Gathering Storm: Walter Benjamin remains difficult to classify

From Tablet:

Benj In the last five years, more than 300 books and articles on Walter Benjamin have appeared in English alone. Not bad for a man who was virtually forgotten when he committed suicide in 1941.

It’s always been hard to pin Benjamin down. Aberrant Marxist, heretical Jew, maverick social theorist, deconstructive spirit—he has been many things to many people. It is equally hard to describe what he did, in part because Americans don’t really make intellectuals like him. Benjamin, whose most important work was written in Berlin during the ’20s and then in Paris during the ’30s, wasn’t just a book reviewer, although he wanted to be the best one in Germany. He was hardly a journalist, but a good deal of his considerable production was written for newspapers. He was not a philosopher, but he is treated like one. To use a quaint expression, he was a man of letters. Even that does not do him justice.

More here.

Lucky Foods for the New Year

From Smithsonian:

New-Years-food-jubakos-631 My Italian grandfather was known to eat a lot of strange things: pickled eels, tripe and anything slimy that would be considered disgusting to most children. For New Year’s Day his favorite food was a giant gelatinous sausage called cotechino, cut into sections and smeared with mustard. My brother and I joked that the sausage must have been made from the worst of the pig, like the eyes.

As an adult, I developed a taste for cotechino (which contains plenty of pig fat, but no eyeballs), and have learned that this delicacy, and pork in general, is often considered a propitious food to eat at the beginning of the year. Many of our holiday customs go back to when we were an agrarian society. “In many parts of Europe, pigs were easier to grow than cows because they take up less space and eat anything,” says Janet Chrzan, a nutritional anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “And pigs were slaughtered around the time of the winter solstice.” Food has always been a powerful symbol, especially during rites of passage, such as the start of a new year. “It’s hard to know which came first – the belief in the food being lucky, or the tradition of eating it because it was available, and then attaching meaning to it,” says food historian and author Andrew F. Smith.

More here.

Hug it out, bitch


The emos who hang out in Mexico City’s Insurgentes Circle, distant relations of our own kohl-eyed musical mopes, face constant harassment from corrupt police and local punks. Some of them have also been forced to contend with the intrusive questions of a handsome, weathered, impeccably dressed gentleman of 82 who occasionally likes to listen, uncomprehending, to their lingo. “They invent language all the time,” says Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s most prominent author, who still spends hours wandering the vast plazas and narrow alleys of his country’s capital. “It’s a language I, at times, cannot understand.” Destiny and Desire is the 24th novel by Fuentes, one of the architects of the sixties’ “Latin American Boom” in literature (along with friends “Gabo” García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and 2010 Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa). The novel is a tracking shot of modern Mexico City as seen through the eyes of two ambitious frenemies, Josué and Jericó (Cain and Abel is the working archetype), caught in the swirl of dirty politics, narco-trafficking, and a burgeoning telecommunications monopoly. Its more surreal touches—potent symbolism, magic, long polemics, and disorienting leaps in time—bring to mind the best of Latin Boomer lit, including Fuentes’s own classic, The Death of Artemio Cruz, published in English in 1964. It also showcases Fuentes’s need to stay current in his ninth decade—as in the incongruous phrase “Hug it out, bitch,” which telegraphs Jericó’s mysterious international activities.

more from Boris Kachka at New York Magazine here.

foucault and W


In the late 1960s, George Bush Jr was at Yale, branding the asses of pledges to the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity with a hot coathanger. Michel Foucault was at the Societé française de philosophie, considering the question, ‘What is an author?’ The two, needless to say, never met. Foucault may have visited Texas on one of his lecture tours, but Junior, as far as it is known, never took his S&M revelry beyond the Ivy League – novelists will have to invent a chance encounter in a basement club in Austin. Moreover, Junior’s general ignorance of all things, except for professional sports, naturally extended to the nation known as France. On his first trip to Paris in 2002, Junior, now president of the United States, stood beside Jacques Chirac at a press conference and said: ‘He’s always saying that the food here is fantastic and I’m going to give him a chance to show me tonight.’ Foucault found his theories embodied, sometimes unconvincingly, in writers such as Proust or Flaubert. He died in 1984, while Junior was still an ageing frat boy, and didn’t live to see this far more applicable text. For the questions that he, even then, declared hopelessly obsolete are the very ones that should not be asked about Decision Points ‘by’ George W. Bush (or by ‘George W. Bush’): ‘Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse?’

more from Eliot Weinberger at the LRB here.

undoing the “reign of non-mediation,”


Matthew Engelke is right: religion is about mediation. Ironically so, because it is about the divine; but because the divine is never directly available, religion must instead be about how the divine is indirectly manifest. Thus, as Régis Debray has shown in his God: an Itinerary, monotheism, which is apparently the most other-worldly and non-mediated of creeds, has had to identify itself in concrete terms, which may bizarrely include preference for some landscapes over others, or for association with some animals over others. Because religion is about mediation, it naturally refuses any duality of nature and culture. Reality, as the true nature of things, is sacred, but it must be mediated by particular human relations and practices. Culture, therefore, can be neither merely arbitrary nor totally opposed to nature, since it is what truly discloses the latter. Since all, or nearly all, human cultures have been religious, it is therefore unsurprising that, as Marshall Sahlins has pointed out in The Western Illusion of Human Nature, they do not recognize a nature/culture divide. Instead, they define themselves in groups of kinship with other natural beings and with the gods, animals being typically defined as types of human, not humans as types of animals.

more from John Milbank at Immanent Frame here.

Bite Me

From Slate:

Can While strolling last month through one of the dimly lit backrooms in a wing of the National Galleries of Scotland, my inner eye still tingling with thousands of Impressionistic afterimages, pudgy Rubensian cherubs, and gothic quadrangles, one irreverent painting leapt out at me in a very contemporary sort of way. It was part of an early-16th-century triptych showing what appeared to be a solemn, middle-aged clergyman in gilded ecclesiastical robes commanding three naked adolescent boys before him in a bathtub.

Now, I must say, my first thought on seeing this salacious image was that the Catholic Church has been a hebephilic haven for far longer than anyone realized. But my uneasiness was put to rest once I leaned in to read the caption, which stated that the Dutch artist Gerard David, a prolific religious iconographer based in Bruges, Belgium, was merely painting a scene of starvation cannibalism. Phew! What a relief it was only an innocent case of anthropophagy (the eating of human flesh by humans) and nothing more sinister than that. The boys had been killed by a butcher, you see, and their carcasses were salting in a makeshift vat awaiting ingestion by famished townspeople. Fortunately, that most notorious child-lover himself, St. Nicholas, just happened to be passing through town when he caught wind of the boy-eating scandal and resurrected the lads in the tub.

More here.

Why Europe Is, and Will Remain, Powerful

Predictions of European decline rely on an outmoded understanding of power. On all issues that require power with – rather than over – others, Europe has impressive capacity.

Joseph Nye in The Utopian:

Tumblr_lduy8x602h1qe7zez The key question in assessing Europe’s resources is whether Europe will develop enough political and social-cultural cohesion to act as one on a wide range of international issues, or whether it will remain a limited grouping of countries with strongly different nationalisms and foreign policies. In other words, what is Europe’s power conversion capability?

The answer varies with different issues. On questions of trade and influence within the World Trade Organization, Europe is the equal of the United States and able to balance American power. The creation of the European Monetary Union and the launching of the Euro at the beginning of 1999 made Europe’s role in monetary affairs and the International Monetary Fund nearly equal to that of the U.S. (though the 2010 crisis over Greek debt dented confidence in the Euro.) On anti-trust issues, the size and attraction of the European market has meant that American firms seeking to merge have had to seek approval from the European Commission as well as the U.S. Justice Department. In the cyber world, the EU is setting the global standards for privacy protection.

At the same time, Europe faces significant limits on its degree of unity. National identities remain stronger than a common European identity, despite six decades of integration, and national interests, while subdued in comparison to the past, still matter. The enlargement of the European Union to include 27 states (with more to come) means that European institutions are likely to remain sui generis, and unlikely to produce a strong federal Europe or a single state.

More here.

Amygdala at the centre of your social network

From Nature:

Amygdala-i1_0 How many friends do you have? A rough answer can be predicted by the size of a small, almond-shaped brain structure that is present in a wide range of vertebrates, scientists report today in Nature Neuroscience. The researchers studied the amygdala, which is involved in inter-personal functions such as interpreting emotional facial expressions, reacting to visual threats and trusting strangers. Inter-species comparisons in non-human primates have previously shown that amygdala volume is associated with troop size, suggesting that the brain region supports skills necessary for a complex social life1. On the basis of these past findings, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, wondered whether a larger amygdala size allows some humans to build a richer social world.

Barrett's team measured the amygdala volume in 58 healthy adults using brain images gathered during magnetic resonance imaging sessions. To construct social networks, the researchers asked the volunteers how many people they kept in regular contact with, and how many groups those individuals belonged to. They found that participants who had bigger and more complex social networks had larger amygdala volumes. This effect did not depend on the age of the volunteers or their own perceived social support or life satisfaction, suggesting that happiness is not the underlying causal factor that links the size of this brain structure in an individual to their number of friends2.

More here.

Electrifying Language

Brian Hayes in American Scientist:

20109271632388125-2010-11BREVHayesFA Dennis Baron’s extended essay A Better Pencil looks back over the entire history of writing technologies (clay tablets, pens, pencils, typewriters), but the focus is on the recent transition to digital devices. His title implies a question. Is the computer really a better pencil? Will it lead to better writing? There is a faction that thinks otherwise:

These computerphobes are convinced that the machines will corrupt our writers, turn books into endangered species, and litter the landscape with self-publishing authors. In addition, computers will rot our brains, destroy family life, put an end to polite conversation, wreak havoc with the English language, invade our privacy, steal our identity, and expose us to predators waiting to pervert us or to sell us things that we don’t need.

Putting this bill of indictment in perspective, Baron points out that just about every other new writing instrument has also been seen as a threat to literacy and a corrupter of youth. The eraser had a particularly bad reputation, under the thesis that “if the technology makes error correction easy, students will make more errors.” I have to add that my own view of the computer as a writing instrument has always been that it’s not so much a better pencil as a better eraser, allowing me to fix my mistakes and change my mind incessantly, without ever rubbing a hole in the page. The first time I held down the delete key on an early IBM PC and watched whole sentences and paragraphs disappear, one character at a time, as if sucked through a straw—that was a vision of a better future for writers.

More here.

Why doesn’t the latest sunset fall on the longest day of the year?

If the summer solstice falls on the longest day, why doesn't it also coincide with the earliest sunrise and the latest sunset?

Rebecca Jenkins in ABC News [Australia]:

Summer In essence, it all comes down to how we measure time.

As a rule the sun isn't a very reliable time keeper, Watson points out, mainly because the Earth orbits the sun in an elliptical pattern, running faster when it is closest to the sun in January and slower when it is furthest away from the sun in July.

“It's slightly faster in [the Southern Hemisphere] summer than in our winter,” says Watson.

This quirk means that the length of a solar day — the time between two solar noons (when the sun is at the highest point in the sky) — is not always the 24 hours we measure on a clock. It's about 20 seconds longer in January and around 40 seconds shorter in July.

But while the solar day is getting longer during December and into January, the clock still only registers 24 hours. The difference between actual solar time and clock time changes by about 30 seconds every day, Watson explains. And that extra time effectively delays the following sunrise according to our clocks.

At the same time, the Earth's axial tilt means we are getting a few seconds more daylight every day in the Southern Hemisphere in the lead up to summer solstice, but this has a small effect on the sunset and sunrise times compared with the much larger difference between solar time and clock time.

The earliest sunrise occurs before the Earth hits its speedy orbit during December. And while the number of actual daylight hours starts getting shorter after the solstice, sunset is still delayed by the solar/clock time difference until the Earth's solar orbit starts slowing down again in January.

It is this effect that leads to the staggering of the earliest sunrise, the solstice and the latest sunset.

More here.

The Science and Stupidity of Homeopathy

Hartosh Bal Singh in Open:

7449_homeo A week ago, the front page of the country’s larg­est selling English newspaper, The Times of India, announced ‘IIT-B team shows how homeopathy works.’ The article then rather credulously went on to state, ‘Six months after the British Medical Association rubbished homeopathy as witch­craft with no scientific basis, IIT scientists have said the sweet white pills work on the principle of nanotechnology.’ This was a news report that obviously made it past the best procedure for vetting that exists in the newspaper; after all, it appeared on the front page. And if so, it is a reflection of the kind of material the media is willing to swallow and regurgitate without verification.

The newspaper quotes from a paper by a graduate student from IIT-B chemical engineering department ‘published in the latest issue of Homeopathy, a peer-reviewed journal from reput­ed medical publishing firm Elsevier’, titled ‘Extreme homeo­pathic dilutions retain starting materials: A nanoparticulate perspective’. The paper is available online and it claims that even at extreme dilution some nanoparticles of the original starting materials are found in the solution.

But consider what the newspaper has said, and compare what the IIT-B researchers claim in their paper, ‘We have found that the concentrations reach a plateau at the 6c potency and beyond. Further, we have shown that despite large differences in the degree of dilution from 6c to 200c (1012 to 10400), there were no major differences in the nature of the particles (shape and size) of the starting material and their absolute concentra­tions (in pg/ml).’ In other words, their claimed results show that across the range of ‘potencies’ (the more dilute a homeo­pathic medicine the stronger it is supposed to be) of homeo­pathic medicine the concentration of nanoparticles is the same. If so, relatively ‘weak’ homeopathic medicines should have the same effect as more ‘strong’ medicine. This actually invalidates the whole idea of homeopathy.

More here.

Julian Assange’s short-sighted book deal

From The Economist:

ScreenHunter_04 Dec. 29 12.16 The big news of the day is Julian Assange's book deal. The Wikileaks founder has secured more than $1m in advances for his autobiography from Alfred A. Knopf, a New York publisher, and Canongate based in Britain. A manuscript is expected sometime next year. “I don't want to write this book, but I have to,” Mr Assange told the Sunday Times. “I have already spent £200,000 for legal costs and I need to defend myself and to keep WikiLeaks afloat.” Struggling writers around the world are crying crocodile tears for this man. Woe is he and his handsome advance.

The deal is impressive, but there are signs that Mr Assange's rush to shake hands with big publishers was penny-wise, pound-foolish. As it stands, the contract barely covers his existing legal costs, which he says are approaching £500,000. Knopf will surely do its best to rush the book into print, but its cut of final sales will be considerable. A typical contract would give Knopf electronic rights and Mr Assange 25% of net profits. As the towheaded Australian already has a cult following, it might've been savvier for him to self-publish an autobiography and sell it via Amazon, which offers authors 70% of net profits for e-books sold in America (though the book must be priced between $2.99 and $9.99); Barnes & Noble and Apple offer similar royalty rates.

More here.

Christopher Hitchens: my hero of 2010 —Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_03 Dec. 29 12.11 Eloquent, witty, literate, intelligent, knowledgeable, brave, erudite, hard-working, honest (who could forget his clean-through skewering of Mother Teresa's hypocrisy?), arguably the most formidable debater alive today yet at the same time the most gentlemanly, Christopher Hitchens is a giant of the mind and a model of courage. A lesser man would have seized the excuse of a mortal illness to duck responsibility and take it easy. Not this soldier. He will not go gentle into that good night; but instead of a futile raging against the dying of the light he rages, with redoubled energy (and concentrated power in his vibrant, Richard Burton tones) against the same obscurantist, vicious or just plain silly targets as have long engaged him. But he never rants. His is a controlled, disciplined rage, and don't get on the wrong side of it.

Like Bertrand Russell, Hitch “would scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation”. He laughs off the spiritual vultures eager for a death-bed conversion, and dismisses – but with unfailingly gracious courtesy – the many schadenfreudian prayers for his recovery. As Daniel Dennett said, in similar circumstances, “And did you also sacrifice a goat?”

More here.

a writ of majestic, even equitable, sweep


On a lazy afternoon in February 1961, Wilbert Rideau decided to rob a bank in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Rideau, a smart but impulsive eighth-grade dropout from a violent home, had counted on making a quick, clean getaway, just like the ones he’d seen in the movies, but his plans unraveled during the heist when a phone call to the bank revealed that the police were closing in. Rideau took three hostages, commandeered a car and, as darkness fell, got lost on the back roads outside town. At a bayou crossing the passengers bolted, and Rideau opened fire. Two survived and vanished into the night, but the third, a teller named Julia Ferguson, was wounded by the gunfire and then stabbed to death by Rideau with a hunting knife. A 19-year-old black man had killed a white woman. In no time, Rideau was under arrest. Outside the jail, a mob formed. “Hang that nigger,” a voice called out. But the officers held their man, confident that justice would be swift and severe. “It was a good little town back then,” a deputy sheriff later explained to a reporter. “Ever’body did their job. The prosecutors, the law enforcement…. You didn’t have to worry about lynching because they lynched ’em for you.” The trial, as Rideau recalls in his gripping memoir In the Place of Justice, was “merely a formality,” played out by white attorneys before a white judge and an all-white jury. “I was the only black in sight, a fly in a bowl of milk,” he writes. The place was Calcasieu Parish, at the height of the backlash against the civil rights movement, when Louisiana lawmakers had voted to close down the state’s public schools rather than integrate them. Rideau was guilty of terrible crimes—armed robbery, kidnapping and homicide—but the district attorney stretched and suppressed evidence to prove premeditation, a necessary condition for a capital conviction.

more from Robert Perkinson at The Nation here.

The Hidden History of the Espionage Act


On July 24, 1915, the World War was raging in Europe and the belligerents were vying for the sympathy of the neutral United States. In Lower Manhattan, on a Sixth Avenue elevated train, Secret Service agents were tailing George Sylvester Viereck, a German propagandist and a mysterious companion of his—who was, unbeknown to the agents, Heinrich F. Albert, an attaché in the German Embassy. When Viereck got off at 23rd Street, one agent followed him; Albert continued on to 50th Street, where he suddenly looked up from his newspaper, noticed he had reached his stop, and hurried off the car, leaving behind a brown briefcase that the second agent promptly seized. A chase ensued, but the purloined bag ultimately made it to Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, who shared it with President Woodrow Wilson. The documents that Wilson and McAdoo beheld detailed a sweeping secret campaign, linked to high-ranking German officials, of espionage, sabotage, and propaganda. There were plans to take over American newspapers, bankroll films, send hired lecturers on the Chautauqua circuit, and create pseudo-indigenous movements to agitate on behalf of pro-German policies. More disturbing were schemes to provoke strikes in armaments factories; to corner the supply of liquid chlorine, an ingredient in poison gas, in order to keep it from Allied hands; even to acquire the Wright Brothers’ Aeroplane Company and use its patents on Germany’s behalf.

more from David Greenberg at Slate here.

The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian


Every day, for the almost two years I worked as a staff librarian at the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay, the pattern was the same: Seconds after they were released from their units, inmates would not walk, they would run — as though catapulted — towards the prison’s library. Many inmates, especially those in a hurry, arrived with some specific order of business. They would grab a book of case law, or they’d check out a newspaper or magazine and take a seat at the library’s long table. They might disappear into the labyrinth of bookshelves. Many would line up to speak with me. They’d pose legal questions, talk about their families and health concerns, describe their spiritual and educational quests. Time and resources were short, and the needs were urgent. The library was a site of activity, of perpetual motion. In the public debate about our penal system, prison libraries tend to be a point of controversy. Some critics worry that tax money is misspent on coddling convicted felons. Some go further, and stoke public fear that prison libraries are giving violent convicts access to materials that will incite them. The concept of books in prison has been contentious since at least the 19th century, when prison chronicler Enoch Cobb Wines wrote that some government officials considered prison libraries to be “of doubtful influence.”

more from Avi Steinberg at the Boston Globe here.

In Pursuit of a Mind Map, Slice by Slice

From The New York Times:

Brain Dr. Jeff Lichtman likes his brains sliced thin — very, very thin. Dr. Lichtman and his team of researchers at Harvard have built some unusual contraptions that carve off slivers of mouse brains as part of a quest to understand how the mind works. Their goal is to run slice after minuscule slice under a powerful electron microscope, develop detailed pictures of the brain’s complex wiring and then stitch the images back together. In short, they want to build a full map of the mind.

The field, at a very nascent stage, is called connectomics, and the neuroscientists pursuing it compare their work to early efforts in genetics. What they are doing, these scientists say, is akin to trying to crack the human genome — only this time around, they want to find how memories, personality traits and skills are stored.

They want to find a connectome, or the mental makeup of a person.

More here.

Denis Dutton, 9 February 1944 – 28 December 2010

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 28 13.27 I am saddened to report that I just received an email from Sonia Dutton, Denis's daughter, informing me that her beloved father has died. Denis had been battling prostate cancer for some time. He was 66 years old. For those of you who are not familiar with Denis's work, I will simply quote from his Wikipedia entry:

Denis Dutton was an academic, web entrepreneur and libertarian media commentator/activist. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was also a co-founder and co-editor of the websites Arts & Letters Daily, and

Dutton was from Los Angeles, California and was educated at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He taught at several US universities before emigrating to New Zealand: the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Michigan–Dearborn. From 2008 to 2010 he was the acting head of the Philosophy school at Canterbury.

He was one of the founding members of New Zealand Skeptics.

Arts & Letters Daily, of which Denis was the founder and longtime editor, was one of the main inspirations for my starting 3 Quarks Daily. Indeed, the “Daily” in our own name comes in imitation of Denis's site, which had set the gold standard that we have aspired to match in our own curating of slightly different intellectual content on the web. Despite the fact that we were competitors of sorts, Denis was kind and supportive to me personally, and added 3QD to the “favorite websites” section of A & L Daily within weeks after I had started this site in 2004 (and we retain that honor to this day).

Over the years, Denis and I corresponded frequently about various subjects, including the Dutton School which he started in India (my mother started a school in Pakistan, so this was a common interest), his academic work, and, of course, our websites. He once called 3QD “a brilliant web resource and a terrific accomplishment,” which gave me quite a thrill. We often linked to his work and reviews of his work here at 3QD, and also engaged his work more directly, such as when my nephew Asad Raza wrote a critical review of his book The Art Instinct, and I defended Denis in the comments section. In his writing and thinking, Denis was inventively provocative, erudite, and always forward-looking. In addition to A & L Daily and the other similar websites which he started, I always enjoyed looking at his personal website which often contained great gems of reading material.

One of the many instantiations of his sharp sense of humor was the Bad Writing Contest that he started while editor of Philosophy and Literature, a journal put out by Johns Hopkins University Press since 1977. I quote Wikipedia again:

In 1998, the contest awarded first place to University of California-Berkeley Professor Judith Butler, for a sentence which appeared in the journal diacritics:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Dutton said, “To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.” Butler challenged the charges of academic pedantry and obscurantism in the pages of the New York Times and the affair briefly became a cause célèbre in the world of academic theorists.

Denis also clearly understood that to run a successful website devoted to curating intellectual content on the web, one must first marry a woman named Margit. That he understood this and acted upon it before I did gave him a headstart and left me trying to catch up! (In other words, by sheer coincidence, we both married women with the not-exactly-common name Margit.)

On behalf of everyone at 3 Quarks Daily I extend my deepest sympathies to Margit, Sonia, and Ben.

Another round with Michael Bérubé

Famed ice-hockey scholar and literary critic Michael Bérubé has written in several places about the notorious Science Wars, but not always to my satisfaction, especially as we both march under the banner of post-Rortyan pragmatism. We've gone a few rounds in the past, and I haven't yet been able to make my objections clear to him; but his recent article (see also here, for an invigorating comment thread) gives me a chance to try to do better in this space.

One of Michael's concerns is to defend “theory” and “science studies” in a broad sense from its attackers like Alan Sokal (of Sokal Hoax fame). He admits that things got a little out of hand in the 80s, what with the pony-tailed left-academic brigade making the humanities look bad with (in Michael's sublimely witty rendition) “their queering this and their Piss Christ that and their deconstructing the Other”. The Hoax seemed to many to burst that Theoretic bubble and restore sanity to the academic realm, or at least provide a clear criterion for same (which, alas, not everyone meets, even now). But what is its real significance when science seems now to be threatened from another front? Rhetpage

As Michael relates, “[i]n my academic-left circles, Sokal’s name was mud, his hoax an example of extraordinary bad faith” while “everywhere else […] Sokal was a hero, the guy who finally exposed the naked emperor.” Michael's verdict, and mine, is more mixed. In our view, Sokal got them good, no question: anyone who knows what the axiom of choice is (or the axiom of identity, or even non-linear dynamics), would catch the joke immediately. And they didn't. This sorry result corroborates Sokal's charge that, as Michael puts it, the Social Text crowd “were overstepping their disciplinary bounds and doing 'science studies' without any substantial knowledge of science.” This is a problem, because if this is right, then they can't be familiar enough with the practices of science to say anything useful about it theoretically, as they claim to do.

On the other hand, Sokal and his fans seem to think that the hoax proved a graver charge than mere ignorance and Dunning-Kruger style hubris: that is, that among the “howlers” inserted by Sokal but missed as such by Social Text were blatantly nonsensical claims, self-refuting in the familiar way, by goofy French types like Derrida and Lyotard to the effect that objectivity is a phallogocentric myth, that there's no real world, and so on. This failure supposedly established that science studies types are soft on, or even sold on, the sort of anything-goes relativism (again supposedly) found in English departments and across the Channel.

Michael wants to preserve a role for Theory's constructive claims, so he provides a corrective designed to acknowledge the former of Sokal's charges and deflect the latter. If successful, this will allow the academic left to overcome its tradition of self-laceration long enough to confront its common enemy: right-wing irrationalism and its politicized attacks on evolutionary theory and climate science. In a way, this means that he is trying to do well what Sokal did poorly, which is to show that it is not the very idea of science and rationality, but instead adolescent rebellion against same, which — especially now — serves anti-progressive aims. This is better, again, in Michael's view, because it leaves room for the real contributions socially-minded theory can provide, rather than discarding them as pernicious nonsense and ceding the entire task to the sciences.

I will focus here on one promising but elusive slogan in Michael's corrective; but in true hermeneutic fashion, I will insist that, well, it depends on what he means.

Read more »

What’s wrong with blackmail?

Blackmail-ubcstudentmedia-files-wordpress-com Imagine someone named Sue finds herself in possession of some information about Bob that he would prefer she not reveal to anyone else. So she offers him a deal: “Pay me $10,000 and I’ll keep my mouth shut.” Is that wrong?

Most people intuitively feel the answer is yes. But it’s surprisingly tricky to explain, in a coherent, consistent manner, why that should be the case. The paradox of blackmail has bedeviled legal scholars and philosophers of law for years: while it’s typically legal to reveal information about someone, as long as that information is accurate and legally-obtained, it’s illegal to threaten to do so as a way of soliciting money from him.

Unlike with extortion, where the perpetrator is threatening to do something illegal if she isn’t paid (e.g., “Give me $10,000 or I’ll burn down your house”), with blackmail the perpetrator is threatening to do something legal. If the act itself – revealing the information – isn’t bad enough to be criminalized, then why is merely threatening to commit the act so terrible?

This paradox is often expressed in terms of blackmail being a criminal act composed entirely of uncriminal parts. Telling someone you'd like $10,000 isn’t a crime; revealing someone’s secret isn’t a crime; and yet, telling someone you'd either like $10,000 or you're going to reveal his secret is a crime. How can that be?

Some scholars have countered that there is no logical reason to think that several unobjectionable parts can't add up to an objectionable whole. Philosopher Saul Smilansky, in the book 10 Moral Paradoxes, makes this case using the examples of bigamy and prostitution: It’s legal to marry one woman, and it’s legal to marry another woman, but it’s not legal to marry both. It’s legal to give someone money, and it’s legal to have sex, but it’s not legal to give someone money for sex. Blackmail may not be a complete aberration.

However, Smilansky acknowledges, even if there's no contradiction entailed by blackmail being illegal despite its component parts all being legal, we still need some explanation for why this particular combination of parts produces an objectionable result. He writes, “The way in which the ‘alchemy’ of the novel emergence of badness or wrongness operates in ‘ordinary blackmail’ remains mysterious… If one may threaten to do what one is (otherwise) allowed to do, offering not to so act in return for monetary compensation does not seem capable of bringing forth the sense of radical and novel heinousness that blackmail arouses.”

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