Sunday, May 29, 2005

"Gavagai" (With Apologies to Willard Van Orman Quine

The always refreshing Leylop has a funny post on how some English movie titles were translated into Chinese. According to Leylop, "When English movie titles are translated into Chinese, some are following the pronunciation, some are pretty literal, and others are just ridiculous and don't make any sense at all, here are some titles from the last category":

* The Shawshank Redemption -- The Exciting 1995 ( ci ji 1995 )

* Jackie brown -- The Dangerous Relationship ( wei xian guan xi )

* The English Patient -- Don't Ask Who I Am (bie wen wo shi shei )

* As Good As It Gets -- Mr. Cats' Shit ( mao shi xian sheng )

* Out Of Sight -- The Expert Of Strategy (zhan lue gao shou )

* Charlie's Angels -- Lightning Cutie ( pi li tian shi )

* Me, Myself & Irene -- One Head That Is As Big As Two ( yi ge tou liang ge da )

* Fargo -- Moisturizing Lotion Murder ( xue hua gao li qi ming an )

* Gone with the Wind-- The Beauty in Trouble Times ( luan shi jia ren )

* What Women Want-- 100 Percent Man ( nan ren bai fen bai )

* Mission: Impossible-- Spy in Spy ( die zhong die )

* What's Eating Gilbert Grape -- Different Sky ( bu yi yang de tian kong )

* Thelma & Louise -- The Crazy Flower At The End Of The Road ( mo lu kuang hua )

* The Mexican-- The Dangerous Lovers ( wei xian qing ren )

* Erin Brockovich -- Never Give Up ( yong bu tuo xie )

* Legends of the Fall-- The Flaming Times ( ran qing sui yue )

* In the Bedroom-- The Incestuous Love ( luan lun zhi lian )

* Top Gun-- Lofty Ideal Above The Clouds ( zhuang zhi lin yun )

* Don Juan DeMarco -- This Guy Is Sexy ( zhe ge nan ren you dian se )

* The Big Lebowski-- Murdering the Green Toes ( mou sha lv jiao zhi )

(From Leylop's Blog,, posted 12/25/2002).

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Initiation Rites

William Germano's book on the vagaries of turning a dissertation into a book does so in the best possible way: a brilliant excursion into the sociology of knowledge. Here are some pithy excerpts:

"The average dissertation wears its confidence and its insecurity in equal measure.

That mixture of diffidence and bravura shows up in almost all doctoral work. When a dissertation crosses my desk, I usually want to grab it by its metaphorical lapels and give it a good shake. “You know something!” I would say if it could hear me. “Now tell it to us in language we can understand!” ..... The recalcitrant garden-variety dissertation—lips sealed, secrets intact—will find a readership among two hundred library collections at best. Most won’t make it even that far, but linger at the ready in electronic format waiting for some brave soul to call for a download or a photocopy.

It’s hard to pick up a dissertation and hear its author’s voice. Dissertations don’t pipe up. Like the kid in the choir who’s afraid she cannot carry a tune and doesn’t want to be found out, the dissertation makes as small a sound as possible. Often that sound is heard by a committee of from three to five scholars, and no one else. Revising a dissertation is partly a matter of making the writer’s text speak up.

But what is it about the dissertation that makes it so unlikely that it can be made to speak? One senior scholar, veteran of many dissertation committees, cheerfully told me that the doctoral thesis was, at heart, a paranoid genre. “You’re writing it to protect yourself,” the professor observed, and meaning, too, that you are therefore not writing in order to create as bold and imaginative a work as possible. The dissertation is always looking over its shoulder. If you’re writing in literary studies, for example, your dissertation may be looking backward to be sure it’s safe from Foucault, Freud, Butler, and Bhabha, not that any of these worthies are threatening either you or your thesis in any way. To disarm your deities, you cite, paraphrase, and incorporate the ideas of leading scholars now at work. You pour libations to the loudest of the influential dead. The more you do this, the more difficult it becomes to see where your own work ends and the ideas of the Masters begin, so thoroughly has your writing absorbed a way of expressing itself. Then there are the scholars who sit on your dissertation committee. They may not be famous, but for the moment they are the Kindly Ones—the Eumenides—and you will want them on your side. These are natural responses to authority, to one’s teachers, to those who will pass judgment on your work. All this looking over the shoulder may be good for self-protection, but it gets between you and the book you would like to be writing....

As they are bandied about by scholars, journalists, and the academic reading public, the words “thesis,” “hypothesis,” “theory,” and “idea” have become hopelessly entangled. In the Great Age of Theory, that heady period from the late sixties through the late nineties, many a modest idea came packaged as a Theory, with bona fide credentials leading back to Continental masters. The humanities yearned for the authority of abstraction. The social sciences were hardly immune—many of the most important theorists, such as Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens, came from the social science world. If theory aspired to a condition of intellectual purity, or inspired thousands of scholars to do so, it was a condition impossible to sustain for long. Theories of everything sprang up, with a concreteness that made it possible for a reader to connect a Big Abstract Franco-German Idea with educational practice in Illinois or the use of personal pronouns in Shakespeare’s late plays.

As theory became the queen of disciplines, it seemed that every young scholar was under the double obligation not only to come up with a theory, but to do it in a way that was—truly, madly, deeply—theoretical. A good idea might be an embarrassment when what was wanted was a highly philosophical examination of the subject, enriched with the work of German and French thinkers. “As Foucault has said,” “According to Hegel,” “As Derrida has written,” became the incipits of much academic writing, both at the professorial and graduate student levels. Theory meant many things to many people.

Even today, many dissertations fall into the trap of making claims too grand for the evidence mustered by the author. All too often, a small and perceptive idea is dressed up in clothes two sizes too large and trotted out as a theory. Publishers understand that a graduate student needs to demonstrate what he or she knows. But the book that a dissertation hopes to become won’t work if it appears to be a cottage built somewhere on the rolling estate of another scholar’s work. It would be healthy if dissertations could be entitled “My Footnotes to Jameson” or “Two Small Thoughts about Bretton Woods”—healthy, honest even, but unlikely to win the author a job.

A thesis is a work of scholarship and argumentation, and its primary function is to demonstrate that you are able to undertake professional-level work. It isn’t necessarily professional-level work in itself, though sometimes it can come close to that. Much is made about the idea of the writer’s “thesis”—the argument within the dissertation—as if each of the new Ph.D.’s created each year were expected to come up with a blinding insight. It was never so. Most dissertations have been written on the shoulders of giants. Many do even less, and just step on the giants’ toes. A wise dissertation director once counseled a naive graduate student that the dissertation would be the last piece of his student writing, not his first professional work. (It was good advice, and I’ve never regretted him giving it to me.) Every editor at a scholarly publishing house knows this, and most dissertation directors know it, too.

A dissertation demonstrates technical competence more often than an original theory or a genuine argument. This is, in fact, another of those open secrets of academic publishing: a book doesn’t actually need an original theory. It’s often more than enough to synthesize a range of ideas or perspectives, as long as one can do it in a way that creates a new perspective (your own) and provides the reader with further insights into an interesting problem. As academic publishers know, the first book manuscript will try to make claims it can’t fulfill. Your book does need a controlling idea, though. A thesis isn’t a hypothesis. Back in junior high, when the scientific method first came into view, most of us tested ideas on the order of “My hypothesis is that a dry leaf will burn faster than a green one.” Or “Snails will eat pizza.” We learned something about method, even when the green leaf failed to burn and the snails ignored the half onion, half extra-cheese. The first hypothesis was proven true, the second false. A doctoral thesis doesn’t test an idea in the same way. You couldn’t, for example, write a dissertation that tested the validity of the idea that terrestrial mollusks will consume fast food; there are better things for a biologist to be working on, and the result isn’t likely to be something that would make a book. You could challenge someone else’s thesis—for example, the art historian Millard Meiss’s idea that the plague in fourteenth-century Italy changed the way painters represented God. But in challenging it, you had better come up with a conclusion that takes exception to Meiss. It won’t do to “test” the thesis and conclude that Meiss was right. And you can’t posit a dubious idea merely to test it and find it wrong. “Dickens was the least popular British novelist of the nineteenth century.” This is false, and there isn’t any point in “testing” it merely to prove that the idea is groundless. I’ve offered examples that are intentionally exaggerated, but a more uncomfortable scenario might concern the thesis that argues an intelligent point badly, draws false inferences from good data, or builds a structure on a few readings as if they could by themselves map your universe of possibilities.

Some dissertations wrestle with their origins. Can you outmaneuver your famous dissertation director? Challenge the dominant paradigm in your field? Attack the work of the chair of the most important department in your discipline? Any of these forays will create controversy, and controversy isn’t necessarily bad. But it doesn’t mean that a dissertation that gets you into hot water within your field is automatically one that will be publishable as a book. Sometimes a young scholar needs to stage certain arguments in order to break free of powerful influences, and sometimes that will be liberating for the writer. But the contentious dissertation isn’t de facto more publishable than one that picks no academic quarrels.

A thesis is an argument, not a proposition to be tested. A doctoral thesis, however, is quite often not an argument at all, but only a very small part of a bigger argument taking place in one’s discipline or in American society or in culture more broadly. There’s a tension here between the imperative to be creative and the need to take a place in the larger conversation that is one’s scholarly field. A good dissertation director will skillfully guide a graduate student to a dissertation project that will give her the opportunity to show her stuff and not fall off a cliff or get stuck in a corner.

A good academic idea is connected to what has gone before it, modest in acknowledging the work on which it depends, but fresh. It’s not necessary for the idea to be startling or implausible on page 1, wrestling for the reader’s consent, and winning it by a fall on page 350. An idea for a book can be quiet, noisy, insidious, overheated, cool, revisionist, radical, counterintuitive, restorative, synthetic. Ideas are as different as the minds they inhabit. Some writers find it terribly hard to say what their idea is. “If you want to know what I have to say, read the manuscript!” a frustrated author declares. In a sense, that author is right—if you want to know what a writer has to say, read her thoroughly and with care. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to summarize her work or to find in it something we are happy to call her '“idea.” Your idea may be a massive corrective—think of the work on Stalin’s Russia made possible by declassified documents—or a study that looks at St. Paul’s well-studied writings in what Dickinson calls “a certain slant of light,” finding nuances and making small connections because you were there, thinking, at a certain moment. I keep an Ansel Adams poster in my office. More than we admit, books are like photographs, possible only because the camera and the eye were fortunate to be somewhere at the very moment when the clouds held their shape just long enough." (William Germano, From Dissertation to Book, The University of Chicago Press: 2005).

Americanisms II

Richard Adams reviews Thomas Friedman's "The World Is Flat":

In her introduction to Graham Greene's The Quiet American, Zadie Smith says of Alden Pyle, the American of the title: "His worldly innocence is a kind of fundamentalism." She goes on: "Reading the novel again reinforced my fear of all the Pyles around the world. They do not mean to hurt us, but they do."

"A modern-day [Graham] Greene could substitute the works of the real-life Thomas Friedman - a contemporary quiet American. Like Pyle, Friedman is "impregnably armed by his good intentions and his ignorance". In The World Is Flat Friedman has produced an epyllion to the glories of globalisation with only three flaws: the writing style is prolix, the author is monumentally self-obsessed, and its content has the depth of a puddle.

"Even the title of the book rests uneasily on a conceit. Friedman recounts meeting an Indian entrepreneur: "He said to me, 'Tom, the playing field is being levelled.'" A cliché of the business world, but Friedman's brain digests it thus: "What [he] is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened ... Flattened? Flattened? My god, he's telling me the world is flat!"

"This leads Friedman to modestly compare his journey to Christopher Columbus - "Columbus sailed with the Nina ... I had Lufthansa business class" - and lay out a rambling theory about globalisation. It ends with dire predictions of looming international competition, where, in Friedman's terms, industrialised economies will need to produce chocolate sauce rather than vanilla ice-cream. ....

His limits are obvious as early as page 14, with lengthy quotes from Accounting Today. It is downhill from there, to a nadir in the book's second half when any shred of concinnity disappears and entire emails are reproduced, beginning "Hi Tom. Hope this email finds you well." Has Allen Lane dispensed with its editors? That would explain why every Americanism is left in, including "labor". Readers outside the US may also be puzzled by references to Pedro Martinez and first round draft picks - but then this book isn't aimed at them.

The ultimate example is a detailed report on the computer company Dell's construction of Friedman's latest laptop. Journalists are notorious for interviewing their typewriters, but this must be the longest example of the genre: a typewriter's complete biography.

Throughout the book the metaphor of a flat Earth is reproduced again and again. What was not a particularly useful image to begin with is flogged to death until only the bones remain. At the same time, Friedman's laptop may need the "I" key replacing, such is the hammering it must have absorbed from the author's use of the personal pronoun. In the course of the book we learn much - too much - about Friedman's family, friends and eating habits, culminating in a paean to his school journalism teacher ("I sit up straight just thinking about her!").

Friedman's writing style would still grate, but it would not matter so much if there were any value in his argument. There isn't. He roves the world interviewing the likes of Bill Gates, and concludes that high technology is changing everything. That's like studying the UK labour market by only talking to Premier league footballers.

"Pyle was very earnest and I had suffered from his lectures on the Far East," the reader is told in The Quiet American. "Democracy was another subject of his, and he had pronounced and aggravating views on what the United States was doing for the world." So too does our modern-day Pyle." (From The Guardian, "Once Upon A Time In America," May 21, 2005).

Too Many Cooks

"Where there are too many policemen, there is no liberty. Where there are too many soldiers, there is no peace. Where there are too many lawyers, there is no justice." (Lin Yutang)

Monday, May 23, 2005

Leading Lives of Quiet Desperation

"PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail-in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard":

The Froth Estate

Brian Leiter takes exception to The Economist's review of his book:

"So what is it with journalists? I know they're not all malevolent morons. Karl Kraus said, "No ideas and the ability to express them: that's a journalist." But perhaps we should add a corollary: "No integrity and the ability to display it: that's also some journalists." (Leiter Reports, May 20, 2005).

Waiting for the Barbarians

Anthropomorphism continues to be one of the most potent racist tropes in U.S. public discourse. The Washington Post sounds the alarm on the "yellow peril":

"These fish jump. Oh, how they jump. It's common for an Asian carp to leap four feet out of the water and flop into whatever may rumble into its path, be it watercraft or fisherman. They also make a big splash. A 60-pounder is not unusual.

"Every day we go out on the water, the number of fish we see jumping around the boat is just astounding. It's incomprehensible," said Mark Pegg, a fisheries biologist for the Illinois Natural History Survey. "You just have to see it to realize there are that many fish jumping around you."

Near the Illinois River, Pegg and his colleagues inspected a 43-pound female, which he described as "a small one." She was carrying 2.2 million eggs, and she had plenty of company. "There were hundreds, if not thousands, of large females in this one inlet we were sampling."

The Asian carp is sowing fear in marine biologists and fishermen. Descendants of the fish, imported from China 30 years ago by catfish farmers in the deep South, escaped their pens when floodwaters rose and have been swimming north and procreating ever since, each day consuming as much as 50 percent of their body weight in plankton and other microorganisms.

The danger, experts say, is that the voracious jumping carp will overrun the waterways and other fish will starve to death. Here along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, a gateway to the Great Lakes, government authorities hope to shock the carp into submission.

Literally." (Peter Slevin, "Its Asian Carp Against the Current," The Washington Post, May 22, 2005).

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Civility and Its Discontents

George Galloway is the British Member of Parliament (M.P.) who has been in the news lately over allegations that he took kickbacks from Saddam Hussein. His foes -- the U.S. right and the British Labor party -- have proven to be almost almost as deadly in wielding symbolic violence as they are in physical devastation, but in Galloway they have found the kind of opponent who not only mirrors their imperial ferocity, but joins this with the slashing debating skills that only the British public school system and, later, parliament can perfect.

When the U.S. Senate moved to have hearings on the "oil for food" scandal, Galloway stunned his critics by agreeing to appear without immunity before the Senate (which he referred to as the "lion's den") -- the first time a British politician has been interrogated as a hostile witness in the U.S. Senate (BBC). According to a spokesman, told of the U.S. hearings, Galloway said: ‘Book the flights, let’s go - let’s give them both barrels.’ He quickly added: ‘That’s guns, not oil.’

He also said of the committee: "This is a lickspittle Republican committee, acting on the wishes of George W Bush." He likened Norm Coleman the Senate committee chairman to the late senator and anti-Communist crusader McCarthy: "Joseph McCarthy must be smiling admirably in Hades."

Before the hearing began, The Guardian reports, "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.

At the hearings, he went on the attack, referring to Norm Coleman as a "neo-con, pro-war hawk." The BBC reports: "Far from displaying the forelock-tugging deference to which senators are accustomed, Mr. Galloway went on the attack."

He told Norm Coleman: "Now I know that standards have slipped over the last few years in Washington, but for a lawyer, you are remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice." (According to the BBC, "the whole room scanned Mr Coleman's face for a reaction. The senator shifted in his seat - nervously it seemed").

The Guardian reports that "the courtroom became a vaudeville theatre, as the MP lampooned his interrogators, accusing them of making "schoolboy howler" mistakes."

Accused of supporting Saddam, he retorted: "I was an opponent of Saddam Hussein when British and Americans governments and businessmen were selling him guns and gas. I used to demonstrate outside the Iraqi embassy when British and American officials were going in and doing commerce."

“I told the world that Iraq, contrary to your claims did not have weapons of mass destruction. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that Iraq had no connection to al-Qaeda. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that Iraq had no connection to the atrocity on 9/11 2001. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that the Iraqi people would resist a British and American invasion of their country and that the fall of Baghdad would not be the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning. Senator, in everything I said about Iraq, I turned out to be right and you turned out to be wrong and 100,000 people paid with their lives; 1600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies; 15,000 of them wounded, many of them disabled forever on a pack of lies."

"On the very first page of your document about me, you assert that I have had many meetings with Saddam Hussein. This is false," Mr Galloway said. "I have had two meetings with Saddam Hussein, once in 1994 and once in August 2002. By no stretch of the English language can that be described as many meetings. In fact I've met him exactly the same number of times as Donald Rumsfeld met him. The difference is that Donald Rumsfeld met him to sell him guns and to give him maps the better to target those guns."

When Mr Coleman asked how he could have failed to be aware of Mr Zureikat's oil deals, Mr Galloway turned the attention to Mr Coleman's campaign fundraising.

He said: "Well, there's a lot of contributors, I've just been checking your website..."

"Not many at that level, Mr Galloway," the senator interjected.

"No, let me assure you there are," Mr Galloway went on. "I've checked your website. There are lots of contributors to your political campaign funds, I don't suppose you ask any of them how they made the money they give you."

Mr Coleman stuck to his task. "If I can get back to Mr Zureikat one more time, do you recall a time when you specifically had a conversation with him about oil dealings in Iraq?"

After the hearing, Galloway declared victory. He said of Coleman, the committee chairman: "He's not much of a lyncher."

Later he said of his appearance: "I did a bit of sanction busting," he said, brandishing a cigar. "I smoked a Havana cigar just like this one. I smoked it inside the Capitol building, I even blew the smoke at the White House." (Reuters).

Un-Tenured Radical

David Graeber, until this year an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale University, has been denied tenure at Yale. In an interview with CounterPunch magazine, Graeber emphasizes the two taboos of academic survival (the violation of which cost him his job):

1. It's O.K. to have radical beliefs -- just don't act on them.
2. It's O.K. to denounce regimes in far off lands -- just don't take on the institutional regime.

He explains what happened:

1. Untenured Radicals:

"I had an official third-year review and I had no problems with that, they told me I was doing fine. Then, after that, I started writing essays defending anarchism, and getting involved in big mobilizations against the IMF and G8 as well organizing with the peace movement.

When I got back from my sabbatical, everything had changed. Several of the senior profs wouldn't even say hello to me. I was assigned no committee work. When I came up for review in my sixth year for promotion to term associate - normally a rubber stamp - suddenly, several senior faculty virulently opposed my promotion on the grounds that I didn't do any committee work. Not surprising since they refused to give me any. They also produced a whole panoply of petty charges - "he comes late to class," that sort of thing - which, as usual, I was not allowed to know about much less respond to. Of course I was acting exactly as I'd acted for the first three years, too, but suddenly it was a terrible problem. The vote deadlocked so they took it to the Dean who told them they couldn't fire someone without a warning, so I was given a letter telling me I had to do something about my "unreliability" and do more service work.

My contract was extended for just two years instead of the usual four, and I was told they would vote at the end of the next year to see if it would be extended (so that I would be able to come up for tenure.) So this year I've been running the colloquium series, doing all sorts of extra teaching - this term for instance, I effectively taught three courses instead of the required two because I had one weekly class with undergraduates who were all taking independent studies with me - taught one of the most popular courses in Yale (Myth and Ritual, with 137 students) ... But on Friday May 6, I was informed that they had voted not to renew my contract anyway and offered no explanation as to why."

2. Tenured Totalitarians:

"To be honest, I actually tried to avoid getting involved in campus activism for many years. I figured we all have to make our little compromises, mine would be: I'd be an activist in New York, and a scholar in New Haven, and that meant avoiding the whole unionization question as much as I could. In the long run, of course, it was impossible. Our department is extremely divided, certain elements in the senior faculty hate GESO with an infinite passion and campaign tirelessly against it, the students are all factionalized; it's a mess. I supported the principle of unionization of course; I was also very critical of what I saw as the top-down organization of the union (after all, I'm an anarchist - my idea of a good union is the IWW); I just tried to be fair to all sides.

But in the end I got drawn in. It all came to a head a few months ago, actually, when certain elements in the senior faculty tried to kick out a very brilliant graduate student who also happened to be one of the department's major organizers. As it turned out, I was the only professor on her committee willing to openly stand up for her during the meeting where they tried to terrorize her into leaving the program. She refused to back down, and with the help of some of my colleagues, we managed to get her through her defense successfully, but after that, certain elements in the senior faculty seemed determined to take revenge......

" I don't want to give the impression that the senior faculty are all the same: there are some amazing, wonderful scholars amongst the senior faculty here. We're really just talking about three, maybe four, who are atrocious bullies. I have five colleagues who were just awesome, and who fought as hard as they could to defend me. It's just that the bullies never give up - they're willing to throw all their time and energy into these battles, since after all, most have long since given up on any meaningful intellectual life - and of course since everything's secret, there's no accountability.

They can tell one lie about you, get caught in it, and then next time around just make up another one and eventually the majority of the faculty will say "it doesn't matter whether what they say is true. If they hate this guy so much, then clearly his presence is divisive. Let's just get rid of him." As for the episode with the grad student: absolutely. Again, some of these people have no intellectual life. In most departments there's one or two characters like that, you know. Their power is the only thing they really have. So anyone challenges that power in any way and they react like cornered tigers. That's why they hate the union so much. That's why they go berserk if anyone stands up to them."

Praxis as taboo:

"One thing that I've learned in academia is no one much cares what your politics are as long as you don't do anything about them. You can espouse the most radical positions imaginable, as long as you're willing to be a hypocrite about them. The moment you give any signs that you might not be a hypocrite, that you might be capable of standing on principle even when it's not politically convenient, then everything's different. And of course anarchism isn't about high theory: it's precisely the willingness to try to live by your principles."

... But now in the "imperial university," even theory may be a thought-crime:

"If you'd asked me six months ago, I would have probably said 'academics can be activists as long as they do nothing to challenge the structure of the university," or anyone's power within it. If you want to make an issue of labor conditions in Soweto, great, you're a wonderful humanitarian; if you want to make an issue of labor conditions for the janitors who clean your office, that's an entirely different story.

But I think you're right, something's changing. I mean, I'm sure it's not like there's someone giving orders from above or anything, but there's a climate suddenly where people feel they can get away with this sort of thing, and the Ward Churchill and Massad cases obviously must have something to do with that. I've been hearing a lot of stories, in recent weeks, about radical teachers suddenly being let go for no apparent reason. They don't even have to dig up something offensive you're supposed to have said any more - at least, in my case no one is even suggesting I did or said anything outrageous, in which case, at least there'd be something to argue about.

If I had to get analytical about it, maybe I'd put it this way. We're moving from the neoliberal university to the imperial university. Or at least people are trying to move us there. It used to be as long as you didn't challenge the corporatization of the university, you'd be basically okay. But the neoliberal project - where the politicians would all prattle about "free markets and democracy" and what that would actually mean was that the world would be run by a bunch of unelected trade bureaucrats in the interests of Citibank and Monsanto - that kind of fell apart. And of course the groups I've been working with - People's Global Action, the DANs and ACCs and the like - we had a lot to do with that. It threw the global elites into a panic, and of course the normal reaction of global elites when thrown into a panic is to go and start a war. It doesn't really matter who the war's against. The point is once you've got a war, the rules start changing, all sorts of things you'd never be able to get away with otherwise become possible, whether in Haiti or New Haven. In that kind of climate, nasty people start trying to see what they can get away with. "Fire the anarchist for no particular reason? Maybe that'll work."

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Interview Agonistes

"Henry Raymond" reports on his travails as a job candidate out on a campus interview:

"[The search committee] explained without embarrassment that faculty members shared work space -- three professors to an office. .....

"... [W]hile I was expected to sing for my supper, the department made little or no effort to woo me. There was, in fact, quite literally, no supper. Or lunch. At one point during the day, the chairman handed me a prewrapped sandwich from the student cafeteria, served on a paper plate. I was allowed to feast on this meal -- two pieces of cold, white bread, concealing a thin layer of stale turkey and a piece of American cheese -- while the committee members, who were not eating, plied me with more questions about myself.

"Later, on the campus tour, the chairman made a point of showing me the faculty dining room and telling me how good the food was there. I wondered at that point whether the entire day was a test pilot for a new run of Candid Camera. (They had spent considerable money on plane tickets and hotel rooms. Were lunch or dinner going to break the bank?).

"My meeting with the dean was even worse. By my recollection, I never got a word in. Bringing new definition to the idea of self-absorption, the dean talked at great length about herself, about the university, and about the very demanding standards -- teaching, research, and committee work -- that untenured faculty members were expected to meet. Not once did she ask about my research, give me an opportunity to ask my own questions, or make a concerted pitch for her institution.

" Thirty minutes into the "meeting," I zoned out. Could I make an earlier flight home if the meeting went short? I wondered if I'd have time to grab a hamburger at the airport.

All in all it was an unimpressive day. I left dispirited, and hungry.

I also figured that, however well I performed at my sample teaching and job talks, I hadn't masked my disappointment too well. So it was a complete surprise when, last week, the chairman of the committee called to offer me the job. Granted, I wasn't going to take it. But the chairman even managed to botch the final sell.

Here are the terms of the offer, he told me. "This isn't a negotiation." Take it or leave it.

Wow. And it will be great to work with you, too!

If the second-choice candidate should accept Large Metropolitan's offer, I'm sure he or she will prove an able and enthusiastic member of the department.

Let's face it: I'm not God's gift to academe. There are a lot of other qualified candidates for the job.

Maybe, then, in the end, Large Metropolitan University got it right. It's a tight job market, and they don't have to impress anyone. They have a precious commodity at their disposal -- a tenure-track job. " (Chronicle of Higher Education, Tuesday, May 17, 2005).

Monday, May 16, 2005

Generation M(atrix)

Mark Kaplan, at his Charlotte Street blog, muses:

"Speaking of a unified world, one of my American students confided in me after a trip abroad "they don't seem to have a cafe culture in Italy, do they?" 'What?," I stammered. 'Well, I didn't see a single Starbucks all the time I was there."

As Jim Morrison might have said, 'I've been steeped in simulacra so damn long, it sure looks like the real to me." ( Mark Kaplan's Blog, charlotte street, Thursday, August 05, 2004).

The Ideology of the Aesthetic

"I think very early on I developed a way of dealing with painful information, which was to say, that's interesting. Instead of allowing myself to be hurt by it." [Susan Sontag, Guardian Unlimited, Saturday, May 27, 2000].

Saturday, May 14, 2005

All The News That's Fit to Print

On Cardinal Ratzinger's ascension to Pope, the London Sun's headline screamed: "From Hitler Youth to ... Papa Ratzi." The paper described Pope Benedict XVI as an an "ex-World War II enemy soldier."

(from Carlin Romano, "The Pope's Sins of Omission," Chronicle of Higher Education).

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The Definitive Argument Against Evolution


"It was hot weather when they tried the infidel Scopes at Dayton, Tenn., but I went down there very willingly, for I was eager to see something of evangelical Christianity as a going concern. In the big cities of the Republic, despite the endless efforts of consecrated men, it is laid up with a wasting disease. The very Sunday-school superintendents, taking jazz from the stealthy radio, shake their fire-proof legs; their pupils, moving into adolescence, no longer respond to the proliferating hormones by enlisting for missionary service in Africa, but resort to necking instead. Even in Dayton, I found, though the mob was up to do execution on Scopes, there was a strong smell of antinomianism. The nine churches of the village were all half empty on Sunday, and weeds choked their yards. Only two or three of the resident pastors managed to sustain themselves by their ghostly science; the rest had to take orders fro mail-order pantaloons or work in the adjacent strawberry fields; one, I heard, was a barber ..... Exactly twelve minutes after I reached the village I was taken in tow by a Christian man and introduced to the favorite tipple of the Cumberland Range; half corn liquor and half Coca-Cola. It seemed a dreadful dose to me, but I found that the Dayton illuminati got it down with gusto, rubbing their tummies and rolling their eyes. They were all hot for Genesis, but their faces were too florid to belong to teetotalers, and when a pretty girl came tripping down the main street, they reached for the places where their neckties should have been with all the amorous enterprise of movie stars ...." (The inimitable H. L. Mencken on the "Monkey Trial" circa 1925).


"There are alternatives. Children need to hear them....We can't ignore that our nation is based on Christianity — not science." ( Kathy Martin, presiding over a curriculum board in Topeka Kansas that is holding hearings on two proposals: "The first recommends that students continue to be taught the theory of evolution because it is key to understanding biology. The other proposes that Kansas alter the definition of science, not limiting it to theories based on natural explanations."). (Los Angeles Times, "Evolution Isn't a Natural Selection Here, May 6, 2005).

Conflict of the Faculties

Define "sociology":

"My father, who is an anthropologist, is fond of refering to sociology as the “anthropology of white people” ( A comment by Jackjumper, in the blog Crooked Timber, November 16th, 2004).

Saturday, May 07, 2005

All Too Human

"WHILE his spoken memoirs burnished the popular impression of [the physicist Richard P.] Feynman as the merry prankster, the letters here imply he grew tired of that image. To a Swedish letter writer who had apparently suggested that playing the bongo drums made a physicist ''human,'' he replied: ''Theoretical physics is a human endeavor, one of the higher developments of human beings -- and this perpetual desire to prove that people who do it are human by showing that they do other things that a few other humans do (like playing bongo drums) is insulting to me. I am human enough to tell you to go to hell.'' (Excerpt from Kate Zernicke's review of a book on Feynman's letters, The New York Times).

The Morality of Morality

"The one thing more insufferable than a pretense of moral superiority is a pretense of superiority to morals, as if the task of an "evolving" woman or man is to stand above the struggle instead of on the right side." (Garret Keizer in a fiery, brilliant post "Left, Right, & Wrong," Mother Jones, March/April issue).

Not Just One D______ Thing After Another

Timothy Burke, at Cliopatra, lists the "rationales" historians give for doing history:

" The Hooks of History:

Without going the full Hayden White route and essentially reducing historical writing to the sum of its tropes, I have been thinking more simplistically about the basic rhetorical "hooks" that are common in contemporary historical writing, both scholarly and non-scholarly writing. I've come up with a list of ten: I'm curious to see if there are other identifiable strategies that ought to be on the list. These are the basic strategies that histories use to justify their own existence, to explain their importance to a reader.

Here's my ten:
1. Something that you didn’t think has a history does have one (example: Foucault)

2. The history that you think you know is wrong (revisionism)

3. Your life in some important way is determined by the history I am writing about

4. Your life in some important way is NOT determined by the history I am writing about, contrary to your assumption: the past is a foreign country

5. Past is prologue; history as a guide to future action; history as a data set for predictive social science

6. Past is NOT prologue: history as clarifying how a present crisis is unique to the present; history as confounding social science

7. Illumination of the self: we can identify with individuals or whole cultures in the past and in that identification discover what is universal or expansive in ourselves

8. Illumination of the other: we can find in the past radically different or alien individuals, modes of life, etc., that help understand the plasticity and diversity of human experience

9. History as heritage: some particular past provides you a sense of identity and meaning either by serving as exemplar or as the primal source of important ritual and tradition; history is memory-work

10. History as narrative: history is just about telling good, compelling stories that are entertaining or provocative; stories for their own sake.
(Timothy Burke, Cliopatra).

Friday, May 06, 2005

Conflict of the Faculties: The Dismal Science

Economics is dismal, all agree, but a science?

Correspondents at Angelica's battlepanda blog are the first to go:

i) "I don't know if this economics class is anything like what I think it is, but here's one thing that always makes me think "bullshit!" when I'm dealing with economics.

Basically, taking something that works fairly well for an economy as a whole (for example, the Cobb-Douglas production function) and then applying it to, say, one firm. A lot of my intro economics was, along the lines of, "the firm's technology is K^(a)L^(1 - a). Price is p. Use a Lagrangian to find the optimal output." and that sort of stuff. Meanwhile, I'm thinking, "right. A firm that produces widgets with a Cobb-Douglas production function. Which firms does this describe? General Motors? Wal-Mart? Microsoft? Ikea?"

I think that the most important thing that an economics class is communicate the core "intellectual tools" of economics: oppurtunity cost, Pareto optimality, no-arbitrage conditions.

Instead of telling kids, "As you can see from the Slutsky decomposition, it is entirely possible, at least in theory, for the income effect to be negative and larger than the substitution effect: this is known as a Giffen good," then drawing a pair of budget constraints and indifference curves in which a decrease in the price of good 1 leads to a decrease in the consumption of good 1, try putting them in the shoes of an Irish peasant. "Assume you must get 12 meals a week. Suppose you have $18 a week. You prefer cauliflower to potatoes. A meal of potatoes cost $1 each. A meal of cauliflower costs $2 each. What is your consumption of potatoes and cauliflower? Suppose the price of potatoes goes up to $1.50. What is your consumption of potatoes and cauliflower?" There! The core idea of the Giffen good. No Slutsky equation, no Lagrangean multipliers.

Basically, I think that the most powerful things in economics -- at least at the lower levels, like introductory courses -- are the ideas, not methods. If I understand correctly, all the methods I'm learning now for economics are worthless anyway, since Debreu said we can't use multivariable calculus in our economics anymore, and we have to use a bunch of point-set topology instead." (Julian Elson)

ii) "I am, to be up-front, a heterodox product of UMass Amherst, so discount this as much as you please. But when I was an undergrad at Dartmouth 25 years back my experience was similar. I thought intro econ classes would teach me about actual economic life. Instead I got silly models. I had a better math background than the classes were designed for, so I had no trouble mastering the models, but I could also see how arbitrary their assumptions were. Intro micro in particular pushed me over the edge -- how could you do a whole course around a little bit of dumbed-down constrained optimization? So I went off and did humanities, which offered more interesting challenges, and only came back to a Ph.D. program in econ ten years later.

When I teach this stuff now, I try to build in student research projects that help them learn to use real-world data, so that at least I can show them by the end of the class that the world is more transparent. But I'd never talk about "believing in" economics -- it's not a religion, it's a social science and still a rather inadequate one." (Colin Danby)

iii) "....economics is, in fact, a quack science." (dsquared (Daniel Davies), of Crooked Timber)

iv) "I'm not sure I can speak to RJ's viewpoint, because my Econ 101 left very little impression on me (my core courses were extraordinarily intense). All I know is that my personal skepticism of simplistic economics (by which I mean 90% of public discussions of economics) has been met by shrill horror by economists I know. Kind of like how orthodox Christians I know respond to my feelings on that topic.

I adore DeLong's site, and appreciate much of his thinking, but I also see an awful lot of insular thinking - at some point, the model becomes more precious than what it supposedly models. I think economic thinking is very valuable, but its rigorous mathematical pursuit strikes me as being (somewhat) less so. Perhaps this is because it is, fundamentally, a social science. Humans aren't billiard balls, and while you can get pretty far modelling them that way, at some point they're just not going to act in the way your model has predicted, and all the formulae in the world can't change that.

All of which supports the idea that economics needs to be more widely taught, but as a mode of thought, not a series of formulae. The formulae won't help the layman think about economics issues for himself, but concepts and examples - like the excellent potato/cauliflower one - will." (JRoth)

v)"I'm finishing a Master's now, and boy, do I ever hate it. I'm finding that the writings of people like Mark Blaug, Tony Lawson, Leontieff, etc, have a lot of resonance with me right now: ie academic economics has become a pointless, sterile mathematical exercise that has the square root of sweet **** all to do with reality. And understanding REALITY was what made me want to do this in the first place.... models are only interesting to me to the extent that I feel they are shedding light on reality, not as math games in their own right. But the models we learn about all seem to have two features in common

1. They make howlingly implausible assumptions (and Milton Friedman can get stuffed, that DOES matter).

2. They fail brutally as soon as they are confronted with real data, that is, if they are even testable at all.

What a pathetic waste of time this has been. I'm going to go out, get a job, learn about REAL economic institutions, and flush 90% of this stuff right down the toilet as the useless and irrelevant crap that it is." (Darren)

vi) As someone who decided that my econ major was a terrible mistake, but only after it was too late to finish undergrad on the four year plan if I changed majors, I would suggest:

1) Assumptions that every undergrad instantly sees as inane;
2) Rational expectations;
3) A total lack of discussion of the political element that truely determines macro policy;
4) Comparative advantage (Explain to me why anyone would prefer 19th century Portugal's economy to England's. I can't remeber whether that example was Smith or Ricardo, but it sure seemed to me as a exceptionally strong arguement for Portugal to put up trade barriers and promote investment in manufacturing. Not the conclusions that were intended I think); and
5) Micro classes fixated on utitilies, which as best I can figure out, was invented solely to provide an alternative to the labor theory of value, and is utterly useless for anything but making the models elegant." (Paul)

vii) Very interesting comments here. I would also add that the jargon used is a real barrier to understanding.

For example, the following phrase is from a recent post at Delong's (which I read almost daily, and find useful & enjoyable):

"...employers can use the threat of withdrawal of these rents..."

What do most students understand by the word "rent"? Quite a bit of explanation is needed to make them understand the sense in which it's used in the phase quoted, and even then a process of mental translation from vernacular to jargon is needed EVERY TIME they read it. Similarly, terms like "return to capital (or labor)" are used when common usages like "return ON investment" are familiar to many if not most.

I would suggest that an introductory course for non-economists built around a book like "The Economist's View of the World" by Stephen Rhoads would be a good place to start. Although not a textbook (and possibly in need of some updating from 1985) the book concentrates on real-world effects of economic thinking. This could be expanded with details, models, etc as appropriate. The important thing is that it ties the concepts and models back to something potentially meaningful to the student.

BTW, I'm an electrical engineer, and my field is jam-packed with jargon. But I have spent a good portion of my professional life explaining engineering things to non-engineers. It can be done, but you have to abandon the jargon. Otherwise it turns into buzz buzz buzz and they fall asleep." (John in Maryland)

viii) On rent: I have several undergrad courses, and I'm on the verge of finishing a Master's, and I have *never* heard the word 'rent' used inside an economics classroom in its economic sense. I suspect rent is quite a useful thing to understand if you want to actually understand the world, but of course that's the last thing that academic economics is interested in, so any discussion of rent is avoided.

(Explaining the world to non-economists is equally uninteresting to the profession, therefore dropping the jargon is undesirable as well)." (Darren)

ix) "........... Too many economists thinks the answer to how to communicate to the public is to bamboozle them into submission rather than an honest dialog. *ahem* Alan Greenspan *ahem*.

And yes. Milton Friedman can get stuffed. .........." (battlepanda)

x) "I dismissed econ as a law student mostly because it seemed to make people stupid -- while I can see that patently unrealistic assumptions (e.g. perfect information) might be a useful first step in trying to figure things out, you can't stop there. I had one too many conversations with people saying "Look, economics irrefutably establishes X -- my logic is flawless," to which the only reasonable response was "Perfect logic won't get you anywhere if your premises are nonsense; your premises, and your results, are just that."

I'm regretting it now -- I wish I'd taken econ as an undergrad, and paid more attention to it in law school. Still, there are a lot of people out there giving econ a bad name, by using it to support arguments that just don't stand up." (LizardBreath)

xi) "After years of rigorous math and physics classes, my first course in macro-economics was jaw-dropping. I couldn't believe the fascile hand-waving explanations and shoddy math. Syllogism by metaphor seems to be the standard of reason. Even worse is the conceit that economics is a science. Economics may be complicated, and may use what looks like math, but it's no science.

Perhaps economics has value in providing some means of measuring and categorizing economic activity, but as an analytical and predictive model it's a farce.

And as a justification for public policy it's a scam." (Archie)

Teacherly Zingers

Jack Slay jr. talks of a colleague who referred to the "bottom-feeding" grade D as a "coward's F."

(Chronicle of Higher Education, "No Extra Credit For You.")

Monday, May 02, 2005

Academic Questions

Stephen Greenblatt reminisces:

"In 1969, in my first year of teaching at Berkeley, I was in the English Department office checking my mail (a ritual I repeated several times a day in the vague hope that something, as Mr. Micawber was fond of saying, would "turn up"). I was carrying a copy of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, though I can no longer remember why: perhaps I was actually reading it or perhaps I merely hoped to impress one of my new colleagues. If the latter was my motive, the strategy sorely backfired. A senior professor did indeed notice the book. "You are reading Kant, Greenblatt?" he said. (He was one of those who affect the brusque manner of address of the Oxford Senior Common Room.) "That's right." "I don't like Kant," he declared flatly. "Oh, why is that?" I ventured to ask. "Because Kant had a Jewish mind." "A Jewish mind? What on earth do you mean?" "Clever, sterile, absorbed in endless hair-splitting subtleties—a mind without true culture." "Oh," I said, for want of something better to say."
( From Stanford Humanities Review, 1998)