Fair Use Blog

Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Clearing Up

A quote to-day from Chapter 23 of one of my Christmas presents — In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent’s delightful book on artificial languages, their inventors, and the communities that (sometimes) sustain them.

We should admire [the inventors of artificial languages] for their raw diligence, not because hard work is a virtue in itself, but because they took their ideas about language as far as they could go and really put them to the test. Who hasn’t at one time or another casually suggested that we would be better off if words had more exact meanings? Or if people paid more attention to logic when they talked? How many have unthinkingly swooned at the magic of Chinese symbols or blamed acrimony between nations on language differences? We don’t take responsibility for these fleeting assumptions, and consequently we don’t suffer for them. The language inventors do, and consequently they did. If we pay attention to the successes and failures of the language inventors, we can learn their hard-earned lessons for free.

We can also gain a deeper appreciation for natural language and the messy qualities that give it so much flexibility and power, and that make it so much more than a simple communication device. The ambiguity and lack of precision allow it to serve as an instrument of thought formulation, of experimentation and discovery. We don’t have to know exactly what we mean before we speak; we can figure it out as we go along. Or not. We can talk just to talk, to be social, to feel connected, to participate. At the same time natural language still works as an instrument of thought transmission, one that can be made extremely precise and reliable when we need it to be, or left loose and sloppy when we can’t spare the time or effort.

When it is important that misunderstandings be avoided, we have access to the same mechanism that allowed Shirley McNaughton’s students to make use of the vague and imprecise Blissymbols, or that allows deaf people to improvise an international sign language—negotiation. We can ask questions, check for signs of confusion, repeat ourselves in multiple ways. More important, we have access to something that language inventors have typically disregarded or even disdained—mere conventional agreement, a shared culture in which definitions have been established by habit. It is convention that allows us to approach a Loglan level of precision in academic and scientific papers or legal documents. Of course to benefit from the precision you must be in on the conventional agreements on which those modes of communication depend. That’s why when specialists want to communicate with a general or lay audience—those who don’t know the conventions—they have to move back toward the techniques of negotiation: slowing down, answering questions, explaining terms, illustrating with examples. . . .

When language inventors try to bypass convention—to make a language that is self-explanatory or universal—they either make a less efficient communications tool, one that shifts too much of the burden to negotiation, like Blissymbolics, or take away too much flexibility by over-determining meaning, like Wilkins’s system did. When they try to take away culture, the place where linguistic conventions are made, they have to substitute something else—like the six-hundred-page book of rules that define Lojban, and that, to date, no human has been able to learn well enough to comfortably engage in the type of conversation that any second-semester language class should be able to handle.

There are types of communication, such as the language of music, that may allow us to access some kind of universal meaning or emotion, but give us no way to say, I left my purse in the car. There are unambiguous systems, such as computer programming languages, that allow us to instruct a machine to perform a certain task, but we must be so explicit about meanings we can normally trust to inference or common sense that it can take hours or days of programming work to achieve even the simplest results. Natural languages may be less universal than music and less precise than programming languages, but they are far more versatile, and useful in our everyday lives, than either.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think. Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision. Language needs its flaws in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.

—Arika Okrent (2009), In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. ISBN 978-0-385-52788-0. 256-258.

Something important to remember: we are, after all, so often calling for clarity in language (whether as philosophers or political radicals or…) and when we do that it’s often easy to think that what we need is language that is perfectly clear. But this is a will-o’-the-wisp; what is interesting and important is clarification as a practice — not the ex ante features of a language or a text, but the process of a conversation.

See also:

“Flaws or Features?” from Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages

Here’s an important passage from Chapter 23 of In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent’s wonderful and engaging book on artificial languages, and the inventors and communities who create and practice them.

The story of invented languages has not been entirely a story of failure. While Wilkins’s project did not become a universal language of truth, he produced an extraordinary document, a snapshot of linguistic meaning in his culture and era—and paved the way for the thesaurus. Esperanto did not become an auxiliary language for the whole world, but it did become a real, living language, and in the small sphere of people who use it, it does seem to promote a general atmosphere of international understanding and respect. Blissymbolics found a way to be useful, despite the wishes and actions of its creator, and Loglan lives on today, despite not having fulfilled its scientific mission.

One could argue that the success of these languages is only accidental, and makes their inventors no less naive, or misguided, or presumptuous. Just because they produced something that turned out to have some value for someone doesn’t mean they deserve to be admired. We should admire them, however, for their raw diligence, not because hard work is a virtue in itself, but because they took their ideas about language as far as they could go and really put them to the test. Who hasn’t at one time or another casually suggested that we would be better off if words had more exact meanings? Or if people paid more attention to logic when they talked? How many have unthinkingly swooned at the magic of Chinese symbols or blamed acrimony between nations on language differences? We don’t take responsibility for these fleeting assumptions, and consequently we don’t suffer for them. The language inventors do, and consequently they did. If we pay attention to the successes and failures of the language inventors, we can learn their hard-earned lessons for free.

We can also gain a deeper appreciation for natural language and the messy qualities that give it so much flexibility and power, and that make it so much more than a simple communication device. The ambiguity and lack of precision allow it to serve as an instrument of thought formulation, of experimentation and discovery. We don’t have to know exactly what we mean before we speak; we can figure it out as we go along. Or not. We can talk just to talk, to be social, to feel connected, to participate. At the same time natural language still works as an instrument of thought transmission, one that can be made extremely precise and reliable when we need it to be, or left loose and sloppy when we can’t spare the time or effort.

When it is important that misunderstandings be avoided, we have access to the same mechanism that allowed Shirley McNaughton’s students to make use of the vague and imprecise Blissymbols, or that allows deaf people to improvise an international sign language—negotiation. We can ask questions, check for signs of confusion, repeat ourselves in multiple ways. More important, we have access to something that language inventors have typically disregarded or even disdained—mere conventional agreement, a shared culture in which definitions have been established by habit. It is convention that allows us to approach a Loglan level of precision in academic and scientific papers or legal documents. Of course to benefit from the precision you must be in on the conventional agreements on which those modes of communication depend. That’s why when specialists want to communicate with a general or lay audience—those who don’t know the conventions—they have to move back toward the techniques of negotiation: slowing down, answering questions, explaining terms, illustrating with examples. Convention is a faster, more efficient instrument of meaning transmission, but it comes with a cost. You have to learn the conventions. In the extreme cases this means a few years of graduate training or law school. In general it means getting experience with the way other speakers—of English, Spanish, Greenlandic Eskimo, or whatever language you’re interested in learning—use their words and phrases.

When language inventors try to bypass convention—to make a language that is self-explanatory or universal—they either make a less efficient communications tool, one that shifts too much of the burden to negotiation, like Blissymbolics, or take away too much flexibility by over-determining meaning, like Wilkins’s system did. When they try to take away culture, the place where linguistic conventions are made, they have to substitute something else—like the six-hundred-page book of rules that define Lojban, and that, to date, no human has been able to learn well enough to comfortably engage in the type of conversation that any second-semester language class should be able to handle.

There are types of communication, such as the language of music, that may allow us to access some kind of universal meaning or emotion, but give us no way to say, I left my purse in the car. There are unambiguous systems, such as computer programming languages, that allow us to instruct a machine to perform a certain task, but we must be so explicit about meanings we can normally trust to inference or common sense that it can take hours or days of programming work to achieve even the simplest results. Natural languages may be less universal than music and less precise than programming languages, but they are far more versatile, and useful in our everyday lives, than either.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think. Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision. Language needs its flaws in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.

—Arika Okrent (2009), In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. ISBN 978-0-385-52788-0. 255-258.

“I have a need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice around me to melt.” William Lloyd Garrison on rhetoric and polarization, from Henry Mayer (1998), All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery

William Lloyd Garrison was famous for his uncompromising, strident, and deliberately polarizing moral tone when writing about the sin of slavery and the call for immediate abolition. One of his most famous statements on the matter was a comment to his friend and fellow abolitionist Samuel May — a comment that has been often quoted but also often difficult to track down sources for, because the conversation was not recorded in the pages of Garrison’s paper The Liberator, but only in May’s memoirs. This passage is from Henry Mayer’s 1998 biography of William Lloyd Garrison, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin’s Press) discusses Garrison’s rhetorical choices, and recounts the conversation with May.

Unlike the self-effacing Lundy, Garrison had deliberately chosen to make himself an issue. There shall be no neutrals; men shall either like or dislike me, he announced. The editor—and the newspaper as an extension of himself—would draw energy, like a lightning rod, to galvanize the cause. His statements poured forth with an intensity that seemed more like a spontaneous eruption than a composed literary style, which was precisely the effect Garrison wanted. He could have been as smooth and politic as anyone, the editor once observed, but declared that he much preferred nature to art. It was nonetheless a deliberate decision, not an irresistible impulse, that led him to write as he did. He chose his words, one close friend said, with the care of a pharmacist weighing out a prescription.

Nearly every visitor commented upon the surprising contrast between the private Garrison and the public firebrand. People walked in expecting to find a stout, rugged, dark-visaged desperado, as one guest put it, and found instead a pale, delicate, and apparently over-tasked gentleman scurrying from desk to case to imposing stone, making light of the work with an unending series of hymn tunes and jokes, and stopping occasionally to stroke the pussycat stretched out affectionately on the periphery of the work space. Never too busy to talk, it seemed, Garrison stimulated an unending flow of conversation—copious, strong-minded, and fervent—that often turned the printing office into a seminar or Sunday school. The self-effacing Knapp formeda silent backdrop to conversation, as he struggled with the ledgers, the slips of paper containing fragments of subscription information, and the stack of bills. Knapp worked hard, spoke little, and quietly nursed the petty resentments that would one day rupture the bond with his more exuberant partner.

Each week Garrison took a perverse delight in reprinting the jibes of editors who called him everything from an officious and pestiferous fanatic to a mawkish sentimentalist who wept over imaginary suffering like boarding school misses and antiquated spinsters. The insults, he said, are like oil to the flame of my zeal. When New York’s Mordecai Noah, one of the most caustic editors in the country, dismissed Garrison as a printer by trade and a reformer of empires by profession, he accepted the sneer as a compliment. He had less patience, however, with people who professed sympathy for the cause but insisted that he moderate his conduct before committing themselves. Such demands came, significantly, from well-to-do whites; the editor’s black constituents seldom found his language too harsh or angry. A pinch of practical help—donations, subscribers, a supply of larger paper—would do more for the cause than all the admonitions to reform the reformers, Garrison said. It was not his language that caused offense, for virtually every editor engaged in the freewheeling style that seemed the essenec of a bumptious and aggressive free press, but rather the subject to which Garrison applied his words.

Yet even Samuel May, who understood more than most the dramaturgy of Garrison’s editorship, once entreated him to be more temperate. While out for a walk in early spring, Garrison listened patiently and tenderly, May recalled, as the older man rehearsed the concerns of their more timorous friends. Then, however, Garrison exploded, insisting that he would only soften his language when the poor downtrodden slaves tell me that I am too harsh.

O, my friend, urged May, do try to moderate your indignation, and keep more cool; why, you are all on fire.

Garrison stopped walking and looked straight at his beloved friend. He laid his hand upon May’s shoulder with a kind but emphatic pressure and, speaking slowly, with deep emotion, said:

Brother May, I have a need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice around me to melt.

The two friends stood there in the street, silent for a moment, and May could feel the pressure on his shoulder long after Garrison had withdrawn his hand. From that hour, May wrote forty years later, I have never said a word to Mr. Garrison in complaint of his style.

Henry Mayer (1998), All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 118-120

In the reference notes, on page 645, Mayer notes that the source for the all on fire conversation is Samuel Joseph May, Some Recollections of Our Anti-Slavery Conflict (Boston, 1869), pp. 36-37.

Over My Shoulder #38: Yael Tamir, “Siding with the Underdogs” in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from Yael Tamir’s essay, Siding with the Underdogs, in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, an anthology based on the title essay by Susan Moller Okin.

Why do group rights serve best the interests of those members of society who are powerful and conservative? To begin with, the notion of group rights as it is often used in the current debate presupposes that the group is a unified agent. Rights are bestowed upon the group in order to preserve its tradition and defend its interests. Identifying the tradition and the interests of the group becomes a precondition for realizing these rights. Consequently, internal schisms and disagreements are perceived as a threat to the ability of the group to protect its rights. Group leaders are therefore motivated to foster unanimity, or at least an appearance of unanimity, even at the cost of internal oppression.

Attempts to achieve unanimity are particularly dangerous in those communities which lack formal, democratic decision-making processes. Under such circumstances it is the elderly of the tribe, members of councils of sages, who determine the groups’ norms and interests. Members of such bodies are commonly men, who endorse a rather orthodox point of view. Social norms and institutions place these individuals within a dominant position, and group rights consolidate this position even further. Granting nondemocratic communities group rights thus amounts to siding with the privileged and the powerful against those who are powerless, oppressed, and marginalized, with the traditionalists (often even the reactionary) against the nonconformists, the reformers, and the dissenters.

The conservative nature of group rights is reinforced by the justifications adduced in their defense. The group is granted rights in order to preserve its culture, language, tradition. These are described, by most defenders of group rights, in nostalgic, nonrealistic terms. They are depicted as authentic, unique, even natural. Those who attempt to consolidate the conservative way of doing things are therefore portrayed as loyal defenders of the group, those who strive for social transformation and cultural reformers are perceived as agents of assimilation who betray the group and its tradition. The former are depicted as virtuous individuals who dedicate themselves to the common good; the latter are suspected of being motivated by narrow self-interest—of giving priority to short-term preferences for personal comfort and prosperity over long-term commitments to the welfare of the community.

Agents of social and cultural change are portrayed as feeble-minded individuals who are tempted by the material affluence of the surrounding society, as those who sell their soul to an external devil in exchange for some glittering beads. It therefore seems legitimate to criticize, scorn, even persecute them. This is the fate of Reform Jews who are often portrayed by the Orthodox establishment as irresponsible, weak-minded, pleasure-seeking individuals who wish to escape the burden of Judaism in order to adopt a less demanding lifestyle. Reform Jews, Orthodox argue, are swayed by the external (and superficial) beauty of Christian architecture and ceremonies. The reforms they offer are seen as grounded in mimicry, as an attempt to be like the Gentiles rather than as a call to reevaluate Judaism and offer ways in which it can answer the needs and challenges of modernity. Reform Judaism is therefore portrayed as a threat to the survival of Judaism rather than as an attempt to save it.

The use of the term survival in the context of the debate over group rights is common, yet alarming. It misdescribes what is at stake, intensifying the cost of change and fostering the belief that any violation of social and religious norms, any reform of traditional institutions and the group’s customary ways of life, endangers its existence and must therefore be rejected.

Moreover, it intentionally obscures the distinction between two kinds of communal destruction: the first results from external pressures exhorted by nonmembers; the second, from the desire of members of the community. It is clear why we ought to protect a community and its members in cases of the first kind, but should we protect a community also against the preferences of its own members? Is it just, or desirable, to allow those who aspire to preserve the communal tradition—often members of the dominant and privileged elite—to force others who have grown indifferent or even hostile to this tradition to adhere to that tradition?

Obviously, defenders of group rights who use the term survival to denote cultural continuity tend to give priority to this end over and above individual rights. Charles Taylor’s discussion of the Canadian case demonstrates this order of priorities: It is axiomatic for the Quebec government that the survival and flourishing of French culture in Quebec is a good …. It is not just a matter of having the French language available for those who might choose it …. Policies aimed at survival actively seek to create members of the community, for instance, in their assuring that future generations continue to identify as French speakers.

It should be clear by now that in the Canadian case, as well as in the debate between Orthodox and Reform Judaism, the term survival refers not to the actual survival of the community or its members but to the survival of the traditional way of life. It is used to justify the taking of extreme measures, including disregard for individual rights and forceful suspension of internal criticism, for the sake of preventing change. But is there a reason to prevent a particular way of life from undergoing change? Should one protect a community against cultural revisions or reforms, even radical ones, if these are accepted by its members? The answer to the above question depends on the motivations one may have for protecting cultures or traditions.

An approach that is grounded in the right of individuals to pursue their lives the way they see fit must support individuals who wish to reform their tradition and change their lifestyle as much as it ought to support individuals who wish to retain their traditional way of life. It must be attentive to the kind of life plans individuals adopt and pursue, without prejuding in favor of conservative options. It should therefore defend individuals against pressures to conform and protect their choices to reform their tradition or even exit the community altogether. The opposite is true for an approach that is motivated by the desire to defend endangered cultures. Such an approach must favor conservative forces over reformist ones, even at the price of harming some individual interests. Obviously multiculturalism that is grounded in the former approach is friendly to feminism, while that which is grounded in the latter is not.

—Yael Tamir (1999), Siding with the Underdogs, in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

What’s in a name? or: Over My Shoulder #23: from Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995)

This doubles as this week’s Over My Shoulder. Sort of, because I’m tossing out one of the rules for this week. Normally, here’s how it goes:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

This week, I’m ignoring rule 2, because I happen to be working on a paper and it’ll be useful to sketch some notes down for it while I’m here. In any case, here’s the quote. This is from Chapter 10, A Libertarian Politics, in Chris Sciabarra’s 1995 study, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. I read this in the student center at Wayne State in Detroit, right after (of all things) touring a great little exhibit on the centenniel of the Industrial Workers of the World, hosted at the Reuther Labor Library. Here, Sciabarra is discussing Ayn Rand’s defense of the free market, and her deliberate use of the name capitalism to describe what she was defending:

Rand’s defense of capitalism is similar in form to her defense of selfishness. In fact, Rand titled her collection of essays in social theory, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, for much the same reasons that she titled her collection of essays on morality, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. Both capitalism and selfishness have had such a negative conceptual history that Rand needed to reclaim these concepts and to recast them in a new and nondualistic framework. Branden remarks that he had told Rand of his preference for the word libertarianism as an alternative to capitalism, since the latter term had been coined by anticapitalists. For Branden, libertarianism signified a broader, philosophical characterization and addressed the issues of social, political and economic freedom (Branden 1978, 60). But Rand refused to renounce the concept of capitalism, just as she rejected any attempt to couch her ethos of rational selfishness in more neutral terms.

In addition to such nominal problems, Rand was faced with the fact that her defense of capitalism differed considerably from other theoretical justifications. Rand’s approach is not Weberian; she did not view capitalism as an expression of the Protestant work ethic. Nor did she view capitalism as compatible with Roman Catholicism, or any other form of religion. Though she accepted the empirical and theoretical arguments of Austrian-school economists who see the market as the most efficient and productive mechanism in history, she refused to defend capitalism on purely utilitarian grounds. And while Rand celebrates the record of economic growth under Western capitalism, she believes that the historical reality diverged radically from a pure, unadulterated laissez-faire system. While the nineteenth-century United States best approximated this system, its progress was severely undermined by massive government intervention in the areas of finance and banking, and in the bolstering of monopolies through land grants and industrial privileges. Marx himself had viewed this nineteenth-century system as only an approximation of full capitalism, since it was adulterated and amalgamated with survivals of former economic conditions (Capital 3:175). For Rand, as for most Marxists, this mixed system reached its twentieth-century climax in the neofascist and corporativist policies of the U.S. welfare-warfare state.

Rand argued that the underlying reason for this failure to achieve systemic purity was moral and cultural. Capitalism as a social system was an implicit by-product of an Aristotelian philosophical base, one that celebrated the rational, the secular, and the egoistic. And yet capitalism was historically distorted because the cultures within which it evolved had not fully emerged from the influence of mysticism, altruism, and collectivism. Rand saw capitalism and altruism as philosophical opposites that could not co-exist in the same man or in the same society. The modern age was fractured by an inner contradiction because it tried to combine the concept of eudaemonic man with the notion that human beings were sacrificial animals. It was for this reason that Rand was extremely apprehensive about the introduction of capitalist markets into primitive cultures. She argued that capitalism required a predominantly rational and secular orientation, and that industrialization could not be grafted onto superstitious irrationality without massive distortion in the evolving structure of production. Though the United States achieved the greatest progress because it was the most secular Western country, it too had preserved significant elements of altruism and collectivism in its cultural base. And it was paying the price.

Curiously, Rand spoke in terms of a cultural and philosophical base. This view differs considerably from the Marxist formulation, which sees culture and philosophy as components of a social superstructure, a by-product of a material base. These opposed characterizations have disparate consequences for both the theory of history and the nature of social revolution; however, what must be explored at this stage is Rand’s understanding of capitalism as an unknown ideal. In Rand’s view, the nature of capitalism is so inherently radical that its historical, philosophical, and cultural implications have yet to be fully comprehended. Rand unabashedly proclaims that Objectivists are radicals for capitalism … fighting for that philosophical base which capitalism did not have and without which it was doomed to perish. Once again, Rand’s project is geared toward articulation. She aimed to articulate those premises which underlie the daily practices and institutions of a historically emergent but not yet fully realized social system.

Following her literary methods, Rand seems to have extracted and emphasized those principles which, she believed, distinguish capitalist society from all previous social formations. She began with the real concrete circumstances of the historically mixed system, breaking down its complexity into mental units. She constituted her vision of capitalism on the basis of such abstraction, having isolated and identified those precepts which are essential to its systemic nature. In this way, she eliminated the accidental and the contingent in order to focus instead on the philosophical ideals of the capitalist revolution. Such a revolution was incomplete because its principles had never been fully articulated and implemented. Rand viewed her own project as the first successful attempt to articulate the moral nature of the capitalist system, ideally understood, thus making possible its historical fulfillment.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995), pp. 283–285.

A lot of left-libertarians have rightly stressed that terms such as capitalism and socialism, as they are commonly used, are systematically ambiguous; often they are used to name two different systems that are mutually exclusive of each other ([state socialism and anarchistic socialism][], on the one hand, or the free market and political patronage for big business, on the other). Roderick Long recently made a persuasive argument that both capitalism and socialism, as the terms are commonly used, are best regarded as anti-concepts, and more specifically as package deals of concepts that do not actually go together, which have been used by statists on both the Left and the Right to systematically blur the distinction between neo-mercantilism and the free market. Left statists say they oppose the chimera, and right-statists say they support it, but what libertarians need to recognize, first and foremost, is that the system they are allegedly fighting over is chimerical, and that the words they are using embody false presuppositions about the meaning and the nature of free markets.

I think that’s quite right, and that it’s very important. Nevertheless, we mustn’t be misled into thinking that just because socialism and capitalism as commonly used are anti-conceptual package-deals, that we ought to abstain from both terms on an equal footing, or to take a pox on both your houses attitude towards the institutions, symbols, traditions, and other socio-cultural trappings associated with either identification. In some dialectical contexts the best thing to do with an anti-concept is just to expose it as nothing more than so much Newspeak, to abandon using it, and to exhort others to follow your example. But sometimes the thing to do is just to urge your conversation partners to use language more precisely, and to teach them by example, by choosing one of the senses of capitalism or socialism to use clearly and consistently. And I think that Ayn Rand’s deliberately provocative use of capitalism is instructive here on the principle, even though I think she’s wrong on the application, and that the reasons for the misapplication have to do with deeper problems in her own economic thought. Those problems don’t have to do with defending a free market in the means of production and distribution — I’m all for that, but given the historical example of self-described socialist free marketeers such as Benjamin Tucker, that doesn’t settle the issue between describing yourself as a socialist, describing yourself as a capitalist, or describing yourself as something else again.

Rand deliberately worked to reclaim the word capitalism for the unknown ideal of the completely free market, rather than the known reality of the predatory, neomercantilist mixed economy, in which all actually existing free markets are embedded, confined, limited, and distorted. Sciabarra explains her decision in terms of an intellectual process of isolating the essential features that distinguished societies called capitalist from earlier and later forms of social organization. It’s an apt description as far as it goes, but the connection between the intellectual process and Rand’s aesthetic and affectional imagination needs to be fleshed out in order to fully explain her decision. Rand knew perfectly well that the historical data underdetermined the question of whether predation or voluntary cooperation was essential to the capitalistic form of society: the rise of the societies we call capitalist involved the liberation of many people and of the markets in many commodities; it also involved the escalation of many forms of predatory state patronage and the invention of new ones (it meant, for example, considerably more freedom in agriculture or textiles; it also meant considerably more government intervention in banking, land use, and transportation infrastructure). You could describe the picture by identifying the growth in freedom as the capitalist stuff, with the new levels of predation as anti-capitalist deviations from capitalism marring its productive development. But you could just as easily describe it by identifying the growth in predation as the capitalist stuff, with the growth in freedom as a countervailing, non-capitalist or anti-capitalist development, which the capitalist stuff had an antagonistic, or often parasitic, relationship to. So which description should you choose? I think the best explanation why Rand chose the first picture instead of the second one has to do with what she would have identified with her sense of life — the degree to which her aesthetic and affectional imagination were engaged on behalf of actually existing capitalists, as she understood them, in the known reality of the mixed economy: that is, her view of the grand bourgeoisie — big industrialists, business-owners, money-men, the top tier of entrepreneurial inventors, and ultimately the wealthy broadly — as the heroic prime movers in business, and thus as the world’s motor, driving the production of the material means of survival and human flourishing. (See, for example, Atlas Shrugged or America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.) Though she’d no doubt fume at the description, one way of putting it is that she made her choices about what language to reclaim and what language to abandon on the basis of class solidarity. I have no quarrel with Rand’s procedure; but rather only with the particular class she chooses to stand in solidarity with. If Rand is right that the capitalist is the chief victim of the predatory state, and if the picture she draws of the archetypical capitalist is well-drawn, it makes perfect sense for her to reclaim the word capitalism for the free market as against political patronage. If, on the other hand, the bosses are the chief beneficiaries of the predatory state, and if the picture she draws of the archetypical capitalist is ill-drawn — if the archetypical boss is a busybodying mediocrity, a cunning predator, or a petulant grafter, and if their role in the workplace is a drag on the productive labor on the shop floor rather than the animating force behind it as Rand claims — then it makes perfect sense to locate the essence of capitalism elsewhere from where Rand locates it, and to treat capitalism as a term of criticism for political patronage as against the free market.

This may help serve as some explanation for why Rand is willing to identify with the term capitalism and even to invest the symbol of a government fiat currency with near-religious significance, while fully recognizing the predatory nature of the state-business nexus; it may also help to explain how, in spite of really detesting the stupidity and the atrocities perpetrated in the name of socialism, I can be so fond of old union songs, and how I can fly a red flag over my soap box while I preach the free market.

Further reading:

Over My Shoulder #22: from Barbara Leon, “Consequences of the Conditioning Line,” from Feminist Revolution (1975)

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from Barbara Leon’s essay, Consequences of the Conditioning Line in Feminist Revolution, the 1975 anthology by the Redstockings.

Consequences of the Conditioning Line

The issue of psychological interpretation of behavior has been one of the major ideological divisions between Redstockings and other groups in the women’s liberation movement. While other groups have argued that women submit to their own oppression due to past training, brainwashing, or programming, Redstockings said:

We reject the idea that women consent to or are to blame for their own oppression. Women’s submission is not the result of brainwashing, stupidity or mental illness but of continual, daily pressure from men. We do not need to change ourselves, but to change men. —Manifesto, July 7, 1969

What other groups saw as submissive behavior, Redstockings saw as ways women, when still struggling individually, fight for what they want given their situation.

Judith Hole and Ellen Levine, in their book Rebirth of Feminism, have asserted that it was this position of Redstockings, adopted as the pro-woman line, along with an overemphasis on consciousness-raising, which led to the groups dissolution in 1970:

In the view of many feminists the anti-brainwashing/pro-woman position leads not only to a paralysis of action—what external changes in behavior can a woman effect if her behavior is understood only as a rational response to the social system—but also to a paralysis of thought. Although Redstocking’s rejection of traditionally-accepted psychological expanations of women’s behavior does offer new insights, one former member of the group has argued, When you begin to believe the pro-woman line, it distorts your perception of reality. It’s too simplistic.Rebirth of Feminism, p. 172

Left out from the book was the pro-woman line’s prescription for collective action and political strategy. Also wrong was its conclusion as to the harmful effects of Redstockings’ anti-brainwashing theory on the history of the group. Redstockings was temporarily halted by the same problems which Hole and Levine ascribe to other women’s liberation groups, most notably attacks on leadership from within and without the group. In fact, the accuracy and importance of the pro-woman line has become more evident with recent developments.

What began, to some extent, as an analysis of women’s behavior in our personal and emotional lives now appears to have even larger political significance as we see the active use of psychological theories to deny women jobs under capitalism and to explain away the continued oppression of women in socialist countries. In both cases, women are told, failure to advance is caused by women’s lack of self-confidence and clinging to traditional roles. This blocks any real analysis of the roots of male supremacy and the continued use of power to keep women in a subordinate position. The capitalist’s self-interest requires that he maintain segregation in order to pay women less and in this way depress the level of all wages. In the case of the socialist, there are conflicting interests. On the one hand, the unpaid services provided by women as wives and mothers have great economic value and raise the standard of living of male workers. On the other hand, men’s opportunism in oppressing women detracts from the united power of the working class.

Brainwashing and Women: The Psychological Attack, which I wrote in the Spring of 1970, outlined the basic position that the new psychological theories used in some parts of the women’s liberation movement—theories that women are brainwashed or conditioned into inferiority—are just a more sophisticated version of the old theories of women’s biological inferiority. As in the following quote from Marcuse, nature is simply replaced by second nature:

… over and above the obviously physiological differences between male and female, the feminine characteristics are socially conditioned. However, the long process of thousands of years of social conditioning means that they may become second nature which is not changed automatically by the establishment of new social institutions. There can be discrimination against women even under socialism.—H. Marcuse, lecture 3/7/74, Stanford University

These theories shift the burden of blame from men to women, obscuring the power differences between men and women, and preventing us from clearly seeing just what the barriers are that have to be overcome—barriers that exist not in our heads but in the real world. My article stressed the punishment given to women who step out of line. It did not go into another important way in which men exercise their power to enforce the status quo—rewarding women for good behavior. Nor did it go into the use of myth and lies promoted by the powerful to deny us access to real information and collective knowledge. This was not simply an oversight. At the time the article was written there was tremendous opposition to the idea that force was ever used against women at all.

Carol Hanisch’s article, published in the July-August 1973 issue of Woman’s World, introduces the idea that conditioning is seen as making women unqualified—an idea that has taken on great economic significance as the newest justification for keeping women out of jobs. She shows that sex role theory as well as conditioning is used as a cover up for oppression. She also analyzes why psychological theories are used by women in the movement, what they get out of defining the problems in this way. Thus, this article, written a year later, begins to take on the political problem of female opportunism and the interests and misconceptions behind it.

Colette Price points out how the conditioning arguments used in the women’s movement are an ironic retreat even from the theories of establishment behavioral psychologists.

By the Fall of 1972, the situation in this country had changed somewhat. Women’s liberation had become a mass movement and the establishment in this country was forced to change its words, if not its practices. In Feminist Art Journal Patricia Mainardi reported on a television interview with William Rubin, Chief Curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in which Rubin used the acceptable rhetoric of liberal feminism as an excuse for not recognizing and showing the work of women artists.

To describe women as culturally or psychologically inferior is untrue, as well as being an insult, as the early radical feminists discovered. To say that this alleged inferiority makes us unqualified for taking on jobs or positions of power is worse, because economic survival as well as respect is involved. This is the full significance of the psychological attack. At every level of society it presents analysis (contrary to the opposite charge of Hole and Levine) and in practical terms blocks the advancement of women. Within the movement, it can be used to discredit anything women say we want. It isn’t necessary to argue over goals, desires or impressions if you can write off the brainwashed women expressing them. Women’s legitimate demands for love and commitment from men, for example, have often been dismissed in this way. Outside the movement, in the job and educational world, real issues can be similarly avoided. It isn’t necessary for an employer or a university to admit to excluding women if he can simply say that no qualified women have applied—or even that none exist at this point in history due to the past effects of sexism. It isn’t necessary for socialist governments to challenge their own backwardness and lack of class perspective regarding half their people if they can instead point to the backwardness of the female population.

Psychology versus power, then, is not an abstract intellectual argument. It is important because the content of your theory determines the content of your action. How you define what is wrong determines how you will try to solve the problem. How much you are allowed to question determines how much you will be allowed to change.

—Barbara Leon, Consequences of the Conditioning Line, from Feminist Revolution: An Abridged Edition with Additional Writings (1975/1979), pp. 66–67.

Further reading:

Over My Shoulder #20: Damon W. Root (2006), review of David W. Southern’s The Progressive Era and Race

You know the rules; here’s the quote. I’ve mentioned before some of the reasons that I refuse to call myself a Progressive, and why I loathe the current vogue for the term on the Left. I alluded to some of the historical reasons for it but didn’t actually spell the details out at the time. Fortunately, while I was riding to work on the bus a couple days ago I found out that a book review from this month’s issue of Reason said just what I wanted to say, at least as far as the topic of race is concerned. (There are some analogous points to be made about the experiences of women, workers, immigrants, and psychiatric patients during the same dark, violent era. But the book under review deals specifically with the relationship between the Progressive movement and the triumph of Jim Crow in its most brutal incarnation.) So, thanks to Damon W. Root and his review of David W. Southern’s The Progressive Era and Race, here’s a good precis of how I learned to start worrying and loathe Progressivism:

The Progressive movement swept America from roughly the early 1890s through the early 1920s, producing a broad popular consensus that government should be the primary agent of social change. To that end, legions of idealistic young crusaders, operating at the local, state, and federal levels, seized and wielded sweeping new powers and enacted a mountain of new legislation, including minimum wage and maximum hour laws, antitrust statutes, restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol, appropriations for hundreds of miles of roads and highways, assistance to new immigrants and the poor, women’s suffrage, and electoral reform, among much else.

Today many on the liberal left would like to revive that movement and its aura of social justice. Journalist Bill Moyers, speaking at a conference sponsored by the left-wing Campaign for America’s Future, described Progressivism as one of the country’s great traditions. Progressives, he told the crowd, exalted and extended the original American Revolution. They spelled out new terms of partnership between the people and their rulers. And they kindled a flame that lit some of the most prosperous decades in modern history.

Yet the Progressive Era was also a time of vicious, state-sponsored racism. In fact, from the standpoint of African-American history, the Progressive Era qualifies as arguably the single worst period since Emancipation. The wholesale disfranchisement of Southern black voters occurred during these years, as did the rise and triumph of Jim Crow. Furthermore, as the Westminster College historian David W. Southern notes in his recent book, The Progressive Era and Race: Reform and Reaction, 1900–1917, the very worst of it—disfranchisement, segregation, race baiting, lynching—went hand-in-hand with the most advanced forms of southern progressivism. Racism was the norm, not the exception, among the very crusaders romanticized by today’s activist left.

At the heart of Southern’s flawed but useful study is a deceptively simple question: How did reformers infused with lofty ideals embrace such abominable bigotry? His answer begins with the race-based pseudoscience that dominated educated opinion at the turn of the 20th century. At college, Southern notes, budding progressives not only read exposés of capitalistic barons and attacks on laissez-faire economics by muckraking journalists, they also read racist tracts that drew on the latest anthropology, biology, psychology, sociology, eugenics, and medical science.

Popular titles included Charles Carroll’s The Negro a Beast (1900) and R.W. Shufeldt’s The Negro, a Menace to American Civilization (1907). One bestseller, Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916), discussed the concept of race suicide, the theory that inferior races were out-breeding their betters. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of many Progressives captivated by this notion: He opposed voting rights for African-American men, which were guaranteed by the 15th amendment, on the grounds that the black race was still in its adolescence.

Such thinking, which emphasized expert opinion and advocated sweeping governmental power, fit perfectly within the Progressive worldview, which favored a large, active government that engaged in technocratic, paternalistic planning. As for reconciling white supremacy with egalitarian democracy, keep in mind that when a racist Progressive championed the working man, the common man, or the people, he typically prefixed the silent adjective white.

For a good illustration, consider Carter Glass of Virginia. Glass was a Progressive state and U.S. senator and, as chairman of the House Committee on Banking and Currency, one of the major architects of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of his state’s massive effort to disfranchise black voters. Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose, he declared to one journalist. To remove every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.

Then there was political scientist John R. Commons, an adviser to the Progressive Wisconsin governor and senator Robert M. LaFollette and a member of Theodore Roosevelt’s Immigration Commission. Commons, the author of Races and Immigrants in America (1907), criticized immigration on both protectionist grounds (he believed immigrants depressed wages and weakened labor unions) and racist ones (he wrote that the so-called tropical races were “indolent and fickle”).

Woodrow Wilson, whose Progressive presidential legacy includes the Federal Reserve System, a federal loan program for farmers, and an eight-hour workday for railroad employees, segregated the federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. I have recently spent several days in Washington, the black leader Booker T. Washington wrote during Wilson’s first term, and I have never seen the colored people so discouraged and bitter as they are at the present time.

Perhaps the most notorious figure of the era was Benjamin Pitchfork Tillman, a leading Southern Progressive and inveterate white supremacist. As senator from South Carolina from 1895 to 1918, Tillman stumped for Free Silver, the economic panacea of the agrarian populist (and future secretary of state) William Jennings Bryan, whom Tillman repeatedly supported for president. Pitchfork Tillman favored such Progressive staples as antitrust laws, railroad regulations, and public education, but felt the latter was fit only for whites. When you educate a negro, he brayed, you educate a candidate for the penitentiary or spoil a good field hand.

Damon W. Root, Reason (May 2006): When Bigots Become Reformers: The Progressive Era’s shameful record on race, pp. 60–61.

As Southern thoroughly documents, Root notes a bit further down, these examples just begin to scratch the surface. Progressivism was infested with the most repugnant strains of racism. That was no accident. And it wasn’t just some minor blight on a basically good movement. It was part and parcel of Progressivism, its pseudodemocratic anti-radicalism, its sustained assault on autonomous, state-free mutual aid assocations and labor unions, its contemptuous pity for the downtrodden, and its embrace of the government-backed Expert as the natural person to solve their problems for them (whether they liked it or not). It’s long past time for Progressivism to be left in the dustbin of history, for we as a society, and the left as a movement, to progress beyond that kind of adolescent power trip to a theory and practice based on respect, mutuality, solidarity, and freedom. Dump the bosses of your back.

Further reading:

Over My Shoulder #17: Vladimir Nabokov on a book entitled Lolita (1956)

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is a passage, parts of which are famous, from the short essay that Vladimir Nabokov wrote on his novel Lolita the year after it was published. I read this at home, after having spent the past couple weeks reading Lolita on the bus, on my way to and from work.

At first, on the advice of a wary old friend, I was meek enough to stipulate that the book be brought out anonymously. I doubt that I shall ever regret that soon afterwards, realizing how likely a mask was to betray my own cause, I decided to sign Lolita. The four American publishers, W, X, Y, Z, who in turn were offered the typescript and had their readers glance at it, were shocked by Lolita to a degree that even my wary old friend F.P. had not expected.

While it is true that in ancient Europe, and well into the eighteenth century (obvious examples come from France), deliberate lewdness was not inconsistent with flashes of comedy, or vigorous satire, or even the verbe of a fine poet in a wanton mood, it is also true that in modern times the term pornography connotes mediocrity, commercialism, and certain strict rules of narration. Obscenity must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation which demands the traditional word for direct action upon the patient. Old rigid rules must be followed by the pornographer in order to have his patient feel the same security of satisfaction as, for example, fans of detective stories feel—stories where, if you do not watch out, the real murderer may turn out to be, to the fan’s disgust, artistic originality (who for instance would want a detective story without a single dialogue in it?). Thus, in pornographic novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust. The novel must consist of an alternation of sexual scenes. The passages in between must be reduced to sutures of sense, logical bridges of the simplest design, brief expositions and explanations, which the reader will probably skip but must know they exist in order not to feel cheated (a mentality stemming from the routine of true fairy tales in childhood). Moreover, the sexual scenes in the book must follow a crescendo line, with new variations, new combinations, new sexes, and a steady increase in the number of participants (in a Sade play they call the gardener in), and therefore the end of the book must be more replete with lewd lore than the first chapters.

Certain techniques in the beginning of Lolita (Humbert’s Journal, for example) misled some of my first readers into assuming that this was going to be a lewd book. They expected the rising succession of erotic scenes; when these stopped, the readers stopped, too, and felt bored and let down. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why not all the four firms read the typescript to the end. Whether they found it pornographic or not did not interest me. Their refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme but on the theme itself, for there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned. The two others are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.

Some of the reactions were very amusing: one reader suggested that the firm might consider publication if I turned my Lolita into a twelve-year-old lad and hadh im seduced by Humbert, a farmer, in a barn, amidst gaunt and arid surroundings, all this set forth in short, strong, realistic sentences. (He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess. I guess God acts crazy. Etc.) Although everybody should know that I detest symbols and allegories (which is due partly to my old feud with Freudian voodooism and partly to my loathing of generalizations devised by literary mythists and sociologists), an otherwise intelligent reader who flipped through the first part described Lolita as Old Europe debauching young America, while another flipper saw it as Young America debauching old Europe. Publisher X, whose advisers got so bored with Humbert that they never got beyond page 188 [where Lo suggests the second road trip —R.G.], had the naïveté to write me that Part Two was too long. Publisher Y, on the other hand, regretted that there were no good people in the book. Publisher Z said if he printed Lolita, he and I would go to jail.

No writer in a free country should be expected to bother about the exact demarcation between the sensuous and the sensual; this is preposterous; I can only admire but cannot emulate the accuracy of judgment of those who pose the fair young mammals photographed in magazines where the general neckline is just low enough to provoke a past master’s chuckle and just high enough not to make a postmaster frown. I presume there exist readres who find titillating the display of mural words in those hopelessly banal and enormous novels which are typed out by the thumbs of tense mediocrities and called powerful and stark by the reviewing hack. There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann.

—Vladimir Nabokov (November 12, 1956), On a book entitled Lolita, from Lolita (ISBN 0-425-04680-X), pp. 284–286.

Over My Shoulder #11: Andrea Dworkin, Preface to the 1995 edition of Intercourse

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. After last week’s entry I’m running the risk of seeming as if I intend to use this gimmick as an outlet for all the Andrea Dworkin quotes that I find particularly apropos at the end of the week. I already have a running feature for that, but the fact is that other than fiction and material that I’m already transcribing for the Fair Use Repository, Dworkin’s most of what I’ve been reading for the past two weeks — in part as a result of a sometimes rather combative editing process over at WikiPedia:Andrea Dworkin, and in part because the stuff is nearly impossible to put down for long once you start reading parts of it. So rather than break the rules by picking up some item just to read it at the last minute to pick out another quote in the name of avoiding repetition, here we have some bus reading from earlier this afternoon: a passage from the Preface to the 1995 edition of Intercourse (first edition 1987).

My colleagues, of course, had been right; but their advice offended me. I have never written for a cowardly or passive or stupid reader, the precise characteristics of most reviewers—overeducated but functionally illiterate, members of a gang, a pack, who do their drive-by shootings in print and experience what they call the street at cocktail parties. I heard it onthe street, they say, meaning a penthouse closer to heaven. It is no accident that most of the books published in the last few years about the decline and fall of Anglo-European culture because of the polluting effect of women of all races and some men of color—and there are a slew of such books—have been written by white-boy journalists. Abandoning the J-school ethic of who, what, where, when, how and the discipline of Hemingway’s lean, masculine prose, they now try to answer why. That decline and fall, they say, is because talentless, uppity women infest literature; or because militant feminists are an obstacle to the prorape, prodominance art of talented living or dead men; or because the multicultural reader—likely to be female and/or not white—values Alice Walker and Toni Morrison above Aristotle and the Marquis de Sade. Hallelujah, I say.

Intercourse is a book that moves through the sexed world of dominance and submission. It moves in descending circles, not in a straight line, and as in a vortex each spiral goes down deeper. Its formal model is Dante’s Inferno; its lyrical debt is to Rimbaud; the equality it envisions is rooted in the dreams of women, silent generations, pioneer voices, lone rebels, and masses who agitated, demanded, cried out, broke laws, and even begged. The begging was a substitute for retaliatory violence: doing bodily harm back to those who use or injure you. I want women to be done with begging.

The public censure of women as if we are rabid because we speak without apology about the world in which we live is a strategy of threat that usually works. Men often react to women’s words—speaking and writing—as if they were acts of violence; sometimes men react to women’s words with violence. So we lower our voices. Women whisper. Women apologize. Women shut up. Women trivialize what we know. Women shrink. Women pull back. Most women have experienced enough dominance from men—control, violence, insult, contempt—that no threat seems empty.

Intercourse does not say, forgive me and love me. It does not say, I forgive you, I love you. For a woman writer to thrive (or, arguably, to survive) in these current hard times, forgiveness and love must be subtext. No. I say no.

Can a man read Intercourse? Can a man read a book written by a woman in which she uses language without its ever becoming decorative or pretty? Can a man read a book written by a woman in which she, the author, has a direct relationship to experience, ideas, literature, life, including fucking, without mediation—such that what she says and how she says it are not determined by boundaries men have set for her? Can a man read a woman’s work if it does not say what he already knows? Can a man let in a challenge not just to his dominance but to his cognition? And, specifically, am I saying that I know more than men about fucking? Yes, I am. Not just different: more and better, deeper and wider, the way anyone used knows the user.

Intercourse does not narrate my experience to measure it against Norman Mailer’s or D. H. Lawrence’s. The first-person is embedded in the way the book is built. I use Tolstoy, Kobo Abe, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Flaubert not as authorities but as examples. I use them; I cut and slie into them in order to exhibit them; but the authority behind the book—behind each and every choice—is mine. In formal terms, then, Intercourse is arrogant, cold, and remorseless. You, the reader, will not be looking at me, the girl; you will be looking at them. In Intercourse I created an intellectual and imaginative environment in which you can see them. The very fact that I usurp their place—make them my characters—lessens the unexamined authority that goes not with their art but with their gender. I love the literature these men created; but I will not live my life as if they are real and I am not. Nor will I tolerate the continuing assumption that they know more about women than we know about ourselves. And I do not believe that they know more about intercourse. Habits of deference can be broken, and it is up to writers to break them. Submission can be refused; and I refuse it.

Of course, men have read and do read Intercourse. Many like it and understand it. Some few have been thrilled by it—it suggests to them a new possibility of freedom, a new sexual ethic: and they do not want to be users. Some men respond to the radicalism of Intercourse: the ideas, the prose, the structure, the questions that both underlie and intentionally subvert meaning. But if one’s sexual experience has always and without exception been based on dominance—not only overt acts but also metaphysical and ontological assumptions—how can one read this book? The end of male dominance would mean—in the understanding of such a man—the end of sex. If one has eroticized a differential in power that allows for force as a natural and inevitable part of intercourse, how could one understand that this book does not say that all men are rapists or that all intercourse is rape? Equality in the realm of sex is an antisexual idea if sex requires dominance in order to register as sensation. As said as I am to say it, the limits of the old Adam—and the material power he still has, especially in publishing and media—have set limits on the public discourse (by both men and women) about this book.

In general women get to say yea or nay to intercourse, which is taken to be a synonym for sex, echt sex. In this reductive brave new world, women like sex or we do not. We are loyal to sex or we are not. The range of emotions and ideas expressed by Tolstoy et al. is literally forbidden to contemporary women. Remorse, sadness, despair, alienation, obsession, fear, greed, hate—all of which men, especially male artists, express—are simple no votes for women. Compliance means yes; a simplistic rah-rah means yes; affirming the implicit right of men to get laid regardless of the consequences to women is a yes. Reacting against force or exploitation means no; affirming pornography and prostitution means yes. I like it is the standard for citizenship, and I want it pretty much exhausts the First Amendment’s meaning for women. Critical thought or deep feeling puts one into the Puritan camp, that hallucinated place of exile where women with complaints are dumped, after which we can be abandoned. Why—socially speaking—feed a woman you can’t fuck? Why fuck a woman who might ask questions let alone have a complex emotional life or a political idea? I refuse to tolerate this loyalty-oath approach to women and intercourse or women and sexuality or, more to the point, women and men. …

—Andrea Dworkin (1995), Preface to the 1995 edition of Intercourse, pp. vii-x.

This may help to shed some light, from a few different directions, on long-standing discussions on this site and elsewhere.

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.

And:

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.