Sunday, April 24, 2016

Trans matters

Venturing onto any territory classifiable as a trans issue is to risk contact with the third rail of current discourse. For what it is worth, my own view is a kind of Sartrean sense that we should all be free to realize our authenticity in the way we deem best. If that quest involves body modification - or simply departure from conventional expectations - so be it.

That said. it does seem that there are two fundamental views in this realm. The first welcomes gender fluidity as a gift of reason and freedom - to us all and to society as a whole. The second view, espoused by many trans people themselves, is that early on they were subjected to a misapplication of the gender binary. Now they are seeking to affirm the gender that is properly theirs. They do not see themselves as espousing gender fluidity as such, though, if it provides an arena for their self-affirmation, that is good.

Monday, April 11, 2016

My credo

Now that I have reengaged with the Sartrean existentialism I once felt so vividly, let me try to state, in the simplest terms, its tenets.

1} We must strive with all our might to create ourselves according to our inmost necessity, never acceding to the subordinate status of being mere reflections of the thoughts, pressures, and aspirations of others; 

2) By the same token, we must acknowledge that this endeavor cannot be accomplished in a vacuum, for we constantly find ourselves in a situation, a set of external circumstances that surround and condition our valorous effort at self-fashioning; 

3) Combining these two imperatives leads to a third, the necessity for engagement, commitment to a cause or causes which we have reason to believe will make the world a better place.  Needless to  say, one must give careful consideration to the cause that one selects.

Sunday, March 20, 2016


Since I read Sarah Bakewell's brilliant book "At the Existentialist Cafe," I have made a renewed attempt - the third or fourth over the course of as many decades - to come to terms with the vast oeuvre of Jean-Paul Sartre. Despite the disdain shown by some, including Analytic philosophers unprepared to grapple with his magnum opus "Being and Nothingness," Sartre without question ranks internationally as the most influential intellectual of the 20th century.

He was massively active in a number of fields: fiction, the theater, literary and artistic criticism, political commentary, and philosophy. Nonetheless, his reputation declined after his death in 1980. This decline reflected disillusionment with his seeming dalliance with Stalinism, a fault especially glaring after 1991; his tendency to make provocative judgments which he then had to correct (or should have corrected); and the appalling style of some of his later works, so much in contrast with the careful crafting of his Nausea (a short novel), The Wall (short stories), and No Exit (one of six or seven plays).

A graphomane, he ground out the later works under the influence of opiates and alcohol. Yet now, as often happens, Sartre's reputation is reviving. Perhaps the most important aspect of this recuperation lies in his tireless defense (equalling that of Voltaire) of the downtrodden and dispossessed, especially people of color. With rising inequality both within and between societies today, these interventions seem very timely - though of course some of the details have not held up. His critique of anti-Semitism, though challenged in some respects, was courageous and innovative. Likewise the rare but generally sympathetic comments about homosexuals. Not to be forgotten is his close partnership with Simone de Beauvoir, whose feminism he encouraged.

I continue to struggle with my ambivalence, inflected by great admiration, with regard to J-P Sartre. As far as I know there is no comprehensive account of the fluctuations of his reputation since his death 35 years ago. At this distance, the dialogue is hard to trace as much of it is in periodicals.

Still, there seem to be three main areas of contention: 1) the record of Sartre and de Beauvoir in WWII, which was less sterling and more procrastinating than later accounts often have it; 2) his tendency to excuse Communist and third-world dictatorships as somehow the party of humanity (very late, he partially recanted); and 3) his tortured effort to reconcile existentialism and Marxism in the two ultraturgid volumes of the Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Thursday, March 17, 2016


Politically, and if you will, in terms of world historical development, the present situation in this country strikes me as extremely volatile and dangerous. With the rising tide of violence in some quarters, it may be that civil war looms. We must hope not.
At all events, in order to arrive at some semblance of understanding it is important to move beyond personalities: the oafishness of Trump, the callowness of Rubio, the seeming untrustworthiness of HRC. It seems to me that process (in Whitehead's sense) is more important than personalities.
The main development that has been occurring over the last few decades is the growing institutionalization of multiculturalism - a gorgeous mosaic according to the optimistists, a growing source of divisiveness according to the pessimists and (forgive my Latin) the laudatores temporis acti (the party of nostalgia).
Increasingly, we see appeals to form judgments according to one's ethnicity, and not one's individual judgment. It borders on treason to do otherwise. I find this herding into ethnic enclaves depressing - it is a form of retribalization.
Yet the process may be inevitable. If so, the roster of tribes will not be restricted to African Americans, Hispanics, and the other ethnics (including willy-nilly my own tribe of LGBT people). It will include a white-people's faction. This is the diabolical truth that Trump has seized upon. But, horresco referens, may not Bernie Sanders represent another segment of this identarian grouping?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Violence, is it ever justified?

The confrontation in Chicago, where Trump had to retreat. may turn out to be a portent, as we seem to be careening towards violent confrontation on both sides. I take no position on which side is right, though I would agree that Trump started it.
It is worth considering some of the positive approaches, if you will, to violence as a tool of political change. The first landmark is a book by Georges Sorel, a French syndicalist, who (perhaps fittingly enough) influenced both left and right in his day. His Reflections on Violence (Réflexions sur la violence) was published in 1908. Sorel argues that the success of the proletariat in class struggle depended on the creation of a catastrophic and violent revolution achieved through a general strike. One of his most controversial assertions claimed that violence could save the world from barbarism. He equates violence with life, creativity, and virtue. A major contention argued by Sorel in the book is on the importance of myths as "expressions of will to act".
The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnés de la Terre) is a 1961 book by Frantz Fanon, offering a psychiatric and psychological analysis of the dehumanizing effects of colonization upon the individual, and the nation, from which derive the broader social, cultural, and political implications inherent to establishing a social movement for the decolonization of a person and of a people.
In his introduction to the book, Jean-Paul Sartre supported Fanon’s advocacy of justified violence by the colonized people against the foreign colonizer as necessary for their mental health and political liberation. The political focus stems from the first chapter of the book, “Concerning Violence,” wherein Fanon indicts colonialism and its post-colonial legacies, for which violence is a means of catharsis and liberation from being a colonial subject.
For Fanon and Sartre, then, violence is only justified for the poor and downtrodden. The corollary though is that violence will also be applied by the forces of domination.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Review of book on the seventies

Review of book: Jim Downs, Stand By Me (Basic Books)

With its many vicissitudes the history of the gay-rights movement stretches back to the 19th century in Germany.  In America the seventies are a meaningful unit, being bracketed by the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, on the one hand, and the beginning of the AIDS crisis, on the other. 
While it was not the start of the gay movement - a common misconception - Stonewall  marked the time when the movement went into overdrive.  This is when many institutions took root, such as the gay bookstores and newspapers, gay legal efforts, and gay churches and synagogues.  It is on these developments that Downs selectively focuses. 
In his selectivity, he has chosen to feature a few iconic activists, leaving out such major contributors as Arthur Warner in Princeton, Barbara Gittings in Philadelphia, Frank Kameny in Washington, D.C., Bill Kelley in Chicago, and Betty Berzon and Morris Kight in Los Angeles.  Moreover, the book is exclusively concerned with North America.  In fact the seventies was the era in which the American movement, itself based on European roots, spread its influence massively in Europe and eventually through much of the rest of the world.  One finds nothing of these momentous changes here.
Even accepting that limitation, one must flag the unfortunate subtitle: “The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation.”  This history has not been forgotten at all, as one can see by consulting the relevant chapters of major books on the American gay movement by Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney; John Loughery; and Lillian Faderman.
Had he made more abundant use of these books, Downs would not have been tempted to set up a straw man in his claim that the seventies is regarded as exclusively about sex.  To be sure, the gay reflex of the sexual revolution was important, as seen in the backrooms, bath houses, porno theaters, and other forms of public sex that thrived in that era.  But they operated in tandem with the more respectable institutions that Downs seems to regard as the only significant thing happening in the seventies.  In other words, the man who went to the baths one night might go to a gay bookstore on the following day.  The two sets of clientele were not mutually exclusive.
A common saying is that an author should sweat so that the reader doesn’t have too.  Clearly Downs has labored long and hard on this volume, and the result is, for an academic book, refreshingly accessible. You won’t be bored.  Yet because of its flawed premises, the work cannot be regarded as an essential contribution.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Reception Studies in classics - an introduction

The end of the twentieth century saw the emergence of a new wrinkle in classical studies.  Considered promising by some, the capacity of Reception Studies to revitalize the field remains problematic.  It has nonetheless generated a considerable volume of scholarship, assuring tenure for at least a few academics.

The precursors of this approach were a group of German literary theorists of the School of Konstanz, headed by Hans Robert Jauss (1921-1997) and Wolfgang Iser (1926-2007).  Jauss’s English-language book, Towards an Aesthetic of Reception (1982) made the approach known outside of Germany.

These scholars upheld the concept of reader-response criticism.  In a nutshell, the idea is this.  Up to now literary studies have focused on three major concerns: source-spotting; links with the biography of the creator; and the formal qualities of the work.  Left out is what may be the most crucial aspect at all: the way the attentive reader constitutes the work in the actual task of reading it, which is primarily a silent, individual endeavor.  This is the act of Reception.

The drawback of this method as originally formulated is that it may lead to critical anarchy.  How can one know which readerly approach is best if everything is in the care of the individual consumer, with all of his or her quirks and penchants?  As the Latin proverb has it, Quot homines, tot sententiae.  Thus there is a swirl of competing interpretations, as each act of reading makes way for a new one. Subjectivity is king. 

The specter of subjectivity fostered a reformulation of the issue, recognizing that the effort of decoding the work is not simply a matter of individual caprice, as it were, for such judgments respond to overarching factors that are collective in nature.  These factors include the subculture of academics (who continue to occupy the commanding heights), gender, social class, ideology, and fashion.

For their part, Jauss and Iser had stressed the role of the individual interpreter.  As the idea spread, though, it was realized that it is unwise to ignore the collective aspects, for we read not just as individuals but, willy-nilly, as participants in a group endeavor

An early formulation of this issue is due to an American professor of English, Stanley Fish (Is There a Text in This Class, 1980).  Fish stressed the role of interpretive communities.  Embracing the relativistic implications of the reader-response theory, Fish maintained that a text does not have meaning apart from an overarching set of cultural assumptions.  This context includes authorial intent, though it is not limited to it.  He claimed that we as individuals interpret texts because each of us is part of an interpretive community that supplies us with a particular way of reading a text.  This is so, he held, even though we may not be fully aware of the nature of this collective endeavor and the way it shapes our perceptions,

There is also a diachronic aspect, because over the course of time different emphases are dominant.  

Let us briefly consider a particularly rich example, the work of the great Latin poet Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro; 70 BCE-19 CE).  His first two lyric collections, the Eclogues and the Georgics, are themselves examples of reception, owing much to the examples of the Hellenistic Greek bucolic poetry found in Theocritus and Bion.  His major work, the Aeneid, is indebted to Homer.  

Fortunately, Vergil’s request that the Aeneid be destroyed on his death was not honored, and it quickly took its place as the national epic of Rome.  In late antiquity his somewhat mysterious Fourth Eclogue, featuring a charismatic child as a kind of savior figure, was welcomed by Christians as a prophecy of their faith.  Tertullian hailed the Latin poet as anima naturaliter Christiana.

There were also occult aspects.  In late antiquity, for example, Vergil’s works functioned in a kind of divination exercise, the Sortes Virgilianae, whereby one would open the text of his works at random, seeking guidance from the passage so revealed.  
During the Middle Ages Vergil took on the legendary guise of a magician.  Yet the supreme medieval exemplar of the cult of Vergil is his role as Dante’s guide in the Divine Comedy.

In various ways the Aeneid served as a model for Renaissance vernacular epics, such as Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1532) and Camoes’ The Lusiads (1572).  

The persistence of Latin as the common vehicle of intellectual communication in Europe assured Vergil a continuing readership.  Yet in eighteenth-century Germany Vergil was somewhat downgraded because of the preference for ancient Greek works, especially Homer.  Still, Italians continued to cherish the Latin poet who was viewed as a national treasure.  In France, the composer Hector Berlioz utilized the Aeneid for the libretto of his grand opera, “Les Troyens,” composed between 1856 and 1858.

With the decline of Latin, Vergil is nowadays mainly read in modern languages, with some inevitable loss of the aesthetic qualities that depend on the special character of the Latin language.

In principle the reception approach can be applied to any past or present cultural manifestation that is regarded as worthy of study.  The following is the expansive view of the Reception Studies Working Group at the University of California, Davis.  “Reception studies confront us with the changing intellectual and cultural roles of sacred and profane canons of art and literature in the broadest sense. Indeed tracking receptions requires an examination of the cultural setting of the reception in which the new work appears; the authority of learned environments and educational systems in general; the relationship of culture and politics where canons and their reception are created, translated, promulgated, and preserved.  [The task is to] examine how the various appropriations of earlier texts and cultural forms have responded to them as prompts, have imitated or echoed them, have inspired new cultural, scientific and artistic developments, selectively read or edited them, undermined them, or otherwise used them, all of which constitute their reception history.”

However this may be, in the present context the issues stem from classical reception - the reception of Homer, Pindar, the Pre-Socratics, Thucydides, Epicurus, Cicero, Ovid, Tacitus and many other authors and historical figures.  The approach also serves to address classical achievements in the visual arts, where the Parthenon in Athens, the Pantheon in Rome, the sculptural group known as the Laocoon - not to speak of many other works - have had complex reception histories.

Reception Studies seeks to delineate this pluralism.  It has something in common with the older idea of “our classical heritage,” sometimes phrased as the Legacy of Ancient Greece and Rome, though it regards such this concept as too passive and too dependent on the flattering notion that classical works are unchanging, inviolate paradigms of splendor.  Then there is the idea of our debt to ancient Greece and Rome.  All these metaphors - heritage, legacy, and debt are ultimately rooted in economics.

Two languages that have been major vehicles of classical scholarship yield more vital metaphors.  In German one speaks of the Nachleben of the classics, sometimes rendered as survival, but the original term is more strongly vitalistic: the classics live on - they have an afterlife.  But do they live on just as they are, or is there some quality of the supernatural?  That is, are they revenants, kindly ghosts accompanying us on our journey?  

Continuity is also implicit in the Italian term fortuna, though this term also connotes precariousness, for the turns of the Wheel of Fortune can be capricious.  Ultimately, this term may be rooted in the Greek tyche, though this implies good fortune.

For its part, the Latin language gives us the moniker of traditio, or handing down. This time-honored concept is not entirely satisfactory, for in assigning the consumer a passive role as a mere recipient it denies agency at the point of delivery.

In his perceptive book on Sophocles entitled Oedipus at Thebes (1957), the Hellenist Bernard Knox has encapsulated the older view that the Reception approach challenges.  “What does [the Oedipus Tyrannus”] mean to us now? And the answer suggested is: the same thing it meant to them, there, then. For in this case the attempt to understand the play as a particular phenomenon reveals its universal nature, the rigidly historical method finds itself uncovering the timeless.”  Knox displays a confidence few would endorse nowadays, as we recognize that all efforts to recover the mentality and, if you will, the message of works conceived long ago in a society very different from our own are fraught with uncertainty.  Moreover, Knox’s own views were colored by his own experiences.  As a US Army soldier he fought in Italy in World War II.  The success of that effort encouraged some in the belief that in the radiant postwar era we were entering a new, juster world order.  And the classics would take their place among the pillars of that order.

Reception studies proceed from very different premises.  This approach holds that can have no confidence that we can recover - and then endorse - the true meaning of any work that has come down to us from the past.  

Yet it may be that Reception bears the traits of is own era, the approach that can be broadly termed postmodernism.  In this view everything is fluid and transitional. There is no stable reality to be recovered from the past, only changing perceptions thereof.  A more balanced view combines the recognition of the value of the source works with a delineation of the transformations that have enriched - though also sometimes distorted - our understanding of the source works.  

At all events, even in this era of a crisis in publishing, some academic presses have enthusiastically embraced the reception approach.  Oxford University Press, the leader in this endeavor, now offers more than seventy titles in its Classical Presences series.

Some caveats are appropriate.  Do reception studies truly offer salvation - or even solace - for classical studies?  This hopeful conclusion is questionable, because in place of the older confidence in the intrinsic value of the classics, the new approach relegates them to the modest status of triggers in a process that ends up overshadowing them.  In this way the classics assume a minor role in a narrative that in its many twists and turns inevitably overshadows the originals.  Moreover, in focusing - as it sometimes does - on adaptations in film and television, in the comics and electronic games, the approach runs the risk of pandering to popular taste, with scanty positive yield.  

Mirage or substantive advance?   The upshot is yet to be determined.