Two images of William Jennings Bryan have settled into the public memory, neither of them flattering. One is the fundamentalist mountebank familiar to viewers of Inherit the Wind, with its fictionalized rendering of the Scopes trial. In it, the character based on Bryan proclaims himself “more interested in the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks.” He is, in short, a crowd-pleasing creationist numbskull, and nothing more.
The other portrait of Bryan is less cinematic, but darker. The classic version of it appears in Richard Hofstadter’s classic The American Political Tradition, first published in 1948 and still selling around 10,000 copies each year, according to a forthcoming biography of the historian. Hofstadter sketches the career of Bryan as a populist leader during the economic depression of the 1890s, when he emerged as the Midwest’s fierce and eloquent scourge of the Eastern bankers and industrial monopolies.
Yet this left-leaning Bryan had, in Hofstadter’s account, no meaningful program for change. He was merely a vessel of rage. Incapable of statesmanship, only of high-flown oratory, he was a relic of the agrarian past –- and the prototype of the fascistic demagogues who were discovering their own voices, just as Bryan’s career was reaching its end.
Historians have been challenging these interpretations for decades -– beginning in earnest more than 40 years ago, with the scholarship of Lawrence W. Levine, who is now a professor of history and cultural studies at George Mason University. It was Levine who pointed out that when Bryan denounced evolution, he tended to be thinking more of Nietzsche than of Darwin. And the Nietzsche he feared was not today’s poststructuralist playboy, but the herald of a new age of militaristic brutality.
Still, old caricatures die hard. It may be difficult for the contemporary reader to pick up Michael Kazin’s new book, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Knopf) without imagining that its title contains a snarl and a sneer. Isn’t the rhetoric of evangelical Christianity and anti-elitist sentiment always just a disguise for base motives and cruel intentions? To call someone godly is now, almost by default, to accuse them of hypocrisy.
But Kazin, who is a professor of history at Georgetown University, has a very different story to tell. Revisionist scholarship on Bryan -- the effort to dig beneath the stereotypes and excavate his deeper complexities -- has finally yielded a book that might persuade the general reader to rethink the political role played by “the Great Commoner.”
In an earlier study, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Basic Books, 1995), Kazin described the emergence in the 19th century of an ideology he called “producerism” – a moral understanding of politics as the struggle between those who built the nation’s infrastructure and those who exploited it. (The farmer or the honest businessman was as much a producer as the industrial worker. Likewise, land speculators and liquor dealers were part of the exploitive class, as were bankers and monopolistic scoundrels.)
The producerist ethos remains a strong undercurrent of American politics today. Bryan was its most eloquent spokesman. He wedded it to a powerful (and by Kazin’s account utterly sincere) belief that politics was a matter of following the commandment to love thy neighbor. As a man of his era, Bryan could be obtuse about how to apply that principle: His attitude toward black Americans was paternalistic, on a good day, and he was indifferent, though not hostile, concerning the specific problems facing immigrants. But Kazin points out that there is no sign of nativist malice in Bryan’s public or private communications. Some of his followers indulged in conspiratorial mutterings against the Catholics or the Jews, but Bryan himself did not. At the same time -- canny politician that he was -- he never challenged the growing power of the Klan during the 1920s.
It’s an absorbing book, especially for its picture of Bryan’s following. (He received an incredible amount of mail from them, only about two percent of which, Kazin notes, has survived.) I contacted Kazin to ask a few questions by e-mail.
Q: By today's standards, Bryan seems like a bundle of contradictions. He was both a fundamentalist Christian and the spokesman for the left wing of the Democratic Party. He embodied a very 19th century notion of "character," but was also exceptionally shrewd about marketing his own personality. For many Americans, he was a beloved elder statesman -- despite losing his two presidential bids and otherwise spending very little time in elected office. How much of that contradictoriness is in Bryan himself, and how much in the eye of the beholder today?
A: Great question! The easiest part to answer is the first: for Bryan and many other reform-minded white Christians, there was no contradiction between their politics and their religion. The “revolution” being made by the Carnegies and Vanderbilts and Rockefellers was destroying the pious republic they knew, or wished to remember (slavery, of course, they forgot about). What Bryan called “applied Christianity” was the natural antidote to the poison of rampant capitalism. The rhetoric of Bellamy, the People’s Party, and the Knights of Labor was full of such notions -– as were the sermons and writings of many Social Gospelers, such as Washington Gladden and Charles Stelzle.
On the character-personality question – I think Warren Susman and many historians he influenced over-dichotomize these two concepts. No serious Christian could favor the latter over the former. Yet, the exigencies of the cultural marketplace and of celebrity culture in particular produced a fascination with the personal lives of the famous. So Bryan, who was as ego-obsessed as any politician, went with the flow, knowing his personality was boosting his political influence. Being a journalist himself, he understood the rules of the emerging game. Do you know Charles Ponce De Leon’s book about celebrity journalism in this period?
Q. Oddly enough, I do, actually. But let's talk about the people to whom Bryan appealed. From digging in the archives, you document that Bryan had a following a loyal following among professionals, and even successful businessmen, who saw themselves as part of the producing class threatened by the plutocratic elite. Was that surprising to discover? Normally you think of populism in that era as the politics of horny-handed toil.
A: As I argued in The Populist Persuasion, when “producerism” became a popular ideal in democratic politics, Americans from many classes were quite happy to embrace it. It thus became an essential contested concept. But among a broad cross-section of people, the critique of finance capital was always stronger in the South and West, where Bryan had his most consistent support, than in places like Philly and NYC.
As for the letters -— I enjoyed that part of the research the most, although it was frustrating as hell to find almost no letters that were written during the campaign of 1908 and only a small number from then until the 1920s. If only WJB or his wife had revealed, somewhere, the criteria they used when dumping all that correspondence! That, at least,would have been a consolation. Of course, if they had kept nearly all of it, I’d still be there in the Manuscript Room at the Library of Congress, tapping away.
Q: I get the impression that Bryan might well have become president if women had been able to vote in 1896 or 1900. How much of his appeal came from expressing the moral and cultural ideals associated with women's "civilizing" role? And how much of it was sex appeal of his rugged personality and magnetic stage presence?
A: Ah, the counterfactuals! Bryan’s image as a “godly hero” certainly did appeal to many women, as did his eloquence and good looks (the latter, at least while he was in his 30s and early 40s). His support for prohibition and woman suffrage would have appealed to many women as well.
In 1896 and 1900, he carried most of the states where women then had the vote (in the Mountain West). Although that may have been because of his free silver and anti-big money stands, which is probably why most men in those states voted for him. On the other hand, his radical image could have limited his appeal to women elsewhere in the country. Women voters, before the 1960s, tended to vote for safe, conservative candidates.
Q: Another counterfactual.... What if Bryan had won? What sort of president would he have been? The man was great at making speeches; none better. But could he really have cut it as Chief Executive?
A: As president, he probably would have been a divisive figure, perhaps an American Hugo Chavez -— but without the benefit of oil revenues! If he tried to carry out the 1896 platform, there may have been a capital strike against him, which would have brought on another depression. If he hadn’t, the Populists and many left Democrats would have deserted him. The sad fact is that he hadn’t built a strong enough constituency to govern, much less to win the election in the first place.
Q: Finally, a question about the subjective dimension of working on this biography. Any moments of profound disillusionment? Rapt admiration? Sudden epiphany?
A: I wish I had time to pursue this important question at length -- perhaps I’ll write an essay about it someday. But briefly: I started reading all those fan letters and experienced an epiphany. Millions of ordinary people adored this guy and thought he was a prophet! And he was certainly fighting the good fight -– against Mark Hanna and his friends who were initiating the U.S. empire.
I also was impressed by his ability as a speech-writer as well as a performer. He could turn a phrase quite brilliantly. But after a year or so, I had to come to grips with his bigotry against black people and his general inability to overcome his mistrust of urban pols (although he didn’t share the anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism of some of his followers).
The problem was, in the America of a century ago, Bryan would not have been a hero to the white evangelical grassroots if he had been as clever and cosmopolitan a pol as FDR. So I ended up with a historian’s sense of perspective about the limits of the perceptions and achievements of the past. In recent speeches, E.J. Dionne muses that perhaps we should ask “What Would William Jennings Bryan Do?” I’m not sure that’s a useful question.
I can’t remember when I snapped. Was it the faculty seminar in which the instructor used the phrase “the objectivity, for it is not yet a subjectivity” to refer to a baby? Maybe it was the conference in which the presenter spoke of the need to “historicize” racism, rambled through 40 minutes of impenetrable jargon to set up “new taxonomies” to “code” newspapers and reached the less-than-startling conclusion that five papers from the 1820s “situated African-Americans within pejorative tropes.” Could it have been the time I evaluated a Fulbright applicant who filled an entire page with familiar words, yet I couldn’t comprehend a single thing she was trying to tell me? Perhaps it was when I edited a piece from a Marxist scholar who wouldn’t know a proletarian if one bit him in the keister. Or maybe it just evolved from day-to-day dealings with undergraduates hungry for basic knowledge, hold the purple prose.
At some point, I lost it. I began ranting in the faculty lounge. I hurled the Journal of American History/Mystery across the library, muttered in the shower, and sent befuddled e-mails to colleagues. I’m fine now. Once I unburdened I found I was not alone; lots of fellow academics agree that their colleagues couldn’t write intelligible explanations of how to draw water from the tap. From this was born the Society for Intellectual Clarity (SIC). We intend to launch a new journal, SIC PUPPY (Professors United in Plain Prose Yearnings) as soon as we find someone whose writing is convoluted enough to draft our grant application. (We’re told we should seek recruits among National Science Foundation recipients.)
Until the seed money comes in our journal is purely conceptual, but upon start-up SIC PUPPY will enact the following guidelines for submissions.
Titles: Brevity is a virtue. Titles with colons are discouraged. Any title with a colon, semi-colon, and a comma will be rejected on principle. We accept no responsibility for doodles and exclamatory obscenities scrawled on the returned text, even if you do enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope.
Style: If any manuscript causes one of our editors to respond to a late-night TV ad promising to train applicants for “an exciting career in long-distance trucking,” the author of said manuscript will be deemed a boring twit and his or her work will be returned. See above for doodle disclaimers.
Audience: Hey, would it kill you to write something an undergrad might actually read? If so, please apply for permanent residency in Bora Bora.
Terminology: If any author desires to invent a new term to describe any part of the research, refer to Greta Garbo’s advice on desire in the film Ninotchka: “Suppress it.” There are 171,476 active words in the English language and the authors of SIC PUPPY are confident that at least one of them would be adequate.
Nouns and Verbs: Among those 171, 476 words are some that are designated as nouns and others clearly meant as verbs. Do not confuse the two. SIC PUPPY refuses to conference with anyone about this. We have prioritized our objectives.
Thesis: We insist that you have one. If you don’t have anything to say, kindly refrain from demonstrating so. We do not care what Bakhtin, Derrida, Jameson, Marx, Freud, or Foucault have to say about your subject or any other. We’ve read them; we know what they think.
Academic Catfights: The only person who gives a squanker’s farley about literature reviews and historiography is your thesis adviser. We request that you get on with the article and reduce arcane debates to footnotes. The latter should be typed in three-point Windings font.
Editing for Smugness: If your article was originally a conference paper and, if at any time, you looked up from your text and smiled at your own cleverness, please delete this section and enroll in a remedial humility course.
No Silly Theories:SIC PUPPY does not care if a particular theory is in vogue; we will not consider silly ones. For example, bodies are bodies, not “texts” and dogs are dogs; they do not “signify” their “dogginess” through “signifier” barks. While we’re on the subject, we at SIC PUPPY have combed scientific journals to confirm that time machines do not exist. We thus insist that human beings can be postpartum or postmortem, but not postmodern.
Privileging Meaning: We believe that sometimes you’ve got to call it like it is, even if that entails using a label or category. We know that some of you think we shouldn’t privilege any meaning over another. To this we say, “We’re the editors, not you, and we intend to use our privileged positions of power to label those who reject categories ‘ninnies.’ So there!”
Citations: We insist that you use the Chicago Manual of Style for all citations. Not because we love it, but because it annoys us no end to see parentheses in the middle of text we’re trying to read. Why we read a theory on ellipses (Bakhtin, 1934) just last night describing how English authors (Wilde, 1905; Shaw, 1924) sought to embed Chartist messages (S. Webb, 1891) into....
Complaints: In the course of preparing a journal it is inevitable that typos will appear, that medieval French words will go to print with an accent aigu where an accent grave should have been, and that edits will be made to what you were sure was perfect prose (but wasn’t). Do not call the editors to complain that we’ve humiliated you before your peers and have ruined your academic career. SIC PUPPY will not waste time telling you to get a life; we will direct your call to the following pre-recorded message: “Thhhhhwwwwwwwpt!”
Satire and Irony: To paraphrase the folksinger Charlie King, serious people are ruining our world. If you do not understand satire, or confuse irony with cynicism, go away. Try therapy ... gin ... a warm bath ... anything! Except teaching or writing.
Robert E. Weir is a former senior Fulbright scholar who teaches at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts.
As a kid, my favorite book in the world was E.T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics (1937). I must have read it dozens of times by the age of 14. One afternoon, coming home from the library, I could not resist opening the book to a particularly interesting chapter -- and so ended up walking into a parked bus.
With hindsight, certain problems with the book are clear. Bell’s approach to the history of mathematics was exciting, but he achieved that effect, in part, through fictionalization. We now know that embroidering the truth came as second nature to Bell, who was a professor of mathematics at the California Institute of Technology until shortly before his death in 1960. In addition to writing science fiction under a pseudonym, Bell also exercised a certain amount of creativity in telling his own life story – as his biographer, Constance Reid, found out through some detective work.
But another problem with Men of Mathematics only dawned on me recently. I hadn’t thought of the book in ages, but remembered it while reading while reading Letters to a Young Mathematician by Ian Stewart, to be published next month by Basic Books.
The author is a professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick in the U.K. The imaginary recipient of his letters is named Meg -- a nice departure from the longstanding and rather self-reinforcing stereotype of math as a man’s field. The idea that no gender has a monopoly on mathematical talent seems never to have occurred to E.T. Bell. (Nor, consequently, did it cross the mind of a certain young nerd colliding with stalled vehicles during the mid-1970s.)
Fortunately that situation has started to change. And the progress is reflected, in a quiet and matter-of-fact way, in Stewart’s Letters.
A story unfolds, chapter by chapter, as Stewart corresponds with Meg. In the earliest letters, she is still in high school. By the end of the book, she has tenure. It is, in effect, a bildungsroman at one remove. The reader watches over Stewart’s shoulder as the young mathematician turns an early talent into a stable professional identity.
There’s even a moment when, in search of an interesting project to test her abilities, Meg starts trying to find a method for trisecting an angle using only a compass and an unmarked straightedge. This is one of the problems handed down from ancient geometry. People “discover” solutions to this challenge all the time, then become indignant that mathematicians don’t take them seriously. (The proof of why it is impossible involves mathematical tools going way beyond anything available in antiquity.)
But most of the guidance Stewart offers is positive -- and some of it seems useful even for those of us without mathematical aspirations or gifts.
“My usual method for reading a mathematics text,” he recalls about his student days, “was to thumb through it until I spotted something interesting, then work backward until I had tracked down everything I needed to read the interesting bit. I don’t really recommend this to everyone, but it does show that there are alternatives to starting at page 1 and continuing in sequence until you reach page 250.”
The most surprising thing -- at least for anyone influenced by Bell’s romanticized account of the mathematical vocation -- is Stewart’s emphasis on the nuts and bolts of academic life. Letters is full of pointers on academic politics, the benefits and frustrations of collaboration, and how to avoid disaster at conferences. (“Never believe your hosts when they tell you that all the equipment will work perfectly,” he notes. “Always try it yourself before the lecture.”)
E. T. Bell told stories about mathematicians whose lives were shaped, in the final analysis, only by their own creative instincts. They might occasionally win a prize offered by a learned society, or feel driven to some breakthrough by the challenge of defeating a hated rival. But Bell’s men of mathematics were, on the whole, geniuses of the purest vintage. They had inspirations, not resumes. It is hard to imagine anyone trying to give Carl Friedrich Gauss useful career advice.
So does that mean that popularized accounts like Bell’s are something a young mathematician ought to avoid? I contacted Stewart by e-mail to ask his thoughts on the matter.
“I write a lot of books popularising math and science, so I may be biased,” he said in reply, “but when I was in high school I read all the books I could find about the history of math, about mathematicians, and about various topics in math. And those definitely had a significant effect on my interest in the subject. They made it clear that math has a long and fascinating history, that the great mathematicians were real people, not just obsessed geniuses who couldn't tie their own shoelaces, and that there is much, much more to math than the tiny part of the subject that we are all taught at school.”
Well, that’s a relief. There’s something to be said for idealization and hero worship, after all, in their proper season. You then have your whole life to become more realistic, not to say more calculating.
A carefully worded memorandum appearing last week on the Web site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints informs the public that the expression “Mormon polygamist” is now offensive and inaccurate -– no matter what used to happen, back in the day. The occasion for this official statement is, of course, the new HBO series "Big Love," about a Utah businessman and his three wives living behind a facade of suburban normalcy in Salt Lake City.
Not content with making semantic demands, the memo also ventures into the field of applied cultural studies, calling HBO’s program “essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds.” (Insert Osmonds joke here.) The show has also met with criticism from anti-polygamy activists in Utah, who worry that "Big Love" will treat an exploitative practice as just another alternative lifestyle.
Based on a viewing of the first episode, I think some of the complaints are premature. There is a formal statement, before the closing credits, that the LDS policy now forbids polygamy. But more, the narrative will clearly be driven by tensions between “official” Mormonism and the splinter sect presented in the series. And there is already more than a hint of violent menace in the character of Roman, the splinter group’s “prophet,” played by Harry Dean Stanton, whose presence on screen always carries the Gothic aura picked up from appearing in the films of David Lynch.
The prophet’s newest bride is 14 years old. Patriarchal authority has rarely looked this sleazy.
But perhaps there is a complaint to lodge about "Big Love" after all. By default, it perpetuates the common notion that the Mormon polygamy was a unique mutation in the history of Christianity. On the contrary, the practice goes back very nearly to the beginning of the church -- and it has popped up again, from time to time, sometimes finding the most surprising advocates.
The pioneers in this were the Adamites, a sect from the second century. Being redeemed from sin, they held, meant being restored to mankind’s original innocence; hence the Adamites worshiped in the nude and practiced a kind of group marriage. This went over with church authorities about as well as might be expected. But the heresy proved remarkably durable, reemerging in various forms throughout the Middle Ages and on into the Enlightenment.
Another way of looking at it would be to say that the Adamites were the original manifestation of the counterculture. Raoul Vaneigem -- whose theoretical writings were an inspiration to student radicals around the world in 1968 -- hailed this dissident current as an inspiration. His 1994 book The Movement of the Free Spirit, published by Zone Books and distributed by MIT Press, is subtitled “General Considerations and Firsthand Testimony Concerning Some Brief Flowerings of Life in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and, Incidentally, Our Own Time.”
But Christian departures from the monogamous norm were not limited to the occasional group of proto-hippies. Following Luther’s challenge to the authority of the established church, some early Protestant theologians argued for a return to the example of the ancient Jewish patriarchs as described in scripture. (Strictly speaking, they were advocates of polygyny, marriage to multiple wives. By definition, the term “polygamy” is more inclusive; it would cover the somewhat rarer practice of polyandry, in which a woman has several husbands.)
Luther himself concluded that it might be doctrinally permissible to be married to more than one woman at a time, at least in theory. Some of the more radical reformers in his wake also considered it a practical possibility. A fascinating account of this tendency in early Protestantism appears in After Polygamy Became a Sin: The Social History of Christian Polygamy by John Cairncross, published in 1974 and now out of print.
The author, a journalist and independent scholar, not only wrote history but made a little. Before turning his attention to Reformation theology, Cairncross was part of the Soviet spy ring recruited among students at Cambridge University during the 1930s.
But the biggest surprise of all, I suppose, is the endorsement of polygamy by another famous British subversive -- a poet by the name of John Milton, who, before writing Paradise Lost, was de facto Minister of Propaganda for the Puritan regime that executed Charles I in 1649.
Apart from his poetry, Milton was a pamphlet-writing machine. John Keats referred to his prose as “delectable,” which is, on the whole, a minority opinion, though one I would endorse. There is no greater defense of the freedom of the press than Areopagitica. And the autobiographical passages in some of his tracts were, in their time, an extremely bold departure from the norm. (His polemical opponents respond by accusing him of egomania and bad taste.)
Only in 1823 did an archivist discover the manuscript known as De Doctrina Christiana, a systematic theological work attributed to Milton. (Controversy over whether or not he wrote all of it has never died.) The text contained a number of surprises concerning Milton’s religious beliefs -- some of which it would take an hour to explain for anyone not up on the fine points of Christian theology.
But the argument of one section is plain enough: “Polygamy is allowed by the law of God,” wrote Milton at the end of his analysis of relevant passages from both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. It was practiced by Abraham, Moses, and King David, among others -- “men whose holiness renders them fit patterns for imitation, and who are among the lights of our faith.” And among Christians, it was forbidden only to “the ministers of the church alone, and that not on account of any sinfulness in the practice.” Rather, as Milton argued, having more than one wife would be a distraction from doing their duties. Other than that, polygamy would simply be a form of marriage -- and “marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled.” (The whole section is available online here).
In 1825, the English translation of De Doctrina provided the occasion for a long article in The Edinburgh Review by Thomas Macaulay, who would go on to become the Victorian era’s most prominent essayist. ( This piece, which was much discussed at the time, was actually his debut in a major literary venue.)
Macaulay referred to the section on polygamy only in passing -- but he threw out a line that must have been amusing for readers familiar with the poet’s domestic miseries. In 1642, Milton married a young woman named Mary Powell, who promptly left him. Although they were later reunited, it was a joyless pairing. Milton went on to write a series of pamphlets arguing that there ought to be grounds for divorce besides adultery. In short, total incompatibility should be enough.
As for Milton’s posthumously revealed views on polygamy -- well, Macaulay thought they were cut from the same cloth. “We can scarcely conceive,” wrote Macaulay, “...that any reader, acquainted with the history of his life, ought to be much startled....”
At one level, Macaulay’s comment reflects a “common sense” -- if not terribly sensible -- understanding of why an unhappily married man would prefer polygyny. After all, if things were going badly with one wife, you could turn to another.
On a more serious note, I see that even a scholar who questions whether or not Milton wrote all of De Doctrina believes that the section on polygamy might well reflect Milton's thinking in the matter. Throughout the 1990s, William B. Hunter made perhaps the most exhaustive argument for skepticism, culminating in his book Visitation Unimplor’d: Milton and the Authorship of De Doctrina Christiana, published by Duquesne University Press in 1998. In the course of an almost page-by-page analysis of the original manuscript, Hunter states that “the section on polygamy” and “the pages on divorce” were probably by the same author -- that is, “Milton, in my opinion.”
Well, that’s good enough for me. But assuming that Milton did think polygamy through in this fashion, how much of it was driven by idiosyncratic personal considerations? And how much by the avant garde theological debates of his day? I contacted Michael Bryson, an assistant professor of English at California State University's Northridge campus to pick his brain.
Bryson is particularly interested in the overlap between Milton’s politics and his theology. (And if you have any doubt that marriage is all about politics...) His study The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as King was published by the University of Delaware Press in 2004.
His argument is not quite identical to William Blake’s wily notion of how come Satan gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost -- namely, that Milton “was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Instead, Bryson’s thesis is that Milton, while certainly a Christian, challenged the established conception of God. The old image treated the deity as a really, really powerful authority figure. (A human sovereign, on a superhuman scale: a tyrant without limits.) The theology emerging on the other side of this critique is, in effect, rather more libertarian than one might expect from a Puritan.
I asked Bryson how he understood the poet’s thinking on polygamy. “Milton,” he wrote back by email, “was an advocate for throwing off what he saw as man-made restrictions of, or infringements upon, the freedoms that God created mankind with originally.” That, he explained, was a current running throughout his pamphlets defending the English Revolution of the 1640s. It was also “the essential logic of his case for overthrowing canon law regarding marriage and divorce.” And likewise with the defense of polygamy.
“I think,” said Bryson, “that Milton, in general, saw humanity as having been more free in the past (in the days of the patriarchs, in the days before monarchy, in the days of the early Christian church) than they had come to be in his day.”
The effort to recover that lost liberty guided Milton in how he applied the Reformation principle of “sola scriptura,” of arguing strictly from the text of the Bible. In doing so, Milton gave things, “a twist in whatever direction he saw as leading to a lessening of external restrictions on thought and action,” as Bryson puts it. He quotes Milton’s appeal to "the pre-eminent and supreme authority [...] of the Spirit, which is internal, and the individual possession of each man."
And by “each man,” of course, the author meant ... well, ”each man.” The right to variety was, as one says nowadays, a gendered prerogative. (No wild Adamite polyandry on the horizon for John Milton.) The limits to his conception of freedom were the product of his era.
Still, Bryson thinks we should avoid reading too much autobiographical subtext into the poet’s defense of polygamy. “Milton’s ‘life,’” he points out, “was lived largely in the realm of thought. Milton’s physical/domestic life seems to have been much less radical than his theopolitical thought.... Knowing the history of Milton’s domestic life would not necessarily lead us to think: ‘Well, here’s a guy who will probably defend polygamy.’ ”
I suspect, in any case, that he would want to watch "Big Love," because it is interesting to study the practice as well as the theory. Besides, you occasionally feel the hankering for “essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds,” as they say in Utah.
Over the past few days, as perhaps you have heard, it has become more or less impossible to get hold of a copy of "Ready to Die" (1994) -- the classic (and prophetically named) debut album by the Notorious B.I.G., a gangster rapper killed in a shooting in 1997.
Well, perhaps "impossible" is overstating things. But expensive, anyway. Secondhand copies of the CD, recently selling for $6 each on Amazon, now fetch $40; and the price is bound only to go up from there. "Ready to Die" was withdrawn last week after a jury found that one of the tracks incorporated an unlicensed sample from a song originally recorded in 1992 by the Ohio Players -- the band best remembered for "Love Roller Coaster," a disco hit of the late 1970s. (Also, for an album cover featuring a naked woman covered in honey.)
Learning about the court case, I was, admittedly, shocked: Who knew the Ohio Players were still around? The Washington Post called them "funk dignitaries." Somehow that honorific phrase conjures an image of them playing gigs for the American Association of Retired Persons. They will be splitting a settlement of $4.2 million with their lawyers, which probably means a few more years on the road for the band.
Apart from that, the whole matter came very close to being what, in the journalistic world, is called a "dog bites man" story -- a piece of news that is not really news at all. Digital technology now makes it very easy for one musician to copy and modify some appealing element from another musician's recording. Now lawyers hover over new records, listening for any legally actionable borrowing. Such cases are usually settled out of court -- for undisclosed, but often enormous, sums. The most remarkable thing about the "Ready to Die" case is that it ever got to trial.
More interesting than the legal-sideshow aspect, I think, is the question of how artists deal with the situation. Imitation, allusion, parody, borrowing stray bits of melody or texture -- all of this is fundamental to creativity. The line between mimicry and transformation is not absolute. And the range of electronic tools now available to musicians makes it blurrier all the time.
Using a laptop computer, it would be possible to recreate the timbre of Jimi Hendrix's guitar from the opening bars of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" in order to color my own, rather less inspired riffs. This might not be a good idea. But neither would it be plagiarism, exactly. It's just an expedited version of the normal process by which the wealth of musical vocabulary gets passed around.
That, at least, would be my best argument if the Hendrix estate were to send a cease-and-desist letter. As it probably would. An absorbing new book by Joanna Demers, Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity,published by the University of Georgia Press, is full of cases of overzealous efforts to protect musical property. Some would count as implausible satire if they hadn't actually happened: There was, for example, the legal action taken to keep children from singing "This Land is Your Land" at summer camp.
Demers, an assistant professor of music history and literature at the University of Southern California, shows how the framework of legal control over music as intellectual property has developed in the United States. It began with copyright for scores, expanded to cover mechanical reproduction (originally, via player-piano rolls), and now includes protection for a famous performer's distinctive qualities as an icon. Today, the art (or whatever it is) of the Elvis impersonator is a regulated activity -- subject to the demands of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., which exercises control over "not only his physical appearance and stage mannerisms but also the very quality of his voice," as Demers notes. "Impersonators who want to exhibit their vocal resemblance to Elvis can legally do so only after paying EPE."
What the King would say about this is anybody's guess. But as Demers reminds us, it probably wouldn't make any difference in any case: It is normally the corporate "content provider," not the artist, who now has discretion in taking legal action. The process of borrowing and modifying (whether of folk music by classical composers or Bootsy Collins bass-lines by hip-hop producers) is intrinsic to making music. But it is now increasingly under the influence of people who never touch an instrument.
It is impressive that so trim a book can give the reader so broad a sense of how musical creativity is being effected by the present intellectual property regime. The author's note indicates that Demers, apart from her academic duties, serves as "a freelance forensic musicologist" -- one of those professional sub-niches that didn't exist until fairly recently. Intrigued by this, I asked her about it.
The term "is definitely over the top," she admits, "but I can't take credit for it. It just refers to music specialists who assess borrowings and appropriations, sometimes in the courtroom but most often before any lawsuits are filed." The American Musicological Society provides a referral list of forensic consultants, which is where potential clients find her.
She's been at it for three years -- a period coinciding with her first full-time academic post. "As far as I know," she says, "I don't get any credit at USC for this type of work. I'm judged pretty much solely on research and teaching plus a bit of committee work. I do have a few colleagues at USC who've also done this sort of work. It's a nice source of extra revenue from time to time, but as far as I know, there are only two or three folks around the world who could survive doing this alone full-time."
Demers is selective about taking on freelance cases. "Some are legit," she says, "while others are sketchy, so I try to be choosy about which cases I'll take on." At one point, she was contacted "by a person who was putting together a lawsuit against a well-known singer/songwriter for plagiarizing one of his songs. His approach was to begin by telling me how serious the theft was, but he wanted me to commit to working for him before showing me the two songs. Needless to say, we ended up not working together. Most cases, though, are preemptive in the sense that producer or label wants to ensure that materials are 'infringement free' before releasing them."
There is an interesting tension -- if not, necessarily, a conflict -- between her scholarship and her forensic work. "The challenge for me in consulting," as Demers puts it, "is that I have to give advice based on what copyright law currently states. I don't agree with many aspects of that law, but my opinion can't get in the way of warning a client that s/he may be committing an actionable infringement."
In reading her book, I was struck by the sense that Demers was also describing something interesting and salutary. All the super-vigilant policing of musical property by corporations seems to have had an unintended consequence -- namely, the consolidation of a digital underground of musicians who ignore the restrictions and just do what they feel they must. The tools for sampling, altering, and otherwise playing with recorded sound get cheaper and easier to use all the time. Likewise, the means for circulating sound files proliferate faster than anyone can monitor.
As a geezer old enough to remember listening to Talking Heads on eight-track tape, I am by no means up to speed on how to plug into such networks. But the very idea of it is appealing. It seems as if the very danger of a cease-and-desist order might become part of the creative process. I asked Demers if she thought that sounded plausible.
"Yes, exactly," she answered. "I don't want to come out and condone breaking the law, because even in circumstances where one could argue that something truly creative is happening, the borrower risks some pretty serious consequences if caught. But yes, this has definitely cemented the distinctions between 'mainstream' and 'underground or independent' in a way that actually bodes better for the underground than the mainstream. Major labels just aren't going to be attractive destinations for new electronica and hip-hop talent if this continues. And if there is a relatively low risk of getting caught, there are always going to be young musicians willing to break the law."
The alternative to guerilla recording and distribution is for musicians to control their own intellectual property -- for one thing, by holding onto their copyrights, though that is usually the first thing you lose by signing with a major label. "What I like to tell undergrads passing through USC," says Demers, "is that the era of mega-millions-earning stars is really coming to a close, and they can't expect to make large sums of money through music. What they should aim to do is not lose money, and there are several clever ways to avoid this, like choosing a label that allows the artist to retain control over the copyrights."
One problem is that artists often lack a sense of their options. "The situation is better than it used to be," Demers says, "but still, most artists are naive about how licensing works. They come with ideas to the studio and then realize that they must take out a loan in order to license their materials. Labels don't license samples; artists do. And if a lawsuit develops, most of the time, the label cuts the artist loose and says, 'It's your problem.' "
There is an alternative, at least for musicians whose work incorporates recontextualized sound fragments from other sources. "The simple way around this," she continues, is for an artist who uses sampling to connect up "the millions (there are that many) who are willing to let their work be sampled cheaply or for free."
But as Steal This Music suggests, the problem runs deeper than the restrictions on "sampladelia." Had the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998 been enacted 50 years earlier, you have to doubt that anyone would have dared to invent rock and roll. The real burden for correcting the situation, as Demers told me, falls on the public.
"I am pretty confident that content providers will continue to lobby for extending the copyright term," she says, "The CTEA passed because of the pressure that Disney and Time Warner put on Congress, and was abetted by the fact that the public was largely silent. But we're at a different point than we were in the late 1990s, and organizations like Public Knowledge and Creative Commons and scholars like Lawrence Lessig have done a good job of spreading the word about what extending copyrights does to creativity. Next time Congress has a copyright extension bill in front of it, I hope that voters will get busy writing letters."
The decline of Western civilization proceeds apace. One shudders to imagine life in decades hence. A case in point: People now use cell phones in research libraries.
Wandering the stacks, they babble away in a blithe and full-throated manner -– conversing, not with their imaginary friends (as did the occasional library-haunting weirdo of yesteryear) but rather with someone who is evidently named “Dude,” and who might, for all one knows, be roaming elsewhere in the building: an audible menace to all serious thought and scholarly endeavor.
This situation is intolerable. It must not continue. I have given this matter long consideration, and can offer a simple and elegant solution: These people ought to be shot.
I am no extremist, please understand; no gun nut in a rural compound; no wild-eyed advocate of freelance vigilantism. Just a temperate and long-suffering citizen who has heard quite enough about the affairs of Dude for one lifetime.
Max Weber pointed out that one of the hallmarks of modernity is that the state retains a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. I have no disagreement with that principle. It just seems like time for it to be applied in a new way.
The people who do the shooting ought to be suitably trained, tested, and certified. (Their accuracy as marksmen would be demonstrated beyond all doubt.) A poster at the entrance to the building would give fair warning that no cell-phone conversations are permitted beyond a certain clearly marked boundary line. The consequence of violating this rule could be illustrated with artwork, perhaps involving some easily recognized cartoon character.
Shooting with actual bullets might be excessive. If the budget permits, some kind of taser gun would be appropriate. Failing that, buckshot would probably do the trick.
Admittedly, a rational person could object to my plan. “Wouldn’t shooting cell-phone users in research libraries be counterproductive?” you might well ask. “Wouldn’t that actually make the library more noisy?”
A fair point. Yes, it would. But not for long....
I began pursuing this line of thought under two inspirations. One of them came from reading the conservative British essayist Theodore Dalrymple, who frequently contributes to The New Criterion. A selection of his work appeared last year in Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, published by Ivan R. Dee. There is a grand tradition of reactionary cultural criticism. Regarding comprehensive misanthropy as a justified inference from the available evidence about mankind, it turns disgust into a systematic world view. Dalrymple often seems like the most skilled practitioner of this approach now writing in the English language. Many rant; few have his gift for it.
So, in part, I wanted to pay homage. At the same time, Dalrymple comes to mind for a reason. My policy suggestions are the result of long experience and growing frustration. In other words, I want to shoot those people. I really, really do.
Which is not, of course, a socially acceptable emotion. Acting on it is discouraged by law. One understands this, of course; hence the imagined compromise, in which trained personnel would execute the punishment.
Being forced to listen to one side of a manifestly inane conversation is now a routine part of public life. It is tolerable on the street -- but not, somehow, in a library; and in one mostly full of academic tomes maybe least of all. What’s worse, the rot is spreading.
Professors routinely complain about the presence of cell phones in the classroom. But the culpability is not so one-sided as all that.
A friend reports attending a session of a major scholarly conference -- a panel on some grave topic in military history, I think. From the audience came the distinctive noise of a cell phone ringing.
No surprise there, of course. But then its owner pulled out the phone, answered it, and began a conversation.
Here, a line has been crossed. Some implicit rule of conduct (normally unstated, simply because nobody should have to spell it out) has been violated. A fissure in civility has appeared -- and the responsible party deserves to be swallowed up in the abyss so opened.
At very least, that person has lost all reasonable claim to immunity from having a powerful blast of electricity delivered to his or her system by somebody carrying a stun gun and a permit.
Not likely, though. Without being too much a determinist about this, it does seem as if technology, in making certain kinds of behavior possible, also makes it inescapable. That, in turn, results in deep changes in attitude and personality.
A sense of entitlement trumps the capacity for embarrassment. By that point, there’s no going back.
Or is there? For many years now, I’ve been a fan of The Civilizing Process by the late Norbert Elias, a great study in historical sociology that was first published in 1939. In it, Elias worked out an account of how behavior changed in Europe between the middle ages and the early 20th century. He analyzed the evidence from diaries, letters, and etiquette books to see how the rules of everyday conduct developed over time. Things considered acceptable and normal in one century would be regarded with disgust and outrage in another.
Elias found that such changes were not a matter of fashion or whim. Nor were they trivial. The rules governing routine behavior were tied to two long-term processes underway. One was the growing complexity and interdependence of economic life. The other was the concentration of military power in the hands of the state. (We take it for granted now that the army or police are -- or at least should be -- accountable to the political authorities. But this is actually a fairly recent development in human history.)
As these tendencies were taking shape on the macro level, the little rules of daily life were changing accordingly. To keep things running more or less smoothly, each person was expected to internalize certain rules. Things that once happened without anyone noticing them came under increasing scrutiny.
“Do not spit into the basin when you wash your hands,” a medieval text admonished, “but beside it.” In 1714, a French handbook on etiquette suggested that you not spit unless absolutely necessary. In that case, be discreet enough to put your foot on it. (Also: “Do not spit so far that you have to look for the saliva to put your foot on it.”) By 1859, a British author noted that spitting was not just disgusting “but very bad for the health” -- so you should never do it, period.
A similar change could be traced in discussions of flatulence. In 1530, the very learned Erasmus of Rotterdam noted: “If it can be purged without noise that is best. But it is better that it be emitted without much noise than that it be held back.” If necessary, he said, you should cough simultaneously to avoid embarrassment. (My wife, who gave me The Civilizing Process as a birthday present some years back, would probably rather I not cite Erasmus so much.) By 1729, a French rulebook warned that the release of gas “is very impolite ... either from above or from below, even if it is done without noise.”
Over the course of two or three hundred years, then, the expectation grew that each individual would practice more and more self-regulation. Social life, as Elias puts it, came to resemble a modern highway: “Every individual is himself regulating his behavior with the utmost exactitude in accordance with the necessities of this network. The chief danger that people here represent for others results from someone in this bustle losing his self-control.”
It is the analysis of table manners that most closely anticipates the present cell-phone problem. Originally, the use of knives and forks was restricted to very elite members of the aristocracy. At first, even some of them found it pretentious and affected. (Here, one thinks of the portable phones of the 1980s, which were nearly as big as your head, and seemed mainly to be used by hotshot lawyers and stockbrokers trying to broadcast how very important they were.)
As the use of eating utensils spread, various rules emerged. “Do not clean your teeth with your knife,” the advice books often warned. That is a pretty good indication that lots of people were cleaning their teeth with their knives, since you don’t have to forbid something nobody actually does.
But Elias also notes something even more interesting. The knife, while a useful tool at the dinner table, was also potentially a dangerous instrument of aggression. The very sight of it may have provoked a fear that it would inspire hostility -- or that, if you mishandled it, you might carelessly hurt somebody else.
So the pressure grew discouraging people from using knives at the dinner table for any but a very few functions. If a piece of food can be cut with the edge of a fork (the rule goes) you should do so. By no means stab a hunk of steak with your knife and eat it. Etc.
“There is a tendency that slowly permeates civilized society, from top to bottom,” writes Elias, “to restrict the use of the knife ... and wherever possible not to use it at all.”
The cell phone, then, is a little like a fart, and a lot like a knife. In the most optimistic scenario, people will learn to control their behavior over time. Civility will be restored. It should take about two centuries. I figure three, tops.
If you order a DVD called “Bettie Page: Bondage Queen,” Amazon will make some reasonable, though nonetheless startling, guesses about other items you might enjoy. (So one quickly discovers.) But the online retailer’s algorithms aren’t quite finely tuned enough to account for the fascination that Bettie Page exercises. Whether posing in calender-girl mode, or wielding a whip in the somewhat paradoxical role of a cheerful dominatrix, she returns the viewer’s gaze in a way that challenges one’s stereotypes about the sexually repressive 1950s. She also represents, in my opinion, a definitive refutation of the American media's inexplicable erotic valorization of the blonde.
Her story is coming to the screen this week in “The Notorious Bettie Page,” written and directed by Mary Harron, whose film about Valerie Solanas, “I Shot Andy Warhol,” was an exceptionally smart and insightful biopic. But Harron isn’t the only contemporary feminist interested in Page -- or in the combustible mixture of sexist ideology and female agency captured in vintage erotica.
In Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture,forthcoming this summer from Duke University Press, Maria Elena Buszek, an assistant professor of art history at the Kansas City Art Institute, describes the mutations of the pin-up genre over the decades. It is a cultural history that crisscrosses with the succeeding “waves” of feminist activism.
The pictures of actresses that became popular in the 19th century marked the emergence of a new kind of “public woman.” (In the earlier sense of that term, it suggested, not the female equivalent of a public man, but prostitution: the sexual equivalent of a public convenience.) With the consolidation of the film industry’s role as arbiter of glamour and lifestyle possibility, the variety and quantity of pin-up imagery grew. One familiar response to all of this --- the attitude routinely stereotyped as “feminist” -- was to denounce the entire phenomenon as “male objectification.” But women formed part of the audience for pin-ups. The range of posture and demeanor captured in the images reflect the increasing options for self-assertion, libidinal and otherwise, explored by women.
A thumbnail sketch of its analysis can’t do justice to the book. It includes dozens of images from the history of the pin-up -- from the naïvely stagy publicity photos of the 1860s to the ironically stagy meta-pin-ups created by contemporary pomo artists. An excerpt from the book is available at Buszek’s Web site. I recently interviewed her about her work. The notorious Bettie Page has only a small part in the history that Buszek has reconstructed. I asked about her anyway. (It meant that watching those short films on DVD counted as research.)
Q: How did you settle on this as a topic for research? The images themselves are fascinating, of course. But there's a difference between that level of interest and the kind involved in investing so much time and energy in a subject.
A: Well, to be honest, this was a project that really originated in artists' studios. My Ph.D. is in contemporary art, and Pin-up Grrrls began as my dissertation, where I was trying to figure out the phenomenon of younger feminist artists gravitating toward pin-up imagery. Since I began my B.A. in 1989, I had noticed more and more pin-ups appropriated by young women -- not just in their gallery art, but in more street-level ways, in t-shirts and Riot Grrrl 'zines -- as icons of feminism. Not "femininity," but feminism.
My first instinct was to assume that this was a way for young women to take an image type that older feminists had held up as a symbol of women's sexual servitude, something antifeminist and -- in a typically postmodern gesture -- reappropriate it as a symbol of strength and sexual power for a new generation. And, considering how polarizing the "sex wars" of the 1980s were -- where the position of anti-pornography activists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon was tremendously influential, and put forward by the mass media as "the" voice of feminism -- it seemed to make sense that this might be the first front on which emerging feminists might try to identify themselves as something different.
However, in my efforts to figure out what era or "type" of feminism this strategy was working to challenge, I quickly discovered that the pin-up was used by women since its very origins in the 19th century to mark a range of activist positions in the women's movement -- but all of them asserting that women's sexual expression deserves a significant role in the dialogues around women's sexual oppression. In retrospect this should have been a no-brainer, considering that (if I can paraphrase Carole Vance) feminism since Mary Wollstonecraft hasn't just been about decreasing women's pain and misery, but also increasing their joy and pleasure.
But (like most young feminists of my generation), I had kind of unconsciously swallowed the mass media myth that feminists of the women's liberation movement, or "second wave" of feminist history, were these angry, dogmatic asexuals -- and, naturally, with each decade I went back in my research, reading the actual texts of feminism's evolution, I found that the opposite was true.
I also discovered what was also true of feminism's long history is that these voices wanting to stress sexual self-expression as a feminist issue were usually those of younger women in the movement, and that their perspectives were generally dismissed by both older feminists -- who themselves were often "over" the whole sex issue, and had moved on to less dicey issues -- and the period's feminist organizations, which were almost always run by these same older, experienced feminists. So, the younger women turned to popular youth culture for places where they could "see" their ideals represented -- so that the way young women today hold up pop icons like Gwen Stefani or Coop's "devil girl" illustrations as symbols of "their" feminism, young feminists at the turn of the century used Sarah Bernhardt and Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girl" illustrations as icons of their own.
And all this brings me back to your question: moving from recognition of a scholarly subject to following through on researching it. Naturally, my first motivating factor was the old-fashioned awareness that no one had documented this long, "secret" history of the pin-up before, so I had the rare ability to scoop my colleagues on this terrific story. But ultimately what made me stick with it -- from a 300-odd-page dissertation to a 600-odd-page manuscript -- was the responsibility I felt to illuminating, and ideally ending the vicious cycle of generational misunderstandings that have plagued the women's movement since its start. Each generation has consistently held itself up as the "next wave" of feminism, and then the minute that they organize and gain a certain amount of power proceed to both selectively address what came before them and try to suppress efforts at change by the generation that follows. I felt that if I perhaps took the longest view possible of a subject and image that has continuously divided feminists, perhaps I could help suggest some common ground -- not just in the fact that we "commonly" fight one another, but also the fact that, try though we might, sex just will not go away, especially if the movement keeps needing young women -- who have always been not only sexually preyed upon, but sexually curious and active -- to keep it going!
Q: You refer to stereotype of an angry, dogmatic, and anti-sexual feminism -- and you dismiss this idea, or treat it as a cliché. Well, yes and no .... About 20 years ago, I was part of a left-wing and very pro-feminist newspaper staff that was called upon in a "community meeting" to do self-criticism for some incredibly subtle crypto-patriarchal gesture or other. The whole experience was very strange. (It might have been traumatic, had we not all been so heavily sedated.) Anyway, you do realize that your book would have been bitterly denounced at one point in the not-so-distant past, right? There was often a sectarian rancor (a purist if not puritan quality) to some activist feminism very different from the pluralism of some academic varieties.
A: Oh, yes! Of COURSE! In my book, I certainly don't sidestep the fact that there is still a significant percentage of feminist thinkers who question whether any woman's sexuality under patriarchy can ever be truly under their own control. Indeed, I have no doubt that my book will be denounced in certain circles for that very reason. I also agree that younger feminists in our third wave of feminism -- which, by the way, I argue is a way to periodize our era rather than a generational label -- tend to be more sex-positive and look to feminist history for reflections of their own sensibilities. My book is an example of this!
However, young feminists in the second wave (and all generations that preceded them) were the exact same way. The fact is that if you go back to the very foundational texts that today's most sex-suspicious feminists are drawing upon -- Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, Andrea Dworkin's Woman Hating, Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex -- these works are openly calling for, and believing in, the possibility of a feminist sexual revolution to go with the political changes they are demanding. (To say nothing of Germaine Greer and Erica Jong.)
They specifically began writing their own "herstories" not just to document the movement in their own words, but to cherry-pick their predecessors -- a fact that Astrid Henry's book Not My Mother's Sister does a very good job of addressing. And by the time we got to the late 1970s and early 1980s, this fact was conveniently forgotten as many of these same authors began calling for more radical and less sex-positive definitions of feminism -- themselves sweeping their own earlier texts under the rug in the process.
This is exactly what I'm talking about when I talk about the "vicious cycle" of selective memory as each generation of the women's movement evolves. One can argue that the exact same thing was frequently true of feminist leaders from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Betty Freidan.
And, as far as the grass roots of feminist activism, I have to disagree with you. I think that the activists "in the trenches" have always been the ones used to thinking realistically, negotiating for change. As Dorothy Allison has said, you can't be out there in the real feminist world without meeting the occasional African-American-ex-military-Republican-to-hell-with-NOW-lesbian feminist alongside the garden-variety Lefty-WASP-college-professor types -- largely because these are oftentimes the more vocal folks at the meeting. Pin-up Grrrls came out of this culture when I realized that there were distinct differences between what the women on the streets (and the bars and the clubs) living feminism and those writing about and teaching it had to say about how feminism was defined. I wanted to shore up all the ideas that these two groups might have in common, often without knowing it, and try to bridge this gap -- in large part because I myself was one of those caught in the middle.
I'm a working-class, Hispanic-American, Roman Catholic punk -- I wasn't supposed to go to college, much less become a feminist scholar. My scholarship has basically documented my journey to finding out why I did. I mean, I've been calling myself "feminist" -- much to the consternation of my parents -- since I was about nine years old, and I understood this term relating to "Charlie's Angels" on TV and the anti-nukes nuns at my school long before I knew who either Andrea Dworkin or Dorothy Allison were.
Q: Bettie Page is now something like the embodiment of the pin-up girl, the figure who normally comes to mind when the pin-up is mentioned. (The punning overtones of "embodiment" and "figure" probably can't be helped.) But unlike most of the earlier figures, she wasn't an actress or public figure of note before her image became known. The short films she made came later. How does she fit into the history of the form? How did she manage to become both anomalous and an archetype?
A: Yes, Bettie was one of the first pin-up icons famous for her pin-up work alone, rather than using pin-ups as a kind of necessary promotional tool to draw attention to something else that she did. And I think part of her success was that she looked at these pin-ups as her acting career -- she had a disastrous screen test, and a working-class Southern accent, and couldn't break into movies to save her life -- and clearly poured all of her love of the theatrical into these images and, later, Irving and Paula Klaw's film reels.
And I think that both this love and sense of make-believe are why she would go on to become so iconic and so groundbreaking a pin-up. The fact that she "performed" her typical cheesecake images with such hammy gusto wasn't new -- you see this approach in Hollywood pin-ups from the 1910's on. However, it was the fact that she performed in this same over-the-top, comedic style in her bondage images -- whether she was performing as a dominant or submissive -- in such a way that underscored the playful and performative potential of this seemingly perverse of shameful sexuality that made her unique. I'm making the argument that this wasn't just a radically new way of representing this particular sexual subculture, but more broadly that this was a radically new way of representing sexual womanhood -- particularly since Page was so popular in the 1950s, and beloved not for just one sexual stereotype, but the range of fairly extreme sexualities that she put out there. In the age where one could pretty much be the overtly sexual naif, like Marilyn Monroe, or the eternal virgin, like Doris Day, this was pretty unusual.
Q: In addition to the standard cheesecake shots of Page (and far more memorable, in a lot of ways) are the bondage and fetish images. Does it make sense to include these in the category of "pin-ups"? Or are we talking about something else? They certainly are striking. You've got all these signifiers of decadence and solemn perversity -- and in the middle of it, there's Bettie Page with this easy going, happy look on her face.
A: I definitely include the fetish images as pin-ups ... if you look at them, even from the perspective of the 1950s, they are! The brother-and-sister photographers Irving and Paula Klaw took pride in the fact that they ran a "clean studio," and definitely approached even the B/D/S/M photos--which, by the way, were usually made-to-order for customers -- as just another theatrical corner of their cheesecake business. A different kind of "glamour" photography, really.
The women had to wear two pairs of underwear, just to make sure they were properly covered up, and there wasn't even the suggestion of a sexual act in any of them. So if you go back and look at these images, the poses and situations might seem extreme, but these women aren't anywhere near naked or having sex. The Klaws were very careful that their images fit the social standards for what distinguished a "pin-up" from "pornography," and the amount of skin the subjects showed was kept to a minimum. What got them into trouble was that the same society that was keeping watch over how much skin was exposed was naturally appalled that the scenarios led back to a sexual subculture in an era where subcultures were held in great suspicion.
And, yes, in retrospect what seems crazy is how "threatening" these images were to the American government -- which subpoenaed both the Klaws and Bettie in the federal 1955 hearings on juvenile delinquency, regardless of the fact that the FBI ruled their bondage images weren't obscene by any legal definition. Largely because of how chaste the images truly are, but also because of how silly Page's performances are. But part of why they are still so sexy -- and perhaps what was so threatening -- is how unfazed she is by the supposedly transgressive behavior in which she's participating; she's clearly enjoying herself, and not taking it too seriously. And I think that this pairing of pleasure and play is part of why her images aren't just so popular today, but also such a favorite of young feminists.
She seems to be breaking out of her period's expectations for women like her -- even if she didn't in her personal life, the images she created suggest otherwise in that she's flouting convention, even if just for that fleeting moment when the cameras snapped and the fantasyland of the studio seemed real. Indeed, this idea of the studio as a site where fantasies could be realized -- and where the pin-up could be performed as a theatrical construct of a woman's sexuality -- would be recognized and exploited by the second wave of feminism that followed in the 1960s.
Q: You've probably looked at more pin-up images than anyone. At some point in the research, I assume you learned to look at them in an abstracting and historicizing way. Leaving that aside for a moment: Of the various images you've inspected, which ones really fascinate or appeal to you? And why?
A: Well I naturally have favorites in every period, and from day to day those favorites rearrange themselves. However, I suppose the images to which I keep returning are those created by women with a real sense of ambivalence -- clearly feminist images that are sometimes resigned to the inevitability of complexity and contradiction when it comes to women's sexuality.
My discussion of Frances Benjamin Johnston in Pin-up Grrrls immediately comes to mind; she's known today primarily as either an early photojournalist or society portraitist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but she created some really compelling pin-up-style images of the "New Women" of her day -- like Ida Tarbell and Alice Roosevelt -- where we find all kinds of contradictory messages about what a woman is, and what a feminist could be, battling one another.
She also created some practically unknown self-portraiture; not just traditional pin-ups, but also drag self-portraits in a pin-up style, where we find this bisexual, independent, unconventional woman -- who refused to identify with either the period's burgeoning lesbian or suffrage communities -- working all the contradictions of her own identity into this range of images.
Jumping forward to the present, I think that Cindy Sherman is extremely good at this tension, which I discuss at length in the book as well. Recently, one of my favorite contemporary photographers, Collier Schorr -- who, by the way, creates some of the best male pin-ups around -- recently wrote about how interesting it is that, while Sherman's feminism was challenged, sometimes angrily, in the 1980s as Barbara Kruger's work was held up as "correct," that today Sherman's often mournfully ambivalent self-portraits seem so political while Kruger's imagery is licensed out to the very commercial culture that the images were supposed to disdain.
Over all I am fascinated by pin-ups that acknowledge how hard it is to fight for making "the personal the political" when the personal is so wrought with contradictions -- yet demand that feminism take our personal contradictions into account.
Thursday was a long day -- one spent with my brain marinating in historiography. I passed the morning with a stack of JSTOR printouts about Richard Hofstadter, whose The American Political Tradition (1948) still sells about 10,000 copies a year. Hofstadter died in 1970. Enough time has passed for his reputation to have been overthrown, restored, and overthrown again. (As someone who grew up listening to theories about the JFK assassination on talk radio in Texas, I can take anti-Hofstadter revisionism seriously only up to a certain point. The man who wrote a book diagnosing The Paranoid Style in American Politics seems like a strong candidate for immortality.)
Only now is there a full-length treatment of his life, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography by David S. Brown, just published by the University of Chicago Press. Asked by a magazine to review it, I have been going over the footnotes and making a long march through the secondary literature. Which is easier than writing, of course, and a lot more fun -- the kind of serious-minded procrastination that requires hours. It sure ate up the morning.
Then, after lunch, I headed over the Washington Hilton to pick up press credentials for the annual convention of the Organization of American Historians. Tens of thousands of bloodthirsty jihadist-commie professors are infesting the nation’s campuses, as you have probably been reading of late -- with the historians being a particularly vile lot, turning almost the entire discipline into one big Orwellian indoctrination camp. “Now this,” I thought, “I gotta see.”
Going over the program, it was particularly interesting to notice a session called “The Creation of the Christian Right.” If the rumors were even half true, it would be one long rant against the Bush administration. Each paper would (to renew the Orwell bit) provide the standard Fifteen Minutes Hate, right?
Maybe that should be Twenty Minutes. Who ever keeps within time limits?
Actually, no. Everybody was calm and nobody ran over. The first paper looked at how Protestant and Roman Catholic social conservatives overcame their mutual distrust during the 1950s. Another analyzed the relationship between Billy Graham and Richard Nixon. The third and final presentation argued that the anti-abortion movement played a very minor role in defining the conservative agenda until it got a plank on the GOP’s platform in 1976. (That same year, when Betty Ford told a New York Times reporter that she considered the Roe v. Wade decision to be a fine thing, her comment appeared in the 20th paragraph of an article appearing on page 16 of The New York Times. A First Lady from the GOP making that statement anytime since then would have gotten a little more attention.)
Each presentation was the work of someone who had done substantial work among primary sources, including archival material. The researchers were alert to how the different factions and constituencies of the conservative movement interacted with one another.
But fervor, condemnation, editorializing by proxy? Not a bit of it.
For that matter, you couldn’t even hear the sort of ironic disdain that Hofstadter, writing decades ago, brought to analyzing McCarthyism or the Goldwater campaign. That tone had reflected the Mencken-esque judgement that American conservatism was just another manifestation of boobery and yahooism.
It was puzzling. If ever a session seemed likely to provide a concentrated dose of jihadist-commie propaganda, it would be one called “The Creation of the Christian Right.” Chances are, the young scholars giving papers did have political opinions. But they did not use the podium as a soapbox.
I guess they had been brainwashed by the OAH into practicing the most disinterested, rigorous sort of professional historical inquiry. Apart from being dangerous, those professors sure are sneaky. You’d almost think they were trying to make somebody look like a boob and a yahoo.
Later, another panel discussed the history of the idea of "the liberal establishment." Once again, I went expecting a strident call to destroy the Great Satan of the American Empire. And once again, it was all careful research and calm reason -- despite the fact that the scholar invited to respond to the papers was Michael Kazin, who had even made Horowitz’s list.
Between sessions, there was time to visit the exhibit hall. It was a chance to gaze upon recent offerings from the university presses. All the while, a small but very persistent voice whispered in my ear. “You don’t need more books,” the voice said. “Where would you put them?”
It sounded a lot like my wife.
Other conference-goers were wandering aisles, men and women of all ages; and some bore expressions suggesting that they, too, received similar wireless transmission from significant others back home. And yet those people picked up the new books, even so. I took courage from their example.
That evening, at a Chinese restaurant a few blocks downhill, I joined a group of convention-goers, most of them associated with Cliopatria, the group blog published by the History News Network. The gathering was all "off the record" -- an occasion for conviviality, rather than for news-gathering. But the relaxed flow of the proceedings took an odd turn around the time the main course arrived.
That was when someone indicated that it might be time for historians to work on a topic that I know rather well -- that, indeed, I had witnessed and to some degree participated in. And that was the late and much-lamented magazine Lingua Franca, the subtitle of which called it “The Review of Academic Life.”
That day, on the Web site of The New York Observer, there had appeared an essay on LF by Ron Rosenbaum -- the author of, among other things, a brilliant and unnerving book called Explaining Hitler.
In his piece, Rosenbaum lauded the magazine as a place that did not merely report on university life, but encouraged "thinking about the nature of human nature and human society, the nature of the cosmos, the nature of the mind itself (thinking about factors that underlie all politics)." Similar tributes were being offered around the table as the dishes were delivered. Somebody compared LF to Partisan Review. One historian suggested that it was time for a monograph.
Meanwhile I chewed my tongue quietly. Between 1995 and 2001, I had been a regular contributor to the magazine. Not that many publications with large audiences would let you write about the literary criticism of Northrop Frye, the philosophical architectonics of Richard McKeon, or the strange little pamphlet that Immanuel Kant wrote about the mystical visions of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Even fewer would then pay you. Now it molders in “the elephants’ graveyard of dead magazines.”
Elephants are supposed to have powerful memories, of course. Now it seems to be time for the historians of journalism to do the remembering. But when I look back at that period, it’s not to recall the glory days. There are too many recollections of botched opportunities and missed deadlines, and the occasional wince-inducing editorial decision. A few droplets of bad blood are sprayed across the sepia-toned mental snapshots. If I tried to write about LF, the result would probably be a satirical novel instead of a eulogy.
It might sound vaguely flattering to imagine that part of one’s own experience will probably, sooner or later, be studied by intelligent people. But in fact it is a little disconcerting.
Scholars will notice aspects of the past that you did not. There will be things charged with indelible personal significance for you that nobody else will recognize. It is hard not to cling to those nuances. To assume that you have a privileged relationship to the past, simply by virtue of having been there. But that’s not how history works.
No, the right attitude is probably the one cultivated by Richard Hofstadter. He was a master at grasping the paradoxes defining his discipline. Few writers have better captured the gap between what people in the past [ital]thought[ital] they were doing, on the one hand, and what their actions actually meant, on the other.
Hofstadter once cited a passage from Nietzsche that summed up his own outlook. “Objection, evasion, joyous distrust, and love of irony are signs of health,” the quotation ran. “Everything absolute belongs to pathology.” It’s worth keeping in mind when in thinking about the private history called memory -- not to mention the yet-unwritten history whizzing past, every hour of every day.
A young Web designer named Aaron Swartz has now created a mirror of the long-defunct Lingua Franca Web site.
For a considerably less impressionistic account of the convention, check out Rick Shenkman’s fine roundup of OAH.
I am a digitally-enabled, network-ready scholar. I check e-mail and browse the Web. I read RSS feeds. I leverage Web 2.0's ambient findability to implement AJAX-based tagsonomy-focused long-tail wiki content alerting via preprint open-access e-archives with social networking services. I am so enthusiastic about digital scholarship that about a year ago I published a piece in my scholarly association's newsletter advocating that we incorporate it into our publications program. The piece was pretty widely read. At annual meetings I had colleagues tell me that they really like it and are interested in digital scholarship but they still (and presumably unlike me) enjoy reading actually physical books. This always surprised me because I love books too, and it never occurred to me that an interest in digital scholarship meant turning your back on paper. So just to set the record straight, I would like to state in this (admittedly Web-only) public forum that I have a deep and abiding passion for paper: I love it. Love it.
It's true that there is a lot of stuff you can do with PDFs and the Web that you can’t do with paper, but too often people take this to mean that digital resources "have features" or "are usable" while paper is just, you know, paper. But this is not correct -- paper (like any information technology) has its own unique form of usability just as digital resources have theirs. Our current students are unused to paper and attribute the frustration they feel when they use it as a mere lack of usability when in fact they simply haven't figured out how it works. Older scholars, meanwhile, tend to forget about paper’s unique utility because using it has simply become second nature to them.
Some of the features of paper are well known: Reading more than three pages of text on a screen makes your eyes bleed, but I can read paper for hours. You can underline, highlight, and annotate paper in a way that is still impossible with Web pages. And, of course, in the anarchy after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse the PDFs will be wiped clean off my hard drive but I will still be able to barter my hard copy of Durkheim's Elementary Forms of the Religious Life for food and bullets.
But my passion for paper is about more than preserving the sociological canon in a post-apocalyptic future. Using paper is embodied in a way that using digital resources are not. Paper has a corporeality that digital texts do not. For instance, have you ever tried to find a quote in a book and been unable to remember whether it was on the left or right hand side of the page? This just a trivial example of way in which paper’s physicality is the origin of its utility.
And of course professors have bodies too. This is another way that scholarship is embodied -- we often do it while in libraries. Here our bodies are literally in a vast assemblage of paper with its own unique form of usability. And as scholars achieve total communion with the stacks, they find books based not just on catalog number, but on all of their senses. The fourth floor of the library I wrote my Ph.D. in sounded and smelled differently than the second did. How many of us -- even the lab scientists -- with Ph.D.'s will ever be able to forget the physical layout of the libraries where we wrote our dissertations? Or our undergraduate libraries? I find books in my current library by comparing its floorplan with the layout of the college library where I first studied.
And catalog systems! I am a DU740.42 man myself, although I freelance in B2430 at times and of course retain a broader competence in G and GN. I was visiting a colleague at Duke once and went into its library to see what sort of GN treasures it might have stored away only to find that the library used Dewey Decimal -- a fact I experienced with surprisingly raw sense of betrayal.
The very fact that libraries can’t buy every book is a form of utility, not a disadvantage. True, there is tons of hubub about Web sites that provide users "personalized recommendations" based on their preferences and the preferences of people in their social networks. But in practice all this has boiled down to the fact that after years of using Amazon.com, it has finally figured out that since I enjoyed reading Plato's Republic, I might also be interested in Homer's Iliad. But every book in my library has been "filtered" by my librarian, and browsing through stacks arranged by subject allows "discovery" of "resources" in a non-metaphorical pre-Internet way.
At Reed, where I went to college, the library had a disused, musty room dubbed the "multiple copy room." Not surprisingly, it was where all the multiple copies of books were stored. The librarians at a small liberal arts college like mine did not buy 10 copies of a book unless they sure that it was a keeper, worthy of being taught for eons, its wisdom instilled into countless generations of students who would value it so much that they would weep when bartering their own copies of it for food and bullets after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse. Browsing through and reading from those shelves was the best "filter" for "content" that I ever had. So much for "the long tail."
And of course browsing doesn't just happen in libraries. Amazon may have a bintillion books for sale out in the ether of the ethernet, but there is no better place to take the pulse of academic publishing that a good used book store near a university. Bookstores mark the life cycle and disposition of the community where they are physically located -- the end-of-the year glut of books dumped by students eager to rid themselves of dead weight like Anna Karenina in order to spend more time tinkering with their MySpace page is itself a good indicator of what a university has been assigning.
Bookstores also connect us to the larger scholarly community. Remainders -- books that are being sold at discount prices because publishers want them out of their warehouses -- are a remarkable measure of what fads have just passed in scholarly publishing or what is about to come out in paperback. And of course just being in a good bookshop can be therapeutic. A good friend of mine worked his way through college at a Walden Books. After work he would spend a half hour in the aisles of our local used book store, staring at the covers of Calvino novels until he had recovered from eight hours of selling people copies of The Celestine Prophecy.
The used book store is the horizon at which our human finitude and our books intersect. I have actually been turned on to the work of scholars based solely on the fact that I've purchased so many books from their collections. One book store I frequent actually put a picture of one recently deceased professor in the window to advertise that his library was on sale. Some find the practice morbid, but for me this sort of thing is the academic equivalent of the life-affirming musical number in The Lion King about how we are all part of the circle of life. Roscher and Knies costs $180 off the Internet and is scarcer than hen's teeth, but in that magical, electric moment that I found it used for 20 bucks I knew that in cherishing and loving it I would not only be honoring the memory of the previous owner, but perpetuating the hopelessly over-specialized intellectual lineage which we both cared about so deeply.
What I am trying to say is that owning and reading books is about our lives as scholars in a way that e-journals are not. Our libraries are furniture. They are decoration. They threaten the breathable air to paper ratio in our apartments and offices. Books spill over my shelves. They crowd my kitchen table. We are what we read. On my bedside I currently have one Hawaiian language textbook, Dan Simmon's science fiction novel Hyperion, Jonathan Lamb's Preserving the Self In The South Seas: 1680-1840, Eugene Genovese's Roll Jordan Roll and Jean-Luc Nancy's The Inoperable Community. In this combination I find elemental solace.
Our collections of physical, paper texts do not only help explain who we are to ourselves, they signal this to our visitors. When my guests first enter my apartment and make a beeline to my shelves they are actually learning more about me. When they admire my copy of Roscher and Knies I am learning something about them. When they spot my first edition of Ricky Jay's Cards as Weapons or Scatological Rites Of All Nations I know that I have found a true soul mate. I am convinced that this is somehow more important than finding out that the professor in the office next to me reads the same cat blogs that I do.
It is easy to see that paper will continue to be used by academics for a long time to come purely on the basis of its utility as an information technology. But we are not passionate about paper because it is a good research tool. We are passionate about it because of the way that it smells and feels. Our love of paper springs from the way it insinuates itself into not only our career, but our souls. This is why, after The Big Electromagnet Pulse, I won't be working desperately on some computer somewhere trying to resurrect my metadata. I’ll be fortifying the multiple copy room and trying to figure out how few copies of The Andaman Islanders I’ll have part with to keep alive until someone manages to turn the power back on.
Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.
The hurried patron spying Why Truth Matters (Continuum) on the new arrivals shelf of a library may assume that it is yet another denunciation of the Republicans. New books defending the “reality-based community” are already thick on the ground – and the publishers' fall catalogs swarm with fresh contributions to the cause. Last month, at BookExpo America ( the annual trade show for the publishing industry), I saw an especially economical new contribution to the genre: a volume attributed to G.W. Bush under the title Whoops, I Was Wrong. The pages were completely blank.
Such books change nobody’s mind, of course. The market for them is purely a function of how much enthusiasm the choir feels for the sermon being addressed to it. As it turns out, Why Truth Matters has nothing to do with the G.O.P., and everything to do with what is sometimes called the postmodern academic left -– home to cross dressing Nietzschean dupes to the Sokal hoax.
Or so one gathers from the muttering of various shell-shocked Culture Warriors. Like screeds against the neocons, the diatribes contra pomo now tend to be light on data, and heavy on the indignation. (The choir does love indignation.)
Fortunately, Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, is something different. As polemics go, it is short and adequately pugnacious. Yet the authors do not paint their target with too broad a brush. At heart, they are old-fashioned logical empiricists -– or, perhaps, followers of Samuel Johnson, who, upon hearing of Bishop Berkeley’s contention that the objective world does not exist, refuted the argument by kicking a rock. Still, Benson and Stangroom do recognize that there are numerous varieties of contemporary suspicion regarding the concept of truth.
They bend over backwards in search of every plausible good intention behind postmodern epistemic skepticism. And then they kick the rock.
The authors run a Web site of news and commentary, Butterflies and Wheels. And both are editors of The Philosophers’ Magazine,a quarterly journal. In the spirit of full disclosure, it bears mentioning that I write a column for the latter publication.
A fact in no way disposing me, however, to overlook a striking gap in the book’s otherwise excellent index: The lack of any entry for “truth, definition of.” Contacting Ophelia Benson recently for an e-mail interview, that seemed like the place to start.
Q: What is truth? Is there more than one kind? If not, why not?
A: I'll just refer you to jesting Pilate, and let it go at that!
Q: Well, the gripe about jesting Pilate is that "he would not stay for the answer." Whereas I am actually going to stick around and press the point. Your book pays tribute to the human capacity for finding truth, and warns against cultural forces tending to undermine or destroy it. So what's the bottom-line criterion you have in mind for defining truth?
A: It all depends, as pedants always say, on what you mean by "truth." Sure, in a sense, there is more than one kind. There is emotional truth, for instance, which is ungainsayable and rather pointless to dispute. It is also possible and not necessarily silly to talk about somewhat fuzzy-bordered kinds such as literary truth, aesthetic truth, the truth of experience, and the like.
The kind of truth we are concerned with in the book is the fairly workaday, empirical variety that is (or should be) the goal of academic disciplines such as history and the sciences. We are concerned with pretty routine sorts of factual claim that can be either supported or rejected on the basis of evidence, and with arguments that cast doubt on that very way of proceeding.
Q: Is anybody really making a serious dent in this notion of truth? You hear all the time that the universities are full of postmodernists who think that scientific knowledge is just a Eurocentric fad, and therefore people could flap their wings and fly to the moon if they wanted. And yet you never actually see anyone doing that. At least I haven't, and I go to MLA every year.
A: Of course, there is no shortage of wild claims about what people get up to in universities. Such things make good column fodder, good talk show fodder, good gossip fodder, not to mention another round of the ever-popular game of "Who's Most Anti-Intellectual?" But there are people making some serious dents in this notion of truth and of scientific knowledge, yes. That's essentially the subject matter of Why Truth Matters: the specifics of what claims are being made, in what disciplines, using what arguments.
There are people who argue seriously that, as Sandra Harding puts it, the idea that scientific "knowers" are in principle interchangeable means that "white, Western, economically privileged, heterosexual men can produce knowledge at least as good as anyone else can" and that this appears to be an antidemocratic consequence. Harding's books are still, despite much criticism, widely assigned. There are social constructionists in sociology and philosophy of science who view social context as fully explanatory of the formation of scientific belief and knowledge, while excluding the role of evidence.
There are Afrocentric historians who make factual claims that contradict existing historical evidence, such as the claim that Aristotle stole his philosophy from the library at Alexandria when, as Mary Lefkowitz points out, that library was not built until after Aristotle's death. Lefkowitz was shocked to get no support from her colleagues when she pointed out factual errors of this kind, and even more shocked when the dean of her college (Wellesley) told her that "each of us had a different but equally valid view of history." And so on (there's a lot of the "so on" in the book).
That sort of thing of course filters out into the rest of the world, not surprisingly: People go to university and emerge having picked up the kind of thought Lefkowitz's dean had picked up; such thoughts get into newspaper columns and magazine articles; and the rest of us munch them down with our cornflakes.
We don't quite think we could fly to the moon if we tried hard enough, but we may well think there's something a bit sinister and elitist about scientific knowledge, we may well think that oppressed and marginalized groups should be allowed their own "equally valid" view of history by way of compensation, we may well think "there's no such thing as truth, really."
Q: Your book describes and responds to a considerable range of forms of thought: old fashioned Pyrronic skepticism, "standpoint" epistemology, sociology of knowledge, neopragmatism, pomo, etc. Presumably not all questions about the possibility of a bedrock notion of truth are created equal. What kinds have a strong claim to serious consideration?
A: Actually, much of the range of thought we look at doesn't necessarily ask meta-questions about truth. A lot of it is more like second level or borrowed skepticism or relativism about truth, not argued so much as referenced, or simply assumed; waved at rather than defended. The truth relativism is not itself the point, it's rather a tool for the purpose of making truth-claims that are not supported by evidence or that contradict the evidence. Skepticism and relativism about truth in this context function as a kind of veil or smokescreen to obscure the way ideology shapes the truth-claims that are being made.
As a result much of the activity on the subject takes place on this more humdrum quotidian level, in between metaquestions and bedrock notions of truth, where one can ask if this map is accurate or not, if this bus schedule tells us where and when the bus really does go, if this history text contains falsifications or not, if the charges against this scholar or that tobacco company are based on sound evidence or not.
Meta-questions about truth of course do have a strong claim to serious consideration. Maybe we are brains in vats; maybe we all are, without realizing it, Keanu Reeves; there is no way to establish with certainty that we're not; thus questions on the subject do have a claim to consideration, however unresolvable they are. (At the same time, however unresolvable they are, it is noticeable that on the mundane level of this particular possible world, no one really does take them seriously; no one really does seriously doubt that fire burns or that axes chop.)
Intermediate level questions can also be serious, searching, and worth exploring. Standpoint epistemology is reasonable enough in fields where standpoints are part of the subject matter: histories of experience, of subjective views and mentalities, of oppression, for example, surely need at least to consider the subjective stance of the inquirer. Sociology of knowledge is an essential tool of inquiry into the way interests and institutions can shape research programs and findings, provided it doesn't, as a matter of principle, exclude the causative role of evidence. In short there are, to borrow a distinction of Susan Haack's, sober and inebriated versions of questions about the possibility of truth.
Q: Arguably even the most extremist forms of skepticism can have some beneficial effects -- if only indirectly, by raising the bar for what counts as a true or valid statement. (That's one thumbnail version of intellectual history, anyway: no Sextus Empiricus would mean no Descartes.) Is there any sense in which "epistemic relativism" might have some positive effect, after all?
A: Oh, sure. In fact I think it would be extremely hard to argue the opposite. And the ways in which it could have positive effects seem obvious enough. There's Mill's point about the need for contrary arguments in order to know the grounds of one's own views, for one. Our most warranted beliefs, as he says, have no safeguard to rest on other than a standing invitation to everyone to refute them.
If we know only our own side of the case, we don't know much. Matt Ridley made a related point in a comment on the Kitzmiller Intelligent Design trial for Butterflies and Wheels: "My concern ... is about scientific consensus. In this case I find it absolutely right that the overwhelming nature of the consensus should count against creationism. But there have been plenty of other times when I have been on the other side of the argument and seen what Madison called the despotism of the majority as a bad argument.... I agree with the scientific consensus sometimes but not always, but I do not do so because it is is a consensus. Science does not work that way or Newton, Harvey, Darwin and Wegener would all have been voted into oblivion."
Another way epistemic relativism may be of value is that it is one source (one of many) of insight into what it is that some people dislike and distrust about science and reason. In a way it's a silly argument to say that science is elitist or undemocratic, since it is of course the paradigmatic case of the career open to talent. But in another way it isn't silly at all, because as Michael Young pointed out in the '50s, meritocracy has some harsh side-effects, such as erosion of the sense of self-worth of the putative less talented. Epistemic relativism may function partly as a reminder of that.
The arguments of epistemic relativism may be unconvincing, but some of the unhappiness that prompts the arguments may be more worth taking seriously. However one then has to weigh those effects against the effects of pervasive suspicion of science and reason, and one grows pale with fear. At a time when there are so many theocrats and refugees from the reality-based community on the loose, epistemic relativism doesn't seem to need more encouragement than it already has.