Category Archives: Philosophy

The Philosophy of Editing

JackZupkoAn editorial change took place at the Journal of the History of Philosophy last year as Jack Zupko took over the top position for the journal from Steven Nadler. Zupko had previously served as Book Review Editor for JHP, which celebrated 50 years of publishing several years ago. Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Alberta, Zupko joined our podcast series to talk about his transition into the new position as well as plans for the future for JHP.

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Talking About the Sciences

With all the discussion in academics about the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) for students, the journal diacritics turned the lens on how humanities scholars talk about this topic. Penn State University English professor Brian Lennon helped put together a recent issue on this topic and joined us for a Q&A to go behind the scenes.

Q: How did this collection of essays come together?

A: Laurent Dubreuil, diacritics‘s editor, had already established plans for a sequence of special issues with the theme “Thinking with the Sciences.” He asked me to supervise the second issue in that series.

dia.43.1_frontLogistically speaking, there wasn’t much more to it than that. But at first, at least, I found it more difficult than I’d anticipated to locate scholars in the humanities who were truly able to “think with the sciences” in anything more than a naïve sense of that phrase. The naïve interpretation might be paraphrased as something like “Thinking with the Sciences Because If We Don’t Do So, We’ll Be in Big Trouble.”

That is, it assumes (1) that there is some kind of behavioral problem at hand (a problem with the behavior of humanities scholars, naturally, rather than with the behavior of scientists), which exists because of the failure or refusal of the humanities to do something with or otherwise in relation to the sciences; (2) that this act of “thinking with the sciences” represents a solution to that problem. Neither of these assumptions is actually warranted, either by the phrase or by the editorial intent supporting it; but the naïve interpretation is ready to hand, and many of us leap to it. More humanities scholars than one might expect leap quite readily to that naïve interpretation, today.

They don’t seem to be able to imagine the humanities disciplines, or themselves as humanities scholars, as having an intellectual authority equal to that of the sciences — yet that is how I myself imagine the act of “thinking with” anyone or anything else. I think this failure of imagination — and to be honest, of courage — is the only problem with the humanities disciplines today, if there is any problem at all.

Q: How important is it for journals like diacritics to provide a place to talk about science beyond what you describe as the “shouting about ‘STEM'” in business culture today?

A: In one sense it is very important, because that kind of discourse is not reasoning in any meaningful sense (this is why I describe it as “shouting”). Rather, it is an attempt to persuade by invoking causal relationships that are basically magical in character (“study STEM and you’ll be employable”), or by straightforward intimidation. Such magical talk is reproduced and transmitted faster and further when it goes interrupted. And while many scientists and engineers privately lament such hopes, because they know they will be disappointed, they seldom lament them publicly — some simply can’t afford to do so, others simply don’t care to do so. (Phillip Rogaway’s recently widely circulated paper “The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work” emphasized the moral hazard of arrangements in which scientists in the United States are basically hostages of military funding, in particular.) So it’s important for the rest of us to interrupt such talk, as well as to clearly model alternatives. To the extent that we’re talking not only about, say, members of the voting and tuition-paying public (that is, students and the parents and guardians of students), but about professional educators themselves, it’s important to provide models of courage in standing up to intimidation. Many professional educators are quite vulnerable, in relative terms, in any number of ways economically and otherwise. It’s also important because some professional educators are simply cowards! Of course, one could say that precisely because what I called “shouting about STEM” is an irrational discourse, it doesn’t matter at all whether it’s interrupted. But I don’t believe that.

Q: What role do “professional thinkers” have in discussions about the sciences?

A: They have no role at all if they’re not thinking before they speak and act and write. I mean making judgments as unhurriedly as structurally possible, under conditions that they have worked to the very best of their abilities, and often at some relative form of professional risk, to free from opportunism and from bribery, intimidation, and other forms of coercion. Professional thinkers have a duty to not be terrorized, whether we’re talking about spectacular public violence of a literal kind, which they face as any other human being, or by academic administrative threats to withhold funding from one’s department or program unless certain demands are met, which they face as professionals with career investments. Academic scientists’ working conditions are far from free of such coercion, but it seems to me that humanities scholars are more easily terrorized, perhaps because they feel they have nowhere to turn and no way out.

Q: What did you learn from the other contributors to the issue?

A: In each case I learned something about (1) how to think generally; (2) how to model dignity, self-possession, and rational authority in humanities scholarship; and (3) how to “think with the sciences” in a non-naive interpretation of that phrase, something that requires those other two abilities. In addition to these things, from Natalia Cecire’s essay I learned, for example, how best to articulate my own long-standing discomfort with a particularly aggressive and highly visible social formation in U.S. American “experimental” poetry and poetics research and creative production, especially in its appropriations of a generalized and diffused scientism or scientistic authority. When I say “how best to articulate,” I mean how to articulate that discomfort in a way that is properly sensitive to the complexity of the social and institutional foundations of that formation, of its intellectual and creative heritage, and of its human aims and aspirations, among other things. From David Golumbia’s essay, in addition to deepening my understanding of the linguist Noam Chomsky’s long and varied intellectual career taken as a whole, I learned another in a series of lessons I’ve learned from Golumbia’s many other publications: how to argue rationally and sensibly about an extremely difficult and sensitive topic, which is the implicit and explicit politics of academic research and academic behavior, especially in cases where an academic scholar disavows the legible “politics” of her or his research, deflects or refuses it, inverts it or contradicts it with other, more personal political commitments, or is consistently inconsistent or outright confused or befuddled about the whole constellation of issues at hand. And from Laurent Dubreuil’s essay, I learned something about how to schematize without schematizing — to define a place for “poetry” within a system of distinctions while somehow, in deploying both wisdom and a kind of mischief in developing a philosophical argument, not only not confining the object of discussion in that system, but “liberating” the object from it in a liberation that is both genuine, and yet free of all unwanted and unwarranted spontaneism.

Q: What do you hope comes from this project?

A: I hope it serves as a model. As I wrote in my introduction to the issue, each of the scholars who contributed work to the issue is a humanities scholar capable of “thinking with the sciences” in the non-naive interpretation of that phrase, who serves us better, at a time like the historical present, by confidently extending the “with” of the predicate clause: that is, by thinking about the sciences as well, or even against them, instead. That’s what “thinking with the sciences” must also be.

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Q&A: Ira Allen and Anita Chari on Walter Benjamin (Part 2)

Earlier this year, the online journal Theory & Event published an essay which examined the work of Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic. The journal included a recreation of True Stories About Dogs, one of the many radio plays produced by Benjamin. Ira Allen, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the American University of Beirut, and Anita Chari, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oregon, put together the project and shared some insight with us in this two-part post. Part 1 ran on Friday, November 13.

Technically speaking, what was the most difficult part of the production?

ANITA CHARI: When we’ve been talking about it, we’ve both ended up describing this work as operatic. I think that speaks to some of the difficulty of it, which is just that we are operating to produce a single object on multiple different levels. I mean, we have a text, a translation of a text, a musical composition’s score that is also a translation, and then we have musicians who are interpreting all these translations. And then we had to put it on the web and sync it up, of course. And make it be in the right format—if it is Adobe Flash or mp4, what’s the correct ultimate format for this and that, etc.

IRA ALLEN: I think that’s one of the things about digital humanities projects that everybody who does digital humanities knows, and that everybody who doesn’t sort of knows and that’s why they don’t do it . . . which is, it’s always actually kind of a huge hassle upfront, and then you work it out and find your way into things. One of the difficulties is that this is a prototype for our larger project translating more of these radio shows, which means that we are doing it all on a shoestring for now—like really a shoestring, with some donated time from the studio. More or less, almost donated . . .

AC: Well, I mean, I paid for it.

IA: So, you paid for the studio time, I paid for the animation, I mean, out of our own pockets. Because this is how you do things to start. And then I think about making it as fully operatic as it could be, which would be really awesome. Boy, having another $60,000 would sure help.

[laughter]

AC: Yeah, to be able to fully design it.

IA: Absolutely!

AC: Because design, the conceptual relevance of design, is something we kind of came to the edge of, and then once you start looking into the depths of how design can drive conceptual significance, you see that you can only go so far given constraints of capacity, time and money. Which is also to say how much further it can go. These translations aren’t a finished project. Also, I wouldn’t say it was difficult, but I think moving fluidly from the philosophical translation that you worked out, and then having that in my awareness and also trying to communicate that to another musician, and then, you know, having this other level of score that we needed to enact . . . it’s a broader band of conceptual production; we had to pool our awarenesses of as we were treating it, and that was a challenge but also what was so cool about it.

IA: Yeah. Because you had the German text, you had my text in English, you had your own sense of what’s important about it that requires translation, and you had Carol Genetti’s musical sensibilities to negotiate. That is a lot! I think one of the things I’m looking forward to in the next piece, which should be better funded, is to sort of move around with design possibilities more. The next one we have in mind, “The Mississippi Flood of 1927,” lends itself even more to the operatic; it’s about one of the greatest floods in the history of the U.S., seen by an alienated German Jew in part through a Mississippi man’s recounting of the loss of his brother. Bottom-line, I think having a bigger budget, especially to bring someone aboard to help with the video side of things, will be very helpful. Essentially, it’s what you were saying before—we have our own limits as people in our disciplinary silos, even if we’re pretty broad. We’re all autodidacts, of course. Everybody with a PhD is an autodidact; you can always pick up some other things. But to really take something to the next level, you need bigger collaborations with more good people.

What do you hope people learn from this project?

AC: Personally, one thing I hope people learn from this project is how much broader a scope we really have as theorists, philosophers, and rhetoricians—people doing theory, especially—how much more scope for creativity and production that we have, much more than most people tend to use, and how relevant our sensory capacities are in our work. That’s one thing I’m interested in.

IA: I feel like they will. I felt like I learned a lot of that working with you on the project. I am pretty logomaniacal. I think there are advantages to that, of course, but it’s not enough. I didn’t have as full of a view of the embodied possibilities of the project when we started working on it, and that was one of things that, for me, opened up in the challenge of collaboration. Collaboration in a strong sense is the challenge of letting go of your vision to work with somebody else’s vision, to be in the world with other people, which is tough. We are sort of trained to be people with intensely, if not monomaniacal, certainly coherent individual visions. Part of effective collaboration, part of digital humanities collaboration especially, multimodal collaboration, is sustaining a dissolution of the coherence of one’s own elaborate collection of concepts and understandings of things—it’s about sustaining that temporary incoherence that is part of conversation with somebody else who’s coming from a different worldview, who lives in a different lifeworld, apprehends a different world. I think some of the affective charge of the piece also speaks to that, which was really one of Benjamin’s deep concerns.

AC: Absolutely. I think the issue of collaboration that you brought up really gets at something I learned, that we both learned . . . how rich it can be to dwell in the conflict of collaboration.

IA: ’Cause yeah. We had some conflicts!

AC: Yeah and really recognizing the otherness of someone else’s process and vision, and yet also how that otherness works as part of a shared theoretical process . . . because ultimately, that became super generative for our theory. You came up with aspects of this that I never would have conceptualized, and then same thing with my music reshaping your concepts, vice versa. I think we discovered how important collaboration is and that what it means can be something much more than just sitting and writing together.

IA: I’m really grateful for the chance to do this interview because it gives us an opportunity to have that space to talk about it. I love what you just said, that collaboration isn’t just sitting and writing together. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with sitting and writing together—that’s how we wrote the article—but what it can mean is something much more intensive, and, I want to say, dialectically generative. It’s generative on the basis of actual oppositions and contradictions lived across different concrete media, and the exposing of the work through those contradictions, and the making of some kind of temporary unity out of them. It’s this process that makes products in the world, makes any newness, such newness as emerges, emerge at all.

AC: Totally.

IA: Just one more thing, then. I want to touch on the content because we didn’t talk about much about this, and it’s one of the things that I thought you did really interestingly, in the way you did the translation. Obviously, it’s called “True Stories about Dogs,” right? So, true stories about this animal that represents for us humans one of the absolutely central sort of lines or zones of indistinction between animal and human. It’s the dog, and Benjamin mentions the horse as kind of the only other thing that is as much a zone of indistinction (though as a cat companion I don’t know if that’s exactly true). Anyway, one of the things this particular text is useful for—and this is a piece of political theory Benjamin was offering to children, but still is theory ultimately—is seeing and feeling how it is possible to think through that zone of indistinction. So, you think about Agamben in The Open, and he’s looking at how, essentially, the rhetorical production of “the human” is centrally implicated in most of the things that we think of as inhumanity, barbarism and awfulness in late modernity, etc. And what Benjamin does in this piece is to trace out a “dog” that moves from thoroughly defamiliarized to barbarically “animal” to so very “human” in the class-struggle comraderie of brave Médor that the dog serves as a barometer for humanity—if he’s in solidarity with you, you’re properly human in some way. There’s a very intense motion into and through the idea of “dog” as a zone of indistinction in the ongoing production of ideas of “the human.” And what I think your sound translation does amazingly well is to place in dialogue something like “humanity” and “animality” without trying to find any kind of resolutive distinction. There’s no effort in the sound pieces to say “and this ultimately is what the dog is”; to the contrary, there’s an effort to say “this zone of indistinction is something we have to attend to,” and that’s something I hope people engage with in this piece and take away from it. Attending wholeheartedly to that zone of indistinction is an affect-rich experience and it’s crucial . . . it’s attending to that which is crucial to us becoming a version of whatever exactly we are that’s really livable.

AC: I think that is totally right.

What plans are there for production of other works by Benjamin?

IA: This is the first, and we hope to produce all of the radio shows for children in multimodal translation. We’re in the process of applying for digital humanities grants, which should give us the capital to produce a somewhat larger next version with the “Mississippi Flood” piece (which is obviously only ever more relevant today). After that, we should be moving toward multimodal translations with production values as high as popular electronic media, but still with this aim of dialectical education, with the aims Benjamin had for the children’s radio shows. We each have our own separate other projects, of course, as does our other collaborator, Rob Ryder at Illinois, but these translations are a going concern. Ultimately, I’d like to see us producing versions that are simultaneously attractive and disquieting to popular media, translations that can get picked up by The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, so on—maybe in cooperation with a university press. It’s frustrating to have to talk about money all the time, but the bottom-line is, you need resources to do massive collaborative projects, and that’s where this project’s going over the long haul. Next up, though, is “The Mississippi Flood of 1927.”

AC: And I would add to that some shorter-term ideas for this piece in particular include doing some kind of live performance of the work and ideally a kind of discussion of it alongside. The idea is to remain in a trajectory of transforming the discourses and the kinds of platforms that we use to connect our bodies to theory. And then the other thing we’ve been talking about is the possibility of an installation of sorts, which we don’t have specific plans for, but which could be a really interesting thing in conjunction with another of the multimodal translations.

IA: We should note, too, that we were grateful for and also impressed by the openness of Theory & Event and the Johns Hopkins University Press to this project. I think both JHUP and Theory & Event are a bit ahead of the curve in terms of readiness to think through what it’s going to mean—and it’s going to continue ever more to mean ever more—to produce electronic scholarship and digital humanities research that’s rigorously peer-reviewed and intensely multi-modal. That’s been a really great experience for us, and we’re grateful.

AC: Yeah, it’s wonderful to be that supported in this project. . And I think it points to a place where there’s something that is happening at a deeper level in terms of transforming the constraints we work with in academia when we do work like this. That’s a very promising thing, for us and for anyone who wants to do creative scholarship in academia.

IA: Yeah. Absolutely!

AC: Cool.

 

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Q&A: Ira Allen and Anita Chari on Walter Benjamin

Earlier this year, the online journal Theory & Event published an essay which examined the work of Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic. The journal included a recreation of True Stories About Dogs, one of the many radio plays produced by Benjamin. Ira Allen, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the American University of Beirut, and Anita Chari, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oregon, put together the project and shared some insight with us in this two-part post. Part 2 will run on Monday, November 16.

How did the article on audio production come about?

IRA ALLEN: The article is sort of two things. On the one hand, it’s an explanation on Benjamin’s own terms of why we need a certain way of translating Benjamin’s radio work. And, on the other, it’s a way of working out the meaning of a practical, creative project that we undertook from somewhat different starting-points. When I began pursuing multimodal translations of these radio pieces, I had one thing in mind—kind of a conservative idea of a soundscape with voicing of the full text laid over it. And then when Anita and I talked about working together, she came back with a completely different way of approaching the sound translation. And I was not on board at first with the direction she wanted to take that in. But, at the same time, we were working together and I trusted her to be seeing something that I wasn’t yet. Hashing out our different perspectives, we ended up with a view of multimodal translation that is much cooler and more interesting than my initial thinking had been. And we had to get that in writing as we went along, and then again afterward, to be sure that we really agreed.
ANITA CHARI: Well, my sense was that it was going to be a creative process, you know, in terms of how I would engage the idea of an audio translation of text, of Walter Benjamin of all people. I think we agreed on that right away. I remember our first conversation; I remember saying, “I’m not doing a soundtrack,” because that’s just not what I do, and I knew that that’s just not how I could’ve pursued it. So, I felt from the beginning that there was this question of how we could translate these transcripts for radio shows into a new form. And I started from there with my experience of doing these philosophical sorts of musical pieces.
IA: Too, I should add that the article itself had its source in a summer seminar on historiography that I did with a great group at the Rhetoric Society of America, and then in some stuff we wrote for a Digital Humanities grant application we’re working up along with Rob Ryder at University of Illinois at Chicago. So, from that perspective, what’s at stake is sort of a justification for why these radio pieces need a special multimodal translation, why it is not enough to do a normal text-translation. Too, and this is something we don’t really talk about in the article, but like Anita suggested, the sound translation meshes up pretty nicely with a larger sort of theoretical-practical project. Right?
AC: Yeah, for sure. For sure, in terms of just wanting to bring a different medium to philosophical flesh, and the idea of how the body plays into the process of thinking, and conceptuality, and the production of concepts—how we can understand concept production in a fully embodied and a truly dialogical way. So for me, what fascinates me, is the form of having voices create dialectics with one another.
IA: Yeah, and that’s one of the things I really like about the way the sound production came out. What the sound translation was doing, from my perspective, was inviting the reader of the text into an embodied experience that you come into through sound, but not exactly through the sound of words per se, and yet, an experience that is still fundamentally conceptual. So, how do you be conceptual in a way that is political theory properly so called, and yet is not directly words? That was one of the things I got really excited about with Anita’s work on this translation, and her larger project as well.
AC: Exactly: I think part of the invitation with Benjamin was really . . . it felt to me like an invitation to explore the sensory level of textuality, you know, and how sensation plays into philosophy’s production of concepts and into our processes of reading, too. This is something that I’ve been interested in as part of my broader project in political theory, to explore sensation and sense not only at the level of writing, but to think about embodiment within performative contexts of theory production. I’ve tried to incorporate sensory and movement exercises into presentations at conferences, which tend to favor purely verbal and narratological approaches to concepts, for example at the “Rethinking Political Concepts” conference at the Heyman Center in 2012, and at workshops that I teach for intellectuals, on integrating embodiment with conceptuality, and even at more traditional conferences, such as at the American Political Science Association Conference, which is always an adventure because this is still somewhat outside the realm of mainstream practice in academia.

Would you explain the importance of Benjamin’s work today?

IA: One of the most important things about Benjamin is that he gives us a way of apprehending the world that is meaningfully theoretical and is also fuller in some sense than a rigid set of statements. I mean, he invites us into a world suffused a little more with, I want to say, a child’s sensibility; I don’t want to say that just because we’re translating the radio shows for children, but also because of his own collecting practices over the course of his life, where he collected children’s books and toys, you know, or the way he approached the Arcades Project. Part of what makes Benjamin, if not unique, at least special among the Frankfurt School and fellow travelers is that, instead of just critiquing in more or less the same mode as what he critiques, he is trying to produce something that is different, and differently embodied, different physically in some way—and yet still quite critical.
AC: Yeah, he invites us into something that happens at a different rate, and using different faculties. I think, for him, there is so much more than just the words, and that to me is the rationality in his work. And that seems to come through especially in the work for children.
IA: It’s about more porosity between selves, too, right? Most of the children’s radio shows are written around quotations he’s assembled; there are little snippets of Scholastic commentary, but it’s a lot of quotations, stories, and there’s this sense that the boundaries between selves are more porous than maybe Adorno or somebody like that—and a lot of other thinkers from this era we still rely on today—can quite get with. For someone like Adorno, there is a critique of a certain kind of autonomous rational self. But there’s also a pretty intense clinging to it. And with Benjamin, you really get this sense in his work: there’s a greater fluidity, there’s this way of just gathering while everything flows (which is a Kenneth Burke thing, by the way).
AC: Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that. I think that while Adorno talks a certain talk—and not to pick on Adorno; it could be anybody—Benjamin really accesses this greater level of creativity in negotiating the medium. I think I can safely say that Adorno would have never written like a radio program about dogs. You know?
IA: Let’s talk a little about why Benjamin is important now, like what makes Benjamin important for political theorists right now. In some ways, our translations are kind of a funny choice—we’re translating children’s stories. I mean, I don’t agree that it is a funny choice, obviously; I think it’s an immensely practically correct choice. But a person could say, “So why is this important? What is this giving or doing for us that we don’t get elsewhere?”
AC: Well, I think the broader issue, like, so not only Benjamin as such, but the broader import of the multimodal issue and the relevance of crossing media for political theory today is that there’s a lot of stuff being written about senses, affect and different modalities that go beyond narrative, and communicate about political concepts and all of that. But I still don’t see much work yet really embodying the promise of the discourses of affect.
IA: It’s almost always still just more words. And I love words. I have no problem with that, exactly.
AC: It’s always more words, and there’s this impasse of an unspeakable . . . untouchable place there; the idea of moving beyond into the wordless . . . actually putting one’s body as a philosopher in the place of embodying a certain conceptual position, doesn’t seem to be done all that much, and I think Benjamin’s radio work invites that.
IA: One of the things that makes the children’s radio shows so different from most other work he did for radio is that they’re really also work on the radio, work on the medium. I mean, he did nearly a hundred radio appearances, but a lot those were just delivering a Vortrag, an absolutely normal piece of pre-digested academic discourse meant for an audience of adults—not strongly negotiations of radio as a medium, but something effectively the same as the various news articles he produced, which is interesting and part of his oeuvre, but not the thing that’s really driving us in this project. In the children’s radio shows, he’s consciously trying to negotiate the medium—that’s what we argue in the article, and though there’s no way to know for sure because we don’t have the actual recordings, his notes and reflections really support the idea. Part of what makes Benjamin important for us now, and especially in the children’s radio programs, is the effort to say, “Look, you have to be constantly negotiating the media in which you produce.” It’s not enough to just produce more words; that’s good, that’s part of the deal, we don’t stop doing that. But, we also have to be actively negotiating media of production in some way, and our effort is to do with the medium of our moment—web-hosted multimodal content—what Benjamin was doing with radio in his moment.
AC: Right! And I think we approach that negotiation from two sides, too. Because on the one hand, there’s the production side, you know, the translated words in juxtaposition with the sound pieces—a dialectical and clickable sound exploration in tandem with the text. And then, there’s the affect side; there’s the reading side, the idea that while people are reading, there is an unsettling retemporalizing of the reading process. It should feel different.
IA: I don’t think I told you this, but when we first talked about this, what I had in mind was . . . when I lived in Indiana during grad school, I had some friends who were jazz musicians (they still are), so I’d go to their shows and I’d bring along Hegel or Badiou or whatever I was reading, and when the band got in the pocket, then I’d start reading . . . like when they really hit it, I’d start reading to be shaped by and absorbed in their activity. That was a way of shaping my own reading that was immensely productive. I read Hegel way better listening to jazz in a club then I do when I sit . . . well, I mean, I read Hegel fine sitting in my living room, but they’re very different modes of reading, and I think that part of what we’re wanting to do in the project: offer something that’s bi- or multi-dimensionally absorbing, and so help readers essentially find ways into being absorbed by two different things at once—different attitudes toward resonances. If you can find your way into the text while being absorbed by the sound, if you can find your way into a simultaneous absorption by two different things, then the resonance between those two systems creates a different frequency altogether. And that’s part of what we were shooting for, at least at times.
AC: That makes me think of another critical theory point about the activity of consciousness—in terms of translation now, because all this seems to be about the fundamental activity of consciousness in the reception of a translated philosophical work. There’s this whole idea recurring throughout critical theory: that we are not receptive, or are not only receptive, when we are taking in concepts, that we are fundamentally active and creating the very reality which we purport to merely apprehend. In terms of translation, that means drawing attention to the activity of the reader in the process. It’s about fostering a collaborative co-creation of the translated work. Translation is not just about the translator.
IA: Yeah! The reader’s dialectical synthesis of opposing dimensions in the translation is in the best sense a determinate negation of the whole. That is to say, in synthesizing for herself in a way that’s ultimately productive of the piece for her—which is effectively all the piece that there is; it’s different pieces for different people—the reader is ideally negating the actual object that there now is. She ends up with her own synthesized version. I think maybe a virtue of our translation is that it helps to foreground this activity, which is of course always there any time you’re reading, and which is the reader’s central contribution to all translation. It’s a motion of thought that the reader’s responsible for.
AC: Yeah, which is part of the point. That it is happening all time, but that we need a heightened awareness of that—with respect to the translation itself just like with any other medium. That’s kind of critical leverage that the translation has.
IA: Which is exactly in line with Benjamin’s aims for a dialectical education. I mean, part of what he was trying to do, with the radio shows with children in particular, was something pedagogical; it’s something that’s about bringing to the fore an experience, a kind of responsibility for the production of experience, for negotiating the received, and that happens . . . you know, we’ve been talking about it all at the level of form in this conversation, but it happens equally at the level of content, if you think about the specific stories he’s telling about dogs . . . It’s about taking the familiar and rendering it strange, in order to foreground the way that ultimately one is always making the familiar for oneself, that the familiar is actually never entirely pre-made; it is being made in an ongoing way, and you’re doing it.

The second part of this interview will post on Monday, November 16 and focuses on the reproduction of True Stories About Dogs.

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Controversy, thy name be Smithsonian

Guest post by Robert C. Post

Who Owns America's Past? $20.97 (reg. $29.95)

The Smithsonian Institution is currently wrapped in controversy involving an exhibit at its National Museum of African Art, Conversations: African and African Amercian Artworks in Dialogue. Nobody doubts the exhibit’s noble purpose, displaying art with “the power to inspire.” But one-third of the works are from the collection of Bill Cosby and his wife Camille, and the Cosbys donated $716,000 “to assist with the cost.” Moreover, the exhibit is partly about Cosby himself, about his fame, his geniality. Near a display of quilts there is a quote about these quilts telling a story “of life, of memory, of family relationships.” To many people steeped in the 24-hour news cycle, this seems beyond irony.

But we must remember that the Smithsonian Institution was born 170 years ago amid controversy and no little irony. When the bequest of an eccentric Englishman, James Smithson, arrived in Washington with instructions to establish an institution “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” it was not clear what he meant. And when the Smithsonian’s first secretary, Joseph Henry, steered the institution into scientific research, he provoked controversy. Others envisioned something quite different—a library, a university, most notably a museum. Henry was totally opposed. A museum, he warned, would squander resources, provoke more controversy, and, worst, render the institution “liable to be brought under direct political influence.”

He was right about that. The irony is that the public has long seen the Smithsonian as primarily a museum, or, rather, a museum complex. And there have been controversies aplenty. Some seemed as much personal as political. The Wright brothers were incensed when the Smithsonian assigned credit for the first “sustained free flight,” totally undeserved, to a man who had once been its secretary. Partisans of Alexander Graham Bell were terribly upset by an exhibit that seemed to deprive Bell of full credit for inventing the telephone, and they threatened to take the matter “to the public and to Congress.” Some controversies were wholly political. A few years ago, a Smithsonian secretary accepted a donation from one Ken Behring with the absurd contingency that there be a halt to exhibits that were “multicultural.” The Smithsonian, said Behring, must do “an American history museum.” Politicization materialized most famously in the 1990s when the National Air and Space Museum was forced to abort a planned exhibit of the Enola Gay, the bomber sent to destroy Hiroshima, along with horrific evidence of what happened on the ground. The airplane was displayed, the rest was not.

Perhaps more shameful in the long run have been episodes that librarians would see as akin to book burning. After the National Portrait Gallery staged Hide/Seek, an exhibit about same-sex intimacy, a video was removed when legislators threatened to “zero out” the Smithsonian’s budget, as had also been threatened with the Enola Gay/atomic bomb affair. Both times, there could be a plea of urgent necessity to capitulate; when an official remarked that “we have to be adept at communication,” he might better have said that “the institution must have its federal dollars or close its doors.” (70 percent of the budget is federal.)

But the Conversations controversy is different from others. No zeroing-out threats, but plenty of outrage. When the exhibit opened, an authorized biography of Cosby had just been published. It was being reviewed in the right places (in the Times Book Review as “wonderfully thorough”) just as Cosby’s rape allegations gained currency. Celebrities wanted their dust-jacket kudos deleted and a paperback was nixed, but there has been little pressure to remove the book from library shelves, to subject it to a figurative or perhaps literal burning. It’s been quite a different tale with the exhibit, with demands to “take it down.” Johnnetta Cole, the museum director and a close friend of the Cosbys, is devastated. So far, however, the institutional response has been that the show must go on, that appearing to celebrate a man accused of serial rape is preferable to “pulling” the exhibit as with the Hide/Seek video—and to harming artists with no responsibility for Cosby’s behavior. As a halfhearted response to critics, there is a sign outside the exhibit saying that the Smithsonian “in no way condones” this behavior, whatever it may have been.

This may be enough to carry the exhibit through to its scheduled closing in January, with no book burning, even in a figurative sense, as with the Hide/Seek video. While commending the Smithsonian’s decision “to stand by the exhibit on its artistic merits,” the Washington Post also expresses hope that the institution has “learned some lessons from this painful experience.” Perhaps it has, but looking back over the Smithsonian’s history, and looking to the emergent power of outsiders who claim a “stake” in the content of exhibits, I’d not be too sure.

Bob Post is the author of Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History, which was published by JHU Press. It details the controversies mentioned here and many others.

 

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Antibiotic Resistance and a National Action Plan

Guest post by Scott H. Podolsky, MD

podolskyAntibiotic resistance has been framed by Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, as “a ticking time bomb . . . arguably as important as climate change for the world.” Responding to the issue, on March 27th, President Obama’s Task Force for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria released its National Action Plan. This is not the first time that reformers have called for a crusade to implement the rational use of antibiotics, or to keep up with antibiotic resistance. History shows that merely surfacing the issues around antibiotic resistance doesn’t ensure the will and funding necessary to enact a solution to the problem.

Antibiotics were the leading representatives of the post-World War II wonder drug revolution. They radically transformed medical practice, underpinning advancements ranging from chemotherapy to critical care medicine, but they simultaneously altered the expectations of patients with lesser (and indeed, unresponsive) conditions like head colds. And from the 1950s onward, leading infectious disease experts called for novel diagnostic resources to differentiate bacterial from viral infections, at the same time lamenting the seemingly irrational therapeutic exuberance of clinicians on the front lines. Already in 1954, the chief of the medical service at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Veterans Administration Hospital in New York called for a “crusade for the rational use of antibiotics,” pointing to such concerns as allergic reactions, financial costs, bacterial or fungal superinfections, and the general diagnostic sloppiness that seemed to accompany widespread antibiotic administration. But by the 1960s and 1970s, as attention increasingly focused on antibiotic resistance genes that seemed to respect neither bacterial species nor nation-state boundaries, such antibiotic resistance came to serve as the focus of antibiotic reform efforts.

Calls to improve stewardship and link the local and global surveillance of resistant microbes increased from the 1970s onward, joining calls to curtail the use of antibiotics in agriculture, where they had been used to promote growth since the 1950s. For decades, though, advocates for antibiotic resistance failed to catalyze enduring reform, bumping up against faith in therapeutic progress, failed attempts to influence clinician prescribing patterns, and the lack of a centrally coordinated—let alone global—approach to the problem.

But by the 1980s and 1990s, more attention was being given to multidrug-resistant bacteria, and HIV/AIDS focused attention on emerging infections. In this context, scientists such as Stuart Levy and Joshua Lederberg began to agitate for a better coordinated and global response to antibiotic resistance. Such activities indeed proved catalytic, forcing antibiotic resistance onto the front pages of academic journals and popular media alike, eventually spreading terms like “superbugs” and “post-antibiotic era” throughout popular discourse. In ensuing decades, however, concerns have only increased in the setting of increasing globalization, a perceived reversal of pharmaceutical industry engagement with infectious diseases, and the enduring lack of a globally coordinated response to surveillance and use of antibiotics in clinical practice and agriculture.

The President’s National Action Plan appears at a critical time. It takes a broad approach, focused on efforts to improve surveillance, diagnostics, and stewardship, to rationalize the use of antibiotics in agriculture, to stimulate the development of novel antibiotics, and to improve global cooperation in confronting antibiotic resistance.  And it should be politically neutral. In 1968, Joshua Lederberg, who would come to play such a key role in moving antibiotic resistance onto the national radar, reported on (and named) the newly identified Marburg virus (ultimately found to be related to Ebola), stating of such global “evils” that they were “very unlikely to discriminate between Democrat or Communist or Maoist.” Antibiotic-resistant superbugs will hardly discriminate between Democrats and Republicans. Advancing the Action Plan from paper to a coordinated response commensurate with the scope of the problem will require financial, logistical, and political investments—and collaboration—beginning in the United States, at the same time that we attempt to engage antibiotic resistance on a global level.

Scott H. Podolsky is an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital, an associate professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, and the director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. He is the author of The Antibiotic Era: Reform, Resistance, and the Pursuit of a Rational Therapeutics and Pneumonia Before Antibiotics: Therapeutic Evolution and Evaluation in Twentieth-Century America.

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As April 15 approaches, thoughts on Lincoln, Whitman, and sacrificial death

Guest post by Michael C. C. Adams

As I write, the temperatures in the lower midwest that I call home are below Antarctica’s. This is Lincoln country, where he lived and worked until leaving for Washington. And here he returned in death. Much has been written about the assassination, from maudlin verses to conspiracy theories. But just one piece, by Walt Whitman, truly sustains. It is not “O Captain! My Captain!” with its predictable allusion to Moses dying in sight of the promised land. No, it is “When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloom’d,still engaging because it reflects the uncertainty of expectation, asking if good can come from John Wilkes Booth’s act or the greater butchery of war.

The poet wishes rebirth to spring from patriots’ deaths, a nation reborn, just as the lilac will return after the dead of winter: “a varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light.” But “the black murk” of Lincoln’s death returns, dark and light vying in the poet’s mind. So today, in the cold, I yearn for the lilac’s return and an end to partisan divides, but winter and political bickering will continue perennial.

The concept of shedding blood to earn redemption, as in Lincoln’s death, underlies Christianity. The idea of God sacrificing his son to save humanity hypnotized Victorians. Bloodshed seemed the antidote to greed and avarice generated by capitalism’s unprecedented wealth. In England, Alfred Lord Tennyson saw the Crimean War (1853–1856) as cleansing corruption: in “Maud” (1854) he cheered fighting ending “a peace that was full of wrongs and shames.” That same year, he celebrated as a supreme act of self-sacrifice a blunder destroying the Light Cavalry Brigade. The soldiers’ courage had a sublimity not found in the bleak counting houses of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, also published in 1854.

In America, Whitman sought rejuvenation through civil war. He heard drums and bugles sounding through houses across the land, calling all to arms. Alas, when war entered America’s homes, it did so devastatingly. By 1864, Whitman’s America was a vast hospital, and by 1865 an enormous graveyard. The war proved too awful, vicious, confused, to be America’s epic. In Lilacs, Whitman could not forget “battle corpses, myriads of them,” nor “the living that remain’d and suffered.” The nature of Lincoln’s death also defied transcendent symbolism: shot in the back of the head by an assassin, a cruel and degrading execution technique used by policemen in authoritarian regimes.

Whitman’s hope for rejuvenation waned further in the rapacious, vulgar Gilded Age. In Democratic Vistas, he denounced increasing materialism, writing that “society in these States is canker’d, crude,” and charging that “the depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed but infinitely greater.” Inevitably, when in 1876 George Armstrong Custer and most of the 7th Cavalry died unexpectedly on the Little Bighorn, Whitman and other pundits welcomed a new sacrificial atonement. The New York Herald embraced the soldiers’ “duty and valor,” predicting Custer “will be remembered as long as the charge of the Light Brigade. . . .”

Artists scrambled to create heroic battle art. John Mulvany cast Custer in knightly pose, with flowing hair and unsheathed sword (factually, hair was cropped for campaigning and sabers were shelved), surrounded by stern troopers dying hard. Actually, we don’t know the point at which Custer died, and huddled clustering betrays panic, not stern heroism—disastrous bunching as terrified men fled collapsing skirmish lines. Yet the picture captivated Whitman, inspiring him to sing of epic renewed. Custer, “with erect head, pressing ever in front, bearing a bright sword in thy hand,” makes the ultimate blood sacrifice—“Thou yieldest up thyself.”

A scant decade after Whitman found the Civil War too bloody, cruel, and sordid to be the material of transcendence, he used a needless slaughter precipitated by a reckless field commander to grasp at a questionable saga of sacrifice. This deep ran the conviction that blood spilled in war atones for sin.

 

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adamshell-contrastMichael C. C. Adams is Regents Professor of History Emeritus, Northern Kentucky University. Adams discusses Whitman fully in Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War and explores Tennyson in The Great Adventure: Male Desire and the Coming of World War I. Adams is also the author of The Best War Ever: America and World War II, reissued this spring by Johns Hopkins.

 

 

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Filed under American History, Civil War, Death and Grief, Poetry

One free gift that’s on everybody’s list

By Janet Gilbert, JHUP Staff

“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” – Henry James

Frankly, I wondered how I could possibly write this post about civility without coming off as the Purveyor of Politeness, the Diplomat of Decorum, the Crowned Captain of Courtesy. I kept returning to James, whose quotation above kicked off the call for nominations for the first annual Johns Hopkins Press Civility Award, and I thought I’d begin with an academic analysis.

Not really.

And yet, let’s explore why James repeats the word “kind.” It’s obviously an effective humor technique. It’s emphatic, for sure. It also imparts a poetic quality.

Close reading reveals it to be a clever way of saying that it is all and everything to be kind. But what about being smart and accomplished and successful? Or witty and talented and inspirational? Arguably, these are the attributes that will put you on a global stage with a Nobel, a Pulitzer, a Tony, or an Olympic gold.

Here is the thing about being kind: I have found that it rewards you—the bestower—every day, in a way I’m not convinced that the other, more prestigious prizes do. Not that I wouldn’t welcome the chance to explore the veracity of that statement by winning a Caldecott or an Oscar. But this I have learned from tenured Professor Experience: being kind engenders positive feelings and a pleasant ambiance, which makes your own life enjoyable and meaningful. Being kind consistently sparks real happiness in unexpected moments. Being kind is its own reward.

There’s a reason people say “It’s my pleasure,” when you thank them for demonstrating civility. Because it is their pleasure, their gift, in the end.

Obviously, I recommend being kind. Especially during the holiday season, when the architects of the festivities—the gift-buyers, card-senders, party-throwers, bill-payers and dinner-preparers—can feel especially pressured and anxious. Bad behavior ramps up under stress. Just ask the Grinch, or me after I’ve been up all night addressing holiday cards.

So, let’s all try letting someone else have that prime parking space. Ask someone how they are feeling, and engage with genuine empathy. Listen to your three-year-old recount the entire plot of the movie Frozen without interrupting. Willingly try on a different viewpoint and see if it fits. Don’t repeat the harsh criticism you heard about anyone or anything. Wait your turn at the department store counter, and if you find yourself becoming impatient, let someone go ahead of you. Say you’re sorry when your words could slice even the densest fruitcake.

You will be giving, and getting, the gift that’s at the very heart of the season.

Janet Gilbert is a writer and senior coordinator for direct mail & renewals in the Journals Division at Johns Hopkins University Press. She was the first recipient of the JHU Press Civility Award, presented by the Press’s Diversity Committee at our annual staff meeting in November.  Her Caldecott and Oscar come next.
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Treat yourself this holiday season: subscribe to a JHUP JOURNAL!

 By Janet Gilbert, JHUP Journals Staff

After two hours at the mall, my feet are burning in my pointy work shoes. I hoist my packages up the first set of ten and the second set of five steps to my front door, and toss the bags of gifts in the foyer. I’ll wrap them tomorrow. Because now it’s time for a cup of hot cocoa by my garish tree replete with homemade egg-carton and coffee-scoop ornaments—and the latest issue of The Hopkins Review.

ITHR_7.2_rgb like to treat myself. And to me, this particular journal from our catalog of more than 80 provides slow-down-and-reflect moments in a hurry-up-and-do-something world. It’s a gift I enjoy all year, but appreciate most at this time when I have so many extra-festive elfish tasks.

Why not treat yourself to a subscription to an academic journal this year? It may be the smartest gift you give yourself: time to consider a different perspective, time to think. As a graduate student in the Hopkins Writing program, my natural inclination would be to pick up the Sewanee Review, one of the most storied literary quarterlies in the United States. But wait, Studies in American Fiction offers a tasty smorgasbord of writers from a range of historical periods, and Callaloo serves up the very best original work by writers and visual artists of African descent worldwide. Callaloo Art, the new fifth issue devoted to visual art and culture of the African Diaspora, is simply an inspirational and lush read.

CAL_37.2_rgbEnough about me. If you are a historian, don’t you deserve Reviews in American History? It’s one journal that throws a window wide open on all areas of American history: culture, gender, law, politics, the military, and more.

If you are a health professional, you might have to sit down to make your pick: Bulletin of the History of Medicine will inform your work by providing a social, cultural, and scientific context for all kinds of medical practices and procedures. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved will spark your advocacy, and Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics will provide you with first-person patient and practitioner narratives that will do more than inform you—they will move you.

DPH_3.1_rgbLest you think we’ve forgotten you, person-keenly-interested-in-all-things-French-and-medieval, we have the perfect gift: Digital Philology. With an electronic subscription, you can sit in your living room with your laptop and transport yourself effortlessly and immediately to the library of the Universidade de Coimbra in Portugal to study a little-known manuscript from the thirteenth century.

My point is, take a vigorous, year-long intellectual adventure from the seat of your most comfortable armchair. From African American Review (African American literature, theatre, film, poetry and culture) to Feminist Formations (feminist, gender, and sexuality studies) to Victorian Periodicals Review (editorial and publishing history of Victorian periodicals), we’ve got an academic journal for you.

Why not feed your intellect and restore your soul this season by giving yourself a subscription?

Best of all, you don’t have to trek to the mall. Just click on the titles below or browse our entire collection.


African American Review
Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Callaloo
Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures


Feminist Formations
Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved

Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics: A Journal of Qualitative Research
Reviews in American History


 

Studies in American Fiction
The Sewanee Review

The Hopkins Review
Victorian Periodicals Review


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Filed under African American Studies, American History, American Studies, Ancient, Bioethics, Caribbean Studies, Classics, Cultural Studies, Ethics, Gender Studies, Health and Medicine, History, History of Medicine, Journals, Journals, Literature, Women's History

Remembering Denis Dutton

Guest post by Garry L. Hagberg

Denis Dutton (1944–2010) spent over more than thirty-five years editing or jointly editing Philosophy and Literature, the collective intellectual adventure in humane learning that saw its first issue in 1976, and was steadfastly concerned to make room for younger scholars just starting out. It would have been easy for him to give all the space to the established and often very well-known authors he was also publishing, but he saw the mission of Philosophy and Literature in broader terms. Indeed, he wanted it to help both disciplines named in the journal’s title evolve. He was marvelously successful: through his work in Philosophy and Literature he helped many shape and then stabilize their scholarly agendas, and the number of books that grew from articles that first appeared here is large.

At the same time, Denis did publish many senior scholars, often bringing them into debates that originated within these pages (on ethical criticism, for example, featuring names such as Nussbaum, Posner, and Booth, among others). But most important, with this journal he helped change what was, at the time of its inception, doubt about the appropriateness of the very conjunction of the two main subjects named in its title. The fact that this may be hard to imagine now is another measure of his success as an editor.

An obituary in the New York Times described Denis as “an impassioned polymath, a genial contrarian, and native Californian” (the first two traits were always visible). It also said that he “delighted in the tangential, the parenthetical and the weaving of seemingly diverse strands of human enterprise into a seamless whole.” This is precisely what his evolutionary conception of aesthetics encouraged, and although he was perhaps criticized more than once for allowing his thought to move into realms of unprovable speculation, he was nevertheless a true champion of empirical fact and the connection between scientific inquiry and aesthetic understanding.

In its remembrance, the Los Angeles Times said, “Dutton’s work, contrary or inspiring, encouraged a multiplicity of ideas.” Indeed it did, and as readers will see, the pieces included in a special issue honoring Denis’ memory continue this tradition.

Denis always looked for the expansion of a debate, of our grasp of relevant empirical knowledge, of the range of aesthetic experience that drove our interest in the subject in the first place. In an interview in Salon, Denis said, “A few years ago, Bill Gates was boasting that we’ll soon have sensors which will turn on the music that we like or show on the walls the paintings we like when we walk into a room. How boring! The hell with our preexisting likes; let’s expand ourselves intellectually.”

The Washington Post’s tribute praised Denis’s creation in 1998 of his encompassing website, Arts & Letters Daily, which he established as a digital meeting ground for academics and intellectually engaged readers around the world. Always respectful of tradition and quick to see connections across temporally and technologically distinct cultural phases, he modeled the design on an eighteenth-century broadsheet. Arts & Letters Daily immediately garnered a huge following, and in 1999 London’s Guardian called it “the best website in the world.” Denis’s powerfully succinct and fiendishly clever introductions to linked articles (“teasers,” in the trade) invariably made one want to read more; the New York Review of Books called him “a master of the tweet long before Twitter existed.” The New Yorker said that Arts & Letters Daily “was the first and foremost aggregator of well-written and well-argued book reviews, essays, and other articles in the realm of ideas,” and that Denis himself was “the intellectual’s Matt Drudge” (of the Drudge Report).

But it was the Chronicle of Higher Education that used the word that captures Denis most succinctly: “irreplaceable.” The CHE, as anyone who knew Denis well knows, was right. And Slate’s obituary contained perhaps the most telling detail of all: “His eye gleamed differently from other humanities professors” the writer had known.

Philosophy and Literature was one of the brightest gleams in Denis’s eye, and those of us who had the opportunity to work with him were fortunate. The recently published special issue in his memory contains personal reminiscences, as well as observations on the reach and significance of his contributions to the understanding of artistic activity in evolutionary terms. But it also contains far more than that: for reasons at which I have hinted, Denis would have wanted it to be a lively, broad-ranging contribution to the ongoing debate, and a further exploration of Darwinian themes in the arts beyond where he left the matter in his own work. To stay true to the force of nature that he was, and in fond memory and deep appreciation of the irreplaceable Denis Laurence Dutton and his exemplary contribution, the special issue strives to be just that.

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