Friday, March 03, 2017

dialect and defeat

I’ve been reading two books that are mainy written in dialect, or at least non-standard English. One is Their Eyes were watching God, Zora Hurston’s most famous novel, where the  black Southern dialect alternates with an authorial voice written in standard English. Hurston had a folklorist’s expertise in dialect. She wrote the novel in Haiti, and must surely have been thinking about how Haitian creole had separated itself out from French to the extent that it was a separate language. Hurston was right proud of her rendering of black speech, and criticized Richard Wright for what she believed were amateur mistakes in trying to convey its sound and power.

The other book, Ice Cream Star, by Sandra Newman, is about a future in which the US is populated largely by tribes of teens, who all face a disease that eliminates them when they enter their young twenties. The teens are black – although the plot in the book begins with an encounter with a “Roo”, a white man who is presumably Russian. The entire book is dipped in the language that Newman makes up for her narrator, Ice Cream Star.
Wright accused Hurston of making a minstrel show of a novel. I wonder if he was responding to the way the two levels of English operate, with standard English becoming the median of understanding and  explanation – producing the usual distance that the authorial voice mediates between the actions and the characters and their passions and the reader. The traditional hierarchy between low passion and high reason, of course, stands behind this. But, as a particular instance of that structure, there is also, in the play of phonetic spellings, a sort of global implication of a kind of illiteracy in the characters, as if they were misspelling their own words. Given the American penchant to use black speech against the speaker, to lower the status of the speakers, it is easy to see where Wright is coming from.  But as Hurston is writing from Haiti, where the idea of using creole against the chains of orthodox french was certainly in the air, there’s another perspective on the dialect business, a claim and proclaim program.
There is a long history of dialect as a literal, or rather, oral declaration of independence. Walter Scott did the same thing with Scots. The jungle of apostrophe marks that accompany these forays against the metropole are the equivalent of the dust  tossed up by some vast marching army of Goths, on a pillaging expedition to Rome.    
In Scott’s novels, the tie to the extinguishing of a culture, as the Gaelic highlands culture was extinguished in Scotland, is the loser’s wound that throbs beneath the whole edifice.  Scott’s dialect characters are tied to their political and economic station.  Here, from Old Mortality, is the  kind of thing that occurs frequently in Scott:
"Your leddyship never ca'd me sic a word as that before. Ohon! that I
suld live to be ca'd sae," she continued, bursting into tears, "and me a
born servant o' the house o' Tillietudlem! I am sure they belie baith
Cuddie and me sair, if they said he wadna fight ower the boots in blude
for your leddyship and Miss Edith, and the auld Tower--ay suld he, and I
would rather see him buried beneath it, than he suld gie way--but thir
ridings and wappenschawings, my leddy, I hae nae broo o' them ava. I can
find nae warrant for them whatsoever.”

And here is the kind of thing that occurs in Hurston – a snippet of dialogue between Janie and Tea Cake:

“Ah know it and dat’s what puts de shamery on me. You’se jus’ dis gusted wid me. Yo’ face jus’ left here and went off some where else. Naw, you ain’t mad wid me. Ah be glad if you was, ’cause then Ah might do some thin’ tuh please yuh. But lak it is—”
“Mah likes and dis likes ought not tuh make no dif fer­ence wid you, Tea Cake. Dat’s fuh yo’ lady friend. Ah’m jus’ uh some time friend uh yourn.”
               The image of a Vandal army attacking Rome brings up, of course, the barbarian/civilized opposition that has long formed a certain mainstream approach to dialect. Indeed, language follows conquest, with its attendant justifications all centering around some essential fault of the conquered. Rome, however, was founded by barbarians in the strictest sense – Trojans who were defeated by the Greeks. Underneath the victorious power, it is easy to find a level of subjection and defeat. The Scots tribes, whose defeat becomes Walter Scott’s theme, moved out – they populated much of the Southeast U.S. that Hurston knew. And they put their stamp of victory on the slaveholding society that raided at large other tribal societies.
               I’m going on to Newman’s book tomorrow.   

Thursday, March 02, 2017

how bad was the Democratic response to Trump? Very very very bad

I've been thinking about this today, a little obsessively. And I've come to the conclusion that the dead heads in the Democratic establishment in DC are innumerate in a serious way.
Most of them are old white people, like Schumer and Pelosi. So perhaps this explains their bias.
I'm sure they think featuring an old white guy surrounded by a diner full of other older white people is a sure, a non-risky way of confronting Trump.
Actually, though, I'd argue that it is the riskiest bet they can make.
Given the fact that, at least since 1980, older white people vote Republican by between 10 percent to 20 percent more than they vote Democratic, what does it mean to pitch your entire response to them?
Your choices are: Ds want either less of them to vote, to convince them to vote D., or finally, you outflank them.
The first option is absolute. You absolutely want to discourage them. It is thus not identical with the third option, which is that you dilute their voting power by increasing the numbers in other sectors - blacks, hispanics, millenials - so that the older vote is proportionately diminished.
Given the trend lines with older whites, the most risky strategy is to try to convert them. Firstly, because it is statistically unlikely it will make a difference, and secondly, because it screws up your third option. It will bring more old white people out to vote. In 2016, there were a lot of reports that the Clinton campaign's idea to appeal to moderate Rs actually motivated a lot of Rs to go to the polls - and vote Trump.
So the DNC and the DC Dems chose the most risky option to play against Trump. But they will all assure themselves that they are playing it safe. This is how lost they are.

Monday, February 27, 2017

heidegger's naziism, locke's apology for slavery

The Magazine Litteraire had a nice dossier about Heidegger last month, heralding, I suppose, the translation of Heidegger’s Black Notebook into French. Those who keep up with those things will remember that the notebook is full of pro-Nazi, anti-semitic remarks, and continues in that vein even after WWII. Heidegger never learned anything.
Which of course leaves a problem for those who think Heidegger’s philosophy is important. Is it all, as Emmanuel Faye has maintained for decade, a coded philosophy of fascism? The argument here is pretty much one of critical integrity: it is disingenuous to leave out what we know about Heidegger’s naziism when explicating his texts. Faye, though, goes further, and relates Heidegger’s biggest text, Being and Time, to his naziism as a master explanation of what is going on. Bourdieu did the same thing. One takes a term like Sorge, care, and shows how it it is primarily a political, and not as Heidegger pretends, an existential signifier. In this way, by looking at Sorge in Nazi texts and in Being and Time, one pierces through to the true meaning of Heidegger’s text. 
This claim would be more convincing, however, if there were control texts – if we also went through Communist texts, or those in the journalistic world. Without doing this, we are pre-determining the orientation towards Naziism.
My own view is that the question of what to make of Heidegger’s Naziism throws into relief the larger question of how we do philosophical history. For my money, I’d say we do it badly. It is about great heads, marble busts lined up one after the other, all engaged only with each other. I think that philosophy, like any discourse, is less personal than that.  Reading Heidegger, Rosenzweig, Bloch and Benjamin, who were all writing in the 20s, gives one a sense that each writer is playing a variation of a code that was shared among a certain spectrum of German intellectuals who were trying to find an escape from the liberal paradigm that broke down in WWI. Looked at in this way, Heidegger represents the far right part of that spectrum, whereas people like Lukacs (whose Weber influenced essays, even before the war, could be read as though they were influenced by a much later book, Being and Time) represent its changing far left.  But Heidegger’s philosophy in almost all its major moments was easy to capture by leftists as well as rightists. It shows a misunderstanding, I think, of how philosophy operates – how the special terms and arguments are affordances that can be radically shifted in various systems without being negated – to pretend that Heidegger was writing merely for the cryptofascist crowd. He did, obviously, have the freedom to do so when he was loose in Hitler’s Germany, but he notoriously failed as the third Reich’s pet philosopher. The reason for that failure is that the Hitlerians suspected that vocabulary – they sensed something indelibly Weimarish in it. And they were right.
There’s a famous story – so I’ve been told – about Michael Dummett. He was completing a book about Frege’s mathematical philosophy when he read Frege’s own “black notebook”, his diaries, and found that he was a raving anti-semite. For a while, supposedly, he laid his work on Frege aside, not knowing if he should continue it. He finally did continue it.

I like the attacks on Heidegger for his naziism. I would love to see some more attacking on Locke and Hume for their racism. In Locke’s case, this wasn’t just a matter of condoning slavery – Locke, as a member of the board of Trade and Plantations, which supervised Virginia, was instrumental in coming up with slave codes. This is mentioned in Intro classes to Philosophy about zero times, in my experience, whereas Heidegger’s Naziism is always mentioned when he is explained. I would love to see a philosophy magazine dedicate a dossier to Locke and slavery, but I am pretty sure that is not on anybody’s agenda.   

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...