On Tuesday -- as the republic awaited the formal launch of the latest Supreme Court nomination death-match -- Stanley Fish appeared in The New York Times with a short article titled "Intentional Neglect." Its thesis is sharp, bold, and deceptively straightforward.
As we enter the inescapable squall of debate over who shall take the place of Sandra Day O'Connor, announces Fish, we need to be clear on some basic things. Interpreting the Constitution is a matter of determining its authors' intent. Talk of "a living constitution" that must remain open to the changing times -- that, in short, is not interpretation, but a roundabout means of rewriting the Constitution.
The response in some quarters has involved gestures of shock -- and from one or two conservatives, anyway, of gratified astonishment. How sensible the man is! What a voice for sweet reason! Is this Stanley Fish not the same man who turned the English department at Duke into a training camp for left-wing theoretical guerillas? Has he perhaps had a change of heart?
Fish is widely recognized, even outside academe, as a celebrity and a power broker. He is the one person at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association who does not wear a name tag. And he has a well-established profile as the champion of the anti-foundationalism that non-academic civilians understand to be the, well, foundation of contemporary academic radicalism.
So when he goes on "The O'Reilly Show" -- or weighs in with an op-ed in the Times -- many people naturally assume that Fish is speaking as some kind of leftist. Hence the surprise at his latest article, which at least some readers might take as an application to join the Federalist Society.
All of which underscores the difference between being well-known and being well-understood.
There is nothing in Tuesday's op-ed that Fish hasn't argued many times over the years. Many, many times, over many, many years. (Whatever debate may exist over his other virtues, the man is a stickler for consistency.) But he is so famous that his ideas have long since been dwarfed by his reputation.
His current stress on the framers' intent as the necessary focus of interpreting the Constitution sound paradoxical, coming from a literary theorist who came into prominence, in the 1970s, as the most dogged champion of reader-response criticism. Actually, there is a pretty direct line of march from one position to the next.
One modest claim in favor of the reader-response school might be that its very name was a case of truth in advertising. (I speak of it in the past tense because it's been some while since the movement was at its peak. No doubt there are still a few partisans still fighting for the cause, like those stray Japanese soldiers from World War Two who used to turn up on islands in the Pacific.) Reader-response analysis involved looking at how the audience of a literary work interacted with it -- how, in a sense, the meaning of a text was produced at the moment the reader was consuming it.
That sounds like a recipe for, well, just making stuff up. Mix one part epistemological relativism and one part narcissism, and you get the sophomore's hermeneutic: "That's what the book means to me." Add a dash of paranoia, and you get: "I think Shakespeare was a Freemason, and my reading is as good as any other."
But you can't judge a method by its most inane or implausible applications. In the case of Fish's version of reader-response analysis, there was a sort of hermeneutic shock-absorber built right in. He called it "the interpretive community." An individual reader might come up with some bizarre personal meaning for a work. For the most part, however, reading is conditioned by one's membership in groups, and those groups tend to create something like a consensus about what counts as the range of sound understanding. There are rules for what counts as good evidence, or a well-made argument.
Normally those rules aren't written down someplace. They exist at the level of tacit knowledge; you either absorb them and read accordingly, or you aren't really part of that particular community. And the rules can change over time. A work's meaning isn't fixed for all time, like a face sculpted in marble. Nor does it change at random, like a kaleidoscope image. It's more like the various productions of a play -- varying over time depending on who's directing, who's acting, and how big the stage is.
Fish's later writings on law and on current issues are, in effect, an expansion of the idea of the interpretive community to the world beyond the printed page. We participate in institutions and in civic life in the same sense that we read and understand a work of literature -- as people who always find ourselves embedded in a structure of rules, assumptions, traditions, etc., that implicitly govern what counts as acceptable.
From Fish's perspective, it is the mistake of a certain kind of fundamentalism (religious or secular) to think that we can get to the level of bedrock truths that aren't so conditioned. Or to think that, by reasoning, we can ascend to lofty heights of abstraction, far above all the diverse and squabbling micro-communities. You never get outside of some kind of interpretive community, following rules that are socially constructed.
But that doesn't mean they are imaginary -- that anything goes.
Fish's often uses the game of baseball as his example of something that is both socially constructed and real. Does a baseball or bat exist in nature? Does "three strikes and you're out" follow from any law known to the sciences? The answer, in each case, is "no." Are baseballs and bats real? Does the three-strikes rule have predictable effects on the course of the game? Likewise, the answer is "yes." So the game of baseball is both socially constructed and real. It is the product of human activity, but not subject to anybody's whim. (The umpire's eyesight, yes. But that doesn't gainsay Fish's basic point.)
Now, talk of social construction always sounds like it might have a radical agenda. To anyone who thinks in terms of natural law, it reeks of Jacobinism. After all, if something is socially constructed, that means that it might be re-constructed, right? And that means it probably should be, at some point.... The next thing you know, there are guillotines.
But actually, if you look at them closely, Fish's ideas seem a bit closer to the counter-Enlightenment doctrines that emerged following the French revolution. The binding force of community, the subordination of reason to the implicit code of tradition, the sense that our freedom is limited (or at least conditioned) by rules that can't be redrawn all at once ... this sounds a little bit like something from Edmund Burke, or at least from Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind.
Not to go overboard with this. When he gives voice to political opinions (in favor of affirmative action, say, or in defense of speech codes) he tends to sound like a garden-variety liberal. But Fish has been very skeptical of the academic left, on the grounds that radical professors tend to blur the distinction between scholarship and political activity. As he argued in Professional Correctness, published 10 years ago by Harvard University Press, "queering Shakespeare" isn't political in the same sense as mobilizing to increase AIDS funding; rather, it's a matter of making certain moves in the interpretive community that is interested in Elizabethan literature.
In Fish's own words: "There are no regular routes by which the accomplishments of academics in general and literary academics in particular can be transformed into the currency of politics." And the effort to bring his ideas to bear on legal theory, over the years, have not really disproved that point.
In effect, Fish's writings have been a way of minimizing the possible interaction between law and literature. He has argued -- with exhausting, even wearying consistency -- that the conduct of legal affairs is ultimately a matter of the legal interpretive community following its own codes, traditions, and methods.
A case in point is Fish's seemingly straightforward claim that "interpreting the Constitution" means "trying to figure out what the framers had in mind." That sounds like a directive -- as if Fish is saying that we'd just need to find the right quotation from The Federalist Paper, perhaps, to understand how to apply the Constitution to legislation regarding stem-cell research. And there is, then, a strong tendency to assume that such an interpretation would then tilt toward the conservative side.
But not so fast. As Fish noted in a discussion of the Bork nomination, it is a mistake to cede "original intent" arguments to the right, just because some conservative jurists frame their arguments in those terms.
"It is perfectly possible," wrote Fish, "to be in favor of abortion rights and also to label oneself as an originalist, as someone who hews to the intention of the framers. It would just be a matter of characterizing those intentions so that the right to abortion would seem obviously to follow from them.
One might, for example, argue (as many have) that even though the Fourteenth Amendment nowhere mentions abortion rights, a correct understanding of its authors' more general intention requires that such rights be protected." Likewise, one could argue against abortion rights on grounds that aren't anchored in claims about original intent.
"In short, there is no necessary relationship between declaring oneself an originalist and coming out on one side or the other of a particular issue."
Putting it another way, the effort to define "original intent" is both a basic part of the work of the legal interpretive community and a product of rules specific to that community. Some sharp-eyed person may well put my head on a platter for saying this, but what the hell: It sure looks as if Stanley Fish has reinvented legal positivism by way of a kind of roll-with-the-punches pragmatism.
Speaking of punches ... they should start flying any minute now. What does Fish have to say about the debates that are about to ensue? How should the issues of the nomination fight be understood by those of us who are mere citizens of the Republic, rather than members of the legal interpretive community? His advice, in short, is to recognize that it's not a question of whether or not the nominee is an originalist, but rather, of what kind.
"So," as he put it on Tuesday, " if you want to know how someone is likely to act on the bench, you will have to set all the labels aside and pay attention to the nominee's reasoning in response to the posing of hypothetical situations.... Does he or she construe intention narrowly and limit it to possibilities the framers could have foreseen, or is intention considered more broadly and extended to the positions the framers would likely have taken if they knew then what we know now? ... And then, if after having made that calculation you decide you are for this person, you can hope that the performance you see today predicts the performances of years to come. But don't bet on it."
There may be a certain amount of insight in Fish's thoughts. Still, it seems like the kind of wisdom that doesn't really do anybody much good.
In January 2002, on his way back from an academic conference, a young journalist named David W. Miller was killed by an intoxicated driver, along with the two people who were giving him a ride home from the airport. As often happens, the drunk was unhurt. Now he's in prison -- where, with any luck, he will serve every single day of his sentence. There are old and very reasonable arguments for why justice cannot, by definition, be a matter of revenge. But I am happy to ignore them, in this case -- for David was my colleague, and someone I respected enormously, and he was just about to take off a couple of months of paternity leave following the birth of his second child. It does not seem possible that the man who killed him could suffer enough.
Now, it would be sentimental overstatement for me to claim a deep friendship. But there was more to our collegiality than the usual blend of mutual tolerance and bland amicability required to make a workplace tolerable. That we could talk without yelling at one another seemed, at the time, like a tiny miracle of civilization. David had worked for the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review and was not exactly shamefaced about being a conservative -- while in my cubicle there was a portrait of Lenin.
In fact, he looks down on me now, here in my study at home. I have sworn to take his picture down if, and only if, Henry Kissinger ends up on trial for crimes against humanity. (Frankly, I'm tired of looking at old V.I., but am still awaiting that necessary bit of evidence that bourgeois democracy is capable of truth and reconciliation.)
David and I had the occasional, let's say, spirited conversation. Neither of us ever persuaded the other of much. With hindsight, however, it's clear that knowing him was incredibly instructive -- and not just because he kept up with scholarship in the social sciences that were far from my own stomping grounds.
He was, as the saying goes, a "movement conservative," in touch with the ideas and arguments being cooked up in the right-wing think tanks. But he was as intellectually honest as anyone could be. Around the time we first met, he had just published an article on the famous "broken window syndrome" -- that basic doctrine of conservative social policy -- showing there was scarcely any solid research to back it up. And when he did argue for any given element of the right's agenda, it was hard to escape the sense that he did so from the firm conviction that it would bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people.
In short, talking with David meant facing a repeated obligation to think the unthinkable: that someone could be a conservative without suffering from either cognitive deficit or profound moral stupidity.
Of course, any person who spends very long on the left must come face to face, eventually, with the hard truth that a certain percentage of one's comrades are malevolent, cretinous, thoughtless, or palpably insane. This is troubling, but you get used to it. What proves much more disconcerting is the realization that someone from the other side possesses real virtues -- and that they hold their views, not in spite of their better qualities, but in consequence of them.
All of this came back to mind upon reading a recent profile of Roger Scruton, the conservative British philosopher. In most respects, it is a typical newspaper piece on a thinker. That is, it avoids any effort to discuss his work (or even to describe it) and focuses instead on his personality, which on a generous estimate may be described as curmudgeonly.
There was one passage in particular that hit home. It's when Scruton says, "One of the great distinctions between the left and the right in the intellectual world is that left-wing people find it very hard to get on with right-wing people, because they believe that they are evil. Whereas I have no problem getting on with left-wing people, because I simply believe that they are mistaken. After a while, if I can persuade them that I'm not evil, I find it a very useful thing. I know that my views on many things are open to correction. But if you can't discuss with your opponents, how can you correct your views?"
Scruton is on to something. Of course, the point is very seriously blunted by the way he pretends that Manicheanism is a peculiarly leftist failing. In his heart of hearts, he must know better. Certainly the American right is very keen on the language of apocalyptic confrontation with absolute evil.And Scruton himself is not above a certain amount of nastiness, once the polemical fires are stoked.
That's just the way of the passions, though -- the tendency in our nature that must be controlled by "the inner check," to borrow a very old-fashioned conservative notion discussed by the political scientist Wesley McDonald, who teaches at Elizabethtown College. In his book Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, published last year by the University of Missouri Press, he explains that the inner check is that factor in the soul that can subdue the more vicious parts of one's nature -- in the interest of the common good, and of the higher human potentialities.
See also, "superego." But there is perhaps a value to the more frankly moralistic expression "inner check." The superego is what makes you neurotic. By contrast, the inner check is what makes it possible to say, as Scruton does, "I know that my views on many things are open to correction. But if you can't discuss with your opponents, how can you correct your views?"
For an instructive display of the inner check in action (and a reminder of how much work it has cut out for it) you might check out a recent exchange concerning Unholy Alliance by David Horowitz.
According to its author, this is the book that provides the ballast of heavy thinking to back up "Discover the Network." And a good thing it does, for otherwise "Discover" might be regarded as a laughable exercise in guilt-by-association that makes the John Birch Society's None Dare Call it Conspiracy look like sober political analysis.
So it was interesting -- encouraging, even -- to see that Timothy Burke had written a long commentary on the book. The impression one gets from reading Burke's essays, over time, is that his ideas are measured without being equivocal. He tends to be scrupulous about defining where his arguments are coming from and where they are going. That precision is not the same as rigidity, however. He would probably be identified by most conservatives as a man of the left. But more than anything else, his writings call to mind a comment by Raymond Aron, who for decades was considered the anti-Sartre of French political and intellectual life. "The last word is never said, and one must not judge one's adversaries as if one's own cause were identified with absolute truth."
During a previous exchange, Horowitz had challenged Burke to grapple with Unholy Alliance, which demonstrates (says Horowitz} the linkage between radical Islamism and the American left. And Burke took up the gauntlet.
Burke begins by noting that "there is an intellectual history waiting to be written that plausibly connects the New Left with some of the forms of romantic anti-Western sentiment among some American (and European) activists and intellectuals that flourished between 1980 and the present."
He adds that such a book would do well to examine "a wider, more diffuse 20th Century history of connections between anti-Western ideas, texts and political commitments within Europe and the United States that would not be isolated in any simple way to 'the left' (indeed, would cross over at points to authors and thinkers typically regarded as conservative)."
Let's be clear on this: from the start, Burke more than half concedes a point that Horowitz takes as urgent: that there are indeed continuities between some parts of the Third World-ist left and modes of thought and politics that are, in the strictest sense, reactionary. But Burke thinks that the matter has to be faced with a certain degree of rigor and scholarship. Otherwise, why bother?
Burke argues that Horowitz has not offered even the most rudimentary approximation of the kind of analysis that he has promised. And yet Burke also makes an extremely (to my mind, astonishingly) generous estimate of Horowitz's potential to write something intelligent and serious.
In answer, Horowitz has issued a petulant, abusive, and interminable response that one suspects will turn into a chapter in his next autobiography.
At this point, it is hard not to think of the "inner check" -- the doctrine that there is (or should be) a small voice of constraint within the soul. "Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite," as Russell Kirk put it in The Conservative Mind (1953), "for conservatives know man to be governed more by emotion than by reason."
The inner check is not a part of the self -- but, rather, that internal force subduing the self, which would otherwise howl and rave, and demand that the world adore its every claim to glory. Reading Burke and Horowitz side by side, it's not hard to come to figure out which one really embodies that principle.
Now, over the past couple of years, I've tried hard to honor the memory of David Miller, who, in the year before his death at the ridiculously young age of 35, taught me so much by his example -- by his decency, his modesty, and his wry indulgence of what he must have seen as muddled leftist attitudes. For one thing, it's meant striving to understand things, from time to time, as he might; to consider the strongest, most coherent forms of conservative argument.
To that end, my reading diet now includes a certain amount of right-wing intellectual output -- journals like The Modern Age and The Claremont Review of Books, for example, and books by Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, and Willmoore Kendall. It's not necessary to enjoy this stuff, or to agree with it.But it does seem important as part of the process of thinking outside one's familiar ruts.
But now it's time to go another step. There is only one way to keep from reinforcing the worst impressions of the conservative movement. Henceforth, I will never read another word by David Horowitz.
One part of Milovan Djilas's Conversations with Stalin lingers in the memory well after the rest of the book fades. The author himself calls it "a scene such as might be found only in Shakespeare's plays." Actually, it does have its parallels to Rabelais, as well; for like many another gathering of the Soviet elite amidst the privations of World War II that Djilas recounts, there is an enormous feast, and a marathon drinking session.
This particular miniature carnival occurs in the final months of the war. Stalin is hosting a reception at the Kremlin for the Yugoslavian delegation. But before the partying begins, he must disburden himself; for Stalin has heard that Djilas (who would later become vice president under Marshall Tito) has criticized the behavior of some units of the Red Army as it has made its way across Europe.
"Does Djilas, who is himself a writer, not know what human suffering and the human heart are?" cries Stalin. "Can't he understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes a trifle?"
By "having fun," he was referring to well over two million rapes, by Soviet soldiers, of women of all ages and backgrounds. The very indiscriminateness of the sexual violence gives the lie to the idea that it was revenge for the suffering inflicted by the Germans. Inmates liberated from Nazi concentration camps were raped as well.
As for Djilas, it must have seemed, for a moment, as if Stalin's outburst were the kiss of death. Luckily for him, the dictator's mood changed. "He proposed frequent toasts," recalls the author, "flattered one person, joked with another, teased a third, kissed my wife because she was a Serb, and again shed tears over the hardships of the Red Army and Yugoslav ingratitude."
Perhaps in response to the criticism, Stalin issued a command that soldiers behave themselves. The Soviet officers read the proclamation to their troops with a smirk. Everyone knew it meant nothing. Boys will be boys.
The anonymous memoir A Woman in Berlin, now appearing in a new English translation from Metropolitan Books, is an extraordinary chronicle of life in the streets as the Thousand Year Reich turned into rubble and the advancing "Ivans" had their fun. The author was a German editor and journalist who died in 2001. Her book, based on a diary kept over two months during the spring of 1945, first appeared in English in 1954. It was only published in German in 1959, where it seems tohave been regarded as an intolerable faux pas, a violation of the unstated rule that the events never be mentioned again.
The book's rediscovery now comes in the wake of Antony Beevor's massive documentation of the rape campaign in The Fall of Berlin 1945, published three years ago by Viking Press. To judge by the reservations of some military historians, Beevor's account may not be the last word on howSoviet forces advanced into Germany. (A reviewer for Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College, praised it as a work of popular history, but lodged some complaints about certain gaps in the book's account of troop manuevers.) Yet the book did take an unflinching look at the extent of the sexual terror.
Beevor supplies an introduction to the new edition of A Woman in Berlin, situating the document in historical context. He notes, for example, that the statistics about rape for Berlin "are probably the most reliable in all of Germany," falling somewhere between 95,000 and 130,000 victims "according to the two leading hospitals."
He also points out that there is no particular evidence that rape was treated as a deliberate strategy of war -- as human-rights activists have recently charged the Sudanese military with doing in Darfur. "No document from the Soviet archives indicates anything of the sort in 1945," writes Beevor. But he suggests that the scale of the attacks may have been a by-product of the Red Army's internal culture, even so: "Many soldiers had been so humiliated by their own officers and commissars during the four years of war that they felt driven to expiate bitterness, and German women presented the easiest target. Polish women and female slave laborers in Germany also suffered."
Reading the memoir itself, you find all such interpretive questions being put on hold. It is not just a document. The author, an urbane and articulate woman in her early 30s, writes about the fall of Berlin and her own repeated violation with an astounding coolness -- a bitter, matter-of-fact lucidity, the extreme candor of which is almost disconcerting, given the lack of even a hint of self-pity.
"No doubt about it," she writes after being raped several times in a row. "I have to find a single wolf to keep away the pack. An officer, as high-ranking as possible, a commandant, a general, whatever I can manage. After all, what are my brains for, my little knowledge of the enemy's language?... My mind is firmly made up. I'll think of something when the time comes. I grin to myself in secret, feel as if I'm performing on the stage. I couldn't care less about the lot of them! I've never been so removed from myself, so alienated. All my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live."
I've just reviewed the latest edition of A Woman in Berlin for Newsday, and will spare you a recycling of that effort (now available here ). Since then, a look at other reviews has revealed some debate over the authenticity of the book. The comments of J.G. Ballard ( no stranger to questions of sexuality in extreme conditions ) are indicative.
"It is hard to believe, as the author claims, that it was jotted down with a pencil stub on old scraps of paper while she crouched on her bed between bouts of rape," wrote Ballard in The New Statesman a few weeks ago. "The tone is so dispassionate, scenes described in so literary a way, with poignant references to the strangeness of silence and the plaintive cry of a distant bird. We live at a time that places an almost sentimental value on the unsparing truth, however artfully deployed. But the diary seems convincingly real, whether assembled later from the testimonies of a number of women or recorded at first hand by the author."
Given that concern, it is worth looking up the original edition of A Woman in Berlin, now more than 50 years old. It came with an introduction by C.W. Ceram, whose book Gods, Graves, and Scholars, first published in 1951, remains one of the best introductions to the history of archeology. Ceram recalls meeting the author of A Woman in Berlin not long after the war.
"From some hints that she dropped," he wrote, "I learned of this diary's existence. When, after another six months passed, I was permitted to read it, I found described in detail what I already knew from the accounts of others."
That means Ceram saw the book in 1947, at the latest. "It took me more than five years, however, to persuade the author that her diary was unique, that it simply had to be published."
She had, he writes, "jotted down in old ledgers and on loose pages what happened to her.... These pages lie before me as I write. Their vividness as expressed in the furtiveness of the short penciled notes; the excitement they emanate whenever the pencil refuses to describe the facts; the combination of shorthand, longhand, and secret code ... all of this will probably be lost in the depersonalizing effect of the printed word."
Ceram's introduction is interesting for its testimony about the book's provenance. But that remark about "the depersonalizing effect of the printed word" will seem odd to anyone who has read A Woman in Berlin.
In many ways, of course, the book is an account of brutality. (War is a force that turns people into things, as Simone Weil once put it; and killing them is just one of the ways.) But the anonymous author also created a record of what is involved in resisting depersonalization. At times, she is able to see the occupiers, too, as human beings. You cannot put the book down without wondering about the rest of her life.
Submitted by Eric Jager on August 11, 2005 - 4:00am
Unlike my first two books, produced by university presses, The Last Duel, about a notorious criminal case that riveted France in 1386, and drawing from new documents I found in the French archives, was published commercially and aimed at a popular audience. My last article focused on how to deal with commercial presses; what follows is focused on writing for them.
To appeal to a popular audience, my book had to avoid the forbidding jargon and arcane theory that now plague the humanities. It also had to offer a lively narrative that would capture and keep readers’ interest. Losing the jargon and the theory was easy -- and very liberating. But learning how to craft an appealing narrative for a general audience was a much bigger challenge. For 15 years, since beginning a full-time university teaching career, I had written mainly for other academics. How could I write a book that appealed to thousands, not just dozens, of readers?
Just as studying the trade-book business helped me to sell my book to literary agents and editors (as described in part one of this piece), studying other crossover books by successful scholarly authors gave me a kind of “on-the-job training” for the task. I also had the advice of some excellent readers, and a superb editor. Here is what I learned, including good advice and useful examples I tried to follow in writing my book, as well as some pointers and illustrations that have come my way since finishing it.
1. Getting the Reader’s Attention: A few months ago, a bookseller was telling me how people browse for books in his store, something he watches carefully. “First they pick it up and look at the cover,” he said. “If they don’t put it down, they turn it over read the quotes on the back. Then, if they’re still interested, they open it and begin reading. If they read it, there’s a chance they’ll buy it.” Of course, people don’t always begin reading a book at the first sentence. But if they do, you can grab their attention with a good opening.
"I always wondered how he did it." That’s Howard Bloch’s brief, curiosity-arousing start to God’s Plagiarist, his entertaining and revealing biography of the remarkable Abbé Migne, the 19th-century French priest who edited, printed, and sold more books by the yard than anyone else before him in human history.
Sometimes a longer, more descriptive opening works better, as when Natalie Zemon Davis maps out a whole journey at the start of The Return of Martin Guerre: “In 1527 the peasant Sanxi Daguerre, his wife, his young son Martin, and his brother Pierre left the family property in the French Basque country and moved to a village in the county of Foix, a three-week walk away.” By the end of that sentence, we’re already traveling with the family along the country roads of 16th-century France.
A dramatic conflict can open a book nicely, too. James Shapiro begins his new book, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, with the colorful story of how , on a freezing winter day, armed members of Shakespeare’s playing company nearly came to blows with supporters of the landlord of a disputed theatre, before they prevailed and hauled away the theatre’s dismantled frame. Before you know it, you’re in London 400 years ago, feeling the icy winter air and the heat of an off-stage dispute.
2. The Golden Triangle: Many readers want books about real, interesting people who lived dramatic lives in colorful times or places. Successful nonfiction books -- like most novels -- tend to work within a “golden triangle” of plot, character, and setting. Even jokes and anecdotes -- our shortest forms of narrative -- rely on these three basic elements. News articles do as well, as codified in the famous Who-what-when-where-how-and-why, which leads with character and plot. The authors of longer narratives, if they want readers, must do the same.
Plot, character, and setting -- essential to all good narratives, both fiction and nonfiction – have been analyzed in critical classics from Aristotle’s Poetics to E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. But as the humanities have abandoned the warm campfires of story for the frigid heights of theory, historians and other social scientists once given to dry fact-gathering have rediscovered the joys of narrative, as successful popular books by Simon Schama and others attest. Even in the sciences, narrative writing has enjoyed a renaissance, as popularizing experts such as the late Stephen Jay Gould have satisfied a hunger for good stories and readable essays once filled largely by the humanities.
Gould’s best-selling book Wonderful Life recounts the early-20th-century discovery of the Burgess Shale fossils in British Columbia and their profound implications for evolutionary science. Although the book is about biology, and some passages may slow down non-specialists, Gould, like many skilled writers, appeals to popular readers by telling a story. He weaves the discovery -- and belated rediscovery -- of the fossils (plot) into the personal histories of the scientists (character), situating both in the relevant geological strata or cultural milieu (setting). As signaled by the film allusion in his title, Gould even comments, by way of another story (George Bailey’s, as played by Jimmy Stewart), on the nature of narrative and its role in our scientific understanding of ourselves. Touché!
Paul Fussell’s widely acclaimed book, The Great War and Modern Memory, begins with a sentence that almost embodies the golden triangle: “By mid-December, 1914, British troops had been fighting on the Continent for over five months.” The British troops, soon to be fleshed out as individual poets and combatants, will be the book’s main characters. The “fighting” points to plot, which includes the myriad other activities -- eating, sleeping, smoking, talking, reading, and writing letters -- pursued by the troops between brutal shellings and risky raids. And “the Continent” is obviously the main setting, soon to be mapped out in Fussell’s meticulous and highly readable narrative as particular fronts, trenches, and wire-infested no-man’s-zones. From its first sentence, the book tells a story, drawing readers into its world.
3. Story Structure: As Aristotle famously said, every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or as the novelist Peter De Vries once quipped, "a beginning, a muddle, and an end." The main story in turn consists of smaller narrative units -- each with its own beginning, middle, and end -- that offer smaller payoffs to readers along the way as they move toward the big payoff at the book’s end.
The most obvious narrative unit in a book is the chapter, but chapters, too, generally consist of smaller units, often signaled by headings, or enlarged capitals, or simply white space. These smaller units tend to have their own narrative integrity. Yet all the pieces must add up to a single, compelling story.
In Trying Neaira, her unbuttoned biography of a courtesan in fourth-century B.C. Greece, Debra Hamel invites readers right into the story with her frank, immediate narrative style. Her first sentence even daringly risks a foreign term in italics -- a Greek verb with a sexual meaning -- in a way that’s sure to excite interest in the story rather than putting readers off. Hamel also divides her book (classically) into three parts that embody beginning, middle, and end. And she marks the reader’s path by dividing each chapter into bite-sized pieces of narrative topped by short descriptive headings such as “Buying Neaira” and “Playing the Sycophant.”
In my own book, The Last Duel, each chapter comprises a narrative of its own even as it advances the book’s main story. In chapter three, for example, a Norman noble leaves home to join a foreign campaign, risks his life in battle, and returns home in bad health and seriously in debt but having earned a knighthood. The chapter, although fact-based, assumes a familiar narrative shape through its pattern of journey–battle–journey (symmetry), and the character’s changed situation as a result of the campaign (development and contrast). The reader is meant to finish the chapter with a sense of completing one small story -- with its own beginning, middle, and end -- even as its results (illness, debt, a knighthood) set up the next chapter of the main story.
4. Surprise and Suspense: Crossover books can also exploit other traditional storytelling techniques, such as surprise, suspense, and foreshadowing. In The Return of Martin Guerre, Natalie Zemon Davis orchestrates a dramatic conclusion to one chapter as follows: "The Criminal Chamber was about to make its final judgment of the case, opinions being ‘more disposed to the advantage of the prisoner and against the said Pierre Guerre and de Rols,’ when a man with a wooden leg appeared at the buildings of the Parlement of Toulouse. He said his name was Martin Guerre."
Here are suspense (the wait for the verdict) and surprise (the new plot twist). The book’s title, of course, foreshadows the revelation all along, and the question is less one of what than of when. But even if we suspect what will happen, or we’ve seen the film before reading the book, the passage makes a powerful impression. The first long sentence packs its punch into its final clause, as the phrase "a man with a wooden leg" confronts us with a physical fact before the precise meaning of that fact is revealed. Thus we experience the man’s arrival, with its aura of mystery, as the people in the story did. The terse final sentence, an indirect quote, divulges the deferred meaning, as Guerre’s own voice, in effect, announces the identity of the one-legged man. The passage is founded on fact, but its carefully arranged details and rhetorical devices form the facts into a compelling piece of story.
A graduate school mentor once said to me about teaching: "You have to know everything about your subject, and then remember what it’s like not to know anything." There’s a useful writing tip here, too. For readers to understand and enjoy your book, you have to imagine how they experience the journey, the discoveries along the way, and the sense of an ending that is promised but, for a time, deferred.
5. Being There: The noted biographer Robert Caro, discussing how he tried to capture the atmosphere and events of the American Civil Rights era, once said: "Make the reader see, make the reader feel, what was happening. If it was thrilling, make it seem so." Not just another version of the old adage, "show, don’t tell,” this useful advice stresses the importance of putting the reader imaginatively at the scene. (I kept Caro’s quote taped up over my desk while writing my book.)
Caro abundantly illustrates his own advice in his widely read books. But to flesh out this fifth and final point, I’ll illustrate what Caro says with an example from an author who better embodies the crossover phenomenon, Simon Schama.
Schama’s many popular historical books have found a large readership, driven in part by his role as host for the TV-miniseries, “A History of Britain.” In the companion volume to part one of that series, Schama puts his readers right at the battlefield in 1066, as the Normans and the Saxons prepare to fight:
“If you were a Norman foot soldier you would be praying that the gentlemen on horses know what they’re doing. All around you is the scraping of metal: the sharpening of swords; the mounting of horses. You peer up to the brow of the hill and see a thin, glittering line. You cross yourself and toy with the linked rings of your coat of mail. Can they dull the blow of an axe? You’ve never faced axes in battle before....”
It’s not just the collar-grabbing repetition of “you” that makes this passage so compelling. It’s also the vivid physical details -- sights, sounds, even tactile sensations -- that tell us what it was like to be there, how it looked and felt. While the style may annoy some academic historians by “personal intrusions” or “lack of objectivity,” its vivid imagery and human emotion are precisely the things that thrill general readers and bring history alive for millions. As storytelling, it’s masterful, and it epitomizes the art of crossing over from the library or the archive into the reader’s imagination.
Eric Jager is a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he teaches medievalÂ literature. He is the author of three books, most recently, The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France ( Broadway, 2004). The paperback will appear in September, and a BBC documentary based on the book will air during the next year.
Submitted by J.P. Leary on August 12, 2005 - 4:00am
The 19th-century Welsh novelist Henry Clairidge (1832-74) stood firmly in the British eccentric tradition, publishing only two novels during his lifetime, __________ and [ ], each consisting of 200 blank pages. A posthumously published volume was put out by his sister, Ethel, in 1876: “******,” a heavily annotated work of 200 pages, also blank.
These three books constitute the Clairidge oeuvre and his claim to literary posterity. Apart from a few contemporary reviews in The Gleaners’ Gazette, Clairidge remains mostly a tabula rasa. No critic has adequately addressed this master of Victorian minimalism, who so clearly anticipated the work of the Parisian livre vide movement in the 1890s and the pared-down appearance of late Beckett some decades later.
Occasionally, commentators have projected their own preconceptions on Clairidge’s admittedly scanty plots. New Critics had a field day filling in the gaps and differentiating between hiatuses and lacunae.
Barthes proposed 53 distinct readings of page 100 in [ ], whereas Derrida declared, “There is nothing inside the text.” Greenblatt links the genesis of Clairidge’s corpus to a blank diary found among the effects of a drowned sailor from Bristol in 1835. Several attempts by white studies scholars to claim Clairidge’s pages as an oppressed majoritarian cri de coeur have been largely ignored by multiculturalists.
These previous approaches miss the mark. Clairidge’s grand emptiness, prefiguring the existential void of the 1950s, mirrors life itself -- or at least the life of Clairidge, who spent his last 20 years at the ancestral estate in Ffwokenffodde, staring gormlessly at the hay ricks. His sister, Ethel, who doubled as his amanuensis and nurse, would occasionally turn him toward a prospect of furze, but the shift seems not to have affected his subject or style.
I contend that Clairidge’s hard-won nullity is temperamentally different from nihilism, which is to say that believing nothing is not the same as Belief in Nothing. Moreover, if Clairidge’s art takes the blankness of life as its premise, its slow-building conclusions represent a sort of après vie. Though reconstructing a writer’s faith from his art is a dicey business (and Ethel burned her brother’s blank notebooks after his death), one of the few remaining social effects sold at a charity auction in 1876 is a hay-strewn, slightly warped Ouija board. In short, this project involves the unacknowledged fourth estate of the race, gender, and class trinity: creed. Any committee members in sympathy with the current political administration, please take note.
Nothing is familiar to me. As a blocked but tenured faculty member for the past 14 years, I can attest to the power of the blank page. The study I propose would be as infinitely suggestive as Clairidge’s own work. Having already compiled over 150 blank pages of my own, I estimate that I am about halfway through a first draft.
My spurious timeline, suggested by my university’s internal grant board to indicate progress, is as follows: chapter one by March, chapter two by April, chapter three by May, and so on. More specifically, I hope to have the large autobiographical or “life” section done by May, so I can go on vacation with my family, and the “after-life” section should be done before my department chair calls me in to discuss that tiresome annual faculty activity report.
I already have papers and books strewn impressively around my office, as well as a graduate assistant to help me sort through them. An NEH grant at this stage would not only help to renovate our breakfast room, but also answer the querulous looks that the dean of liberal arts has been giving me at public gatherings. Considering the projects you people have been funding lately, I -- but as with Henry Clairidge, words fail me. As Wittgenstein concluded in his Tractatus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Clairidge, Ethel. The Selected Letters of Ethel Clairidge to Her Brother, The Corresponding Grunts of Henry Clairidge to His Sister. Eds. Renée Clairidge and Friend. Metuchen, N.J.: Methuen, 1965.
Once upon a time -- back in the days of dial-up and of press conferences devoted to the presidential libido -- there was a phenomenon known as the "web log." It was like a blog, only different. A web log consisted almost entirely of links to pages that the 'logger had recently visited online. There might also be a brief description of the site, or an evaluative remark. But the commentary was quick, not discursive; and it was secondary to the link. The product resembled an itinerary or a scrapbook more than it did a diary or an op-ed page.
So when Political Theory Daily Review started in January 2003, it already looked a little bit old-fashioned, blogospherically speaking. It was a log, plain and simple. There were three new links each day. The first was to a newspaper or magazine article about some current event. The second tended to go to a debate or polemical article. And the third (always the wild card, the one it was most interesting to see) would be academic: a link to a scholarly article in an online journal, or a conference site, or perhaps the uploaded draft of a paper in PDF.
In the intervening years, the site has grown wildly -- at least in size, if not in reputation. (Chances are that more bloggers read Political Theory than ever link to it.) The same three departments exist, but often with a dozen or more links in each. By now, clearly, the Review must be a team effort. The sheer volume of material logged each day suggests it is run by a collective of gnomes who tirelessly scour the Web for eruditia.
But in fact, it is all the work of one person, Alfredo Perez, who keeps a pretty low profile, even on his own site. I got in touch with Perez to find out who he is, and how he puts the Review together. (I also wondered if he ever got much sleep, but forgot to ask that part.) Here, in any case, is the gist of our e-mail discussion, presented with his permission.
Alfredo Perez is 34 years old and originally from Puerto Rico. After going to college in the United States, he went back to the island to work in the government for a few years, then headed to New York in 1996. He ended up at the New School, where he is now pursuing a dissertation on political theory. He lists his research interests as "normative political theory, cosmopolitanism and sovereignty, theories of human nature, and political economy."
Now, alembicating all of that down to a manageable dissertation is not so easy. And it sounds like Political Theory Daily Review has had a complicating effect on the whole process. "Writing a dissertation is an exercise in becoming an expert in one small piece of scholarly real estate," he says. "It really hasn't helped in that way."
But the Review has also had its educational benefits for Perez. It has encouraged him to keep up with fields that are now in the news: "the debate regarding constitutional interpretation, the arguments about American foreign policy and its impact around the world, and the space for religion in the public sphere...." He says he "probably would have been much less informed about [these areas] without having to keep up the site."
Over the year or so that I've come to rely on the Review as gateway to new material online, the most striking thing has been Perez's mix of sources. On the one hand, he covers extremely topical material -- "ripped from today's headlines," with quite a few of those headlines being from the English-language editions of foreign newspapers and magazines.
On the other hand, some of the sites to which Perez links are exotic, esoteric, or just downright weird. I'm glad to hear about the debate over liberalism in a Slovakian journal called Kritika & Kontext -- but could probably have lived without seeing the United States Christian Flag. It is a relief, though, to learn that the latter Web site's sponsors "are not trying to overthrow the government or force anyone to be a Christian." Thank heaven for small favors.
How does Perez keep up with all this stuff? What are his criteria for linking? Do readers send him tips?
To take the last question first: No, for the most part, they don't. Evidently he just has one wicked set of bookmarks.
"I try to link to things that are interesting to me or to anyone trying to keep up with current events," says Perez, "not just political theory.... I don't link to technical papers on, say, economics, but if I see an interview with Gary Becker or an article on Amartya Sen, I don't think twice about linking to that. Sometimes I link to articles on Theory, essays by literary critics, or events in the world of literature." He also has an interest in the natural sciences -- biology, in particular -- so he links to things he's following in Scientific American and other publications.
Perez doesn't link to blogs. That way, madness lies. "It would be too much work to consider linking to the blogosphere," he says."
He places a special emphasis on pointing readers to "articles that are sure -- or have the potential -- to become part of what's debated in the public sphere." That includes things like op-eds in The New York Times, articles on public policy in The American Prospect, and essays from the socialist journal Dissent -- "material that I think should be a part of the 'required reading' for anyone who wants to stay on top of the news and public debates."
His default list of required readings shows a certain tilt to the left. But he also links to material far removed from his own politics -- publications such as Reason,First Things,Policy Review, and "The Occidental Quarterly." Actually, it was Perez's site that first introduced me to the latter periodical, which describes itself as a "journal of Western thought and opinion." Its editors are keen on eugenics, stricter immigration laws, and the European cultural tradition (in particular the German contribution thereto).
"I think it obvious," says Perez, "that anyone interested in public debates about more philosophical matters has to be familiar with those on 'the other side.' I think it's just plain smart to do so. Reading counterarguments to your position can often be more helpful than readings that just confirm your own point of view." He says he makes no claim to be "fair and balanced," but also "doesn't want to alienate visitors who are on the right. I want them coming back!"
Any editorializing at Political Theory Daily Review tends to be implicit, rather than full-throated. It may be that lack of a sharp ideological edge, as much as the sheer number of links in the course of a week, that creates the impression that the site is the work of a committee.
Perez admits that he's "not very comfortable about publishing opinions willy-nilly like many people are when writing on their blogs. In fact, I am part of a group blog, Political Arguments, but I hardly ever post there." It's not that he lacks a viewpoint, or is shy about arguing politics and philosophy with his friends and family.
"I'm pretty sure I could defend those views well enough," he told me. "I guess it's my way of being a bit careful about the whole process. People in academia cannot be timid about their own views, of course, especially political theorists with regards to politics. But it's different when discussing day-to-day events as soon as they happen."
The line between public intellectual and pompous gasbag is, to be sure, a slender one; and it runs down a slippery slope. Perez's caution is understandable. "I don't think I have to mention any specific names in academia as examples," he says, "in order to make my point here."
For some time now, I have been collecting notes on the interaction between academics and journalists. In theory, at least, this relationship ought to be mutually beneficial -- almost symbiotic. Scholars would provide sound information and authoritative commentary to reporters -- who would then, in turn, perform the useful service of disseminating knowledge more broadly.
So much for the theory. The practice is not nearly that sweet, to judge by the water-cooler conversation of either party, which often tends toward the insulting. From the mass-media side, the most concise example is probably H.L. Mencken's passing reference to someone as "a professor, hence an embalmer." And within the groves of academe itself, the very word "journalistic" is normally used as a kind of put-down.
There is a beautiful symmetry to the condescension. It's enough to make an outsider -- someone who belongs to neither tribe, but regularly visits each -- wonder if some deep process of mutual-definition-by- mutual-exclusion might be going on. And so indeed I shall argue, one day, in a treatise considering the matter from various historical, sociological, and psychoanalytic vantage points. (This promises to be a book of no ordinary tedium.)
A fresh clipping has been added to my research file in the past couple of days, since reading Brian Leiter's objection to a piece on Nietzsche appearing in last weekend's issue of The New York Times Book Review. The paper asked the novelist and sometime magazine writer William Vollmann to review a biography of Nietzsche, instead of, let's say, an American university professor possessing some expertise on the topic.
For example, the Times editors might well have gone to Leiter himself, a professor of philosophy at UT-Austin and the author of a book called Nietzsche on Morality, published three years ago by Routledge. And in a lot of ways, I can't help wishing that they had. It would have made for a review more informative, and less embarrassingly inept, than the one that ran in the paper of record.
Vollmann's essay is almost breathtaking in its badness. It manages to drag the conversation about Nietzsche back about 60 years by posing the question of whether or not Nietzsche was an anti-Semite or a proto-Nazi. He was not, nor is this a matter any serious person has discussed in a very long time. (The role of his sister, Elisabeth Forster-Nietsche, is an entirely different matter: Following his mental collapse, she managed to create a bizarre image of him as theorist of the Teutonic master-race, despite Nietzsche's frequent and almost irrepressible outbursts of disgust at the German national character.)
And while it is not too surprising that a review of a biography of a philosopher would tend to focus on, well, his life -- and even on his sex life, such as it was for the celibate Nietzsche -- it is still reasonable to expect maybe a paragraph or two about his ideas. Vollmann never gets around to that. Instead, he offers only the murkiest of pangyrics to Nietzsche's bravery and transgressive weirdness -- as if he were a contestant in the some X Games of the mind, or maybe a prototype of Vollmann himself. (Full disclosure: I once reviewed, for the Times in fact, Vollmann's meditation on the ethics of violence -- a work of grand size, uncertain coherence, and sometimes baffling turgidity. That was six weeks of my life I will never get back.)
Leiter has, in short, good reason to object to the review. And there are grounds, too, for questioning how well the Times has served as (in his words) "a publication that aspires to provide intellectual uplift to its non-scholarly readers."
Indeed, you don't even have to be an academic to feel those reservations. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, for example, many readers would spend their Saturday afternoons studying a weekly section of the Times called "Arts and Ideas," trying to figure out where the ideas were. By a nice paradox, though, the coverage of ideas improved, at least somewhat, after the "Arts and Ideas" section disappeared. (See, for example, the symposium inspired earlier this summer by a Times essay on early American history.)
So while reading Leiter's complaint with much sympathy, I also found some questions taking shape about its assumptions -- and about his way of pressing the point on Vollmann's competence. For one thing, Leiter takes it as a given that the best discussion of a book on Nietzsche would come from a scholar -- preferably, it seems, a professor of philosophy. At this, however, certain alarm bells go off.
The last occasion Leiter had to mention The New York Times was shortly after the death of Jacques Derrida. His objection was not to the paper's front-page obituary (a truly ignorant and poorly reported piece, by the way). Rather, Leiter was unhappy to find Derrida described as a philosopher. He assured his readers that Derrida was not one, and had never taken the least bit seriously within the profession, at least here in the United States.
I read that with great interest, and with the sense of discovery. It meant that Richard Rorty isn't a philosopher, since he takes Derrida seriously. It also suggested that, say, DePaul University doesn't actually have a philosophy program, despite appearances to the contrary. (After all, so many of the "philosophy" professors there are interested in deconstruction and the like.)
One would also have to deduce from Leiter's article that the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy is playing a very subtle joke on prospective members when it lists Derrida as one of the topics of interest they might choose to circle on the form they fill out to join the organization.
An alternative reading, of course, is that some people have a stringent and proprietary sense of what is "real" philosophy, and who counts as a philosopher. And by an interesting coincidence, such people once ruled Nietzsche out of consideration altogether. Until the past few decades, he was regarded as an essayist, an aphorist, a brilliant literary artist -- but by no means a serious philosopher. ("A stimulating thinker, but most unsound," as Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, if memory serves.) The people who read Nietzsche in the United States a hundred years ago tended to be artists, anarchists, bohemians, and even (shudder) journalists. But not academic philosophers.
In short, it is not self-evident that the most suitable reviewer of a new book on Nietzsche would need to be a professor -- let alone one who had published a book or two on him. (Once, the very idea would have been almost hopelessly impractical, because there were few, if any.) Assigning a biography of Nietzsche to a novelist instead of a scholar is hardly the case of malfeasance that Leiter suggests. If anything, Nietzsche himself might have approved: The idea of professors discussing his work would really have given the old invalid reason to recuperate.
Vollmann throws off a quick reference to "the relevant aspects of Schopenhauer, Aristotle and others by whom Nietzsche was influenced and against whom he reacted." And at this, Leiter really moves in for the kill.
"As every serious student of Nietzsche knows," he writes, "Aristotle is notable for his almost total absence from the corpus. There are a mere handful of explicit references to Aristotle in Nietzsche's writings (even in the unpublished notebooks), and no extended discussion of the kind afforded Plato or Thales. And apart from some generally superficial speculations in the secondary literature about similarities between Aristotle's 'great-souled man' and Nietzsche's idea of the 'higher' or 'noble' man -- similarities nowhere remarked upon by Nietzsche himself -- there is no scholarship supporting the idea that Aristotle is a significant philosopher for Nietzsche in any respect."
Reading this, I felt a vague mental itch. It kept getting stronger, and would not go away. For the idea that Aristotle was an important influence on Nietzsche appears in the work of the late Walter Kaufman -- the professor of philosophy at Princeton University who re-translated Nietzsche in the 1950s and '60s.
Kaufman published an intellectual biography that destroyed some of the pernicious myths about Nietzsche. He made the case for the coherence and substance of his work, and was merciless in criticizing earlier misinterpretations. He has had the same treatment himself, of course, at the hands of later scholars. But it was Kaufman, perhaps more than anyone else, who made it possible and even necessary for American professors of philosophy to take Nietzsche seriously.
So when Kaufman wrote that Nietzsche's debt to Aristotle's ethics was "considerable" .... well, maybe Leiter was right. Perhaps Kaufman was now just a case of someone making "superficial speculations in the secondary literature." But for a nonspecialist reviewer such as Vollmann to echo it did not quite seem like an indictable offense.
So I wrote to Leiter, asking about all of this. In replying, Leiter sounded especially put out that Vollmann had cited both Schopenhauer and Aristotle as influences. (For those watching this game without a scorecard: Nobody doubts the importance of Schopenhauer for Nietzsche.)
"To reference 'Schopenhauer and Aristotle' together as important philosophical figures for Nietzsche -- as Vollmann did -- is, indeed, preposterous," wrote Leiter in one message, "and indicative of the fact that Vollmann is obviously a tourist when it comes to reading Nietzsche. The strongest claim anyone has made (the one from Kaufmann) is that there is a kind of similarity between a notion in Aristotle and a notion in Nietzsche, but not even Kaufmann (1) showed that the similarity ran very deep; or (2) claimed that it arose from Aristotle's influence upon Nietzsche."
Well, actually, yes, Kaufman did make precisely that second claim. (He also quoted Nietzsche saying, "I honor Aristotle and honor him mostly highly...") And there is no real ground for construing the phrase "Schoenhauer and Aristotle"Â to mean "similarly and in equal measure."
There are preposterous things in the writing of William Vollmann. But a stray reference to a possible intellectual influence on Nietzsche is by no means one of them. Nor, for that matter, is the novelist's willingness to venture into a lair protected by fearsome dragons of the professoriat. I wish Vollmann had read more Nietzsche, and more scholarship on him than the biography he reviewed. But whatever else you can say about the guy, he's not a pedant.
In fact, the whole situation leaves me wondering if the problem ought not be framed differently. There is, obviously, a difference between an article in a scholarly journal and one appearing in a publication ordinarily read during breakfast (or later, in, as the saying goes, "the smallest room in the house"). It need not be a difference in quality or intelligence. Newspapers could do well for themselves by finding more professors to write for them. And the latter would probably enjoy it, not in spite of the sense of slumming, but precisely because of it.
But does it follow that the best results would come from having philosophers review the philosophy books, historians review the history books, and so forth?
The arguments for doing so are obvious enough. But just as obvious are the disadvantages: Most readers would derive little benefit from intra-disciplinary disputes and niggling points of nuance spill over into the larger public arena.
It is probably a crazy dream, even something utopian, but here is the suggestion anyway. The Times Book Review (or some other such periodical) should from time to time give over an issue entirely to academic reviewers commenting on serious books -- but with everyone obliged to review outside their specialty. Hand a batch of novels to a sociologist. Give some books on Iraq to an ethicist. Ask a physicist to write about a favorite book from childhood.
It might not be the best set of reviews ever published. But chances are it would be memorable -- and an education for everybody.
Next week, Intellectual Affairs will undergo a big change. (For those who have been wondering why the column disappeared for the past couple of weeks, that's the reason: remodeling.)
From now on, the slot for Thursday will be dedicated to coverage of new books -- mostly, that is, of what is often called "serious nonfiction," with a definite bias in favor of scholarly titles. But the column won't entirely neglect fiction. Nor am I absolutely committed to seriousness, for its own sake, on a 24-7 basis. (Some academic books are preposterous, and they deserve attention as well.)
Work from university presses will have a definite advantage for coverage in this slot that they might not elsewhere. The same is true of books from small presses. Having a muscular publicity apparatus behind a given title won't do it any good; the only real criterion, to be honest, is the appetite and mood of my intellectual tapeworm.
You might very well find an interview with somebody whose books never get reviewed anyplace besides The Outer Mongolian Review of Phenomenological Ontology. At the same time, I plan to cover a couple of forthcoming books that will probably be best-sellers.
The distinction between "popular" and "specialized" titles is very important to booksellers; also, to snobs. Otherwise, however, it does not seem all that meaningful, let alone worthy of respect.
In its Tuesday slot, Intellectual Affairs will continue along the lines it has followed for several months now, offering the usual smorgasbord: thumbnail accounts of scholarship, glosses on current events, interviews with academics and writers, personal essays, reading notes, and the occasional targeted spitball.
The decision to take on regular book coverage is, in part, a matter of putting my backbone where my mouth is. It's easy enough to complain about the erosion of book coverage by mainstream media. Doing something about it is another matter.
Ever fewer newspapers give any space at all to books of any kind. And most that do, it seems, have cut back in recent years. Even then, they tend to run material "off the wire" -- that is, from news services. Which means (in turn) that titles and topics reflect some vague but rigid notion of what "the public" will find of interest.
As for the general-circulation newsmagazines, they are, if anything, even worse about it. Last year, I complained about this bitterly at some length in a speech at the awards ceremony for the National Book Critics Circle.
There was a murmur of assent from the crowd. And for one brief, adrenaline-charged moment, it seemed possible to imagine shaming certain very powerful media gatekeepers into a sense of responsibility.
Perhaps the days might return when Time and Newsweek felt some obligation to report on the same books covered in The New York Review of Books. They did, you know, once upon a time.
Well, no such luck. If the editors of Time and Newsweek do have a model for their cultural coverage, it seems to be People magazine.
Even when the mainstream media do attend to ideas or substantive books, there can be serious misfires, as discussed last time. After all, the ethos of a newsroom bears no resemblance to that of a seminar room.
After some years in journalism, I finally understood that the profession has its own metaphysics. Reporters exist in a universe that no scholar can quite imagine. In it, the world came into existence only during the previous week, and nobody understood a thing about it until earlier this morning.
There are good reasons for operating according to this "as if." It is a perfectly suitable framework for handling a zoning dispute or a payola scandal, for example. But it creates certain problems in covering ideas, books, or arguments with a complex backstory.
As a corrective, of course, one may zip past complexity and shoot for hipness by declaring that some concept or trend is "hot."
Lending an aura of sexiness to the otherwise abjectly nerdish strikes me, for various reasons, as a good thing. But there can be too much of a good thing. Whole sectors of academic life are already so dominated by the star system that, in attending conferences, you halfway expect to see a red carpet.
So this column will never, ever, under any circumstances, call any book, idea, or person "hot." (Paris Hilton can have that word.)
Is pessimism in order, then? Maybe it is. But there have been encouraging signs, from time to time.
The late and sorely missed Lingua Franca had a section called "Inside Publishing." It will serve as one model for the book coverage in the Thursday slot. (Between 1995 and 2000, I turned out many an Inside Publishing piece, so the inspiration here is not purely contemplative.)
And the Ideas section of The Boston Globe is an oasis in what often seems like a newspaper desert.
And while Intellectual Affairs is not a blog, it takes some inspiration from the emergence of a new and growing public sphere. Or rather, of a perpetually self-renewing multitude of public spheres -- organized in so many layers that broad, categorical statements tend to be reminders of Blake's aphorism: "To generalize is to be an idiot."
Sobering words for a generalist writer to consider, to be sure. Still, at whatever risk of nonspecialist idiocy, the new books coverage will start next Thursday.
And on Tuesday, I'll be back with a report on a contemporary thinker so disgusted by his own celebrity that he's faked his own death....well, sort of.
Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, published this week by Metropolitan Books, is a return to matters that Barbara Ehrenreich has written about in the past. And no, I don't just mean the world of economic hard knocks.
In obvious ways, the new book's narrative of trying to get a white-collar corporate job (say, as a public-relations person) is similar in method and tone to Nickel and Dimed (2001), her account of the lives the working poor. Both are works of first-person reporting a la George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier -- treading the fine line between investigative journalism and participant-observer ethnography, with the occasional dash of satire thrown in.
But Ehrenreich's new book also revisits a world first explored in her early work on "the professional-managerial class" (often abbreviated as PMC). In papers written during the late 1970s with her first husband, John Ehrenreich, she worked out an exacting Marxist analysis of the PMC as "consisting of salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production" (hence aren't capitalists) but whose "major function in the social division of labor may be broadly described as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist relations." Ehrenreich revisited the topic, in a more popular vein, with Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (1989).
You don't hear any trace of sociological diction in Ehrenreich's latest book, in which she goes undercover as "Barbara Alexander," a homemaker with some work experience in writing and event-planning. (Alexander's resume is a more modest rewriting of Ehrenreich's own background as academic and journalist.) Her search for a new job puts her in competition with other casualties of downsizing and midlife unemployment. She spends her time reading Monster.com, not Louis Althusser.
But some of Ehrenreich's old theoretical concerns do pop up as she tries to land a gig on the lower rungs of the PMC hierarchy. More than a quarter century ago, she had written that the private life of the middle class "becomes too arduous to be lived in private: the inner life of the PMC must be continuously shaped, updated and revised by ... ever mounting numbers of experts." And so Barbara Alexander finds teams of "career consultants" ready to help her adjust her outlook to fit into the new corporate culture. How? Through the modern science of psychobabble.
After reviewing Bait and Switch for Newsday, I still had some questions about where the book fit into Ehrenreich's thinking. Happily, she was willing to answer them by e-mail.
Q: Nickel and Dimed has become a standard reading assignment for undergraduates over the past few years, and some of that audience must now be entering the white-collar job market you describe in Bait and Switch. Is there anything in the new book intended as guidance for readers who will be facing that reality?
A: I'd like to reach undergraduates with Bait and Switch before they decide on a business career. I'm haunted by the kid I met at Siena College, in N.Y., who told me he was really interested in psychology, but since that isn't "practical," he was going into marketing, which draws on psychology -- though, as this fellow sadly admitted, only for the purpose of manipulating people. Or the gal I met at University of Oregon who wants to be a journalist but is drifting toward PR so she can make a living.
Right now, business is the most popular undergraduate major in America, largely because young people believe it will lead to wealth or at least security. I want them to rethink that decision, or at least do some hard thinking about what uses they would like apply their business skills to.
There's not much by way of individual guidance in Bait and Switch, but I do want to get people thinking more about corporate domination, not only of the economy, but of our psyches. Generally speaking, the corporations have us by the short hairs wherever you look, and of course, one source of their grip is the idea that they are the only or the major source of jobs. I'm asking, what kind of jobs -- back-breaking low-wage jobs as in Nickel and Dimed, or transient, better-paid jobs that seem to depend heavily on one's ability to be a suck-up, as in Bait and Switch?
Q:The pages in Bait and Switch devoted to New Age-inflected business-speak are quite funny -- but in an angry way. How much do you think people really buy into this ideology? Do they take it seriously? Or is it just something you have to repeat, to be part of the tribe?
A: Well, someone must believe it, or there wouldn't be any market for all the business advice books spewed out by career coaches and management gurus. I had the impression that the job seekers I was mingling with usually thought they should believe it all, or at least should act as if they believe it all. There certainly seems to be a lot of fear of being different or standing out in any way.
Q:What's the relationship between the world you are describing in the new book and that of the professional-managerial class? Are business professionals fully fledged members of the PMC? Or are they clueless and self-deluding mimics of it? All of the above?
A: Sure, they're bona fide members of the PMC as John Ehrenreich and I defined it in the 70s; they are college-educated and they command others or at least determine the work that others will do. But your question makes me think that an update on the PMC is long overdue.
In the late 80s, when I wrote Fear of Falling, it looked like the part of the PMC employed as corporate operatives was doing pretty well compared to the more academic and intellectual end of the PMC, which was beginning to get battered by HMOs (in the case of physicians), budget cuts (in the case of college professors, social workers, and others), etc.
Starting in the late 80s, though -- and insufficiently noted by me at the time -- the corporate operative-types began to lose whatever purchase they had on stability. First there were the mergers and acquisitions of the 80s, which inevitably led to white collar job loss; then there was the downsizing of the 90s; and now of course the outsourcing of many business-professional functions. So no one is safe.
Q: Do people in this sphere have any way to win a degree of real control over their economic condition? If they don't have some regulation of the market for their labor via certification (i.e. real professionalization) and they find it unimaginable to be unionized, does that leave them any options?
A: No. As a blue collar union friend of mine commented: They bought the line, they never had any concept of solidarity, and now they're sunk.
Q: In reporting this book, you created an alter ego, "Barbara Alexander," who is not the same person as Barbara Ehrenreich. But she's not totally different, either. There is a degree of overlap in age, background, work experience, etc. The job search proves fairly humiliating for Barbara Alexander. Was it hard to keep some distance from the role? It felt like she might explode a few times.
A: Remember, "Barbara Alexander" was just my cover; I only distanced myself enough to be a fairly low-key observer/reporter. Hence no tantrums or crazed rants. So yes, a certain amount of self-control was necessary, and it did take its toll. I often felt extremely soiled, compromised and generally yucky about the whole venture.
By which I don't mean I'm too pure to be involved in the great corporate money-making machine (my books, after all, are published by a large corporation and I happily accept my royalties) but that I was trying to act like someone I'm not and that I suspect very few people are, i.e., the endlessly upbeat, compliant, do-with-me-what-you-will corporate employee.
Q: Some aspects of the labor market you describe in Bait and Switch sound comparable to trends emerging in parts of academe. Any thoughts on that score? Have you considered writing, say, Ivy and Adjunct?
A: You want me to go undercover as an adjunct? No way. First, I've been an adjunct, years ago, at both NYU and the College of New Rochelle, and I understand the pay hasn't improved since then. So sorry, that option is no more enticing than another stint at Wal-Mart.
Someone should write about it though. The condition of adjuncts, who provide the bulk of higher ed in this country, is an absolute scandal. I've met adjuncts who moonlight as maids and waitresses, and I've read about homeless ones. If the right is so worried about the academy being too left wing, they should do something about the treatment of adjuncts (and many junior faculty.) There's something about hunger that has a way of turning people to the left.
My ambition to write a musical about the arrival of Lacanian theory in Tito-era Yugoslavia has always hinged on the zestiness of the intended title: Å½iÅ¾ek! The music would be performed, of course, by Laibach, those lords of industrial-strength irony; and the moment of psychoanalytic breakthrough that Lacan called la Passe would be conveyed via an interpretative dance, to be performed by a high-stepping chorus of Slovenian Rockettes.
Alas, it was all a dream. (Either that, or a symptom.) The funding never came through, and now Astra Taylor has laid claim to the title for her documentary, shown recently at the Toronto Film Festival.
Å½iÅ¾ek! is distributed by Zeitgeist, which also released the film Derrida. The company provided a screener DVD of Å½iÅ¾ek! that I've now watched twice -- probably the minimum number of times necessary to appreciate the intelligence and style of Taylor's work. The director is 25 years old; this is her first documentary.
It's not just her willingness to let Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek be Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek -- responding bitterly to an orthodox deconstructionist in the audience at a lecture at Columbia University, for example, or revisiting some familiar elements of his early work on the theory of ideology. Nor is it even her willingness to risk trying to popularize the unpopularizable. The film ventures into an account of Å½iÅ¾ek's claim of the parallel between Marx's concept of surplus value and Lacan's "object petit a." (This is illustrated, you may be relieved to know, via a cartoon involving bottles of Coke.)
Beyond all that, Å½iÅ¾ek! is very smart as a film. How it moves from scene to scene -- the playful, yet coherent and even intricate relationship between structure and substance -- rewards more than one viewing.
In an e-mail conversation with Taylor, I mentioned how surprising it was that Å½iÅ¾ek! actually engaged with his theory. It would be much easier, after all, just to treat him as one wacky dude -- not that Å½iÅ¾ek quite avoids typecasting himself.
"I wanted very much to make a film about ideas," she told me. "That said, I think the film betrays a certain fascination with Å½iÅ¾ek's personality. He's got this excess of character and charisma that can't be restrained, even when we would try to do an interview about 'pure theory.'"
Å½iÅ¾ek! isn't a biography. (For that, you're probably better off reading Robert Boynton's profile from Lingua Franca some years ago.) Taylor says she started work with only a hazy sense of what she wanted the documentary to do -- but with some definite ideas about things she wanted to avoid. "I didn't want to make a conventional biopic," she recalls, "tracing an individual's trajectory from childhood, complete with old photographs, etc. It's not even that I have anything against that form in particular, it just didn't seem the right approach for a film about Å½iÅ¾ek."
Her other rule was to avoid pretentiousness. "Especially when dealing in theory, which has quite a bad name on this front, one has to be careful," she says. "I decided to veer towards the irreverent instead of the reverential. Granted, this is fairly easy when you're working with Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek."
Fair enough: This is the man who once explained the distinctions between German philosophy, English political economy, and the French Revolution by reference to each nation's toilet design. (Å½iÅ¾ek runs through this analysis in the film; it also appeared last year in an article in The London Review of Books.)
Just to be on the safe side, Taylor also avoided having talking heads on screen "instructing the audience in what to think about Å½iÅ¾ek or how to interpret his work." The viewer sees Å½iÅ¾ek interact with people at public events, including both an enormous left-wing conference in Buenos Aires and a rather more tragically hip one in New York. But all explanations of his ideas come straight from the source.
In preparing to shoot the film, Taylor says she came up with a dozen pages of questions for Å½iÅ¾ek, but only ended up asking two or three of them. Having interviewed him by phone a couple of years ago, I knew exactly what she meant. You pose a question. Å½iÅ¾ek then takes it wherever he wants to go at the moment. The trip is usually interesting, but never short.
One of the funniest moments in Å½iÅ¾ek! is a video clip from a broadcast of a political debate from 1990, when he ran for president of Yugoslavia as the candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party. At one point, an old Communist bureaucrat says, "Okay, Å½iÅ¾ek, we all know your IQ is twice that of everybody else here put together. But please, please let somebody else talk!"
Taylor says she soon realized that her role was less that of interviewer than traffic director, "giving positive or negative feedback, telling him when to stop or when he'd said enough, and directing the flow of the conversation as opposed to conducting a straightforward interview with stops and starts."
She kept a log throughout the various shoots, "summing up everything he said in what would eventually be a one hundred page Excel spreadsheet. That way, I knew what subjects had been addressed, in what setting, and if the material was useful or needed to be reshot." About halfway through the production, she and Laura Hanna, the film's editor, assembled a rough cut.
"At that point," Taylor recalls, "I began to choose various passages for the animated sequences. I knew there needed to be some recurring themes and a broader theoretical argument to underpin the film.... But that makes it sound too easy and rational. The majority of choices were more intuitive, especially at the beginning when we were trying to cut down eighty hours of raw footage. When you're editing a film it is as much about what feels right, what flows, as what makes sense logically."
One really inspired moment came when Taylor learned of Jacques Lacan's appearance on French educational television in the early 1970s. She obtained a copy of the program and sat down with Å½iÅ¾ek in his apartment to watch it.
The transcript of Lacan's enigmatic performance is available as the book Television: A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment (Norton, 1991). But to get the full effect, you really have to see Lacan in action: Self-consciously inscrutAble, yet also suave, he utters short and gnomic sentences, looking for all the world like Count Dracula ready for a nap after a good meal.
The contrast with the stocky and plebeian Å½iÅ¾ek (a bundle of energy and nervous tics) is remarkable; and so is the highly ambivalent way he responds to hearing his Master's voice. Å½iÅ¾ek takes pride in being called a dogmatic Lacanian. But the video clearly bothers him.
"I think Å½iÅ¾ek reacts to the footage on different registers at once," as Taylor puts it, "which is what makes the scene so interesting. He's obviously disturbed by Lacan's delivery, which seems very staged and pompous. Yet he attempts to salvage the situation by discussing how the very idea of a 'true self' is ideological or by arguing that the substance of Lacan's work should not be judged by his style."
The scene is also plenty meta. We are watching footage in which the most psychoanalytic of philosophers watches a video of the most philosophical of psychoanalysts. And yet somehow it does not feel the least bit contrived. If anything, there is something almost voyeuristically fascinating about it.
Taylor told me that the sequence "evokes what I see as one of the film's central themes: the predicament of the public intellectual today, and Å½iÅ¾ek's strategies for coping with it."
Early in the documentary -- and again at the end -- he denounces the fascination with him as an individual, insisting that the only thing that matters is his theoretical work. He gives a list of what he regards as his four really important books: The Sublime Object of Ideology, For They Know Not What They Do, The Ticklish Subject, and a work now in progress that he has provisionally titled The Parallax View (a.k.a. the sequel to Ticklish).
There is a clear hint that his other and more popular books are negligible by contrast; he speaks of wanting to kill his doppelganger, the wild-and-crazy guy known for obscene jokes and pop-culture riffs.
"And yet," as Taylor notes, "Å½iÅ¾ek, despite his frustrations, continues to put on a good show, albeit one quite different in demeanor from Lacan's." That is what makes the final images of Å½iÅ¾ek! so interesting.
I don't want to give the surprise ending away. Suffice it to say that it involves a spiral staircase, and makes explicit reference to Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock's great meditation on Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle. (Whether or not Hitchcock ever actually read Freud is sort of beside the point, here.) The scene also harkens back to earlier comments by Å½iÅ¾ek -- and yet it really comes out of left field.
Taylor says they improvised it at the very last moment of shooting. She calls the scene "fantastically head-scratching," and not just for the audience.
"Over the last few months," she says, "I have come up with all sorts of pseudo-theoretical justifications and interpretation of it, all the different layers of meaning and resonances with Å½iÅ¾ek's work and life and the intersections of the two. But all of these, I must admit, were created after the fact ( après coup, as Lacan would say)."
So what are her theories? "I feel like I would be ruining the fun if I elaborated on them," she told me. "That is, after all, precisely what people are supposed to debate over a beer after seeing the movie."
For more on Å½iÅ¾ek! -- including information about its availability and a clip from the film -- check out its Web site.