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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, September 30, 2005

The Consistency Fetish: The P. Serritslev Peterson on London & James Berger Edition on Sacks Edition

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/30/05 at 05:59 PM

Per Serritslev Peterson’s “Jack London’s Medusa of Truth” (Philosophy and Literature 26.1) challenges our ideas about the notoriously eclectic and idiosyncratic philosophical thought of Jack London, a.k.a. “The Boy Socialist,” a.k.a. “The Adolescent Nietzschean,” a.k.a. “The College Spencerian,” a.k.a. “The Middle-Aged Nietzschean Socialist,” a.k.a. “The Forty Year-Old Jungian.” London bounced from one hermetically-sealed-but-internally-coherent philosophical system to another for most of his short life; still, Peterson insists that London’s critics misconstrue the nature of his philosophical questing.  [career-threatening dangling participle removed from previous sentence -ed.] So he gathers London’s little truthlets and declares

London as philosopher 1) was a Nietzschean dialectician who mastered and negotiated the juxtaposition of conflicting ideas, perspectives, and values in life (the Medusa-Maya dichotomy being a crucial case in point); and who consequently, 2) possessed philosophical authenticity and integrity, or what Nietzsche terms “intellectual conscience."

[Much much more, for Adam and everyone else, Below The Fold.]

I generally applaud counter-intuitive readings.  When Peterson identifies his as being such a beast, stating that his “contentions must appear highly questionable in contemporary American academe,” he implicates his article in the storied tradition which, as just noted, I generally applaud.  However, the second clause of that sentence baffles me: “seeing that very few London scholars or critics take the novelist’s philosophy seriously.” Most London scholars not only take one of his philosophical positions seriously, they construct elaborate channels through which they can safely navigate three or four of them.  Peterson’s argument is counter-intuitive in an artificial and synthetic fashion...and in this sense resembles those London himself favored.  In short, then, Peterson’s consistency fetish neatly doubles London’s own; furthermore, it blinds him to the inconsistencies of his work much as London’s blinded him to the inconsistencies in his.  That said, Peterson’s performance easily outshines London’s clunky stabs at synthesis; it is, to be frank, a bravura performance on Peterson’s part.  But I still don’t buy a word of it.

Then there’s the case of James Berger, a man I treated unfairly in a brief post about what I (mistakenly) believed to be an (unintentionally) infelicitous pair of sentences.  In “Falling Towers and Postmodern Wild Children: Oliver Sacks, Don DeLillo and Turns Against Language” (PMLA 120.2), Berger discusses the work of Oliver Sacks as a singular body of thought, consistent throughout, be he writing for a popular audience in The New York Review of Books or the scientific community in Neurology.  (Now, I admit that Sacks is not the best example, since as I’ve skimmed some of his scientific writing he seems more consistent than someone like Steven Pinker.  But bear with me, since I’m not here to bury Berger, but praise him.) For Berger, Sacks’ theory of a pre-linguistic subjectivity--accessible through interaction with highly acculturated aesthetic objects like symphonies and modernist poetry--exists in equal measure in his popular and scientific thought. 

I would argue that a savvy rhetorician like Sacks would recognize the ideological investments of his audience and pitch his presentations to them: hence his references to patients cured by Beethoven, pains ameliorated by Mahler and people reborn through Brahms.  I doubt those staples of NPR appear as frequently in his scientific papers like, say, “Cycad Neurotoxins, Consumption of Flying Foxes, and ALS-PDC Disease in Guam.” Those references say as much about the audience a popular science writer like Sacks keys his performance to please as it does about his own thought on the matter.  (Or not.  This is why Sacks is a bad example of this general phenomenon.) Here’s the thing: Berger’s argument would be strenghtened were he to turn from what Sacks believes to what Sacks’ audience believes.  He need not worry about Sacks, or whether Sacks’ scientific work jives with his popular, because the rhetoric of his popular work--in which he appeals to an idea of a pre-linguistic subjectivity accessible through highly acculturated aesthetic objects--proves Berger’s point more powerfully by dint of its popularity.  He need not focus on Sacks’ personal beliefs to deliver his argument convincingly. 


Mildly interesting, but if I had my druthers I’d just get it from the source, say “Martin Eden.” Perhaps you can extract some code from Martin Eden--perhaps not, and maybe it doesn’t jibe with other London essays or stories, and the sort of biographical aspects are in issue, but who would deny the power of the language and narrative. Reading about some poor boy who had to fight a “Cheeseface” each day on his way to work at the Oakland docks, or the later scenes at UC Berkeley, I don’t know, it just smells of reality. Henry James it ain’t (nor say William Gibson), but the authenticity of London’s best stories sort of breaks through any literary facade, as do those few sections of Kerouac’s writing that work.  Trying to determine how that effect is achieved seems about as promising as finding the Snark, or was it the Snipe. Maybe the right interpretation requires some sort of “agency” thing--I doubt the current east coast snob would get Martin Eden: someone who knows a bit about California history--about Ambrose Bierce or the Bohemian Grove or “Barbary Coast” era of San Francisco--might.

tell ‘em all down in ol frisco
tell em Tiny Montgomery said hello

By Tiny Montgomery on 09/30/05 at 08:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Shouldn’t you have called this post “On the Immateriality of Evidence; or, Can I Cite Seritslev Etiquette”?

By John Holbo on 10/01/05 at 12:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John (and I’d reply to the Troll of Tiny Montgomery, but you know, standards and such), I think this is different from my previous post in ways that are interesting.  Peterson made a move that’s common among intellectuals, which is to assume that the subject about whom you write is as intelligent and committed to coherence as you are, and then twisting their thought into something which...doesn’t resemble their thought. I think that’s the road we ought not take, but I think there’s intellectual honesty in the endeavour.  (After all, it ain’t like this mockery of all that is good and reasonable.) I suppose what I’m questioning here is how strongly we should question (or whether we should at all) the limitations of the writers whose work we explicate.  Peterson does an admirable job making meatloaf of London’s various chucks, but really, his meatloaf’s far superior to any London could’ve ever chucked if he could chuck meatloaf good.  (Well.) You see the general direction in which I’m headed, no?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/01/05 at 01:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, sorry I should have made clearer. I was just struck by the pun. I didn’t mean anything by it, let alone anything critical. I hadn’t thought an inch past it.

Your point is indeed an interesting one. Let me give you a quote from Bertrand Russell’s Philosophy of Leibniz (which is, for those interested, one of Russell’s best books, although it isn’t much read these days I think.)

“What is first of all required in a commentator is to attempt a reconstruction of the system which Leibniz should have written - to discover what is the beginning, and what the end, of his chains of reasoning, to exhibit the interconnections of his various opinions, and to fill in from his other writings the bare outlines of such works as the Monadology, or the Discours de Metaphysique.”

Should have written. There’s the rub.

Now in Russell’s case, he has a specific theory that Leibniz, caught up in the whirl and buzz of court life - ambassadorships; being compelled to research genealogies of Hanover royalty - just never got around to writing down the system he really had thought out. His system ended up dispersed through many bits and pieces of writing. No magnum opus. But this defensible proposition predictably gets crossed with the equally defensible but quite distinct thought that the system can be IMPROVED in ways that are not alien to Leibniz’ core convictions. Which gets crossed with the thought that the system can just plain be improved. Better meatloaf from monadological chuck Russell’s motto, to use your figure.

In the case of a fiction writer like London, it is much more problematic to critique, as it were, the Platonic perfection of the work, lurking behind the merely empirical work we’ve actually got.

So yes. I do see your point.

By John Holbo on 10/01/05 at 01:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, aren’t you making two different complaints here? Serritslev imposes a false consistency on London’s philosophy; Berger imposes a false consistency on Sacks’s rhetoric.  Your point about that latter isn’t--is it?--that Sacks’s theories are actually inconsistent, just that he writes differently in different contexts.  But that’s the kind of situation that makes it possible and plausible to reconstruct a consistent view of the sort you suggest can’t be done with London.

A total amateur’s question.  Is it not possible to find a minor consistency in London’s thinking not in what he claimed but in what he wanted to overcome?  I think I remember an eloquent line in Martin Eden about the particularism of naive empiricism.  Would it not be possible to say that the animus is against that attitude (which like Theory for John seemed to many a turn-of-the-c American intellectual to be squatting all over the philosophical and political landscape).  Then again, I guess saying that he opposed naive empiricism and classical liberalism would make him look like just about everyone among his major contemporaries.

By on 10/01/05 at 07:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems that some of the same philosophical and political inconsistencies found in London can also be found in HG Wells, GB Shaw, and perhaps Veblen—left Nietzscheanism, a degree of racism or nativism, sympathy with eugenics, and a mix of anti-elitism and elitism (which probably means just a shift of elites, possible to a technocratic elite).

In other words, like the others, London was inconsistent or paradoxical only in terms of a specific consensus which postdates him. I don’t mean that London agreed with all three of the others about everything.

Before 1950 or 1960 the Left wasn’t necessarily anti-racist. From the beginning some unions took a white racist stance(anti-Chinese, anti-black, probably anti-Mexican). During the period 1936-- 1941 the populist Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, which actually governed the state and was not a splinter party, included both nativist isolationists and Soviet sympathizers.

By John Emerson, first poster on 10/01/05 at 10:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

the same philosophical and political inconsistencies found in London can also be found in HG Wells, GB Shaw, and perhaps Veblen—left Nietzscheanism, a degree of racism or nativism, sympathy with eugenics, and a mix of anti-elitism and elitism

This serves as an example of misguided literary criticism, or what passes for literary criticism; one might call it “categoryism.” There are assumed to exist various categories--"left-Nietzscheanism"--and the budding HArry Bloom simply determines which slot to plug say “Martin Eden” into.  And each category-slot has some implied value attached to it--as here, there seems to be some vague ethical position that Nietzscheanism is “wrong.” That type of “taxonomy” misses a great deal about the power of Martin Eden--to try to wedge it into a slot, even one as promising (and I think valid) as Nietzchean, isn’t really to engage the text or narrative at all. Same thing happens when marxist types try to read say Heart of Darkness as some colonial statement, as if the implied ideology (or what the marxist thinks is ideology) sort of determined the entire value of the novel. Like Beethoven’s 9th symphony teh successful novel is an experience, not merely some argument or treatise to be unraveled (and of course the typical lit crit. not too interested in unraveling reductio ad absurdum arguments either). The taxonomic approach misses the experiential quality of literature; perhaps when cognitivists get around to mapping the neural processes associated with the language and literary experience, the taxonomic school will be eliminated.

By Perezoso on 10/01/05 at 03:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, that Russell quotation unnerves me from my perspective of literary studies, since it creates more than it describes instead of describing another’s creation.  Of course, this may be false humility on my part, since the act of description often creates knowledge (literary, historical and literary historical), but it doesn’t systematize it in the manner Peterson does.  To be frank, reading Peterson’s article, I learn more about Peterson’s desire for London’s thought to be internally consistent...but he never informs us precisely why that is.  (And anyway, that says more about Peterson than London, and I’m more interested in Peterson.) As a side note: have you read Soames’ The Dawn of Analysis?  One of these days I’ll have to learn more than a smattering of analytic philosophy, and one of the philosophers at the bus stop recommended it the other day.  (By “philosopher at the bus stop” I don’t mean “nonsense spoutin’ ‘philosopher’ who frequents bus stops,” but “philosophy graduate student who I often see at the bus stop.")

Sean, I knew I’d pinpointed different examples of the consistency fetish, but I’d had a difficult time pushing that observation further.  (A minor bout of food poisoning hasn’t helped matters.) I think Berger’s failure to account for the possibility that Sacks is rhetorically savvy causes him to assume the kind of consistency Peterson imposes on London’s thought.  In the end, I think Sacks’ popular and scientific work do correspond, but Berger’s assumption (and the fact that he only cites Sacks’ popular work) still bothers me...especially when Berger’s argument is all the stronger if he recognizes how pitched Sacks’ arguments are in popular works like The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat

As for the consistency of what London wanted to overcome...the idea that he inconstantly approaches the same problem from whatever angle seems suitable at the time does describe London at particular moments in his career.  At others, however, as when he becomes overly concerned with the federal government’s reluctance to allow him to import eucalyptus trees; or when he prepares to sail the Snark around the world; or when Wolf House is under construction...at those moments his concerns seem far removed from the firebrand politics he still writes (largely for money, but still).  I think with London we have an author full of contradictions, yes, but one who was also exceedingly comfortable with hypocrisy.  (That sounds harsh, but think of him as a tragic figure.) All that said, I’ll think more about this, esp. since (as an approach) I believe it can work for the circumscribed period of London’s career I address in the dissertation.

John, while I understand the desire to reject presentism--London was inconsistent or paradoxical only in terms of a specific consensus which postdates him--I’m not holdling him to any standards other than his own.  In The Iron Heel (fiction) and John Barleycorn (autobiography), we find central characters who scream “the fact! the irrefragable fact!” with charming regularity.  London himself is centrally concerned with the consistency of his beliefs (which, for him, constitute the most felicitous arrangements of facts available at a given moment), and considered them all of a part.  What interests me (as an historicist) isn’t the ease with which we can judge him from our current vantage, but how these philosophical positions interacted at a given historical moment (and what their actual, as opposed to desired, legacy is).  Plus, lots of people called London a hypocrite throughout his entire career, so I don’t think I’m imposing my values on his historically determined ones.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/01/05 at 04:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amperestunde des so UC Tierjungen nicht wirklich gerecht ein wirklich netter Kerl ist er ein intelligenter Kritiker, den too!....you kennen, daß Sachen dee-eep/erhalten, wenn Scott....eeek.....inconsistency oder....worse....hypocrisy....whoa unterstreicht was ist folgend? möglicherweise etwas Wiedergaben Ihres Lieblingspeter Paul und der Mary Liede, u miserables kleines Blatt

By Herr Käsemeister on 10/01/05 at 10:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Disemvoweling’s too good for some folks. I’ve developed a new technique. Babelfish gutting. How do you like my work? ‘u miserables kleines Blatt.’ Chuckle.

By John Holbo on 10/01/05 at 11:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think I prefer MasterCheese Theater, but Babelfish gutting ain’t half bad either.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/01/05 at 11:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott o Yid e o Holbo o calamar, seu enabler do Goy-menino Mais engraçado ainda, pouco Bukharins do cyberia será quando você bateu o Reals platonic e cartesian que você mocked sua vida inteira Ano nenhuns filósofos: aint literário de apenas duas habilidades do semi-colon dos careerists........yr do bocado que vai valer a pena a merda quando você se encontrar com o Noesis suporte agora ao phunn do menino J Egdar do frat do ano! Eu amo ver o hypocrisy academic na ação

By Juan Hol-Goy on 10/02/05 at 12:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A squid? No, I’m more of a PORTUGEUSE man-o-war! Muh ha ha!

By John Holbo on 10/02/05 at 12:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

At some point you have to worry about the guy’s neighbors and family. He was up at 2:40 AM a few days ago with his fifth rant about a post of mine which he felt was beneath his contempt, and not worth a minute of his valuable time.

By John Emerson, first poster on 10/02/05 at 09:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Zee vurreeer! Fuul, yuoo cun’t see-a my IPs--I pusted oone-a cumment regerdeeng yuoor Neeetzsche-a- June-a Oostee ixcreshun--ooff cuoorse-a zeen in zee usooel Veblug oor Felfe-a mude-a ooff Bookhereen vunnebe-a-hypucreesy zee cumment ves cumpletely eltered. Bork bork bork! Leeke-a Schutt Yeeddmun, yuoo’re-a nu psychulugeest ieezeer: yuoo suoond leeke-a a sneetch. Vhets mure-a foonny is thet ell zee leettle-a guys hereebuoots veell sey nutheeng es Yeeddmunn,. noo et UC Buutleecker, ooffffers zee Deffeenitife-a Creeticel Essessment ooff Lundun, zee cryptu-fesceest-ooppurtooneest. Um de hur de hur de hur. Oone-a duesn’t hefe-a tu be-a a greet fun ooff Lundun (nur ooff uny feecshun) tu oobject tu Yeeddmun’s cleenicel ootupsy ooff Lundun’s buuks. Um gesh dee bork, bork! Beseede-a dunt yuoo hefe-a leeke-a sume-a estrel prujecshun oor chunneleeng tu vurk oon, yuoo cunffoosed prettleeng stuuge-a

This comment sentenced to death by dialectric chair (Swedish Chef). ‘Prettleen stugge-a’. Mayhar mayhar, it is to laugh.

By Nu Psychulugeest Ieezeer on 10/02/05 at 01:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I leeke-a thet! Zuoonds I em vuoonded. Bork bork bork! Yuoor furst seen (und muckery ooff Jeffffersun) ooff zee dey

By Zee Cheese-a Lufer on 10/02/05 at 01:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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