Defending Derrida

On Sunday, about 200 people crowded into the Jacob Burns Moot Court of the Cardozo School of Law in New York City to speak of Jacques Derrida -- a.k.a. "Jackie" and "JD" -- at a conference called "Derrida/America: The Present State of America's Europe." The throng was down to a third of that size by Monday morning. Maybe everyone else went off to see "The Gates," Christo's installation of saffron banners running around Central Park. The installation wouldn't last forever, while the job of sorting out the legacy of deconstruction might take a while.

Certainly the dominant note of the event (a gathering "in celebration and mourning," as a few speakers put it) was to insist that Derrida's work deserved more serious notice than it had received in the American press following his death in September. In welcoming the audience, Peter Goodrich, a professor of law at Cardozo, noted that people who were "unimpeded by any knowledge of what they're talking about" evidently felt an especially passionate urge to denounce Derrida. Although no speaker mentioned it as such, the most egregious example was undoubtedly the obituary in The New York Times -- a tour de force of malice and intellectual laziness, by someone whose entire knowledge of Derrida's work appeared to have been gleaned from reading the back of a video box for the Woody Allen film Deconstructing Harry.

But the problem is not simply with the American public at large. "There is something I've wanted to say in public for some time," announced Simon Critchley, a professor of philosophy at New School University. "The treatment of Derrida by philosophers in the Anglophone world was shameful. They weren't stupid. They knew better. They hadn't read Derrida, and they knew they hadn't. But philistinism -- combined with envy at Derrida for being smart, charismatic, good looking, and a snappy dresser -- made them behave in a way that was, there is no other word for it, shameful."

The crowd applauded. "Now I feel better," he said.

Posthumous compliments for Derrida, and cathartic insults for his enemies, were only a small part of the program. Speakers came back repeatedly to "Force of Law: The 'Mystical Foundation of Authority' " -- a lecture on the complex and contradictory relationship between law and justice that Derrida gave in 1989, at a colloquium called "Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice," held at Cardozo, the law school of Yeshiva University. Derrida's paper is now most readily available now in Acts of Religion, a collection of his writings published by Routledge.

Among the scores of books and essays that Derrida published over the final 15 years of his life, "Force of Law" looms as one of the most important. In 2003, not long before he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Derrida published a book on the possibility of global democracy called Rogues, just released in an English translation from Stanford University Press. Many of its themes were anticipated in the Cardozo lecture, making "Force of Law" almost a prerequisite to understanding Derrida's final book. (Or so I figured out the hard way, a few months ago, by reading Rogues first.)

"What is currently called deconstruction," said Derrida in 1989, "would not at all correspond (though certain people have an interest in spreading this confusion) to a quasi-nihilistic abdication before the ethico-politico-juridical question of justice and before the opposition between just and unjust...."

His goal, in effect, is to point to a notion of justice that would be higher than any given code of laws. Likewise, in other late writings, Derrida seeks to define a notion of forgiveness that would be able to grapple with the unforgivable. And, he asks, might it be the case that Levantine traditions of hospitality (of welcoming the Other into one's home) transcend more modern conceptions of ethics?

For someone constantly accused of relativism, Derrida often sounds in these late works like a man haunted by the absolute. There is a sense in which, although he was an atheist, he practiced what a medieval scholar might have recognized as "negative theology" -- an effort to define the nature of God by cutting away all the misleading conceptions imposed by the limits of human understanding.

The implications were political, at least in some very abstract sense. In his keynote talk at the American Academy of Religion in 2002, Derrida proposed a notion of God that, in effect, utterly capsized the familiar world of monotheism by stripping it of all our usual understandings of divine authority. Suppose God were not the all powerful king of the universe (the image that even an atheist is prone to imagine upon hearing the name "God"). Suppose, rather, that God were infinitely weak, utterly vulnerable. What then? What would it mean that human beings are made in His image?

Such moments in Derrida's work could be very moving. Or they could be very irritating. At the Cardozo conference, it sounded at times as if the jury were still out on "Force of Law." Some speakers indicated that the lecture had radically transformed the way they understood legal theory, while a couple of dissenters suggested that Derrida had at most made a very late contribution to the school known as critical legal studies -- or even served up "warmed over legal realism" with a rich French sauce.

The oddest and most contentious turn in the discussion may have been the remarks of Jack Balkin, a professor of constitutional law at Yale, who, in a sardonic way, implied that there might be a hotbed of deconstructionist legal thought in the Bush administration. He sketched an outline of Derrida's formulation of three "aporias" (that is, unpassable points or double binds) in the relationship between justice and law.

For example, there is the aporia that Derrida calls "singularity." The law consists of general rules, and to be just, those rules must be equally binding on everyone. Yet while it is illegal to kill another person, it would be unjust to impose the same penalty on an assassin and someone defending herself from attack. Thus, justice exceeds even a just law.

Likewise, Derrida pointed to the aporia of "undecidability" --  the law guides the judge's decision, but the judge must decide which particular laws apply in a given case. And there is an aporia of "urgency" -- for while the legal process unfolds in time, "justice," as Derrida put it, "is that which must not wait." In each case, justice requires the law, but exceeds it.

"The Justice Department," said Balkin, "has invoked all three aporias of law" in the "war on terror." He ran through the list quickly: The suspension of due process in some cases (singularity). The government must have the discretion to apply the law as it sees fit, given its knowledge of circumstances (undecidability). And justice demands swift, even immediate action (urgency). "I am afraid that Bush has hoisted Derrida by his own aporias," said Balkin.

Of course this formulation did not go unchallenged by members of the audience during the discussion afterward. But it did call to mind something that Peter Goodrich had said earlier, in recalling Derrida's first visit to Cardozo. "Law school depressed him," as Goodrich put, "both the environment and the inhabitants." Perhaps it was, at best, a distraction from the philosophical pursuit of pure justice, in all its impossible beauty.

On Thursday, Derrida, the university, global democracy, and some flashbacks to the 1980s, when the abyss was just a seminar away.

Scott McLemee
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Academic Freedom, Then and Now

This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States by Richard Hofstadter and Walter P. Metzger, published by Columbia University Press. It has long been out of print. But circumstances have had the unfortunate effect of making it timely again. Locating a copy is worth the trouble, and once you do, the book proves just about impossible to put down.

For one thing, reading it is a relief from the mingled stridencies of l'affaire Ward Churchill and of David Horowitz's latest stunt, the so-called "Academic Bill of Rights." (By the way, is it just me, or don't their media performances suggest that Churchill and Horowitz are identical twins whom ideology has separated at birth? Both have glint-eyed zealotry down pat.)

At the same time, the book is a reminder of how incredibly prolonged, complicated, and perilous the emergence of academic freedom has been. The book was commissioned in 1951 by the American Academic Freedom Project, which had a panel of advisers from numerous distinguished universities and seminaries (plus one from the Detroit Public Library), and it was published alongside a companion volume, Academic Freedom in Our Time, by the director of the project, R. M. MacIver, an emeritus professor of political philosophy and sociology at Columbia University.

It was, in brief, the closest thing to an official scholarly response to the danger of McCarthyism from the university world. The authors must have finished correcting proofs for the book around the time Joseph McCarthy lost his committee chairmanship and was censured by his colleagues in the Senate. The darkness of the time is particularly evident in MacIver's volume, with its conclusion that "the weight of authority in the United States is now adverse to the principle of intellectual freedom."

Hofstadter and Metzger, by contrast, make only a few direct references to the then-recent challenges to academic freedom. Senator McCarthy's name never appears in the book. Hofstadter traces the history of American academic life up to the Civil War, and Metzger continues it through the early 20th century -- a panoramic survey recounting scores of controversies, firings, and pamphlets wars. But recording only "the outstanding violations of freedom" would mean reducing history to "nothing but the story of academic suppression."

Condensing 500 pages into five paragraphs is a fool's errand, but here goes anyway.

The belief that only the community of scholars has the final authority to determine what counts as valid research or permissible speech has deep roots in the history of the university, going all the way back to its origins in medieval Europe. But it was extremely slow to develop in colonial and antebellum America, which had few institutions of higher learning that were anything but outgrowths of religious denominations.

In 1856, George Templeton Strong suggested to his fellow trustees of what was then Columbia College that the only way to create a great university was "to employ professors of great repute and ability to teach" and "confiding everything, at the outset, to the control of the teachers." It was an anomalous idea -- one that rested, Hofstadter indicates, on the idea that scholarship might confer social prestige to those who practice it.

As the later chapters by Walter Metzger argue, it was only with the rapid increase in endowments (and the growing economic role of scientific research and advanced training) that academics began to have the social status necessary to make strong claims for their own autonomy as professionals.

At least some of what followed sounds curiously familiar. "Between 1890 and 1900," writes Metzger, "the number of college and university teachers in the United States increased by fully 90 percent. Though the academic market continually expanded, a point of saturation, at least in the more attractive university positions, was close to being reached.... Under these competitive conditions, the demand for academic tenure became urgent, and those who urged it became vociferous." It was the academic equivalent of the demand for civil-service examinations in government employment and for rules of seniority in other jobs.

Academic freedom was not so much the goal for the creation of tenure as one of its desirable side effects. The establishment of the American Association of University Professors in 1915 "was the culmination of tendencies toward professorial self-consciousness that had been operating for many decades." And it was the beginning of the codification of rules ensuring at least some degree of security (however often honored only in the breach) for those with unpopular opinions.

Speaking of unpopular opinions, I must admit to feeling some uneasiness in recommending The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States to you.

It is a commonplace today that Richard Hofstadter was a Cold War liberal -- and a certain smug knowingness about the limitations and failures of Cold War liberalism is the birthright of every contemporary academic, of whatever ideological coloration. Furthermore, Hofstadter stands accused of indulging in "the consensus view of history," which sees the American political tradition as endorsing (as one scholar puts it) "the rights of property, the philosophies of economic individualism, [and] the value of competition."

I don't know anything about Walter Metzger, but he seems to share much of Hofstadter's outlook. So it is safe to dismiss their book as a mere happy pill designed to induce the unthinking celebration of the American way of life. No one will think the worse of you for this. Besides, we're all so busy nowadays.

But if you do venture to read The Development of Academic Freedom, you might find its analysis considerably more combative than it might at first appear. Its claim is not that academic freedom is a deeply rooted part of our glorious American heritage of nearly perfect liberty. The whole logic of its argument runs very much to the contrary.

Someone once said that the most impressive thing about Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) was that he managed to keep it to just one volume. The deepest implication of his work is that academic freedom does not, in fact, have very deep roots even in the history of American higher education -- let alone in the wider culture.

On the final page of The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, his collaborator writes, "One cannot but be but be appalled at the slender thread by which it hangs.... one cannot but be disheartened by the cowardice and self-deception that frail men use who want to be both safe and free." It is a book worth re-reading now -- not as a celebration, but as a warning.

Scott McLemee
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Substitute Teachers

With college enrollments growing, tuition soaring, and administrators reaching for their chain saws to cut costs, the role of the tenured professor is under fire as never before.

"The days of the royal professorship are, like, so over," proclaims Aventa Clew, chief of human resources at Awed State. "Who can even afford a tenured faculty member when we're outsourcing jobs to Cuba, or wherever I'm thinking of?" The Awed response, anxiously watched by schools across the country, is to create "a more intermediate pedagogy," as Awed Dean of Conservative Arts Iona Bentley put it, "somewhere between instructors and serfs."

Starting next fall, the bulk of incoming students will be taught by a new cadre of professionals called assistant assistants, teachers whose sole responsibility will be in the classroom: no office, no bathroom privileges, and most important, no benefits. A sub-category to assistant assistants may be recruited from the ranks of the new never-graduate students, a guild of craft-persons, particularly medieval studies types in the history department, dedicated to staying within the walls of the academy.

At lower-cost institutions, those who can't quite teach but merely impart information to students will be hired as drones, moonlighting from their regular jobs as greeters at Wal-Mart. The new ranks may take hold soonest in Texas, where the Leave No Teacher Behind initiative has been implemented in a chain of retraining camps.Of course, drones can be prerecorded, an idea that has not gone unnoticed in education departments across the country.

At C.I.T.M.T., the California Institute of Too Much Technology, employing the same animation techniques that made The Polar Express such an enhanced miracle of sound and motion, the computer labs have started to produce virtual professors. The v.p.'s, as they're known in the trade, can perform functions that traditional pedagogues can only dream of: executing a brutal savate kick to emphasize a point about physics, or morphing into Grendel while reciting Beowulf. The newest version, Prof5000, can execute 100 pedagogical decisions a second while also composing an abstract and serving on a committee for academic freedom. In the works are plans to produce virtual students, as well, and miniaturize entire endowed buildings to the dimensions of a computer chip.

When polled, C.I.T.M.T. students said they didn't think it would affect their learning experience. "If I'd wanted a human teacher," scoffs one sophomore engineering student who did in fact ask to be named, "I'd have gone to a community college."

Will the C.I.T.M.T. administration ever be replaced by a machine? "Of course not," said one C.I.T.M.T. official. "Our work is far too important for that. In fact, we're hiring 17 new deans next year."

David Galef
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David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).

This, That and the Other Thing

Intellectual Affairs has been running for just over a month now. It might be a good moment for a bit of housecleaning.

Readers have contacted me about some interesting developments apropos Ayn Rand, Jacques Derrida, and the history of academic freedom -- so today's column will have the element of variety going for it. Consider it a roundup of faits divers. After all, that sounds a lot more sophisticated than "news in brief."

Referring to the followers of Ayn Rand as "Randroids"  was probably not the nicest way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the author's birth. But it was positively kind by contrast with the really strange honor being paid to her soon by her devotees. They are all set to publish a volume that will document, at great length, how Rand coped with a private, and fairly humiliating, part of her life.

First, a little Objectivist history:

In 1968, the world of Rand's followers -- which included quite a few academics, as well as a young economist by the name of Alan Greenspan -- was shaken by the news of a split between Rand and her most famous disciple, Nathaniel Branden, the psychologist best known for giving the expression "self-esteem" its current inescapable popularity.

There had been a romantic liason between the author of The Fountainhead and the psychologist, who was 25 years younger. When Branden declined to continue the relationship, he and his wife Barbara were read out of the movement.

Many of the details later became available in The Passion of Ayn Rand, a biography by Barbara Branden. And they were confirmed by Branden's memoir, Judgment Day. (Long before their books appeared in the late 1980s, the couple had divorced.) In 1999, the complicated Objectivist menage was dramatized in a steamy (yet also not-so-hot) docudrama for Showtime also called  The Passion of Ayn Rand. A better title might have been Atlas Shagged.

In any case, the story will now be told again in the pages of a new book drawing on Rand's notes. For years after the split, Rand sought to dissect the "psycho-epistemology" of the Brandens -- in short, hundreds of pages of brooding over a failed love affair. The book is authorized by the Ayn Rand Institute, which holds her papers, the official and "orthodox" wing of her Objectivist movement.

Perhaps the most incisive comment on the volume comes from Chris Sciabarra, author of  Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical and other studies. "Reading Rand's personal journal entries makes me feel a bit uneasy," he recently wrote in an online forum.  "As valuable as they are to me from an historical perspective, I suspect there might be an earthquake in Valhalla caused by the spinning of Ayn Rand's body."

The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics (Durban House Publishing) was originally scheduled to appear in time for the centennial of her birth, in early February. Its appearance has been bumped back. Expect an  earthquake in Valhalla sometime this spring or early summer.

The editing and translation of posthumous works by Jacques Derrida will be a cottage industry. And pity the fool who takes on the job of preparing a definitive bibliography.

It was with a sense of tempting fate that, in a recent column, I described the book now available in English as Rogues as the last book Derrida saw through the press during his lifetime. Anthony Smith, a sharp-eyed undergraduate at DePaul University, points out that a few months later Derrida published a volume with better claim to that distinction.

It is called Béliers: Le dialogue ininterrompu entre deux infinis, le poème. Through a little digging, I've learned that it has been translated as "Rams: Uninterrupted Dialogue -- between Two Infinities, the Poem," and will appear in a forthcoming volume of Derrida's essays on Paul Celan, the great Romanian-Jewish poet (and concentration camp survivor) who wrote in German. (Let me tempt fate again by guessing that the "rams" in Derrida's titles is an allusion to the Shofar).

Derrida first presented Béliers in Heidelberg in February 2003, as a memorial tribute to Hans-Georg Gadamer. The German philosopher, author of Truth and Method, had died the previous year at the age of 102. "Will I be able to testify, in a way that is right and faithful, to my admiration for Hans-Georg Gadamer?" asks Derrida.

Good question! I can't wait to find out. For one thing, it's news to hear that Derrida admired Gadamer. In 1981, when colleagues arranged for them to meet and discuss one another's work at the Goethe Institute in Paris, their exchange left Gadamer feeling (if one may translate freely from a more refined philosophical idiom) "pissed, dissed, and dismissed."

By 1992, Gadamer was still complaining that Derrida was "not capable of dialogue, only monologue." But perhaps that made the eulogy all the more eloquent. After all, Derrida did get to have the last word.

Finally, a correction to the recent column celebrating the anniversary of Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger's  The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, first published in 1955. The work was, I wrote, "long since out of print."

Well, that was at least half right. In 1996, Transaction Publishers reissued the first part of the book as Academic Freedom in the Age of the College, by Richard Hofstadter, with an introduction by Roger L. Geiger, who is distinguished professor of higher education at the Pennsylvania State University.

In his introduction, Geiger pays tribute to Hofstadter's gifts as both a historian and a writer, while pointing to some elements of his research that haven't held up too well. For example, Hofstadter overestimated how many colleges founded before the Civil War ended up failing. The problem was that his data set included institutions that never opened, or just served as secondary schools.

Until the late 19th century, very few American institutions of higher learning bore much resemblance to the contemporary research university. By e-mail, I asked Geiger how much contemporary relevance Hofstadter's study might have.

The project, Geiger wrote back, "was commissioned and written with the conviction that it was very relevant to contemporary America, circa 1955. Hofstadter, in particular, seemed to equate the ante-bellum evangelical colleges with the kind of xenophobic populism that seemed to support McCarthyism."

Actually, my question was about our contemporary situation, not Hofstadter's. But sometimes you have to wonder if that's too fine a distinction.

And a plea to you, dear reader. Please drop a line if you hear an interesting conference paper, or read an impressive (or, for that matter, atrocious) article in a scholarly journal. Should there be some earth-shattering, or at least profession-rocking, discussion taking place on a listserv, please consider passing that news along.

That's not really a call for gossip -- though, of course, if you have any, I'm all ears (as Ross Perot once put it, in a different context).

The simple fact is that the audience for Inside Higher Ed is self-selecting for intelligence. And you aren't reading this site because you have to, but because you want to. So you've got good taste as well. The really interesting developments in scholarly life tend to occur well below the radar of the academic presses, let alone the administration. I'd rather hear from one graduate student or adjunct with a finger on the pulse of her discipline than go to dinner with a provost who has an expense account and no clue.

Well, that probably sounded ruder than it should have. But you get the idea. We're not standing on ceremony here. This column is run "cafeteria style," or in the spirit of the coffee houses of Vienna from a century ago. If I'm missing something important, please don't hesitate to say as so.

Scott McLemee
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Derrida's Wake

When last weekend's conference at Cardozo Law was first announced, the title was given simply as "Derrida/America." Only while standing in the lobby did I learn the subtitle, "The Present State of America's Europe," from the official brochure containing the final schedule. The original title had been nagging away at my memory for several days. It conjured up echoes from (roughly) the first Reagan administration -- the time when, as a somewhat pushy adolescent culture vulture, I began auditing graduate courses in English and comp lit.

It wasn't just a punctuation mark, used oddly. (Your sense of appropriate punctuation was the first thing to change, in theory boot camp.) That slash between "Derrida" and "America" was a borderline .... an unreadable signifier of connection and separation ... marking the difference yet also erasing it .... And so on. We learned to prize such moments, when the text deconstructed itself.

At least in his work from the late 1960s and early '70s, Derrida had referred to the "hinge" between terms in a metaphysical opposition -- between, say, appearance and essence. By the time it was assimilated into American literary study, the philosophical nuances had been cut back in the interests of classroom exposition. You'd track down some plausible equivalent of a metaphysical opposition in a literary text. In a pinch, the distinction between literal and metaphorical meaning would do. Then you'd find the border or hinge between them. (I can't quite describe how this was done; it's like riding a bike, you just know when you've done it.)

Taking that "hinge" firmly in hand, you would flip the opposition, unleashing complexities aplenty. And then -- whoa! The implications spiraled out of control. It could leave you breathless. (I have some dim recollection of writing a paper on Hawthorne's preface to The Scarlet Letter that left it sounding slightly more experimental than Finnegans Wake.) Afterwards, it sometimes felt as if you had successfully overthrown the entire history of Western thought from Plato to NATO, even if your knowledge of that history were not so profound.

After a while, though, the entire enterprise began to prove all too predictable. It felt like a technique for building your very own abyss from a prepackaged kit, manufactured in New Haven. Sometime around the start of the second Reagan administration, I found better things to do -- for example, studying the thinkers Derrida himself had been reading, but also getting arrested in protests against American foreign policy. (The latter seemed more urgent and worrisome than Hawthorne's aesthetic ideology.) Today, no journal publishes the sort of deconstructive literary analyses that the Yale critics once produced. It is hard to imagine why anyone would, except as an exercise in nostalgia.

As it happens, Derrida himself became somewhat put out with the initial reception (and domestication) of his work by literature departments. As early as 1980, he referred to deconstruction as "a word that I have never liked, and whose fortune has disagreeably surprised me." He insisted that his work had consequences not only for the reading of literary or philosophical texts, but for understanding and changing institutions -- in particular, scholarly institutions.

Anyone curious about the implications of deconstructive thought for academic administration might take a look at Derrida's lectures and memos in Eyes of the University, published last year by Stanford University Press. "I believe," he announces, "in the indestructability of the ordered procedures of legitimation, of the production of titles and diplomas, and of the authorization of competence." (I do believe some conservatives owe Derrida an apology.)

Derrida's effort to push his thinking beyond the university -- and past the boundary lines of contemporary politics -- reached its end in a book called Voyous, the last major work to appear in his lifetime. It has just been published in translation as Rogues, also from Stanford. Simplifying somewhat, you could call Rogues a book about democratic globalization. Or rather, about what Derrida calls "the democracy to come" -- a notion both infinitely hopeful and endlessly problematic.

Certainly there is more to it than a faith that democracy will steadily spread across the globe, deepening and strengthening itself as it goes. Derrida was never interested in futurology. And if he is a prophet, it is only in the most ironic of religious senses. In speaking of "democracy to come," he was posing a subtle but powerful question -- asking, in effect, "What will democracy have meant, when we can begin to think about it, one day, in a democratic world?"

The problem, first of all, is that the philosophical tradition is by no means an abundant source of concepts for thinking about democracy. Down the ages, it was often understood in nightmarish terms. A democracy would be a state run by the lowest denominator. At best, "rule by the people" is conceived as a high ideal. "We do not yet know what we have inherited," writes Derrida. "We are the legatees of this Greek word and of what it assigns to us, enjoins us, bequeaths or leaves us." Yet, he also writes "we ourselves do not know the meaning of this legacy." We make haste to pass the notion of democracy on, without looking too closely as its demands.

The root difficulty, according to Derrida, is that we cannot think about democracy without dragging in another concept, sovereignty. "These two principles," he writes, "are at the same time, but also by turns, inseparable from one another."

Why is that a problem?

Well, the concept of sovereignty (that is, authority and domination over a discrete territory) has survived from the era of monarchy. Under democracy, "the people" replace the king as sovereign. But the structure remains at least potentially authoritarian. For one thing, defining "the people" is anything but a semantic issue: Even a multiethnic democratic state can be gripped by the passions of xenophobic exclusion.

At the same time, the very notion of sovereignty implies the use of force. The borders of a sovereign state are ultimately backed up by the power to wage war in their defense.

The internal contradictions create what Derrida calls political "autoimmunity" -- the tendency of sovereign power to turn on democratic rights, in the name of democratic principles.

These tendencies go into overdrive with the emergence of even the most rudimentary forms of an international democratic order. Derrida looks at the role played by the concept of the "rogue state" since the fall of the Soviet Union. Regimes have been so designated, almost always by the United States, on the grounds of "supposed failings with regard to either the spirit or the letter of international law, a law that claims to be fundamentally democratic." While calling on the United Nations to respond to such regimes, the United States has been willing to ignore international law and agreemends endorsed by most countries in the world.

Derrida does not hesitate to call the U.S. one of "the most perverse, the most violent, the most destructive of rogue states." He is also pretty harsh on the United Nations Security Council. And as if all that were not bad enough, a new species of political agent has appeared on the world stage: the transnational network, making no bid to establish traditional forms of sovereignty, yet possessing (or seeking) the power to kill on scale equivalent to that of any state, "rogue" or otherwise.

A book of questions, then, and not of answers. Derrida was swift to open parenthetical arguments, nestling them one inside the other -- and ending them, far too often, with an ellipse.... Rogues does not feel like his last word on anything; rather, it seems to have been the opening stage of a project that remains unfinished.

A few people cited Rogues during the gathering at Cardozo, but usually in passing. It will take time to assimilate. And for that matter, there will be more from Derrida. Besides thousands of pages of unpublished seminars, there are stray texts, such as a chapter that he added to the manuscript of his book The Gift of Death after it appeared in English ten years ago. Adam Kotsko, a graduate student at the Chicago Theological Seminary, is now completing a translation of the chapter and writing an essay on it.

Kotsko wasn't at the Cardozo event, but a few days beforehand did attend a symposium on Derrida at Northwestern. He took time out to tell me, by e-mail, about the material he's translating. It moves, he says, between Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, the Book of Genesis, and Kafka's "Letter to His Father." "Derrida argues that pardon and literature are intrinsically linked and that the modern Western institution of literature has Abrahamic roots," Kotsko told me. "He concludes by connecting both literature and pardon to the democracy to come."

Reading that, I felt a little bit like Jean Hippolyte, who was Derrida's first thesis advisor (a task interrupted by his death in 1968). After a conference at Johns Hopkins in 1966 where Derrida first presented his work to an American audience, Hippolyte told him, "I really do not see where you are going."

But then, the younger philosopher had a perfectly good reply. "If I clearly saw ahead of me where I was going," Derrida said, "I really don't believe that I would take another step to get there."

Scott McLemee
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Keeping It Real

What did Jacques Lacan mean by "the Real"? I found out, sort of, by walking across my apartment in search of a copy of the recent re-translation of his Ecrits -- a volume replacing another (somewhat notoriously unreliable) translation released by the same publisher more than 20 years earlier.

When a manufacturer of toasters finds out that its toasters are defective, it will issue a recall. About halfway to the bookshelf, the light bulb went off: Time for a class action suit!

Suddenly, a rogue housecat interposed himself between my feet -- causing immediate "walk failure" and consequent wrenching of lower back.

Now, the Imaginary is for Lacan the dimension of the human human psyche that permits us to feel more or less cohesive. It is the raw material of ego identity. By contrast, the Symbolic includes all the systems we use for communication and exchange with others. It is "language," very broadly defined. But what about Lacan's third term?

Just to back up a little.... I'd been reading Slavoj Zizek, the wild and woolly cultural theorist, who is about as Lacanian as they come. He slings the lingo like a pro. But every so often, my reading comprehension disappears, like the steam from a bowl of cooling soup.

Zizek refers to the Real "escaping" the Imaginary and "errupting into" the Symbolic. Which is good to know, but not that helpful. It left me wondering: "OK, the Real -- what is it? And where?"

And then, out of nowhere, I got an answer. The Real is a silent but (potentially) deadly housecat. The realm of the ego's Imaginary dignity is violated. The order of the Symbolic is reduced to groans and obscenities. The Real is what leaves you on the floor.

Fredric Jameson, the lefty lit-crit guru maximus, once equated Lacan's concept with the Marxist notion of History -- a word that Jameson always capitalizes, like the name of a god. History, and hence the Real, he explained, "is what hurts."

OK, but does that mean my cat embodies History? (I've just founded a new school of thought. Either that, or the pain killers are finally kicking in.)

Zizek is known for illuminating Lacan's work with examples from daily life and popular culture. But Astra Taylor, who is now putting the finishing touches on a documentary on Zizek, figured that the film would work better if some of those illustrations were themselves illustrated. So the exposition will include animated sequences -- in short, brief psychoanalytic cartoons.

People who have spent time puzzling over Lacan's quasi-mathematical diagrams can only greet this news with both curiosity and the sense that, after seeing the film, they are probably going to have some really weird dreams.

In any case, Zizek: The Movie will premier at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco on April 21, with the subject of the film himself in attendance. And the filmmaker is preparing to tour college campuses with the documentary this spring, with screenings now scheduled for Emory University, the University of Georgia, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Taylor is still putting her travel plans together, so anyone interested in arranging a campus showing should contact her. For more information on the film itself, check out its Web site. Zizek: The Movie goes into general release this fall.

Also on the world-premier front..... Revolution Books, the largest chain of Maoist bookstores in the United States (not that they have had any competition in quite a while) is holding parties to celebrate the publication of From Ike to Mao and Beyond, a memoir by Bob Avakian, whose full and rather awesome title is Chairman of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.

The book sports blurbs by Cornel West (who says that Avakian's "voice and witness are indispensible") and Howard Zinn (who calls the memoir "a humanizing portrait of someone who is often seen only as a hard-line revolutionary"). The reader learns of the Maoist leader's love of doo-wop music, his passion for basketball, and his skill in the kitchen as a maker of waffles.

There is much to disagree with in the book. Avakian, for examples, refers to Stalin's "errors." It is hard to think of his lethal purges as some kind of epistemological blunder. The difference between "committing mistakes" and "committing atrocities" is not just semantic.

And yet the memoir itself is -- ideology aside -- incredibly interesting. The author is the son of a federal judge (now deceased) in the San Francisco Bay area. The book paints a fascinating picture of Berkeley during the 50's and 60's. The campus upsurge of the Free Speech Movement is just the start of a long march, with stops in China (during the Cultural Revolution), Chicago (where "Chairman Bob" becomes the maximum leader of a small party), and Paris (to which he relocates around the time Reagan comes into office).

Suffice it to say that the author will not be attending any book parties or news shows. I asked a representative of the publisher, Insight Press. She indicated that preserving the security of the Chairman is a high priority, while an appearance on Good Morning America is not.

Meanwhile, another volume by Avakian is due this month from Open Court, an academic publisher in Chicago. Marxism and the Call of the Future: Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics is a collaboration with Bill Martin, a professor of philosophy at DePaul University. Portions of it are available online herehere, and here.

At one point, they note that the slogan "Serve the People," made famous by the little red book, could be used -- with very different intentions, of course -- at a McDonald's training institute. This is, on reflection, something like Hegel's critique of the formalism of Kant's ethics. Only, you know, different.

A footnote to history: In an article a couple of years ago, Avakian recalled taking a course on Paradise Lost when he was a student in the honors program at Berkeley. The professor teaching that course was one Stanley Fish.

Proof that higher education in America is in the hands of wild-eyed radicals? Is Fish's academic empire-building just a way to create a Shining Path to postmodern communism? And what about this "John Milton" character? Is it just a coincidence that the leader of America's Maoists once studied the poetry of a man who was the minister of propaganda for a revolutionary movement (the Puritans) that seized state power and executed the rightful king?

I report, you decide.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Sex and the Single Genius

There are many great books. And of weird books, the number is countless. Yet, paradoxically enough, there are not that many great weird books.

Sex and Character by Otto Weininger is one of them. The appearance next month of a definitive English translation, published by Indiana University Press, is a major cultural event - one that is, arguably, at least several decades overdue. 

First published in Vienna in 1903, Sex and Character is the product of a tortured genius. Or at least the work of someone remarkably devoted to playing that role. The author was 23 years old when it appeared. In its first incarnation, the book was Weininger's dissertation -- a more or less scientific account of the physiology of gender differences. In revising it, Weininger created a mixture of psychological introspection, neo-Kantian epistemology, and Nietzschean cultural criticism, along with a heavy dose of anti-feminist polemic. Toward the end of the book, Weininger seasoned the stew with a few dashes of  anti-Semitic vitrol. Then, a few months after seeing the manuscript through the press, he went to the  house where Beethoven died and killed himself. 

This did not hurt sales. And it sure did clinch the "tortured" part. The double impact of Weininger's work and his suicide created a sensation, and not just in Austria. The list of Weininger's admirers reads like a survey course in Western culture from the early 20th century. The most perfunctory roundup would include James Joyce, Karl Kraus, Robert Musil, Arnold Schoenberg, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. 

An unsigned English version of Sex and Character appeared in 1906, prepared by someone whose qualifications for the job evidently boiled down to possessing (1) a German dictionary and (2) the willingness, when necessary, to hazard a guess. The title page proclaimed this an "Authorized Translation" -- though it's still not clear who, if anyone, authorized it, and in any case the English edition omits whole sections of the original text. Ludwig Wittgenstein called the 1906 translation "beastly." But it is the one we monolingual Europhiles have had to rely on for almost a century. (Excerpts from it are available online, who knows why.) 

The Indiana edition of Sex and Character was prepared by a team of three scholars, two of them  professors of German, working from the text that Weininger revised just before his death. It includes some impressive scholarly apparatus, including a useful bibliography covering the secondary literature on this strangely influential book. There is also a somewhat bewildering overview of the problems with the earlier English version, which contained "hundreds of mistranslations, ranging from slight inaccuracies, through substantial mistakes, to downright howlers, at times saying the very opposite of Weininger's own statements." 

It is fairly easy to sum up Weininger's conclusions, but hard to capture the book's strange aura -- the quality that fascinated so many people a hundred years ago, and that still flashes up from its pages. Beginning with a plausible notion, the text moves, by degrees, through evidently rational steps that lead right up to the lip of a volcano, spewing the molten core of the author's madness. It's quite a trip.

Weininger's point of departure is the idea that there are some very basic notions that govern our way in the world -- that are, in effect, part of human consciousness even before we have worked out anything like a rational account of them. "Two concepts," he writes, "are among the oldest used by mankind to eke out a makeshift intellectual existence" -- namely, the distinction between Man and Woman. 

In the first section of the book (corresponding to the doctoral dissertation in psychology that he wrote in 1901), Weininger argues that the distinction between male and female is never absolute at the biological level. Rather, each organism contains a mixture of male and female physical traits -- with one or the other usually predominant, of course. "One could say," he writes, hitting the emphasis hard, "that in empirical experience there is neither Man nor Woman, but only male and female." (My hunch is that the original publisher of Sex and Character probably had to send out for extra italic letters.)

So far, so good. After all, endocrinology is on Weininger's side: The toughest Marine has some estrogen in him, and the most demure of seamstresses has a little testosterone in her veins.

Weininger proposes that the gender of each individual could be most accurately expressed as a kind of algebraic formula: so many parts M, so many parts W.  This leads to a couple of interesting consequences. One is the formulation of what Weininger calls "the discovery of an unknown natural law" governing sexual attraction. A person who is three quarters M and one quarter W will tend to be drawn to someone who is three quarters W and one quarter M.

The second major consequence is that Weininger is pretty sensible, for a guy of his era, about homosexuality, or "sexual inversion," as the preferred term back then had it. Some people have M/W fractions are close to 50-50. This, says Weininger, is no big deal. "Sexual inversion is not an exception to the natural law, but only a special case of the same," he writes. Indeed, according to Weininger, "the predisposition for homosexuality is still present, however faintly, in every human being."

At this point, Weininger sounds quite a bit like Alfred Kinsey. Reaching the end of part one of the book, you think "What a progressive guy! He's so far ahead of his time." And then you turn the page....

At the age of 20, Otto Weininger gave a paper at an international conference defending the value of introspection as a method of psychological research (as opposed to relying strictly on laboratory experimentation). The second part of Sex and Character is, in effect, the record of a very smart and very unhappy young man's efforts to create a system of ideas to make sense of what was going on inside him.

At the physical level, there is no purely male or female identity. But, Weininger writes, "it may be said with the greatest certainty that psychologically a person must necessarily be either male or female." He doesn't really explain how a rigid psychological distinction emerges from a broad spectrum of biological phenomena. Apparently it just does.

For Weininger, gender is not a natural phenomenon -- but it isn't a social construction, either. The distinction between Man and Woman is an absolute difference that defines human existence. Summing things up very briefly: Man is reason, culture, and the highest human values. Woman is irrationality, the state of nature, and the utterly amoral realm of sexual desire.

Put so starkly, this is puzzling. For one thing, "irrationality, the state of nature, and the utterly amoral realm of sexual desire" sounds like a description of a frat house. And the author has a hard time keeping the polarity intact. He drifts between misogynistic outbursts and passages that sound like criticisms of the patriarchal order. At times, such moments come within the same paragraph. "The most inferior man is still infinitely superior to the most superior woman,"he writes, "so much so that it seems hardly permissible to compare and rank them. Nevertheless, nobody has the right to belittle or oppress in any way even the most inferior woman."

Man is capable of grappling with fundamental principles and of becoming a genius. (Here, in particular, Weininger's tribute to his own gender is a kind of self-aggrandizing self-portrait.) But Woman, too, has access to a kind of universality. "Every complete mother labors for the species as a whole, she is the mother of all mankind, and she welcomes every pregnancy. The prostitute wants other women not to be pregnant but only prostitutes like herself." Not that Weininger has a Madonna/whore complex or anything. That's just the way the universe is.

So far Sex and Character may sound like the work of Larry Summers's evil twin. But then things shift again.

By the time Weininger finishes a chapter called "The Nature of Woman and Her Purpose in the Universe," the manic phase has launched his thoughts halfway to the stratosphere. When the subject of ethnic difference finally appears, the booster rockets fire, and Weininger goes beyond the moon.

Let's just skip the part about the femininity of the Chinese pigtails, and get down to fundamental analogy that preoccupies Weininger: Man corresponds to Aryan, while Woman corresponds to Jew. The spirit of modernity, he writes, is feminine and Jewish. It is "an age for which history, life, science, everything, has become nothing but economics and technology; an age that has declared genius to be a form of  madness, but which no longer has one great artist or one great philosopher; an age that is devoid of originality, but which chases most frantically after originality...."

In short, Weininger's introspective exploration of the cosmic meaning of gender leads him to the depths of the anti-Semitic imagination. Which makes his book a kind of rough guide to the inner world of another Austrian figure who would later leave his mark on the world, Adolf Hitler. Twenty years ago, Gerald Steig, an Austrian writer, called Sex and Character "the psychological-metaphysical prelude for National Socialism, including its variants."

But is that the only reason to read it? No, there's more.

Sex and Character did not simply denounce the modernist culture emerging in Vienna at the time, much of it the work of Jewish artists and writers. Weininger himself was Jewish. (More on his background in the next column.) His book was, in many ways, an embodiment of what he denounced. Nothing in Sex and Character is ever quite as clear-cut as it may seems. The sharp distinctions in the argument twist around, like the edges of a Mobius strip .....

On Thursday: Weininger and Wittegenstein, genius and gender, influence and psychosis -- plus, the most enviable acknowledgments page in the history of academic publishing.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Writing a Textbook Proposal

Writing your very own textbook? Now that’s a challenge, and for many, an attractive one at that.

You’ve taught the same class many times and never really quite found the book that fits your style of teaching or contains all the material you believe is important. And, there is the potential for extra income.

So, you’re ready to take the plunge and present a proposal to several publishers. What’s next? A well-written, engaging and effective proposal. We’ll assume that you’re proposing a textbook for the first- or second-level introductory market, that you are an expert in the subject matter you want to write about,  you have a terminal degree in your field (publishers like credentials) and you've got a teaching appointment of some kind.

We'll also assume this is something you really want to do (and we mean really want to do). At best, it’s a labor of love and will demand a great deal of your time and attention. Before you start writing anything, make sure that it’s the right time in your career and the right project to undertake.

Now that you’ve made your decision to embark on writing a textbook, the next step will be putting together a book proposal that will have publishers sitting up and taking notice.

The best proposals are those that contain five key elements  that the acquisitions editor will focus on. Each of these elements should distinguish the proposed book from the others on the market. These elements are:

  • A clear statement of who the target audience is and a rationale for the book.
  • A detailed table of contents.
  • A comparative analysis of the existing books in comparisons with your proposed book.
  • A sample chapter.
  • The loose ends.

Let’s take the one at a time.

The target audience. It's obvious that an introductory psychology book, for example, would not be written for any audience other than introductory psychology students. However, introductory books can be used at several different different levels of course work. What might be used as the introductory text in one setting may very well become the more advanced book in another. Define what level of audience you want this book targeted at and describe that audience early in the proposal. Include the size of the market (in terms of numbers of students enrolled in such courses) as well as the potential for growth in a particular discipline. And be sure to look for publishers who may need a new book in this area. You can determine this by calling and writing to editors at the various publishers who you think produce good textbooks and talk with them about the market and your ideas. Your rationale for the book should tell the editor what is unique about it and why the market will want it.

A detailed table of contents. Here’s your opportunity to show the editor how you will organize the information and, in general, what you know about the subject matter. The table of contents (or TOC) should be comprehensive, logically organized according to some underlying rationale (such as a chronological or topical approach), fit the course’s time constraints (semester or quarter, for example), be as descriptive as possible and convey anything special you might be including, such as anecdotes, sidebars, formula derivations, biographies or puzzles. Refer to the pedagogical tools you'll be using throughout the book. Remember that the TOC is like an outline and reflects your thoughts on how you would organize the book. Be complete. If a potential author can’t complete TOC, how can an editor expect the author to finish an entire manuscript?

A comparative analysis of the existing books. Most editors who will read your proposal know less than you about your field and even less than that about what other books will compete with your future masterpiece. The editor’s first job is to read your proposal and, if interesting enough, send it out for review. When an editor presents a book proposal to the full committee at a publisher, he or she will be depending upon your analysis of competing books and why yours has the potential to capture some of the market share. You want that person very well prepared. For every book that competes with yours, list the author(s), title, ISBN (so the editor can track sales – they use tools such as BookScan), number of pages, important elements such as a glossary, chapter exercises, etc., and most important, how your proposed book would differ and be better than existing ones. Your job is not to trash the other books, but it surely is to distinguish yours from the others and that can be done on many different dimensions, including whether one book is too restrictive in its scope of coverage, date of publication, theoretical focus, organization scheme, and even political orientation.

A sample chapter. This should absolutely shine. Don't send in the first or the last chapter, but one that falls around the middle of the book. And don't make it the easiest or the hardest chapter to write, but one where you can show your mastery and demonstrate the various techniques you might use throughout the book to engage the student and share your knowledge. Make it authoritative, approachable in tone and attractive in presentation. No fancy covers needed and no three ring binders please, but certainly double spaced, proofread, with pages numbered and using appropriate headers. When sent via e-mail, be sure you get confirmation it was received. You may also want to present it in person to the editor at a professional conference or have a sales representative transmit it –- it helps the sales folks earn points with their boss and gives you another person in the organization who might be able to help you track its progress. And as with your journal article manuscripts, have a trusted colleague read through the chapter and offer feedback.

The loose ends. There are a million loose ends to any textbook proposal . For example, if a CD or DVD is to accompany the text, indicate what added value it will bring to the student. How will the CD be developed, what will it contain, and who will be responsible for the material being provide (it need not always be you). How many pages will the manuscript be and what does the detailed writing schedule look like? What makes you the right author for this project – what writing experience and other skills can you bring to this effort? Your best bet to address absolutely everything you can and answer the editor’s questions before they are asked.

Writing an introductory text is long journey. A well-prepared proposal is the first step along that path.

Next month: The proposal’s in. What’s next?

Neil J. Salkind
Author's email:

Neil J. Salkind is on the faculty of the University of Kansas and is an agent at Studio B and has worked with many textbook publishers including Prentice Hall, Wadsworth, Sage and Blackwell.

Travels in Weblogestan

Reading the scholarship devoted to the phenomenon of blogging sometimes calls to mind a comment that Jackie Gleason is said to have made about people who review TV programs -- that it's "like writing about a car wreck for an audience made up entirely of  eyewitnesses."

Not that researchers shouldn't gather data from LiveJournal, or make connections between the blogosphere and Jurgen Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, or whatever. But even the most impressive work tends to tell you something you already know, more or less.

For example: A recent number-crunching analysis of political blogging during the 2004 election demonstrated, among other things, that conservatives have created a dense online social network -- one with strong links among sites, that is, making them an effective medium for focusing on a particular topic or message.

Bloggers to the left, by contrast, have created a much less compact and efficient network. The tables and charts that the researchers prepared to demonstrate this are impressive enough. Even so, it all adds up to something slightly less incisive than an observation made, sooner or later, by anyone watching American political life: that there is an almost instinctive tendency on the part of self-identified "progressives" to cooperate just long enough to form a circular firing squad.

To be fair, the ideas and methods used in blog scholarship are sometimes more thought-provoking than the immediate results. That's especially true, it seems to me, with research using models of how networks emerge and function. (Then again, there is always something a little awesome about finding that "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" that Eugene Wigner pointed out in the natural sciences also applies to human behavior en masse.)

But with an awful lot of work on the content and context of blogging, you have the Jackie Gleason effect in purest form. It isn't anybody's fault. The problem, arguably, is endemic to just about any kind of qualitative (that is, non-statistical) research on a new social phenomenon. In short: how do you get from offering a description to forming concepts? The conundrum may be even tougher with an emergent cultural form such as blogging -- one prone, that is, to incessant labors at self-definition, self-promotion,  and self-mockery.

So what would a really interesting and exciting piece of qualitative research on blogging look like? And how would it get around the problems of overfamiliarity with the phenomenon (on the one hand) and blogospheric navel-gazing (on the other)?

To get an answer, it isn't necessary to speculate. Just read "The Vulgar Spirit of Blogging: On Language, Culture, and Power in Persian Weblogestan," by Alireza Doostdar, which appears in the current issue of American Anthropologist. A scanned copy is available here. The author is now working at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, where he will start work on his Ph.D. in social anthropology and Middle Eastern studies.

"Weblogestan" is an Iranian online slang term for the realm of Persian-language blogs. (The time has definitely come for it to be adapted, and adopted, into Anglophone usage.) Over the last two years, Western journalists  have looked at blogging as part of the political and cultural ferment in Iran -- treating it, predictably enough, as a simple manifestation of the yearning for a more open society. Doostdar complicates this picture by looking at what we might call the borders of Veblogestan (to employ a closer transliteration of the term, as used specifically to name Iranian blogging).

In an unpublished manuscript he sent me last week, Doostdar provides a quick overview of the region's population: "There are roughly 65,000 active blogs in Veblogestan," he writes, "making Persian the fourth language for blogs after English, Portugese, and French. The topics for blog entries include everything from personal diaries, expressions of spirituality, and works of experimental poetry and fiction to film criticism, sports commentary, social critique, and of course political analysis. Some bloggers focus on only one of these topics throughout the life of their blogs, while others write about a different topic in every new entry, or even deal with multiple topics within a single entry."

He notes that "a major factor in the widespread adoption of blogging" in Iran "has been the Unicode standard, which has made it possible for people to write and publish easily in the Persian script." Nor does it hurt that it is easy to set up a blog -- or to use a pseudonym. The result has been the creation of a medium that cuts across social and geographic boundaries. In his manuscript, Doostdar says that his work bought him into contact with "high school and university students, journalists, literary critics, Web designers, women's rights activists, and statesmen, living in Tehran, Toronto, Berlin, New York, London, Prague, and Paris, along with numerous other anonymous and half-anonymous bloggers scattered around the world."

Except for the part about writing Persian script using Unicode, this is a familiar picture of the blogging world. It is, in effect, a neighborhood within what Manuel Castells identified, some years back, as "the network society" -- a global "space without a place."  And Doostdar's account of the routine practices among Iranian bloggers will also ring a bell with their American cousins. There are group blogs, "trackback pings," comment fields, blogrolls, and even emoticons (the horror, the horror ;-).

At one level, then, it sounds like a new chapter in the worldwide spread of homogenizing mass media. The more globalization-friendly spin on this would be that blogging is a tool with which Iranians are creating a culture that challenges the fundamentalist social order.

Fortunately, Doostdar's work does not stick to either of these scripts. His paper in American Anthropologist looks at a controversy that raged during the final months of 2003 -- the bahs-e ebtezaal or "vulgarity debate," a heated discussion of the place of blogging in Iranian culture. On one side were members of the roshanfekr class -- meaning those writers and intellectuals possessing an "enlightened mind," but also a certain degree of education, sophistication, and social prestige. The term, writes Doostdar, "has historically come to represent one who is conversant with modernist or postmodernist discourses, is a humanist, feels a certain commitment toward the well-being of his or her won society, and continually and publically [criticizes] the values, norms, and behaviors of that society."

There are members of the roshanfekr classwho write for blogs, but they have other outlets as well, including newspapers and magazines. On the other side of the debate were Iranian bloggers who were "not intellectuals by social function or profession." The practice of blogrolling and cross-referencing allowed some of them to gain "popularity and a reputation within the community of bloggers."

But it was precisely the "focus on a contextual constitution of self" (with its attendant rituals of backscratching and mini-celebrity) that made blogging a venue for "a radically different set of priorities" from those of "the more 'noble' genres of traditional journalism and literary composition" practiced by the roshanfekr class. "In blogging," writes Doostdar, "speed often takes precedence over thoroughness, outlandishness over rigor, and emotive self-expression over dispassionate analysis."

In October 2003, Seyyed Reza Shokrollahi. a prominent journalist and literary critic, referred to "the stink of vulgarity in Weblogestan" -- complaining about the spelling errors, sloppy language, and low argumentative standards prevailing among bloggers. And as a nice touch, he did this on his own blog. The effect, as Doostdar put it, was to unleash "a cacophony of blog entries, online magazine articles, comments, responses, and counterresponses that continued for several weeks."

Some of the non- roshanfekr who denounced "intellectualist pretense" appear to have taken extra care to make errors in spelling and grammar when they replied. (As Doostdar puts it, they tried to "metapragmatically index themselves as linguistic and cultural rebels by being deliberately careless.")

And you can feel the seething bitterness of one blogger who denounced a prominent journalist and short story writer: "Keep mistaking this place as a literary conference when others consider it to be an informal and safe place for chatting. Come sit down wearing a suit and tie and mock those who are wearing jeans."

The populist tone is familiar. Change the accent, and it wouldn't sound out of place on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. And yet the lines in the Iranian vulgarity debate were not drawn for the convenience of American pundits.

For one thing, it isn't the familiar story of democratic reformers versus fundamentalist mullahs. It's more complicated than that. The liberalizing influence of the roshanfekr intelligentsia, "although significant, is still small relative to the dominant traditionalist clergy," writes Doostdar. "Their strongest cultural and political leverage is most likely among academics and in the domain of print media..." Going online gives them "a much less restricted environment for publication and cultural-political action" -- but in a space where "just about anything can (and does) get published and there is no authority to enforce linguistic and cultural standards."

The result? Well, consider the case of Seyyed Reza Shokrollahi, who launched the initial salvo against  "the stench of vulgarity in Weblogstan." Shortly afterward, he created a Web page with links to online editions of fiction that is censored in Iran. But according to Doostday, some "charged that he wanted to stifle free speech" with his criticism of vulgarity, "and compared him to government censors."

On Thursday: Using a Soviet dissident theorist's work to think about the blogopshere Also: is there a "pious spirit of blogging" in Iran?

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The Writer's Writer

Ask almost any American writer today for a list of his or her literary idols, and Frank Conroy’s name usually rises near the top.

The author of one of the best books of our age, Stop-Time, published in 1967, as well as the director of the greatest incubator of literary talent ever assembled, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Conroy was as close to legend as any living writer gets.

Not to mention a Grammy winner—for best liner notes.

Despite a rough beginning, he made the most of a life that ended last week, when he died at age 69 of colon cancer.

Stop-Time slays everyone who reads it.

The poignant, tough and lean prose is every bit as great as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The literary establishment, from Norman Mailer to William Styron, fell before Frank’s wobbly 31-year-old knees when the effervescent memoir was published. Every shimmering word in Stop-Time seemed to detonate as Frank, from a teenager’s perspective, detailed the pain and legacy of an abusive, manic-depressive father and an absentee mother.

The book was the best kind of fiction because it was numbingly true.

It’s not "Genesis," but to many writers, the opening paragraphs of Stop-Time are the bible of literary beginnings:
My father stopped living with us when I was three or four. Most of his adult life was spent as a patient in various expensive rest homes for dipsomaniacs and victims of nervous collapse. …

I try to think of him as sane, yet it must be admitted he did some odd things. Forced to attend a rest-home dance for its therapeutic value, he combed his hair with urine and otherwise played it out like the Southern gentleman he was. He had a tendency to take off his trousers and throw them out the window. (I harbor some secret admiration for this.) At a moment’s notice he could blow a thousand dollars at Abercrombie and Fitch and disappear into the Northwest to become an outdoorsman. He spent an anxious few weeks convinced that I was fated to become a homosexual. I was six months old. And I remember visiting him at one of the rest homes when I was eight. We walked across a sloping lawn and he told me a story, which even then I recognized as a lie, about a man who sat down on the open blade of a penknife embedded in a park bench. (Why, for God’s sake would he tell a story like that to his eight-year-old son?)

Absent any sentimentality, Frank had created an instant classic, ultimately changing how we think of memoir and American literature, as well as how we perceive of the vulnerability of children and the passage each of us goes through to become an adult.

Premature adoration and fame can turn even the most humble of men and women into fools, but Frank seemed to manage. He used his writing to chronicle his personal struggles, publishing perfect-pitch short stories and novels, including Midair, Body and Soul and Dogs Bark but the Caravan Rolls On. His precision with language earned him the respect of legions of journalists, including David Halberstam and Russell Baker.

Unable to corral his prodigious creativity, Frank blossomed as a jazz pianist. He became director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982. He arrived as director at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1987 and quickly developed a reputation as a no-nonsense teacher who lived and breathed writing.

Admiring From Afar

Frank was one of the most unpretentious writers I’ve ever known.

I came to the University of Iowa as an eager journalist wholly unfamiliar with the trappings of academic life. A great perk of my job as a journalism professor was living in the shadow of the Writers’ Workshop, known locally as "The Workshop."

Like many others in the business of putting words on paper for a living, I revered Frank from a distance.

I used to see him around town: nose in a book at Prairie Lights, the wonderful bookstore on Dubuque Street; hunched over a newspaper, his lanky legs and arms taking over a booth in the Chesapeake Bagel Company down the block, holding forth with Guinness in hand at The Mill on Burlington Street.
Frank and I shared at least one thing: The University of Iowa had hired us as full-time faculty members.

This was much less of an accomplishment for Frank than it was for me, but few universities then and now would consider hiring such undereducated writers. As far as I know, outside of an abstract painter in the Art School, Frank and I were the only full-time faculty members at the university with just bachelor's degrees.

Frank distrusted most academics, a healthy instinct for any writer. Many are long-winded and imprecise with language (a cardinal sin for Frank); they study memorable writing but seldom create writing that’s memorable.

When I got here in 1993, the Writers' Workshop was housed in the same dreary brick-and-concrete building as the English department. There was no love lost on either side when Frank was able to move the Workshop to a lovely renovated 19th Century home, high on a bluff overlooking the Iowa River.

He surrounded himself with wonderful writers who also were wonderful teachers of writing, including Marilynne Robinson (who just won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction), Jim McPherson (who won the Pulitzer in 1978) and Jorie Graham (who won for poetry in 1996).  Flannery O’Conner, Wallace Stegner, W.P. Kinsella, John Irving, Raymond Carver, T.C. Boyle and Jane Smiley cut their teeth as young writers at the Workshop.

Each year, Frank enrolled students who would go on to change the way we look at the written word. The Workshop is probably harder to get into than Harvard Law School: 800 applicants vie for 25 slots. Since its inception in 1936, 26 Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded to former Workshop students.

For all his facility with words, Frank was an anachronism, a technophobic dinosaur.

He didn’t do e-mail. He surrounded himself with felt-tipped pens, yellow pads and clipboards. He wrote lying in his bed, his back propped against pillows. Whenever he finished a draft, his wife (and best friend) Maggie, would type his longhand into a computer. Frank would then wildly mark up the printout and revise at a compuer.

While a tough teacher, he also was a generous one.

The coveted blurb

When I wrote a nonfiction book in 2000, like all authors, I slogged through the merciless business of trawling for blurbers. Blurbs are the pithy endorsements on the backs of book jackets that publishers hope will persuade otherwise clueless browsers to plunk down cash or credit card. Frank’s policy was not to blurb. Period. I think he probably felt that if he started blurbing, he’d surely never have a free moment for anything else.

At that time, I had not yet met Frank. Personal idols, particularly of the literary variety, are usually best left undisturbed, and I was satisfied to admire Frank and his work from a distance. But someone had handed him an advance copy of my book. Frank packed away the manuscript in his suitcase and took it to his summer house in Nantucket. "Don’t expect anything," I was told.

I blocked out what this great writer and teacher of writing could possibly say about my prose -- until word got back to me that Frank loved the book and was willing to say so. Blurb on the back cover, Frank’s endorsement probably didn’t carry much clout with the ordinary buyer at Barnes & Noble, but to me it meant the world.

We met finally at a reading shortly after the book came out. Frank had been playing piano for a local radio program that night and, just as the reading was winding down, this stranger/mentor arrived. He made a beeline for the podium and gave me a bear hug of congratulations.

Writers aren’t like that. They are morose, moody, competitive, gossips at heart who look askance instead of straight ahead.

Since that evening, Frank and I had often run into each other in this literary town among the cornfields. We talked about writing and politics, especially about our fears that our teenage sons might eventually get pulled into the widening war in Iraq.

Raising some eyebrows

The last time I saw Frank was right after he had caused some eyebrows to arch by accepting from President Bush the National Humanities Medal on behalf of the Workshop. It was the first time a university program had ever achieved such an accolade.

Frank was at Prairie Lights, the bookstore, and as we were both flipping dust covers, checking out too-serious visages of up-and-coming authors, I asked him about his experience at the White House.

And Frank, always the writer, always working, always trying to make sense of the world, said he enjoyed meeting Bush, despite their profound differences. Bush, he said, was caught up in the gears of some grinding machinery that couldn’t be shut down. The president might be at the switch, but he wasn’t in control. Bush, Frank said, really was a likable fellow but had become a victim, a hapless innocent.

And then I saw it once again, Frank turning generous, even magnanimous. But I could also see he was working. There was a magnificent story brewing here, and Frank was mapping out its plot.

Stephen G. Bloom
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Stephen G. Bloom, the author of "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America," teaches narrative journalism at the University of Iowa.


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