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Archive for January, 2006

Over my shoulder #8: Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, which I’ve been re-reading in parts recently, as a source for WikiPedia contributions on Andrea Dworkin and a new entry on Women Against Pornography. I mention, off to one side, that things are often more complicated than they seem, and that this is relevant to one of the most frequent questions that Roderick and I most frequently get on our qualified defense of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, and our passing comments about anti-pornography radical feminism, in our paper on libertarian feminism.

Brownmiller has been discussing the fights over municipal anti-pornography civil rights ordinances authored by Dworkin and MacKinnon in 1983-1984.

Andrea mailed me a copy of the ordinance on December 29, the day before it passed by one vote in the city council. I hadn’t even known that she and MacKinnon were in Minneapolis and working on legislation, but on reading the bill I quickly concluded that it was unworkable—full of overblown rhetoric, overly broad and vague intentions, tricky and convoluted legal locutions. Any court in the land, I believed, would find it unconstitutional, an observation I offered in my usual blunt manner when Andrea called a few days later to get my endorsement.

I assured her I would not go public with my negative opinion. I still cared tremendously about the issue, and for all its flaws, I figured the ordinance might be a valuable consciousness-raiser and organizing tool. In a bad lapse of political judgment, I failed to perceive how it would polarize an already divided feminist community by providing an even better organizing tool for the opposition. Not that what I thought mattered at that point. I had ceded leadership in antipornography work to those willing to carry it forward when I’d retreated to finish my book on femininity, just then reaching bookstores after a very long haul.

Few people noticed my absence from the national list of ordinance supporters. Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Phyllis Chesler, and the new leadership of Women Against Pornography had already sent Dworkin and MacKinnon their glowing commendations. I thought it was fucking brilliant, Robin Morgan remembers, just brilliant the way they circumvented the criminal statutes and obscenity codes identified with the right wing, and took a new path through the concept of harm and civil rights discrimination. Robin, coiner of the slogan Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice, did not se any constitutional problem. If I had, she concedes, I doubt that it would have affected my position.

The ordinance was vetoed within days of its passage by Mayor Donald Fraser, who maintained that the city did not have the financial resources to defend the law’s constitutionality in court. Seven months later it came up before the council again, with minor modifications. This time around, pornography was defined only as a contributory factor, not central to the subordination of women. Dorchen Leidholdt flew to Minneapolis to help with a petition drive. Upon her return, she persuaded Women Against Pornography to contribute a few thousand dollars from its dwindling treasury to the effort.

The switch from a plucky, inventive campaign to educate the public about pornography’s dangers to the promotion of new legislation was a huge change in direction for WAP, although given the times, it was probably inevitable. Mehrhof and Alexander, the last of WAP’s original full-time organizers, had already resigned, needing a more reliable weekly paycheck than antipornography work could offer. Increasingly frustrated, the remaining activists had lost their faith in the powers of hand-cranked slide shows and hastily organized protest demonstrations to curb a phenomenal growth industry which was taking advantage of the latest technologies (pre-Internet) to create a multibillion dollar X-rated home video market, Dial-a-Porn, and public-access television channels.

Although WAP backed the ordinance, other antiporn groups were not so sanguine about it. In Washington, political scientist Janet Gornick recalls, the ordinance split her group, Feminists Against Pornography, right down the middle, and ultimately she resigned. We were black and white, lesbian and straight, and almost every one of us had been a victim of sexual violence, says Gornick, whose own activism had started six years earlier, after she was stabbed on the street, dragged twenty feet, and raped a block away from the Harvard campus in a crime that was never solved. FAP was doing very daring direct-action things in addition to the usual slide shows and Take Back the Nights, she relates. We were waging a small war against the Fourteenth Street porn strip north of the White House. But the minute I heard about Minneapolis, I knew it was a strategic catastrophe. It broke my heart. Before then we’d always maintained that we wern’t for new legislation, that we weren’t trying to ban anything. Some of our younger members just couldn’t comprehend that very committed feminists—our elders, our leaders, who were pulling us along by their rhetoric—could make such a big mistake that would lead the movement astray.

… The decision to ally herself with FACT and against the ordinance had come only after some tortured soul-searching by [Adrienne] Rich, whose previous expressions of faith in Andrea Dworkin had attributed to her leadership the greatest depth and grasp. In a special statement for off our backs, optimistically titled We Don’t Have to Come Apart over Pornography, the activist poet wrote, I am less sure than Dworkin and MacKinnon that this is a time when further powers of suppression should be turned over to the State. The lawyer and writer Wendy Kaminer, another early WAP member, went public with her opposition to the ordinance a year or so later.

—Susan Brownmiller, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (1999). 319-322.

Over My Shoulder #7: Allan Bloom’s Giants and Dwarfs

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Allan Bloom’s Giants and Dwarfs: An Outline of Gulliver’s Travels, as reprinted in Giants and Dwarfs: Essays 1960—1990. I add only an emphatic reminder of Rule 4, Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I don’t. Whether I do or not isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

… And we may further suppose that Gulliver has certain hidden thoughts and intentions which are only to be revealed by closely cross-examining him. He indicates this himself at the close of his travels when he swears to his veracity. He uses for this solemn occasion Sinon’s treacherous oath to the Trojans, by means of which that worthy managed to gain admission for the horse and its concealed burden of Greeks.

I should like to suggest that this book is also such a container, filled with Greeks who are, once introduced, destined to conquer a new Troy, or, translated into the little language, destined to conquer Lilliput. In other words, I wish to contend that Gulliver’s Travels is one of the last explicit statements in the famous Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns and perhaps the greatest intervention in that notorious argument. By means of the appeal of its myth, it keeps alive the classical vision in ages when even the importance of the quarrel is denied, not to speak of the importance of that classical viewpoint, which appears to have been swamped by history. The laughter evoked by Gulliver’s Travels is authorized by a standard drawn from Homer and Plato.

Prior to entering directly into the contents of the book, I should try to make this assertion somewhat more extrinsically plausible. The quarrel itself is today regarded as a petty thing, rather ridiculous on both sides, a conventional debate between old and new, reactionary and progressive, which later ages have resolved by way of synthesis. Both sides lacked perspective; intellectual history is but one long continuous development. Moreover, the quarrel is looked on largely as a purely literary dispute, originating in the comparison of Greek and Roman poetry with French. Now this understanding is quite different from that of the participants, who, if not always the best judges, must be the first witnesses in any hearing. They understood the debate over poetry to be a mere subdivision of an opposition between two comprehensive systems of radically opposed thought, one finding its source in ancient philosophy, the other in modern philosophy. The moderns believed that they had found the true principles of nature, and that, by means of their methods, new sources of power could be found in physical nature, politics, and the arts. These new principles represented a fundamental break with classical thought and were incompatible with it. The poetic debate was meant, on the part of the advocates of modernity, only to show the superiority of modern thought based on modern talents and modern freedom in the domain where the classics were most indisputably masters and models. The quarrel involved the highest principles about the first causes of all things and the best way of life. It marked a crossroad, one of the very few at which mankind has been asked to make a decisive change in direction. The choice once made, we have forgotten that this was not the only road, that there was another one before us, either because we are ignorant of a possible choice or because we are so sure that this is the only road to Larissa. It is only by return to our starting point that the gravity of the choice can be realized; and at that crossroad one finds the quarrel. It is not, I repeat, a quarrel among authors as such, but among principles.

In his own way, Swift presents and contrasts those principles. He characterizes ancient philosophy as a bee whose wings produce music and flight and who thus visits all the blossoms of the field and garden … and in collecting from them enriches himself without the least injury to their beauty, their smell, or their taste. This bee is opposed to a house-building spider, who thinks he produces his own world from himself and is hence independent, but who actually feeds on filth and produces excrement. As the bee says, So, in short, the question comes all to this; whether is the nobler being of the two, that by a lazy contemplation of four inches round, by an overweening pride, feeding and engendering on itself, turns all into excrement or venom, producing nothing at all, but flybane and a cobweb; or that which by a universal range, with long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things, brings honey and wax.

This description is drawn from one of Swift’s earliest writings, The Battle of the Books. Gulliver’s Travels was one of his latest. Throughout his life Swift saw the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns as the issue in physics, poetry, and politics, and it is in the light of it that he directed his literary career and his practical life. The quarrel is the key to the diverse strands of this various man; his standards of judgment are all classical; his praise and blame are always in accord with that of Plato. He learned how to live within his own time in the perspective of an earlier one. Swift, the Tory and the High Churchman, was a republican and a nonbeliever.

Gulliver’s Travels is always said to be a satire, and there is no reason to quarrel with this designation. But it is not sufficient, for satire is concerned with a view to what is serious and ridiculous, good and bad. It is not enough to say that human folly is ridiculed; what was follow to Aristophanes would not have seemed so to Tertullian, and conversely. If the specific intention of the satire is not uncovered, the work is trivialized. Swift intended his book to instruct, and the character of that instruction is lost if we do not take seriously the issues he takes seriously. But we do not even recognize the real issues in the Quarrel, let alone try to decide which side had the greatest share of truth. In our time, only Leo Strauss has provided us with the scholarship and the philosophic insight necessary to a proper confrontation of ancients and moderns, and hence his works are the prolegomena to a recovery of Swift’s teaching. Swift’s rejection of modern physical and political science seems merely ill-tempered if not viewed in relation to a possible alternative, and it is Leo Strauss who has elaborated the plausibility, nay, the vital importance, of that alternative. Now we are able to turn to Swift, not only for amusement but for possible guidance as to how we should live. Furthermore, Swift’s art of writing explicitly follows the rhetorical rules for public expression developed by the ancients, of which we have been reminded by Professor Strauss. The rhetoric was a result of a comprehensive reflection about the relation between philosophy and politics, and it points to considerations neglected by the men of letters of the Enlightenment. Gulliver’s Travels is in both substance and form a model of the problems which we have been taught to recognize as our own by Leo Strauss.

—Allan Bloom, Giants and Dwarfs: An Outline of Gulliver’s Travels (1964), in printed in Giants and Dwarfs: Essays 1960–1990 (1990). 35–38.

Over My Shoulder #6: Oliver Sacks’s Seeing Voices

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Oliver Sacks’s Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf (1989). I broke the rules a bit here: rather than a single passage of a few paragraphs, I have two, because the latter one reinforces one of the important points of the former, and also because it’s damn near impossible to pick out any one thing that is the most interesting from the chapter. So here goes:

The situation of the prelingually deaf, prior to 1750, was indeed a calamity: unable to acquire speech, hence dumb or mute; unable to enjoy free communication with even their parents and families; confined to a few rudimentary signs and gestures; cut off, except in large cities, even from the community of their own kind; deprived of literacy and education, all knowledge of the world; forced to do the most menial work; living alone, often close to destitution; treated by the law and society as little better than imbeciles—the lot of the deaf was manifestly dreadful.

But what was manifest was as nothing to the destitution inside—the destitution of knowledge and thought that prelingual deafness could bring, in the absence of any communication or remedial measures. The deplorable state of the deaf aroused both the curiosity and the compassion of the philosophes. Thus the Abbé Sicard asked:

Why is the uneducated deaf person isolated in nature and unable to communicate with other men? Why is he reduced to this state of imbecility? Does his biological constitution differ from ours? Does he not have everything he needs for having sensations, acquiring ideas, and combining them to do everything that we do? Does he not get sensory impressions from objects as we do? Are these not, as with us, the occasion of the mind’s sensations and its acquired ideas? Why then does the deaf person remain stupid while we become intelligent?

To ask this question—never really clearly asked before—is to grasp its answer, to see that the answer lies in the use of symbols. It is, Sicard continues, because the deaf person has no symbols for fixing and combining ideas … that there is a total communication-gap between him and other people. But what was all-important, and had been a source of fundamental confusion since Aristotle’s pronouncements on the matter, was the enduring misconception that symbols had to be speech. Perhaps indeed this passionte misperception, or prejudice, went back to biblical days: the subhuman status of mutes was part of the Mosaic code, and it was reinforced by the biblical exaltation of voice and ear as the one and true way in which man and God could speak (In the beginning was the Word). And yet, overborne by Mosaic and Aristotelian thunderings, some profound voices intimated that this need not be so. Thus Socrates’ remark in the Cratylus of Plato, which so impressed the youthful Abbé de l’Epée:

If we had neither voice nor tongue, and yet wished to manifest things to one another, should we not, like those which are at present mute, endeavour to signify our meaning by the hands, head, and other parts of the body?

Or the deep, yet obvious, insights of the philosopher-physician Cardan in the sixteenth century:

It is possible to place a deaf-mute in a position to hear by reading, and to speak by writing … for as different sounds are conventionally used to signify different things, so also may the various figures of objects and words …. Written characters and ideas may be connected without the intervention of actual sounds.

In the sixteenth century the notion that the understanding of ideas did not depend upon the hearing of words was revolutionary.

But it is not (usually) the ideas of philosophers that change reality; nor, conversely, is it the practice of ordinary people. What changes history, what kindles revolutions, is the meeting of the two. A lofty mind—that of the Abbé de l’Epée—had to meet a humble usage—the indigenous sign language of the poor deaf who roamed Paris—in order to make possible a momentous transformation. If we ask why this meeting had not occurred before, it has something to do with the vocation of Abbé, who could not bear to think of the souls of the deaf-mute living and dying unshriven, deprived of the Catechism, the Scriptures, the Word of God; and it is partly owing to his humility—that he listened to the deaf—and partly to a philosophical and linguistic idea then very much in the air—that of universal language, like the speceium of which Leibniz dreamed. Thus, de l’Epée approached sign language not with contempt but with awe.

The universal language that your scholars have sought for in vain and of which they have despaired, is here; it is right before your eyes, it is the mimicry of the impoverished deaf. Because you do not know it,you hold it in contempt, yet it alone will provide you with the key to all languages.

That this was a misapprehension—for sign language is not a universal language in this grand sense, and Leibniz’s noble dream was probably a chimera—did not matter, was even an advantage. For what mattered was that the Abbé paid minute attention to his pupils, acquired their language (which had scarcely ever been done by the hearing before). And then, by associating signs with pictures and written words, he taught them to read; and with this, in one swoop, he opened to them the world’s learning and culture. De l’Epée’s system of methodical signs—a combination of their own Sign with signed French grammar—enabled deaf students to write down what was said to them through a signing interpreter, a method so successful that, for the first time, it enaled ordinary deaf pupils to read and write French, and thus acquire an education. His school, founded in 1755, was the first to achieve public support. He trained a multitude of teachers for the deaf, who, by the time of his death in 1789, had established twenty-one schools for the deaf in France and Europe. The future of de l’Epée’s own school seemed uncertain during the turmoil of the revolution, but by 1791 it had become the National Institution for Deaf-Mutes in Paris, headed by the brilliant grammarian Sicard. De l’Epée’s own book, as revolutionary as Copernicus’ in its own way, was first published in 1776.

De l’Epée’s book, a classic, is available in many languages. But what have not been available, have been virtually unknown, are the equally important (and, in some ways, even more fascinating) original writings of the deaf—the first deaf-mutes ever able to write. Harlan Lane and Franklin Philip have done a great service in making these so readily available to us in The Deaf Experience. Especially moving and important are the 1779 Observations of Pierre Desloges—the first book to be published by a deaf person—now available in English for the first time. Desloges himself, deafened at an early age, and virtually without speech, provides us first with a frightening description of the world, or unworld, of the languageless.

At the beginning of my infirmity, and for as long as I was living apart from other deaf people … I was unaware of sign language. I used only scattered, isolated, and unconnected signs. I did not know the art of combining them to form distinct pictures with which one can represent various ideas, transmit them to one’s peers, and converse in logical discourse.

Thus Desloges, though obviously a highly gifted man, could scarcely entertain ideas, or engage in logical discourse, until he had acquired sign language (which, as is usual with the deaf, he learned from someone deaf, in his case from an illiterate deaf-mute).

—Oliver Sacks (1989), Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, pp. 13—18.


When Laurent Clerc (a pupil of Massieu, himself a pupil of Sicard) came to the United States in 1816, he had an immediate and extraordinary impact, for American teachers up to this point had never been exposed to, never even imagined, a deaf-mute of impressive intelligence and education, had never imagined the possibilities dormant in the deaf. With Thomas Gallaudet, Clerc set up the American Asylum for the Deaf, in Hartford, in 1817. As Paris—teachers, philosophes, and public-at-large—was moved, amazed, converted by de l’Epée in the 1770s, so America was to be converted fifty years later.

The atmosphere at the Hartford Asylum, and at other schools soon to be set up, was marked by the sort of enthusiasm and excitement only seen at the start of grand intellectual and humanitarian adventures. The prompt and spectacular success of the Hartford Asylum soon led to the opening of other schools wherever there was sufficient density of population, and thus of deaf students. Virtually all the teachers of the deaf (nearly all of whom were fluent signers and many of whom were deaf) went to Hartford. The French sign system imported by Cleric rapidly amalgamated with the indigenous sign languages here—the deaf generate sign languages wherever there are communities of deaf people; it is for them the easiest and most natural form of communication—to form a uniquely expressive and powerful hybrid, American Sign Language (ASL). A special indigenous strength—presented convincingly by Nora Ellen Groce in her book, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language—was the contribution of Martha’s Vineyard deaf to the development of ASL. A substantial minority of the population there suffered from a hereditary deafness, and most of the island had adopted an easy and powerful sign language. Virtually all the deaf of the Vineyard were sent to the Hartford Asylum in its formative years, where they contributed to the developing national language the unique strength of their own.

One has, indeed, a strong sense of pollination, of people coming to and fro, bringing regional languages, with all their idiosyncracies and strengths, to Hartford, and taking back an increasingly polished and generalized language. The rise of deaf literacy and deaf education was as spectacular in the United States as it had been in France, and soon spread to other parts of the world.

Lane estimates that by 1869 there were 550 teachers of the deaf worldwide and that 41 percent of the teachers of the deaf in the United States were themselves deaf. In 1864 Congress passed a law authorizing the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and the Blind in Washington to become a national deaf-mute college, the first institution of higher learning specifically for the deaf. Its first principal was Edward Gallaudet—the son of Thomas Gallaudet, who had brought Clerc to the United States in 1816. Gallaudet College, as it was later rechristened (it is now Gallaudet University), is still the only liberal arts college for deaf students in the world—though there are now several programs and institutes for the deaf associated with technical colleges. (The most famous of these is at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where there are more than 1,500 deaf students forming the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.)

The great impetus of deaf education and liberation, which had swept France between 1770 and 1820, thus continued its triumphant course in the United States until 1870 (Clerc, immensely active to the end and personally charismatic, died in 1869). And then—and this is the turning point in the entire story—the tide turned, turned against the use of Sign by and for the deaf, so that within twenty years the work of a century was undone.

Indeed, what was happening with the deaf and sign was part of a general (and if one wishes, political) movement of the time: a trend to Victorian oppressiveness and conformism, intolerance of minorities, and minority usages, of every kind—religious, linguistic, ethnic. Thus it was at this time that the little nations and little languages of the world (for example, Wales and Welsh) found themselves under pressure to assimilate and conform.

—Oliver Sacks (1989), Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, pp. 21—24.

Over My Shoulder #5: Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This one is from Susan Sontag’s essay, Against Interpretation (1964):

Interpretation in our own time, however, is even more complex. For the contemporary zeal for the project of interpretation is often prompted not by piety toward the troublesome text (which may conceal an aggression), but by an open aggressiveness, an overt contempt for appearances. The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs behind the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one. The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation. All observable phenomena are bracketed, in Freud’s phrase, as manifest content. This manifest content must be probed and pushed aside to find the true meaning—the latent content—beneath. For Marx, social events like revolutions and wars; for Freud, the events of individual lives (like neurotic symptoms and slips of the tongue) as well as texts (like a dream or a work of art)—all are treated as occasions for interpretation. According to Marx and Freud, these events only seem to be intelligible. Actually, they have no meaning without interpretation. To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it.

Thus, interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a gesture of the mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities. Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.


Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.

Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of meanings. It is to turn the world into this world. (This world! As if there were any other.)

The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.


In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.

This philistinism of interpretation is more rife in literature than in any other art. For decades now, literary critics have understood it to be their task to translate the elements of the poem or play or novel or story into something else. Sometimes a writer will be so uneasy before the naked power of his art that he will install within the work itself—albeit with a little shyness, a touch of the good taste of irony—the clear and explicit interpretation of it. Thomas Mann is an example of such an overcooperative author. In the case of more stubborn authors, the critic is only too happy to perform the job.

The work of Kafka, for example, has been subjected to a mass ravishment by no less than three armies of interpreters. Those who read Kafka as a social allegory see case studies of the frustrations and insanity of modern bureaucracy and its ultimate issuance in the totalitarian state. Those who read Kafka as a psychoanalytic allegory see desperate revelations of Kafka’s fear of his father, his castration anxieties, his sense of his own impotence, his thralldom to his dreams. Those who read Kafka as a religious allegory explain that K. in The Castle is trying to gain access to heaven, that Joseph K. in The Trial is being judged by the inexorable and mysterious justice of God…. Another oeuvre that has attracted interpreters like leeches is that of Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s delicate dramas of the withdrawn consciousness—pared down to essentials, cut off, often represented as physically immobilized—are read as statements about modern man’s alienation from meaning or from God, or as an allegory of psychopathology.

Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Rilke, Lawrence, Gide … one could go on citing author after author; the list is endless of those around whom thick encrustations of interpretation have taken hold. But it should be noted that interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality. Thus, in the notes that Elia Kazan published on his production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it becomes clear that, in order to direct the play, Kazan had to discover that Stanley Kowalski represented the sensual and vengeful barbarism that was engulfing our culture, while Blanche Du Bois was Western civilization, poetry, delicate apparel, dim lighting, refined feelings and all, though a little worse for wear to be sure. Tennessee Williams’ forceful psychological melodrama now became intelligible: it was about something, about the decline of Western civliization. Apparently, were it to go on being a play about a handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy belle named Blanche Du Bois, it would not be manageable.

— Susan Sontag (1964/1966), Against Interpretation, in Against Interpretation, 6—9.