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.

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?

A tic in academic writing

I’ve noticed a strange tic among academic writers, a tic to which I fall victim myself: a compulsive overuse of connective particles. In some cases, it seems that there must be some type of connective particle in literally every sentence of every paragraph. It’s as though we can’t trust our readers to infer that our sentences are related to each other by virtue of being placed in sequential order in the same paragraph, etc.

As Voyou said when I voiced this concern on Twitter, “what makes it clear that it is a tic is that they’re always the most general connective particles (like ‘thus’), so they gesture at a connection without saying what the connection is.”

My hypothesis as to the origin of this tic is the increasingly frequent experience of over-hasty and dismissive readers of academic writing. Reading half-attentively, ready to jump on any pretext for criticism, these readers simply cannot be trusted to, you know, read our work. Instead, they dip in and out, reading every third sentence while scanning over the rest.

And this is where the connective particles come in. They remind the inattentive reader that each individual sentence can’t be taken in isolation and criticized as though nothing else had been said. No, they’re connected to the rest of the piece, which must actually be read and assessed as a whole rather than as a collection of isolated monadic sentences suitable for target practice.

In other words, the “thus” tic is a kind of verbal cringe, a wincing attempt to dodge the inevitable arbitrary criticism. Every time we throw in a “thus” or “in other words” or “that is to say,” we’re saying: “No, see, I wrote these other sentences, too, and what I’m saying here depends on what I said there. You can’t just take this one sentence in isolation!” It’s an attempt to shame the impatient reader into at least glancing at the previous sentence before pouncing on the one their judgmental gaze happened to fall upon.

Rilke on visual art: An executive summary

Cezanne - Mme Cezanne in Red ArmchairIn Shimer’s fine arts class, we typically do a unit on Cézanne that includes a selection of Rilke’s letters written after a particularly vivid encounter with an exhibition of Cézanne’s art. Out of curiosity, I picked up Rilke’s more formal study of Rodin, which was published at about the same time he was writing the Cézanne letters. Both texts are beautifully written, passionate responses to artworks that Rilke had not only studied closely, but felt deeply. In them, Rilke displays a profound sympathy for both artists as artists and as human beings. I strongly recommend you read both if you’re into that kind of thing.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that an unsympathetic reader could conclude that Rilke is, in the last analysis, simply praising both artists in exuberant terms without providing much in the way of concrete tools for thinking through the nature of Cézanne and Rodin’s particular artistic achievements.

This reading, though plausible, is in my opinion ultimately wrong. What Rilke is saying about each artist is simple and yet challenging and profound. In his letters on Cézanne, the point he returns to again and again is that Cézanne makes his paintings out of color. In his book on Rodin, he repeatedly emphasizes the fact that Rodin makes his sculptures out of planes.

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Curse God and Die

I have a piece up at The Immanent Frame entitled “Curse God and Die: On Agamben and Job.” It use Agamben’s reflections on oaths and curses in The Sacrament of Language as a framework for investigating the frequent references to cursing God in The Book of Job.

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