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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Oh, all right

While I’m hard at work on other stuff structural repairs to this old and creaky blog, I might as well put up an old thing I found in the tubes.  It’s an appearance on WPSU’s “Pennsylvania Inside Out,” and it was taped on January 30, 2007—just after my very first retirement from blogging.  I learned two things from watching this:  one, I was apparently very very tired and rumpled after all that blogging and then all that straightening out my mother’s place after she broke her hip; two, I talk way too quickly for television or other forms of human communication.  Well, I knew # 2 already.  Recently Jamie told me of one of his classmates who “has a disability,” as he put it, “and he also talks really fast, like you.”

And speaking of disability!  This humble but attentive blog has learned that we were mentioned in this thread over at Basket of Kisses, the Lipp sisters’ fine Mad Men blog.  That’s cracking the big time, folks.  (Their razor-sharp commenters have some words of praise for my razor-sharp commenters, too.  Thanks!) The subject was the show’s treatment of Danny Farrell’s epilepsy in episode 10, about which I’d wanted to blog last week—if only to remind (or, perhaps, inform) people just how intensely stigmatized epilepsy was, back in the day.  It keeps coming up in the literature on eugenics and involuntary sterilization, for instance, which kinda surprises my students.  To take an almost-random example, here’s a snippet from Steven Noll’s Feeble-Minded in Our Midst:  Institutions for the Mentally Retarded in the South, 1900-1940:

[Aubrey] Strode and [A. S.] Pridday formulated the Virginia sterilization law on both economic and scientific bases.  The statute stated that sterilization would aid those “many defective persons who if now discharged or paroled would likely become by the propagation of their kind a menace to society, but who if incapable of procreating might properly and safely be discharged or paroled and become self-supporting with benefits to themselves and society.” It also invoked the scientific rationale for sterilization by emphasizing, “Human experience has demonstrated that heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, idiocy, epilepsy, and crime.” The law empowered superintendents of Virginia’s four mental institutions and its Lynchburg State Colony for the Feeble-Minded to sterilize any resident “affected with hereditary forms of insanity, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness, or epilepsy.”

This was in the 1920s; Virginia governor E. Lee Trinkle (real name!) signed the state’s sterilization bill into law on March 20, 1924.  And yes, you read that right, epilepsy was grounds for involuntary sterilization.  Granted, in 1963, Danny Farrell isn’t about to be sterilized.  But he certainly is going to be institutionalized at that “broom-pushing” job, and he knows it.  Don’s decision to let him get out of the car before he gets to Massachusetts, in a bizarre act of repentance for his role in the suicide of his own brother Adam, is one of the most interesting “minor” moments of the season.

Posted by Michael on 10/29 at 06:38 AM
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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Closed for repairs

Not really.  Just swamped with stuff.  I’m looking at a pile of the usual letter-of-rec stuff, all of which is due yesterday, and I have a review of this book due by Friday.  It turns out to be quite hard to squeeze a review of a 500-page book into the middle of a semester.  Or maybe I’m just getting old and slow?  And two-day MLA meetings, followed by an extended-family weekend, will tend to wreak havoc on one’s schedule.  So I won’t be telling the Tale of the Broken Hockey Stick until next week at the earliest.  In the meantime, feel free to comment on the public option, the Rangers’ reasonably good start, the complete and utter exposure of Don Draper Dick Whitman, the Yankees-Phillies showdown, the question of whether Bill Ayers wrote Obama’s senior thesis, the continuing degradation of the Washington Post, the Buccaneers-Rams-Lions-Raiders-Redskins-Browns-Titans-Chiefs Consortium of Awful, and/or the delightful and effervescent way your humble blogger manages to combine an insufferable pretentiousness with an embarrassingly juvenile sense of humor.  Trois loups et la lune, people!  I’ll be back when this place is all fixed up and ready for visitors.

Posted by Michael on 10/27 at 07:33 AM
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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Got wolves?

Even better than Tuscan Whole Milk, 1 Gallon, 128 fl. oz. (h/t), surely, is the Three Wolf Moon shirt.  As noted shirt critic T. Guymon writes, “The wolves spoke to me in a language all their own; it was like German, Mongol, and Bitchin all mixed together. I mean, one wolf howlin at the moon is major...but three???” And then there are all the possibilities for synergy.

And just for the weekend, here are a bunch of sixteenth notes.

Posted by Michael on 10/24 at 03:01 PM
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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Politics of reviews

Last fall I agreed to review a book on the basis of its title.  It was something about why we should care about the humanities or why the humanities should care about us, I think.  Anyway, I read it last November and was surprised to find that it also had a great deal to say about science:

We have nature and only nature.  Within this nature we have differentiation in the way that living organisms perpetuate themselves.  If we diagrammed this as a series of sets, nature would be the largest circle and within this circle we would have the circle of the animal kingdom (all living life from microbes to Homo sapiens sapiens), and within this smaller circle we would have mammals, and within the circle of mammals we would have humankind.  All of these circles are included within the larger set: nature.  Within this large set of living nature all living organisms manifest different ways of maintaining their existence (reproducing themselves) over time both individually and as a species.  This is to say that the biological self is formed within the social that is a part of this larger set we identify as nature.  This is what makes us unique and individual (social beings) as well as what makes us a complete set as individual members that form the same species.

Why talk about all of this?  Much of the theoretical formulation of the self fashionable in the humanities today is devoid of a social materialist (historical) purview; many believe that the motor for historical shift is an abstracted movement from one idea to the next; others believe that a performative self can resist oppressive hegemonic master narratives.  Rather, the human (higher-minded) self is a self as formed in a society that is itself formed in history, which has been in recent times formed by the class struggle.  So even before the self is ethnic or gendered, it is formed in relation to the class struggle (that has guaranteed rights and laws opposite to the interests of a ruling class) within the framework of the modern nation-state.  Thus, to understand today’s self is to subordinate gender, race, sexuality and ethnicity to an understanding of it as formed and developed within a capitalist society.

The book proceeds to praise Alan Sokal for revealing “just how reactionary so-called Left theory had become” and how “academic theory had rendered meaningless any real knowledge of the real world that might lead to real change.” And then it offers an innovative proposition or two about the history of science:

Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter or submarine were conceived of as potentially present but not yet realizable because of the lack of technology; following Newton’s scientific explanation of what gravity is, da Vinci saw very clearly that these things could be realized, could be created and produced; at the same time he was extremely aware of the fact that as a subject situated in a specific time and place, he couldn’t make actual a helicopter or submarine; the materials, the knowledge, and the technology present in his society were insufficiently developed for the actualizing of an object that could defy gravity.

Suffice it to say that I had never come across such a book in my life.  And there was more!  There was a discussion of Edward Said in which I learned that (a) “having rejected Marx as an intellectual guide for his political activity, Said was blind to the realities of the Middle East.  He didn’t see, for example, that for over half a century the Middle East has been a powder keg ready to explode precisely because the Palestinian question was never properly solved by imperialism” and (b) “Said’s constructivist and relativist position vis-à-vis reality is irrational and reactionary. . . . [S]uch an approach not only eliminates all the inconveniences of the Marxist analysis of political and historical situation, but also fails to account fully for the concrete case of the creation of, say, the state of Israel on the basis of the expulsion of the Palestinians.” Why, there was even a discussion of my very favorite topic of late, cultural studies:

The study of cultural phenomena began largely in Great Britain under the impulse of Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson.  In their studies of working-class youth populations and the analysis of, for example, the mugging phenomenon, they identified sites of subcultural resistance to the adult- and bourgeois-operated mainstream society.  Of course, to search for a political potential of resistance and revolution in subcultural groups, as any perfunctory check of the enormous amount of evidence available readily shows, there is absolutely no indication to suggest that a subculture has the potential to alter social reality in a revolutionary fashion.  In fact, the opposite has been usually true.  For all its radical posturing and anarchic fanfare, youth subcultures have never broken with a capitalist outlook and have been readily turned into massive consumers of goods and services produced within the confines of the capitalist mode of production—music, clothes, Italian Lambrettas, hair products, and so on.

Take that, Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson!  Though, to be fair, the book also chastises “Williams, Hebdige, Hull, Gilroy, for example” for their “mysticizing of working class and racially disenfranchised groups.”

How, pray tell, does one review such a book?  I did not know.  So I made something up.  The result is now available in the latest issue of The Review of Politics, available at dead-tree locations near you.  But it was a challenge, I’ll admit that.  What would you have done?

Posted by Michael on 10/21 at 11:11 AM
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Monday, October 19, 2009

About that TV show

That water around Don is three feet high and rising.

Oh, and Peggy rules.

Posted by Michael on 10/19 at 02:19 PM
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Friday, October 16, 2009

Neither A nor F Friday

So here are a few of the things I’ve been reading on Afghanistan lately.  A few of the titles pretty much say it all, though you should certainly—as we say on blogs—read the whole things.

Paul Rogers, “AfPak: The Unwinnable War,” openDemocracy

A. J. Rossmiller, “Stalemate,” The New Republic

Todd Gitlin, “Getting Out of Afghanistan,” Dissent

William R. Polk, “Open Letter to President Obama,” The Nation

A few older items, a bit more equivocal:

Stephen Biddle, “Is It Worth It?”, The American Interest

Conor Foley, “Afghanistan,” Crooked Timber

And from last week, a truly edifying reading experience, Scott Horton’s interview with Medea Benjamin, “Is Medea Benjamin Naive or Just Confused?”, Antiwar.com.

No, it’s not edifying because Medea Benjamin is naive or confused.  On the contrary, Ms. Benjamin is knowledgeable and clearheaded, really quite wonderful throughout.  It’s edifying because Horton (shorter Horton: “c’mon, Medea, the Christian Scientist Monitor totally lied, right?  you don’t care about Afghan women any more than I do, right?”) pursues a line of questioning that leads to this climactic moment:

Benjamin: But you do have the Taliban in Afghanistan and you have…

Horton: Yeah, but what did the Taliban ever do?

Benjamin: Well the Taliban…

Horton: To us.

Benjamin: Huh?

Best.  Huh.  Ever.  For the record, I think the proper form of this world-historically stupid question is “what has the Taliban done to us lately.” Anyway, Benjamin quickly rallies, and proceeds to try to educate Horton about this “Taliban.”

Benjamin: Well see, if your perspective is just from the United States. My perspective is also from what they did to the women of Afghanistan. But if your perspective is truly from the United States, what people say is that if we allow the Taliban to take over Afghanistan then that will be a safe haven for Al Qaeda.

Horton: Yeah, but that’s no different is it than the National Review saying, you know, Saddam Hussein was really bad to the people in Iraq.

Like I say, truly edifying.  Finally, the al-Qaeda/ Iraq link we’ve all been waiting for!

OK, so I’ll be talking at Northwestern today and tomorrow.  Feel free to map out a plausible and humane Afghanistan exit strategy in comments, and I’ll pass the thread along to Obama and McChrystal when we’re all done.  Oh, and don’t forget to stabilize Pakistan!  Extra extra bonus points for keeping the baying neocons marginalized on Iran.  Thanks.

Posted by Michael on 10/16 at 10:19 AM
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