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New book explores various arguments for the value of the humanities

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Author of new book explains why no one case can be made for the importance of the humanities -- and why the arguments must be different in America and Britain.

Review of Eric H. Cline, '1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed'

Intellectual Affairs

Brian Cranston’s recitation of “Ozymandias” in last year’s memorable video clip for the final season of Breaking Bad may have elided some of the finer points of Shelley's poem. But it did the job it was meant to do -- evoking the swagger of a grandiose ego, as well as time’s shattering disregard for even the most awe-inspiring claim to fame, whether by an ancient emperor or meth kingpin of the American Southwest.

But time has, in a way, been generous to the figure Shelley calls Ozymandias, who was not a purely fictional character, like Walter White, but rather the pharaoh Ramses II, also called User-maat-re Setep-en-re. (The poet knew of him through a less exact, albeit more euphonious, transcription of the name.) He ruled about one generation before the period that Eric H. Cline, a professor of classics and archeology at George Washington University, recounts in 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton University Press).

Today the average person is reasonably likely to know that Ramses was the name of an Egyptian ruler. But very few people will have the faintest idea that anything of interest happened in 1177 B.C. It wasn't one of the 5,000 “essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts” constituting the “shared knowledge of literate American culture” that E.D Hirsch identified in his best-seller Cultural Literacy (1988), nor did it make it onto the revised edition Hirsch issued in 2002. Just over 3,000 years ago, a series of catastrophic events demolished whole cities, destroying the commercial and diplomatic connections among distinct societies that had linked up to form an emerging world order. It seems like this would come up in conversation from time to time. I suspect it may do so more often in the future.

So what happened in 1177 B.C.? Well, if the account attributed to Ramses III is reliable, that was the date of a final, juggernaut-like offensive by what he called the Sea Peoples. By then, skirmishes between Egypt and the seafaring barbarians had been under way, off and on, for some 30 years. But 1177 was the climactic year when, in the pharaoh’s words, “They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident…. ” The six tribes of Sea Peoples came from what Ramses vaguely calls “the islands.” Cline indicates that one group, the Peleset, are "generally accepted” by contemporary scholars "as the Philistines, who are identified in the Bible as coming from Crete.” The origins of the other five remain in question. Their rampage did not literally take the Sea Peoples around “the circuit of the earth,” but it was an ambitious military campaign by any standard.

They attacked cities throughout the Mediterranean, in places now called Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon, among others. About one metropolis Ramses says the Sea Peoples “desolated” the population, Ramses says, “and its land was like that which has never come into being.”

Cline reproduces an inscription that shows the Sea Peoples invading Egypt by boat. You need a magnifying glass to see the details, but the battle scene is astounding even without one. Imagine D-Day depicted exclusively with two-dimensional figures. The images are flat, but they swarm with such density that the effect is claustrophobic. It evokes a sense of terrifying chaos, of mayhem pressing in on all sides, so thick that nobody can push through it. Some interpretations of the battle scene, Cline notes, contend that it shows an Egyptian ambush of the would-be occupiers.

Given that the Egyptians ultimately prevailed over the Sea Peoples, it seems plausible: they would have had reason to record and celebrate such a maneuver. Ramses himself boasts of leading combat so effectively that the Sea Peoples who weren't killed or enslaved went home wishing they’d never even heard of Egypt: “When they pronounce my name in their land, then they are burned up.”

Other societies were not so fortunate. One of them, the Hittite empire, at its peak covered much of Turkey and Syria. (If the name seems mildly familiar, that may be because the Hittites, like the Philistines, make a number of appearances in the Bible.) One zone under Hittite control was the harbor city of Ugariot, a mercantile center for the entire region. You name it, Ugarit had it, or at least someone there could order it for you: linen garments, alabaster jars, wine, wheat, olive oil, anything in metal…. In exchange for paying tribute, a vassal city like Ugarit enjoyed the protection of the Hittite armed forces. Four hundred years before the Sea Peoples came on the scene, the king of the Hittites could march troops into Mesopotamia, burn down the city, then march them back home — a thousand miles each way — without bothering to occupy the country, “thus,” writes Cline, “effectively conducting the longest drive-by shooting in history.”

But by the early 12th century, Ugarit had fallen. Archeologists have found, in Cline’s words, "that the city was burned, with a destruction level reaching two meters high in some places.” Buried in the ruins are “a number of hoards … [that] contained precious gold and bronze items, including figurines, weapons and tools, some of them inscribed.” They "appear to have been hidden just before the destruction took place,” but "their owners never returned to retrieve them.” Nor was Ugarit ever rebuilt, which raises the distinct possibility that there were no survivors.

Other Hittite populations survived the ordeal but declined in power, wealth, and security. One of the maps in The Year Civilization Collapsed marks the cities around the Mediterranean that were destroyed during the early decades of the 12th century B.C. — about 40 of them in all.

The overview of what happened in 1177 B.C. that we’ve just taken is streamlined and dramatic — and way too much so not to merit skepticism. It’s monocausal. The Sea Peoples storm the beaches, one city after another collapses, but Ramses III survives to tell the tale…. One value of making a serious study of history, as somebody once said, is that you learn how things don’t happen.

Exactly what did becomes a serious challenge to determine, after a millennium or three. Cline’s book is a detailed but accessible synthesis of the findings and hypotheses of researchers concerned with the societies that developed around the Mediterranean throughout the second millennium B.C., with a special focus on the late Bronze Age, which came to an end in the decades just before and after the high drama of 1177. The last 20 years or so have been an especially productive and exciting time in scholarship concerning that region and era, with important work being done in fields such as archeoseismology and Ugaritic studies. A number of landmark conferences have fostered exchanges across micro-specialist boundaries, and 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed offers students and the interested lay antiquarian a sense of the rich picture that is emerging from debates among the ruins.

Cline devotes more than half of the book to surveying the world that was lost in or around the year in his title — with particular emphasis on the exchanges of goods that brought the Egyptian and Hittite empires, and the Mycenean civilization over in what we now call Greece, into closer contact. Whole libraries of official documents show the kings exchanging goods and pleasantries, calling each “brother,” and marrying off their children to one another in the interest of diplomatic comity. When a ship conveying luxury items and correspondence from one sovereign to another pulled in to dock, it would also carry products for sale to people lower on the social scale. It then returned with whatever tokens of good will the second king was sending back to the first — and also, chances are, commercial goods from that king’s empire, for sale back home.

The author refers to this process as “globalization,” which seems a bit misleading given that the circuits of communication and exchange were regional, not worldwide. In any case, it had effects that can be traced in the layers of scattered archeological digs: commodities and artwork characteristic of one society catch on in another, and by the start of the 12th century a real cosmopolitanism is in effect. At the same time, the economic networks encouraged a market in foodstuffs as well as tin — the major precious resource of the day, something like petroleum became in the 20th century.

But evidence from the digs also shows two other developments during this period: a number of devastating earthquakes and droughts. Some of the cities that collapsed circa 1177 may have been destroyed by natural disaster, or so weakened that they succumbed far more quickly to the marauding Sea Peoples than they would have otherwise. For that matter, it is entirely possible that the Sea Peoples themselves were fleeing from such catastrophes. “In my opinion,” writes Cline, “… none of these individual factors would have been cataclysmic enough on their own to bring down even one of these civilizations, let alone all of them. However, they could have combined to produce a scenario in which the repercussions of each factor were magnified, in what some scholars have called a ‘multiplier effect.’ … The ensuing ‘systems collapse’ could have led to the disintegration of one society after another, in part because of the fragmentation of the global economy and the breakdown of the interconnections upon which each civilization was dependent."

Referring to 1177 B.C. will, at present, only get you blank looks, most of the time. But given how the 21st century is shaping up, it may yet become a common reference point -- and one of more than antiquarian relevance.

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review of Romain D. Huret, 'American Tax Resisters'

I do not know if he was an ancestor of the talk-show host, but one Jean-Baptiste Colbert served as minister of finance for Louis XIV. A page on the tourism-boosting website for Versailles notes that his name lived on "in the concept of colbertism, an economic theory involving strict state control and protectionism."

An apt phrase can echo down through the ages, and the 17th-century Colbert turned at least a couple of them. The idea that each nation has a "balance of trade" was his, for one. And in a piece of wit that surely went over well at court, Colbert explained that "the art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least amount of hissing."

Procrastination makes tax resisters of us all, at one time or another. But mostly we submit, just to get it over with, and we keep the hissing to a prudent minimum. Not so the politicians, ideologues, and organizations chronicled by Romain D. Huret in American Tax Resisters (Harvard University Press). Relatively few of them carried rebellion so far as to risk imprisonment or bankruptcy in defense of their principles by outright refusing to pay up. But they were unrelentingly vocal about their fear that the state was hell-bent on reducing them to peonage.

American Tax Resisters proves a little more narrowly focused than its title would suggest; its central concern is with opposition to the income tax, though Huret's interest also extends to protest against any form of progressive taxation. The author is an associate professor of American history at the University of Lyon 2 in France, and writes that he’s now spent two decades pondering "why Americans had such a complex relationship with their federal government."

In selecting one aspect of that complex relationship to study, he makes some surprising though defensible choices. He says very little about the Boston Tea Party or Shay's rebellion, for example. Instead, he takes the Civil War as the moment when anti-tax sentiments began to be expressed in terms that have persisted, with relatively little variation, ever since. The book is weighted more heavily toward narrative than analysis, but the role of major U.S. military commitments in generating and consolidating the country’s tax system does seem to be a recurrent theme.

Before taking office, Lincoln held that government funds ought to be raised solely through tariffs collected, he said, "in large parcels at a few commercial points.” Doing so would require "comparatively few officers in their collection.” In the early months of the war, his administration tried to supplement revenue through an income tax that largely went uncollected. With most of the country’s wealth concentrated in the Northeast, most of the burden would have fallen on a few states.

Instead, revenue came in through the sale of war bonds as well as the increased taxation of goods of all kinds, which meant driving up the prices of household commodities. By 1863, a Congressman from the North was warning of "the enslavement of the white race by debt and taxes and arbitrary power.” The link between anti-tax sentiment and racial politics only strengthened after the Confederacy’s defeat.

The need to pay off war debts, including interest on bonds, kept many of the new taxes imposed by the Lincoln administration in place into the 1880s. Businessmen who prospered during the conflict, as well as tycoons making new fortunes, resented any taxation of their incomes -- let alone the progressive sort, in which the rate increased as the amount of income did. Anti-tax writers insisted that progressive taxation was a policy of European origin, and “communistic,” and even a threat to the nation’s manhood, since it might (through some unspecified means) encourage women to assert themselves in public.

Another current of anti-tax sentiment reflected the anxiety of whites in Dixie, faced with the menace of African-American equality, backed up by the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau and other Reconstruction-era government agencies. Huret reprints an anti-tax poster from 1866 in which hard-working white men produce the riches taxed to keep a caricatural ex-slave in happy idleness.

The rhetoric and imagery of anti-tax protests from the late 19th century have shown themselves to be exceptionally durable (only the typography makes that poster seem old-fashioned) and they recur throughout Huret’s account of American tax resistance in the 20th century and beyond. With each new chapter, there is at least one moment when it feels as if the names of the anti-tax leaders and organizations have changed, but not much else. Certainly not the complaints.

Yet that’s not quite true. Something else does emerge in American Tax Resisters, particularly in the chapters covering more recent decades: people's increasingly frustrated and angry sense of the government encroaching on their lives.

By no means does the right wing have a monopoly on the sentiment. But every activist or group Huret writes about is politically conservative, as was also the case in Isaac William Martin's book Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent, published last year by Oxford University Press and discussed in this column.

Neither author mentions Edmund Wilson’s book The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest (1962), which criticizes “the Infernal Revenue Service,” as some resisters call it, in terms more intelligent and less hysterical than, say, this piece of anti-government rhetoric from 1968 that Hulet quotes: “The federal bureaucracy has among its principle objectives the destruction of the family, the elimination of the middle class, and the creation of a vast mass of people who can be completely controlled.”

Wilson wrote his book after a prolonged conflict with the IRS, which had eventually noticed the author’s failure to file any returns between 1946 and 1955. Wilson explained that as a literary critic he didn’t make much money and figured he was under the threshold of taxable income. Plus which, his lawyer had died. The agents handling his case were unsympathetic, and Wilson’s encounter with the bureaucracy turned into a Kafkaesque farce that eventually drove him from excuses to rationalization: his growing hostility led Wilson to decide that failure to pay taxes was almost an ethical obligation, given that the military-industrial complex was out of control. He vowed never again to earn enough to owe another cent in income tax, though he and the IRS continued to fight it out until his death 10 years later.

I don’t offer this as an example of tax resistance at its most lucid and well-argued. On the contrary, there’s a reason it’s one of Wilson’s few books that fell out of print and stayed there.

But it is a lesson in how the confluence of personal financial strains and the cold indifference of a bureaucratic juggernaut can animate fiery statements about political principle. It’s something to consider, along with the implications of Socrates's definition of man as a featherless biped.

Review of Karyn L. Freedman, 'One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery'

I've never had the occasion to begin a piece of writing with a trigger warning, and am decidedly ambivalent about the whole phenomenon -- especially since learning from Tressie McMillan Cottom's excellent blog that some universities "are issuing guidelines to help professors consider adding 'trigger warnings' to syllabi for 'racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,' and to remove triggering material when it doesn’t 'directly' contribute to learning goals.”

Racism, sexism, and the rest are real, and they do damage. But for many on the academic left, activism against them now amounts to policing one another's use of language. Cottom, who is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Emory University, doesn't categorically reject the trigger warning, but she treats the "triggering" syllabus as a surrender to the student-as-customer model of pedagogy:

"No one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people…. Yet, no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression."

No need to issue a caution for Karyn L. Freedman's stunning One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery (University of Chicago Press).The trigger warning is wired right into the title. The author, now an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph, survived a brutal sexual assault at the hands of a drunken, knife-wielding acquaintance that took place in 1990, when she was 22 years old.

The first and most painful chapter narrates her life up to and including that ordeal. Some of the memories remain extremely vivid -- particularly the instant when the fight-or-flight instinct short-circuited because neither was possible. Other details Freedman can only reconstruct from medical and legal documents; the trauma effectively deleted her memory of them.

The rest of the book (four-fifths of it) traces the consequences of the event. Just a few months after the rape, Freedman declared herself "over it already" and "made a conscious decision to just get on with things, so to speak." That included sexual relationships with men. She told very few people what had happened to her, as is often the case with rape victims. But she also had the much less common opportunity to see her attacker in court in a timely manner, and he died while serving an eight-year prison sentence.

Closure! If only that word meant anything. Neither willpower nor the justice system were enough to overcome what she only much later came to recognize as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: fearfulness, insomnia, panic attacks, overwhelming flashbacks, and extreme difficulty in trusting men, among other things.

Most of Freedman's other published work has appeared in journals devoted to the philosophy of science -- "not a discipline that requires much self-awareness," she writes, "at least, not typically. It does not ask philosophers to be attuned to their emotional responses to its subject matter or to have a personal or experiential connection with it." She found relief in being able "to retreat into the safety of a world of logic and reason, a domain wholly external to mine."

While her mind went about its business, her body was still responding to the world as if the rapist could reappear at any time, one hand pulling her hair out of her scalp while the other held a knife to her throat. It was ten years before Freedman began therapy appropriate to treating PTSD; even then, it only reduced her symptoms and taught her to manage the anxiety, rather than curing them.

But in thinking and writing her experience, she worked toward an insight that is in some ways as troubling as the narrative of her attack. Any traumatic event, including highway collisions and natural catastrophes, will leave a mark on someone's neurobiology. But traumatic interpersonal violence goes further: it destroys one's previous understanding of people and the world. Freedman says she grew up thinking of violence as rare and for the most part avoidable by someone who is reasonably careful. Such beliefs could survive learning the statistic that one woman in four will at some point be forced into sex. Becoming one of them destroyed that basic existential confidence.

The rape survivor is left with a "shattered worldview," but also has to face people who prefer an outlook she knows to be untrue. Sexual violence against women and children is not a deviation from the norm; it's much too frequent and commonplace for that. "And because rape is typically experienced in private," Freedman writes, "unlike other traumatic experiences, like combat fighting for war, for instance, the clear evidence of its pervasiveness is obscured from our collective vision." The situation is self-perpetuating.

Before reading One Hour in Paris, I was fairly dubious about the recent proliferation of trigger warnings. But Freedman's memoir makes the level of distress implied by "trigger" much clearer, and empathy trumps cynicism. Still, as a way to reduce PTSD, the warnings seem not much more than a palliative. What they really are, in the end, is a gesture of respect toward everyday suffering that otherwise goes unrecognized.

As for the trigger-warning-equipped syllabus, two brief points that should be obvious. First, the only real beneficiaries will be lackadaisical slackwits, providing them an excuse not to do the assigned reading. And second, it would tend to keep a book like One Hour in Paris out of the classroom. Reading and discussing it will make people extremely uncomfortable, which is, on the whole, a good thing.

Liberal arts college library directors ask publishers to ease ebook licensing restrictions

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Library directors at 66 liberal arts colleges call on publishers to ease ebook licensing restrictions.

Author discusses new book on how students influenced and were influenced by fashion trends

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Author discusses in new book how college students in the 20th century changed fashion.

Q&A with author of new book on how polarization has created stale higher ed policy but for-profits can get their way

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A new book argues federal lawmakers have failed to maintain a rational higher ed policy but come together on behalf of for-profits that spend generously.

Review of Evelyn Barish, 'The Double Life of Paul de Man'

Evelyn Barish's The Double Life of Paul de Man, from Basic Books, is a scandalous volume, in at least a couple of ways.

At the most obvious level there is troubling nature, even after all this time, of the "the de Man affair" -- the discovery, in 1987, that the preeminent figure among the literary theorists at Yale University had published a substantial body of literary journalism in a Belgian newspaper when it served as a mouthpiece for the Nazis during the occupation. It generated much discussion over the next few years, with a very little of it involving people who had ever actually read anything by Paul de Man. It was, in that and many other regards, a formative stage of the culture wars.

Barish, a professor emeritus of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center, offers evidence that his collaboration went further than writing regime-friendly articles on French and German books. Since the early 1990s, she has been digging in archives and interviewing the critical theorist's family members, friends, and enemies. She even tracked down the Dutch translation of Moby Dick that de Man published in his 20s. He reinvented himself quite thoroughly after arriving in the United States in 1948, going from penniless fugitive (with no postsecondary degree) to doctoral candidate in the comparative literature department at Harvard, then on to a role as one of the most sophisticated and influential literary theorists in the era of structuralism and its aftermath.

Barish concentrates almost entirely on de Man's career up to his first appointment, at Cornell University, following completion of his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1960. She doesn't say much about de Man's ideas, which is fortunate; her references to the literary, political, and intellectual contexts of his work seldom inspire confidence. Barish's forte, rather, is as sleuth. And if even half of what The Double Life reports is accurate, de Man picked the wrong Melville novel to translate. The Confidence Man would have been a lot more apt.

That is a problematic "if," however. It is difficult to express the cumulative frustration of reading a book on matters of such importance containing so many careless mistakes, needless repetitions, and dubious leaps of assumption. Their effect is not to shatter the structure of Barish's argument, like volleys of mortar fire hitting a house. It will stand for a while, until someone else does a better job. But it has termites, leaving it shaky in the meantime.

The story in brief: Paul de Man, born in 1919, grew up in a recently prosperous Belgian family (his father ran a company that manufactured x-ray tables) with its full share of neurotic misery. His mother was prone to prolonged spells of clinical depression and made a number of suicide attempts before succeeding by hanging herself when de Man was 17 years old.

His father was a philanderer, and the boy understandably if unfairly blamed him for her death. He took his uncle, Henri de Man, as a more worthy paternal model. Henri was a leading figure in the Belgian labor movement and very well-connected in political and journalistic circles; he was a major theorist of the non-Marxist wing of European socialism and an adviser to Belgian royalty.

Barish understands much of Paul de Man's early career as shaped by this maelstrom of influences. A brilliant student in his early teens, he entered college in the wake of his mother's suicide and flunked out repeatedly; he took up something of the playboy lifestyle enjoyed by his father, despite hating the man. Uncle Henri came rather early to the self-fulfilling conclusion that Hitler was unstoppable and that Belgium would inevitably fall under German domination. He and his followers were prepared to make the best of it -- and his ambitious but aimless nephew, even more than most.

With the benefit of Henri's pull, Paul joined the staff of the newspaper Le Soirée in 1940, a year after the German tanks rolled in, and contributed hundreds of book and music reviews. This paper trail shows him to have been an opportunist rather than a true believer (his article criticizing Jewish influence on European literature was half-hearted at most, especially by contrast with the rants published alongside it) but The Double Life quotes passages from reviews that echo Nazi ideas contrasting the vitality of German culture with French decadence.

Nepotism and scheming also enabled him to carve out a niche as adviser to a major book distributor. By his mid-20s, de Man seems to have been as well-integrated into the collaboration's cultural apparatus as anyone could be; had some of the office-politics skulduggery de Man engaged worked out, he might have climbed even higher. (Blocked career mobility can be a blessing at times: two of the men he worked under were condemned to death after the war.) All the while, de Man maintained contacts with friends involved in the resistance. Once the war ended, of course, it turned out that everyone had fought in the resistance. De Man could even name the unit he had "joined."

His real-life activities in the mid-1940s sound altogether shadier. He started a publishing company in the usual way -- gathering investors, commissioning books and translations, etc. -- but used its assets as his own personal cash machine until there was nothing left but debt. When he departed for New York in 1948 de Man was facing a prison sentence of five years for embezzlement.

The ease with which de Man escaped this past entirely once in the U.S. -- or shook it off  for a while at least -- will astonish anyone habituated to today's norms of surveillance and databanks. His wife and children went to Argentina to await him, but de Man seems to have decided that chapter of his life was closed. He took a job stocking books at a Barnes & Noble store while ingratiating himself with the literary and intellectual circles around Partisan Review and Dwight Macdonald's magazine politics.

With the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy he formed a close friendship (whether or not "with benefits" being a matter of some debate among the biographer's sources) that led to a stint at Bard College, teaching French literature. In front of the classroom, he finally found his element: students were enraptured by how he sounded out the ironies and paradoxes of a poem. He was exceptionally discreet about his earlier history, but much less so about his current behavior: he managed to run up considerable debts and to impregnate a co-ed.

They were properly married, in good time -- but only after a bigamous period, during which de Man's other family, the one that had been waiting in Argentina, showed up on the doorstep one day.

I know it all sounds complicated, but really, this is the streamlined version of the story.  It also involves lawyers, doctored documents, French surrealism, and countless unpaid and otherwise unhappy landlords. There are poison-pen letters and visits from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Paul de Man supplements his stipend by translating articles for a magazine run by a professor named Henry Kissinger. Plus a tree falls on de Man during a thunderstorm. And then there was the difficulty of getting anyone in comp lit at Harvard to take Heidegger seriously in the 1950s. The biographer suggests that de Man's life grew more settled once he became a professor.

But then, it would have to be.

A ripping yarn! Convoluted as the story is, it's somehow easier to believe than was the news about de Man's wartime writings when it first broke,  more than 25 years ago. People who spent a significant part of the 1980s reading and rereading Blindness and Insight and Allegories of Reading -- the two books de Man published during his lifetime -- thought of him as being like his prose: both magisterial and sublimely ironic. It was painfully difficult, almost impossible really, to understand how a thinker so canny about the implications and complications of literature could ever have lent his support to a system of such brutal simple-mindedness.

One strategy of response was exemplified by Jacques Derrida, who stood up for his friend in an essay suggesting that de Man's article on the Jews in European literature was actually a very subtle -- a very, very subtle -- deconstruction of Nazi discourse. This was an example of the procedure known as "polishing a turd." It did not prove helpful.

The Double Life of Paul de Man cuts through the knot by seeing his life and work as a response to his family and milieu. He grew up with an emotionally fragile mother who clung to him desperately, then left him to find her lifeless body hanging in the attic. He absorbed all of his father's vices but none of the bourgeois virtues; money ran through his fingers like water. The family member he admired most (and, we learn, repeatedly claimed was his real father) was a political opportunist with fascistic leanings who taught by example that career advancement by any means necessary was acceptable.

He learned these lessons all too well. His later work in critical theory, in the biographer's estimation, rationalized the idea that words have no meaning and you can interpret things just about any way you want.

Except, he didn't. Besides relying on clueless polemics as a substitute for reading his work Barish has cultivated some strange ideas about de Man and his influence.  We read that de Man created "a new philosophy, a way of looking at the world that redefined America's point of view." She calls him a "linguistic philosopher," and says that he was "known by some as the 'father of deconstruction,' although he said the term was coined by Jacques Derrida." (Actually she makes the same point about the patrimony of "deconstruction" again later, as if there were some ground for doubt in the matter, which there isn't. Derrida came up with it.)

As if afraid we'll drop the book unless it is about a titan, the biographer reaches to the heights of overstatement. "Influential in both the academic world and the broader social one," she also states, "de Man wielded more influence on intellectual ideas than any other voice here or abroad."

Barish is, of course, quite right that de Man's influence made him influential. (And even vice versa.) But the statement is otherwise not even remotely true. At the peak of his renown, de Man's readership consisted almost entirely of professors and graduate students in literature programs (comparative and otherwise) along with the occasional ambitious undergraduate. He played no role at all in non-academic sectors of the public sphere. In part that is because, after his early journalism, he avoided discussing contemporary political matters of any kind. He made no grand pronouncements about Society or Truth -- not even to deny that it was possible to make grand pronouncements about them. Nor was he a "linguistic philosopher." He was a critic of romantic and post-romantic literature. He wrote about what language does, or can do, when it operates in certain specific locations known as literary texts.

To find such confused statements about de Man's role at the start of a book about his life does not inspire trust. I kept on reading but found it impossible not to be distracted by countless examples of what can only be called outright sloppiness. The author repeats descriptions or characterizations of people repeated almost word for word from one place to the next. We learn of the newspaper Le Soir ("The Evening") that during the occupation, German patriots called it Le Soir volé ("The Stolen Evening") and from that point on every single mention of the paper calls it Le Soir (volé), as if that were its actual title.

It's eccentric at best. Thoughts are not always developed: Erick Erickson's discussion of "alienated man" had some effect on the biographer's understanding of de Man, since she nods in their direction a number of times, but whatever insight it offered as a key to de Man is never worked out. Her references to Bourdieu's sociology of culture are equally murky, and not a little compromised by her apparent belief that his term "habitus" means something like "social network."

Much more disappointing from a professor emeritus is her attribution of Keats's phrase about the world as a "vale of soul-making" to Milton. I didn't keep track of all the book's anachronisms, but here's one memorable example: When de Man lies about having written a master's thesis on Henri Bergson's understanding of time, Barish explains that Bergson's work became fashionable in the 1940s because Heidegger and Sartre wrote about it. (Just explaining why that's wrong would take another couple of paragraphs).

We get many, many references to what de Man "must have thought" about something, and also confident statements about what others would have known, or not known, about de Man himself. A little of that sort of thing goes a long way. It is a fair guess that, in 1948, not many people in the U.S. would have made a connection between Paul de Man and Belgian political history, since Belgium ranks somewhere behind Romania in the American awareness of Europe -- slightly ahead of Liechtenstein, though that's arguable. But she is on shaky ground in making the same assumption about the New York intellectuals de Man met. Many had been radicals during the depression and were perfectly well aware of his uncle Henri.

By the time the biographer speculates that Mary McCarthy expected de Man to marry her after getting her pregnant -- for which there is simply no evidence -- it's not altogether clear what genre The Double Life of Paul de Man falls into.

It's readable, but is it reliable? About innumerable small things, no, it isn't; that leaves me dubious about the author's judgment regarding larger matters. Some years back, Ortwin de Graef, the scholar who unearthed de Man's collaborationist writings, published a book covering the same period called Serenity in Crisis: A Preface to Paul de Man 1939-1960, but it's a monographic study. A definitive biography of Paul de Man would combine de Graef's depth of understanding with Barish's narrative zip, but it will probably be a long time before that happens.

Review of Lisa Gitelman, 'Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents'

Intellectual Affairs

A couple of weeks ago I decided, after prolonged dithering, to rent space in the digital warehousing district known as "the cloud." One of my laptops held at least five years' worth of material -- digital page proofs for books, JSTOR downloads, extensive photographic documentation of the lives of our cats, etc. -- running to about 14,000 files, or more than 50 gigabytes. Having all of it in one place seemed to tempt fate.

It also meant that use of my digital archive was restricted to times when that rather clunky laptop happened to be convenient. The biggest advantage of storing a file in the cloud is being able to retrieve it on any computer or e-reader that has web access. The savings in exasperation alone are considerable. A feeling of creeping senility kicks in when you end up with two or three copies of a paper that you probably already downloaded, but can't remember for sure (so just to be safe...) or spend part of a trip to the library gathering the same citations you collected a few years ago.

The one disadvantage -- in case anyone else out there has a similar digital hoarding problem -- is that first you have to upload everything, and it can take a while. The task does not require much attention. But even with sending batches of a hundred files or more at a time, it took a long weekend. That doesn't count the labor of sorting and labeling the files and weeding out duplicates, which, like housekeeping, is an ongoing process that never really ends.

After this long march into the paperless future, my study ought to look as aesthetically spare as an Ikea store display -- not crowded with cardboard boxes full of documents from projects both in progress and in limbo. But I'm not there yet and probably never will be. With a scanner and a few more weekends, all the files could all be rendered into PDF. For that matter, some of the material that took me years to locate, and not a few bucks to acquire, can now be downloaded in that format for free.

It's the same text, of course, yet somehow not the same document. The PDF lacks the aura of the original: the constant, lingering reminder that, in the past, readers held this specific document in their hands, focused attention on it for their own particular reasons, and decided that it was worth keeping.

Contact with the original document enriches the experience of reading -- thickening it with added layers of historicity. That said, it's also convenient to have a digital version of it on hand, to annotate or to share. But by the time I finished reading Lisa Gitelman's new book Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Duke University Press), even the humble PDFs downloaded on a JSTOR binge began to seem interesting in their own right as a variety of social and cultural artifact.

Gitelman, a professor of English and of media, culture, and communication at New York University, finds the contrast between print culture and digital culture much less compelling than a series of developments from the past 150 years conditioning how we understand documents of whatever variety, whether published with ink or in bytes. My hunch going in was that the author would give a fair bit of space to one more rehearsal and critique of Foucault's treatment of the concepts of document and archive in The Archeology of Knowledge. The eyes fairly glaze at the prospect.

Instead, Gitelman practices a kind of conceptual archeology without obeisance to the master, in an argument that stands well on its own.

To sum it up all too quickly, then: Discussions of print culture typically concern published matter of a few general kinds, such as books, pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers -- in short, mass-produced texts through which authors communicate with an audience.

But another category accounted for up to a third of the output of printers in the United States by the end of the 19th century: the "job printing" done for the government, industry, and small businesses, providing them with batches of application forms, tickets, order books, rent receipts, posters, and so on.

This layer of "print culture" was part of the basic infrastructure of modern bureaucracy and of advanced capitalism -- as essential to modernity as the circulation of books and magazines was in creating the "public sphere" (Jürgen Habermas) or the "imagined community" of the nation-state (Benedict Arnold). The concept of "author" hardly applied to the documents turned out by job printing, and they didn't typically have "readers," either, certainly not in the sense a newspaper did. But they were integral to everyday life -- and with the passing of time, they could become historical evidence, the raw material of scholarship.

Here the analysis begins to spin out a couple of threads that, by turns, twist together and move at odd angles to each other. Gitelman goes on to trace the efforts of academics in the 1920s and '30s to develop standards for making scarce primary sources available to the scholarly community (using emerging tools such as microfilm) while also establishing standards for cataloging and citing documents circulating through non-print modes of reproduction (for example, carbon copy or the hectograph).

Marketing of the Xerox machine in the early 1960s originally stressed its usefulness as a replacement for job printing. But by the end of the decade, copy shops were sprouting up around college campuses, precisely to meet the need for small-run reproduction of scholarly materials that American learned societies had anticipated in earlier decades.

By the time you reach the book's final chapter, on the rise of PDF, the relationship between the history of ground-level print culture and that of its Ivory Tower analog seem linked in so many suggestive ways that the advent of digital culture seems like just one part of an intricate pattern. Most of the stimulation of the book comes from Gitelman's narration and juxtaposition of developments across several decades, which unfortunately can't be captured in paraphrase.

It's the first of the author's books I have read, but it won't be the last.

Editorial Tags: 

S.C. House Keeps Financial Penalty for Gay-Themed Book

The South Carolina House of Representatives on Monday twice refused to reverse a $52,000 cut to the College of Charleston's budget -- a cut added by a legislative committee to punish the college for assigning Fun Home, a well regarded memoir by a lesbian, to freshmen, the Associated Press reported. Lawmakers said that they wanted to send a message about the selection of the book.

The college responded to questions from Inside Higher Ed about the vote by releasing this statement from President P. George Benson: "Any university education must include the opportunity for students to engage controversial ideas. Our students are adults, and we will treat them as such at the College of Charleston. As one of the oldest universities in the United States, the College of Charleston is committed to the principle of academic freedom. Faculty, not politicians, ultimately must decide what textbooks are selected and how those materials are taught. Any legislative attempt to tie institutional funding to what books are taught, or who teaches them, threatens the credibility and reputation of all South Carolina public universities."

 

 

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