Week Resadieu

by zunguzungu

Henry Louis Gates argues that because Africans participated in the slave trade,

“the problem with reparations may not be so much whether they are a good idea or deciding who would get them; the larger question just might be from whom they would be extracted.”

Indeed. The Asante empire has been getting a free pass for years and enough is enough. Actually, I think the whole issue of reparations for slavery misses the point; the US has a moral debt to pay its black citizenry for the century between emancipation and civil rights, and that’s where the best claim for affirmative action comes from, if you ask me (the way black people were essentially shut out of the new deal, for instance, tells you as much about income inequity in the present day US than slavery alone).

I do, though, struggle in vain to figure out where Gates’ irritation comes from; I assume that this is an old hobby horse of his and that the “Africans did it too!” thing is just the latest way of making the argument against reparations. It’s sort of a weak claim, and relies on you not actually knowing anything about the best kinds of claims made in favor of reparations; his whole “but it’s more complicated than that” rhetoric can only function to the extent you have an over-simplistic view of the reparations argument (as his attack on Roots demonstrates).

Apparently a lingerie ad aimed at “plus-size” women is verboten and stricken from our nation‘s delicate airwaves. Sociological Images goes to town on why Victoria’s Secret ads are ok, but not this:

…the thin, young, beautiful, able-bodied white woman is the idealized woman. And the idealized woman is sexy, indeed, but not sexual. Sexy women attract attention; they inspire desire, but they don’t have desires of their own.  A sexy woman hopes that a man will like the look of her and take action.  But she’s not sexual.  She doesn’t take the action herself.  Doing so immediately marks her as suspiciously unfeminine. [OTOH] Fat women are often characterized as sexual threats.  How many comedies have relied on the scary fat woman (of color) trying to get some?  It’s so funny, right?  Because she’s gross and aggressive!  She wants you and she doesn’t care what you want and so the fact that she’s fat doesn’t stop her.  Scary!

One commenter suggested that “The threat inherent in this commercial is that this woman owns her sexuality and she uses it for her own pleasure. She’s not an object of the male gaze. She’s not posed there to be a selfless object of desire.” and I think that’s right, sort of. But it’s the particularly unregulated nature of that pleasure that makes her scary; women who own and use their own sexuality are not, necessarily as such, “threatening”; it’s the fact that instead of desiring to be desired (but having no desire for sex as such herself) the commercial so clearly equates sex with appetite (for one thing, she has an appointment for “lunch with Dan” that clearly means “sex with Dan,” and the euphemistic entanglement of eating and having sex in the context of a “plus-size” lingerie ad is important, as another commenter pointed out:

…when we look at a stick thin woman, we know that she is someone who suppresses their natural appetites, and through that she achieves a twisted kind of purity. I’ve often said that thinness is the new virginity. A larger woman – however contrived and conformant in other ways – is coded as someone who does not exercise that steely level of control and denial over her natural urges. In the context of the ad, the lingerie, the fact that she’s leaving to meet a man etc., we’re led to conclude that she is going to have sex, but not in the pornified sence of offering her body up as a passive and performative visual masturbation aid, but in the real sense of participatory pleasure-seeking desire.

“The next mishandled key term is feminine” is a pretty damning sentence in a review of the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Toril Moi has many more sentences like it in her absolutely scathing :

‘Man’ and ‘woman’ should be ‘the man’ and ‘the woman’, since we are dealing with generic examples (as in ‘the woman leads, the man follows’), not with universals (‘woman is night; man is day’). ‘Feminine refusal’ is also wrong: we are not dealing with a specific kind of refusal (the feminine as opposed to the masculine kind), but with the woman’s refusal or resistance. (Beauvoir is not trying to tell us how the woman resists, just that she does.) The sentence structure and the punctuation are awkward. There are several translation errors: s’assouvir doesn’t mean to ‘relieve oneself’ but to ‘satisfy’ or ‘gratify’; in this context profonde means ‘underlying’ or ‘deep-seated,’ not ‘profound’. The phrase ‘reduce to his mercy’ piles up errors: à merci is not the same thing as à sa merci; réduire in this context doesn’t mean ‘reduce’ but rather ‘dominate’ or ‘subdue’; thus réduire à merci actually means ‘subdue at will’. And force musculaire means ‘muscular strength’ not ‘muscular force’, which is a phrase mostly used by scientists trying to explain the physics of muscle contractions; permettre here means ‘enable’ or ‘allow’, not ‘permit’. This isn’t an isolated example.

Ari Kelman’s nice piece on extinction rhetoric at the turn of the century:

Throughout Nature’s Ghosts, Barrow sympathizes with the naturalists he studies yet almost never ignores their warts. Hornaday, for instance, was often a crank, his advocacy for animals born in part out of anxieties over racial decay. In 1913 he published a 400-page call to arms, Our Vanishing Wildlife, demanding protection for threatened species. In one breath he extolled the virtues of “gentlemen sportsmen,” the white knights who, he argued, formed the “bone and sinew of wild life preservation.” But in the next he damned so-called pot hunters, people who took game to feed their families. African-Americans and Southern European immigrants, whom he referred to as “pestilence that walketh at noonday,” came in for especially harsh treatment. Hornaday had plenty of company–men like Theodore Roosevelt and Madison Grant who, Barrow suggests, “tended to be deeply ambivalent about the forces of modernity that were transforming the American landscape.” Their ambivalence often manifested itself as racism, xenophobia or blood lust. During his 1909 expedition to Africa, Roosevelt assured the world of his virility by sponsoring a genteel blood bath: eleven elephants, fourteen rhinoceroses and seventeen lions counted among the more than 500 animals killed for sport.

Warts and all, hmmm… “Ambivalence” that “manifests as racism, xenophobia, or blood lust” is a very sympathetic way to put it; I tend to think that there’s actually a much more organic relationship between racism and that style of naturalism (in a word, the “Malthusian”) and I’m writing a dissertation to demonstrate it in the case of Roosevelt, who went to great links to convince his readers that blood lust was the farthest thing from his mind on his very scientific expedition to British East Africa.

He wrote that “game butchery is as objectionable as any other form of wanton cruelty or barbarity“ and the phrase is a kind of leitmotif for him (“I object to anything like needless butchery” and, in reference to another hunter “he has not a touch of the game butcher in him”) and defended himself from the charge, later, by proclaiming that “I can be condemned only if the existence of theNational Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and all similar zoological institutions are to be condemned.” In fact, Roosevelt would begin to distinguish the virtue of cruelty-free scientific hunting from “game butchery” in the same terms in which someone like Captain C.H. Stigand would distinguish white big game hunting from African hunting. Stigand would admit (in ways Roosevelt tended not to) that “The native is a keen hunter,” but he would go on to assert that “his hunting instinct is derived from a love of meat and a lust of killing [rather] than from any sporting feeling.” And in the forward to Stigand’s 1913 Hunting the Elephant in Africa, Roosevelt made the same sort of point: “More and more of late years the best type of big game hunter has tended to lay stress on the natural history of the regions into which they have penetrated, and to make his book less and less a catalogue of mere slaughter.”

Benjamin Kunkel on Frederic Jameson’s new big book of little pieces:

…such a mood of provisionality or hesitation runs throughout his work. For all the consistency of his commitments, he has not produced worked-out arguments and scholarly findings so much as a tissue of hints, hypotheses, recommendations and impressions. It would be easy to find many sentences in Jameson starting like this one: ‘Now we may begin to hazard the guess that something like the dialectic will always begin to appear when thinking approaches the dilemma of incommensurability …’ Such accumulated qualifications – and yet ‘always’.

Matt Taibbi’s nightmarish love for the NFL draft:

…with its creepy slave-auction vibe and armies of drooling, flesh-peddling scouts, it has an excessive, perverted side that the drafts of other sports lack. NFL scouts who crisscross the country in search of raw football talent aren’t looking for future stars with marketable faces and personalities the way NBA scouts do, and they’re not interested in wide-eyed high school kids with fairy-tale dreams of making the Show the way baseball scouts are. NFL scouts are looking for raw gladiatorial muscle whose sweat-drenched faces will be hidden under helmets as coaches drive them to be rapidly ground into hamburger over the course of what, for most of them, will be ridiculously short (three and a half seasons, on average), injury-plagued, nonguaranteed-contract careers.

This is about as dark and freaky as our sanitized modern American mainstream culture ever openly admits to being. These are bloodless corporate enterprises using advanced scientific and economic metrics to measure the material worth of human flesh down to the half-pound, the 16th of an inch. Which would be horrifying and morally repulsive under normal circumstances, but when added to a strong rooting interest in your home team, can become for certain people one of those guilty pleasures you just can’t give up because you enjoy it so much, like jerking off while hanging yourself in the shower.

How financial cycles correlate with politics:

Financial cycles of boom and bust are as old as finance itself—a fact that has led some observers to infer that human nature may be a fundamental cause of financial cycles. But “politics” also influences financial cycles by way of government policies and regulations. I argue that policies and regulations vary predictably with the partisan character of the government, creating a partisan-policy financial cycle in which conservative, pro-market governments preside over financial booms while left-wing governments are elected to office after crashes.

My sample consists of all bank-centered financial crises to hit advanced countries since World War II, including the current “Subprime” crises—a total of 27 cases. I find that governments in power prior to major financial crises are more likely than the average OECD country to be right-of-center in political orientation. I also find that these governments are more likely than the OECD average to be associated with policies that predict crises: large fiscal and current account deficits, heavy borrowing from abroad, and lax bank regulation. However, once a financial major crisis occurs, the causal arrow flips and government partisanship becomes a consequence of crises. I find that the electorate moves to the left after a major financial crisis, and this leftward shift is associated with changes in government partisanship in that direction

A great piece (thanks Drew) on the dumb way academia makes itself irrelevant:

Look at JSTOR (if you can). There you find the evidence-based, source-critical foundations of sociology, anthropology, geography, history, philosophy, classics, Oriental studies, theology, musicology, history of science and so on. They are all closed to the public. It is wonderful, of course, that high-energy physics and string theory are open to all. But is it not ironic that we have opened the gates only to that scholarship which few professors, let alone members of the public, have the cognitive capacity and appropriate training to grasp?

The opportunity costs for society are self-evident. But what about the opportunity cost for scholars? For example, the public has set itself the task to rewrite knowledge for the public domain through Wikipedia and the like. Should not these sites be hyperlinked with JSTOR? By excluding the public from their scholarly literature, academics make it impossible for amateurs to use sound research methodologies, critically examining evidence by cross-referencing and source analysis. Scholars then critique the public’s output for not being sufficiently academic. Academics commonly refer to the occasionally wobbly scholarly standards of Wikipedia as proof the public does not wish to pursue scholarship. Might it not instead prove that they do not let them?

An immediately important debate, I think, is to be had over how academics fail to engage with their natural constituency (and former students): journalists, business leaders, lawyers, entrepreneurs, politicians, and civil servants. These people are the ruling classes, if you would like. They are the ones who house and feed professors. Is it really in academics’ long-term interest to not let these well-educated and well-intentioned people as much as glance at, say, the Index of Christian Art? Is it really in their interest not to show the public their scholarly articles and academic monographs? What does this tell the public about who academics think is clubbable? And how will that affect how the public thinks about, say, federal research grants, or top-up fees?

But, of course, the academic publishing cartel is not structured to advance humanity’s higher learning:

Three firms, it is said in academic circles, control 85 percent of the periodicals market. Karl Marx and Adam Smith, both experts on the natural evil of monopoly, would nod knowingly on learning that an annual subscription for a scholarly journal can cost up to $25,000, and that the price per page for commercial journals is up to twelve times more than for non-profit ones. And this is not because the for-profit journals are better…After all, there are no substitute goods, and the purchasers of the journals (university libraries, but ultimately university administrators) are not the consumers (the professors and students). Thus, publicly-funded institutions first give away and then buy back their own research, research that they paid for in the first place. To add insult to injury, these for-profit journals are produced by unpaid, volunteer editors and peer reviewers. Here, too, labor is donated for free, by those same scholars who also sign over their copyrights for free. It is, shall we say, an unusual business model.

A propos of that, I found Rorotoko while looking for something else, but was struck by its usefulness as a model: authors of scholarly monographs write relatively short pieces summarizing their work. Like a review, frankly, only written by the authors themselves. From Louis Perez’s book on American views of Cuba, for example:

Cuba dawned upon the American imagination at a time of national formation, during years of territorial expansion, inscribing itself deeply into a deepening awareness of national interests. With the purchase of Louisiana (1803) and Florida (1821), as the United States expanded onto the Gulf of Mexico, the acquisition of Cuba assumed something of an inexorable logic. From the moment that the Americans began to imagine themselves as a nation, as a people with territory to defend, commerce to protect, and security to safeguard, possession of Cuba was perceived as a matter of strategic necessity. A sense of national completion seemed to depend upon the possession of Cuba, without which the North American Union seemed unfinished, perhaps incomplete, maybe even slightly vulnerable. Very early in the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth century, the destiny of Cuba could not be imagined in any way other than as an extension of American needs. Cuba developed fully into an American preoccupation, one that reached deeply into the ways that the Americans contemplated the defense of their interests and the definition of their well-being.

and

Americans understood themselves to have mobilized for war against Spain in 1898 in behalf of Cuban independence, to have succeeded where the Cubans had failed…The moral, sometimes stated explicitly, other times left to inference, but always central to the U.S. narrative on 1898, was unambiguous: Spain had been defeated and expelled, through the resolve and resources of the United States, as a result of the effort and exertion of Americans, through their sacrifices, at the expense of their lives and the expenditure of their treasure. Cubans were henceforth proclaimed beneficiaries of the generosity of the United States, to whom they owed their deliverance and for which they were expected to be properly grateful.

[Yet] What was known in the United States as the “Spanish-American War” was understood in Cuba as the culmination of a three-year war of national liberation. Cubans defended their claim to independence as an achievement rightfully obtained through their own efforts. They recalled more than three years of relentless war, which effectively drove the Spanish army into beleaguered defensive concentrations in the cities, there to suffer further the debilitating effects of illness and hunger, circumstances that in no small fashion contributed to the ease with which Spain was defeated in 1898…The question of 1898 insinuated itself deeply into Cuban national sensibilities, which meant, too, that it loomed large in public forums and political debates. In the nationalist discourses that emerged in subsequent decades, the year 1898 was remembered as a usurpation, a point of preemption, whereupon Cubans were displaced as actors and transformed into audience. The proposition of 1898 as a wrong to redress emerged early as one of the central themes of a Cuban nationalist counter-narrative, and served as a source of political mobilization in the weeks and months following the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959.