Sunday, August 26, 2012

Apologies for Ranting

So here's the thing, politics makes me unhappy, especially because when any politician speaks, and I mean ANY politician, I can't help but think "where are your sources?  Why am I supposed to believe you when you're not an expert on this?  You don't have a PhD, you haven't done any empirical work, you've decided that there is 'a way to solve this problem' without asking what the problem actually is."  These are all signs of bad scholarship, and it doesn't matter how wonderful your theory is, if your methodology is flawed: bad data, incomplete data, non-realistic approach to the question, no research into related issues, etc; your solution is going to be flawed.

But when the issue turns to women's health, I get scared.  The reason is simple.  When do we think it is reasonable to make decisions for other people?  Generally, there are two cases, when we think that they are not mentally competent enough to make decisions for themselves, and when we think that they are a threat to our society.  For example - dotty old people and children often need other people to make decisions for them, and we want those people to be trustworthy so that they don't abuse the fact that they have power over these people, because, essentially, these people are no longer citizens, they no longer have the rights and protections due to citizens.  Terrorists, murderers, pyramid schemers, they fall under the other definition.  They are actively attempting to destroy our social stability.  (Most of the time people of one party think that members of the opposing party also fall under this definition: 'lefty pinko commie,' 'militant right-wing fascist.' etc.)  But under which definition do women fall?

When we make decisions for other people, take away their choices - whether to buy health insurance or to decide what to do with their own bodies - we are saying that they are not competent enough to make decisions for themselves.  It's a slippery slope.  Telling someone that their decision is wrong is not the same as taking away their right to make decisions for themselves.  Everyone makes mistakes, and some of those have dire consequences, but have we banned SUVs because it's easy to run over children in them?  Or skiing because you're lucky to get out of it with only two broken legs?

In a lot of YA dystopians the main idea is that someone else makes decisions for you, like whether or not you can love, or other odd things, but where it gets scary is not when they whole society is being controlled like this, but when one subset of the society is being told that they are not smart enough to make decisions for themselves.  That's when things turn bad quickly.  Us and them, chains and ovens.  So be careful when you think it's alright to tell someone else that they don't get to choose.  Be careful that it doesn't end up turning around and biting you in the butt.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Literary Theory is like Magic

When I think about literary theory it's a natural step for me to think about magic.  (When I think about philosophy, I think about science fiction.)  And that's because literary theory is the study of the sublime.  When I read great theorists, like Walter Benjamin and Erich Auerbach and Roman Jakobson, I can feel the wonder that they have, and how they're struggling so hard to answer the great question: Why is art - verbal, visual, musical - wonderful?  What is the great gift that it gives us?

Now these people work with the idea of language.  And language has two intersecting ways of building meaning.  There's narrative (syntax) which describes events and happenings and progress, and there's metaphor (semantics), the symbolism and meaning internal to each word and phrase.

I was reading Steven Rendall on Benjamin yesterday - for fun, and because I'm going to teach Benjamin in the coming semester and I should probably know a little more than my students do - and he was explaining Benjamin's attitude toward translation and toward quotation.  There was a lot of crazy complicated stuff, but what stuck out to me was the idea that quotation, in its strict word-for-word accuracy, brings the whole text that it's referencing into view.  And at the same time it strips the words from their context and offers them up as something universal, context free, unprosaic.  It gives them a claim to being truth - not contextual accuracy, but divine truth.

And every word in every language also has a claim to divine truth, because they can be used again and again, and still retain a core meaning, a function of communication - 'translatability' perhaps.  Isn't the fact that words have this quality of allowing for communication a wondrous thing?

In linguistics we're very against the divine wondrousness of language.  We like qualities like arbitratiness and recursiveness and compositionality.  We say no - words don't have any real meaning.  Their meaning is given by convention.  But what is convention?  Convention is the power of community.  And community is like the ocean.  Members of the community, you and I, are plankton.  We are alive.  We have agency.  But we are inside this huge and powerful creature, and we are tossed by its waves and directed by its moods.  But unlike plankton, we create community.  We are the origin of power and the victim of it.  (Judith Butler figured this one out.  Hardcore.)

My grandfather, Ric Masten, was a poet.  In a poem, he wrote about the voice of the hive.  There was no queen who directed things.  It was community, the buzzing and the closeness and the interconnectedness of the beehive that created this voice and gave the bees their instructions.  And this was what he believed God was.  That it was the feeling of not being alone.  Of being inside the ocean - for better or worse.

If language and divinity originate from the same source, isn't conventionality itself a divine quality?  If I can say a word and refer to something real and you can hear that word and refer to the same real thing - that's pretty amazing - that we can transfer a real thing between us.  Conventionality is caused by the fact of community.  And like all magic, it is raw power, not good nor evil, but inescapable.  It fills the world.  It creates the world.  And with wit and skill we wield it.