Bad Sex: La Belle Sauvage

The major reviews of La Belle Sauvage seem all to be written by superfans of the original series, and The Guardian, Telegraph, etc. gush as much as is compatible with respectable critical writing.  I though have my doubts about His Dark Materials, and I have a lot of complaints about the new book which is thin, lazy, full of coincidence, and a bit creepy.  There are good things in La Belle Sauvage, sure, and like the original series it reads along like a shot.  But since everyone else can tell you about that, I’m just going to complain.  I’ll assume you’ve read the novel, so I won’t worry about spoilers.

I’ll start by returning to the original series. His Dark Materials operated on several levels.  On one, Lyra and Will took on the challenge of finding their fathers, learned gradually about the magical physics of their world, came to see the complexity of right and wrong, and despite this complexity fought for justice on many fronts.  On another, we found aspects of our own politics mirrored in a world where a powerful church was set against everything natural and bent on a project that separated children from their parents, and children from their own souls.  On a third, a war raged in heaven between democratic rebel angels and the Authority, a.k.a. God. 

The levels were in complex interaction at all times, since the rebel angels manifested as particles (called “dust”) which clustered lightly on children and heavily on the post-pubescent.  Rebel angels were therefore to be understood as equivalent to sexuality, and so sexuality was, via the rebel angels, linked to democracy.  The series closed with Lyra and Will killing God and, in the roles of a new Adam and Eve, having sex;  this was to be seen as the triumph of the democratic, the angelic, and the natural.  Along the way, Pullman was careful to recomplicate many of the distinctions that are common to Western religion and Western children’s literature.  No character was thoroughly good or evil:  thus the human champion of the angelic war, Lord Asriel, slaughtered a young child in a ritual sacrifice to break open a gateway from world to world;  thus too Asriel’s lover, the detestable Mrs. Coulter, an ally of the evil church, showed herself a tender mother in the third book.  Things are complicated, Pullman seemed to be telling us.  At least, everything is complicated except sex.  Sex is just good.

In this light, it’s interesting that La Belle Sauvage focuses on sexual predatation and perversion.  Its villain is a former scholar of dust, Gerard Bonneville, who has been imprisoned for an unnamed sexual crime and is obsessed with getting hold of the infant Lyra in order to take an unspecified revenge on her mother, Mrs. Coulter, who helped put Bonneville away.  Bonneville is clearly insane, but the nature of his madness is unclear.  His daemon, who is his soul, is a vile and vulgar hyena, which suggests that he is also vile and vulgar, but he beats and maims his daemon, which suggests otherwise.  He seems at one time to have been a respectable man, and yet how could he have been so with this kind of daemon?  He has enough by way of looks and charm to be able to seduce some people—including, to various degrees, our two heroes and a nun—while other people, no better than these, are unequivocally repulsed by him.  None of this is explained, nor need it be.  Bonneville is meant to stand for twisted sexuality, and so he is the hyena and not the hyena;  he must act like the bad man he is while also beating and maiming himself;  Pullman can use him as a source of attraction or repulsion at will. 

And this is the beginning of what of wrong with this novel.  Pullman seems to feel a need to fill a gap here, but it’s not any of the gaps we want filled.  He doesn’t help us understand the workings of the Rusakov field, or why Lyra can read the alethiometer, or where the gyptains came from, or how Asriel can sacrifice Roger and still be a hero of the rebels, or how the government is set up, or the way the world got to this state, any of the other things we want to know.  Instead he throws some bad sex at us.  Because sex was the last thing in the HDM left uncomplicated.  And maybe it’s occurred to Pullman, who after all reads the news and lives a life, that sex isn’t as uncomplicated as he thought.  He’s working something out here, and everything else is left sloppy.

The plot of La Belle Sauvage is basically Cape Fear.  A deranged man who was jailed for some time is now free to be perverted and take revenge.  In the first half, he hangs around being sinister and frightening people, particularly our heroes, Malcolm and Alice;  in the second, he chases our heroes (and baby Lyra) on a boat in a flood—and they keep just about killing him and getting away, and then he’s back, and there’s lots of water and lots of blood, and there’s grabbing and shooting and hacking, and it’s all a big nightmare.  Around this plot is the world we’re familiar with from HDM, with the magisterium and the government and the scholars and the normal people going about their business.

Nothing is well developed.  What was Bonneville’s “sexual” crime?  What is his connection to Mrs. Coulter?  How did he get an alethiometer?  If the police and Asriel and Bonneville can all individually find out where Lyra is being kept, why can’t Mrs. Coulter?  How does Bonneville get into the place where people forget, why can the forgetting-people see him when they can’t see our heroes, and how does he get out?  Why is the boat, or the pub it was named after, called La Belle Sauvage?  Is Pullman trying with this name to tell us something about the historical figure of Pocahontas, or about exploration or exoticism or colonialism?  Are these things okay?  Are they not okay in the pub but redeemed in the boat?  What are Malcolm’s migraine auras? Where do they come from, and what do they do?  How did there come to be so many competing branches of government and why can’t they communicate with one another?  Everyone reading this book has read HDM.  We already know a lot about the politics, physics, and metaphysics of this world;  what is more, we enter this novel willing to cut Pullman a lot of slack, to explain for ourselves what he doesn’t explain to us.  But there are too many confusions here, too many difficulties.  Meanwhile, serious plot problems are solved by coincidence.  The children on the boat are mostly able to get themselves out of trouble with cunning, but at two crucial moments they cannot help themselves, and both times they steer the boat directly into a saviour:  Mr. Boatwright and Lord Asriel.  Credibility wears thin.

It doesn’t help that the nightmare world of the second half of the book is full of figures from epic or myth.  A faerie queen shows up out of nowhere, bringing with her her own physics.  There’s a dull-witted river god—why should he be dull-witted?  There’s the forgetting-place:  unexplained, unconsidered, never returned to.  One of the inhabitants of that world is a man who disappeared in the first half of the novel, but we never find out what it was that he had to forget, or whether he will come out of the forgetting world;  he is just there, and then we’re no longer there, so it doesn’t matter, it passes, like everything passes in the flood.  This sort of pack-ratting of mythological images is nonsense, as indeed is our hero’s unprecedented ability to navigate this world, his Bilbo-like knowledge of the rules of the riddle game and so on.  In the first half, Malcolm is interested in things like screws—much is made of his finding a container the lid of which screws on backwards, and even more is made of his reinvention of headless screws.  In the second half, he is a master of faerie.  How?

My argument is that all these ends are allowed to remain loose because Pullman is doing something else.  He is recomplicating sex.  The combination of violence and sex is at the bottom of it, motivating Bonneville and variously alluring and disgusting everyone else.  But the recomplication has at least one other major manifestation.  Malcolm and Alice are, in effect, the new Will and Lyra.  They have different back-stories and different futures:  they aren’t metaphysically significant, they aren’t the subject of prophesy, and they aren’t in search of their fathers, but they have the same personalities, she with a bit of a foul mouth and and a rag-tag feistiness, he solid and and brave and curious.  And their relation follows the same route, beginning with tension, building into a friendship, deepening into a love-between-friends.  But towards the end of La Belle Sauvage, things happen that could never have happened to Lyra and Will.  Alice has a whole scene in which she expresses a crippling uncertainty about being unattractive and confesses that this is why she was drawn to Bonneville.  And Malcolm begins to desire her—not in the Will/Lyra/Adam/Eve way where everything is ethereal, but in a normal complicated way that we all recognize.  Sex and sexuality aren’t mythical and redemptive here;  they’re regular and potentially embarrassing and sometimes they make you smaller instead of more epic.  Pullman is figuring it out, and taking us along for the ride.  What will he do now?  Will he start to have more sympathy for the sex-hating magisterium?  Will he draw a new line in the sand at about the same place where the rest of us draw it, at consent?  In any case, the fact that recomplicating sex is his sole intention makes his world-building and his plot into afterthoughts.

The other thing that interested Pullman in HDM but obsesses him here is baby-snatching.  In HDM, we had the oblation board—the ones who took children from their parents to cut away their souls, nicely prepared for in La Belle Sauvage, and given a junior wing modelled on the Hitler Youth.  But in fact every part of the new novel is driven by the desire to lay hands on Baby Lyra.  She is taken away from her parents by the court.  Her father has to steal her in order to spend an hour with her.  Her mother wants to steal her but can’t find her.  Bonneville spends the whole novel trying to steal her.  Malcolm and Alice make off with her—they steal her for her safety.  A convent of evil nuns steals her from them.  A government organization tries to steal her from the evil nuns.  Malcolm and Alice thwart both by stealing her back.  And finally a faerie queen show up for no other purpose than to try to steal her.  Lyra’s baby body is important.  It is always being touched, stroked, cleaned, held, and passed off.  But the main hands that come for her are hands that grab snatch, abscond.  No one hurts the child.  Everyone else bleeds, but she does not.  The hand does her no violence.  It grasps.  What on earth is Pullman working out here?

Why I left facebook

Yeah, well, you probably already know most of why i left facebook.  If you’re on facebook, or you know someone on facebook, you know what kind of poison it is.  It’s even likely you’re considering getting off facebook too.  Lots of people are;  NPR did a story about it.  In case you need to be reminded of the reasons, I’ve taken some quotations from that story and made a poem of them. 

In the days after, all I saw was hate.
Untold numbers of gloating, trashtalking, flamethrowing posts.
A summit on a frustrating, drawn-out illness,
all of my friends doctors of their own dogma.
I also realized that I had become a meaner, more cynical person.
Clicking on Facebook in the morning is like blunt trauma to the brain.*

That comes close to summing it up, but I’m still going to spend a minute trying to explain my own reasons.  So. I don’t mind people telling me what I should think.  That’s conversation.  But I do mind when they start telling me that anyone who doesn’t think what they think is an idiot.  There’s a difference between “a is right and b is wrong” and “a is right and anyone who thinks b is an asshole.”  It bothered me when otherwise thoughtful people started expressing contempt in every post.

That’s not what put me over edge, though.  This is:


Now what’s going on here?  Was this in reference to something someone said?  Who?  What?  None of the many people who reposted this gave any context, and I believe it likely that many of them didn’t know the context.  They were reposting in order to position themselves politically.  And not just to position themselves as a democrat or left-winger, or anything simple like that.  This is not the kind of positioning that takes one side against another;  it’s a delicate and sophisticated positioning that marks them as a member of a group, a club of sensibility.

Am I a member of that group?  I’m guessing that if I knew what they were talking about, I would wholeheartedly agree with them.  Probably some old white guy told black Americans they had nothing to fear, and that’s bullshit.  But I’m not sure I can agree with the statement without a context.  It’s pretty sweeping then.  How often do the words “you don’t need to be afraid” just mean, “I am here;  I stand with you”?  Is a father allowed to comfort a daughter with these words?  Is a Jew allowed to comfort a Muslim?  One would like to be able at least to ask these questions.  It might start a discussion.  And here we come to the real problem with this little image.  It doesn’t just tell me what to think, and it goes further than telling me that anyone who doesn’t agree is a jerk.  It tells me what I am allowed to think.  It forbids questions.  And for this reason, no, I don’t think I’m a member of the group that adopts this positioning.

The thing that, oddly, almost redeems the little image is the way it repeats itself—a sign, as a rhetorician will tell you, that it is not all that certain of what it is saying.  Unfortunately it’s an unconscious uncertainty.

Anyway, in the weeks before I left facebook, I saw this kind of thing everywhere.  “Don’t bother coming to our event if you don’t believe x.”  “ You’re not allowed to admire p unless you’re a member of group q.”  Walls were going up, walls based on the finest of distinctions, as in an aristocratic society where one knows by the way someone wears his collar or raises his hand that he isn’t quite one of us.  Rules, all unspoken.  As they have to be because to speak them would allow people to question them. 

I am afraid of these rules, afraid to get on the wrong side of them.  Getting off facebook won’t save me, but allows me a little space and time to think about things with distance, to formulate real critiques of what is happening in the world.

*Robert Sapolsky argues this literally, in an article that a lot of people didn’t like.


First in a series of great album titles courtesy of Donald Trump:  Phoney Stuff that Didn’t Happen.


Has anyone ever tried to make Damien Trench’s recipes?

Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan

What’s lacking in this world is analyses of second-rate novels.  When I finish a novel I like to figure it out.  What does the title mean?   How do the parts interact?  When he sent the letter, did he know she’d already left town?  Is the game of Russian roulette in chapter 3 explained by the ultimatum in the prologue?   This is why people have book clubs.  But I don’t have a book club, so I look for analyses on the web.  Where all I find is reviews.  And even the best reviews can’t do a full analysis for fear of spoiling the plot.

What follows is an attempt at an analysis of Ruth Gilligan’s Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan.  It will give away every plot point, and it won’t be tremendously intelligible if you haven’t read the book.  But if you have read the book, and are trying to figure it out like me, it might give you something to build on.

The book has five parts, titled “In the Beginning,” “Names,” “In the desert,” etc.  So the novel presents itself as a Torah.  Each of the parts has three chapters treating three different story-strands, so we begin with Moshe’s story, then Shem’s, then Aisling’s, then we have part 2 and turn back to Moshe, etc.  The first strand begins in 1901 when a family of Jews immigrates to Ireland, the second begins in 1958 and gives us an Irish boy who has been placed in a mental hospital because he does not speak, and the third is set entirely in 2013 and deals with an Irishwoman, displaced to London, considering converting to Judaism to marry the man she loves.  So the story spans 112 years and moves to from eastern Europe to Ireland and thence to London, which is to say that in the new Torah that is the novel, eastern Europe is Egypt, Ireland is the desert, and London is, as I suppose, the promised land.  Terrible things happen in the first two story-lines, but the world of the story is gradually on the mend, such that Ireland heals the problems of eastern Europe, and London heals the problems of Ireland.  Still, London cannot do without Ireland.  The promised land relies on the memory of the desert, and Ireland remains the novel’s anchor.

London is not the only promised land in the novel.  There is another place, further off, more sunny and perfect, represented both by Palestine and the utopian “fifth province” of Irish legend.  But while characters do make aliyah, Palestine does not appear in the novel;  it does not, as it were, take the stage—a fact underlined by the fate of Moshe’s play about the “fifth province,” a play that is never published or produced.   But even London in this novel is a bit of a pipe dream.  Ireland is what matters.  We know that Ireland is the desert for many reasons besides its place in Gilligan’s Torah.  We know it because of Lady Gregory’s play, “The Deliverer,” a performance of which features in a notable scene.  We know it because Ireland is the font of meaning, the locus of stories.  And we know it because a Book is given there, an Irish guide to conversion to Judaism, a book that will take people and make them into Jews and thus a Torah within the Torah that is the novel, a book that brings revelation to several of the characters and to us.

A bit of plot is necessary here.  The first strand begins with the immigrants—Moshe, his wife, and their daughters Ruth and Esther—disembarking from the boat at Cork, which they have mistaken for New York.  The father, a playwright and inveterate story-teller, becomes a pedlar.  The family ekes out a living, and eventually hires an Irish servant, who also tells stories.  Ruth grows up, unloved but loving Ireland.  In her late 40s, she falls in love with a man named Alf, but after their first night together a Nazi bomb destroys her apartment, and each thinks the other has been killed.  Alf signs up to fight in WWII, loses his legs, and is eventually institutionalized. 

The second strand features Shem, who suffers from severe OCD that manifests as joyous but obsessive word-play, and an equally severe oedipus complex.  Shem is happy, but has two deep worries.  He has been traumatized by a rabbi’s discourse on the unforgivable sin of loshon ha’ra, and he has been unable to read what he believes is his mother’s diary.  The day before his Bar Mitzvah, he sees his mother holding hands with a man who is not his father.  He is silent at the bimah, and does not speak again, afraid that if he opens his mouth he will reveal his mother’s secret, damning her for adultery and himself for loshon ha’ra.  Institutionalized, he meets Alf, whose story he writes down. 

The third strand treats Aisling, who has moved from Ireland to London, where she has become a writer of obituaries.  She would like to marry Noah, but he cannot marry a non-Jew.  His parents give her a second-hand book on conversion, and, devastated, she leaves to spend Christmas with her family in Ireland where she reads the book. 

What holds the three story-strands together?  Linking the first and second is Ruth:  the daughter of Moshe becomes the lover of Alf, who becomes the friend of Shem.  Linking the second and third is a book:  for the book that Shem thought was his mother’s diary is actually the Irish guide to conversion, bought by Shem’s father for his mother, and rebought by Noah’s parents for Aisling.  On top of this, linking all three strands is a series of stories.  Moshe tells his stories to Ruth, Ruth tells them to Alf, Alf dictates them to Shem, Shem writes them down.  The prologue and epilogue show us Aisling visiting Shem, now living in a benevolent old folks’ home.  Aisling has traced Shem through the marginalia in the book, marginalia written by Shem’s mother.  From the same source Shem learns that the man her mother held hands with was his non-Jewish uncle, and that his silence has been meaningless.  Aisling gives Shem the Book, and in return he gives her all his writing.  Moshe’s stories, retold by Ruth and then by Alf, inscribed by Shem, are now the possession of Aisling.

This transition from word of mouth (Moshe-Ruth-Alf) to writing (Shem-Aisling) is another way the novel reflects a Torah:  what begin as oral stories are eventually written down.  And then there is the fact that the conversion book, the Torah within the Torah, also spawns writing, so that in addition to a transition from oral to written, we make a transition from text to commentary.  (Gilligan hammers this home by presenting us the marginalia as footnotes to her own text.)  Overarchingly we have a story of the failure to communicate which comes right.  Cork is mistaken for New York.  Moshe cannot understand the letter he receives from Lady Gregory.  Alf and Ruth lose one another.  Shem becomes mute because he is not allowed to read a book.  But the Book is read in the end, and the stories are preserved and written and read and retold, and commentary is salvific.  Shem’s silence is based in an untruth, but his OCD tells a truth.  He is right to think that words are the magic that holds everything together.

If word magic is to work, it must involve love, and particularly the love match of two languages or of two sets of stories.  An odd scene in the middle of the second strand is a key to this part of the novel’s meaning.  Ruth, working as a midwife, has become famous in the Jewish community for telling Irish stories to ease the birth process.  She records each birth in an official file, but she also keeps a private list in which she records not only name chosen by the parents but also the name secretly chosen by herself, a name from the story she told during the birth.  When an antisemite sets fire to her files, her secret list can reproduce the information.  The weaving of Jewish names and Irish names allows these births to be recorded again.  As Aisling’s reading of the Book—the Book’s second reading—will bring healing to the story cycle, so Ruth’s second text will bring rebirth to the babies.

Two more things, lightly interconnected.  One is the malignancy of water.  The ship bring Moshe’s family to the wrong country.  Ruth’s sister Esther buys another ticket to America but her ship sinks.  Moshe goes swimming and dies.  Ruth is swimming while the bomb falls on her apartment.  To enter water is to lose or to drown.  At best water promises but does not deliver.  There are baptisms that do not take;  miracle immersions that do not cure.  Water does not belong in God’s desert. 

The second thing is the prevalence of animal stories, notably of rats, bees, and swans.  All of these are binding stories—stories of love—but the rats and bees injure even as they hold things together.  The swans, though, enact a transformation over the years.  They enter in one of Moshe’s story fragments about a man who makes paper animals and one day decides to fold his wife in the same way, breaking every bone in her body.  They continue in a story Ruth invents about a man who digs up a paper swan which comes to life.  They close in the paper swans that Noah makes for Aisling, and in a pair of real swans she sees.  Swans are folded into Gilligan’s novel, and perhaps go some way toward redeeming the water.  But nine?  What are the nine folds?


I said that reviews can’t analyze because analysis has to spoil the plot.  But every single review of the new episode of Sherlock (4.1) revealed the surprise ending and not one of them offered any analysis.


Jonathan Lethem has sold Yale University a great many pictures of vomiting cats for an “undisclosed amount of money.”  This is why the academic enterprise deserves to die.

Un-habeas corpus

This discussion of Sherlock 3.1 is replete with spoilers.

Other reviewers have said the obvious things and said them well.  Last night’s Sherlock was short on plot, but forgivably so, as it was so very long on delightful cleverness and wish-fulfilling moments.  I could go on, but this fellow has done it for me.  Instead I want to say something I haven’t read anywhere else.  I want to describe an irredeemable logical flaw.

Of all the many questions one might have about the way Sherlock fakes his death:  the relative heights of the buildings that stop John from seeing what is going on, the timing of Mycroft’s interception of the sniper and why, if he has the sniper under control, he can’t just halt the other snipers and call it a day, the speed with which it is possible to inflate and deflate an air-bag, the problematic lack of blood under the body — of all these questions and 50 more, one stands out, never raised and inexplicable:  why is there a corpse at all?  Think about it.  Sherlock hits the airbag, rolls off, stands aside while the bag is removed, runs back and lies down:  There is no need for a corpse.

I’ll be interested in explanations, but I don’t think I’ll get one.  It seems clear to me, after a lot of thought, that the whole drama is played out for John’s benefit.  Mycroft must already be at the sniper — the sniper who is to inform the other snipers — who, in any imaginable case, must have seen some of the elaborate set-up, since the only sight-line from which it cannot be seen is John’s.  But John never sees the corpse.

Of course before seeing the show we all thought there would be a corpse, because of the Molly involvement.  But that was only okay because we were all thinking, like Anderson, that it was corpse on the ground, the corpse whose pulse John takes.  In that scenario you need a corpse.  In the one presented, you don’t.

Arendt and Milgram

In today’s Opinionator, Roger Berkowitz describes the most common misreading of Eichmann in Jerusalem, which has Arendt attributing Eichmann’s actions to following orders and, by extension, using the phrase “the banality of evil” to mean mindless, order-following bureaucracy.  Berkowitz tells us that this isn’t what Arendt says.  She did not portray Eichmann as a mere “clerk”;  this is not the quality that leads her to speak of his “inability to think.”  Eichmann’s thoughtlessness emerges, on the contrary, from what Berkowitz calls his being a “joiner,” that is, his enthusiastic embrace of an ideology.  And the medium by which his inability to think is sustained is his allegiance to cliches.

Arendt knew well that Eichmann was a fervent Nazi and a creative manager of death.  If Eichmann in Jerusalem makes us look more deeply at ourselves, it is not to ask whether we are all cogs in a bureaucratic machine.  It is rather to ask whether we are all ideologues — an ideologue being, in Berkowitz’s words, “someone who will sacrifice his own moral convictions when they come in conflict with the ‘idea’ of the movement that gives life meaning.”  And it is to ask whether we sustain this commitment through a set of commonly accepted and repeated cliches, cliches that ease the realization of the narrative we have bought into and at the same time hide our irresponsibility from ourselves.

I like Berkowitz’s argument, but I’d like to dispute one point.  It’s about Stanley Milgram.

“The widespread misperception,” Berkowitz writes, “that Arendt saw Eichmann as merely following orders emerged largely from a conflation of her conclusions with those of Stanley Milgram, the Yale psychologist who conducted a series of controversial experiments in the early 1960s. Milgram was inspired by the Eichmann trial to ask test subjects to assist researchers in training students by administering what they thought were potentially lethal shocks to students who answered incorrectly. The test subjects largely did as they were instructed. Milgram invoked Arendt when he concluded that his experiments showed most people would follow orders to do things they thought wrong.”

Do Milgram’s experiments really show only that people will follow orders against their moral sense?  There is more to it than that.  To erect a situation in which his subjects would follow orders he had to invoke their status as joiners, and since he did not have time to train them in an ideology he had to use one that was already in place:  their utopian faith in the benevolence of science.  The subjects would in general not have recognized themselves as ideologues in the church of scientific progress, but they were believers enough:  enough that the laboratory they found themselves in, the lab coats worn by the experimenters, the clinical monotone the experimenters maintained, and the pseudoscientific sound of lines like “there will be no permanent damage to the tissue” — these things, these cliches, signaled to them their already accepted membership in something larger, something hopeful:  the promise of science.  Without the ideology and the cliches, there could have been no Milgram. Milgram and Arendt are showing aspects of the same problem.

Berkowitz tells us that “Arendt rejected… Milgram’s claim that obedience carried with it no responsibility. Instead, Arendt insisted, ‘obedience and support are the same.’”  But Milgram is only claiming that being obedient makes us think we aren’t responsible, not that we should be held less responsible.  And isn’t this also the meaning of the line cited from Arendt?  Obedience and support are the same:  Arendt believes it, and Milgram believes it.  Obedience vs. support is, for both of them, a false opposition:  there is no obedience unless you’ve already invoked an ideology, unless the subject has, as Berkowitz puts it, joined.

So Arendt knows full well that there’s a sense in which Eichmann was indeed only following orders.  Which is not to say the scholars dismissed by Berkowitz aren’t wrong:  they are serious misreaders of Arendt if they think she doesn’t know that Eichmann was a fervent Nazi — really this makes it obvious that they haven’t read Arendt at all.  But the other mistake they make is one that Berkowitz makes too:   to think a clerk is ever merely a clerk.  For when Arendt rejects the obedience/support distinction, she is also rejecting the clerk/perp distinction.  The questions we must ask of our inner-clerk are:  what makes you follow orders?  What makes you ally yourself with those who are giving you orders?  What makes you so involved that you will go beyond those orders into a creative application of the ordering ideology?  The “clerk” is not a cypher;  his autonomy was not taken from him.  The “clerk” has given up his autonomy, given it up to something he believes in.

Magnetic paint: go away

The craze these days for chalkboard walls is getting complicated. The latest thing is to use a metal-based paint under the chalkboard paint so that your kid has a wall that is both chalkable and magnetic.  This post is for parents considering this endeavour.  The gist, for all you busy people, is fairly simple:  NO.  For those of you with some leisure, I’ll lay it out now in point form.

Chalkboard paint is friendly and wants you to be happy.

-It smells good.
-It remains mixed in the tin.
-It applies to the wall like cream.
-It cleans up with soap and water.
-And it does what it promises.

Magnetic paint hates you and wishes you were dead.

-It smells like turpentine on steroids, and continues to smell for days.
-It settles at the bottom of the tin within minutes of an industrial shake-up, and can’t be remixed without 20 minutes of muscular stirring.
-It applies to the wall like a lump of metal, which is, in fact, what it is.
-It cleans up with NOTHING.
-And, the coup de grace: it does not do what it promises.

But, I hear you saying, I’ve come across people on the web singing the praises of magnetic paint!  Yes.  I read those things too;  that’s why I decided to use it.  But I’m here to tell you today those people are lying to you . I know why they’re lying too.  They’re lying because this stuff is so malevolent they’re embarrassed to admit they bought it.  They struggled, they suffered, but now it’s over — and the last thing they want is their friends and neighbours to know how stupid they were to get duped by the other liars on the web and the smiley fellow at the hardware store.  I have no such shame. I was stupid.  Two coats worth of stupid.  Learn from my example.

The one thing people on the web do admit is that the stuff doesn’t really work.  You have to get “rare earth” magnets, they say, by which they mean really strong magnets, and even those have problems sticking if you haven’t put on enough coats of the vile stuff.  They say “rare earth magnets” instead of strong magnets in a desperate attempt to make their bad decision look like a super bougie decision:  not just any magnets for us, no! only rare earth magnets!  Feh!  And the only reason they admit this one, glaring, overwhelming problem with the product at all is because it’s the one they can’t hide.  Anyone who’s come into their house and tried to stick a magnet on the wall already knows.

Flipping the classroom

My college is talking about “flipping the classroom” and “blended learning” so I went on wikipedia to find out what they were.  Basically the idea is for a professor put his lectures on video so that the students can watch them before class, reserving classroom time for seminar discussions.  Or, as a second stage (except that for many of the people hyping the project this is the first stage, and the whole point) for a school to purchase a set of standardized video lectures which the student can watch before class, again reserving the classroom for seminar discussions.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Video lectures are the equivalent of a textbook.  In disciplines that use textbooks, I can’t see much objection to an on-line textbook as opposed to a hardback textbook.  My guess is that learning the material would take more time, since the video has to be played in real time while a textbook can be read quickly.  But I can see video demonstrations as useful.

2. Video lectures are not the equivalent of a classroom lecture.  The wikipedia article says that flipping the classroom will mean that “a teacher can spend more time interacting with students instead of lecturing.”  This betrays a misunderstanding.  Lecturing live, in the flesh, even to a large class, is already interacting with students.  Think of the difference between theatre and cinema.

3. Much of the hype about this silly project mentions the Kahn Academy, which sells a video textbook on high school math.  When I took high school math, we used a hardback textbook.  Again, I have no problem with one substituting for the other, but neither is an adequate substitute for a good lecture.  My high school math teacher explained how to do a problem while doing it on the board, with supplementary reference to the history of math, to how it fit with other kinds of problems we had learned, to her husband, bridge, and golf.  We had a friendship with her, and that friendship helped us in our initial comprehension of the ideas she was trying to convey.

4. The project has no relevance to those disciplines where textbooks are not in common use, for instance my discipline.  I assign Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem.  I do not, on top of this, assign the relevant chapter in Norbert Samuelson’s History of Modern Jewish Philosophy, nor do I assign a tape from one of the several Open University courses on modern Jewish philosophy, nor would I ever assign a video of me or anyone else lecturing on the material.  I want the students to work through the primary source without help, to make what they can of it.  I want this both because I want them to learn to read philosophy and because I want each one to light on and ponder the parts of the text that are relevant to the synthetic, critical understanding he is building, not merely to buy into someone’s overarching narrative.  A textbook would flatten our subsequent discussion, and a video textbook all the more so, because of the persuasive authority inherent to that medium.

5. The buzzwords attached to this project, not just “flipping the classroom” and “blended learning” but also “backwards classroom,” “reverse instruction,” and “reverse teaching” are laughable.  Those sound like cool concepts.  What they sound like is my learning from my students at the same time as they learn from me, and us all having a philosophical epiphany as we thrash through some difficult material.  What they don’t sound like is what they actually mean:  my assigning a video textbook instead of lecturing.

6. Some things are meant to be watched.  I feel sure our classroom conversations could be deepened by all my students having watched The Wire, not to mention Sassy Gay Friend.  I also have no objections to their finding youtube footage of Derrida or etc.  Lectures, though, are not meant to watched;  they are meant to be experienced.


These comments deal with the situation in my small liberal arts college.  The project would play out differently in the broader setting of the university.  It’s a push toward standardization of thought, and toward the elimination of the professorate;  also it brings all the money there is to be made (which will be less and less, in the case of the increasing success of such initiatives) to a few centres manned by experts in technology.

Grade inflation, and academic incivility (Gill #2)

Earlier this year, I attended a production of 42nd Street at Stratford. It was a satisfactory production, though hardly earth-shaking, but the audience gave it standing ovation. And it was at this point that I realized I had to stop worrying about grade inflation.

What I realized, sitting there in the theatre, was that grade inflation isn’t just an academic problem. It’s a social problem. I don’t want to say that North American society as whole has abdicated its power to judge anything as average or mediocre, but I do want to say that a whole lot of segments of society have: we (whoever “we” are, but bear with me) just don’t ever give anything a B anymore, whether it’s a theatre piece (yay! Bravo! Bravissimo! the best!) or a student essay (good work! A!). It isn’t as if we’re deceived either. I mean, the Stratford audience knew that that production was just pretty good; their ovation was half-hearted and it didn’t last long. And academics know that some of our A’s are, shall we say, A’s of lesser quality. But we can’t not stand up for the show, and we can’t say B.

There are good reasons for this, and they are well known. The push toward critical reflection has made us unsure of our standards. The drive to listen, to be changed by others, to consider different points of view — this makes it awfully hard to pinpoint some views as inferior. In short, it’s hard to be nonjudgmental and to judge at the same time. This is not the place to go on about these matters, though, because I want to say something else.

Taking up one of the themes from my last post, I’m thinking that this nonjudgmental quality, this restraint, might provide another reason academics are so uncivil about one another’s work when sheltered by anonymity. Maybe what’s coming out when we blind review each other with comments like “this is a piece of crap” is the suppressed desire to judge something, anything: we can’t give our students the B’s they deserve but we can damn well give our colleagues a D- or an F. “This is a piece of crap,” should therefore be read as saying: “it’s true I don’t apply any real standards in the classroom, but god dammit I still have them, so my field of study continues to have integrity!”

Of course academics have always exaggerated their petty disputes: the narcissism of small differences has characterized the academy for centuries. We’re all used to back-stabbing and we’ve all been back-stabbed. But still, the nastiness of the new style of peer-review might well be a backlash against our own uncertainty.

And so our internecine hostility grows — so much so that we will never come together against today’s real threat: anti-intellectualism. It is anti-intellectualism, rapidly spreading and intensifying in bitterness, that is behind the accountability culture that seeks to drown us in overwork. We all resent it. We all know that it is we who ought to be in a position to judge: we are the thinkers, we are the judges, we are the people who reflect and compare, we invented the goddam standards! — and it drives us crazy that we are being subjected to treatment we should be meting out. But we collaborate: because our ability to reflect has taken us to a point where we are no longer sure of our own standards and therefore in no position to judge others, and, even more, because we can use the accountability culture to fuel our petty grudges against one another and further our struggle for tiny gains in hallucinatory power.

Internalized oppression in the academy (Gill#1)

I’ve just read a piece by Rosalind Gill of King’s College, London trying to describe something I’ve also been trying to describe for years: the pressures of contemporary academic existence. When I talk about it I usually start by laughing at how we continue to speak of the tension between research and teaching while our daily practice has increasingly nothing to do with either, but instead involves us in middle management roles that come sometimes under the heading of “faculty governance” and sometimes under the heading of “accountability” and mostly in any case just involve writing emails, and answering emails, and filling out surveys, and building websites, and making excel files, and checking other people’s excel files, and attending meetings from which we emerge with more emails to write. My personal approach to email has become almost entirely whack-a-mole. If I see it when I have a minute I’ll bang off an answer, but if it slips away it might as well be gone forever, since every time I sit down at my screen there are 30 more waiting to be dealt with. While I wouldn’t go so far as to describe my situation with the words “a punishing intensification of work,” or “a profession overloaded to breaking point,” I know what Gill is talking about. I rarely read any more, let alone think.

Where Gill is particularly good is in the sense she provides of our acceptance of the new normal, acceptance and collaboration. We recognize that we’re overworked, sure, but we don’t question the sources of the pressure, for instance the bizarrely augmented demand for accountability (or what they call in Britain “audit culture”) which, there as here, was “once treated with scepticism,” but “has now been almost perfectly internalized.” Nor do we raise questions about whether the “’freedom’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘autonomy’ of [the academic job] has proved far more effective for extracting ‘surplus value’ or at least vastly more time spent working, than any older modalities of power.” These are just two of several directions that could be followed up if one wanted seriously to consider how and why we work ourselves to bone, putting up so little resistance to these new demands.

There are a couple of other things Gill doesn’t mention that might augment an account of why we don’t resist. One, not just an academic problem, is the proliferation of distractions, for instance what are technically known as “stupid games” (on which subject see this excellent article). Academics don’t play Angry Birds more than anyone else, but they do play, and they play for the same reasons the rest of the world plays: not to avoid work, but to avoid the guilt that would otherwise fill the hours in which they find themselves unable to work, guilt which, if indulged in, reflected on, and criticized, might lead eventually a desire to change our conditions and those of others. Distraction can’t help but dampen resistance.

Also relevant to the question of collaboration is Gill’s discussion of how peer reviewing has become so much less civil in recent years. “When,” she wonders “did it become acceptable to write of a colleague’s work ‘this is self-indulgent crap’ or ‘put this manuscript in a drawer and don’t ever bother to come back to it’ — both comments I have read in the last year on colleagues’ work.” She suggests two analyses: “repressed rage bursting out as an attack against someone who is not the cause of it” and “[peer reviewing] as one of the few sites where academics may feel that they can exercise some power — thus they ‘let rip,’ occasionally cruelly, under the cloak of guaranteed anonymity.”

It’s related to the question of collaboration because for sure we’re never going to gang up on the masters if we keep tearing away at each other. But it’s still unclear why we’ve taken to doing so. I’m going to take a stab at this in the next post.