused to be reminded that the phrase “Make America Great Again” appeared as the subtitle of Peter Beinart’s 2007 Bushian-psycho-militarism-but-from-the-left screed.
On the other side of the ledger,
Liberalism in the United States today is the politics that dare not speak its name… Today a spreading me-first consensus has replaced vigorous public debate… And like their political counterparts, the critical intelligentsia once so prominent in American cultural life has fallen silent.
This seems like an accurate portrayal of the universal rejection of “liberalism” in the US in the GW Bush years, and Judt can’t really be faulted for not having predicted that nearly a decade after his death out-and-proud liberals would be battling self-proclaimed socialists for control of the Democratic party, while free-market ideologues would be trying to rebrand themselves as “classical liberals”.
And then, on its own special plane of awful there is his defence of Arthur Koestler against the accusation of his biographer that he was “a serial rapist”:
If Koestler were alive, he would surely sue for libel, and he would surely win. Even on Cesarani’s own evidence there is only one unambiguously attested charge of rape.
I think I have a pretty good memory of cultural change over my lifetime, but still I was amazed to see a smart and humane person — someone who entirely identified with the Left even — suggesting that a man who had violently raped a woman (with other accusations unproven or more ambiguous, or at least nonviolent) had been unfairly maligned by calling him a “serial rapist”. His confidence that the man would have prevailed at an imaginary libel trial is just extraordinary, and even more extraordinary is to consider that under the conditions that prevailed at the time, so recently, he might have been right.
I wonder how Alan Sokal feels about becoming the new Piltdown, the metonym for a a certain kind of hoax?
So now there’s another attack on trendy subfields of social science, being called “Sokal squared” for some reason. I guess it’s appropriate to the ambiguity of the situation. if you thought the Sokal Hoax was already big, squaring it would make it bigger; on the other hand, if you thought it was petty, this new version is just pettier. And if, like me, you thought it was just one of those things, the squared version is more or less the same.
The new version is unlike the original Sokal Hoax in one important respect: Sokal was mocking social scientists for their credulity about the stupid stuff physicists say. The reboot mocks social scientists for their credulity about the stupid stuff other social scientists say. A group of three scholars has produced a whole slew of intentionally absurd papers, in fields that they tendentiously call “grievance studies”, and managed to get them past peer review at some reputable journals. The hoaxers wink with facially ridiculous theses, like the account of canine rape culture in dog parks.
But if we’re not going to shut down bold thought, we have to allow for research whose aims and conclusions seem strange. (Whether paradoxical theses are unduly promoted for their ability to grab attention is a related but separate matter. For example, one of the few academic economics talks I ever attended was by a behavioural economist explaining the “marriage market” in terms of women’s trading off the steady income they receive from a husband against the potential income from prostitution that they would forego. And my first exposure to mathematical finance was a lecture on how a person with insider information could structure a series of profitable trades that would be undetectable by regulators.) If the surprising claim is being brought by a fellow scholar acting in good faith, trying to advance the discussion in the field, then you try to engage with the argument generously. You need to strike a balance, particularly when technical correctness isn’t a well-defined standard in your field. Trolling with fake papers poisons this cooperative process of evaluation. Continue reading “So long, Sokal”
Isaac Asimov, in a side-remark in his Treasury of Humor, mentioned a conversation in which a participant expressed outrage at a politician blathering about “American goals”. “His specialty is jails, not goals,” and then seeming to expect some laughter. It was only on reflection that Asimov realised that the speaker, who was British, had spelled it gaols in his mind.
I was reminded of this by this Guardian headline:
Labour has shifted focus from bingo to quinoa, say swing voters
The words bingo and quinoa look vaguely similar on the page, but they’re not pronounced anything alike. Unlike Asimov’s example, this wordplay is in writing, so spelling is important. My feeling is that wordplay has to be fundamentally sound-based, so this just doesn’t work for me. Maybe the Guardian editors believe in visual wordplay.
Alternatively, maybe they don’t know how quinoa is pronounced.