Wednesday, October 18, 2017

What WAS I thinking when I snapped this photo? Not the Beatles and not Abbey Road


If you are of a certain age and a certain inclination you can’t help by think of the album cover for Abbey Road, released by the Beatles in 1969. That’s certainly what I thought when I looked at the photo on my computer.

But that’s not what I was thinking when I took the photo. I had come out of New York City’s Penn Station at a bit after 5PM on Saturday, October 14, 2017. I was taking photos to document the day – a train ride my sister had gotten for us in celebration of my upcoming major birthday – and snapping shots in front of the station. Traffic was busy, making photography a bit tricky, everything moving, shots materializing and disappearing just as quickly.

It was shoot or die. I saw those people walking across street and my mind flashed there’s a photo there, but not in so many words. It was just a realization that I had to point and shoot NOW or lose it. So I took the shot.

And moved on, taking other shots.

But I’m sure that intuitive decision had been primed by that album cover I saw so many times over the years, but not, say, in the last five or six, perhaps more, years.

And, you see, when you shoot quickly, sometimes things don’t quite work out. Sometimes that’s OK.


Can you learn anything worthwhile about a text if you treat it, not as a TEXT, but as a string of marks on pages? [#DH]

The Chronicle of Higher Education just published a drive-by take-down of the digital humanities. It was by one Timothy Brennan, who didn’t know what he was talking about, didn’t know that he didn’t known, and more likely than not, didn’t care.
Timothy Brennan, The Digital-Humanities Bust, The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 15, 2017,
Subsequently there was a relatively brief tweet storm in the DH twittersphere in which one Michael Gavin observed that Brennan seemed genuinely confused:

“Lexical patterns”, what are they? The purpose of this post is to explicate my response to Gavin.

The Text is not the (physical) text

While literary critics sometimes use “the text” to refer to a physical book, or to alphanumeric markings on the pages in such a book, they generally have something vaguer and ore expansive in mind. Here is a passage from a well-known, I won’t say “text”, article by Roland Barthes [1]:
1. The text must not be understood as a computable object. It would be futile to attempt a material separation of works from texts. In particular, we must not permit ourselves to say: the work is classical, the text is avant-garde; there is no question of establishing a trophy in modernity's name and declaring certain literary productions in and out by reason of their chronological situation: there can be “Text” in a very old work, and many products of contemporary literature are not texts at all. The difference is as follows: the work is a fragment of substance, it occupies a portion of the spaces of books (for example, in a library). The Text is a methodological field. The opposition may recall (though not reproduce term for term) a distinction proposed by Lacan: “reality” is shown [se montre], the “real” is proved [se démontre]; in the same way, the work is seen (in bookstores, in card catalogues, on examination syllabuses), the text is demonstrated, is spoken according to certain rules (or against certain rules); the work is held in the hand, the text is held in language: it exists only when caught up in a discourse (or rather it is Text for the very reason that it knows itself to be so); the Text is not the decomposition of the work, it is the work which is the Text's imaginary tail. Or again: the Text is experienced only in an activity, in a production. It follows that the Text cannot stop (for example, at a library shelf); its constitutive moment is traversal (notably, it can traverse the work, several works).  
And that is just the first of seven propositions in that well known text article, which has attained, shall we say, the status of a classic.

I have no intention of offering extended commentary on this passage. I will note, however, that Barthes obviously knows that there’s an important difference between the physical object and what he’s calling the text. Every critic knows that. We are not dumb, but we do have work to do.

Secondly, perhaps the central concept is in that italicized assertion: “the Text is experienced only in an activity, in a production.”

Finally, I note that that first sentence has also been translated as: “The Text must not be thought of as a defined object” [2]. Not being a reader of French, much less a French speaker, I don’t know which translation is truer to the original. It is quite possible that they are equally true and false at the same time. But “computable object” has more resonance in this particular context.

Now, just to flesh things out a bit, let us consider a more recent passage, one that is more didactic. This is from the introduction Rita Copeland and Frances Ferguson prepared for five essays from the 2012 English Institute devoted to the text [3]:
Yet with the conceptual breadth that has come to characterize notions of text and textuality, literary criticism has found itself at a confluence of disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, history, politics, and law. Thus, for example, notions of cultural text and social text have placed literary study in productive dialogue with fields in the social sciences. Moreover, text has come to stand for different and often contradictory things: linguistic data for philology; the unfolding “real time” of interaction for sociolinguistics; the problems of copy-text and markup in editorial theory; the objectified written work (“verbal icon”) for New Criticism; in some versions of poststructuralism the horizons of language that overcome the closure of the work; in theater studies the other of performance, ambiguously artifact and event. “Text” has been the subject of venerable traditions of scholarship centered on the establishment and critique of scriptural authority as well as the classical heritage. In the modern world it figures anew in the regulation of intellectual property. Has text become, or was it always, an ideal, immaterial object, a conceptual site for the investigation of knowledge, ownership and propriety, or authority? If so, what then is, or ever was, a “material” text? What institutions, linguistic procedures, commentary forms, and interpretive protocols stabilize text as an object of study? [p. 417]
“Linguistic data” and “copy-text”, they sound like the physical text itself, the rest of them, not so much.

If literary critics were to confine themselves to discussing the physical text, what would we say? Those engaged in book studies and editorial projects would have more to say than most, but even they would find such rigor to be intolerably confining. The physical signs on the page, or the vibrations in the air, exist and come alive in a vast a complicated network of ... well, just exactly what? Relationships among people to be sure, but also relationships between sights and sounds and ideas and movements and feelings and a whole bunch of stuff mediated by the nervous systems of all those people interacting with one another.

It’s that vast network of people and neuro-mental stuff that we’re trying to understand when we explicate literary and cultural Texts. As we lack really good accounts of all that stuff, literary critics have felt that we had little choice by to adopt this more capacious conception, albeit at the expense of definition and precision. Anyhow, aren’t the people trying to figure out those systems, aren’t they scientists? And aren’t we, as humanists, skeptical about science?

And then along came the computer.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Three from the window of a moving train




Out of the ground with your hands, my summer in coal @3QD

I’ve done a little editing to a recent post and reposted it at 3 Quarks Daily under the title, slightly changed from the original, My summer job working in coal – or, how I learned about class in America:

It would be a bit strong to say that coal pervaded my life growing up, but I was aware of it and thought about it, in one way or another, almost, perhaps, likely, daily – steel too. After all, my father was in the business and took frequent trips to visit coal mines and cleaning plants. I remember waiting for him to come home, staying up late a night they day of his return, and getting the little gifts he’d bring me and my sister from whatever exotic place he’d visited. I remember the hard hats he wore when on site.

And I remember talking with him about his work. I remember him telling me about dead plant matter turning into peat, peat into lignite and lignite into coal. Coal was once living matter.

Coal is elemental. It’s a fuel, a dirty fuel. A dirty fuel that gave us the iron and steel industries. Coal fires gave us the Anthropocene.
Ashes to Dust
Life to Coal
Coal to Ashes
Dust to Life

Monday, October 16, 2017

Stairway to Penn Station, NYC



Another (strenuous) take on what went wrong with literary criticism, John Searle and Geoffrey Hartman edition

Yeah, I know. But it’s important to get this right.

Once again I’m going to review that Geoffrey Hartman statement I find so characteristic of the mid-1970s rearward shift in academic literary criticism, the one about ‘rithmatic and distance. But this time I want to put it in the context a discussion of the ontological and epistemological senses of objective and subjective that John Searle makes in The Construction of Social Reality, Penguin Books, 1995.

Searle: Ontology and Epistemology

After some preliminary discussion, some of which I’ve appended to this post, Searle concludes (p. 7):
Here, then, are the bare bones of our ontology: We live in a world made up entirely of physical particles in fields of force. Some of these are organized into systems. Some of these systems are living systems and some of these living systems have evolved consciousness. With consciousness comes intentionality, the capacity of the organism to represent objects and states of affairs in the world to itself. Now the question is, how can we account for the existence of social facts within that ontology?
How indeed.

Searle then observes (pp. 7-8):
Much of our world view depends on our concept of objectivity and the contrast between the objective and the subjective. Famously, the distinction is a matter of degree, but it is less often remarked that both “objective” and “subjective” have several different senses. For our present discussion two senses are crucial, an epistemic sense of the objective-subjective distinction and an ontological sense. Epistemically speaking, “objective” and “subjective “ are primarily predicates of judgments. We often speak of judgments as being “subjective” when we mean that their truth or falsity cannot be settled “objectively,” because the truth or falsity is not a simple matter of fact but depends on certain attitudes, feelings, and points of view of the makers such subjective judgments with objective judgments, such as the judgment “Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam during the year 1632.” For such objective judgments, the facts in the world that make them true or false are independent of anybody’s attitudes or feelings about them. In this epistemic sense we can speak not only of objective judgments but of objective facts. Corresponding to objectively true judgments there are objective facts. It should be obvious from these examples that the contrast between epistemic objectivity and epistemic subjectivity is a matter of degree.

In addition to the epistemic sense of the objective-subjective distinction, there is also a related ontological sense. In the ontological sense, “objective” and “subjective” are predicates of entities and types of entities, and they ascribe modes of existence. In the ontological sense, pains are subjective entities, because their mode of existence depends on being felt by subjects. But mountains, for example, in contrast to pains, are ontologically objective because their mode of existence is independent of any perceiver or any mental state.
Word meanings, in this sense, are ontologically subjective, which I’ve previously argued [1]. And so are the meanings of texts, even texts about objective facts. Hence textual meaning can be subject to endless, and often fruitless, discussion, especially when intersubjective agreement on the meanings of crucial terms is lax.

Continuing directly on from the previous passage, (pp. 8-9):
We can see the distinction between the distinctions clearly if we reflect on the fact that we can make epistemically subjective statements about entities that are ontologically objective, and similarly, we can make epistemically objective statements about entities that are ontologically subjective. For example, the statement “Mt. Everest is more beautiful than Mt. Whitney” is about ontologically objective entities, but makes a subjective judgment about them. On the other hand, the statement “I now have a pain in my lower back” reports an epistemically objective fact in the sense that it is made true by the existence of an actual fact that is not dependent on any stance, attitudes, or opinions of observers. However, the phenomenon itself, the actual pain, has a subjective mode of existence.
I argue, though Searle might disagree, that the meanings of the words in that statement – “I now have a pain in my lower back” – are themselves ontologically subjective, despite the fact that the statement itself, in context, is ABOUT an epistemologically objective fact (where that fact is about something ontologically subjective, a pain).

It’s confusing, I know. Alas, it’s going to get worse.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Latour on the second science "war"

Q: How do you look back at the “science wars”?
A: Nothing that happened during the ’90s deserves the name “war.” It was a dispute, caused by social scientists studying how science is done and being critical of this process. Our analyses triggered a reaction of people with an idealistic and unsustainable view of science who thought they were under attack. Some of the critique was indeed ridiculous, and I was associated with that postmodern relativist stuff, I was put into that crowd by others. I certainly was not antiscience, although I must admit it felt good to put scientists down a little. There was some juvenile enthusiasm in my style.
We’re in a totally different situation now. We are indeed at war. This war is run by a mix of big corporations and some scientists who deny climate change. They have a strong interest in the issue and a large influence on the population.
Q: How did you get involved in this second science war?
A: It happened in 2009 at a cocktail party. A famous climate scientist came up to me and said: “Can you help us? We are being attacked unfairly.” Claude Allègre, a French scientist and former minister of education, was running a very efficient ideological campaign against climate science.
It symbolized a turnaround. People who had never really understood what we as science studies scholars were doing suddenly realized they needed us. They were not equipped, intellectually, politically, and philosophically, to resist the attack of colleagues accusing them of being nothing more than a lobby. 
Q: How do you explain the rise of antiscientific thinking and “alternative facts”? 
A: To have common facts, you need a common reality. This needs to be instituted in church, classes, decent journalism, peer review. … It is not about posttruth, it is about the fact that large groups of people are living in a different world with different realities, where the climate is not changing.
The second science war has at least freed us of the idea that science and technology can be separated from policy. I have always argued that they can't be. Science has never been immune to political bias. On issues with huge policy implications, you cannot produce unbiased data. That does not mean you cannot produce good science, but scientists should explicitly state their interests, their values, and what sort of proof will make them change their mind. 
Q: How should scientists wage this new war? 
A: We will have to regain some of the authority of science. That is the complete opposite from where we started doing science studies. Now, scientists have to win back respect. But the solution is the same: You need to present science as science in action. I agree that’s risky, because we make the uncertainties and controversies explicit.
H/t 3QD.

Emergency Exit




MacArthur Fellowships: Search for creativity or the same old cronyism?

I've been criticizing the MacArthur Fellowships for five years now. It's about time I reposted the original articles in the series. This is the first one, which I'd originally published on October 9, 2013, under the title, "MacArthur Fellowships: Let the Geniuses Free". This looonng post examines the history of the program, looks at three recipients in the first year (1981) – "Skip" Gates, Robert Penn Warren, and Stephen Wolfram –  considers criticisms of the program, and examines the class of 2013, where 15 of 24 fellows have tenure at elite institutions – hence the suspicion, which I share with others, that the Fellows program is yet another case of elitist cronyism. I conclude with a simple suggestion: Don't give any awards to people with tenure at those schools. I stick by that suggestion. I've collected my observations into a working paper, The Genius Chronicles: Going Boldly Where None Have Gone Before?, which you may download at this link:
* * * * *

I’ve been following the MacArthur Fellowship program from the beginning. Like many, I believe it's too conservative in its pick of fellows. I long ago decided that the foundation could improve matters by adopting a simple rule: don’t award fellowships to anyone who has stable employment at an elite institution.

My reasoning was simple: if they’ve got an elite job, they can eat and they can work. Depending on the job, they may not have as much time for creative work as they’d like to have. But they’ve got more time than they’d have if they had to wait tables, do temp word-processing, or teach five adjunct courses a term spread across three different schools. They can function creatively.

That puts them ahead those who are so busy scratching for a living that they cannot function creatively at all.

When I set out to write this post, that’s all I had in mind. I’d reiterate the standard complaint about MacArthur’s programmatic constipation, with appropriate links here and there, and then offer up my one simple suggestion. I figured it for a thousand or maybe fifteen hundred words.

But then things started getting interesting, and more complex. So I’ve had to write a much longer post. I’ve not given up on that simple idea, nor have I augmented it. But I have a richer and more interesting rationale for it. That’s what this post is about.

The Genius Grants

I don’t know when I first heard that the newly formed Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation would “be looking for gifted but impecunious poets, promising young composers, research scientists in midcareer and other ‘exceptionally talented people’”, as The New York Times put it in 1980, but, like many creative people, I thought to myself: At last, a foundation that’s looking for (people like) me. The article went on to say:
Many foundation programs have sought to assist scholars and artists...but most have required that the would-be fellows already have achieved some public recognition. Unlike most others, the new fellowships will permit the recipients to choose entirely new fields of interest, with no requirement that the fellowship lead to the completion of a project, publication, or even a progress report.
Just what I need, thought I to myself, just what I need. It would allow me to blow this pop stand and get some real work done.

As Roderick MacArthur, son of the foundation’s benefactor, John D. MacArthur, would put it in 1981:
“This program,” Mr. MacArthur said, “is probably the best reflection of the rugged individualism exemplified by my father - the risky betting on individual explorers while everybody else is playing it safe on another track.”

“If only a handful produce something of importance - whether it be a work of art or a major breakthrough in the sciences - it will have been worth the risk.”
My name wasn’t on that list or on any subsequent list.

Nor, I tentatively decided in that first year, was the foundation deeply interested in people like me, people whose work did not fit into conventional categories and thus would be ineligible for conventional foundation largesse. Rather, given the foundation’s actual practice, it is clear that the MacArthur Fellows Program has been funding pretty much the same people funded by every other foundation and government agency.

The major distinguishing characteristic of a MacArthur Fellowship is that you don’t have to do anything to justify the funding; nor, for that matter, can you actually apply for support. The support comes to you, unbidden, and once you start cashing the checks, you are under no obligation complete a stated project nor submit any reports. This is a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say, but this goodness is of little comfort to those who don’t get a MacArthur Fellowship.

None of these observations are new. They’ve been made ever since the foundation began awarding the fellowships. The problem with these observations is that, assuming that the foundation really does want to identify and gift those who “boldly go where no man has gone before”; identifying those people is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.

My purpose in this post, then, is not to come up with rules and procedures so the MacArthur Foundation can go about that task the right way. I don’t think there is a right way. The task is impossible.

Rather, I want to do two things. First, I argue that the MacArthur Fellows Program functions to provide the foundation world with a cosmetic device whereby it can pat itself vigorously on the back for going boldly where none have gone before while continuing to fund the same suspects. Second, I argue that the best thing the Foundation could do at this point is simply to stop awarding fellowships to people who have secure employment at elite institutions. That’s a simple, but in view of my larger argument, no longer a simple-minded, suggestion.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Minimalism on the Hudson River, with ducks




This is your brain on stories

Decoding the Neural Representation of Story Meanings across Languages
Morteza Dehghani, Reihane Boghrati, Kingson Man, Joseph Hoover, Sarah Gimbel, Ashish Vaswani, Jason Zevin, Mary Immordino, Andrew Gordon, Antonio Damasio, Jonas Kaplan

PsyArXiv Preprint, doi: 10.17605/OSF.IO/QRPP3


Drawing from a common lexicon of semantic units, humans fashion narratives whose meaning transcends that of their individual utterances. However, while brain regions that represent lower-level semantic units, such as words and sentences, have been identified, questions remain about the neural representation of narrative comprehension, which involves inferring cumulative meaning. To address these questions, we exposed English, Mandarin and Farsi native speakers to native language translations of the same stories during fMRI scanning. Using a new technique in natural language processing, we calculated the distributed representations of these stories (capturing the meaning of the stories in high-dimensional semantic space), and demonstrate that using these representations we can identify the specific story a participant was reading from the neural data. Notably, this was possible even when the distributed representations were calculated using stories in a different language than the participant was reading. Relying on over 44 billion classifications, our results reveal that identification relied on a collection of brain regions most prominently located in the default mode network. These results demonstrate that neuro-semantic encoding of narratives happens at levels higher than individual semantic units and that this encoding is systematic across both individuals and languages.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday Fotos: On the beach






Why the computational form of literary texts is mere form in the Kantian sense

Actually, it’s not me that’s taking the look at Kant. To be sure, I read some Kant years ago, and I do mean years, more like decades. But I don’t remember it and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the Critique of Judgment, which is the text in play here. It was put in play in a recent article:
Robert Lehman, Formalism, Mere Form, and Judgment, New Literary History, Vol. 48, No. 2, Spring 2017, pp. 245-263.
I’m thus in the precarious position of having to rely on Lehman’s presentation of Kant. But then, isn’t that what intellectual life is like, working in the community of scholars, always depending on the kindness of strangers?

What is formalism, what is literature?
Before looking at Kant via Lehman, however, let me give you the rough and ready on two matters: 1) what I mean by formalism, and 2) how I understand what literature is.

My basic approach to the second is a crude “I know it when I see it.” Of course, I’ve learned from others, starting with my parents. They taught me that, for example, Moby Dick is literature, The Voyage of the Beagle is not, and so forth. Now that I think about it, I’m not at all sure that I’ve ever had to determine, for myself, whether or not this text was literature or not. Good vs. mediocre vs. downright bad literature, yes. But literature vs. something else, I don’t think so.

But let’s assume that there may well come a time when I would have to make such a judgment. It might be an easy judgment to make, or it might not. Where the judgment is easy for me, I suspect it will be easy for others. Where it is difficult, there as well. But in that case, we might arrive at different judgments. In consequence we could enter into a discussion about the matter and give our reasons. Perhaps we’d reach agreement, perhaps not. If not, what of it?

Well, one might throw up one’s hands and say, but then, but then, isn’t the distinction between literature and non-literature pointless? No, difficult and fuzzy, yes; pointless, no. There are color patches that are obviously blue and other ones that are obviously green. That doesn’t mean that difficult cases, cases we decide, perhaps, by tossing a coin, force us to abandon any notion that blue and green are different colors. This or that virtuoso theorist may care to gum up the whole works by invoking a difficult case, but so what? That’s posturing, not thinking.

As for formalism, all I mean is that I’m interested in analyzing and describing the formal properties of literary texts. My big beef with existing literary criticism is that, for the most part, that project seems peripheral to the enterprise despite the fact that form is a central concept of the discipline and formalism a well-recognized critical stance, or family of stances. I find it odd that these formalists, for whom the general fact of form is so very important, show so little interest in specific instances that they cannot spend time analyzing texts for their formal features.

Kant on phenomenal vs. mere form

But I think Lehman’s article can help us sort this out.

He opens by observing (p. 245):
... the ascendancy of the old formalisms—of the Yale School (minus the antiformalist Harold Bloom), or of the New Critics (expanded to include René Wellek and Austin Warren), or even of Aristotle—tended to coincide with an increased attention to or anxiety around the question of literature as such, the rise of the new formalism has not.
But these new formalists are no more interested in describing formal features than those old formalists were. What differentiates these new formalists from the old, it seems, is that “the new formalism has done nothing to answer the question: what is literature? As far as I can tell, it has not even tried” (p. 246). OK, I’m with them on that.

Here’s what Lehman thinks formalism is, both old and new, (p. 246):
At its most basic, I mean an approach to art objects—literature, film, painting, and so on—grounded in an attention to these objects’ spatiotemporal qualities, their phenomenal qualities, which might allow for the transmission of a content or a meaning but that are not themselves intrinsically meaningful. As a critical practice, then, formalism would prescribe consideration of meter, line, composition, rhythm, movement, shape: all those characteristics that are supposed to make an art object what it is. Now, I hope that this definition is broad enough to be relatively uncontroversial. I intend it to be prior both to Levinson’s distinction between “activist” and “normative” formalism—that is, between approaches that affirm and approaches that deny the compatibility of formalism and historicism—and to the question of what model of form ought to be adopted—static or dynamic, molar or molecular. And it does not depend on any especially rigid division of form from content, a division that certain varieties of formalism pride themselves on their having moved beyond.
Am I a formalist in THAT sense? Let’s be careful here.

Jerry Seinfeld: It's 98% in how you deliver the joke

Here's Jerry Seinfeld talking with George Stephanopoulos (who, you may recall, had been White House Communications Director under Bill Clinton) about comedy. In his new Netflix special Seinfeld returns to the oldest jokes in his repertoire. Starting at about 2:28 he talks about he had to relearn ALL of the old bits, which he illustrates with one about cotton balls.

Stephanopoulos: It's not just what's on paper?
Seinfeld: No, no. That's...two percent of it. 98 percent is the way you do it.
There's a shot in the special where we see all the yellow pads on which Seinfeld crafted his jokes. We see that shot in this little clip.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

What I got from Blade Runner

reality dispersion vector zed 574.009 epsilon 38

super secret government laboratory in a place that nobody can ever know about

Why the New Intellectuals Don't Cut It

Back in the mid-1990s I met one Cuda Brown (not his real name) online. We hit it off and went on to establish one of the first black zones on the internet. We started out as Meanderings, a newsletter that Cuda had been circulating privately among his friends, but it time that morphed into Gravity, which then died because we didn't have the means to sustain the effort. But it was fun for the year or so that it lasted. We had one of the first discussion forums on the web, something that Cuda coded up in a DB program – Informix? – and we did a collaboration with Vibe Magazine on the trial of O. J. Simpson.

Cuda wrote a number of pieces, including this stunner on his early days as a black nationalist, and I wrote some, including this one from March 1995, which I'm reprinting here on New Savanna. It's a bit old, but made a point or two. Black intellectuals now have a lot more to say about music than they did back then, though not, I'm sure, through any influence by this piece. It's just the logical thing to do. As for the psychology I discuss, still a deafening silence. You might want to look at the list I give, which I took from Robert Boynton's piece in The Atlantic Monthly, and see how they've fared over the last two decades. BTW, you might notice that the domain name for those various pages is "newsavanna". Where do you think I got the name for my blog?

* * * * *
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack
Bring that man's baby back.
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack! . .
I want my spirit back.
Bubble music being seen and heard on Saturday night
Blinding the eyes of ones that's supposed to see!
Bubble music, being played and showed, throughout America.
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack . .
Somebody's mind's got off the goddamn track!
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack . . .
Won't somebody bring the Spirit back?
. . . .
Who will it be? Who will it be?
It certainly won't be someone that says that they're free.
– Rahsaan Roland Kirk
The Atlantic Monthly for March [1995] features an important article by Robert S. Boynton about "The New Intellectuals," by which he means a group of thinkers who are both public intellectuals and black intellectuals. They are public in the sense that they often address themselves to a general educated audience rather than speaking exclusively to an audience of academic specialists. They are black in two senses. In the first place they have enough so-called black blood in their veins that they would be classified as black by census-takers. In the second they are variously concerned with what it means to black and American, or American and black, or, increasingly, just plain American.

Toward the end of the article, Boynton asserts that "If today's black intellectuals have not yet–with the exception of Toni Morrison's extraordinary novels–produced a body of work that will sustain itself through the Darwinian selection process of American culture, there is no reason to believe that they won't. They are relatively young, and a number seem to be just hitting their stride." The purpose of this essay is to suggest that if these 40-something intellectuals (plus or minus a decade) don't soon get some funkadelic glide in their stride, some jivometric pep in their step, there is little chance that they will produce a deep and abiding body of work, though one can always hope that they will produce an intellectual climate in which others may come along and walk where they fear to tread.

As a group, their collective work has two central weaknesses in my view:
  1. However much they may admire black music, they don't make it central to their thought and writing.
  2. Whatever they may know about the psychodynamics of racism, they are unwilling to talk and write about it.
The joint effect of their blindness is that they cannot address themselves to the deepest dynamics of American culture. They weave elegant designs around the edges, but the warp and woof are invisible to them.

Caveat Emptor – “Don't let a fox stand guard over the chickens”

Before I begin, I should make a disclaimer or two. First, the weaknesses I've indicated don't apply uniformly to all in Boynton's anointed group, which is a large and diverse bunch of folks including, in no particular order:
Toni Morrison, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Orlando Patterson, Shelby Steele, David Levering Lewis, Stanley Crouch, Patricia Williams, William Julius Wilson, bell hooks, Houston Baker, Randall Kennedy, Michael Eric Dyson, Gerald Early, Jerry Watts, Robert Gooding-Williams, Nell Painter, Thomas Sowell, Ellis Cose, Juan Williams, Lani Guinier, Glenn Loury, Michelle Wallace, Manning Marable, Adolph Reed, June Jordan, Walter Williams, and Derrick Bell.
Stanley Crouch and Gerald Early have, for example, written extensively about black music. Houston Baker has written a book about hip hop, though he's more concerned with the lyrics than with rhyme, rhythm and artistic technique. Cornel West has a chapter in Race Matters about sex and race, which is at the heart of racist psychodynamics. For the most part, however, the music is more admired than analyzed and understood and the subject of psychodynamics is left untouched and, therefore, unscathed.

The other qualification is personal and negative. I haven't read all of those folks, so I may well be sticking a foot or two in my mouth. Just so you know, I have read at least something, and generally more, by the following: Toni Morrison, Orlando Patterson, Stanley Crouch, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks, Houston Baker, Gerald Early, Thomas Sowell, and Juan Williams. Beyond this, I know something about the work of many of those whom I haven't read. In particular, I know their work doesn't address the issues I've mentioned above.

While critiquing individuals for what they don't do is a doubtful enterprise, and one I will nonetheless undertake, my real criticism is of the group. Boynton has written about and invested hope in them as a group. My criticism is directed at deficiencies in the intellectual program one can expect of this aggregation. To the extent they can control and influence discourse about America, we are in trouble. That trouble is not so deep as that presented by, say, the religious right, but it is a trouble progressive folk would be better off without.

Finally, regardless of what may seem to be a rather nasty critique, I should say that reading these folks has given me much pleasure and more than a little insight. Thus my criticism is in the spirit of the "loyal opposition." They have much to teach us. But, they also have much to learn about themselves and about America. It's about time they cut the cord and get on with it.

Music and The New Intellectuals

Let's begin by looking at just why these folks don't write very much about the music so many of them clearly love and draw on for spiritual strength. The reason is simple. They are intellectuals functioning in a tradition which has been and still is deeply suspicious of music (and any other expressive form, though literature has received partial dispensation since it consists of words artfully arrayed). Hence that tradition doesn't demand that you have any significant understanding of music in order to sport the credentials of an intellectual or that you take such understanding into the public arena. Plato condemned music 2400 years ago and the curse has stuck. The sin of the father has been dogging the sons and daughters ever since.

Thus, if you go into the stacks of any major research library you'll find many more pages about Shakespeare than Beethoven, Balzac than Mozart, Dante than Bach, or Goethe than Brahms. Clearly, music is not held in so high a regard as literature. No doubt that this is in part attributable to the fact that writing about music seems more difficult than writing about literature. To go much beyond impressionist evocation of feelings and styles, you must learn something of music theory so you can discuss technique and structure in musical terms. When well done, such as Charles Rosen's superb The Classical Style, the result is as deep and illuminating as any work of literary analysis. But, on the whole, the intellectual community clearly does not believe the end is worth the trouble of actually learning how to think about music.