Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Herbert Muschamp's apologia for the travesty that is the new Soldier Field poohpoohs those who object to the defiling of a historic landmark, the squandering of an opportunity to have built an entirely new stadium at half the cost (and with all the cantilevering Muschamp raves about) in a neighborhood in need of revitalization, and the obscene expenditure of taxpayer money for the benefit of the corporate skybox buyers. To Muschamp, all the criticisms assume, wrongly, "that the city should somehow operate outside the economic system we have developed for ourselves in the post-cold-war world. Perhaps it should. Until that dubious prospect is realized, however, we shouldn't expect our architects to do more than aestheticize the actual urban condition."

But if the city -- and in this case it was the mayor who personally bulled the $600 million project through -- operates not just inside the economic system but on behalf of the rulers of that system and against the interests of the citizenry as a whole, then the result will be architecture whose aestheticizing of the urban condition is as ugly as that condition itself. The building, pace Muschamp, does not offer "extremities held in a dynamic state of imbalance" (just as it does not balance the interests of average fans against those of the season-ticket holding elite). Instead, the building destroys what was a historic monument, mars the lakefront, and wastes hundreds of millions of dollars that might have been spent on improving the cities parks and schools, helping struggling cultural organizations, beefing up police, or a hundred other public goods.

On ABC's "Sunday Morning" this past weekend, George Stephanopoulos et. al. chose to include a brief "in memoriam" segment. The distribution of time to recently deceased notables went something like this: Akila al-Hashim, the only Iraqi woman on the governing council, assassinated (5 seconds of silence, fade to black); Edward Said, leading Palestinian intellectual, dead of leukemia (5 seconds of silence, fade to black); George Plimpton, editor of Paris Review and charming but not particularly brilliant man of letters best known for writing about his efforts to compete against real pro baseball players, boxers, etc. (2 minutes or so of footage of Plimpton pitching, getting punched, etc., complete with voiceover). The incongruity in coverage says volumes about television's elevation of entertainment over substance. On the other hand, that ABC mentioned Said's death at all probably sets it above its competitors (though I haven't checked to see if other channels carried it at all).

Sunday, September 28, 2003

David Brooks, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/27/opinion/27BROO.html, "Lonely Campus Voices", offers a paranoiac view of campuses dominated, in the social sciences and humanities, by leftists who systematically drive out conservatives. His evidence? Anecdotes from conservative professors, conservative ex-students, and the canard that "faculties skew overwhelmingly to the left." Had he interviewed radical leftist professors, it is likely that he would have heard the same complaints in reverse. There is no doubt a preponderance of non-conservatives in English and history departments, but also no doubt a preponderance of non-leftists. Most faculty are not politicized (whether this is a good thing or not is another question).

There is, to be sure, a higher percentage of leftists in the humanities and the softer social sciences. But this is counterbalanced by the domination of economics and political science faculties by conservatives, something that of course goes unmentioned by Brooks.

Brooks at least recognizes that conservative profs and their grad students might be discriminated against not for the color of their opinion but the content of their topics. But he confuses the content of conservative approaches to these topics with the topics themselves, which are neutral. Brooks: "the sorts of subjects a conservative is likely to investigate ó say, diplomatic or military history ó do not excite hiring committees. Professors are interested in the subjects they are already pursuing, and in a horrible job market it is easy to toss out applications from people who are doing something different." This is true only if one believes that diplomatic and military history are not being investigated by leftist professors. The problem with conservatives investigating diplomatic or military history is that their work is often (though probably no more often than the work of leftists) not very interesting.

The real split in academia is not between conservatives and leftists, but between the model-building "hard" human sciences and the historically-focused interpretative human sciences. It is a rare thing to find a humanist, left or right, who feels it necessary to ground generalizations (like Brooks' generalizations about how things are for conservative jobseekers in academia) in any evidence beyond anecdote. It is equally rare to find an economist, psychologist, political scientist willing to entertain the possibility that statistical thinking about human behavior might obscure (or leave obscure) crucial aspects of selves and society.
Edward Said had what Dante would have called greatness of soul. His death this past week leaves the many of us who loved and admired him feeling desolated.

I have what may be a unique relationship to Edward. He was my dissertation advisor at Columbia, where I did my graduate work from 1978-1985. My first encounter with him came when I visited Columbia in the spring of 1978 to suss out which grad school offer I should accept. I had asked Bill Chace, one of my favorite profs at Stanford where I was then an undergrad (and who later went on to become president of Wesleyan University), if there were any people at Columbia I should try to meet, and he recommended a fellow named Said. Chace passed this on in a note, and it wasn't until I asked in the English department at Columbia for "Professor Sed" that I learned how Edward's name was pronounced, and gleaned from that that he was from the Middle East. I had dutifully gone to the Stanford library before my trip, and read Edward's book on Conrad. This was a beautiful short discussion of a writer who would remain crucial for Edward throughout his career, not surprising given their shared commitment to both high-modernist complexity and ethical concern. Beginnings was out on permanent recall, so I did not have any sense of Edward's emergence as a major literary theorist. He was then on the verge of releasing Orientalism, a book in which the politics of knowledge that Edward himself had been theorizing (along with Derrida, Foucault, and Chomsky) was applied, in a way analogous to the way Foucault had done to the penal system and discourses of sexuality. Edward's topic of choice was far more contentious and intractable than those topics, of course, and far more a matter of straightforwardly oppressive power, of guns, bullets, bombs, and armies. It would require great courage to wade into such an arena: the death threats, letters filled with excrement, and the like would be part of Edward's everyday life for the rest of his life.

Of all this I was completely ignorant. I knocked on his door and, in what I later came to realize was an incredibly lucky break, was let into the outer office by his secretary. I was astonished to hear through the door to Said's office the voice of Bill Chace talking to Edward. Chace noticed me standing there stunned and, equally surprised, he asked me what I was doing there. I reminded him that he had told me to be sure to try to meet with Prof. Said. By that time Edward had come to the door and, shaking my hand warmly, he told me to come in. Said's office, as I remember it, was dominated by a large, elegant, old wood desk and leather chair, with a blotter, an inbox filled with articles and papers, and a pencil holder crammed with dozens of perfectly sharpened pencils. (Edward refused to use a typewriter, not to mention a word processor, and defended his preference eloquently in an essay some years later.) Along one wall ran an imposing set of shoulder-high file cabinets where articles were meticulously sorted and stored.

I do not know that Edward would have been as genteel if Chace had not been there to grease the skids, but he was enormously charming at that first meeting, and from thereon in always supportive, at least to me. I remember being struck by how tall, elegant, and intense was his presence at that first meeting. The quickness of speech, the slight nervousness and gentle probing in his questions, were very flattering for a college senior, and by the time I left the office I had made up my mind that Columbia was the place for me.

Edward was a great teacher, not so much because of the questions he asked us about our own work but more because of the model he provided of the responsibility of being an intellectual. For many of his students, being like Edward meant putting one's intellectual being in the service of a cause, and unsurprisingly this meant that leftist cant was not uncommon in discussions that went on in his class. But this was kept under control by Edward himself, who was capable of withering responses to stupid presentations or comments: I remember one class in which, as a student droned on, Edward slowly lowered his forehead until it was resting on the seminar table, remaining in that position until the presentation ended. Ideological readings were also kept under control by the intense competitiveness in the students who vied to impress Edward by how much we knew (mirroring his own awesome erudition, evident in his footnotes, which showed a tentacular grasp of the issue in question). Columbia in that era was filled with really smart students (perhaps the fact that they admitted 110 people to my MA class and kept only 20 had something to do with that): among those whom I remember in Edward's class were Sanford Kwinter (who went on to edit Zone Books), Rob Nixon, Ann McClintock, Siri Hustvedt (who became a fine novelist), and Tim Brennan. Edward's favorite (or at least it seemed to us at the time) was Ric Burns, a brilliant talker who disappointed Edward by dropping out of grad school to go make a documentary film with his brother Ken (The Civil War). If you opened your mouth, you wanted to be sure you had read, thought about, and critically contextualized the book under consideration.

It was Edward's performance in his lecture courses that was the most influential on us, for it was in these classes that we could watch him thinking out loud. He would use these classes (at the grad level, at least) to work through issues that would emerge within a couple of months after the end of the course in an essay in Critical Inquiry. The texts he was grappling with at that period, Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness, Benda's Trahison des clercs, were thorny, demanding, and difficult, and it was thrilling to watch Edward bring them into conversation with each other and with him. My most embarrassing class experience came on a cold midwinter day when, with many of us working feverishly to get term papers in on time, Edward, suspecting we had not mastered Lukacs' concept of reification, broke off from his lecture to ask if anyone could define the term. We all faltered and failed, and the hurt look of reprobation on Edward's face I will never forget.

So far as I can recall, among those whom Edward agreed to serve as dissertation director and mentor, I was the only one whose project did not fall under the rubric of postcolonial studies that he established for literary studies during the time I was at Columbia. I was more interested in seeing if the authority of other kinds of knowledge besides Orientalism could also be studied in a way that brought in literature centrally. While it was becoming more and more clear in the early 1980s that postcolonial studies were emerging as a major subfield, and many of Edward's students from that period went on to fill the first positions offered, Edward remained unfailingly supportive to me as I slogged on in relative isolation. Though he became increasingly difficult to schedule an appointment with, and his responses to dissertation chapters was excruciatingly slow, he would sometimes emerge from his office, corral me and drag me and Ric Burns along at a near trot to the nearest restaurant, talking briskly along the way (sometimes quoting a line and asking me who had written it-- usually T.S. Eliot). I remember talking with Edward and Max Rudin (another Columbia grad student, now publisher of Library of America) at one of these lunches about music, and learning that perhaps the only cultural area Edward had not mastered was rock and jazz -- he confessed that he had never learned to improvise on the piano, of which he was a virtuoso who performed once at Carnegie Hall).

The last time I saw Edward was during a visit he made to the University of Chicago in the late 1990s. He was then on one of the many downswings in the battle against leukemia that ultimately claimed him, and asked me to let him lean on me as we walked around at a party and before his lecture. I feared he would not be able to last long at the party, but he brightened and dove into conversations at the party, though he still gripped me shoulder. The same bright, intense gaze, quickness of response, and magnanimity was still there.

I will miss, above all, the possibility of being able to listen to Edward talk.

Edward Said, in memoriam

Saturday, September 27, 2003

This is the first posting for a new blog, the Punching Bag, which I hope to use to both to work off rage and to build rhetorical biceps by hitting the page with responses that might otherwise be shouted at the TV, webpage, or newspaper. Our current public sphere is infected with incredibly high quotients of mendacity and stupidity, linked with the power to inflict great harm both to oneself and to others. Most of my postings are likely to begin from a sense of outrage at what our politicians and media pundits get away with, though I also will be trying to think about and share thoughts about good ideas I learn about or come up with on my own, particularly ideas about the way American arts and culture work and what they do.