Aug 8 2018

The Purpose of this Book Blog

bookshelf
The Purpose of This Book Blog

I’ve pointed out before that George Steiner has pointed out:

What we need (I have argued this elsewhere) are not ‘programs in the humanities,’ ‘schools of creative writing,’ ‘programs in creative criticism’ (mirabile dictu [a wonderful tale], these exist). What we need are places, i.e., a table with some chairs around it, in which we can learn again how to read, how to read together… We need ‘houses of and for reading….’ Servants to the text. (“ ‘Critic’/ ‘Reader’.” New Literary History. 10 (Spring 1979): 423–52 at 452 also in George Steiner: a Reader. (1987).)

The purpose of Bookbread has always followed this model. Now Alan Jacobs gets at what this same purpose is, and has been, when he talks about this thing called humanism:


Jul 20 2018

The Stress of Balancing Time to Read Versus Time to Write

porticos in Bologna, Italia

The Stress of Balancing Time to Read Versus Time to Write

For about the past month, I’ve been lagging on blogging. Part of it is trying to find a better balance of time spent reading versus time spent writing (things that may be blog-worthy or more for outside publications).

Prepping (in terms of reading literature) for a trip to Germany this winter is also part of the mix.

In other words, I’m trying to find a balance between:

  • Reading general stuff: daily news, blogs, online magazines, etc. on random topics I may be interested in (publishing, politics, etc.),
  • Reading specific stuff: with regard to whatever the specific writing project at hand is,
  • Writing for this Bookbread blog,
  • Writing for publications to “get my work out there,”
  • Writing for long-term book projects.

I’d been having some worries (though not anxiety proper) about all of the above, but in the last two weeks, I see that two very successful writers whom I follow closely are dealing with (somewhat) similar issues.

See, for example, Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of humanities at Baylor University, and his recent thoughts on the stresses of writing: first here, then follow up here and here.

Now today comes word that Ta-Nehisi Coates is leaving The Atlantic to reflect and regroup.

These guys can basically write about whatever topic they want and find a way to get it published. Sounds like a dreamy position for those of us trying to make a name for ourselves as writers–yet, for different, complex reasons–they are both struggling to satisfy themselves without leaving their readers hanging out to dry.

So I say: Godspeed ye writerly gentlemen, and let your days of scribbling be merry.

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Feb 18 2018

We Will Always Think Together (Even If We Don’t Think Alike)

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, ItaliaWe Will Always Think Together (Even If We Don’t Think Alike):
Or, Relying on the Resemblance of Others to Think for Ourselves

catena: n. A string or series of extracts from the writings of the fathers, forming a commentary on some portion of Scripture; also, a chronological series of extracts to prove the existence of a continuous tradition on some point of doctrine. (Oxford English Dictionary)

As I have previously done here and here, what follows is another cantena of thoughts supplementing Alan Jacobs’s How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (2017) and his point of how it is impossible to think for ourselves because we always rely on the thinking of others in order to think for ourselves.

However, the further I plod along in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), which Jacobs refers to (sometimes in agreement, sometimes not), the more I suspect that the quotations below, as well as those in my previous posts, may not compare as well with Jacobs’s point as I initially thought. They may not because I may be falling for resemblance bias, for all the quotations I give are based on my limited recent reading––which itself might constitute a combination of what Kahneman calls the availability and priming heuristics.[1]

In other words, instead of relying on the words of others so that I can understand Jacobs’s book, perhaps I’m really just relying on the resemblance of the words of others as they compare to Jacobs. Either way, here it goes:

wood

At age 33, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1808–1882) recognized: “I suppose my friends have some relation to my mind.”[2]

At age 37, Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980) taught that our convictions are worthless until we encounter others who dare challenge our convictions:

Ultimate convictions are often inconsistent and can be refuted. They cannot be proved. But they can be responsible or irresponsible. They are irresponsible if they are arbitrary and blind. They are responsible if they have grown out of encounter after encounter. And in the end we can only ask others to expose themselves to the same encounters—and, if after having done this they do not agree with us, expose ourselves to their criticisms. [3]

At age 44, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) knew that, even the artist-as-author must rely on others to render creation. The working artist cannot be isolated but must come into communion and let the surrounding community contribute to the work at hand:

The reality of the final moment, just before shooting, is so powerful that all previous analysis must yield before the impressions you receive under these circumstance, and unless you use this feedback [of the cast and crew on the set] to your positive advantage, unless you adjust to it, adapt to it and accept the sometimes terrifying weaknesses it can expose, you can never realize the most out of your film…. If the camera operator spoils a shot, it can be done again. The thing that can never be changed, and the thing that is the make or break for a picture, are those few hours you spend alone in the actual place with the actors, with the crew outside drinking their tea.[4]

At age 66, Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) explained how Hegel got it wrong: that we cannot think in pure isolation:

No one has fought with more determination against the particular, the eternal stumbling block of thinking, the undisputable thereness of objects that no thought can reach or explain. The highest function of philosophy, according to Hegel, is to eliminate the contingent, and all particulars, everything that exists, are contingent by definition. Philosophy deals with the particulars as parts of a whole, and the whole is the system, a product of speculative thought. This whole, scientifically speaking, can never be more than a plausible hypothesis, which by integrating every particular into an all-comprehensive thought transforms them all into thought-things and thus eliminates their most scandalous property, their realness, together with their contingency. It was Hegel who declared that “The time has come for the elevation of philosophy to a science,” and who wished to transform philo-sophy, the mere love of wisdom, into wisdom, Sophia. In this way he succeeded in persuading himself that “to think is to act”––which this most solitary occupation can never do, since we can act only “in concert,” in company and agreement with our peers, hence in an existential situation that effectively prevents thinking.[5]

At age 77, Daniel Kahneman shared in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011):

Many of us spontaneously anticipate how friends and colleagues will evaluate our choices; the quality and content of these anticipated judgments therefore matters…. The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.[6]

NOTES

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[1] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). For Kahneman, “systematic errors are known as biases” (3–4), while “the reliance on the ease of memory search” is called “the availability heuristic,” (7). “They were primed to find flaws, and this is exactly what they found,” (58) is one of Kahneman’s examples of the priming heuristic.

[2] Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, eds. William H. Gilman et al, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960–82). Vol. V (1835–1838), October 19, 1836, Journal B, p. 223.

[3] Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1958) 408.

[4] Strick and Houston, “Modern Times: an Interview with Stanley Kubrick,” Sight and Sound, 41 (Spring 1972) quoted from Stanley Kubrick Interviews, ed. Gene D. Phillips, (Jackson, MS: Mississippi University Press, 2001) 134.

[5] Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 89–90.

[6] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow 3, 28.


Jan 30 2018

Lean on Me (When You’re Not Wrong)

LEAN ON ME (WHEN YOU’RE NOT WRONG):
Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part I of III

It’s a dangerous business to try and impose one’s view of things on others.

Padma: if you’re a little uncertain of my reliability, well, a little uncertainty is no bad thing. Cocksure men do terrible deeds. Women, too. ––Salman Rushdie, Midnights Children (1981)[1]

As I’ve previously written, one of the key themes running through Professor Alan Jacobs’s book How to Think (2017) is how we must come to grips that our individuality is paradoxically based on how those around us end up defining each of us as individuals.

For C. S. Peirce (1839–1914), all reality, including our thoughts on reality, begins with our reliance on others:

As what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community….

For Peirce, the individual is but a negation—and when two individuals negate each other’s individuality, they affirm community:

The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation. This is man….”[2]

A century before the phrase “imagined communities” was popularized by Benedict Anderson (1936–2015) as a useful way to describe nationalism, Peirce recognized:

The care that men have for what is to happen after they are dead, cannot be selfish. And finally and chiefly, the constant use of the word “we”––as when we speak of our possessions on the Pacific––our destiny as a republic––in cases in which no personal interests at all are involved, show conclusively that men do not make their personal interests their only ones, and therefore may, at least, subordinate them to the interests of the community.

But just the revelation of the possibility of this complete self-sacrifice in man, and the belief in its saving power, will serve to redeem the logicality of all men. For he who recognizes the logical necessity of complete self-identification of one’s own interests with those of the community, and its potential existence in man, even if he has it not himself, will perceive that only the inferences of that man who has it are logical, and so views his own inferences as being valid only so far as they would be accepted by that man. But so far as he has this belief, he becomes identified with that man. And that ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted must thus belong to a community in which this identification is complete…. [3]

This “ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted” is also, for Peirce, the method of science:

Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those Reals affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as are our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really and truly are; and any man, if he have sufficient experience and he reason enough about it, will be led to the one True conclusion. The new conception here involved is that of Reality….[4]

Even if the community renders something other communities think to be immoral (such as separate public drinking fountains for separate ethnicities), it is nonetheless part of reality, at least until a majority in the community agree to something different. Community creates the facts of reality by agreeing with what they are:

The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality….[5]

(Read Part II here, and Part III here)

NOTES

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[1] Salman Rushdie, Midnights Children, (New York, NY: Knopf, 1981. Random House Paperbacks, 2006) II, “Alpha and Omega” 243.

[2] Peirce, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2 (1868): 140–57.

[3] Peirce, “Ground of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2 (1869): 193–208.

[4] Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877): 1–15.

[5] Peirce, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (January 1878): 286–302.


Jan 1 2018

How We Should Rely on Others to Think for Ourselves (According to Machiavelli & Alan Jacobs)

porticos in Bologna, Italia

How We Should Rely on Others to Think for Ourselves
(According to Machiavelli and Alan Jacobs)

“Working toward the truth is one of life’s great adventures.”

––Alan Jacobs

“Don’t regard a hesitant assertion as an assertion of hesitancy.”

––Wittgenstein[1]

The thirty-fifth chapter to the third book of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy is entitled:

“When Dangers Are Borne in Making Oneself Head in Counseling a Thing; and the More It Has of the Extraordinary, the Greater Are the Dangers Incurred in It.”[2]

Machiavelli’s chapter title gets at a point Alan Jacobs repeats often in How to Think: a Survival Guide in a World at Odds (2017): that it is impossible for one to think for oneself. In fact, one must rely on others in order to think for oneself, for “the problem of belonging and not-belonging, affiliation and separation, is central to the task of learning how to think” (p. 54).

Both Machiavelli and Jacobs focus on the perils of counsel. Now someone might say, “So what? I’m not a counselor,” but I say, that we (as readers and writers) are participating in the public sphere; therefore, following Charles Taylor, I say we (as readers and writers) are, in some sense, counseling the government. In a republic, the political blogger/writer/commenter always potentially advises her authorities via her activities in the public sphere. Donald Trump, for example, could conceivably read something I tweet and act on it.[3]

Yet, according to Machiavelli, dispensing advice is always a gamble, for hesitant assertions are mistakenly interpreted as assertions of hesitancy:

Thus it is a very certain thing that those who counsel a republic and those who counsel a prince are placed in these straits: if they do not counsel without hesitation the things that appear to them useful—either for the city or for the prince—they fail in their office; if they do counsel them, they enter into danger of life and state, since all men are blind in this, in judging good and bad counsel by the end. (Discourses III, xxxv)

In either a principality or a republic bad advice can be fatal for the dispenser. Yet, as Machiavelli points out, bad advice is not judged on the accuracy of its contents, but on whether the results of that advice lead to something satisfactory for the ruling authorities receiving the advice.

Machiavelli writes that what counselors and advisors need (and by writing this he is actually advising readers!) is moderation:

Thinking over in what mode they [those who counsel] can escape either this infamy or this danger, I do not see any other way for it but to take things moderately, and not to seize upon any of them for one’s own enterprise, and to give one’s opinion without passion and defend it without passion, with modesty, so that if the city or the prince follows it, it follows voluntarily, and it does not appear to enter upon it drawn by your importunity. (Discourses III, xxxv)

Following Roger Scuton, Jacobs writes in How to Think how we, as advisors and counselors to the government (as well as to our friends and family and strangers) in the public sphere, must “negotiate our posture toward the other” (p. 83). We must “avoid displaying the zeal that’s all too commonly characteristic of the convert,” (pp. 149–50) because “the real outgroup, for us, is the person next door” (p. 72)—that is, the person who votes differently than we do, thinks differently than we do, etc. For as the author known as Kohelet writes:

Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken; lest thou hear thy servant curse thee:
For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others. (Ecclesiastes 7:21–22)

To defend one’s opinion with moderation rather than passion is certainly something the twenty-first century public sphere could use more of, particularly when political matters are discussed. But risks remain nonetheless. Jacobs warns how “sheer animus … disables our ethical and our practical judgment” (p. 75). And Machiavelli has observed:

When you do thus, it is not reasonable that a prince and a people wish you ill for your counsel, since it was not followed against the wish of many—for one bears danger where many have contradicted, who then at the unhappy end concur to bring you to ruin. (Discourses III, xxxv)

Machiavelli also warns of those who contradict regularly, fully aware that they contradict without hesitation, will bring a countering writer-advisor to ruin, unless that countering writer-advisor be modest and moderate in their countering:

And if in this case one lacks the glory that is acquired in being alone against many to counsel a thing when it has a good end, there are two goods in the comparison: first, in the lack of danger; second, that if you counsel a thing modestly, and because of the contradiction your counsel is not taken, and by the counsel of someone else some ruin follows, very great glory redounds to you. (Discourses III, xxxv)

Or, as Jacobs writes, “The genuine community is open to thinking and questioning, so long as those thoughts and questions come from people of goodwill,” (p. 59), which sounds not unlike an observation Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) once made:

Unless we make ourselves hermits, we shall necessarily influence each other’s opinions; so that the problem becomes how to fix [stabilize] belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community.[4]

NOTES

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[1] Alan Jacobs, How to Think: a Survival Guide in a World at Odds, (New York, NY: Currency Books, 2017) 150; Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (London: Blackwell, Revised fourth edition, 2009) p. 202.

[2] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[3] According to Taylor:

This space is a public sphere in the sense I’m using it here. That a conclusion “counts as” public opinion reflects the fact that a public sphere can exist only if it is imagined as such. Unless all the dispersed discussions are seen by their participants as linked in one great exchange, there can be no sense of their upshot as public opinion. This doesn’t mean that imagination is all-powerful. There are objective conditions: internal, for instance, that the fragmentary local discussions interrefer [sic]; and external, that is, there must be printed materials, circulating from a plurality of independent sources, for there to be bases of what can be seen as a common discussion…. (Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, SC: Duke University Press, 2004) p. 85)

The public sphere is the locus of a discussion potentially engaging everyone (although in the eighteenth century the claim was only to involve the educated or “enlightened” minority) in which the society can come to a common mind about important matters. This common mind is a reflective view, emerging from critical debate, and not just a summation of whatever views happen to be held in the population. As a consequence it has a normative status: government ought to listen to it. There were two reasons for this, of which one tended to gain ground and ultimately swallow up the other. The first is, that this opinion is likely to be enlightened, and hence government would be well advised to follow it…. The second reason emerges with the view that the people are sovereign. Government is then not only wise to follow opinion; it is morally bound to do so…. (A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007) 188, 189)

It is a space of discussion which is self-consciously seen as being outside power. It is supposed to be listened to by power, but it is not itself an exercise of power. It’s in this sense extra-political status is crucial. As we shall see below, it links the public sphere with other facts of modern society which also are seen as essentially extra-political. The extra-political status is not just defined negatively, as a lack of power. It is also seen positively: just because public opinion is not an exercise of power, it can be ideally disengaged from both partisan spirit and rational. (A Secular Age 189–90)

[4] Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly, 12 (November, 1877): 1–15.


Dec 27 2017

11 Books I Read in 2017 (Placed in 7 Categories)

book spines

11 Books I Read in 2017 (Placed in 7 Categories)

Books I probably shouldve already read a long time ago but somehow hadnt: For this category, I call it a tie between the Scotsman Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859–1930) Study in Scarlet (1887), which introduces the world to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the Anglo-Irishman Bram Stoker’s (1847–1912) Dracula (1897), which was certainly not the first book that introduced the world to vampires, but a staple of twentieth-century popular culture in the West nonetheless.

Best autobiography: ‘Tis Herself (2004) by actress Maureen O’Hara (1920–2015)––someone whose tough spirit, terrific behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the classic Hollywood era, and her proud (but also modest) part in promoting Irish independence made the telling of her own life stand out when compared to some other autobiographies I read this year, such as those by Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) and Giambattista Vico (1668–1744). Michael Morton’s Getting Life: an Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace (2014) was a powerful telling of justice (and its opposite) occurring in Central Texas, and was a close second behind Miss O’Hara.

Most useful book of the year: Baylor University’s Distinguished Professor of Humanities, Allan Jacobs’ How to Think: a Survival Guide for a World at Odds (2017) is a book I will be keeping within reach and often returning to, much like H. W. Fowler’s (1858–1933) Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926, 1965), or University of Texas English professor emeritus John R. Trimble’s Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing (1975, 2000). Jacobs’ book can, at times, be just as casual and amusing as Fowler can, but Jacobs is especially good at taking personal anecdotes and demonstrating that he has already applied to his own life the lessons he’s now trying to impart to readers in this book. All authors should be so self-applicable.

Most anticipated book of the year: this would be Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017). Dreher is a prolific blogger at The American Conservative, someone whom I’ve read weekly (if not daily) for the past 4–5 years. Like my observation of Jacobs, Dreher is also especially good at taking his own life situations and applying them to whatever it is he’s writing about. The Benedict Option, however, is a departure from Dreher’s typically personal style of writing. It is much more theoretical than his previous books, much more detached than even his particular blog posts on the Benedict Option that led up to him writing the present book. Dreher’s book is certainly not an indictment of the present-day United States, though it may be a lamentation.

2017 as the year for reading history: In the Benedict Option Dreher writes:

I am a college-educated American. In all my years of formal schooling, I never read Plato or Aristotle, Homer or Virgil. I knew nothing of Greek and Roman history and barely grasped the meaning of the Middle Ages. Dante was a stranger to me, and so was Shakespeare (p. 154).

I recognize some of this as being true for me as well, particularly with respect to history. So this year I got through Herodotus’ (~484–425 BC) Histories, Thucydides’ (460–400 BC) History of the Peloponnesian War, and Livy’s (~64– ~17 AD) History of Rome (books I–X, XXI–XXX). I will say reading these have already helped me find things to write about and get published as I did this year with my essays “Custom Versus Culture: a Modest Distinction” by Real Clear News of Chicago and “Between History and Myth in Austin, Texas” in The Fortnightly Review of London.

Best reread of the year: former professor of philosophy at Princeton, Walter Kaufmann’s (1921–1980) Critique of Religion and Philosophy (1958, 1972) is a tour de force spanning all across the humanities. I found it much more difficult reading the second time, probably because I forced myself to read it at a much slower pace than I did about 5 years ago. I’m a better reader now than I was then, but there’re parts to Kaufmann’s Critique that still seem to slag, particularly the digressions on Aquinas and Niebuhr.

Most difficult book of the year: Certainly the winner of this category belongs to the Max Weber (1864–1920) anthology, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1945), trans. by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1958)––a long book with a long biographical introduction to Weber––a book that requires many notes to be taken, reread, and thoroughly pondered before proceeding further. It was Charles Taylor’s titanic A Secular Age (2007) that turned me on to this collection of Weber’s work. I started Taylor in about June, and probably won’t finish until this time next year.


Dec 15 2017

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People: Write about Race (Part II of III)

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People: Write about Race (Part II of III)

Toward Some Solutions to the Political Problem of Writing about Race while Being Aware of One’s Own Race

Part II.

In Part I, I brought up the four questions of Al-farabi (872–950 AD) to ask for any political situation: What, How, What from, What for? Now it’s time to ask those questions with regard to a current political situation: writing about race while being aware of one’s race as told by four writers:

(1) What is Jess Row’s “What are White Writers For?” New Republic, September 30, 2016 about? This piece struck a nerve when I first read it, so I bookmarked it for the past year and returned to it this past week. Still, a little over a year later, I’m not sure what to think. Row is a novelist and essayist. The focus of his piece is fiction and the problem of white writers writing about race in fiction, not essays. He suggests a scenario where: “It would be easy for a white writer—say, a young white writer, in an MFA program, working on his or her first novel—to … feel caught in an imaginative bind” of being torn from writing about non-white characters in fiction and being accused of appropriation or writing about exclusively white characters and being accused of tribal fascism. “The subtext to these arguments,” writes Row, “is that white writers should just stop writing [fiction],” and he doesn’t believe that to be an adequate answer for a free society.

How so? Row discusses his own efforts at fiction and its various misreadings is conveyed in his observation that it is utter fiction for white writers to suggest white writers aren’t “allowed” to write about certain topics, when the publishing-media complex remains dominated by gatekeepers who identify primarily as white, and who identify that way by a large majority compared to any runners up. Tarantino may choose to use the n-word and Eminem may choose not to, but there are no white hands tied behind anyone’s back. They write what they please.

From what event did Row decide to write about writing about race? A non-Mexicana writer named Lionel Shriver wore a sombrero in Brisbane and caught flack for it. Another writer named Jonathan Franzen confessed in an interview that he didn’t put black characters in his fiction because he lacked substantial real life experience with people identified as black. This queued Row to write about race. What is Row writing about race for? He answers: “The real question in this debate couldn’t be more fundamental: What are novels for, and what are novelists for?” Row calls for writers (particularly white fiction writers) to write something politically relevant. To deny that one’s art is political is a distasteful display of privilege and ignorance. Art is part of the public sphere says Row, “part of one ongoing conversation.”[1] Some novelists, Row points out, write about the present and critique it in their fiction. Others are simply “chroniclers.” But both critique and chronicle are political acts, for to write is to act (scribere est agere) says Judge William Blackstone (1723–1780).[2] Or, in Alan Jacobs’ words, “It seems clear that to publish a book is to invite a response.” [3]

(2) What is Wesley Yang’s “Is It OK to be White?” in Tablet Magazine, November 27, 2017 about? Yang’s point is that these days rhetoric—that is, political writing, particularly about race––is about achieving reaction. Writers who write about race are generally no longer interested in clarity or understanding. Their writings are now about obliterating the ability to share ideas (and ontologies), because, in Yang’s words, such rhetoric “invites dissenters to overreact.” How so? Contemporary rhetoric aims for “confounding instead of confronting” one’s “enemies” via “a self-enclosed system of reference immunized against critique and optimized for virality.” From what did this discussion start? Some alt-right groups posed provocative flyers at “universities and high schools in the United States and Canada” that said, “It’s OK to be white.” What is Yang writing about race for? In his words: “Part of responding to the coalition of white resentment from which the posters emerged in ways that stanches rather than feeds its growth, then, means taking stock of the way our own thinking has been affected by polarizing memes.”

(3) What is Aaron Mak’s “The Price of College Admission for Asian Americans,” Slate, December 5, 2017 about? Mak’s focus is on Asian Americans who hide aspects of their “Asian-ness” from college admissions applications. How so? Applicants sometimes change their names, or list feats and talents not traditionally seen as stereotypically “Asian” (that is, East Asian). This is because “the American mainstream likes to assign minorities to a certain mold. There’s a systemic perception that we Asians are all alike, but what about, say, white applicants who play lacrosse? Are they all cookie-cutter too?” From what did this discussion start? The Justice Department has recently announced (in August) that it was investigating admissions policies that were discriminating against Asians, particularly at Harvard. What is Mak writing about race for? To render “the cooperation necessary between people of color to overcome systemic racism” without “contorting” one’s “identity.”

(4) What is Andy Ngo’s “When Racism is Disguised as Anti-Racism,” Quillette, December 5, 2017 about? Ngo attended an anti-racism event on a college campus: “Until that day,” Ngo writes, “I’d never seen people overtly dehumanized and treated as racialized objects—amplified through the use of words like ‘bodies’ to refer to people of color.” How so? “The lack of any ideological counterpoise has created a vacuum where ideas have no mechanism or incentive for moderation.” From what did this discussion start? A student at Texas State University in San Marcos recently published an op-ed calling for the genocide of white people. Ngo then felt the need to respond. What is Andy Ngo writing about race for? Ngo believes that such a vacuum needs to be eliminated, that ideological counterpoises should be cultivated to moderate contemporary rhetoric involving race.

So by answering Al-farabi’s questions—which meant I had to reread each article and carefully think it through––I now have a slightly clearer understanding of the political problem of writing about race while being aware of one’s own race. In Part III I will try to look toward some solutions to this problem.

NOTES

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[1] As Charles Taylor (1931–) explains:

This space is a public sphere in the sense I’m using it here. That a conclusion “counts as” public opinion reflects the fact that a public sphere can exist only if it is imagined as such. Unless all the dispersed discussions are seen by their participants as linked in one great exchange, there can be no sense of their upshot as public opinion. This doesn’t mean that imagination is all-powerful. There are objective conditions: internal, for instance, that the fragmentary local discussions interrefer [sic]; and external, that is, there must be printed materials, circulating from a plurality of independent sources, for there to be bases of what can be seen as a common discussion. Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, SC: Duke University Press, 2004) 85)

[2] Blackstone, Commentaries (IV, vi).

[3] Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011) 54.


Dec 15 2017

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People: Write about Race (Part I of III)

porticos in Bologna, Italia

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People:
Write about Race (Part I of III)

Toward Some Solutions to the Political Problem of Writing about Race while Being Aware of One’s Own Race

Part I.

Diversity is good. Therefore: knowledge that happens to be diverse is better than knowledge that happens not to be. When a body of knowledge lacks diversity, it is called specialization. I would rather be diverse than special, a dilettante rather than a scholar.

But writing about race is a political problem for both dilettantes and scholars. Writing about race involves ingroups and outgroups. As Alan Jacobs has recently pointed out in his book How to Think (2017):

Our ability to think well will be determined to some considerable degree by who those others are: what we might call the moral form of our community. A willingness to be “broken on the floor,” for example, is in itself testimony to belief that the people you’re debating are decent people who don’t want to harm or manipulate you—whereas if you don’t trust people you’re unlikely to allow them anything like a “victory” over you. This suggests that the problem of belonging and not-belonging, affiliation and separation, is central to the task of learning how to think. [1]

Philosophy is learning how to think. Philosophy is problem solving. Political philosophy attempts to solve (or at least identify) political problems.

I cannot solve the political problem of writing about race while being aware of one’s race. Instead I can take lessons I’ve learned from reading and apply them to my writing. The first lesson comes from the mediaeval Persian philosopher Al-farabi (872–950 AD), who (following Aristotle and Plato) identifies four questions one should ask of any political problem:

He should make known what and how every one of [the things under discussion] is, and from what and for what it is, until all of them become known, intelligible, and distinguished from each other. This is political science. It consists of knowing the things by which the citizens of cities attain happiness through political association in the measure that innate disposition equips each of them for it. It will become evident to him that political association and the totality that results from the association of citizens in cities correspond to the association of the bodies that constitute the totality of the world. [2]

In other words, to see the big picture of the topic under discussion, one has to answer the four questions. I’ve read four recent pieces on the topic of race in the United States. These pieces discuss race as well as the problem of writing about race. I want to use Al-farabi’s method of asking four questions for each of the four written articles to try to understand the problem better. Why? Because answering these questions helps me better think about what I’ve read. Literally these questions help me how to think. For, as Jacobs points out: “The genuine community is open to thinking and questioning, so long as those thoughts and questions come from people of goodwill.” [3] Or, in the words of Martin Buber (1878–1965), (if one can temporarily ignore his über-patriarchal writing style):

Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfillment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness…. Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other…. Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity.[4]

So I ask Al-farabi’s four questions concerning four articles so I may begin engaging in a “genuine conversation” concerning race and writing and one’s awareness of one’s race while writing. To see how that plays out, you’ll have to read Part II.

NOTES

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[1] Alan Jacobs, How to Think: a Survival Guide in a World at Odds, (New York, NY: Currency Books, 2017) 54.

[2] Alfarabi, Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Translated by Muhsin Mahdi, (Chicago, IL: Agora Books, 1969), “The Attainment of Happiness,” p. 24, i, ¶ 20.

[3] Jacobs, How to Think 59.

[4] Buber, The Knowledge of Man: a Philosophy of the Interhuman, trans. by Maurice Friedman and Ronald Gregor Smith, (New York NY: Harper & Row, 1966) 69, 71, 84.


Dec 3 2017

Some Notes on “How to Think” by Alan Jacobs

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Some Notes on How to Think (2017) by Alan Jacobs

  • “To be freely aware and richly responsible” means gracefully attending to the “relational goods” of one’s neighbor (Jacobs 47-49)….
  • One must graciously attend/adjust/adapt these relational goods–what Roger Scruton calls “negotiating our posture toward the other,” (Jacobs 83)….
  • Genuine questioning in a community is conversation, not communication, (Jacobs 59) as I’ve recently pointed out:

Communication [says Wendell Berry] is when you’re being told to do something by someone else, like to remove a statue or let it remain. Conversation, on the other hand, is dialogue, a back-and-forth process of giving and receiving. Or to use the words of Martin Buber, while conversation is a mode of discourse where an “I” and a “You” function as reciprocal partners, communication is a mode of discourse between an all-powerful “I” talking down to a faceless, listening “It.” The first treats humans as individuals; the latter as mere objects of manipulation. Hence the fluidity of conversation is open to inquiry in ways that rigid communication isn’t.

  • Out of that negotiation one finds a You in their neighbor instead of an It….
  • My neighbor who voted differently than I….
  • As I read How to Think, I keep recalling words from Martin Buber (1878-1965Knowledge of Man (1966):

Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfillment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness….  (69) Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other…. (71)

By far the greater part of what is today called conversation among men would be more properly and precisely described as speechifying. In general, people do not really speak to one another, but each, although turned to the other, really speaks to a fictitious court of appeal whose life consists of noting but listening to him…. (78–79)

Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity…. (84)

Now, since if there is anything real, then (on account of this reality consisting in the ultimate agreement of all men, and on account of the fact that reasoning from parts to whole, is the only kind of synthetic reasoning which men possess) it follows necessarily that a sufficiently long succession of inferences from parts to whole will lead men to a knowledge of it, so that in that case they cannot be fated on the whole to be thoroughly unlucky in their inductions. This second branch of the problem is in fact equivalent to asking why there is anything real, and thus its solution will carry the solution of the former branch one step further…. Each of us is an insurance company, in short….

The care that men have for what is to happen after they are dead, cannot be selfish. And finally and chiefly, the constant use of the word “we” — as when we speak of our possessions on the Pacific — our destiny as a republic — in cases in which no personal interests at all are involved, show conclusively that men do not make their personal interests their only ones, and therefore may, at least, subordinate them to the interests of the community.

But just the revelation of the possibility of this complete self-sacrifice in man, and the belief in its saving power, will serve to redeem the logicality of all men. For he who recognizes the logical necessity of complete self-identification of one’s own interests with those of the community, and its potential existence in man, even if he has it not himself, will perceive that only the inferences of that man who has it are logical, and so views his own inferences as being valid only so far as they would be accepted by that man. But so far as he has this belief, he becomes identified with that man. And that ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted must thus belong to a community in which this identification is complete…. (“Ground of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities.”)

Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community. (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.”)

Great to see @ayjay and @austinkleon at @bookpeople tonight #books #thinking #literature #ATX #Austin

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Nov 25 2017

The Trouble with Reading Too Many Good Books

bookshelf

The Trouble with Reading Too Many Good Books

Twenty-four years ago, Harold Bloom said we should read only canonical works, only the best of the best:

Who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read….

Reviewing bad books, W. H. Auden once remarked, is bad for the character. Like all gifted moralists, Auden idealized despite himself, and he should have survived into the present age, wherein the new commissars tell us that reading good books is bad for the character, which I think is probably true. Reading the very best writers–let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy–is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere….

Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen. The mind’s dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.

We possess the Canon because we are mortal and also rather belated. There is only so much time, and time must have a stop, while there is more to read than there ever was before…. One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid: unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify….

Yet we must choose: As there is only so much time, do we reread Elizabeth Bishop or Adrienne Rich? Do I again go in search of lost time with Marcel Proust, or am I to attempt yet another rereading of Alice Walker’s stirring denunciation of all males, black and white? ….

If we were literally immortal, or even if our span were doubled to seven score of years, says, we could give up all argument about canons. But we have an interval only, and then our place knows us no more, and stuffing that interval with bad writing, in the name of whatever social justice, does not seem to me to be the responsibility of the literary critic…. [1]

More recently, Alan Jacobs has suggested we should place some limits even on canonical works:

While I agree with Harold Bloom about many things and am thankful for his long advocacy for the greatest of stories and poems, in these matters I am firmly on the side of Lewis and Chesterton. Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed. The poet W. H. Auden once wrote, “When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit”––for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday. [2]

Excess is toxic. Too much of anything is biologically poisonous. One might compare the worldview of the steady reader to the worldview of the career soldier. Take General John J. Pershing (1860-1948) for example:

He liked life at McKinley. With a good Officers’ Club and a large contingent of officers, it furnished a social world all its own. Pershing made it a point, however, to avoid concentrating on Army friendships. “We Army people tend to stick together too much and become clannish,” he said. “It’s good to know civilians. It helps them appreciate what the Army is like and it’s good for us to know what they’re like.” [3]

It was Pershing’s ability to get outside his own habitual worldview as a career soldier and actively intermingle with civilian life and culture that led him to further successes. At one point, when he was stationed in the Philippines:

Pershing was thunderstruck. To his knowledge, this was unprecedented. He had never heard of a white man being so honored by Moros [as Pershing had]. Solemnly he thanked Sajiduciman. In a concluding ceremony, both men placed their hands on the Koran and swore allegiance to the United States. [4]

NOTES

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[1] Bloom, Harold, The Western Canon: the Books and School of the Ages, (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1994) 15–16, 30–32.

[2] Jacobs, Alan, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2011) 23.

[3] Smythe, Donald, Guerrilla Warrior: the Early Life of John J. Pershing, (New York, NY: Scribner’s Sons, 1973) 135.

[4] Smythe, Guerrilla Warrior: the Early Life of John J. Pershing 92.