Orientalism and non-translation

One thing that has stood out to me as I have undertaken my recent crash course in Islam is the sheer number of Arabic terms that are left untranslated. At times, even a dedicated student like me became bogged down in technical terminology that was left in Arabic even though it seemed as though there were suitable translations for most terms. The one that sticks out to me the most is falsafa, which is a kind of adaptation of the word “philosophy” into Arabic pronunciation. One could certainly understand the point of emphasizing that Arab philosophers kept the Greek term — but, then, you know, so did we. That insight could be conveyed in one sentence, and the term could be straightforwardly translated as “philosophy” after that point.

There are other more ambiguous cases, and I don’t want to adjudicate every one. Taken together, however, the mass of untranslated terms gives the impression that Islamic thought is somehow radically incompatible with Western languages and thought-patterns. Again, falsafa is a great example, because it makes Arabic philosophy seem like this bizarre foreign pursuit — when in fact they are quite literally drawing on the exact same sources as Western philosophy. That’s an extreme case, but in general it’s not as though Islamic thought is radically and incomprehensibly different from Western thought. In addition to its use of Western philosophy, it draws on the same monotheistic and prophetic heritage as Christianity and Judaism. I’m inclined to agree with Norman O. Brown, who claims in The Challenge of Islam that Islam is a reinterpretation and reappropriation of “our” Western traditions — and hence the “least foreign” foreign tradition out there.

Perhaps that very proximity is what creates the pressure to exoticize and obsfuscate Islamic concepts by leaving them untranslated a disproportionate amount of the time. And while some might argue that keeping the Arabic words is an attempt to maintain the differing layers of meaning, etc., in practice it most often serves to simplify the concepts. Take the concept of jihad — to a Muslim, it has many meanings that are generally in the ballpark of the English word “struggle.” If we translated it as “struggle” instead of leaving it in Arabic, we might understand how the concept could in some cases include something like violent resistence, while conceding that most of the time it would refer to the believer’s spiritual struggles. But once we’ve decided that jihad just means “holy war” — and what’s more, a particularly nefarious, specifically Islamic form of “holy war”! — then to most Western observers, it sounds like misleading apologetics when a Muslim tries to tell us what the term actually means for the average Muslim’s spiritual life.

When I pointed out the jihad example on Twitter, Adam Roberts responded that perhaps we could translate the term as Mein Kampf — and I think that’s actually a great example of the use of foreign words to exoticize, in this case defensively. It’s as though Hitler’s “struggle” in life is a specifically German phenomenon that could never be duplicated among sound-minded Anglophone people! The retention of the German title of Marx’s Das Kapital (with obligatory mispronunciation of Kapital as though it were a French word for good measure) serves much the same purpose of defensive exoticization. Never mind that Hitler had many sympathizers in the US and UK, never mind that Marx wrote Capital with England in mind and drawing primarily on English-language sources — it’s all foreign gibberish that we can never understand!

It is also possible, of course, to fetishize foreign-language terms as an attempt to appreciate or respect a foreign tradition — or earlier stages of one’s own, as when educated Christians treasure isolated New Testament Greek terms as precious talismans of the unparalleled genius of Christianity. Even if the motivation is “positive” in these cases, though, the effect is still exoticizing and obsfuscating. And just as with the “negative” deployment of the strategy, the stakes are most often political rather than scholarly or intellectual.

But enough of my blathering — what do you think, dear readers?

Plagiarism and self-plagiarism: A defense of Zizek

Detractors of Zizek have lately attempted to discredit his work on procedural grounds. The more serious accusations are related to plagiarism — including the famous case of the paraphrased white supremacist book review and now a more recent incident involving quotes in his book Violence. When the story broke, I offered a weak defense of the first incident, which seems to have been genuinely inadvertant. On further reflection, though, it seems to me that Zizek was using his friend’s material in the same way academics use material from their research assistants — and I doubt anyone checks over every detail of a research assistant’s work, because that would miss the point of having a research assistant. The second incident was literally just a copy-editing error, which could happen to anyone.

At this point, I anticipate some readers would say that, even granting these incidents were unfortunate accidents, Zizek’s frenetic over-production makes them more likely. And this brings us to another set of trumped-up complaints about his supposed “self-plagiarism.” Apparently he needs to write things fresh every single time he publishes, or else he’s doing something akin to the most serious ethical violation in academia. As I once ranted on Twitter, the concept of “self-plagiarism” is incoherent, given that he’s passing off his own ideas as, you know, his own ideas. There are reasons to object to the repetition, of course, but virtually every author who has written a large amount has “self-plagiarized” at some point — I will certainly confess to this horrible sin.

And now, the goal posts move yet again: the fact that Zizek repeats himself shows that he has nothing new to say. To that I’d say: okay, why don’t you try synthesizing Lacan and Hegel in pursuit of a unified theory of ideology, subjectivity, and ontology! Such a mammoth intellectual project will necessarily require intensive labor, working and reworking concepts and arguments. Sometimes similar examples are bound to come to mind in various contexts. Sometimes it will seem that a previously written passage can’t be significantly improved upon and can simply be reintegrated into a new whole. Everyone who’s met or talked to Zizek knows that he works obsessively, often skipping out of social engagements to get back to his room and write. His intellectual project is what is most important to him, and the amount that he is producing is realistic given his lack of teaching commitments and administrative work.

In essence, Zizek’s procedure here is no different in principle from that of Husserl, who wrote and rewrote voluminous drafts and was continually “introducing” the project of transcendental phenomenology. The one thing that has changed is that Zizek is publishing his drafts as he goes. Perhaps it would be better in some way if he would wait longer between publications, but you can’t blame a non-traditional academic for sticking with the method that gained him enough notoreity to elbow his way into the philosophical conversation despite his lack of a traditional position. You can’t blame him if publishers are willing to print the latest incremental updates to his project as he produces them, nor can you blame him if enough people are willing to buy the things to make it economically viable.

Nor, indeed, is it the case that he is simply repeating himself over and over. There is development and change over time, for those with the patience and investment to watch for it. If you don’t have the requisite patience or investment, you are under no obligation to keep reading his stuff, just as you’re under no obligation to paw through all of the Husserliana, or all of Lacan’s seminars, or all the iterations of Hegel’s lectures on philosophy of religion, or…. The fact that you’re tired of Zizek and don’t want to bother anymore isn’t proof of his intellectual bankruptcy — indeed, if you use your own understandable fatigue and wandering attention as grounds to discredit a major thinker and dissuade people from taking him seriously, then maybe someone is intellectually bankrupt, and it’s not Zizek.

Teaching evaluations and student buy-in

This article on the limited value of teaching evaluations makes for bracing reading. It is based on experiences in UK universities, but I assume many of the lessons would be applicable to similar mainstream institutions in the US. Broadly speaking, the study referenced concludes that positive teaching evaluations actually correlate negatively with educational outcomes, meaning that students basically hate professors who actually make them learn. What’s more, it claims that a narrowly functional view of education actually increases over the course of the students’ college career — many come with a real love of learning, and it’s gradually beaten out of them.

On one level, of course, it’s satisfying for us as faculty members to imagine that negative course evaluations mean that we’re bold truth-tellers resisting the lowest-common-denominator model of education, etc. I’d suggest, however, that this negative correlation only holds in institutions without a clearly articulated set of pedagogical commitments. In institutions that do have such explicit commitments — like Shimer College, for instance — I imagine that teaching evaluations and educational outcomes correlate fairly closely, at least if students have significant buy-in and investment in that pedagogical model.

And for student buy-in to happen, you absolutely must have faculty buy-in. Faculty should all be able to answer questions about why courses and programs are structured in the way they are, and those answers should be consistent. Whatever the preferred pedagogical model, whether it’s lecturing or discussion or some mix, everyone involved should be able to give an account of why that method is preferable and what purpose it’s serving. Not every professor has to do the same thing, but there should be some sense of what benefit students are supposed to derive from a variety of styles — and people should actually mean it, not just be hand-wavy.

This sounds totalitarian, I know, but we already see what the alternative is: a relative indifference to pedagogy as a topic of explicit reflection, leading to each individual instructor re-inventing the wheel in near-total isolation from their colleagues. Why shouldn’t students “shop around” for pedagogical methods that come easiest to them when we’re doing literally the same thing with our own pedagogical approach?

If students know what they’re getting and know why it’s supposed to be beneficial, then education and satisfaction should go together. In a total vacuum of explicit pedagogical reflection, students will default to non-academic standards for satisfaction, because we’re giving them nothing else. If students don’t know how to evaluate whether we’re helping them to learn, it’s not because students are stupid and ignorant and we shouldn’t ask them anything — it’s because we’ve failed to teach them that. And the only way to lay the groundwork for actually teaching them that is to make focused discussion of pedagogical commitments, with both fellow faculty members and with students, a pervasive feature of the culture of a given school.

Failing that, each individual faculty member should be able to give an account of why they’re doing what they’re doing and of what it would look like for students to be really making progress. If we don’t have an answer — for instance, if we just assign a mid-term and final paper because we need something to grade — then we should change our approach to something that has an actual rationale. And I want to emphasize that I’m not advocating for any particular pedagogical model (such as Shimer’s), but for any explicit model at all. We at least need an ethos if we’re going to fight against the inertia of nihilism.

Force of Norms: The Mystical Foundation of Concepts

In some unpublished ‘lectures on communication’ from 1847, Kierkegaard seeks to lay out why ethical communication cannot be equated with or derived from communication about objective knowledge. Ethics, he argues, is indirect communication. It does not seek to transfer a piece of objective knowledge from one person to another. Instead, it serves to awaken a capacity in the other. Its aim is to lure out of the individual what is already within them, in order that they may stand alone (i.e. they are not dependent upon the other for the exercise of their duty). As he writes elsewhere under the Johannes Climacus pseudonym, ‘the secret of communication specifically hinges upon setting the other free’.

In order to accentuate his point Kierkegaard tends to draw the lines between different forms of communication strongly. However, it occurs to me that his arguments can be extended – or perhaps twisted – to shed light on the relationship between norms and concepts more generally.

A digression on Robert Brandom might help here. As far as I understand him, Brandom argues that the basic language game, upon which all other uses of language depend, is the giving of and asking for reasons characteristic of making assertions. To command, enact or otherwise perform something through language always implies the practice of making claims. By making claims, we assert things which act as support for other claims, whilst also standing in need of justification themselves.

Brandom is interesting for the way in which he combines rationalism (it’s the giving and receiving of reasons that is basic to our discursive practices) with pragmatism (the norms which govern our application of concepts, and the responsibility we assume for those applications, are socially derived – there is no natural or supernatural foundation for them).

My suggestion is that we should not see a huge divide between Brandom’s rationalism and the kind of ‘existential’ approach of Kierkegaard; or even between the former’s pragmatism and the latter’s concept of faith.

The use of concepts depends upon norms, norms which have no objectively specifiable foundation. This is not to suggest that the factual content of what is asserted is irrelevant (or merely ‘relative’ or ‘subjective’), but that such content only counts as ‘being-asserted’ through the application of norms whose warrant is itself not open to a final, rational confirmation.

Now this might seem to open the door to all kinds of fideistic nonsense, rushing in to fill the vacuum left by the absence of foundations. However, such fideism involves a category mistake: seeking to ground normativity in an (irrationally accessed) objectivity simply raises again the question of why such an objectivity should count as imposing normative obligations upon us in the first place.

A different response is offered by Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself. Butler’s interest there is in the inevitable incompleteness of our ability to give an account of ourselves, and therefore to assume responsibility for ourselves. We are always preceded by discursive practices and social norms which shape in advance what counts for us as giving and receiving recognition. We can never offer a total, final and therefore ‘objective’ narrative of who we are, and it would seem we always lack the clarity required for being responsible for ourselves and our actions.

However, Butler denies that this leads to determinism or quietism. In fact, she turns things upside down: it is the opacity of the subject to itself which is the opening of ethics and responsibility, where the latter does not imply total self-clarity, but the interruption of claims to a total comprehension of self and other. This opacity also conditions the subject’s agency and capacity to resist identities imposed upon it by the norms of others.

Kierkegaard appears to be engaged on a similar pursuit. His attempt to make distinctions between types of communication, and the norms which govern them, is evidence that his thought is not simply a fideistic flight from philosophy. His concern, I’d argue, is to explicate the intrinsically normative dimension of communication, but also to offer a ‘religious’ resistance to absolutising those norms.

This brings me back to the lectures on communication. Here, Kierkegaard says that religious communication is distinct from the ethical variant, because it does involve a communication of objective knowledge as a ‘preliminary’ to faith. Usually, this is taken as meaning that a person must ‘know’ the Christian claim that Jesus is the God-Man before they can make the decision of faith. There is, it seems, some objective revealed content to Christian claims. However, I don’t think this is the only valid interpretation.

Faith, for Kierkegaard, results from a passion of reason to know what cannot be known. To paraphrase, this means reason’s intrinsic desire to ‘give an account of itself’, to think the unthinkable conditions for its own emergence. Faith is not the provision of a transcendent ‘answer’ to this quest, but the actualisation of reality’s own paradoxical disjuncture, and the militant disavowal of naturalism and supernaturalism (Michael O’Neill Burns’ work is crucial here, though he is in no way to blame for my own take on this!).

On this account, the ‘objective knowledge’ required for religious communication is not a static dogmatic content. It is the paradox’s resistance to capture by our concepts and norms, a resistance which is entailed by the use of any and every such concept or norm. More positively, it is also the condition for the emergence of new conceptual and normative commitments.

Sketchy as all this may sound, I think there is at least an interesting line of dialogue here between pragmatic rationalism and the focus on faith and opacity more familiar within the continental tradition, but without the colonising assertion that the former is religion or theology ‘in disguise’.

Voter ID laws and evil genius

Voter ID laws are a truly evil thing, an attempt to disenfranchise the poor and racial minorities. They are also an act of evil genius, politically speaking. To the majority of middle-class voters, it sounds totally reasonable — who doesn’t have an ID, after all? It could even sound crazy that people didn’t have to present ID before! Even though there’s no evidence that in-person voter fraud has ever been even a minor problem, putting the policy forward as a way to prevent fraud makes it sound like the proponents are trying to protect elections rather than undermine democratic representation. It takes a lot of explanation to get to the point where you understand the real intent of the law, and the very fact that the plan is so devious is enough to make a significant number of people dismiss it as a real possibility. And if it gets struck down in court, it gives you a chance to demagogue against liberal judicial activism. In short: brilliant.

By contrast, the signature policies of Democrats are seemingly designed from the ground up to alienate people. Let’s legally compel people to give their money to health insurers they don’t trust! Let’s give financiers the chance to gamble on carbon emissions! Let’s have a stimulus so small that it will only barely work and will discredit the very idea of government support for the economy! I know that the most dialectical and knowing way to interpret such things is to say that Obama’s apparent failures all advance his more deep-seated goals — but isn’t that actually a version of the much-derided “eleven-dimensional chess” theory? Isn’t it possible, even if we concede that the Democrats are not a very liberal party on the grand scheme, that they also suck at this?

Historic Gift Given to General Theological Seminary

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk in the past weeks about the future of seminary education, which has been prompted by scandals at a handful of fairly prominent East Coast seminaries.  Information for some of these scandals has been kind of hard to come by and rather gossipy–twitter reports about who did and did not attend Andover Newton’s presidential inauguration, for example–but some new information and resolution has emerged about the situation at General Theological Seminary in NYC.

If you haven’t been following, the majority of their faculty made a statement that they are unwilling to work with the new President and Dean, and the board of the seminary responded by accepting their resignations.

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Interview with D. G. Leahy

AUFS reader, Aimee Quesada, passed along this link with a great interview with the late D. G. Leahy.  Here it is.

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