Until Michel Foucault mentioned him in passing in the first volume of his History of Sexuality (1976), the Viennese physician Heinrich Kaan’s role as the pioneer in medical research on paraphilias seems to have gone unnoticed. The title would have gone by default to Richard Krafft-Ebing, who published the first edition of his encyclopedic Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886. And the long disappearance of Kaan into that work’s shadow is even more unjust given that he was the first to use the title, more than 40 years earlier. (Kaan goes unnamed in the English rendering of Krafft-Ebing’s 12th edition -- whether the omission is the author’s or the translator’s I don’t know.)
As remedy to that neglect, Cornell University Press has publishedHeinrich Kaan’s “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1844): A Classic Text in the History of Sexuality, edited by Benjamin Kahan, an assistant professor of English and women’s and gender studies at Louisiana State University, in a translation by Melissa Haynes, a classicist at Bucknell University. Judging it “too dangerous to hand over to the general public” until “its utility and integrity can be proven,” Kaan wrote his treatise in Latin, but he hoped that it would meet with sufficient professional approval that he could arrange to have it “translated into a vernacular language such as French.”
The index contains reviews from medical journals of the day, which are decidedly mixed. One of Kaan’s peers vents his irritation that “people continue to belabor themselves and others” by writing in a dead language that is inadequate for modern purposes “even when it is masterfully employed!” The reviewer then strongly implies that Kaan is “among those who must still struggle with vocabulary and syntax” and “would do best to simply avoid it altogether.” Another critic praises it as “creditable to the author,” unlike most publications “on the revolting subjects of which it treats.”
Understandably, then, no clamor for a translation was heard in Kaan’s own day. “As far as I am aware,” Foucault said during his course of lectures for 1974-75 at the Collège de France, “it is the first treatise of psychiatry to speak only of sexual pathology but the last to speak of sexuality in Latin.” (Presumably Foucault meant that it was the last monograph to be composed solely in that language: Krafft-Ebing switched from German to Latin whenever it was necessary to describe deviant sexual behavior in potentially salacious detail.)
The liminal status of the first Psychopathia Sexualis -- its position near the end of a centuries-old mode of scholarly discourse and at the inauguration of a new disciplinary organization of knowledge -- render Kaan’s project interesting now in ways that it couldn’t be for its contemporary audience. The book’s structure and method now look peculiar. Kaan announces at the start that he was driven by “a desire to collect case studies, to examine them and from them to deduce general principles, and then to apply to them every kind of theoretical and practical knowledge and, thus, to derive from them rules useful to physicians.” But unlike Krafft-Ebing, much less Sigmund Freud, the author keeps those case histories (and his “deductions” from them) mostly to himself.
Instead, Kaan moves directly to a high level of generalization: plants, animals and humans alike are distinguished from the inorganic world by “the vital force [vis vitalis] by means of which the organism comes into being, is nourished and sustained.” This vital force subsists through two modes of reproduction, internal and external, corresponding to an organism’s nutrition and propagation, respectively. Kaan then gives an overview of the comparative anatomy of the sexual organs of plants, animals and (finally) humans.
What’s striking here -- especially given the text is written in a language with liturgical and theological associations -- is that Kaan begins and remains on a strictly naturalistic level of description and explanation. In discussing the stages of human sexual maturation, he notes that puberty “begins around the twelfth year in girls and the fourteenth in boys, at which age the Old Testament laws allow for marriage” -- but this, like Kaan’s few other scriptural citations, is given as historical background rather than divine revelation. He expresses a definite belief in “the absolute necessity for monogamy and marriage” without trying to demonstrate its necessity.
Insofar as customs in such matters differ around the world, Kaan implies that it can be explained as the product of variations in the intensity of the libido -- which are, in turn, the function of environmental, biological and psychological factors. The hotter the climate, the darker the skin and the closer to the land, as he posits it, the stronger the sexual drive.
The source of nutrition is also important: erotic gratification is experienced “most vigorously among cannibals, less so among carnivores and flesh eaters, and least of all among vegetarians.” Here we can only lament the author’s failure to disclose his research methods.
Kaan establishes (to his own satisfaction, at least) a scientific basis for taking the monogamous, heterosexual, procreative couple as normative. But medical experience has taught him that deviations are alarmingly frequent, even among European noncannibals. His treatise takes the initial steps toward understanding the range and etiology of sexual disorders and, ultimately, curing them. And in a way the title is his first contribution to the cause: he uses the expression “psychopathia sexualis” to subsume a few practices and preferences under a common heading.
“The types of these aberrations are numerous enough,” he writes, “but the most common are onanism or masturbation, the love of boys (paiderastia), lesbian love, the violation of cadavers, sex with animals, and the satisfaction of lust with statues.” He defines lesbianism as “an aberration that consists in the satisfaction of the sexual drive either between men or between women by means of tribadism, or rubbing” -- which, as definitions go, seems at once very broad and surprisingly unimaginative. Kaan does not elaborate on the statue kink, but Krafft-Ebing gives a number of examples.
The most remarkable thing about Kaan’s catalog is how brief and undetailed it is (even compared to Krafft-Ebing’s, less than half a century later). Furthermore, “these types of deviation are merely one and the same thing, and they cross into one another.” Having identified autoerotic activity as one form of psychopathia sexualis, Kaan soon informs the reader that it is not just the first on his list but the matrix of all the rest. Not that everyone who masturbates will go gay or interfere with public sculpture, to be sure, but it is a dangerous practice and should be discouraged in children. Among the availability modalities of treatment, Kaan especially recommends very cold water.
For reasons cultural historians continue to debate, masturbation was a topic of fierce public concern for more than a century before Kaan’s treatise and for just as long afterward. Self-satisfaction had been condemned on religious grounds before that, of course, but without generating anything like the alarm over its terrible effects on mind, body and soul that began in the early 18th century. One of Kaan’s reviewers grumbled about how he had added to what was already an enormous and very repetitious literature on the subject.
His Psychopathia Sexualis is far from the most hyperbolic or obsessive example of such discourse, but the 21st-century reader cannot help feeling that each medical warning -- every injunction to parents, teachers and other responsible adults to watch for and prevent autoerotic activity -- must have created the very disturbances they were supposed to prevent.
At the same time, the original Psychopathia Sexualis does more than repeat the old “thou shalt not” in nonreligious terms. As Foucault pointed out in his lectures, Kaan’s work had some important implications. It treated human sexuality as entirely explicable within nature -- with nonprocreative forms being, in effect, the accidental effect of a natural force being redirected via the brain: sexual deviations are caused by masturbation, which is, in turn, an activity engaging the imagination (i.e., an organic capacity of our species). Kind of obvious once you think about it, but not until then, and it was Kaan who, pardon the expression, mastered this domain.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinions,” the sociologist and politico Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “but not to his own facts.” He may have been improving upon a similar if less trenchant remark (“ …but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts”) attributed to the financier Bernard Baruch.
Until sitting down to write this I did not know about Baruch’s version. A certainty that my eagle-eyed editor would inquire about the source obliged me to vet the attribution to Moynihan; she requires more than my vague recollection of having read it somewhere. In checking my facts, she bolsters my conscience, enforcing Moynihan’s (and Baruch’s) point about accountability.
Lucas Graves, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, uses the expression “internal fact-checking” to describe this kind of preventative, behind-the-scenes work. It tries “to eliminate untruth, not call attention to it” by catching and correcting mistakes in an article before it goes to press. In Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism (Columbia University Press), Graves traces how internal fact-checking morphed into something almost antithetical: the very public evaluation of factual assertions made by politicians and other figures in the news.
News organizations such as PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker -- to name only the most nationally prominent -- intervene so frequently in American public discourse now that it seems counterintuitive to think they’ve only recently become a force in the world. Until the last two or three presidential election cycles, scrutiny of a candidate’s claims tended to be episodic and ad hoc -- and often enough conducted by the opposing campaign, bringing its own biases to the process. To the ethos of newspaper editors and reporters circa 1950, the idea of confirming or debunking a public figure’s statements of fact seemed perilously close to an expression of opinion, to be avoided at the risk of compromising one’s reputation for objectivity. Reporting that a fact was in dispute might be acceptable in some cases, but making a judgment call on it was best left to the pundits and thumb suckers.
The title Deciding What’s True is clearly an homage to Deciding What’s News by Herbert J. Gans, a classic study of newsroom culture, and Graves followed in his predecessor’s participant-observer footsteps by working for two major fact-checking organizations between 2010 and 2012. The book thus benefits from having two vantage points: the historical and sociological perspective available from media-studies scholarship, plus close ethnographic observation of how major fact-checking stories are discovered, investigated, debated in-house before being sent out to make their mark on the world.
His most striking insight, it seems to me, is how specific, self-defined and virtually self-contained the world of professionalized fact-checking tends to be. The naïve observer might think of fact-checking organizations as being akin to media watchdog groups such as the Media Research Center on the right and Media Matters for America to the left, with PolitiFact falling somewhere in between. But in reality the fact-checking milieu sees itself as unrelated to the partisan watchdog groups: it doesn’t work with or quote them, and Graves recounts one fact-checker as saying he almost decided to kill an investigation when he saw that Media Matters was already interested in it. Likewise, fact-checking journalists see a bright line between their work and blogging.
This is not just a matter of professional amour propre. The major fact-checking organizations have ties to established media institutions, including journalism schools, and retain a belief (which watchdogs and bloggers alike tend to reject) in old newsroom ideals of objectivity, impartiality and conscientious reporting.
The ’00s put confidence in those ideals under enormous strain from a number of catastrophically bad judgment calls (reporting war propaganda and Wall Street shilling without due diligence) as well as cases of plagiarism or outright fabrication in major news publications. Compounding those problems, even inducing some of them, was the growing array of new media competing for public attention while also driving up the pace of the news cycle.
In an email exchange with Graves, I indicated that PolitiFact, Fact Checker and so on seemed like a response, in part, to the 24-hour news cycle that emerged around the time of the first Gulf War and intensified still more once the internet started to permeate everyday life. Rumors, misinformation and bogus statistics could spread faster, and farther, than ever before.
Graves agreed, but added, “Another way to think about that is that the traditional model of objectivity, for all of its flaws, made some sense in a world where professional journalists acted as gatekeepers and could effectively police the borders of political discourse. Then wild rumors about the president’s birthplace didn’t have to be debunked because they could be denied coverage altogether. But the opening up of political discourse after the 1960s and the fragmentation of the media beginning in the 1990s -- both healthy developments in many ways, and both with echoes in the 19th century -- also effectively spelled the end of the journalist as gatekeeper. And especially with the rise of the internet, that fragmentation calls for a more critical style of political reporting that’s willing to directly challenge false claims.”
In principle, at least, systematic and high-quality fact-checking ought to make politicians and other public figures more careful about the claims they make while giving the public a running lesson in critical thought at the same time. At times, Deciding What’s True seems to encourage that hope. But I’ve been reading the book between rounds of binge-watching campaign coverage, and it is not an experience to recommend. The idea that fact-checking can impose some kind of restraint on a candidate, or influence public response, seems utterly negated by the candidacy of Donald Trump. His well-documented but unrelenting dishonesty -- his talent for lying without restraint or regard for evidence, outright and brazenly, even after the facts have been shown repeatedly -- never wavers yet makes no dent in his level of support. This seems really strange.
“This a large and complicated question,” Graves responded, “and people who study journalism and political communication are trying to approach it in many different ways. But one answer is that there have always been fairly wide slices of the American electorate that are deeply suspicious of establishment discourse, sometimes with good reason. If you listen to Trump supporters in interviews, they seem to accept that he doesn’t have the grasp of policy that other politicians do, and they don’t necessarily believe everything he says or subscribe to all of his views. He seems to say whatever he thinks and embrace a common-sense approach that many people find appealing. Beyond that, none of us makes political calculations in the detached, rational way that political theorists sometimes imagine.
“And at the same time, fact-checking has made a difference,” Graves continued. “It arguably has helped to solidify the ceiling over Trump’s support, giving ammunition to both voters and politicians who say they’ll never back him. And it has had a tremendous influence on coverage of his campaign, with front-page articles on Trump’s extraordinary disregard for the facts and constant references to his falsehoods even in straight news reports. We have nothing to compare this race to, and it’s impossible to say where this thing would be if more journalists had stuck to the traditional ‘he said, she said’ formula.”
Teddy Wayne's Loner: A Novel (Simon & Schuster) is the second book I've read in as many weeks narrated by a manipulative and highly verbal straight white man possessing a degree of upward social mobility as well as the impulse to see how much emotional damage he can inflict on others. Journalistic custom requires three instances to spot a trend, but reader, I do not have it in me to endure any more such company. (Anyway, both narratives resonate with Aaron James's political and philosophical musings, discussed here earlier in the month.)
The other volume was Diary of an Oxygen Thief, an anonymous and purportedly autobiographical work that "went from self-published obscurity to best-sellerdom," as reported in Publishers Weekly this summer. Loner is set at Harvard University, more or less in the present day, while Diary roams between Ireland and the United States as the narrator works as an advertising art director around the turn of the millennium. Despite considerable differences, the books follow broadly comparable narrative arcs. Romantic entanglements between characters (not just the hooking-up part but the emotional upheaval sometimes accompanying it) generally turn out to be misunderstandings at best. Often enough the disasters are intentional.
Neither author seems to be aware of, or responding to, the other's work, but they seem to be mapping similar terrain. And the fairly positive reception for Loner and Diary of an Oxygen Thief suggests that readers find something recognizable about the emotional landscape they depict. To discuss the similarities without giving away significant plot turns means being carefully vague at times. Ultimately it is the narrator's attitude or verbal demeanor that sticks with the reader more than the events recounted.
David Federman, the narrator of Loner, arrives at Harvard as a freshman with an acute sense of his middling as well as seemingly perfect confidence in his prospects as a member of an elite. Entitlement and embarrassment do not make for a stable combination, however, and it becomes increasingly volatile once he becomes aware of Veronica Morgan Wells, the figure he addresses in the second person from that point on: "[It] was obvious, from your clothes, your body language, the impervious confidence you projected, as if any affront would bounce off you like a battleship deflecting a BB pellet: you came from money …. It wasn’t just your financial capital that set you apart; it was your worldliness, your taste, your social capital. What my respectable, professional parents had deprived me of by their conventional ambitions and absence of imagination."
Not a unprecedented situation, of course, as the narrator himself realizes. But any similarity between Veronica Morgan Wells and Daisy Fay Buchanan is slight compared to the fact that Jay Gatsby, whatever else you might call him, wasn't a stalker. David Federman's unreliability as a narrator is shown chiefly in the fact that thinks Veronica accepts his carefully planned coincidental meetings at face value and that his effort to ingratiate himself is working. The campaign has its comic aspects. All of it unfolds against a background of campus sex codes, feminist cultural-studies seminars and expressions of concern about social inequality.
But David's increasingly fetishistic obsession with her, and his willingness to use another female character sexually as a means to gaining access to Veronica, grows very uncomfortable to witness from the inside. He goes from callow virgin to budding young psychopath very rapidly and without missing a step. He even manages to incorporate some of the campus sex code into his strategy.
The unnamed narrator of Diary of an Oxygen Thief is much less preoccupied with social status, or at least less overtly so, and his introspection never leaves the reader with understanding of what drives his malevolence toward women. His sadism is purely emotional but well practiced. In ending things, he follows a scorched-earth policy:
“‘This is what I look like when I’m pretending to listen to your boring conversation.’ I froze my sweetest expression, my innocent blues eyes widening in pseudo-interest, the same expression I’d used on teachers. … ‘This is what I look like when I’m pretending to be in love with you …. I’m going to dismantle us tonight. And there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ll have to sit there and listen while I wrench the U from the S. You’ll question your own judgment. Maybe you’ll never really trust yourself again. I hope so. Because if I don’t want you, and believe me I don’t, then I don’t want you being happy with someone else when there’s any doubt that I might get another girl.’”
What makes it considerably nastier is that the narrator treats this not as a way to get out of a relationship but as the whole point of it -- a moment when the self-loathing that he otherwise numbs with alcohol can be off-loaded on the woman he's maneuvered into position to endure it.
At a crucial moment in each book, the axis pivots to reveal just how limited and self-deluded the narrator is about his sense of control over others and over himself. The manipulation rebounds on him, but not as revenge only. The reader is left in a position to see that his seemingly pathological mind games can also be understood as having a certain logic: "Though Hollywood would have us believe that all we seek in romantic relationships is love," one character says, "it is just one of several exchangeable commodities, along with sex, money, status, validation, services and so on." An exchange, furthermore, in which one side can only win at the other's expense. Failure to understand that is a guarantee of losing.
I'm not going to argue with anyone else's sense of these things: people who reach such bleak conclusions probably have grounds for doing so. Still, it would be good to think that readers aren't responding to these two page-turners simply as confirmation of their own experience, but in the spirit of facing a worst-case scenario in order to find the nerve to try again.
Around this time 20 years ago, I met an elderly gentleman who’d had what sounded like an exceptionally interesting and unusual dissertation-writing experience. A couple of recent coincidences bring the encounter to mind and so inspired this little causerie.
His name was Harmon Bro, and he was in his late 70s when we met. He’d spent the better part of 50 years as an ordained minister and Jungian psychotherapist. If anyone ever looked the part of a Jungian archetype, it was Harmon, who personified the Wise Old Man. In 1955, the University of Chicago Divinity School awarded him a Ph.D. after accepting a doctoral thesis called “The Charisma of the Seer: A Study in the Phenomenology of Religious Leadership.”
It was based in part on work Harmon did in his early 20s as an assistant to Edgar Cayce, “the sleeping prophet.” Despite minimal education, Cayce, it is said, could give long, extemporaneous discourses in response to questions posed to him while he was in a trance state. Among these “readings” were medically sophisticated diagnoses of people miles or continents away, as well as detailed accounts of ancient history and predictions of the future.
Cayce died in 1945, but he left a vast mass of transcripts of his “readings.” By the 1960s, publishers were mining them to produce a seemingly endless series of paperback books extolling Cayce’s powers. Insofar as the New Age can be said to have founding figures, he was one of them.
Harmon was clearly a believer in Cayce’s miraculous powers. I was not (and am not) but have always enjoyed the legends by and about him. As a schoolboy, for example, he would put a textbook under his pillow and absorb its contents while asleep. He graduated (so to speak) to the Akashic Records -- an ethereal library documenting life on Atlantis and in ancient Egypt, and much else besides. He could also see into the future, but the track record is not impressive: China did not convert to Christianity in 1968, nor did Armageddon arrive in 1999. Cayce also predicted that an earthquake in the 1960s would cause California to sink into the Pacific Ocean. It remains attached to the continental United States as of this writing.
Harmon didn’t take skepticism as a threat or an insult, and anyway I preferred listening to arguing. He stressed how very improbable Cayce had been as a subject for serious scholarly attention in the 1950s -- at the University of Chicago, no less. It took three or four tries to get his topic approved; by the time the dissertation was finished and accepted, it felt like every faculty member concerned with the history and psychology of religion had weighed in on it. He happily lent me a copy (when anyone expresses interest in a decades-old dissertation, its author will usually have one of two responses: pleasure or horror), and from reading it, I could see that the scrutiny had been all for the best. It obliged him to practice a kind of methodological agnosticism about Cayce’s powers, and he demonstrated a solid grounding in the social-scientific literature on religion -- in particular, Max Weber’s work on prophetic charisma.
But by 1996, Harmon Bro was not at all happy with the institutions routinizing that charisma. The man he’d known and studied had an ethical message -- “love thy neighbor as thyself,” more or less. The New Age ethos amounted to “love thyself and improve thy karma.” You didn’t have to share his worldview to see his point.
The timing was fortunate: we grew acquainted during what proved to be the final year of Harmon Bro’s life. His obituary in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 made no reference to Cayce, but looking it up just now leaves me with a definite feeling of synchronicity: Harmon died on Sept. 13, which is also the date I’m finishing this piece. A message from Harmon, via the cosmic unconscious?
Probably not, although it was another and even more far-flung coincidence that reminded me of him in the first place. On Friday, the journal Nature Communication published a paper called “Terahertz time-gated spectral imaging for content extraction through layered structures,” which the science-news website EurekAlert kindly translates into laymanese as “Researchers prototype system for reading closed books.” Not by putting them under a pillow and sleeping on them, alas, but it’s impressive even so.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Georgia Tech Institute of Technology collaborated in developing a system that uses bursts of terahertz radiation (“the band of electromagnetic radiation between microwaves and infrared light,” says EurekAlert) to create images of the surfaces of individual pieces of paper in a stack. Ink in a printed letter absorbs the radiation differently from the blank page around it; the contrast between the signals reflecting back are fed into an algorithm that identifies the letter on the page. The prototype can “read” the surfaces of up to nine pages in a pile; with more work, reading at greater depths seems possible. The story quotes one of the researchers as saying, “The Metropolitan Museum in New York showed a lot of interest in this, because they want to, for example, look into some antique books that they don’t even want to touch.” The signal-sorting algorithm may yet enable spambots to defeat captchas. (Which arguably represents grounds for halting research right away, though that is unlikely.)
The train of association between breaking technological news from last week and the memory of one of the more generous and unusual people to cross my path is admittedly twisty and random. On the other hand, reading by terahertz radiation seems like another example of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Doubleday published Aaron James’s thought-provoking little treatiseAssholes: A Theory of Donald Trump in early May, but I have not seen a single reference to the book since the candidate clinched the Republican nomination later that month.
In the meantime, several million pundit-hours of commentary have gone to assessing the presidential horse race, mainly by people who live at the track. James, by contrast, is a professor and chair of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. His major work of scholarship to date, Fairness in Practice: A Social Contract for a Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2012), was well received by his peers, though it has been largely overshadowed by his pioneering work in asshole studies.
Let us first define terms. What, then, o Socrates, is an asshole? And how does the asshole differ from someone who is just a jerk?
The distinction is important. “The asshole,” James writes, “is the guy (they are mainly men) who systematically allows himself advantages in social relationships out of an entrenched (and mistaken) sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.” His sense of entitlement is absolute; his self-aggrandizing behavior is spontaneous and noticeably lacking in inhibition. The asshole may recognize that violating certain norms of acceptable behavior may cause pain or give offense but feels no conflict over that possibility.
The jerk, by contrast, is aware it is normal to apologize or express embarrassment -- and does so, sincerely or not. Someone parking in a handicapped parking space without the appropriate plates or sticker may be either a jerk or an asshole, but only the jerk will feel the need to come up with, at least, an excuse.
More important, the asshole will, James writes, often “feel indignant when questions about his conduct are raised. That, from his point of view, shows he is not getting the respect he deserves.” Just such an escalation -- from habitual, self-centered indifference toward the feelings of others to rage at even the perception of being slighted -- became familiar as part of Trump’s debating style throughout the Republican primary debates.
It proved effective, and that is the puzzle, which only deepened in the course of the summer. Somehow the candidate’s incessant and tireless asshole behavior (he has been at it for more than a year now, full time; even from this side of the process, it feels like 10) has never seriously damaged his base of support.
H. L. Mencken once defined a demagogue as someone “who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.” Trump has commanded the national stage with greater success than any demagogue since the 1930s, and yet Mencken’s quip is, as James points out, doubly insufficient in characterizing the candidate. For one, Trump is not so much dishonest as completely uninterested in whether or not what he says is true. (See Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit [Princeton University Press, 2005].) Nor are Trump supporters all idiots. For many, James theorizes, “Trump’s value is mainly as a stratagem of asshole management: when stuck with heaps of assholes, turn to an even bigger, better asshole, in hopes of bringing order for public benefit …. In a system where officials routinely thwart the public interest, capitalizing on their position for power and profit, only an asshole so skilled as to school the other assholes properly, and so to awe them into submission, would restore order and peace, for the greater good of everyone.”
The asshole, so elevated and empowered, sounds quite a bit like the sovereign in Leviathan, which is no accident. Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump offers quick tutorials on Hobbes and Rousseau to suggest that the candidate’s rise makes a certain amount of sense in the context of a republic collapsing under strain.
Support for Trump, by this reading, is the perverse and rather paradoxical effect of 30 years (arguably more) of growing economic inequality and cultural atomization. Whatever communitarian spirit may have once glued the country together, the collage has been coming unstuck for a while now. Sustained growth over first two or three decades following World War II made it seem at least possible that 21st-century American citizens would take stability, security and opportunity as birthrights. Economic crises would be the stuff of history lectures. The biggest problem would be managing all our free time.
The sense of having gone off course somehow runs deep. Yet we have largely lost any language for framing an alternative. The notion of the general welfare has grown quaint, if not suspect. The individual self is engaged in a zero-sum game with the rest of the world; for anything to count as a good, it must have the potential to generate invidious comparisons. “Each [of us] needing to affirm his or her own value,” says James, “we devolve into a destructive contest for rank and superiority.”
We live, it seems, in an asshole oligarchy. Nobody thinks of Trump as an exception. But he is the one guy saying -- over and over, between the insult tweets and explosive ranting -- that the status quo is bad, folks, you have no idea how bad, trust me. The whole thing must be put into bankruptcy, after which he’ll negotiate a new social contract for us. What have you got to lose?
James is under no illusions about the candidate’s sincerity, competence, self-control or emotional stability. He calls Trump’s campaign rallies “the modern version of executions for public entertainment; it’s the dynamics of crowds and power that, with the help of technology, made the 20th century the bloodiest in human history.” So, not a endorsement. The idea that putting Trump in office represents a “strategy of asshole management … a last-ditch effort at taming a corrupt political system” can be explained rationally. That doesn’t make it a rational idea, though, and patience with the thought experiment will probably decrease as election draws closer.
Whatever Trump’s candidacy may reveal about the state of the social fabric, he’s torn a few more holes in it already. James quotes a line from Rousseau that arguably sums up the spirit of his book: “The manner in which public affairs are conducted gives a sufficiently accurate indication of the moral character and state of health of the body politic.” The implications of that sentence are almost as horrifying as the thought of Donald Trump with the nuclear launch codes.
In late spring, I had to endorse a number of legal documents using a digital rendering of my name in a cursive script, chosen from a a menu of simulated handwriting styles. It was like my signature, except legible. Beneath its surface, so to speak, was my identifying data -- confirmed by what the company producing the application calls “robust authentication methods.”
Indeed, if it were necessary to prove the authenticity of the “signature” in court, there is no question that the digital glyph could be verified rigorously, whereas a handwriting expert would be hard-pressed to find much uniformity between versions of the scrawl that I make on paper. The visible part of an electronic signature, with its imitation of penmanship, is just a formality. It accommodates our lingering sense that entering a binding legal obligation really ought to include the act of affirming one’s identity by one’s own hand. (With the whole hand, that is, not just the finger used to click “I accept.”) At this stage, the feeling is vestigial. Given another generation or two of kids who grow up knowing how to type before they can ride a bicycle, it could disappear entirely, and the practice of writing by hand could become an antiquarian hobby, like churning your own butter or making horseshoes.
But not necessarily. Anne Trubek covers a great deal of interesting ground in The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting (Bloomsbury), though much of the comment it has received concerns the "uncertain future" part, in an elegaic mode. I found rather that many of the book's points are made most clearly at the start, when she discusses the earliest known system of writing, Sumerian cuneiform, which emerged around 3000 B.C.E. (Formerly an associate professor of rhetoric, composition and English at Oberlin College, Trubek is the founder of Belt magazine, devoted to urban life in the Rust Belt.)
Encouraged by a curator to pick up some cuneiform tablets for a closer look, Trubek is struck by how compact they are: roughly palm-sized, covered with tiny marks made on wet clay with a stylus. While the writing instruments were simple, mastering them was not: “The tip of the stylus was triangular, and turning it caused different slants and directions for the marks -- some went deeper than others , some went horizontally or vertically, and the bottom of the stylus would make a round mark -- each with a distinct meaning.” To develop competence required years of study at the edubba (the Sumerian word for school: literally, “tablet house”) and also, one assumes, regular offerings to Nabu, the god of scribes, wisdom and literature.
“By 1600 B.C.E.,” writes Trubek, “no Sumerian speakers were alive,” but it continued to be taught as a classical language, while cuneiform remained in use for another thousand years. For all its difficulty, cuneiform was easier to learn than the Egyptian writing system; it was relatively utilitarian (often used for business contracts and tax records), while hieroglyphics “were as much an art form as they were a means of information storage.” And clay tablets “continued to be used even after most people had shifted to papyrus.”
It is a lesson in the durable habits of the late adopter -- and a reminder that “the uncertain future of handwriting” (or of any other aspect of literacy) will not be decided by the automatic workings of progress and obsolescence.
As she roams across the centuries, Trubek points out two or three factors that have largely set the terms for the development of handwriting, quite apart from the qualities of the tools we use. One, of course, is that only a small a fraction of the population has been able to acquire the skill throughout most of history. In addition, people who could read did not always learn to write, as the skill was difficult and slow to master. Finally, people in authority have long tried to impose norms on how words should appear on the page. Charlemagne in the ninth century might not have otherwise have much resembled American schoolteachers in the 20th century, but they shared a passion for standardized penmanship.
It’s easy to see how these three difficult realities -- widespread illiteracy, tortuous pedagogy, and the demand for uniformity -- would tend to reinforce one another. Trubek’s story is in part one of rapid changes followed by stubborn inertia. One side-effect of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press was that, in putting scribes out of work, many were compelled to take up a new career: they became writing instructors. That can only have encouraged more efficient pedagogy -- and with it a broadening and deepening of the pool of those people able to write, as well as read, more books.
But the drive to standardize and to reinforce social hierarchy seems, if anything, to have intensified: handwriting became an index of status, rank and moral uprightness. A 17th-century writing manual recommended a particular script for women, “for as much as they (having not the patience to take any great paines, besides phantasticiall and humorsome) must be taught that which they may instantly learn.” Immigrants who practiced the Palmer Method -- one of the predominant forms of handwriting instruction available a hundred years ago -- would be more readily assimilated under its “powerful hygienic effect.” Good penmanship — for a purer America!
The invention of the typewriter was one giant leap for standardization, and Trubek quotes one researcher’s conclusion that “familiarity with the typewriter makes students better penmen, not worse.” But it also provoked worries that teachers were neglecting handwriting instruction. In time, “the universal typewriter may swallow all.”
It didn’t, of course. What actually happened (and this is one of the most striking points in a book full of them) was that another attitude towards handwriting came into focus: a sense of it being like one’s fingerprints, with distinct qualities visible only to the trained eye. Graphologists make the still larger claim that handwriting analysis can reveal aspects of the personality. Because graphology ranks somewhere between dowsing and astrology in scientific rigor, I had assumed its origins were lost in the mists of antiquity. But it turns out the idea took shape no later than the 17th century, with efforts to systematize it really getting underway only in the 19th century, amidst worries about individuality being crushed by the march of progress.
Trubek’s history of handwriting is a story of metamorphosis, not of decline. Given my experience with “signing” digital documents a few months ago, I was interested and amused to learn it was a variation on a theme: A century or so back, one manufacturer “marketed -- unsuccessfully, it seems -- a typewriter whose letter keys were formed from handwriting of the buyer.” If the future of handwriting is uncertain, that’s in part because no one can tell what uses and meanings we may find for it yet.