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June 2007

Academic Waste Products

Further to this, here’s a little more from Keith Windschuttle’s lecture, History, Truth and Tribalism:

“One reason I chose to cite this passage from Bhabha* was because… it contains terminology such as ‘synchronic’ and ‘diachronic’, which no self-respecting, theoretically correct postmodernist would use today. For these are terms that derive from the now out-of-date theory of structuralism, which has since been completely superseded by the theory of poststructuralism. One index of the achievements of academic theory today can be gauged by its waste matter; that is, the range of concepts and methods jettisoned along the way to its present position. The great majority of these concepts were adopted not because of their intellectual weight or clarity but because they were mouthed by whoever was the then prevailing theoretical guru…

No-one bothers any more with once solemnly-made distinctions within the field of semiotics between the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’ or between ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’. Indeed, whatever happened to semiotics? All these concepts are now museum pieces. Yet in the 1980s, each was taught as gospel by the same people who are now recommending a postmodernist or a cultural studies approach as the definitive word on their subject. One can only feel terribly sorry for the generations of humanities students once forced to dutifully learn and regurgitate these now dead and useless concepts.”

*Homi Bhabha, former professor of English at the University of Chicago and a “leading voice in post-colonial studies.”   

Friday Ephemera

Your very own pet fat. “5lbs of anatomically correct body fat.” To hold, to hug, to inspire. // Iranian Nostalgia. Counter-revolutionary pop music. (H/T, Harry’s Place.) // The mechanics of moving sidewalks. The nuts and bolts of a bold tomorrow. (1900) More here. // Extreme precision instruments. Microtweezers, microgears, a peg four microns wide. // The in-car phonomograph. // Bread wrappers we have known and loved. (H/T, Bedazzled!) // The Museum of Online Museums. // The living do not outnumber the dead. And possibly never will. // Electronic bubble wrap popper. For when you get the urge. More here. // The dramatic chipmunk. Or perhaps it’s a prairie dog. Sound essential. (H/T, Ace.) // Yes, I’d like one of these. // Brian Micklethwait on cranes. Big metal ones. // Mary Jackson ponders a date with Slavoj Žižek. With or without his detachable phallus. // The Daily Kos digs Hamas. // The antipodal map. Wherever you are, find the other side of the world. (H/T, Coudal.) // A movie gallery of hyperspaces, surfaces and autostereograms. // Via Coudal, the Monty Python Video Wall. // Ikuo Oishi’s Ugokie-Ko-Ri-No-Tatehiki (1933) // Comic book gorillarama. // Going Steady. (1951) Marie and Jeff are going steady. But is it a good idea? // Roger Moore and Tony Curtis fight crime, with flair.

Unproblematic Prose

Further to my posts on the preposterous Carolyn Guertin and Jacques Derrida’s unhinged and fraudulent prose, this may be of interest. It’s from a lecture by Keith Windschuttle, author of The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past. It’s a longish extract, but bear with me. I think it’s worth your time and, perhaps, grimly amusing. Windschuttle points out how “unproblematic prose” and “clarity of presentation” are regarded by some – guess who - as the “conceptual tools of conservatism.” Thus, if you prefer arguments that are (a) comprehensible and (b) able to withstand scrutiny, you must be a conservative, i.e. The Enemy. On the other hand, if you denounce such bourgeois trifles, you’re “radical” and very, very sexy.

“Though all the great historians I just mentioned were wonderfully clear writers, postmodern academic fashions have declared clear writing to be ideologically contaminated. The editors of one recent collection of postmodernist essays inform us: ‘The ideal of a transparent, tempered and accommodated prose’ is ‘the approved mode of expression for the society and values of the newly empowered middle class.’ (Innovations of Antiquity, ed. Ralph Hexter and Daniel Selden, New York 1992). Another has declared ‘unproblematic prose and clarity of presentation’ to be ‘the conceptual tools of conservatism.’ (Mas'd Zavarzadeh, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, cited by John M. Ellis, Against Deconstructionism.) Since today's typical postmodernist academic would rather be declared to have a communicable disease than labelled ‘middle class’ or ‘conservative’, let me give you an example of what now passes as acceptable prose style among the postmodernist fraternity (and sorority).

This is from a gentleman named Homi Bhabha, a former professor of English at the University of Chicago, who has now been appointed to Harvard. He is writing about nineteenth century attempts by Britain to establish governments in its colonies that mimicked the government of the imperial centre. Rather than examining the evidence of how these colonial governments actually worked in practice, Bhabha instead gives us a deconstruction of the concept of ‘mimicry’. He writes: ‘Within that conflictual economy of colonial discourse that Edward Said describes as the tension between the synchronic panoptical vision of domination - the demand for identity, stasis - and the counterpressure of the diachrony of history - change, difference - mimicry represents an ironic compromise. (To) adapt Samuel Weber's formulation of the marginalising vision of castration, then, colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognisable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite. Which is to say…’ (From Tensions of Empire, ed. Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler, University of California Press, 1997)

I won't try to translate these sentiments into English. How could anyone talk seriously about the vision of castration? Let me simply point out that they are representative of their kind, containing the usual quota of invented terminology and postmodernist clichés – ‘difference’, ‘irony’, ‘the Other’ - not to mention the obligatory reverent citation of approved gurus. Writing of this kind should remind us of George Orwell's observation that muddled prose is usually an ‘instrument for concealing or preventing thought.’ Unfortunately, in academic life today, this kind of prose is routinely adopted by the most successful people in their fields. This happens to be a very effective tactic to adopt in academic circles where there is always an expectation that things are never simple and that anyone who writes clearly is thereby being shallow. Obscurity is often assumed to equal profundity, a quality that signals a superiority over the thinking of the uneducated herd. Moreover, those students who put in all the work needed to comprehend a dialogue of this kind very often become converts, partly to protect their investment in the large amount of time already committed, and partly because they are bound to feel they have thereby earned a ticket into an elite. Obscurity is thus a clever way to generate a following.”

The full lecture can be read here.

Respect and Fear

The last few days here have been a kind of Rushdie and Related Topics Week. Assuming no further Rushdie-related events materialise, I thought I’d wind up this saga, at least for now, with a few words from the man himself. Here’s an extract from a lecture presented by the Centre for Enquiry and given at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on October 11th, 2006:

“I suppose one has to mention the Danish cartoons. I ran into a young journalist working for a small New York magazine who said… his proprietor refused to publish the cartoons because he was worried about his offices getting bombed. This kind of cravenness was worldwide. And the name that cravenness was given was respect. When people said they didn’t publish them out of respect for Muslims, what they meant is they didn’t publish them because they were afraid of their offices getting bombed. And when you create that kind of climate of fear, when you concede… you don’t as a result have less intimidation. I mean as a result you have more intimidation.

I think, with the cartoons, there were two quite separate issues. One is whether you thought the cartoons were good or bad and should have been published or shouldn’t have been… and those are the decisions that every newspaper editor makes every day, and different editors would make different decisions. But the second issue is when the subject of intimidation enters, and the question is how do you respond to intimidation, and do you give in to it or do you not give in to it. I think that when the intimidation became as heavy as it did, the only proper response was everybody should have published the cartoons the next day. And not to do that was a way of showing that threats work...

This is a curious climate that we’re living in, where people are falling over backwards not to name the phenomenon that’s taking place, which is a progressive intimidation of the world in which we live. I’m not talking about these great big geopolitical things going on elsewhere in the world; I’m talking about what is in our own hands to discuss and argue about and fix – what is happening in our town, what is happening in our culture. And the way in which things that we in this room value a great deal are being eroded by this kind of intimidation and cowardice, and by an unwillingness to call things by their true name.”

The full lecture can be heard here or downloaded as an mp3 file. A transcript is available here.

An Imaginary Compromise

Over at B&W, Ophelia makes the following point re Shirley Williams’ dismal performance on Question Time and what appear to have been her underlying assumptions:

“What people apparently do with these ‘offended’ claims is reverse engineer: they reason backwards: they look at the magnitude of the ‘offence’ and then assign guilt accordingly - but that's wrong. If that rule held no one would ever criticize or dispute or tease anything because of the risk of ‘offence’ out of all proportion to the intent and to the harm done. Instead what people should be doing is coldly examining the merit of the putative grievance, independent of the quantity of fuss made.”

Indeed. What was curiously missing from Williams’ calculation was whether one party is remotely entitled to such rage, or to anything at all, and whether riots, death threats and howls of indignation are a legitimate response to a novel that hasn’t been read or the knighting of its author. To question the proportion of the affront being claimed, the honesty of the claim, and the assumptions on which that claim is based would risk undermining the premise of this particular manoeuvre.

Shirley_williamsWilliams was, it seems, trying to appear “even-handed” while actually being craven and rather stupid. By which I mean she seems to have imagined that between these two positions there must be some admirable middle point that it must be “fair” to champion. So if you have screaming, tantrums and demented theocrats on the one hand and a rational British novelist on the other, both must be “extremes”, and thus the “even-handed” thing to do is to “compromise” and support some position roughly halfway in between, irrespective of what that position actually entails. Hence Williams’ ramblings about “Muslims” being offended “in a very powerful way” and Rushdie’s knighthood being a “mistake”, “badly timed”, etc. The actual moral issue – of whether umbrage, violence and the threats thereof are justified or opportunist, or even sane – was not a discernible part of Williams’ calculation.

As the audience applause for Williams demonstrated, this is a remarkably common assumption – that the most “fair” and “even-handed” position is halfway between calm argument and homicidal thuggery, or halfway between intellectual freedom and a visceral fear of speaking. Well, that would leave us somewhere near the absurd dissembler, Lord Ahmed, who equated Rushdie’s knighthood with rewarding terrorism. This is the moral calculus favoured at various times by Karen Armstrong and Tariq Ramadan, both of whom “balanced” real intimidation, aggression and murder on the one hand with “tyrannical” free speech and “aggressive” cartoons, published “aggressively”, on the other. By this contorted reckoning, the “compromise” solution is to avoid publishing “aggressive” cartoons, or novels, or films, or plays, etc. And, by implication, to avoid stating inconvenient facts or honouring those who happen to point them out.

And thus the engine of human progress, the testing of ideas – and of bad ideas in particular – grinds to a halt. All in the name of “fairness” and being “even-handed.”

A Question of Spine

Those of you who missed last night’s Question Time may enjoy this brief extract, courtesy of DSTPFW. On the subject of Salman Rushdie’s knighthood, Christopher Hitchens challenges Shirley Williams’ prostration in the face of intimidation and thuggery. (An act the Baroness subsequently – and dishonestly - denies.) One of Hitchens’ more charming qualities is his willingness to take on an audience that applauds Williams’ blathering and to tell that audience it should be ashamed for doing so.

Someone give Hitch his own show. Related: this and this.

Friday Ephemera

Cheetah expresses dissatisfaction with TV crew. // Via Coudal, King’s College Circle. Le Grand Mobile. // Air Guitar Pro. For those who take air guitar seriously. Only $27.00 // Going to the opera in the year 2000. A vision of things to come. (1882) // Power for Progress. Nuclear power in comic book form. (1971) // The Atomic Revolution. (1957) // Liquid mirrors for lunar telescopes. // The shadow of the Moon. // The lost cosmonauts. Fallen comrades. // The Socialist Worker is thrilled by the “stunning victory” of Hamas. More here and here. // Study reveals support for terrorism correlates strongly with support for political Islam. Summary here. // Ophelia Benson on Inayat Bungawala. “If we were not treated with respect then we were capable of forcing others to respect us.” With book burnings and death threats. // Tim Worstall on the scapegoats of Polly Toynbee. // Mick Hartley on art bollocks. // Peculiar maps. From imaginary places to the Stockholm Metro. (H/T, Chastity Darling) // Animals on the London Underground. Hens, penguins, elephants. // Via Artblog, le beatbox. Part deux. // The mixtape wallet. // Suck your child’s nose clear. (H/T, Dr Westerhaus.) // A brief history of barbed wire. // When jellyfish attack. // The illustrations of Alexei Vella. Borat, alfalfa, robots. (H/T, Drawn!) // Jack and Dick learn about eyes. (1958) // Via Coudal, Japanese pencil carvings. Honeycombs, spirals and moving parts. // And finally… Minnie, mooching.

Act Casual, Say Nothing

In response to this post on Muhammad Abdul Bari, a commenter noted this cartoon and asked the following question:

“The cartoon lists a bunch of problems that it claims Muslim societies have. Will Western government and society mocking the most sensitive issues of Islam make those problems better or worse?”

Variations of this question are raised on a fairly regular basis, usually with no expectation of an answer - for example see here. Another version of the same was voiced by Pakistan’s Religious Affairs Minister, Ijaz-ul-Haq, who asked, apparently in all seriousness:

“How can we fight terrorism when those who commit blasphemy are rewarded by the West?”

This question should, I think, be turned around, quite emphatically. Given jihadists pointedly cite Muhammad’s purported ‘revelations’ as their mandate and motive, how can the spread of Islamic terrorism be resisted if Muhammad and his teachings remain beyond criticism? How does one respond when the Bali bombing ‘mastermind’ Mukhlas Imron asks his captors: “You who still have a shred of faith in your hearts, have you forgotten that to kill infidels and the enemies of Islam is a deed that has a reward above no other?” – and then quotes Muhammad’s own exhortations as his license for atrocity?

In his book, The Truth About Muhammad, Robert Spencer stresses the same key point:

“If the terrorists are correct in invoking his example to justify their deeds, then Islamic reformers will need to initiate a respectful but searching re-evaluation of the place Muhammad occupies within Islam… If peaceful Muslims can mount no comeback when jihadists point to Muhammad’s example to justify violence, their ranks will always remain vulnerable to recruitment from jihadists who present themselves as the exponents of ‘pure Islam’, faithfully following Muhammad’s example.”

Spencer’s book – and the question it raises – has, of course, been banned in Pakistan, supposedly for containing “objectionable material.” Viewed in this light, the blasphemy laws of which Mr ul-Haq is so enamoured, and which so often serve as a license to intimidate and extort, are very much part of the problem. Blasphemy laws exist in order to make people afraid of saying certain things and, by extension, afraid of thinking certain things. And it’s hard to see how such a fundamental problem will be solved if people are afraid to think about it.

By all means, fund my blasphemy. 

Low Noise

Via comes this strangely endearing nostalgia-fest. A collection of 138 vintage analogue audio cassettes. I vaguely remember BASF chrome tapes had a distinctive smell, quite unlike other brands. I forget how well they worked, possibly due to the effects of sniffing the tape.

Tape_sanwa_low_noise_90 Tape_agfa_ferrocolor_60 Tape_basf_lh_60 Tape_fleschentraeger_happy_sound

The collection is, naturally, catalogued by brand, running time and tape quality. Stay away from 120s, though. They tend to stretch. More here.