I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!

by Henry on December 2, 2009

If sketchy in other regards, Brother West is never anything but expansive on how Cornel West feels about Cornel West. He is deeply committed to his committed-ness, and passionately passionate about being full of passion. Various works of art, literature, music, and philosophy remind West of himself. He finds Augustinian humility to be deeply meaningful. This is mentioned in one sentence. His taste for three-piece suits is full of subtle implications that require a couple of substantial paragraphs to elucidate.

From Scott’s IHE evisceration of Cornel West’s latest effusion. Recommended.

Update: I want to be finished with this, but probably should respond to Edward Champion’s pissy little attack on Scott, since I helped launch this snowball down the hill in the first place. The bit about Scott not having published a book is fair enough, as far as it goes (which isn’t very far). But the bit about how Scott is “a man who doesn’t even possess a bachelor’s degree” is not. Academic credentialism is a pretty shitty substitute for argument – and if Champion disagrees and really wants to play that game, he should perhaps cough up a bit more about his own academic accolades and accomplishments for those (like himself) who care about these things. The crack about how:

his crude and lifeless essays have proven so soporific that, in 2004, the National Book Critics Circle awarded him the dubious Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing for his unadventurous pursuits. It was a questionable distinction, enervated by the fact that only a handful of out-of-touch elitists actually care about this dubious accolade

acquires a somewhat different resonance if one knows that Champion ran against Scott to be elected to the board of aforesaid organization – and lost. One can only presume that their failure to elect him by acclaim is Complete and Sufficient Evidence of their out-of-touch-eliteyness.

Champion is a bit of a sad sack – a gnawer-over of scraps of literary carrion disdained by larger predators and snarler at those whom he fears might take them away from him. And furthermore a writer possessed of a wavering and uncertain grasp of the English language (viz. the rummy use of ‘enervated’ in the passage above) and perpetrator of such metaphors as “a superficial conclusion distressingly reminiscent of a teabagger’s uninformed protest.”

Update 2: Scott responds to the fried chicken nonsense in his new IHE column.

{ 493 comments }

1

Kieran Healy 12.02.09 at 2:20 pm

I was just about to post a link here, but I was wavering over which of several paragraphs to excerpt. I was leaning toward “In this respect, of course, the Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University is following the lead of David Hume – who, after writing A Treatise of Human Nature, published numerous very popular essays with the help of a writer from Entertainment Weekly.”

2

Tom Hurka 12.02.09 at 2:20 pm

I like the start of the sentence Henry uses for his header:

“Like Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship in Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel Wuthering Heights or Franz Schubert’s tempestuous piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat (D.960) I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!”

1. Glad to know Wuthering Heights is “remarkable” — thanks for the tip, Cornel.

2. Also glad to know that piano sonatas (or at least Schubert’s “tempestuous” one) crave sublime and funky love.

If you’re going to hire a ghost-writer, you gotta hire the best.

3

Kieran Healy 12.02.09 at 2:25 pm

It should be said that the whole thing is so much more than just a snarkfest — it’s a great piece of critical writing.

4

Jacob T. Levy 12.02.09 at 2:40 pm

It really is. Beautifully and entertainingly done. The usual contrast is between an elegant stiletto and a brutal hatchet, but what Scott wields might be a truly elegant hatchet.

5

Henry 12.02.09 at 2:48 pm

#1 – I had the same problem. #3 – this is of course Scott’s usual modus operandi. Even when he is reviewing a very bad book, he treats it seriously. This makes the final judgment all the more devastating.

6

tom s. 12.02.09 at 2:50 pm

Like Shakespeare’s highly recommended Danish-themed play Hamlet, I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!

Like Beethoven’s under-appreciated Ninth Symphony, I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!

But these are too obvious. There must be a better slant on that sentence.

7

laura 12.02.09 at 2:55 pm

This was my favorite paragraph:

“Legend has it that the blues guitarist Robert Johnson acquired his haunting style by selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads. West, as a “bluesman of the life of the mind,” has clearly also been to the crossroads. The devil gave him a team of publicists. I don’t think this was a good bargain on West’s part. It left him unable to recognize that self-respect is often the enemy of self-esteem.”

8

Michael Bérubé 12.02.09 at 2:58 pm

What, no love for this passage?

“Help me f___ him up,” said Summers (according to West, says his quasi-ghostwriter).

West had recently released his first hip hop CD, so perhaps Summers thought this would put him at ease. Not so. West says he made clear to Summers that his feeling for Mansfield was collegial.

With popping a cap in a fellow faculty member’s ass now off the table, the exchange then took the form that has now become famous, culminating in Summers’ demand that West make himself available for fortnightly meetings to evaluate his grades and publication plans.

Style, content, cap-popping — it’s all there. More seriously, Scott earns all this in the opening of his essay, in which he makes clear his respect for West’s early work. In the hands of a lesser reviewer, this would merely be a snarkfest. With someone as widely read as Scott, the result is … Scialabbian. With cap-popping.

9

Kieran Healy 12.02.09 at 3:00 pm

Like Jesus H. Christ in the Garden of Gethsemenae, I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!

10

Harry 12.02.09 at 3:03 pm

“David Ritz and I have worked together to sculpt a voice that I hear as my own,” explains West, or someone trying to sound like him.

AND

No doubt this is meant to be inspirational. It is at any rate exemplary. Rendered more or less speechless, I pointed the passage out to my wife.

She looked it over and said, “Any woman who reads this needs to run in the opposite direction when she sees him coming.”

Returning to the book, I found, just a few pages later, that West was getting divorced for a fourth time. Seldom does reader response yield results that prove so empirically verifiable.

AND…

Oh, just read it all.

11

Jacob T. Levy 12.02.09 at 3:16 pm

I’m now curious about Summers’ particular beef with Mansfield that would lead him to say such a dumbass thing– or even the moderately dumbass thing that could get inflated in West’s retelling into this dumbass thing. Universities are sufficiently full of friendships that one wouldn’t expect on the basis of discipline or ideology that you *never* just go right out there and assume that the person you’re talking to has the same enemies list that you do.

12

Paul C 12.02.09 at 3:28 pm

Reading the entire quote about his sublime and funky love, it is clear that Cornel West is a disciple of the true superman lover, Smoove B

13

ajay 12.02.09 at 3:46 pm

12 is spot on – so disturbingly accurate that I now wonder if West has been writing the Smoove column all along.
It’s the parenthetical “(D.960)” that makes that sentence, I reckon. It’s like graffiti with diacritical marks.

14

Harry 12.02.09 at 3:57 pm

Summers has hardly been known for his brilliance as a diplomat, Jacob.

15

Bill Benzon 12.02.09 at 4:04 pm

So, if “sublime and funky love” is a flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, what are the ingredients?

16

Jacob T. Levy 12.02.09 at 4:58 pm

Harry– oh, I know, though even by his standards that’s a little surprising. I’m just expressing curiosity about the backstory, not astonishment.

17

Phil 12.02.09 at 4:59 pm

I’ve got a sneaking feeling that what West actually wrote was

Like Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship or the themes in Schubert’s last Sonatas,

or something similar. That sentence has got red biro and post-its all over it. (The shorter version would still be pretty dickish, admittedly.)

18

mds 12.02.09 at 5:10 pm

McLemee:

I would much prefer to think that all of this is a matter of his life being in turmoil throughout this decade, rather than Larry Summers being right about anything.

Indeed, lost in all the kerfuffle, the departure to Princeton in sublime funky dudgeon, etc, is that Summers (accidentally?) had a point. Of course, at a minimum it also underscores the whole “hardly been known for his brilliance as a diplomat” bit that he selected the example that he did. Summers actually had a few good ideas during his presidency, but they were submerged in the combination of pontification outside his areas of expertise with some disturbingly reactionary tendencies. Huh, perhaps that was behind his supposed problems with Mansfield; it was like looking into a dark mirror.

19

Kathleen Lowrey 12.02.09 at 5:24 pm

Wow, classy: from a putatively race-neutral critique of a scholar’s work to racist caricature in 13 moves. Nice.

20

Kieran Healy 12.02.09 at 5:28 pm

a putatively race-neutral critique

I take it that by “putatively” here you mean that Scott’s critique of West is in fact racist?

21

Kathleen Lowrey 12.02.09 at 5:28 pm

oh, my bad — the original critique was *already* racist (“popping a cap in a fellow faculty member’s ass”). Carry on.

22

Henry 12.02.09 at 5:36 pm

From a stupid accusatory claim to an _even more stupid_ accusatory claim in 1 move. Nice.

23

Maurice Meilleur 12.02.09 at 5:39 pm

Kathleen: your comment implies that the intervening 12 moves discussing West’s widely-known and well-documented academic buffoonery since the publication of Race Matters and The American Evasion of Philosophy were all in the direction of Smoove B.

Prove. Especially the ‘putatively’ part.

24

Henry 12.02.09 at 5:39 pm

And even _nicer_ that you clearly didn’t read the critique before deciding that it was ‘putatively race-neutral.’

25

lemuel pitkin 12.02.09 at 5:43 pm

Kathleen,

One assumes by racist carcicature you mean Smoove B. OK; but how would *you* respond to this passage?

The basic problem with my love relationships with women is that my standards are so high — and they apply equally to both of us. I seek full-blast mutual intensity, fully fledged mutual acceptance, full-blown mutual flourishing, and fully felt peace and joy with each other. This requires a level of physical attraction, personal adoration, and moral admiration that is hard to find. And it shares a depth of trust and openness for a genuine soul-sharing with a mutual respect for a calling to each other and to others. Does such a woman exist for me? Only God knows and I eagerly await this divine unfolding. Like Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship in Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel Wuthering Heights or Franz Schubert’s tempestuous piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat (D.960) I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!

(Contra Phil at 17, the original — and perfectly comprehensible, tho dickish — sentence must have referred to Heathcliff and Catherine, with “‘s relation” a late addition. What the Sonata in B falt is doing there, tho, only God knows.)

26

mds 12.02.09 at 5:45 pm

Yeah, I agree it might have been more diplomatic of McLemee to avoid riffing off of West’s attribution of “Help me fuck him up” to Larry Summers. (Though perhaps Summers actually pronounced it “f___.”) It would have left more room for additional race-neutral points such as that West is currently a “self-absorbed has-been who keeps making himself the poster child for the abolition of tenure.” Maybe even something along the lines of how the reason why West hasn’t produced anything academically substantive for so long is because his shoulders are so badly dislocated from all that patting himself on the back. Alas, McLemee’s snark might have gotten the better of him here and there, I’m afraid. Or he’s finally giving his virulent inner racist free rein, if you prefer. Though I happen to have William of Ockham right here …

27

Michael Bérubé 12.02.09 at 5:52 pm

Me, I thought the operative line was “West had recently released his first hip hop CD, so perhaps Summers thought this would put him at ease.” As if Summers was trying to speak the lingo, and Scott was riffing on the entire exchange. But perhaps I misread this.

28

Maurice Meilleur 12.02.09 at 5:56 pm

Michael, I read it the same way: Summers was the target of that particular bit of snark, not West.

29

Henry 12.02.09 at 6:04 pm

I thought that was pretty clear – had a final comment saying

bq. And, _nicest of all_, you didn’t notice that the jibe in question is aimed at Summers, not West. This is some really classy interpretation being done here.

which I didn’t click ‘submit’ on before going to lunch …

30

Substance McGravitas 12.02.09 at 6:20 pm

31

Michael Bérubé 12.02.09 at 6:32 pm

In defense of David Ritz, Brother Ray is a fine piece of work.

32

ben 12.02.09 at 6:34 pm

Is there a reason so many people are responding to Kathleen’s obviously ridiculous comments?

33

Maurice Meilleur 12.02.09 at 6:46 pm

Ben: because the possibility always exists that there is racism behind a white academic’s critique of a black academic (assuming Scott is white). Thus it’s a charge worth considering; but it’s also critical to get your ducks in a row before you make it. So as far as I’m concerned it’s not just legitimate but important to point out when someone making the charge doesn’t have a webbed foot to stand on.

34

dave heasman 12.02.09 at 7:00 pm

I read a bit of Ritz’ bio of Marvin Gaye and have heard a long radio interview with him. It isn’t just West who’s gone downhill.

35

ben 12.02.09 at 7:11 pm

Maurice, I read Scott’s column and the comments up to Kathleen’s. Thus, when I read Kathleen’s comments, I already had all the information I needed to determine that it wasn’t a charge worth considering, in this case.

36

TheSophist 12.02.09 at 8:01 pm

Yeah, Marvin Gaye has really gone downhill. He’s hasn’t done anything original since 1984.

37

Tom Hurka 12.02.09 at 8:04 pm

I resist any suggestion that the Bronte/Schubert sentence is the result of editing. It’s just too perfect the way it is.

38

Phil 12.02.09 at 8:12 pm

“If less is more, then think how much more more would be!” – Frasier Crane

39

Michael Bérubé 12.02.09 at 8:38 pm

Wait a second, I have a forest-for-trees question. Is West actually saying he will continue to pursue this sublime and funky love after he dies? Because I think I missed that on the first read.

40

ben 12.02.09 at 8:41 pm

Let’s don’t be hasty. He might also mean that he won’t let the death of his inamoratae stand in his way (though that might make reciprocation difficult), or that he won’t back down from killing people in pursuit of love.

41

kid bitzer 12.02.09 at 8:44 pm

he is at least claiming that he intends to pursue it after his own death–otherwise, what’s the catherine-and-heathcliff reference for?

42

Michael Bérubé 12.02.09 at 8:50 pm

Ben — that’s what I was wondering. See, kid bitzer, the reference to Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel Wuthering Heights could go either way, since Heathcliff continues to pursue Catherine after her death. So now my question is: does anybody die in that tempestuous Schubert piano sonata, No. 21 in B flat (D.960)? Because that might hold the key that unlocks this mystery once and for all.

43

Substance McGravitas 12.02.09 at 8:53 pm

The pool of dead ladies is substantially larger than the pool of live ones. It may also be substantially funkier.

44

mds 12.02.09 at 8:53 pm

Perhaps, ben, some of us were responding because we were surprised and hurt by Ms. Lowrey’s assertion. Such a knee-jerk reaction seems at odds with her demeanor elsewhere in the blogosphere. Though upon reflection, given “the time-honored manner of Angry White Male Leftists who don’t see why these women and minorities and GLTBQ folk should get so much attention when class oppression is the only thing that matters,” (h/t Scott Lemieux) perhaps it is not completely incomprehensible that she may have jumped to such conclusions.

Hmm, I think I needed a few more qualifiers and conditionals in that statement. Anyway, baby, can’t we all just get along? Damn.

So now my question is: does anybody die in that tempestuous Schubert piano sonata?

Are you kidding? Everybody dies. Including Schubert.

45

ben 12.02.09 at 8:53 pm

When it’s played properly, the performer dies.

46

kid bitzer 12.02.09 at 8:55 pm

was it heathcliff who was an all-day sucker for her love?

47

ben 12.02.09 at 9:05 pm

I wondered if it might be something like that, mds. Since I neither comment on blogs nor read blog comments, I tend to be unfamiliar with issues of trans-blog identity.

48

Michael Bérubé 12.02.09 at 9:07 pm

I believe that was Stevie Wonder, opus 232 in the key of life. There is however a song about Heathcliff and Catherine that will kill anyone who hears it, and for that, I blame Bush.

49

kid bitzer 12.02.09 at 9:09 pm

but at least opus 232 was undeniably sublime and funky.

50

Henry 12.02.09 at 9:27 pm

Kathleen Lowrey aficionados will recall that this is not the first time that she has made blanket accusations of racism in these here comments sections on intellectually specious grounds.

51

Substance McGravitas 12.02.09 at 9:31 pm

52

CJColucci 12.02.09 at 9:41 pm

I hadn’t heard of the term “woodshedding” in Scott’s jazz context (it has a different meaning among us lawyers), but I do recall Sonny Rollins, already one of the greatest tenor saxophonists, taking his sax to the Brooklyn Bridge at night and practising for a couple of years until he found the sound he was striving for.

53

Maurice Meilleur 12.02.09 at 9:52 pm

When I tried playing that Schubert sonata as a teenager, I’m pretty sure my piano teacher died a little bit. Does that count?

54

Anderson 12.02.09 at 10:11 pm

Then she asked you to spank her? I SAW YOU IN THAT MOVIE!

55

Maurice Meilleur 12.02.09 at 10:16 pm

Good God, Substance, that excerpt is terrifying. Are we absolutely certain that someone with a grudge against West didn’t get this thing published under his name to make him look bad?

I saw not too long ago the video of Bernard Williams’s talk ‘The Human Prejudice’ at Princeton in 2002. West was in the audience and asked Williams this great question about ‘haunted humanism’, Sophocles, and Nietzsche. It’s just hard to believe this is the same person who wrote (or allowed someone to write on his behalf) something as tone-deaf as ‘Like the peerless Russian writer Anton Chekhov and the matchless Irish author Samuel Beckett …’, or ‘The plane’s landing in Sacramento and, praise God, I am one grateful Negro!’

And, sorry, that book jacket … it resembles the covers of titles in those Xlibris ads in the NYRB. And West looks like he’s about to tear out some undergraduate’s throat with his bare teeth. Yeesh. Like I said: are we sure this isn’t a joke? Or maybe it’s code: if you line all the letters up in a series of 16 x 16 grids, you get the intellectual biography he promised.

56

Maurice Meilleur 12.02.09 at 10:21 pm

I mean, buffoonery and self-admiration is one thing, but the content of that excerpt goes way beyond the quotes McLemee put in his review.

57

Michael Bérubé 12.02.09 at 10:21 pm

Oops, forgot to say that in my experience Kathleen has always been a perfectly reasonable and engaging interlocutor, both on my blog (including today!) and in response to my various posts on this fine blog. I mean, it’s just churlish of me to defend David Ritz and not say that too. I do think she misread that passage, yes, and responded hastily. But in all my internets interactions with her, she’s been thoughtful and gracious. Just for the record.

58

LFC 12.02.09 at 10:30 pm

Everyone here is busy being clever with that astoundingly ludicrous Wuthering Heights passage, which indeed deserves to be mocked, but my main feeling after reading Scott McLemee’s piece is this: West has the material conditions (endowed chair at Princeton, presumably nice office and salary, not too heavy a teaching load etc) that would support the production of serious, interesting work (and probably still leave him time for his political activities and public speaking), but instead he is turning out narcissistic rubbish.
That’s not funny. It’s sad.

59

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.02.09 at 10:53 pm

I don’t know, I haven’t been following West since the early 1980s, but from I’ve seen of him I get the impression that buffoonery is his normal M.O. (not that anything is wrong with that). All these “brother Larry [Summers]”, “sister Hillary [Clinton]”, what’s the deal with the Uncle Remus act?

60

Bill Benzon 12.02.09 at 11:35 pm

McGravitas: Thanks for the link. It answered a critical question: No, he hasn’t invested in cosmetic dentistry to close the gap between his two front teeth. Cornel West, keepin’ it real, the real grill!

LFC: The narcissism has been on display at least since the early 90s. McLemee gives favorable mention to a pair of books West published with Common Courage Press in 1993. Yes, the essays in both books are often admirable, but the books share an admiring preface by West’s parents that’s embarrassing to read. I mean, yeah, it’s fine for them to be proud of their son and to write about it, but how’d that get on the front of these two books? Did West ask them to admire him in public?

And then there’s the preface to Keeping Faith, a 1993 Routledge collection, in which West informs us that a thousands of Ethiopians turned out for his wedding to an Ethiopian aristocrat, and doesn’t that raise all sorts of profound questions about his identity as an American and an African. He would be king.

On the basis of The American Evasion of Philosophy I’d say he coulda’ been a contender. But he’s blown it. And he can’t finger any mobsters for his lapse. He’s done it all himself. He too has evaded philosophy.

But at least he’s keepin’ it real in the tooth department. All power to the people!

61

Substance McGravitas 12.02.09 at 11:37 pm

62

Substance McGravitas 12.02.09 at 11:41 pm

All these “brother Larry [Summers]”, “sister Hillary [Clinton]”, what’s the deal with the Uncle Remus act?

I am feeling Kathleen Lowreyish on this one.

63

Kathleen Lowrey 12.03.09 at 12:07 am

Substance McGee (if I may), I’d get rid of that feeling right away — all you’ll get for it here is a chorus of angry “I am so not racist!!!!!! you’re the real racist”. The gallant attempts at defense: “usually she’s not like this, I don’t know *what’s* gotten into her”, I know they are well-meant but it’s hard to find them gratifying in the atmosphere of genial solidarity specific to a comment thread that went direct to Smoove B and began in praise of a critique that all but mailed Professor West a box of fried chicken.

Before everyone goes for it: yeah, yeah — *I’m* the real racist.

64

Doctor Slack 12.03.09 at 12:22 am

“began in praise of a critique that all but mailed Professor West a box of fried chicken.”

Kathleen, while I too am a frequent flier in the passive-aggressive skies of Real Racist Airlines — and am thus sympathetic — on this one I think you’re mistaken.

65

lemuel pitkin 12.03.09 at 12:25 am

what’s the deal with the Uncle Remus act?

Dunno. But here’s an interesting observation: abb1 (remember him?) made his last comment on Crooked Timber on March 29 of this year. Henri Vieuxtemps, who wrote the above, made his first comment on March 30. Just sayin’.

66

Henry 12.03.09 at 12:26 am

Kathleen – if you have nothing better to do than to conduct a self-pitying pseud0-dialogue in which you act as your own accuser so that you can refute said accusations _entirely to your own satisfaction_ I would suggest that you find somewhere else to do it. That – and learn how to read texts. No-one is accusing you of being the ‘real racist,’ however nicely that might gratify your evident persecution complex. They (or at least I) am accusing you of incompetent reading, self-pity and a distressing tendency to double up on nasty accusations rather than to consider whether you might actually have been wrong.

67

kid bitzer 12.03.09 at 12:38 am

the uncle remus accusation would have more point if west had called him “brer summers”.

which, come to think of it, would have been funny in any case, for reasons more related to summers than to west.

68

onymous 12.03.09 at 12:45 am

From the excerpt:

Like all of us, [James Brown] was born out of the funk and, like the great Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy, he was still-born.

Does the word “still-born” not mean what I think it means?

69

ben 12.03.09 at 12:58 am

Double down on nasty accusations!

70

J 12.03.09 at 12:59 am

Okay. In defense of Kathleen — and I read the whole article — I do not think it was AT ALL clear that the “cap popping” comment was intended to mock Summers. In fact, there’s nothing at all in the text to suggest that. Methinks the defense of McLemee is simply fellow CTers giving him the benefit of the doubt because he’s a contributor to this blog. In a fair reading of the text, the comment is mbiguous in terms of its intended target. I, for one, cringed immediately as I read it.

I’ve always admired Scott McLemee. As a grad student who now works in intellectual history, I read his work voraciously years and years ago when I was a mere journalist who was just beginning to think seriously about going back to school. To say McLemee’s work was formative would be an understatement.

At the same time, over the years I’ve noticed a few things.

One, McLemee is a great name- and phrase-dropper. He simply implies to the reader how much he knows about a topic or thinker (usually, the reader is to assume, more than the author he’s dissecting), but I’ve come to doubt how much this is true. So, in this review, McLemee compliments West, but never, ever lets the reader think that West knows anything more than McLemee about anything. The Hume/EW comment is typical of his often overtly condescending tone.

Two, most people who leave journalism for academia — myself included — feel its a trade-off between audience and substance. Yet, McLemee operates within a worst-of-both-worlds zone where he’s a journalist who writes about academics. So, he’s got neither the reach of a journalist who writes about things that, you know, regular people care about, nor the respect of someone with an academic appointment. It’s the saddest possible combination of the two fields, really.

Perhaps because of this, he seems to enjoy being a jerk to academics whenever possible. I can recall an exchange a few months ago on the U.S. Intellectual History blog. For those who don’t read it, it’s a small blog that has a group of usual commentators. It’s one where the members of the blog seem to use it to try out new ideas and get feedback. A while back, one of the blog members posted something that was clearly meant to be a tentative working-out of ideas — it solicited suggestions explicitly, I believe — about neoconservatives. McLemee posted a series of snarky comments about how the poster mixed up “Trotskyite” and Trotskyist,” telling the poster that it was a distinction “with blood on its hands” or something like that. In other words, it was condescending, over-dramatic B.S., whether McLemee was right or not.

For someone who fancies himself as 1.) an intellectual historian of sorts and 2.) a public intellectual, his arguments against West are grating — even for someone like me who agrees with many of his general critiques.

As far as the first goes, there’s certainly at least one dominant school of intellectual biography that takes, um, biography seriously. So, West’s cancer, which McLemee brushes over, isn’t treated as something that — as anyone who has themselves or had a friend/family member with a potentially life-threatening condition can attest to — could easily have caused West to reconsider the utility of writing more academic monographs. (And what better expression of one’s sense of mortality than an autobiography!) Instead, McLemee treat’s West’s cancer as something that maybe, mighta delayed the monographs he promised a decade ago. Sure, there are people — Christopher Lasch comes to mind — who crank out a fairly serious book or two after they find out they’re maybe dying, but I suspect lots more people would react the way Wests seems to have reacted, which is by deciding that writing a book for PUP (or whatever academic press) that a couple thousand academic would read wasn’t the best use of his possibly numbered years on earth.

As far as the second goes, as noted above, McLemee himself is not an academic. He’s a public intellectual. Clearly, West thinks of himself as such, too. He’s never hid that. So, somehow McLemee’s critique, which lambastes West for not being enough of an academic seems highly, highly misplaced. If he wanted to more clearly critique West as a public intellectual, that would be another thing. But right now, McLemee is critiquing West for not being something (an academic with a capital A) he no longer claims to be. (Moreover, it goes without saying that academic publishing is just one part of being an academic. Teaching is the other, and by all accounts, including those of friends of mine, West is a wonderful teacher and mentor.)

McLemee’s article, then, is race-deaf, personally insensitive to West, and essentially just critiques West for not doing something that he said he was going to do years ago — before major events in West’s life — but that he’s been pretty open about not wanting to do anymore. Yeah, what an insightful critique!

71

Maurice Meilleur 12.03.09 at 1:31 am

Well, I’m not a ‘fellow CTer’. I defend Scott because the charge that his review is racist is unsupported by a fair and not even particularly nuanced reading of said review, and also because I share his assessment of West’s scholarship.

72

Michael Bérubé 12.03.09 at 1:38 am

Methinks the defense of McLemee is simply fellow CTers giving him the benefit of the doubt because he’s a contributor to this blog.

Well, that can’t be right, because McLemee is a horrible slacker who contributes to this blog even less frequently than I do, and I show up only about once a month, usually with a box of rocks for a gift.

But I don’t think it’s true that McLemee is critiquing West for not being a capital-A academic. Surely there are ways of being a not capital-A academic that don’t involve writing a piping-hot paragraph about one’s excruciatingly high standards for prospective lovers, standards that will heed neither life nor death? And I know it’s not true that McLemee merely drops names and phrases. His essays aren’t Potemkin villages, you know. Behind those names are real houses and stores, all of them with basements and running water and electricity and everything. He’s encyclopedic. Go ahead, try him. And finally, if he truly were a jerk to academics whenever possible, he would be a jerk to academics all the time, would he not? I have no idea how that US Intellectual History blog exchange went down, but in my experience — and I’ve read boatloads of his essays, and I even own the official T-shirt — he’s always been scrupulously fair to good arguments regardless of whether he agrees with them (that’s the Scialabbian part) and regardless of who makes them.

OK, I’m gonna go to some other blog and defend somebody else now.

73

Scott McLemee 12.03.09 at 1:39 am

J@70: “McLemee operates within a worst-of-both-worlds zone where he’s a journalist who writes about academics.”

How true! I would say “the worst of both worlds” is not just a fair description, but the perfect one. For example, if I make a reference to Hume, it is bound to provoke somebody on the academic side (for any of various reasons, good or bad) while an editor at a newspaper, for example, will probably want it cut out. If I write a column for five years — trying to keep it various in topic and somewhat loose-limbed in style — with an eye to making it something I’d actually want to read myself…well, a good thing if I manage the latter part, because clearly those very qualities are going to annoy somebody. (Perhaps J has reason to doubt that I know what I’m talking about on any particular matter? Okay, let’s hear it. But then, it sound like particulars are not really the issue.)

What drove the piece was great disappointment — something only possible when you have real expectations to begin with. I did not say that West should go back to turning out monographs. Maybe he should, but there are other things he could write that would do him credit. If anything, his health makes it all the sadder that he turned out a piece of junk rather than a real, searching, genuinely written account of his own life and work. He has such a book in him, and many another besides. Instead, he is producing self-help and as-told-to volumes. This is depressing.

On that note, it is time to leave the internet, and to attend instead to the sublime and funky broccoli that I crave.

74

J 12.03.09 at 1:44 am

Maurice,

Let me be very clear: I do NOT think that McLemee is racist OR that he intended the comment as such. I was merely defending Kathleen (whom I don’t know) against the assertion that her reading was looking for racism (regardless of whether she over-argued her case). I don’t think that’s the case.

Nor do I think your comment that a “not even particularly nuanced reading” of McLemee would clearly eliminate the possibility is correct. Rather, I think a fair reading can see the comment as at least tone-deaf in terms of race (which is what I think the comment is).

Here’s the section from McLemee’s article in full:

“The longest episode narrated in Brother West is its account of the conflict with Larry Summers, then president of Harvard University, starting in October 2001. West reports that Summers began their now-legendary meeting by indicating that they should join forces against the neoconservative Harvard prof Harvey Mansfield.

“Help me f___ him up,” said Summers (according to West, says his quasi-ghostwriter).

West had recently released his first hip hop CD, so perhaps Summers thought this would put him at ease. Not so. West says he made clear to Summers that his feeling for Mansfield was collegial.

With popping a cap in a fellow faculty member’s ass now off the table, the exchange then took the form that has now become famous, culminating in Summers’ demand that West make himself available for fortnightly meetings to evaluate his grades and publication plans.”

Now, I can see what many CTers and others are saying, that the “cap popping” comment was extending the words attributed to Summers about “f-ing up” a faculty member. Fine. Maybe McLemee meant it as such.

BUT, it’s separated from that quote by a full paragraph, and comes after a sentence where West, not Summers, is the one speaking/acting — not Summers. I mean, McLemee is a professional writer. A simple phrase before the “cap popping” comment, such as “With Summer’s entreaty to pop a cap….” would have cleared up any confusion.

So, in conclusion. Is McLemee a racist? I doubt it. Can that portion of the article be read fairly and seem more than just a tiny bit tone deaf on race? Yes.

75

Scott McLemee 12.03.09 at 1:47 am

No, Michael, that is not true. I am never fair and just to people who say “Trotskyite” instead of “Trotskyist.” This is when the popping of a cap in the ass becomes obligatory. I did not go to cadre school for nothing.

Kind of mind-boggling that anyone doubts the “pop a cap” reference was a joke at Summers’s expense. Sheesh.

76

kid bitzer 12.03.09 at 1:48 am

“McLemee is critiquing West for not being something (an academic with a capital A) he no longer claims to be.”

west no longer claims to be an academic with a capital a?

is this something that his employers at princeton university have been apprised of? do the trustees know? has west agreed to forgo his academic with a capital a salary?

i mean–most faculty contracts require teaching, research, and service. west may be doing a bang-up job on the first and last of these. but if he has decided that his remaining years are too precious to be spent on academic with a capital a research, then he is not living up to the terms that most faculty members work under.

that, it seems to me, is mclemee’s critique: this is a guy with a huge chair at a major university, who is not doing academic with a capital a research. what west “claims to be” is irrelevant if he is drawing a salary to be something else.

77

Scott McLemee 12.03.09 at 1:51 am

Yes, J., you are right. I should have used a special symbol to make that very, very clear, just as one ought always to signal irony by making quotation marks in the air with one’s fingers. Otherwise there are quite horrible consequences.

Okay, now the broccoli. It is getting cold.

78

kid bitzer 12.03.09 at 1:51 am

j’accuse, mclemee–when someone confuses “trotskyite” with “trotskyist”, the only acceptable response is to pop an ice-axe in their ass.

79

Maurice Meilleur 12.03.09 at 1:56 am

J, it looks to me like you’re arguing in good faith, so I’ll try not to snark. But it does seem awfully pedantic to have to point out that good writing (as, among others, Christopher Lasch argued) doesn’t have to or even usually or even often follow the mechanical example of the five-paragraph essay. You don’t have to call the reader’s attention to every point you’re making with a light and a siren. And in this case it would be especially foolish of Scott to try, since he had just mocked Summers for his suggestion that West help him ‘fuck Mansfield up’ and implied that racial insensitivity had greased its skids: ‘West had recently released his first hip hop CD, so perhaps Summers thought this would put him at ease.’

80

onymous 12.03.09 at 1:56 am

I look forward to “the sublime and funky * that I crave” becoming the hottest new meme on the internets.

81

Michael Bérubé 12.03.09 at 2:14 am

No, Michael, that is not true. I am never fair and just to people who say “Trotskyite” instead of “Trotskyist.” This is when the popping of a cap in the ass becomes obligatory. I did not go to cadre school for nothing.

Splitter.

I hope you are enjoying your cold and clammy and totally unfunky broccoli now.

I look forward to “the sublime and funky * that I crave” becoming the hottest new meme on the internets.

Why not mix and match? Like so: I am aware of all sublime and funky internet traditions that I crave.

82

kid bitzer 12.03.09 at 2:20 am

A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Funky.

83

J— 12.03.09 at 2:25 am

Unfunky kind of UFO says, “Give up the sublime and the funk, you punk!”

84

Richard Cownie 12.03.09 at 2:28 am

Well, I enjoy a good bit of snark as much as the next person. But surely there are tens of
thousands of prominent people – including many academics – who do excellent work in
their 20s and 30s, have grand plans for their 40s and 50s, and then get sidetracked by
marriage or divorce or money or kids or sickness or some combination thereof. The appropriate
response is to shake your head sadly and mutter “there but for the grace of God go I”.
And if in this particular case McLemee chooses to pile on, that seems to me uncharitable
and at best motivated by jealousy of West’s fame and prestigious position. At worst, we might
fear an element of racism: and in applying particular scorn to West’s adoption of a specifically
black persona (the hipster) and idioms (“funky”), McLemee is treading dangerous ground.
If you think West’s recent work sucks, it’s fine to say so; if you think it sucks because it’s too
black, that’s something else.

85

vivian 12.03.09 at 2:30 am

This all leaves me feeling a bit sad. What Scott says about great hope leading to disappointment leading to a fun and snarky review sounds very human. However. My experience of Cornell West (almost always as an audience member) is of a man who is one of the most intellectually generous people around the academy and the wider public. He takes half-formed questions, translates them into well-formed ones, and gives a serious answer. He does not talk down to his interlocutors, and when he disagrees with someone not in the room, emphasizes first that the disagreement is based on respect. When someone gets too critical, he prefaces his answer with a quiet “Well now, Brother Rawls doesn’t say that ___” in defense. It was unmistakenly an assertion of community and collegiality – an anti-snark. Precisely the way he gently rebuffed Summers: not a mismatched enemies list, a rejection of the idea of an enemies list.
Now, I love snark as much as anyone, and I too have a list of books I wish other folks would write, but lots of y’all seem to have taken away the message that Larry Summers is redeemed for believing that excellence = weighty publications, while West is shallow for not living up to Scott’s or his wife’s hopes. That is truly fucked up.

86

Richard Cownie 12.03.09 at 2:50 am

On the Summers vs West showdown, I’d just note that the aggressive investment policies
initiated by Summers – basically putting Harvard’s operating cash into the endowment’s
aggressive hedge fund – went badly wrong and led to a recent announcement of $1.6B
losses. And Harvard is now having to cut back staff and slow down its expansion plans.
So whatever you might think about West and his persona and his work, he sure as heck
never caused Harvard as much pain as Summers did.

And we can also give Summers part of the blame for the ARRA stimulus package being
not big enough, and not sufficiently focused on creating employment rather than just
boosting GDP.

87

Maurice Meilleur 12.03.09 at 2:55 am

I doubt that anyone here thinks that Larry Summers is redeemed by West’s genuine lack of scholarly production, or that West’s work is ‘too black’. (Well, maybe Paul C and Henri do on that last one.)

And I don’t speak for Scott’s wife, but I’m pretty sure from the way Scott reported her response that the problem she had with West’s ‘sublime and funky’ passage was not that he had dashed her hopes, still less that he used the word ‘funky’, but that he comes across as flaky, melodramatic, and self-aggrandizing (Does such a woman exist for me?), and someone who loves to listen to his own voice.

That he is by vivian’s report (and J’s too) much better in person as a teacher and colleague is to his credit, and we all have met folks who make us cringe when we hear them ask or respond to a question, so we understand how valuable a quality that is in academia. But judging from what I’ve read from the book so far, this quality in West does not seem to have made much of an impression on Paul Ritz, and its absence from the text of his memoir does not seem to have disturbed West enough to insist on a rewrite.

88

J 12.03.09 at 2:59 am

It’s nice that Scott weighed in here, and — in reference to Michael — I would certainly not argue either that McLemee doesn’t know what he’s talking about or that he is always snippy with academics.

I, for one, even with hundreds of books dancing in my head from an intellectual history prelim just months in the past, still have to stop and think about the Trotskyist/Trotskyite distinction. McLemee is, in general, a brilliant guy and usually very fair. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

My only point — and, as Scott mentioned, it’s a structural fault of the unfortunately narrow field of intellectual journalism — is that there’s not a lot of room for details. So, McLemee gets to drop in names, etc. without being able expand up them. In a perverse way, though, this gives him the advantage in shorter critiques. He’s got lots of the scholar’s details to go through and pick apart, but doesn’t really have to provide his own. The reader has to take his authority on faith. That’s not McLemee’s fault. It’s just a fact.

Finally, I think in the West case and in the aforementioned U.S. Intellectual History blog case, McLemee was kind of condescending. He’s smart enough to have earned that condescension, but that doesn’t mean it’s something that one should deploy. For example, I think he has some good points about West, but the snark kind of distracts from them.

My only reason for even commenting, which I don’t do very often, because it’s not really a good use of a grad student’s time, and can only get me into trouble with older, more established people (hence the “J”), was to defend Kathleen, since even before reading the comments on CT, I winced while reading that part of the original article.

Whether anyone else thinks that being clearer by inserting a phrase or something to indicate the remark was aimed at Summer is unnecessary, I think it is. After all, if it was some conservative blogger that wrote those paragraphs, I think that it would be viewed differently.

89

Doctor Slack 12.03.09 at 3:05 am

For example, I think he has some good points about West, but the snark kind of distracts from them.

Good God, man. That article without the snark would be like serving up apple pie without the filling. Are you aware of no internet traditions at all?

90

J 12.03.09 at 3:10 am

Doctor,

Ha! Fair enough. Maybe “excessive snark”? (Whatever that is.) Or, perhaps, “sublime and funky snark,” in this case.

J

91

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.03.09 at 3:27 am

“Trotskyite” instead of “Trotskyist.”
Since both terms were used by Stalinists as terms of insult, the distinction doesn’t matter much.
And in my experience ‘Trotskyite’ is the only term I’ve ever heard as half-ironic self-identification. And does any such doctrine deserve more then that now?
But I’m responding to someone who seems to be proud of his participation in absolutely marginalist sectarianism as late as the 1970’s and anyone I’ve ever known, or wanted to, gave up on that no later than the mid 1950’s.

Still, West’s been a sap since day one. The G rated black hipster it was safe to take to the cocktail party. The liberal intellectual’s house negro.
He’s an embarrassment and always has been.

92

nick 12.03.09 at 3:27 am

the snark is good, I like the snark, gotta like the snark, everybody likes the snark; and yet, it all too easily leads to cringeworthy stuff like the, uh, witty satirical stylings of #60…..making fun of what I’ll pompously call African-American cultural styles is, shall we say, a dicey proposition–if West appears to be engaging in self-parody, should white folks take that as a license to challenge his racial authenticity?

93

vivian 12.03.09 at 3:37 am

I want some sublime and funky snark too.

94

Aaron Swartz 12.03.09 at 3:37 am

For people interested in catching up on the difference between Trotskyites and Trotskyitis, the comment referred to is here.

95

charlie 12.03.09 at 3:43 am

This is entirely off topic, but seeing as I have endured way too many typography rants, I hereby present the greatest font ever made:

http://i.imgur.com/VI7Yv.jpg

Anyone feel like hacking the RNC website and doing a quick reformat?

96

Jon H 12.03.09 at 3:57 am

Are we sure that Old Gregg wasn’t allowed an editing run through the manuscript?

97

djw 12.03.09 at 4:05 am

My sense is that if West had decided to become a public intellectual and abandoned philosophical work, McLemee might have been dissapointed, but not in a way that would have inspired a critique this acerbic. Clearly, he’s primarily distressed (as I am, and many fans of much of his work are) that West has been swallowed alive by his own ego.

(I do think McLemee going well out of his way to let the reader know he knows all about the obscure philosopher Royce and how important he is was a bit much, but there’s enough to like here that I can overlook it)

98

Henry 12.03.09 at 4:48 am

bq. A while back, one of the blog members posted something that was clearly meant to be a tentative working-out of ideas—it solicited suggestions explicitly, I believe—about neoconservatives. McLemee posted a series of snarky comments about how the poster mixed up “Trotskyite” and Trotskyist,” telling the poster that it was a distinction “with blood on its hands” or something like that. In other words, it was condescending, over-dramatic B.S., whether McLemee was right or not.

I hope Scott doesn’t mind me quoting from an email he sent me way back in the halcyon days of 2008, when I made the same blunder.

bq. A follower of Leon Trotsky is called a Trotskyist. The people who tried to kill us, and very often succeeded, used the word Trotskyite. Not to be picky but I cannot help pointing this out, it is my nature.

In other words, this is not Scott trying to be condescending to the grad student in question – it is Scott getting annoyed about something that he cares about, and cares about deeply enough to correct his friends on when they screw it up. More generally, I think that the suggestion that Scott “seems to enjoy being a jerk to academics whenever possible” is quite unfair, and emphatically not supported by the empirical record (go and look at the sadly not very up to date list of publications on his website). He clearly has a distaste for academics who have decided to become celebrities rather than thinkers (the West piece is mild in comparison to his piece on BHL), but also an infectious enthusiasm for the work of true scholars (his piece on Anthony Grafton for the _Chronicle_ is a small masterpiece of delight).

99

Ben Alpers 12.03.09 at 5:14 am

Let me out myself as the US Intellectual History blogger (so rare that I get to call myself a blogger!) who made the Trotskyite-for-Trotskyist substitution in question.

I’ll be honest: I know the distinction. I should have written more carefully. In my semi-defense, I had just been reading Lawrence Peter King and Iván Szelényi, Theories of the New Class (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), which in part inspired the post in question and which uses the terms “Trostkyist” and “Trostkyite” interchangeably.

McLemee, whatever his other virtues (and I very much enjoyed the review that inspired this thread), was being a dick about my usage (I didn’t mind his calling me on it; I minded his tone, which I really didn’t deserve). I thank J for saying so upthread….though I must say that I cringe a bit at getting linked in the context of this discussion. One never likes (semi-)public beatdowns of oneself by respected famous people to get re-aired, even if one feels that one was in the right.

Frankly the other thing I took away from the experience was: thank God my work doesn’t focus on the sectarian left!

100

Nattering Nabob 12.03.09 at 5:15 am

I’m surprised that none of you thought to mention the obvious reference to Observations on the Feeling of the Funky and Sublime – particularly sections 3 Of the Distinction of the Funky and Sublime in the Interrelations of the Two Sexes and 4 Of National Characteristics, so far as They Depend upon the Distinct Feeling of the Funky and Sublime.

101

Ben Alpers 12.03.09 at 5:27 am

Now that I’ve gotten McLemee’s finding blood on my hands out of the way…two disconnected thoughts:

1) As Maurice Meilleur notes upthread, West asks truly fantastic questions at academic talks. My first experience of him in person was at some talk at Princeton in the late 1980s (during his first stint there). Two decades later, I cannot remember the specifics of the talk or the question. But I remember being extraordinarily impressed not only by how learned West’s intervention was, but by how much it opened up truly interesting issues that the speaker was then able to explore in interesting ways. I felt that I’d just witnessed a real model of academic behavior, a brilliant and knowledgeable person, applying things that he knew to the talk we’d all just heard and really adding to everyone’s understanding, including that of the speaker herself. And I share McLemee’s disappointment with West’s recent output precisely because at his best, he’s truly something.

2) It is a wonder that Kate Bush was ever able to find a large audience for her work.

102

lemuel pitkin 12.03.09 at 6:31 am

Seeing as the topic has shifted to “Scott McLemee: Sourge or Plague”, I feel obliged to point to this 1995 review, which, while aimed at a lesser target than West, touches, in its way, the limits of the art. Did Lingua Franca ever publish anything better?

103

bad Jim 12.03.09 at 7:06 am

It’s commonplace for some species of male arachnids not to let life or death stand in the way of the love they crave. While conceding its funkiness, one might question its sublimity.

104

JoB 12.03.09 at 8:20 am

No kidding: you get to get all worked up on Trotskyist and Trotskyite and still not be a jerk!

Funky!

Go Scott, go! There clearly is some money in all of this to fund The Cause ;-)

105

alex 12.03.09 at 8:44 am

Late to the party, but… “pop an ice-axe in their ass….” Ur doin THAT rong!

106

nona mouse 12.03.09 at 9:17 am

I don’t know anything McLemee so I cannot speak to #70s comments. However much the essay was couched in the tone of lament over the waste of West’s talents it rang to me as a rather petty attack verging on ridicule.

I don’t think that someone who ever genuinely admired West as a thinker would write the essay in the way McLemee did. The supposed regret for the waste of West’s potential seemed disingenuous.

I remember, as a graduate student, being utterly astounded to discover that very prominent academics intensely envied one another, especially when it came to fame. The comments following McLemee’s essay and the general ridicule of West makes me wonder if something like that isn’t going on—that is, that envy over West’s celebrity is part of the reason he irks people. He’s also violating some norms of academic life, e.g., by being emotionally open But I also can’t help but wonder (and I genuinely mean it–I can’t help it) if all this would bug people so much if West were white and if his non-scholarly activities were engaged with (standardly white) extra-curricular interests (e.g., with Opera rather than rap).

He’s far from the only academic who is coasting on past successes or who has an elevated reputation but hasn’t brought to fruition what he intended. And how many such currently unproductive people go on to get accolades, cushy positions, etc. on the basis of what they did in the past? (It’s a bit interesting, in fact, because my guess is that the person who goes on to produce substantial work after a big success is rare.) Since this is so common, why care? To use a phrase from that great cinema classic Heathers: What’s your damage?

The reason Sommers wasn’t right, on the issues McLemee is focusing on, is that I’ve never seen anyone else called on the carpet who is doing the usual post-success coasting. I don’t take Sommers to have been predicting West’s future productivity. Has any other full professor at Harvard had their productivity called into question by administrators? (I actually don’t know–maybe it happens behind closed doors. I doubt it, but I don’t know.)

107

novakant 12.03.09 at 9:32 am

No offense to CT members, but if the main criticism of West is that he is not producing incredibly important academic monographs, but chooses to do something else instead, then in turn I have to ask if I missed some earth-shattering work by CT members recently and if their employers could not chide them for hanging around blogs too much.

108

hellblazer 12.03.09 at 10:17 am

as a mere philistine, I just want to know more about the mind-reading skills displayed at #104, and more about this Sommers chap. Is he the one who shoots force beams from his eyes?

Also, to my eyes, the stuff about who might have detonated which explosive in whose posterior comes quite late on in SM’s hatchet job (and let’s make no bones about it, it is a hatchet job, even if like me you find it more entertaining than offensive). Much as Summers has become known from some really ill-judged/ill-thought remarks, I don’t quite follow why this is being brought up in comments.

I’m also not sure why the book’s editor didn’t ask for the removal of “Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel” from that excerpt of West’s rhapsodizing – it seems to this bear of little brain that it slows the sentence down and loses the momentum fully built up by the fullness of the earlier repetition.

Really, though, isn’t SM’s opinion encapsulated in this line from the middle?

Self-knowledge has been taken hostage, and amour propre curdled into self-infatuation.

Could serve as a nice precis or tagline, couldn’t it? Someone told me there was a word for that, Schenectady I think…

Oh, and to respond to another point raised in #104 – I don’t know how cultured people discuss things, but the kind of lowbrow stuff I forage in has been known to take the mickey out of exquisitely educated white establishment dons for getting carried away with Bob Dylan as poetic genius. Whether or not you think it’s deserved, I don’t think you can pin it all on the violence inherent in the system.

109

JoB 12.03.09 at 11:31 am

104- oh, he’s black! – that surely makes him more or less half as ridiculous as Oprah!

(but he’s still somewhat lucky; he could have been a non-dry AND non-native english speaker)

110

ajay 12.03.09 at 12:15 pm

But I also can’t help but wonder (and I genuinely mean it—I can’t help it) if all this would bug people so much if West were white and if his non-scholarly activities were engaged with (standardly white) extra-curricular interests

This, referring to a paragraph involving both Schubert and “Wuthering Heights”.

111

Hidari 12.03.09 at 1:01 pm

‘if their employers could not chide them for hanging around blogs too much.’

It’s a funny thing, but in many ways, I feel that this little clause sums up everything that has gone wrong in industrial relations since about 1979.

To those who say I’m going overboard on this, I would retort that I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky truth.

112

Michael Drake 12.03.09 at 1:18 pm

How funky and sublime one’s love is, in the final analysis, determined by how funky and strong is one’s fight.

113

Harry 12.03.09 at 1:29 pm

vivian’s comment really gave me pause — partly because I’ve learned to respect her judgment a great deal, and partly because although I’ve never seen West in person, I realised that I have heard similar things from other people. So I went back to look at Scott’s piece again, and also at the excerpt.

Here’s the thing. Like Scott, I know West only through his writing. I’ve never admired it as much as Scott does, and I read a fair bit of it in the 90’s: even back then it seemed to me to have more flair than substance. But in this particular case he seems to have made a very seriously bad judgment, or several of them — getting a ghost, and either baring his inner life in a way that is not at all appealing or making up an inner life that isn’t really his (hence my enjoyment of “someone trying to sound like him”). When you write something for a potentially popular audience you cannot rely on the character that comes through in personal encounters to protect you from criticism/skewering, and you should know that. [1]

The text bears a lot of the marks of an academic (or editor) trying to get access to a popular audience by suppressing their authentic voice. (Compare with authentic popularisers like Simon Schama or, god help him, Richard Dawkins, both of whom connect with their audience by being themselves).

I think that makes what he has done fair game, and one reason that Scott’s skewering is so entertaining is that Scott is erudite in the way that West in fact is, but his text makes him sound not to be.

This is not to say that we should all be producing important academic tomes, or even that West should. Communicating important ideas to a broader audience than academics and even students is incredibly important: too few academics do it well, and too few try, and doing it well is much more valuable than most of what most of us do (and is part of the purpose of the university). If West were doing that, or even seeming to try to do that, I would want Scott to applaud the attempt and fairly and constructively evaluate how successful it was. But that does not seem to be what is going on here. I guess I ought to read the book in full to find out for sure, but nothing I’ve seen makes me want to do that.

Finally, on Summers. The excerpt from West, and Scott’s reporting of it, is incredibly damning. It makes it appear that he singled out people to go after, and West became one of these people. Its not in his job description to do that, and it reveals that he really had no idea what his job was. Jacob’s bemusement upthread, though, is appropriate, because the excerpt also makes it seem that Summers was incompetent at doing what he should have known he shouldn’t be doing. I didn’t think West came off badly from that, or from what Scott said about it, but I do see that’s a matter of interpretation (knowing Scott in this rather odd way that I do assures me of my interpretation in the same way as vivian’s in-person encounters with West give her information that makes her sad about this thread and Scott’s piece).

[1] I think my personality comes through pretty accurately in what I write. That’s because, basically, I’m a fairly uncomplicated person (the very occasional out of character comment sometimes gets noticed, but everyone says things that are out of character sometimes). But if I were more complicated I would be aware that I needed to control my writing in a way that, in fact, I don’t, if I wanted to be spared criticism.

114

Michael Bérubé 12.03.09 at 1:34 pm

But I also can’t help but wonder (and I genuinely mean it—I can’t help it) if all this would bug people so much if West were white and if his non-scholarly activities were engaged with (standardly white) extra-curricular interests (e.g., with Opera rather than rap)

As Henry points out (parenthetically) @ 97, one way to conduct this taste-test is to compare Scott’s essay on West with Scott’s essay on Bernard-Henri Lévy. Teaser: His haircuts are as thoughtful as his books are stylish. And it gets better.

Look. I admire West in many ways, and his reputation as a brilliant and deeply engaging asker-and-answerer of questions is well-deserved. I don’t know him as teacher or mentor, but I believe the glowing reports I’ve heard. I’ve written nice things about him, and I’ve defended him (and others) from people who say “we lament the decline of the public intellectual, but not as much as we lament the academics who have abandoned scholarly monographs for more public venues” (that would be a “shorter” in blogspeak). And yes, certainly, some of the criticism directed at West over the years has been tinged with envy and less-than-admirable views on race. But there’s an important principle here: if people can’t have some fun with the Wuthering Heights-and-Schubert paragraph, then the terrorists have already won.

115

Michael Bérubé 12.03.09 at 1:37 pm

Which reminds me. Could people please stop speaking about Wuthering Heights as if it were a romance novel, and about Heathcliff as if he were some dark Byronic hero? The book and its central character are profoundly creepy and unsettling and all-around chthonic. And I mean that as high praise (indeed, I hear the book is “remarkable”). But I’m tired of people glossing over Heathcliff’s intense emotional and physical cruelty (look again, e.g., at the passage in which he suggests he’s been beating Isabella regularly and that she likes it), and whenever someone cites the book as a paradigm for Intense Love, I think, hmmm, maybe this person is a bit too intense.

116

Marc 12.03.09 at 1:46 pm

#104: Oddly enough, I have a completely different take. Defenders of West tend to use his ethnicity as a shield against criticism. If a prominent white academic put out a cringe-worthy country and western album and demonstrated a swelled head and lack of self awareness, he would be mocked more severely than West has been. People shy away from attacking the ridiculous things that West does when they know that someone is going to yell “racist” at them for doing so. That doesn’t change the ridiculous nature of what West is doing.

117

novakant 12.03.09 at 1:54 pm

Apart from the cultural references and the slightly over the top last sentence at the end, I honestly fail to see what’s so embarrassing or weird about West’s statement. I used to think that way and on occasion was even able to realize such an ambition, though we were unable to sustain the relationships for long periods of time, but that probably lies in the nature of such high-strung affairs. I’ve chilled out a bit since, but am still miles away from middle-aged contentedness or resignation and hope it stays that way.

118

Harry 12.03.09 at 1:57 pm

Well, while people have worried that the stuff is written by an impersonator, nobody has yet mentioned that the whole love passage reads like it was lifted wholesale from Adrian Mole.

119

Kathleen Lowrey 12.03.09 at 2:49 pm

If there is one thing this entire thread has done for me, it’s clarified what exactly West must deal with every damn day as a scholar. Even mentioning the kind of casual, back-handed racist “humor” or display in McLemee’s critique and the thread here has gotten, in the main, the following two reactions:

(1) complete losing of shit (hello Henry how are ya?)

(2) parsing of the “popping a cap” comment, as if it matters toward whom it was directed, when it never would have come up in context of, say, Summers’ dispute with women scientists at Harvard because it wouldn’t have been “funny” in that context (oh, black men. With their rapping and their violence, the scamps!). (M Bérubé, from you in particular I would have expected vastly better).

What I have not heard is a single white dude (and that’s who is here, in the main) who maybe did laugh at first at “popping a cap in someone’s ass” of “ooh, West, he’ s so like that scampy caricature Smoove B” actually own that laughter and say, hey, you know, now that you mention it that’s really not appropriate — racially-marked jokes about black male violence and black male sexuality and playing on the scary-funny tititillation they invoke: not cool, not cool at all, and beneath a discussion among scholars of the work of a peer and colleague.

In a lefty academic confab — that’s soul crushing.

120

Salient 12.03.09 at 2:51 pm

Shucks, it may just be that my judgment is compromised by a blasted awful headswimmering flu, but am I the only one to think conclusively that West meant for that passage to be laughed at, and perhaps even intended for the book as a whole to be taken as a fine specimen of self-parody, that subspecies of cosmic joke?

I’m not sure how to say this, in part because it’s hard to concentrate, but as a divorcee : if you’re going through your nth divorce and you speak of the “sublime and funky love which you crave” (with an exclamation point!) there is a certain comic poignancy of which you are fully aware, and it’s exactly that comic poignancy which prompted the statement, I think. I am trying to assert that accusing West of a “lack of self-awareness” may discount the possibility that this book is, quite intentionally and spiritedly, a kind of self-effacing self-parody. (Or possibly just passages of the book.)

I encourage folks to contemplate what it would mean for a person to be fully aware of the implications of that love passage (most definitely including MB’s comment at 115) and nonetheless include it, and in fact go back and edit it to include the parenthetical reference, after contemplating how to maximize the sentence’s comic effect. It is in fact a glorious accomplishment in the field of comic dissonance, immaculately constructed, unbelievable. I hypothesize it was crafted to be so, and we are enjoying the craftsmanship, laughing at the foolishness of the Fool whose steps have been choreographed. Self-parody is itself a form of acknowledging brotherhood. And, independently of that point, nothing draws people together like a good laugh.

But eh, this is overstating my case and sounding foolish myself. I guess seeing the full passage on three-piece suits would make it clearer… I currently have no body of evidence to support my loose hypothesis that the entire book, or at least some passages of it, might be intended to be a comic joke; there’s only a germ of a point in my point.

121

Michael Bérubé 12.03.09 at 2:56 pm

M Bérubé, from you in particular I would have expected vastly better

I say thank you even to backhanded compliments. But as for Summers and women, I had that covered. Had Summers attempted some version of hip-hop lingo back then, I surely would have mocked it. And yes, it does matter at whom the cap-popping remark was directed, because that’s how you tell what the joke means.

122

Harry 12.03.09 at 2:59 pm

Salient’s hypothesis can only be examined by reading the whole thing, which I am very reluctant to do, but it is plausible on its face (and would never have occurred to me, though it should have, given the Adrian Mole similarity).

123

Salient 12.03.09 at 3:03 pm

Summers’ dispute with women scientists at Harvard because it wouldn’t have been “funny” in that context

What’s “funny” is specifically that Summers is apparently enough of a buffoon to think black academics must talk like whatever caricature of black rappers was present in his mind, and addressed West accordingly, and that McLemee drubs the hell out of Summers for it, and it’s always funny to see someone get verbally drubbed who deserves it.

I guess McLemee’s statement at #75 (when the popping of a cap in the ass becomes obligatory) undoes this mockery just a little, because the mockery of Summers is empowered by the principle that saying such things, in an attempt to be hip and funny, is problematic and wrong (surely Summers was trying to be hip and funny, and the original point was to mock his utter tone-deafness).

124

Tim Lacy 12.03.09 at 3:04 pm

I hope Scott M. realizes, per this comment thread, that he has set himself up for 20 plus years of snark by revealing his indignation of the use of the term “Trotskyite.” From here to eternity, every one his enemies, desiring to get under his skin, will use the appellation before his name. – TL

125

ajay 12.03.09 at 3:08 pm

119: that’s echt trollery right there, saying “I’m amazed that you guys are so thin-skinned; all I did was call you all racists, and you completely lose your shit, there must be something wrong with you.”

120: fair enough. I agree that does seem on the face of it unlikely that a sane, intelligent man could write something like that and expect it to be taken seriously. But against that hypothesis is the fact that Scott McLemee, who is a fairly bright chap and was apparently well-disposed towards West, read the entire book and didn’t think it was a joke at all.

121: did you notice she called you “M Bérubé”? I think she just called you French, dude. You gonna just blog there and take that?

126

Michael Bérubé 12.03.09 at 3:34 pm

ajay @ 125: yes.

But I will add that there is no reason for Kathleen to expect better from me. Clearly, she has (perhaps too generously) forgotten that my little New Yorker essay on West et al. was a fraudulent journalistic invention that ranks with the historical recording of the “discovery” of America by Europeans. Indeed, it was analogous to the politics of the auction block, hence Hazel Carby’s title, “The New Auction Block.” So I have a long history of racism and genocide to apologize for here.

127

ajay 12.03.09 at 3:45 pm

I don’t think you should let racism and genocide stand in the way of the sublime and funky love that you crave.

128

Bill Benzon 12.03.09 at 3:53 pm

1. That he is by vivian’s report (and J’s too) much better in person as a teacher and colleague is to his credit, and we all have met folks who make us cringe when we hear them ask or respond to a question, so we understand how valuable a quality that is in academia.

That’s one thing. Writing a coherent book is something else. I’m wondering if he needs the “resistence” of a live audience or interlocutor to keep his narcissistic impulses in check.

2. For some reason this thread got me thinking about Duke Ellington’s autobiography, Music is My Mistress. It’s utterly lacking in the self-revelation one expects of autobiography and seems devoid of self-awareness. Everything is presented in a brittle glistening prose style that is the perfect embodiement of the stage persona of a man who changed his stage dress between sets and was fond of telling his audience that “we love you madly.” And it’s a wonderful book.

3. I find the “bluesman in the life of the mind” trope annoying. But there’s an essay or two in reading that trope in the context of work by Amira Baraka, Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, Wynton Marsalis, Ken Burns (the PBS jazz series), and Martin Scorsese (the PBS blues series, at its best, much better than Burns.)

129

Scott McLemee 12.03.09 at 4:30 pm

This is to thank Kathleen for her rousing rendition of “You Act Like It’s Just Symbolic, But If You Aren’t Willing to Consider Defending the Anti-Apartheid Shanty With the Use of Firearms, You Are Just as Much a Racist as the Fratboys Who Burned It Down!” which I last saw performed in 1985.

This bold new version preserves much of the flavor of the original, but with fresh variations that only make it the more timeless. I look forward to covering the 25th anniversary road-show for The New Trotskyite Times, and will post a link once the article appears.

130

Richard Cownie 12.03.09 at 4:39 pm

“As Henry points out (parenthetically) @ 97, one way to conduct this taste-test is to compare Scott’s essay on West with Scott’s essay on Bernard-Henri Lévy. Teaser: His haircuts are as thoughtful as his books are stylish. And it gets better.”

So McLemee ridiculing a Frenchman’s haircut counts as evidence that he isn’t at
all prejudiced ? I’m open to arguments for the defense, but that one is weak.

131

Scott McLemee 12.03.09 at 4:43 pm

You are quite right, Richard, though I am the real victim here. By law, every article about BHL must mention either his haircut or his very expensive shirts. This is why GATT must be renegotiated.

132

kid bitzer 12.03.09 at 4:47 pm

#116–

oh dear–now that *does* strike me as the kind of line that kathleen lowrey prematurely complained about way upthread, i.e. “critics of west aren’t racist–it’s west’s *defenders* that are racist”. maybe at least some of his defenders, as well as some of his critics, are not thinking of him primarily as a black man but as an academic?

#119–
it seems to me quite conceivable that west does have to put up with subtle racism, every day, in his life as a scholar. and that’s a very bad thing.

at the same time, it seems to me an entirely different issue from whether west has written a book that is good or bad or mockworthy. from the excerpts i have read, it looks deeply mockworthy, entirely on its own terms. (that is, if we set aside salient’s double-bank-shot self-mockery theory, which looks less and less plausible when you read the long excerpt).

furthermore, it seems an entirely different issue from whether mclemee’s review was in any way shape or form an example of the subtle racism. i didn’t find it so, but i’d be very interested to hear reactions to that question from west himself, or from other black people who themselves have to live with subtle racism day in and day out.

however, kathleen, your persistent inability to get the summers anecdote right, or to understand why it matters to get it right, does nothing to convince me that you are a reliable gauge of any subtle racism in mclemee’s critique. maybe we should be hanging our collective head in collective shame here, but you really are not making the case for it.

133

steven 12.03.09 at 4:48 pm

Scott McL @ 75—

Kind of mind-boggling that anyone doubts the “pop a cap” reference was a joke at Summers’s expense.

The problem, possibly, is that the subject of the sentence at issue is “the exchange”, and so it doesn’t obviously refer only to one of the participants in the exchange. Had the sentence gone something like:

With popping a cap in a fellow faculty member’s ass now off the table, Summers then steered the exchange in the direction that has now become famous

— then no such confusion could have arisen.

134

dana 12.03.09 at 4:51 pm

parsing of the “popping a cap” comment, as if it matters toward whom it was directed, when it never would have come up in context of, say, Summers’ dispute with women scientists at Harvard because it wouldn’t have been “funny” in that context (oh, black men. With their rapping and their violence, the scamps!).

No, it wouldn’t have been funny in that context presumably because Summers wouldn’t have thought that the best way to get women on his side in a dispute would be to imitate what he thought was cool, hip and black lingo. This isn’t graduate level parsing, Mme. Lowery (n.b., here I am not mocking French culture…)

the slightly over the top last sentence at the end, I honestly fail to see what’s so embarrassing or weird about West’s statement.

I don’t have any familiarity with West or his work, and no reason to doubt he’s a fantastic mentor and colleague, but “I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave” is a sentence that, had it appeared in an undergraduate paper, surely would have “death” circled and a snarky comment in the margins.

135

Phil 12.03.09 at 4:58 pm

McLemee ridiculing a Frenchman’s haircut

Zut alors, those funny Frenchmen and their, ow-you-say, ‘eelarious ‘aircuts!

Naah. As offensive national stereotypes go, it’s not really… one. It’s something everybody comments on wrt BHL, but I don’t recall any other Frenchman’s haircut getting the snark.

136

kmack 12.03.09 at 5:01 pm

Premature, hyperbolic, or preposterous charges of racism leveled against a person for certain alleged offenses do not indicate that the person does not in fact have race “issues.” There seems to be a kind of white liberal–hypersensitive about the suggestion that he or she might have such issues–who trades on this confusion.

For those who are especially critical of West now as compared to his “golden era,” what were you thinking in the first place? His lofty professional career is, after all, largely the creation of a white liberal academic establishment, for relatively non-scholarly reasons. Black scholars with any sense and integrity have known that. Presumably, their concern was that since so few have made it so high, and his politics are generally progressive, better to protect him–particularly since he was at least able to draw a large, non-black audience to reflect about race.

To be clear, West is brilliant: no one has his range as an intellectual and cultural observer; and, of course, he is an extraordinary academic performer.

137

Doctor Science 12.03.09 at 5:05 pm

Twenty years ago, who would have predicted that Cornel West and Andre Agassi would have co-authored “autobiographies” coming out in the same month, and that Agassi’s would be *better*?

Perhaps I’m missing something, but for what possible reason does a professor of humanities need a specialist in celebrity as-told-tos to write a book? Isn’t writing supposed to be a large portion of his job?

138

kid bitzer 12.03.09 at 5:07 pm

“His lofty professional career is, after all, largely the creation of a white liberal academic establishment, for relatively non-scholarly reasons.”

okay–this too strikes me as out of line in ways that only make k. lowrey’s concerns look more justified.

you try to take it back with “to be clear, west is brilliant etc.”

but that would have been much more persuasive if you hadn’t just said that his success is based on non-scholarly reasons. maybe his success is not “the creation of a white liberal academic establishment, for relatively non-scholarly reasons,” but rather a reflection of his brilliance? the very brilliance that mclemee and many others have said that he displayed in his earlier works and earlier career?

(also more persuasive if you hadn’t praised him as a “performer”. see any possible problems with that characterization?)

yikes–there really are some people in this discussion who strike me as treading on dangerous ground. i just haven’t been convinced that mclemee is one of them yet.

139

Hidari 12.03.09 at 5:15 pm

‘I don’t think you should let racism and genocide stand in the way of the sublime and funky love that you crave.’

Let’s face it, if West doesn’t get the sublime and funky love he craves, the terrorists have won.

140

Marc 12.03.09 at 5:23 pm

#137: you might start by examining yourself a bit more carefully kid. For example, I didn’t say that “defenders of West are the real racists”, at all. There is an extremely annoying subset of people who use casual accusations of racism as a trump card in discussions, largely to intimidate people who disagree with them and to make the discussion all about them. The existence of such people, of course, does not imply that actual racism doesn’t exist. Defending the scholarship of West is reasonable; the fact that people defending him are choosing instead to look for racial motives in criticism is pretty damning.

141

Richard Cownie 12.03.09 at 5:32 pm

“Naah. As offensive national stereotypes go, it’s not really… one. It’s something everybody comments on wrt BHL, but I don’t recall any other Frenchman’s haircut getting the snark.”

Guess you missed the 2004 campaign, where Sen Kerry was ridiculed for his haircut
that made him “look French”.

It’s not a hanging offence, but a review that hands out ad-hominem wisecracks bordering
on national or ethnic stereotypes seems a bit off to me, and calls into question its
judgment of the substantive work. YMMV.

142

Phil 12.03.09 at 5:41 pm

Guess you missed the 2004 campaign, where Sen Kerry was ridiculed for his haircut
that made him “look French”.

I surely did. And I think I’ll need at least one example of an actual French male being lampooned for his hilariously French haircut before I’m persuaded that BHL is being mocked for being French rather than for being BHL.

143

Substance McGravitas 12.03.09 at 5:47 pm

Sen Kerry was ridiculed for his haircut that made him “look French”.

The same folks are now up in arms over Obama’s blatant Marxism.

144

Henry 12.03.09 at 5:48 pm

Marc – I think, like kid bitzer, that the statement that West’s career is “largely the creation of a white liberal academic establishment, for relatively non-scholarly reasons” is wrong and problematic. These claims don’t have much of anything to do with the “annoying subset of people” point that you respond to in #139. Have you read any of West’s early work? Do you have evidence that he received preferential treatment in his early career? Given the general agreement (which you appear to subscribe to) that West is brilliant, you would need some remarkably strong evidence if you wanted to seriously contend that West’s success is a by-product of white liberal guilt. The McLemee “West’s career-making work is superb, but his current output doesn’t compare” thesis seems rather better supported by the facts.

145

Richard Cownie 12.03.09 at 5:50 pm

And I’d like to see an example of a review that mocks an author for being a
totally conventional middle-aged white male academic. Aren’t we savvy enough
about culture to know that mockery can be a way to diminish and belittle the
“other”. Is it ok to mock Hillary’s pantsuits ? And call Obama “boy” ?

146

Substance McGravitas 12.03.09 at 5:56 pm

Richard, the point is that “French” to the set of people who would mock Kerry means “bad” in the same way that “Marxist” does. Has no connection to reality.

147

ajay 12.03.09 at 5:56 pm

Guess you missed the 2004 campaign, where Sen Kerry was ridiculed for his haircut
that made him “look French”.

Point of information: this is not true. An anonymous Bush advisor told the NYT in 2004 that he “looks French”. His haircut was mocked for costing $1000. So he was ridiculed for his haircut and for looking French, but these were two separate avenues of attack.
Anyway, Kerry’s hair doesn’t look particularly French. It’s generic American Hairspray Senatorial.

148

Doctor Science 12.03.09 at 5:57 pm

My sarcasm detector doesn’t know what to make of kmack @138. But then, my sarcasm detector broke at the idea that a professional writer would do an as-told-to “autobiography”. It seems that kmack is strictly correct: West is, and thinks of himself as, a performer more than an academic.

149

kid bitzer 12.03.09 at 5:57 pm

#144–

henry, i think you are confusing ‘marc’ (116, 140) with ‘kmack’ (136).

why, why, must people insist on using these ridiculous pseudonyms?

150

Substance McGravitas 12.03.09 at 6:00 pm

why, why, must people insist on using these ridiculous pseudonyms?

Beats me.

151

Henry 12.03.09 at 6:08 pm

Apologies…

152

Barbar 12.03.09 at 6:08 pm

His lofty professional career is, after all, largely the creation of a white liberal academic establishment, for relatively non-scholarly reasons. Black scholars with any sense and integrity have known that.

Which white liberals were responsible for setting up Harvard’s Af-Am Studies department?

153

Richard Cownie 12.03.09 at 6:16 pm

“Richard, the point is that “French” to the set of people who would mock Kerry means “bad” in the same way that “Marxist” does. Has no connection to reality.”

Indeed. And does a crack about Henri-Levy’s haircuts have any connection to the
“reality” of his work ? Mockery functions to diminish the “other” *without* engaging
with the substance. That is precisely what’s dangerous about it.

154

ajay 12.03.09 at 6:24 pm

And does a crack about Henri-Levy’s haircuts have any connection to the
“reality” of his work ?

Yes. Read the sentence: “His haircuts are as thoughtful as his books are stylish. ” Notice that it refers to both his haircuts (words 1-5) and his work (words 6-10).

155

JanieM 12.03.09 at 6:31 pm

why, why, must people insist on using these ridiculous pseudonyms?

Beats me.

What beats me is either:

1) Why there is a system that numbers comments, but then inserts delayed/moderated comments that mess up the numbering of comments they displace, or

2) why, given the system described in 1), people use numbers to refer to other comments at all, rather than, say, name and time. (Not that I haven’t done it myself on the rare occasions when I comment here.)

;)

156

Substance McGravitas 12.03.09 at 6:32 pm

Mockery functions to diminish the “other” without engaging
with the substance. That is precisely what’s dangerous about it.

Unless it engages with the substance, which is precisely what’s valuable about it.

157

Richard Cownie 12.03.09 at 6:33 pm

ajay: your comment is as brief as your pseudonym is obtuse.

158

alex 12.03.09 at 6:42 pm

BHL is basically a haircut and an open-collared shirt looking for sympathy in a cruel world. This has nothing to do with him being French, and much to do with him being a pompous vacuous arse.

That said, I have noticed various young French intellos on TV from time to time [in France, this is], and some of them have terrific hair. More than enough to cover two normal academics’ heads, with some left over. Am I jealous? Yes, and bereft also.

159

Richard Cownie 12.03.09 at 6:44 pm

“Unless it engages with the substance, which is precisely what’s valuable about it. “

Agreed. Mocking the substance – or the lack of it – is ok. It’s mocking BHL’s
haircuts and West’s wardrobe and diction that seems questionable.

I’m not defending West’s work: I haven’t read it, and have only seen him speak once.
But I’m not at all freaked out by the idea that a scholar might choose to engage
with popular culture in non-scholarly ways, or speak with some vernacular idioms.
Just how ivory does the ivory tower need to be ?

160

ajay 12.03.09 at 6:47 pm

157: sorry you couldn’t follow that, I’ll try to be a bit clearer. By saying “His haircuts are as thoughtful as his books are stylish”, the author means “BHL puts a lot of effort into superficial things like his image – for example, his haircuts – and his books – which are where his intellectual effort should be going – are pretty superficial themselves”.
This is, in fact, simultaneously mocking BHL’s appearance and his work. And, stay with me here, you said that mockery didn’t engage with the substance – which in this case isn’t true.
OK?

161

Phil 12.03.09 at 6:56 pm

I’m not at all freaked out by the idea that a scholar might choose to engage
with popular culture in non-scholarly ways, or speak with some vernacular idioms.

Do you think Scott McLemee is?

162

Substance McGravitas 12.03.09 at 6:57 pm

But I’m not at all freaked out by the idea that a scholar might choose to engage with popular culture in non-scholarly ways, or speak with some vernacular idioms.

Well me neither. But we’re talking about a specific book, and thus far all evidence suggests it’s a vain and insubstantial bullshit job which can be read for laffs.

163

Richard Cownie 12.03.09 at 7:01 pm

“BHL puts a lot of effort into superficial things like his image – for example, his haircuts – and his books – which are where his intellectual effort should be going – are pretty superficial themselves”

Taking away the elegant phrasing, and you get “his hair looks good but his books suck” –
which combines a personal crack with, well, nothing at all substantive about the work.
I’m all for elegant phrasing, but an elegantly phrased cheap crack is still a cheap crack.

164

Richard Cownie 12.03.09 at 7:04 pm

“Do you think Scott McLemee is?”

Judging only from this review, it sounds that way.

165

Matt 12.03.09 at 7:07 pm

I have noticed various young French intellos on TV from time to time [in France, this is], and some of them have terrific hair. More than enough to cover two normal academics’ heads

Is this some sort of anti-Foucault back-lash that’s built up in France over time?

166

John Protevi 12.03.09 at 7:13 pm

I guess I’ll do it if no one else will.

Shorter Richard Cownie: we are all BHL now.

167

magistra 12.03.09 at 7:22 pm

I’m not at all freaked out by the idea that a scholar might choose to engage
with popular culture in non-scholarly ways, or speak with some vernacular idioms.
Just how ivory does the ivory tower need to be ?

If you’re trying to write so as to connect to a popular audience, then the kind of big ego that the extract from West’s book suggests is a serious problem. You want to stress what you and the audience have in common and show them how they too can appreciate the culture you love. If you’re constantly pointing out what a superstar you are and how you are admired on several different continents, it’s hard then to claim that you’re still just an ordinary guy at heart. It’s admirable for an academic to write a good popular book; it’s simply embarassing to see someone fail at the task because they haven’t thought enough about their audience.

168

kmack 12.03.09 at 7:33 pm

“His lofty professional career is, after all, largely the creation of a white liberal academic establishment, for relatively non-scholarly reasons.”

I was making largely an empirical claim. Obviously, blacks do not have much influence in academia, especially at high administrative/decision-making levels (apart from HBCUs). If scholarly considerations were mainly the reason for West-type reception and success, it’s not too hard to come up with other black academics whose scholarly work warrants at least as much attention and reward. I am not suggesting that West’s brand of success actually crowded out the work of such others.

138: “you try to take it back with ‘to be clear, west is brilliant etc.'”

I was taking nothing back, merely making an observation that is consistent with my view of his scholarly (written) work. Such work is generally the standard by which academics, including academics who are black, are judged these days.

152: “Which white liberals were responsible for setting up Harvard’s Af-Am Studies department?”

See above. In any case, West was already an academic star by the time he arrived at Harvard–which, as a matter of observation, is why he got there.

169

Richard Cownie 12.03.09 at 7:43 pm

“You want to stress what you and the audience have in common and show them how they too can appreciate the culture you love”

Well, the one occasion I saw West speak was at Berklee College of Music, and it
was a rousing performance which hit that nail on the head in talking about black
popular music, to an audience mostly heavily involved in music.

While this particular book may miss the mark, I’m not in sympathy with the general
mockery of Prof West. It seems that he’s an excellent teacher and a model of
academic collegiality. If he chooses to have fun appearing in movies and dabbling
in music, good for him. And if he never got round to writing a book about Royce,
so what ? Lots of people suffer declining productivity in their 50’s without being
mocked for it.

170

Doctor Slack 12.03.09 at 7:55 pm

His lofty professional career is, after all, largely the creation of a white liberal academic establishment, for relatively non-scholarly reasons. . . If scholarly considerations were mainly the reason for West-type reception and success, it’s not too hard to come up with other black academics whose scholarly work warrants at least as much attention and reward.

So… there are other black academics as capable as West, therefore his career at Harvard could have had little or nothing to do with his scholarship? The one doesn’t follow from the other.

171

Substance McGravitas 12.03.09 at 8:00 pm

While this particular book may miss the mark

In fairness it may be that David Ritz ruined everything.

172

Doctor Slack 12.03.09 at 8:03 pm

@Richard Cownie: If he chooses to have fun appearing in movies

West was, incidentally, the most entertaining part of Examined Life. Bluesman / jazzman riffing and all.

173

Doctor Science 12.03.09 at 8:13 pm

kmack:

West was already an academic star by the time he arrived at Harvard

But, as I’m sayin’, he’s apparently decided to be a star, instead of an academic. Academics write their own books.

174

Michael Bérubé 12.03.09 at 8:15 pm

West was, incidentally, the most entertaining part of Examined Life. Bluesman / jazzman riffing and all.

By a long shot. Hence Astra Taylor’s decision to open and close the film with him.

175

bianca steele 12.03.09 at 8:19 pm

I think we’re all Michel Foucault now. I sat at the next table from him at a Chinese restaurant a few weeks ago.

176

Michael Bérubé 12.03.09 at 8:19 pm

Btw, if you’re looking for some seriously racist bullshit in re West, check out the closing lines of Andrew O’Hehir’s review of the film.

177

Substance McGravitas 12.03.09 at 8:22 pm

Yikes.

178

Richard Cownie 12.03.09 at 8:28 pm

“Academics write their own books.”

Or not. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Ambrose#Plagiarism_controversy
But it’s ok if you’re an old white American male.

179

Greg 12.03.09 at 8:31 pm

So what would an acceptable review have looked like? “I thought the prose was not so good, but popular audiences: horses for courses. I will not compare it to the standard West has typically set for himself with previous work, because he is a great academic and an engaging speaker. The End.”

180

Phil 12.03.09 at 8:42 pm

But it’s ok if you’re an old white American male.

Are you familiar with the term ‘controversy’ at all, Richard?

181

Matt 12.03.09 at 8:42 pm

Richard in 178- I don’t think the cases are comparable, and the Ambrose case doesn’t really make your point. For one, there was a lot of criticism of Ambrose at the time. He wasn’t let off. For two, he wasn’t really an academic at the time- he’d been retired for several years from his university position and just writing (or “writing”) popular history books, ones that most academic historians were pretty critical of, if I recall correctly. Finally, no one here is accusing West of plagiarism. They are saying that an “as told by” “autobiography” isn’t plausibly a scholarly project (and is a bit goofy, even beyond the actual goofiness of this project.) Given all of this I just don’t see that the Ambrose situation, as bad as it was, is in any way relevant here.

182

Uncle Kvetch 12.03.09 at 8:43 pm

why, why, must people insist on using these ridiculous pseudonyms?

In my case, it was an effort to articulate myself in a more class- and sexuality-conscious manner. But I’m not sure I’ve succeeded.

183

Richard Cownie 12.03.09 at 8:58 pm

“Given all of this I just don’t see that the Ambrose situation, as bad as it was, is in any way relevant here.”

The Ambrose situation is extreme (and seems to occur throughout his work, long before
his retirement). But isn’t there a pretty wide spectrum of collaborations
and use of research assistants and reliance on secondary materials and editing that makes a
blanket statement like “academics write their own books” an over-simplification at best ?
Trying to get at precisely what came from whom isn’t trivial: after revision and discussion
and editing, not all the ideas originate from the author, and not all the words originate from
the author. So “authorship” is a little elusive, no ?

Anyhow, whoever said West’s book was “plausibly a scholarly project” ?

184

hellblazer 12.03.09 at 9:16 pm

Hasty response to Richard Cownie’s misgivings: I haven’t read, and have no intention of reading, West’s book — it speaks another song from that I know / a tale of loftier peaks and deeper woe — but I didn’t come away with an impression that the review was mocking him, or self-consciously head-shaking over him, for trying to come down out of the tower and engage with vernacular and the contemporary mores. It was mocking him because it thought he was doing so in a bombastic way. As I was trying to say above: I don’t know the blues, but I can spot a Pooter/Prufrock hybrid.

Oh, and of course the antecedent of “a tale” is arguably ambiguous, for those who still quibble over the parsing of posterior explosive detonation.

185

JoB 12.03.09 at 9:20 pm

179- sounds fair enough actually – or you might indulge in a bit of fun without pointing all of your Trotskyist wrath on one single individual. In which way is it material to this being a rather good rant that it is critical of a specific person/book? Or is it not a case, plausibly, of a rather good rant looking for a controversy to whip up extra attention in the hope of becoming The Really Memorable Rant?

PS: I heard the ‘BHL one’ on numerous occasions, only once was it about BHL – I mean it’s good fun and all but it’s not like the words ‘Cornel’ & ‘West’ make a lot of difference to the funniness of the quote, he just happened to be around when people started their bit of fun

186

Richard Cownie 12.03.09 at 9:34 pm

“It was mocking him because it thought he was doing so in a bombastic way”

Well, when you start your review by bemoaning the fact that it isn’t the monograph
on Josiah Royce that you were hoping for, and then you pick out the most personal
passage, on West’s romantic aspirations, for especial ridicule, and also lament the
lack of detail about West’s academic work process, the protestation that you’re
fine with popular work strikes me as disingenuous.

I daresay West’s “conversational voice” works better in person or on film than on
the page. But McLemee doesn’t seem to be giving it much chance.

187

Substance McGravitas 12.03.09 at 9:35 pm

the most personal
passage, on West’s romantic aspirations

Available in bookstores everywhere.

188

Barry 12.03.09 at 9:49 pm

“Academics write their own books.”

Richard Cownie: “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Ambrose#Plagiarism_controversy
But it’s ok if you’re an old white American male.”

And John Keegan does, as well (however, he screws things up, and uses material from another timeline, where Earth’s geography is different, but somehow the civilization is eerily parallel: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/011831.html ).

And considering how batsh*t insane certain other allegedly elite academics are (VD Hanson, Niall Ferguson, most of the people at the U Chic Econ Dept), perhaps we should investigate a lot of other people.

189

Jon H 12.03.09 at 10:28 pm

steven @133: “The problem, possibly, is that the subject of the sentence at issue is “the exchange””

Popping a cap is clearly an extrapolation of “f___ up”, which was introduced by Summers. Given that West dismissed the possibility of anyone getting f____ up, I don’t see how the cap-popping in the later sentence, or any desire for cap-popping, could reasonably be imputed to West.

190

Jon H 12.03.09 at 10:39 pm

Richard Cownie wrote: “Taking away the elegant phrasing, and you get “his hair looks good but his books suck” – which combines a personal crack with, well, nothing at all substantive about the work.”

That’s why the comment is followed by 1,779 additional words.

191

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.03.09 at 10:42 pm

I’ll repeat that since I heard family and friends (politically active on both coasts since well before Scott McLemee or I were born) refer to themselves self-deprecatingly as “Trotskyites,”
the issue itself is more symptomatic of the old sectarianism, now academic infighting, than either political action or intellectual discussion.
Kinda like arguments over Cornell West.

192

jdkbrown 12.03.09 at 10:50 pm

“If scholarly considerations were mainly the reason for West-type reception and success, it’s not too hard to come up with other black academics whose scholarly work warrants at least as much attention and reward.”

There are, alas, academics of every race whose scholarly work doesn’t get the attention it deserves. This in no way shows that successful academics are successful mainly for reasons other than academic merit. It’s simply that (1) there’s too much good stuff to pay attention to it all, and (2) the economics of the humanities is remarkably inefficient.

193

lemuel pitkin 12.03.09 at 10:51 pm

1) Why there is a system that numbers comments, but then inserts delayed/moderated comments that mess up the numbering of comments they displace

Finally, finally, someone has raised the critical issue.

Is there some reason that comments removed from moderation couldn’t be given fractional numbers (71.5, etc.), or else simply placed at the end of the thread? Renumbering existing comments is Bad.

194

Substance McGravitas 12.03.09 at 10:57 pm

Is there some reason that comments removed from moderation couldn’t be given fractional numbers (71.5, etc.)

Probably. Each comment is usually represented by a symbol like # which the system will know to number consecutively. Recoding would be required.

Removal of the numbers should be an easy thing though.

195

Substance McGravitas 12.03.09 at 11:00 pm

On the other hand, looking at the source tells me I’m full of it. Never mind.

Each comment does, however, seem to have a unique ID attached…

196

lemuel pitkin 12.03.09 at 11:13 pm

Removal of the numbers should be an easy thing though.

But the numbers are good!

Anyway, it should be no problem to simply place removed-from-moderation comments at the end of the thread, right? Besides eliminating the renumbering problem, that would have two other advantages: It would remove the misleading impression that later commenters saw, and might be responding, to comments that in fact were not present when they posted; and in active threads, it would make it more likely that de-moderated comments get read, since most folks are just scanning the later part of the thread.

197

bianca steele 12.03.09 at 11:43 pm

he’s apparently decided to be a star, instead of an academic

Oh, okay, well, then, in that case, his reviewers should be even harsher on him. I mean, he’s using cultural capital that belongs to the academic community for purposes of his own ego. And what kind of person wants to be a star anyway? Better come down hard on him until he gets back into line. He can go back to school and train for a new, real career. There isn’t any profession named “star.”

But if, as kmack says, the white male academic establishment was behind him, that’s an other question altogether. Isn’t it? (Obviously, if he were white, male, etc., that would be a given.)

198

david 12.03.09 at 11:54 pm

“the economics of the humanities is remarkably inefficient”

As opposed to which economics? Or, define efficient? etc.

199

hellblazer 12.03.09 at 11:59 pm

@bianca I can’t speak to everyone else’s purported hypocrisy, only mine; and because I am but a philistine, what I found mockworthy in the excerpts SM presented wasn’t the notion that West wanted to come down from the ivory tower – it was the buttock-clenching tone in those excerpts. (Non-sequitur: that clarifier as to which “Wuthering Heights” West was referring to, should really have been taken out by someone, author or editor, along the way. And the deliberate repetition of “full” just kept making me think of the word “fulsome”, which presumably wasn’t the intention.)

For me at least, WMAE doesn’t come into it; and the few analogous British examples I can think of get regularly chopped off at the knees, sometimes unfairly and sometimes not.

200

Bill Benzon 12.04.09 at 12:19 am

I mean, he’s using cultural capital that belongs to the academic community for purposes of his own ego.

BINGO!

201

Mrs Tilton 12.04.09 at 1:15 am

kmack @136,

For those who are especially critical of West now as compared to his “golden era,” what were you thinking in the first place? His lofty professional career is, after all, largely the creation of a white liberal academic establishment, for relatively non-scholarly reasons

Shorter kmack:

Cornell West = Donovan McNabb

202

bianca steele 12.04.09 at 1:17 am

@hellblazer,
Are you distinguishing your position from Dr. Science’s, or are you subtly telling me I have misunderstood Herr/Frau Science? Or is “buttock-clenching” meant to indicate an accusation of homophobia?

203

Kieran Healy 12.04.09 at 1:23 am

Cornell West = Stanford, maybe.

204

Mrs Tilton 12.04.09 at 1:28 am

Kieran @203,

I see what you did there.

OK, that’s one l I don’t have to use ater.

205

jdkbrown 12.04.09 at 2:00 am

“As opposed to which economics?”

Fair enough.

“Or, define efficient? etc.”

Well, I had in mind the job market for humanities PhDs: you can’t always count on the most talented teachers and researchers being the ones landing tenure-track jobs. (And, of course, being in a “temporary” high-teaching-load position raises all sorts of obstacles to both teaching and researching at the very highest level one can; which can hinder one on the job market; lather, rinse, repeat.) Furthermore, there are more excellent scholars/teachers than there are “superstar” positions. (And more competent scholars/teachers than there are positions, period.) The end result is that, over all, academic employment in the humanities is not perfectly meritocratic.

kmack insinuated that West didn’t get his position on academic merit but by being the favorite black man of the white establishment, and he cited as evidence the claim that there are plenty of African-American scholars just as academically worthy as West.

This, though, is true of just about *any* scholar in a superstar position, black, white, green or purple–there are scholars who are just as academically talented who aren’t in superstar positions. It has nothing to do with race, but with the structure of employment in the humanities. So it’s not, as kmack supposes, any sort of evidence that West is unworthy of his position.

206

vivian 12.04.09 at 2:01 am

Yikes, what a busy day here! just catching up.

Harry, now I really want to see a Cornell West/Adrian Mole mashup of some kind*. And while I’m wishing, maybe Ajay could write it?

*first thought was slash-fic but… just no.

207

kmack 12.04.09 at 2:04 am

Mrs Tilton, 210: You’re joking , right?

Or perhaps you feel insulted because others don’t share the extent of your regard for West as scholar–namely, as compared to any number of *highly accomplished black scholars*, including those who work in areas related to his.

Or maybe you stopped reading after “white liberal academic establishment…”–since what follows is plainly incompatible with your attempt at snark. (You might also bother to spell West’s first name correctly.)

For those not in the know, Rush Limbaugh’s point was that any black quarterback, and McNabb in particular, is bound to be overrated by anxious white liberals. Of course, that was exactly not my point, and Limbaugh’s point was demonstrably absurd.

I might have been offended, but comparing me to Limbaugh is so vividly bizarre as to be almost…sublime and funky?

My point was more like Cornel West = George Benson. _Breezin’_, of all jazz albums, went triple platinum–which isn’t to deny that “This Masquerade” is a great jazz-pop tune and that Benson is an extraordinary talent.

If you happen to believe that Benson is one of the jazz greats of his era, to each his or her own. But others could reasonably doubt your judgment about jazz as an art.

208

Doctor Slack 12.04.09 at 2:28 am

My point was more like Cornel West = George Benson. Breezin’, of all jazz albums, went triple platinum—which isn’t to deny that “This Masquerade” is a great jazz-pop tune and that Benson is an extraordinary talent.

Actually, that makes absolutely no sense. You said Cornel West’s success, driven by a white liberal establishment, was down to “relatively non-scholarly reasons” (a contention you still seem to think is directly supported by the existence of other black scholars than West… and it really isn’t). So are you saying Benson’s sales were driven by “relatively non-musical” factors? Did he have a really supernaturally good coiffure or something? Because to be honest, at the moment it looks like Mrs. Tilton got it right and you’re trying to bullshit your way out of a fairly straightfowardly obnoxious and, dare I say it, even “vividly bizarre” remark.

209

Richard Cownie 12.04.09 at 3:19 am

“That’s why the comment is followed by 1,779 additional words.”

It’s a nice rhetorical trick. You belittle and diminish the subject with a somewhat
cruel joke about his appearance. Then you get down to the serious business of
the hatchet job with the audience already on your side.

Now what I get clearly from the review of West is

1) McLemee hates the book

2) He wishes West had written a scholarly tome about Josiah Royce

3) Failing that, he wishes West had written about the intellectual process involved
in writing a book about Josiah Royce

4) … or else a book about how the ideas of Josiah Royce have influenced West’s
life and intellectual development.

5) He thinks there’s too much of West in a book called “Brother West: Living and
Loving Out Loud”.

The conclusion I come to is that McLemee, left to his own devices, probably wouldn’t –
and shouldn’t – buy this book. But that people who are fans of West as a character and
a performer, rather than as a pure scholar, might well have a different opinion. At least we
should note that the title isn’t misleading anyone.

As for the question of whether the excerpted passages are terrible, I think you have to
make allowances for the difference between speech and conventional written prose.
West’s oratory has its own rhythm and music, and if you can’t hear a little of that in
your head you’re not going to get it.

210

Substance McGravitas 12.04.09 at 3:23 am

As for the question of whether the excerpted passages are terrible

Listen to me now: they are terrible.

211

kmack 12.04.09 at 3:24 am

Doctor Slack, 208: I guess you missed the “jazz as an art” part. So I would say, if you insist on a literal rendering, that Benson’s sales were driven by ‘relatively non-jazz-as-an-art factors’. I believe you’re a character (e.g., @170) who has no conception of Gricean implicature.

I’m not really sure why the “white liberal academic establishment” remark caused such a reaction among some. Doesn’t this describe most of (high) academia? For the uncharitable, literal-minded, or anxious reader: the point of that remark was that if a class of gatekeepers generally doesn’t know much about or have much feel for certain topics, their corresponding judgments about standards and quality are likely to be distorted.

In this case, the gatekeepers, along with impressionable students and some academics who ought to have known better, significantly overestimated the scholarly value of the work while being dazzled and entertained by a brilliant academic performance artist. You’re free to disagree with this assessment, and I feel no need to bs about it. That said, some people listen to, care about, and have taste in jazz, and some don’t.

What I’ve usually read from Mrs. Tilton has led me to believe that she is clever and sensible. Doctor Slack, you are no Mrs. Tilton.

212

Richard Cownie 12.04.09 at 4:19 am

“Listen to me now: they are terrible.”

OK, let me give you my take on the much-mocked “sublime and funky” passage.
First off, West is a “jazzman” – an improviser. And this passage is an improvisation.
Like most improvisations, it is not perfectly formed, and it has some dull moments,
but it also has some pretty good phrases.

“The basic problem with my love relationships with women is that my standards are so high — and they apply equally to both of us.”

The beginning is blah. But he’s just stating the theme.

“I seek
full-blast mutual intensity,
fully fledged mutual acceptance,
full-blown mutual flourishing,
and fully felt peace and joy with each other.”

Nice music: “full … fully … full … fully”. And good sentiments (though grievously lacking
in Roycean philosophy)

“This requires a level of
physical attraction,
personal adoration,
and moral admiration that is hard to find.”

Again, nice music: “physical … personal … moral”, “attraction … adoration … admiration”.
This time it’s three clauses instead of four, giving variety. And again the meaning is clear.

“And it shares a depth of trust and openness
for a genuine soul-sharing
with a mutual respect
for a calling to each other and to others. “

Awkward and unclear. Improvising is tough.

“Does such a woman exist for me?
Only God knows and I eagerly await this divine unfolding. “

The jazzman borrowing from the preacher here. An idiom that secular middle-
aged whites (like me) couldn’t – and shouldn’t attempt. But West can own it.

“Like Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship in Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel Wuthering Heights
or Franz Schubert’s tempestuous piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat (D.960) “

OK, ok, this is a little absurd. But hey, it’s an improvisation: you throw in what
comes to the top of your mind. He’s thinking “passionate” and this is what floats
up on the spur of the moment.

“I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!”

You’ve all had fun with the “life or death” part: but hey, the guy is 56 and has had cancer.
I interpret “life or death” as an oblique reference to that experience.
Then “sublime and funky love that I crave” ? That’s an instant classic: it’s the headline
of the post. And the humor is surely deliberate. “sacred and profane love”
would be just about the same thing, but “sublime and funky love” is more precise and
funkier and funnier: a neat twist to come up with in an improvisation.

213

J— 12.04.09 at 4:31 am

214

hellblazer 12.04.09 at 5:10 am

@bianca steele — my not very coherent post above was just in response to what I thought was broad-brush sarcasm on your part. I didn’t appreciate that you were making a particular riposte to Doc Science up thread. Also, I just wanted to suggest that sometimes mockery is not always motivated by jealousy, but sometimes by discomfort/bemusement.

The “buttock-clenching” was meant to be the feeling I got when reading those West excerpts, because it brought back memories of me sitting on uncomfortable chairs watching/listening to facile and flowery displays by self-indulgent people. I don’t think that was homophobia or Freudian on my part, but perhaps I need to go and book in with an analyst to get that checked out.

As I said, I don’t have a horse to back or nobble in this particular debate. I personally read SM”s tone as “oh, CW, why do you now seem so silly?” – and that’s a sentiment I can empathise with, even if I don’t know West’s writing or persona well enough to judge SM’s review. Maybe there’s some whole history of people sniping at the man, which I don’t know; in which case, my apologies for venturing my opinions on the parsing of McLemee’s review and the bizarre (non-)editing of those West passages.

215

Barbar 12.04.09 at 5:11 am

kmack is clearly an expert on “the white academic liberal establishment” who determine success in academia and the “highly accomplished black scholars” who would succeed in a truly race-neutral environment. I can tell because he uses those phrases over and over again.

216

kmack 12.04.09 at 5:18 am

Barbar, 215: I don’t want whatever you’re drinking or smoking.

217

hellblazer 12.04.09 at 5:24 am

@Richard Cownie: if you find those passages of interest or poetry, then I won’t try to argue against that. I find them hollow, but perhaps that’s just what I grew up reading and what I spend my time reading now. The sentiments expressed just seem like romanticism as egoism to me.

Sometimes the sublime tips into the ridiculous, or sometimes one person’s sublime is ridiculous to another. And sometimes, unmoved by righteous idiom, owned or given free rein, the image of Swiss Toni comes to mind.

218

Substance McGravitas 12.04.09 at 5:25 am

OK, let me give you my take on the much-mocked “sublime and funky” passage.

It was very funny and thank you.

219

hellblazer 12.04.09 at 5:28 am

(I was going to post a link to the “Dear Clive” parody of Clive James’ tendency towards infatuation with the greats, and with himself as un homme qui les connait bien, but I can’t seem to find a copy and have forgotten the author. Anyone else remember?)

220

Barbar 12.04.09 at 5:29 am

kmack, I asked which white liberals set up the Harvard Af-Am department. I was curious because the black scholars in prominent academic positions there must have been the lucky duckies who got the white establishment to support them. I mean, this stuff is common sense and obvious and an empirical claim, it’s just weird that no one has any names.

221

hellblazer 12.04.09 at 5:35 am

OK, will shut up now, but yes, that last sentence of mine in #217 is broken (subject/object/clause screwup). That’s what happens when you improvise, I guess…

222

Richard Cownie 12.04.09 at 5:46 am

“The sentiments expressed just seem like romanticism as egoism to me.”

Well, I don’t share West’s views. My relationship rules are much more concrete:
Be There (On Time); Never Escalate; Put Out the Trash. Take care of the trash,
and the sublime and funky will take care of itself …

But I do think we need to treat West’s book fairly on its own terms. A book called
“Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud” is obviously going to have a lot of
West’s personal views in it; the “Out Loud” suggests that it needs to be spoken and
heard, rather than read on the page; and West’s references to himself as a jazzman
imply that we should analyze it as a sequence of improvisational performances,
not a single coherent and carefully-edited whole.

223

Doctor Slack 12.04.09 at 5:53 am

So I would say, if you insist on a literal rendering, that Benson’s sales were driven by ‘relatively non-jazz-as-an-art factors’.

I insist on a rendering that makes sense of the comparison. Benson transitioned into the territories of pop and R&B music — did he somehow “dazzle” people into thinking he wasn’t doing this, as you claim (still bizarrely) that West bamboozled people into thinking he was doing (sufficiently significant) scholarship? West took his Harvard post in ’94 — so you’re arguing that nothing he did up to that point was significant enough to warrant it on merit? Because that’s a sufficiently eccentric judgment to warrant a tad more explanation than you’ve provided so far.

I believe you’re a character (e.g., @170) who has no conception of Gricean implicature. . . I don’t want whatever you’re drinking or smoking. . .

Your credibility as a judge of cleverness, sensibility or scholarly substance wanes with each of these attempted zingers. You know that, right? No wait, you probably don’t. Barbar, too, looks to me to be on the money. Do you think you’re going to dispel that impression with fatuous insults?

224

Es-tonea-pesta 12.04.09 at 6:22 am

It seems to me that the inevitable dispute here arises from people who see a book like this and think that the intended audience is liberal academics, and then page through the book and, as liberal academics, notice that the author seems to be a huge phony who is proud of having not done any serious work in the last decade, and therefore conclude that the author conclusively failed in his goal of impressing liberal academics.

And then there are a few people who believe that West is not trying to appeal to liberal academics at all, but a more mass-market audience, with lower standards of originality and coherence that that audience demands – and that by those standards, maybe he’s doing a very good job.

Richard Cownie’s more recent comments saying that McLemee, by expressing disappointment that West has devoted his recent life to frivolities and accomplished zero out of several stated goals, is actually expressing disappointment that West has engaged in any frivolity at all rather than devoting his life to Josiah Royce, is a separate issue.

225

bad Jim 12.04.09 at 6:47 am

I think the point about “This Masquerade” is that the tune was actually written by Leon Russell, from his album Carney, the hit tune of which was “Tight Rope”. George Benson was at that point an established and well-respected artist, but “Masquerade” was a major hit, which jazz musicians almost never get. To view Benson as a pop vocalist is to miss nearly everything about him.

226

Richard Cownie 12.04.09 at 6:52 am

“Richard Cownie’s more recent comments saying that McLemee, by expressing disappointment that West has devoted his recent life to frivolities and accomplished zero out of several stated goals, is actually”

I think if McLemee wrote a review of a Sonny Rollins CD, he would very probably express
disappointment at the absence of an orchestra and the failure to adhere to the form of a
classical concerto; further disappointment that Rollins chose to play saxophone rather
than harp; speechless shock at a few off-key notes in a solo; disdain at how much Rollins
plays, compared to the paucity of drum solos; and of course regret at the general Roycelessness
of the endeavor.

And that would tell everyone that McLemee doesn’t like jazz; but it wouldn’t help jazz fans
decide whether it’s a good jazz recording or a poor one.

West’s book might well be bad. But McLemee seems so profoundly unsympathetic to the whole
concept of the enterprise that I don’t trust him to tell us – or even to know – whether it is well
executed on its own terms.

227

Doctor Slack 12.04.09 at 7:03 am

I think if McLemee wrote a review of a Sonny Rollins CD, he would very probably express disappointment at the absence of an orchestra and the failure to adhere to the form of a classical concerto

I think perhaps you’re reaching.

228

Ian 12.04.09 at 7:11 am

Richard Cownie: “OK, ok, this is a little absurd. But hey, it’s an improvisation: you throw in what comes to the top of your mind. He’s thinking ‘passionate’ and this is what floats up on the spur of the moment.”

You’re clearly not a musician (let alone “a jazzman in the world of ideas”) if you think improvisation is just throwing in “what comes to the top of your mind.”

Based on the passage in question, I’d say that Cornel West isn’t a musician either, or someone who uses language for a living. But in fact he has amazing facility with language; as many people in this thread have attested, West can speak extemporaneously with passion, cogency, and complexity. He can write that way, too. But not here. This is drivel.

Speaking of which, I can’t believe that after 224 comments no one has remarked on the mixed construction of the final sentence. I didn’t know that Schubert’s sonata craved sublime and funky love.

229

bad Jim 12.04.09 at 7:18 am

Sorry, sorry, sorry. The point was that Benson and West are not true jazz men, which is trivially true of nearly everyone.

Disculpame, por favor. Entschuldigen sie mir, bitte. The TV was blaring Miles Davis (PBS pledge week) and it brought to mind a wind quartet (the flutist had just given birth) in which the nearly as gravid bassoonist, constantly grinning, played the bass line to Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay”. I wish the horn and sax players’ performances had been as memorable.

230

dsquared 12.04.09 at 9:11 am

I think we should probably stop having jokes on CT; we’ve tried this experiment a number of times and it just doesn’t work.

231

JoB 12.04.09 at 9:45 am

Or maybe just refrain from disguising the jokes as some serious poking fun at others. & if it’s unavoidable that way not post hoc claiming that it was ‘just for a couple of laughs’.

232

dsquared 12.04.09 at 10:34 am

no, the methadone approach isn’t going to work; it’s cold turkey or nothing I’m afraid.

233

JoB 12.04.09 at 10:39 am

Ah, that was just a sorry excuse for a joke! Me sorry then.

234

alex 12.04.09 at 11:34 am

Have you thought of smilies, that might work, e.g.:

“McLemee is clearly an apologist for the worst excesses of Jim Crow, and in many regards is little better than a lynch-mob participant. ;-)”

Takes the edge right off, doesn’t it?

235

Richard Cownie 12.04.09 at 12:42 pm

“You’re clearly not a musician (let alone “a jazzman in the world of ideas”) if you think improvisation is just throwing in “what comes to the top of your mind.””

It’s not “just” that. But sometimes – in the heat of the moment – it falls back to that.
And if you want to mark West down a grade for those moments, that’s fine with me.
All I’m saying is that speech – and especially improvised speech – can’t usefully be
judged by the standards of written prose, as most here have been doing.

And yes, I am a musician, though a poor one and sorely in need of a few months
of woodshedding (http://www.elh.org, FWIW). So nuts to you.

236

ajay 12.04.09 at 12:53 pm

All I’m saying is that speech – and especially improvised speech – can’t usefully be
judged by the standards of written prose, as most here have been doing.

But it isn’t improvised speech, it’s written prose! If you want to say “West is a much better speaker than he is a writer” then that’s unremarkable – in fact it’s what lots of people have been saying. If you want to say “things that sound great when spoken often look clunky or silly when written down”, well, yes, they do.
But if West writes something in prose (or gets someone else to help him write something in prose, as actually happened) then it’s going to get treated as written prose. If he doesn’t want that to happen, he should maybe have released “Brother West” as a CD or something.
And, as Ian points out, it’s not even the case that West can’t produce great written prose. Everyone agrees that he has done so in the past. Just not here.

237

JoB 12.04.09 at 12:54 pm

Your “listen to” link doesn’t work, Richard.

238

Not Swiss 12.04.09 at 2:20 pm

I’m pretty sure there is no genre that you could place “I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!” that would not make me want to mock it. Maybe if it was pre-labeled as satire.

239

Bill Benzon 12.04.09 at 2:30 pm

A jazzman speaks

This is the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk, transcribed from his “Bright Moments” album.

You know it’s good to be in a place that feels like you’re in your house, you know? Yeah. Yeah, it’s a beaufiful thing, we’re glad you people’re assembled here with us on this Saturday night. You know what I mean? Yeah, yeah. You don’t feel like Saturday night people. Some Saturday night people, that’s the only night they get out, an’ they act like it. (shouts and applause from audience) You know, like when you cage somethin’ up and when it gets out, they act like it. That’s th’ way most Saturday night people act.
Now we would like to think of some very beautiful bright moments — yeah, yeah, yeah — you know what I mean?
Bright moments.
Bright moments.
Bright moments is like (chuckle) eat’n your last pork chop in London England, because you ain’t gonna git no mo . . . (laughter) cooked from home.
Bright moments! (laughter).
Bright moments is like bein’ with your favorite love’n you all share’n’ the same ice cream dish. (laughter) And you git mad when she gets the last drop. (laughter) Bright moments! And you have to take her in your arms and git it the other way. Whoo (laughter)
Bright moments!
That’s too heavy for most of you all ’cause most of you all don’t know nothin’ ’bout that kind of love. The love you all have been taught about is the love in those magazines. And I am fortunate that I didn’t have to look in magazines. (laughter, clapping) (Rahsaan chuckles)
Bright moments!
Bright moments is like see’n’ something that you ain’t ever seen in you life and you don’t have to see it but you know how it looks. (Yeah, clapping, woo hooo, etc. bright moments)
Bright moments is like hearin’ some music that ain’t nobody else heard, and if they heard it they wouldn’t even recognize that they heard it ’cause they been hearin’ it all their life but they nutted on it so, when you hear it and you start poppin’ your feet and jumpin’ up and down they get mad because you’re enjoying yourself but those are bright moments that they can’t share with you ’cause they don’t even know how to go about listening to what you’re listening to and when you try to tell them about it they don’t know a damn thing about what your’re talking about!
(Whistles, clapping, exclamations, etc.)
Is there any other bright moments before we proceed on? Testify! Testify! Bright moments, bright moments. Bright moments is being at the Keystone Korners — beautiful — listening to geniuses like Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Beautiful. Bright moments. Bright moments is like hav’n brothers ‘n sisters and sisterettes and brotheretts like you all here listenin’ to us. (Applause etc.)

240

Zamfir 12.04.09 at 2:33 pm

If he doesn’t want that to happen, he should maybe have released “Brother West” as a CD or something.
But as we’ve seen, when the guy releases a CD, Summers immediately steps in asking to pop caps.

241

Bill Benzon 12.04.09 at 2:33 pm

Alas, some of the formatting that was there in the preview got stripped out upon being uploaded. All that “yeah yeah” stuff should be underlined, some “bright moments,” and other stuff as well. It’s audience response to Rahsaan.

242

ajay 12.04.09 at 2:56 pm

238: put it in German, and it would fit right into Schiller’s “An die Freude”. In fact, it would sound substantially less silly than some of the actual lines.

243

tom s. 12.04.09 at 3:05 pm

“I think we should probably stop having jokes on CT; we’ve tried this experiment a number of times and it just doesn’t work.”

Whoa.

Wait a minute.

dsquared, please reassure us that your funny and cutting posts (The Budweiser Sequence, “Rules for contrarians”, leching in the lab, reviewing books he hasn’t read, etc) don’t come under this “joke” umbrella. CT without those would be a drier and less interesting place.

244

roac 12.04.09 at 3:21 pm

Are those who are defending this passage as oral improvisation positing that West performed for a tape recorder and the finished product is the ghostwriter-person’s transcription? Because I have some trouble believing that West plopped in the parenthesis with the catalogue number for the Schubert in the heat of performance.

245

Henry 12.04.09 at 3:22 pm

Good lord. I go away for half a day and then … I think that my personal list of Types of Commenters (now including Those Belonging to the Emperor, Those Drawn with a Very Fine Camel Hair Brush etc), needs to be expanded to include 11: Those who make me wonder whether I have wandered into one of the more lengthy Monty Python sketches. Kathleen “Insulting Larry Summers is Slapping Cornel West in the Face. With a Slab of Fried Chicken!!” Lowrey seems to have disappeared, at least for the moment. But Richard Cowney has stepped in as her understudy in absurdism, and is doing a very fine job. It would be an even better one if only he could make up his mind and decide whether Scott’s review was motivated by gnawing envy of Cornel West’s awesomeness, prejudice and stereotyped thinking about black professors, French people etc, or an aesthetic sense so pitifully stunted that it cannot comprehend the Spoken Word Poetry Genius of West’s sublime and funky love. But then – perhaps this underlying incoherence is part of the act – in which case I say well played, Sir! Well played!

His first major riff – suggesting that attacking BHL for being a physically vain intellectual poseur and media hog is a coded attack on All Frenchmen – is very well done. The underlying absurdity comes of course from the fact that Scott was building on criticisms of BHL by those notorious francophobes Pierre Bourdieu, Arthur “Freedom Fries Forevah!” Goldhammer, and Pierre Vidal Naquet. Perhaps Cownie is being a little bit too subtle for his own good – readers who haven’t bothered to click on the link to Scott’s article may not fully appreciate the humor of his remarks. Perhaps though, as part of the joke, Cownie hasn’t clicked on this link himself.

But the funny really comes with his detailed exegesis of the Sublime and Funky Love passage in #212. It’s sheer comic genius – Helen Vendler meets Groucho Marx. The only way that he could possibly improve on this post would be to declaim it or sing it himself (possibly with some spoken word renditions of William McGonagall and Amanda McKitrick Ros to add variety) and post it as an MP3. If Eugene Ionesco were alive and well, and commenting on Crooked Timber, he couldn’t do any better. The trollish stylings of kmack just don’t compare …

246

Richard Cownie 12.04.09 at 3:27 pm

“But if West writes something in prose (or gets someone else to help him write something in prose, as actually happened) then it’s going to get treated as written prose”

Really ? That’s how reviewing works these days ? You receive a pallet of new “books” from
the publisher, you load them into the big hopper on the Book-o-Matic 5000 Grading Machine,
turn the switch from “Poetry” to “Prose” or vice versa, and then wait while it churns through
and sorts them, and it works just great for Updike and Spinoza and Kerouac and Hume and West,
whatever you’ve got, and spits out an overall grade and the best and worst paragraph in each ?
Add a little snark and you’re done ?

Good job Summers didn’t know that while he was still in the business of hiring and firing
humanities professors …

I’m painfully aware that as a layman I’ve come to an academic gunfight armed with a small blunt
stick. But isn’t this culture business a bit more complex than you’re suggesting ?

247

Richard Cownie 12.04.09 at 3:36 pm

“His first major riff – suggesting that attacking BHL for being a physically vain intellectual poseur and media hog is a coded attack on All Frenchmen – is very well done.”

Well, go back and check the thread. The excellent Berube made the (IMO) less-than-excellent
suggestion that McLemee’s lack of prejudice could be proved by the fact that he snarks
against the (non-black) BHL as well as the (black) West. I’m open to the idea that McLemee
snarks equally against all groups , but an example of snark aimed at a member of another
out-group doesn’t, and couldn’t possibly, prove that point. Regardless of the merits of BHL’s
work (or hairstyle).

248

dsquared 12.04.09 at 3:42 pm

The only way that he could possibly improve on this post would be to declaim it or sing it himself

presumably to the Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders song “Groovy Kind of Love”. I think you’d have to throw in a couple of bars of 15/4 time to get it to scan but it would be doable.

… sorry, I’m breaking my own self-denying ordnance, aren’t I? We shouldn’t do jokes on CT, the readers don’t appreciate them and it always causes trouble.

249

ajay 12.04.09 at 3:45 pm

Self-denying ordnance: putting a land mine in your own slit trench…

250

J— 12.04.09 at 3:49 pm

The jokes in this thread are multiple, although many appear to have been made without intent.

251

bianca steele 12.04.09 at 3:57 pm

@hellblazer:

Gosh. I didn’t mean to suggest you ought to be bashed about the head and shoulders because your comment was incoherent and impossible for me to read as a response to what I had written, though I could come up with about half a dozen ways it could have been meant as an insult to me. Nor did I mean to suggest you need psychiatric help, or anything else bad about you. I feel so guilty about your comment, and so reluctant to upset you further, that I won’t say any more.

252

roac 12.04.09 at 3:57 pm

The trouble with the distinction between snarkable in-groups and snark-immune out-groups, implied in 247, would be the difficulty in reaching consensus as to which group belongs where.

253

Chris Bertram 12.04.09 at 4:03 pm

Have you heard the one about two Irishmen, an Irishwoman, two Englishmen, a Welshman ….

oh never mind!

254

Richard Cownie 12.04.09 at 4:06 pm

“The trouble with the distinction between snarkable in-groups and snark-immune out-groups, implied in 247, would be the difficulty in reaching consensus as to which group belongs where.”

You can snark anyone. But if you snark anyone, then you’d better snark people who resemble
yourself in gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, and religion as well as those who don’t.

255

roac 12.04.09 at 4:06 pm

To remark on spelling/typographical errors is obnoxious unless done cleverly. Ajay at 249 is extremely clever. *claps*

256

Michael Bérubé 12.04.09 at 4:13 pm

Henry says:

But Richard Cowney has stepped in as her understudy in absurdism, and is doing a very fine job.

This isn’t the half of it. I don’t think we can begin to appreciate the total awesomeness and world-historical amazingness of the job Richard Cownie has done here until we go back to this moment from Mr. Cownie’s comment 159 upthread:

I’m not defending West’s work: I haven’t read it, and have only seen him speak once.

We have here the long-sought twelfth kind of commenter: the one who shows up to post more than twenty comments in a thread about a book review, and admits, in one of those comments, that s/he has never read anything by the writer whose book is being discussed.

Ladies and gentlemen, this thread goes to 12. I feel grateful to have been part of it.

We Are All Steven Ambrose Now.

257

Henry (not the famous one) 12.04.09 at 4:25 pm

I had intended to add another category of commenters to the list when the original Henry posted it a week or so ago: people who comment solely so that they can slip in a reference to Myles na gCopaleen. Brian/Flann/Myles would have kept Blather running for years if he had only had Cornell West as a contributor.

258

Doctor Slack 12.04.09 at 4:28 pm

To Goodman Cownie, I’d be resisting the general trend toward laughter at your expense but for this: All I’m saying is that speech – and especially improvised speech – can’t usefully be judged by the standards of written prose, as most here have been doing.

Judas Priest on a motherfucking pogo stick, guy. McLemee’s article is about a piece of written prose!

tom s: dsquared, please reassure us that your funny and cutting posts (The Budweiser Sequence, “Rules for contrarians”, leching in the lab, reviewing books he hasn’t read, etc) don’t come under this “joke” umbrella.

dsquared wasn’t joking in any of those posts, tom. And yet his suggestion to dispense with jokes is itself a joke, after the fashion of that scene in The Dark Knight where the ever-scheming Joker tells Harvey Dent that he is “not a schemer.” It’s all very meta.

259

Bill Benzon 12.04.09 at 4:30 pm

If Cornel West is a jazz musician in the world of ideas, then this mp3 is John Coltrane.

260

Harry 12.04.09 at 4:44 pm

vivian — the trouble with trying to mash up Adrian Mole with anything is that you look at the prose, and realise that there’s nothing you can do to it to make it more interesting or funnier than it is. Nothing. Sue Townsend has a very peculiar genius!

261

JoB 12.04.09 at 4:48 pm

So Henry, Kieran, Michael, Scott, Daniel and Chris; is this what Roberto Bolaño meant with “por los seis conductos”?

262

Richard Cownie 12.04.09 at 4:49 pm

Well, I’m glad to have given Michael Berube a good laugh.

So no-one else is concerned that a style of review which laments that
the book is not what the reviewer hoped it would be, and then dissects it as
something that it isn’t (carefully edited prose vs “Out Loud”), might be lacking
in some way, no matter how fine the snark. Glad we cleared that up.

263

kmack 12.04.09 at 4:56 pm

Henry, 245: “trollish stylings”?

Maybe you’re right. You and like-minded folks seem unable to imagine that some reasonable academics who work in and around African American Studies long ago tired of the West phenomenon, wonder why high academia has enabled it (making him a University Professor, not just a professor, at Harvard, for what exactly?), have distinctively personal fears about its impact on the reception and the practice of Af Am-related scholarship, and experience up close its negative impact in academic role modeling.

You certainly seem unable to imagine that such academics might hang around CT. Wherever you are, I guess–whether joining (by pointing) in mocking West, or mocking those who express reservations about the possible racial overtones of this mocking, or mocking those who would call into question West’s scholarly merits vis-a-vis his virtually unparalleled academic reception–is where it’s at. Perhaps you missed West’s poignant discourses on “white privilege” in his earlier work.

I can take my fly, “trollish stylings” elsewhere.

264

Doctor Slack 12.04.09 at 4:56 pm

dissects it as something that it isn’t (carefully edited prose vs “Out Loud”)

… and sorry, but your suggestion that prose should be judged by the standards of a poetry slam in a coffee shop on account of the words “Out Loud” are in the title was misguided from the outset. Of course prose should be bloody well edited.

265

Doctor Slack 12.04.09 at 5:08 pm

@kmack: Perhaps you missed West’s poignant discourses on “white privilege” in his earlier work.

Those discourses had no scholarly value, remember? Cf. “why did anyone ever make Cornel West a University professor”? They were just “performance” by an elaborate stepinfetchit conning a gullible white establishment, an argument which of course is not redolent of white privilege, because… well, because you keep telling the rest of us (whom you blithely assume are all white, intriguingly) that it isn’t.

I can take my fly, “trollish stylings” elsewhere.

Heavens, no! I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m actually curious to see if you can work your foot all the way down into your lower intestinal tract.

266

J— 12.04.09 at 5:21 pm

Wherever you are…is where it’s at.

Can you get to that.

267

Richard Cownie 12.04.09 at 6:03 pm

“prose should be judged by the standards of a poetry slam in a coffee shop”

There’s a tradition of American oratory, and specifically African-American oratory,
and my uneducated impression is that West is working consciously within that
tradition, and that the critical apparatus associated with that tradition might yield
more insights than just applying a “clunky prose” label. YMMV.

268

Substance McGravitas 12.04.09 at 6:09 pm

So no-one else is concerned that a style of review which laments that
the book is not what the reviewer hoped it would be, and then dissects it as
something that it isn’t (carefully edited prose vs “Out Loud”), might be lacking
in some way, no matter how fine the snark.

Richard, your interpretation requires that nobody on this thread know prose, poetry, or music. You know, when West drops Coltrane’s name, he’s dropping the name of a famous guy.

269

participle collider 12.04.09 at 6:18 pm

oh, for pete’s sake, people! i have, with mounting disbelief, wasted a good chunk of my morning reading this thread, and for perhaps the millionth time thanked the FSM that my grades and temperament long ago rendered me unfit for academia. mclemee wrote a funny essay to the effect that Cornel West, once a scholar of considerable achievement and great promise, has sunk into a swamp of self-regard. full stop.

i have never before witnessed so many people chew so much more than they bit off.

270

AcademicLurker 12.04.09 at 6:38 pm

“…your interpretation requires that nobody on this thread know prose, poetry, or music.”

I had no idea that I’d been speaking in prose my whole life. Whoa.

271

Michael Bérubé 12.04.09 at 6:40 pm

Damn, I wish I knew how to malign Cornel West while slamming the white academy that overvalues his work and simultaneously fails to appreciate his critiques of white privilege. It would have spared me a lot of grief 15 years ago.

272

Substance McGravitas 12.04.09 at 6:45 pm

Damn, I wish I knew how to malign Cornel West while slamming the white academy that overvalues his work and simultaneously fails to appreciate his critiques of white privilege.

You should hire someone to help you write.

273

Walt 12.04.09 at 6:54 pm

I was going to make a joke about how dsquared had been serious this whole time, but Doctor Slack beat me to it. Why, DS, why? I have so few pleasures in life that you must steal one from me.

274

J— 12.04.09 at 7:08 pm

There’s a tradition of American oratory, and specifically African-American oratory,
and my uneducated impression is that West is working consciously within that
tradition…

Yes, it’s called Talking Loud and Saying Nothing. There is also a fine African-American tradition of calling people on it.

275

politicalfootball 12.04.09 at 7:34 pm

Btw, if you’re looking for some seriously racist bullshit in re West, check out the closing lines of Andrew O’Hehir’s review of the film.

Very nifty, by way of comparison. O’Hehir does the exact thing that Kathleen accuses McLemee of doing.

276

Misha 12.04.09 at 8:00 pm

I have to say, this thread has given me more joy than even the original review did, which is extraordinary.

But, Michael, I’m saddened that your comment on Heathcliff @115 didn’t reference this sublime and funky classic of literary-historical analysis, Kate Beaton’s Dude-Watchin’ With the Brontes.

(Actually, add a subtitle after a colon and that seems like a perfectly reasonable academic journal article title circa 1998. But that’s another thread…)

277

politicalfootball 12.04.09 at 8:01 pm

“Help me f___ him up,” said Summers (according to West, says his quasi-ghostwriter).

West had recently released his first hip hop CD, so perhaps Summers thought this would put him at ease. Not so. West says he made clear to Summers that his feeling for Mansfield was collegial.

With popping a cap in a fellow faculty member’s ass now off the table, the exchange then took the form that has now become famous, culminating in Summers’ demand that West make himself available for fortnightly meetings to evaluate his grades and publication plans.

Having read the whole thread, I now feel completely disinhibited about saying something foolish (Moynihan would say that this thread defines foolishness down). I’m going to quibble with McLemee when he says that his comment wasn’t aimed at West, but at Summers.

In fact, it’s aimed at whoever came up with the language “Help me f___ him up.” McLemee pretty clearly has some kepticism as to whether that’s Summers, West or West’s writer.

278

John Protevi 12.04.09 at 8:22 pm

I should let this go, but whatever. Richard Cownie at 247: I’m open to the idea that McLemee snarks equally against all groups , but an example of snark aimed at a member of another out-group doesn’t, and couldn’t possibly, prove that point. Regardless of the merits of BHL’s work (or hairstyle).

The only “out-group” to which BHL, heir to an immense fortune and named by Capital magazine as one of the 100 richest men in France, belongs is “those who are outside the group of poor slobs who have to work for a living.”

279

Richard Cownie 12.04.09 at 8:31 pm

“those who are outside the group of poor slobs who have to work for a living.”

Which makes him “other” to the not-very-well-paid ranks of academics in the
humanities.

280

Paul C 12.04.09 at 8:42 pm

Since I appear to be racist – or at least appear to be accused of being racist – by introducing Smoove B, perhaps I should clarify. Smoove B is a caricature of the language of contemporary R&B – the self-presenting superman lover. If I squint at it in a certain way, I can see how somebody might see a racist aspect to it, but – frankly Herbert Kornfeld was more racially questionable.

It’s hard to deny that, in the passage under discussion, Cornel West sounds uncannily like Smoove B, and I find it hard to see how it’s racist for me to point that out. If one objects to the stereotyping of black males, then surely the objection should be to Cornel West’s original text, rather than to somebody who points out the similarity of that text to an existing stereotype that one objects to?

281

Ian 12.04.09 at 9:08 pm

Richard Cownie: “So no-one else is concerned that a style of review which laments that the book is not what the reviewer hoped it would be, and then dissects it as something that it isn’t (carefully edited prose vs “Out Loud”), might be lacking in some way, no matter how fine the snark. Glad we cleared that up.”

Clear this up: your argument that the book represents oral improvisation holds no water because many of us have heard West speak extemporaneously and he didn’t sound like this. This isn’t like the sublime and funky voice we used to get before the war.

I’m sorry that I assumed you weren’t a musician. The point I was trying to make is that “what comes to the top your head” when improvising is not random. I always tell my students that jazz improvisation is an excellent illustration of what Bourdieu means by the habitus: the musician notionally has complete freedom, can play any note in any order, but this freedom is actually constrained by an incredible array of factors–factors that start with the personal history of the musician (his or her training as a musician, the other musicians that have influenced him or her, the stylistic paradigms he or she follows or rejects, etc.) but stretch out into considerations of the dynamic structure of the field of jazz, and the position that this musician has in that field.

You’re correct about one thing, certainly: West’s book, based on these excerpts, doesn’t sound right to an academic audience, and that’s the source of a lot of the snark. But it’s not because academics are too buttoned down to appreciate extravagant orature. It’s because when it doesn’t sound bombastic and tone-deaf it sounds hackneyed and stale. (Actually, to stay with the theme, it’s depressingly like hearing Miles Davis cover Cyndi Lauper.) He doesn’t seem to be listening to himself. Hence McLemmee’s “woodshed” metaphor, which is where this whole line of discussion got its start.

Also, my apologies to Tom Hurka, who noted the strange cravings of the sonata right at the top of this thread.

282

John Protevi 12.04.09 at 9:28 pm

Richard, I admire your stamina, but for goodness sakes, clearly you meant “out-group” in its normal sense of “excluded, downgraded, outcast, marginalized” etc. Which is why you’re such an element of mockery here for thinking that BHL, one of the wealthiest men in France, is a member of “*another* out-group,” analogous to the “out-group” to which Cornel West belongs, that is, African-Americans, who truly have been an “out-group” for centuries.

283

bianca steele 12.04.09 at 9:29 pm

Surely this thread has crashed and burned long before now. I never read boundary 2 or Social Text, and of West’s writing I’ve only read parts of Race Matters and his anthology of Post-Analytical Philosophy. A lot of people on this thread have said things I wouldn’t expect to get away with myself in any crowd I might find myself in.

That said, I agree with Scott’s wife about that passage. I also agree with Novakant, though. In another context, in the third person, say, this sentiment would not be that strange. It seems to me like an odd mix of the therapeutic and the spiritual. Also, part of it is something I most memorably heard from one of West’s Harvard colleagues in a seminar, fwtw, and it’s probably not worth much, but this strikes me as odd too. What is weird is the sense that this was addressed to his ex-wives and future ex-wife or ex-wives. I don’t know what’s creepier, to imagine a man telling me the thing is he has such high standards for physical attractiveness, or to imagine his therapist or minister telling me to realize he has high standards and spiritual needs that I might not be able to meet. The point of view seems so totally devoted to one side of the male/female divide that there’s no visible possibility of any way forward other than for women to become just as aggressive about refusing to see men’s point of view.

284

Richard Cownie 12.04.09 at 9:31 pm

Ian: thanks for your respectful response

“many of us have heard West speak extemporaneously and he didn’t sound like this”

The review gives us two paragraphs verbatim, of which one is picked because it’s
considered particularly bad. That’s not much to judge, unless you trust McLemee.

285

John Protevi 12.04.09 at 9:33 pm

And besides, didn’t you know Michael Bérubé is richly compensated? In fact, he makes over $930,000 a year, which is three times what David Horowitz makes!

286

Richard Cownie 12.04.09 at 9:37 pm

“meant “out-group” in its normal sense”

The normal sense is “other” – which I also used. I’m not ok with a woman who
habitually snarks men, nor a black who habitually snarks whites.

287

Substance McGravitas 12.04.09 at 9:40 pm

The review gives us two paragraphs verbatim

If the review had quoted the whole book we could come to some conclusions.

288

Michael Bérubé 12.04.09 at 9:53 pm

political football @ 275: Very nifty, by way of comparison. O’Hehir does the exact thing that Kathleen accuses McLemee of doing.

In disputes about reviewerly racism, it always helps to have a sample of the Real Thing on hand, I think.

Misha @ 276: that link doesn’t work. You’re referring to this?

289

Dave Maier 12.04.09 at 10:07 pm

This one is also relevant, I think (switch Brontë for Austen).

290

Doctor Slack 12.04.09 at 10:14 pm

I’m not ok with . . . a black who habitually snarks whites.

Cracker.

291

Kal 12.04.09 at 10:15 pm

Which makes him “other” to the not-very-well-paid ranks of academics in the
humanities.

This thread just keeps getting better. Here we have a perfect reductio ad absurdum of the analysis of oppression in terms of ‘othering’! I’ll have to bookmark this comment so people won’t think I’m making up my example.

292

Doctor Slack 12.04.09 at 10:20 pm

Why, DS, why? I have so few pleasures in life that you must steal one from me.

Sorry, Walt. I’m sort of a sonofabitch when it comes right down to it.

293

Bill Benzon 12.04.09 at 10:28 pm

The thing is, Richard Cownie, some of us in this discussion have read 100s of pages written by West, and some of us have also even heard at least a bit of his hip-hop CD–not an inspiring experience. Given that acquaintence with his work, the idea that West has become hopelessly entangled in his self-regard makes sense. If you want to argue that McLemee has misrepresented the book, you’re going to have to do more that make that suggestion. You’re going to have to read the book and present your evidence.

294

Substance McGravitas 12.04.09 at 10:32 pm

You know, if I see West’s book in the dollar store I’m buying it.

If I see an audiobook read by the author himself I will pay TWO DOLLARS.

295

J— 12.04.09 at 10:36 pm

You’re going to have to read the book and present your evidence.

The book club has a new reading assignment!

296

John Protevi 12.04.09 at 11:00 pm

Richard, the normal sense of “out-group” is not an emptily formal “other,” but is as I described it, a value-laden “marginalized, degraded,” etc. Neither is Aristotle a Belgian.

297

Misha 12.04.09 at 11:04 pm

Michael: I was indeed; thanks for the correct link!

There’s a T-shirt of the Bronte sisters for sale on Beaton’s site as well now – Anne sitting off to the side being all reasonable and annoyed. It would take an insane amount of explaining every time you wore it, but I love it regardless.

Dave – thank you; that’s fantastic.

298

John Protevi 12.04.09 at 11:04 pm

Er, “*nor* is Aristotle a Belgian” is better.

299

onymous 12.04.09 at 11:23 pm

I’m not ok with a woman who habitually snarks men, nor a black who habitually snarks whites.

I’m not ok with this usage of “snark”, which isn’t grammatical in my idiolect. It would be “woman who snarks on men”, etc.

300

Michael Bérubé 12.04.09 at 11:36 pm

Misha — wonderful as that dude-watching strip is, it’s worth recalling Charlotte’s arm’s-distance 1850 introduction to her sister’s novel (a remarkable novel, btw), in which she says (among other things), “whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is.” It’s like she’s OK with the biker boys but not the complete batshit psychopaths. Yes to James Dean, no to Dennis Hopper.

301

Bill Benzon 12.04.09 at 11:58 pm

At the risk of violating internet etiquette, I am reproducing an entire comment from the IHE comment thread on McLemee’s review:

West as Public Intellectual
Posted by Mara Holt , Associate Professor at Ohio University on December 3, 2009 at 12:45pm EST

The new book certainly sounds disappointing, and I’m not likely to read it after your compelling review. However, I think Teresa is onto something. For all his faults, West has made his mark in ways are often invisible to your average white academic (like me).

Yes, I miss West on philosophy. American Evasion was my introduction to West, and at a time when I sorely needed a critique of Dewey that made sense to me (as opposed to the social engineering stuff that didn’t jibe with my extensive reading of Dewey). I got my critique, and something even more powerful: West’s method of analyzing the strengths of a philosopher and then analyzing his failures of vision within the context of the material and historical conditions in which he operated, particularly in regard to race. This is especially stunning in his treatment of Emerson. His compassionate model of intellectual analysis has influenced me to address intellectual issues in much more depth and complexity than I had thought possible, given the attack and destroy methods in which I had been trained. In Race Matters, particularly the chapter on the nihilism of ghetto life, I saw the same method at work. Just as he earlier was not willing to kick U.S. philosophical pragmatism to the curb because of its racism, in Race Matters he was not willing to give African Americans a free pass.

Over 20 years later, I have been bowled over a second time by West’s methods. Yes, I knew he was dabbling in hip hop and Matrix culture, I knew he was trying to reach a young black audience, but I didn’t have a clue about his influence in that arena until I started getting first-year grad students in my classes who were familiar with West and excited about reading his work in my classes. It turned out that West is deep into hip hop culture and his work (and that of other African American intellectuals) is being referenced by hip hop artists in such a way that their audience is being educated and intellectually stimulated by their work.

One of my students, a white Appalachian male, said that West’s influence on hip hop provided him with hope, and was the beginning of his determination to go to college rather than accept the status quo–a life as a coal miner. He’s now writing a dissertation geared toward the influence of pedagogy and pop culture in providing options for Appalachian students whose only other option is the mine, and the isolation of a stigmatized group of people whose most pervasive representation in media culture is the Beverly Hillbillies.

If West is self-congratulatory, it must be said that in the bulk of his work, he has congratulated others when it took courage to do so. If he describes himself as a performer, he is right, and you have to attend a performance to understand what all the fuss is about. Scott’s article seems on target in many ways, and I find it compelling. But as middle-class, white university employees, “we” are seeing only the tip of the iceberg when we view him as a traditional philosopher with a twist or as a disappointment.

He is reaching the people who need his philosophy the most. He has stepped away from the ivory tower and is providing hope and and alternatives to the nihilism of the people whom he describes in Race Matters. Who knows what effect that will have on the Ivory tower in the long run? I miss the “old” Cornel West, but I completely respect his decision to side-step me in favor of the young oppressed African American and Appalachian students who will help determine the future.

302

John Protevi 12.05.09 at 12:41 am

Bill, thanks for posting that. I don’t think anyone here disagrees with that comment. What’s under discussion (okay, mockery) is the (review of the) autobiography, not the work on hip-hop. It’s the distance from the early work on philosophy to the current autobiography that is the topic. I don’t think anyone here has lamented the turn from philosophy to hip-hop. But after 300 comments I could be wrong.

In my own case, I should say I haven’t said anything about West, but about Cownie and BHL, a particular weakness of mine being that I can’t resist the “we are all X” Internet Tradition, and Cownie gave me the chance to use it.

303

Sam Robinsta 12.05.09 at 1:50 am

McLemee’s review reads to me as painfully colorblind, at best. The defensive comments here on the subject of race do that one, or two better. At the risk of teaching such a learned group to suck eggs, so to speak, I offer the following link: : http://www.derailingfordummies.com/. The tactics it describes are perhaps a tad more overt, but I trust that that folks have sufficient intellectual capacity to draw the analogy out.

Mocking folks who take offense is a fun game, but only if you’ve got the privilege to begin with. I don’t recall whom it was that made the useful distinction between the humor of reaction and the humor of rebellion, but I’m sure it’s been independently discovered more than once.

304

Marc 12.05.09 at 3:45 am

When I had a young child in daycare – back in the 1980’s – I had a fellow parent who called me a racist because while I was playing with my daughter and a Chinese girl in the sandbox I raised up my hands like a zombie, lumbered towards them, and said “GODZILLA…” It’s also the only time I ever said the right thing at the right time, namely “Godzilla is *Japanese*.”

Sam, you and Richard remind me very much of that fellow. Here’s a joke for you:

Q How many PC people does it take to change a lightbulb?

A THAT’S NOT FUNNY!

305

Doctor Science 12.05.09 at 4:35 am

Now that I’ve finally made it through all the comments, I’ll get back to my point, which as far as I can tell has not been addressed, much.

West’s job involves, among other things, writing. A politician, a musician, an actor, an athlete, an entrepreneur — all these people may, without loss of respect, produce as-told-to autobiographies. For a writer, an editor, a wordsmith to come out with an as-told-to is intrinsically mockworthy. On what possible grounds can I respect a professional intellectual who doesn’t tell the story of his own life? Especially when his life’s work has involved getting other intellectuals to pay attention to lives they used to overlook?

The fact that the book has an eminently sporkable style just makes the reviewer’s task easier: the basic approach Scott took, to mock, was dictated by the fact that West himself apparently doesn’t take his book seriously. The only conclusion I’ve been able to reach is that West has been hanging out with the kind of performers who (legitimately) don’t write their own autobiographies, and has fallen into a logical fallacy:

a. star performers don’t write their own autobiographies
b. I am an academic star performer
c. therefore I shouldn’t write my own story, either

This is, as the kids say, FAIL.

306

hellblazer 12.05.09 at 4:40 am

Since I’m bored and seeking distraction, and since there seems to be some privilege/race/insecurity analysis going on here that has gone right over this bear’s head; would anyone care to explain to me if, or how, it explains to my ramblings above? Comments from those who have responded to my own ham-fisted attempts at communication, would be particularly welcome.

307

Richard Cownie 12.05.09 at 4:56 am

“On what possible grounds can I respect a professional intellectual who doesn’t tell the story of his own life?”

The book isn’t for you. It’s for the people who bought his CD. So he chose a collaborator
with experience in writing books targeted at fans of music or other pop culture. And he
tried to find a style accessible to that audience. If you grant West’s whole outreach project
any validity (and the reproduced comment by Mara Holt suggests it has had some effect),
then the choice is logical. Either way, West probably isn’t looking for your respect.

308

Substance McGravitas 12.05.09 at 5:45 am

It’s for the people who bought his CD.

You don’t know who it’s written for.

309

David 12.05.09 at 5:57 am

>It’s for the people who bought his CD.

Ok. But Wuthering Heights and Schubert?

310

Doctor Slack 12.05.09 at 6:38 am

Although I think Robinsta is applying it too broadly (maybe I’m just desensitized, but the only clear example of racist commentary and defensive derailment behavior I’ve seen on this thread was from kmack), the “Derailment for Dummies” page is nevertheless pretty excellent.

311

xaaronx 12.05.09 at 6:54 am

“The book isn’t for you. It’s for the people who bought his CD. “

Whether or not that excuses the quality of the book’s prose it might be worth pointing out that, following a similar line of reasoning, an Inside Higher Ed review is written with the thought that academics might be the main audience.

312

xaaronx 12.05.09 at 6:54 am

“The book isn’t for you. It’s for the people who bought his CD. “

Whether or not that excuses the quality of the book’s prose it might be worth pointing out that, following a similar line of reasoning, an Inside Higher Ed review is written with the thought that academics might be the main audience.

313

alex 12.05.09 at 8:36 am

Well, this has all been fun, and I think I can speak for all sides when I echo the sentiments of Schiller, that “against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain”. Where lies the stupid, as it were, I leave to personal taste, which is, as ever, the only final arbiter.

314

bad Jim 12.05.09 at 10:09 am

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens. As good as “contend against” sounds, what the poet wrote was maybe more like “battle with”. The gods themselves are stupid, too.

315

Bill Benzon 12.05.09 at 12:51 pm

Cornel West speaking at Bergen Community College, Part 1 of 7:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwEE4SaJNqk

There’s the oratory, in context, with some audience response as well.

More generally, Cornel West on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Cornel+West&search_type=&aq=f

His official website:

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Cornel+West&search_type=&aq=f

Facebook page for Brother West (almost 15,000 fans):

http://www.facebook.com/drcornelwest?ref=search&sid=539197915.362728043..1

316

Bill Benzon 12.05.09 at 1:10 pm

If you go to the Facebook page for Brother West you’ll find a lot of laudatory comments about West and about the book, and a small pile of photos of West with his fans. If McLemee’s review is on point, does it follow that these folks are being sold a bill of goods?

Some years ago I posted a nasty review of Robert Aunger’s The Electric Meme, a trade book offering a theory about the neural basis of memes. I wrote that review, not because I disagreed with Aunger’s theory, but because hia neuroscience was either wrong or simply incoherent. At the end of the review I observed that the book had been blurbed by some substantial thinkers (e.g. Dan Dennett, Terrance Deacon, Dan Sperber) and even received a positive review in Nature. I went on to observe:

Whatever these scholars may have had in mind when they penned their praise I suspect they will reconsider if and when any of their graduate students start spiking to the beat of Aunger’s neuromemetic drummers. Intellectual specialists lacking neuroscientific knowledge might well be deceived on their first reading of Aunger’s prose, especially if they read him generously and assume that he knows what he’s talking about. But they will not remain deceived once they study his words carefully. No, despite this superficial praise, I am not yet worried about the specialist community.

The Electric Meme, however, has been published as a trade book directed at the educated public. Judging from the comments posted at Amazon.com, for example, some of these readers have taken Aunger’s ideas at face value and are quite pleased with them. That is not surprising. The general idea of memes has been a seductive one; people want to believe it. Readers are thus willing to believe that any difficulties they experience in reading The Electric Meme reflect their own ignorance.

One of the attractions of writing for a general audience is that one has an opportunity to speculate more freely than one can in the refereed literature. At the same time, your audience is less likely to detect any mistakes you make as they lack the specialized intellectual skill required. Balancing speculative freedom against your responsibility to a vulnerable audience is difficult. Aunger took the freedom but misjudged the responsibility.

Has West made a similar misjudgement in Brother West?

317

Richard Cownie 12.05.09 at 1:54 pm

“an Inside Higher Ed review is written with the thought that academics might be the main audience.”

Fair comment. In future I’ll stick to UFC and avoid Inside Higher Ed :-)

318

Maurice Meilleur 12.05.09 at 3:05 pm

15,000 Facebook fans? Well, don’t I feel stupid. And here I thought that how good a piece of writing is and its popularity are distinct issues.

More seriously, I don’t like Bill’s choices. Either McLemee’s review is off the mark, or West’s Facebook fans are being duped? Duped into what? Presumably they’re getting exactly what they want out of the book and their association with West’s reputation. But why on earth should any thinking person limit their critical standards to the horizons of what some group of people happen to want?

319

Bill Benzon 12.05.09 at 3:41 pm

Ah, lest you’ve not read my earlier comments, Maurice Meilleur, I believe McLemee’s review was a reasonable one. My questions still stand.

320

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.05.09 at 4:01 pm

Academic News of the Day:
Contrary to the opinion of shallow pedants, shallow popularizers perform some useful functions.

If I write that up in 250 pages of double spaced 12 point Helvetica, with a lot of footnotes, will someone give me a Ph.D, and maybe a job?

321

bianca steele 12.05.09 at 4:22 pm

Reading all the “Cornel West makes his living with words” comments at the beginning of this thread, I forgot he was in philosophy rather than English. Do academics use writing the same way as memoirists, journalists, etc.? I’d think the acts of both composing and reading are very different in the two cases.

Perhaps there’s an argument to be made by someone–I’d like to see them make it, if so–that if scientists and philosophers use language differently than people whose training was in English departments to become journalists and write for a mass audience, that is EXACTLY what’s wrong with modern society, and they should be encouraged to join the program. But that’s an empirical question, as the saying goes. Or maybe I’m thinking too much about it.

322

david 12.05.09 at 5:04 pm

“the basic approach Scott took, to mock, was dictated by the fact that West himself apparently doesn’t take his book seriously”

This can’t be right. Liberal Fascism dictates mockery, and Goldberg was as serious as a heart attack. I’m pretty sure the Blank Slate was written with a straight face, too.

323

Greg 12.05.09 at 6:18 pm

@Sam Robinsta (303) and D. Slack (310) I don’t really get the ‘derailingfordummies.com’ site. I mean, it is good to document forms of derailment, but the tone of the site condescends to those who could most use an awareness of derailment. Imagine someone who commits these tropes. Do you think that site will raise their consciousness? Sorry for the derailment on derailment.

324

Salient 12.05.09 at 6:45 pm

Curiosity kills, people.

I have obtained a copy of Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir.

I have… read… some of it. Whole passages, even.

There are two impressions that I have, so far.

1[a]. This book is awesome. I say this specifically as someone who has attended, and enjoyed attending, a screening of The Rocky Horror Show in which the majority of the audience was in costume and called out the lines, sometimes as a chorus. That was an awesome experience: exuberant, supremely satisfying to the very young, content-free. This is not only pertinent, it isolates a necessary and sufficient condition for enjoying this book.

1[b]. Ten years from now, the person I will be, likely will be sufficiently mature to not see this book as awesome, and will probably not use the word “awesome” so unflinchingly. I will probably look back on the time spent enjoying “awesome” things as time wasted, frittered away. (This is said just to help clarify what is meant by “awesome” above.)

1[c]. I would not call it a good book, in exactly the same way that I would not call Xanadu a good movie.

1[d]. For some irretrievably expansive definition of self-parody, my hypothesis above is completely accurate, at least to my own satisfaction. Really, “self-parody” is less apt than “big-hearted comedic performance,” but perhaps an even mixture of both is what sustains this book. More accurately, but unfortunately more cryptically, it’s no longer at all clear to me what self-parody would mean, in this context.

1[e]. The “remarkable novel” bit is a running gag throughout the book, and understood as comedy — in other words, understood in exactly the way we’ve been understanding it here — it’s glorious fun. This book is going to be a joy to read over winter break. I anticipate I will be laughing very nearly to tears, and — this is my hypothesis, restated — I anticipate that if Cornel West were to see me laughing at that time, I am completely confident he would smile, satisfied with the reception of his book.

1[f]. I reserve the right to grow up and mature as a person, and therefore categorically change my opinion of this book, at any time.

2. That all having been said. Everything McLemee says about the book strikes me as completely correct and accurate, and everything McLemee implies about the book, likewise completely correct and accurate, and those who have said above they don’t intend to read the book, definitely shouldn’t. It is neither deep nor searching nor informative, and the passage McLemee excerpts does give a very, very good idea of what to expect.

325

tomemos 12.05.09 at 7:36 pm

“McLemee’s review reads to me as painfully colorblind, at best.”

I don’t think this is what you meant to say? Colorblind is what the review is supposed to be. I think you’re confusing “colorblind” and “tone-deaf.”

326

anon/portly 12.05.09 at 8:07 pm

Comment 277: In fact, it’s aimed at whoever came up with the language “Help me f___ him up.” McLemee pretty clearly has some kepticism as to whether that’s Summers, West or West’s writer.

I’ll be foolish too and say that I also thought the “cap in his ass” language was playing off the “f___ him up” language, which seems to emanate more from West or West’s book, really, than from Summers. I was surprised when McLemee and Farrell insisted it was purely a dig at Summers.

327

anon/portly 12.05.09 at 8:38 pm

After delivering his final bons mots, West gets out of the car at Union Square to head for the subway, and about three seconds later is accosted by a young and attractive blond woman who wants to say hello. Like pimpin’, philosophizin’ ain’t easy.

Racism? It just makes no sense at all to me. If West was actually dressed like a pimp, or like what we imagine a pimp to be dressed like, then it would be racist, and maybe even funny, depending on your tastes, but West is dressed like a college prof (see Youtube).

A better guess is either someone hacked into the Salon archives and stuck this in or else O’Hehir suffered a sudden, massive brain injury as he was finishing his review. Or maybe his editor has a beef with West and insisted on the reference.

328

Kaveh 12.05.09 at 8:45 pm

@326: I was surprised by that too, it’s as if McLemee was worrying about whether people would think the pop a cap remark was directed at West. Kind of a guilty, defensive, thing to say. And I don’t see how you could read the comment as *entirely* directed at Summers, it seems like it has to be more about the situation, the whole interaction between them. And really, I don’t think it’s that racially tone-deaf a remark anyway, by itself, making the denial that it was about West all the more awkward. It’s funny to me how the review and appreciation of the review immediately created this awkwardness that persists into the 300th-plus comment because people tried to avoid acknowledging that awkwardness in the first place.

Yes, you (both McLemee and Henry, among others) are white people not really familiar with African American intellectual culture (probably not as much as you think you are, if you do think you’re familiar with it), and yes, you’re making fun of a text that has at least one foot in that cultural sphere, and yes, that is potentially an awkward thing to do, it greatly increases the possibility that you are putting your foot in your mouth. Since neither of you really acknowledged this yet, it makes this avoidance look like a certain Egyptian river, like you’re intentionally trying to maintain a position of authority, creating yet more awkwardness.

This whole thread belongs here:
http://journalofsocialawkwardness.wordpress.com/

329

Kaveh 12.05.09 at 8:49 pm

In other words, if only McLemee, Henry, or others had just acknowledged from the get-go that this book might seem (at the very least) *less* ridiculous within a different set of conventions than the ones they are used to applying to writing by academics…

330

Henry 12.05.09 at 9:12 pm

bq. Yes, you (both McLemee and Henry, among others) are white people not really familiar with African American intellectual culture (probably not as much as you think you are, if you do think you’re familiar with it), and yes, you’re making fun of a text that has at least one foot in that cultural sphere, and yes, that is potentially an awkward thing to do, it greatly increases the possibility that you are putting your foot in your mouth.

I don’t feel any particular awkwardness fwiw – rather I see my contribution to this ‘dialogue’ as a persistent effort to argue against some very peculiar interpretations, and efforts to put words and meanings into Scott’s mouth which to me Manifestly Were Not There, but which some commenters seem resolutely stuck to, for reasons that are mostly obscure to me. I don’t especially like it when people accuse my friends of being racist, on the basis of obvious misinterpretations. You interpret this as awkwardness – I interpret it as strong disagreement with a claim that I think is both untrue and offensive. Any ‘awkwardness’ is, I think, in the eye of the beholder.

Your second suggestion really seems to me to boil down to something like Richard Cownie’s suggestion that one is only allowed to make fun of work by people ‘like you’ for very specific values of ‘people like you.’ Am I wrong? As I understand Cownie, Scott is only qualified to make fun of work by bearded independent critics without an academic position, in their mid-forties, and resident in the Dupont Circle area, as anything else would smack of belittling the Other. I suspect that you aren’t quite as restrictive – but I simply don’t buy into the hermeneutics of absolute cultural difference that your position seems to me to imply. The “sublime and funky love” stuff seems to me to be truly atrocious writing. I am obviously happy to accept that I am not the True and Onlie adjudicator of aesthetic worth in this world. I am also happy to listen to reasoned arguments for why it is _not_ terrible writing (e.g. explications of the resonances that you seem to be suggesting are there). So far, I haven’t seen anything which even comes close to such an argument, RC’s efforts notwithstanding. If you would like to show me why I am wrong (or demonstrate for others, if you think I am unconvincable on principle, the ways in which the Sublime and Funky Love passage has hidden cultural depths and nuances), I would be very interested to see it. If not, your claim seems to me to be be the kind of claim that denies any possibility of its own refutation (e.g. you are suggesting that I and Scott and presumably others here, simply cannot get it, no matter how we try, so that efforts to explain it to us are futile, and that any form of criticism _whatsoever_ on our part is inevitably going to be problematic), and as such, a position that I don’t find either particularly interesting or particularly compelling.

331

bianca steele 12.05.09 at 9:16 pm

@327: This being a film, maybe O’Hehir thought he detected a reference to Hustle and Flow, raised it a Blonde Faith, and considered prostitution to be “like” pandering because they are complements. You’ve seen/read those so you know what he’s getting at.

332

Henry 12.05.09 at 9:18 pm

And in response to your second post which I hadn’t seen when writing above – I don’t think any of us are particularly perturbed about academics writing for a non-academic audience. After all, we’re bloggers, and I suspect that most CT readers are not card carrying members of the academy. But we (or at least I) value _good writing._ And this does not seem to me to be good writing under any reasonable description of that term. As stated above, if I am wrong, I would be very happy to read the counter-argument and the counter-interpretation under which the Bronte-Schubert-funky love connection constitutes good writing or clear and serious thinking, rather than someone phoning it in.

333

Henry 12.05.09 at 9:36 pm

Oh, and I should say that the “just acknowledged from the get-go ” bit in 329 implies a much more open position than I attributed to you in 330, so feel free to ignore the RC comparison if you like. But the question still stands – if I do acknowledge that there is a different cultural tradition that West may be writing to, could you or someone else provide a good account of why this particular piece of writing works within that tradition. I strongly suspect that this is bad writing in any tradition – but am willing to entertain counter-arguments and counter-readings that go beyond the mere ‘this scans, sort of, if you squint at it sideways with one eye closed’ suggestion that RC made (McGonagall, scanned, sort of, too).

334

Salient 12.05.09 at 9:47 pm

could you or someone else provide a good account of why this particular piece of writing works within that tradition.

I really can’t, except to say that Brother West succeeds where Too Fat to Fish was doomed to failure (disclaimer: haven’t actually read the latter, but assume it fails on the grounds that Artie Lange is chronically unfunny).

The closest I can get is to say that it’s possible to appreciate some varieties of “atrocious” writing as “awesome” (in the playful sense defined above). Brother West does not seem to me to offer anything more than that.

335

Richard Cownie 12.05.09 at 9:50 pm

“Richard Cownie’s suggestion that one is only allowed to make fun of work by people ‘like you’ for very specific values”.

I thought I made it 110% clear that I have no objection to making fun of people “unlike you”
as long as you make fun of people “like you” with a similar level of snark and with roughly similar
frequency. Now resume your mockery of my other comments :-)

336

Kaveh 12.05.09 at 10:03 pm

Henry: Yes, I suppose awkwardness is in the eye of the beholder. I felt vaguely awkward reading this. I don’t think our different characterizations of this thread are mutually exclusive, I agree that the accusations were over the top.

Why do I think West’s writing might sound less ridiculous by other standards? Compared to Anglo-American culture, in African American culture people tend to affirm and praise each other more, especially in public settings, and to do so more emotively. (And I’d be happy to be corrected here, if someone who has more authority on this than me wants to do that, but I’m pretty sure I’m right about this.) For example, listen to the Tavis Smiley show sometime (it might take listening a few times) and listen to how he interacts with his black guests, especially. They will say a lot more nice things about each other (Tavis especially will say more nice things) than you would normally hear on a radio show with/by white people. I don’t know how much that covers being effusive about yourself, like West is, but I can see how it would allow more room for that. Maybe it’s a matter of this book being bad, but a kind of bad that people more familiar with black culture are used to seeing, and would find more mediocre than shocking. There are similar things going on with him talking about his interest three-piece suits.

the ways in which the Sublime and Funky Love passage has hidden cultural depths and nuances…
Bronte-Schubert-funky love connection constitutes good writing or clear and serious thinking

Wasn’t that line more about expressing his feelings rather than clearly articulating a serious idea? It didn’t sound like it was meant to be either of the things you say. Given that the effect of a word like “funky” depends a lot on the position of the speaker and the readers relative to distinctions of race, social class, age, &c., I do think any judgment about that phrase needs to account for these things somehow.

The review of this book by West reminds me of the whole Homi Bhaba most unintelligible sentence thing. Even if you generally dislike Bhaba’s writing because you think it’s unclear, if you’re familiar with the academic tradition it comes from, and if you know that “ennunciatory modality” refers to a specific, well-known concept, and that these are not just two words he strung together, that makes the sentence sound *a lot* less ridiculous than if you don’t know those things (at least it did to me, reading it again years after the first time I heard it and after having read The Archeology of Knowledge). Or at least it takes you from “OH MY GOD THIS MAN HAS LOST HIS MIND” to “wow that’s a really awkward sentence.”

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Bill Benzon 12.05.09 at 10:06 pm

On the African-American intellectual tradition: The reason I posted the Rahsaan Roland Kirk rap is that it is a bit of oral improvisation well within a certain African-American oral tradition. As for written African-American intellectual traditions, Amiria Baraka does not write like the West I’ve seen from this book, Skip Gates doesn’t write like that, Gerald Early doesn’t write like that, W E B Du Bois doesn’t write like that, Nelson George doesn’t write like that, Arthur Murray doesn’t write like that, nor does Stanley Crouch, or Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, John McWhorter, Martin Luther King, Zora Neal Hurston, etc. Among jazz musicians, Duke Ellington doesn’t write like that, nor Louis Armstrong (who published two autobiographies, both somewhat edited, and wrote scads of letters), nor Charles Mingus, or Dizzy Gillespie and Miles
Davis (the last two with as-told-to autobiographies).

The defense of West’s self-important bombast as ineluctably African-American and therefore opaque to whites is a non-starter.

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Bill Benzon 12.05.09 at 10:12 pm

Whoops, that’s Albert Murray, not Arthur.

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kid bitzer 12.05.09 at 10:17 pm

though i understand that arthur murray had a great sense of rhythm, and was quite a dancer.

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Kaveh 12.05.09 at 10:27 pm

Well that depends on what you mean by “write like that”. Obviously the whole thing inclusive of all West’s (or ghost writer’s) stylistic choices isn’t common to African-American literature, but that doesn’t mean some of those stylistic choices might not seem *less ridiculous* (especially his willingness to show emotion) within conventions peculiar to that tradition.

And, “ineluctably African-American and therefore opaque to whites”? Yikes! I don’t know where to even begin with that…

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Bill Benzon 12.05.09 at 10:42 pm

. . . his willingness to show emotion . . .

1) This is an autobiography, not an expository argument. I would imagine that, whatever the tradition, autobiographies are likely to show personal feeling.

2) Why do you think West, or his ghost-writer, is actually showing emotion in this prose? Maybe it’s just words.

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Salient 12.05.09 at 10:43 pm

It’s probably worth noting that folks who find Cornel West’s book disappointing are likely to enjoy reading Thomas Geoghegan’s Secret Lives of Citizens, and anyone looking to read a good, well-written searching autobiography will find much of value there. I know that Geoghegan’s book Which Side Are You On gets mentioned on CT periodically (with well-deserved praise), but the autobiography’s equally fantastic and this seems like a reasonable place to mention it.

Not least because the book shares a kind of stylistic kinship with jazz and spoken-word poetry: Secret Lives is lyrical, and is gorgeous when read aloud, which might be something folks were wanting from an autobiography by a man who calls himself a bluesman or a jazzman, or who is as deeply invested in musical-lyrical traditions as West is.

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Kaveh 12.05.09 at 11:06 pm

@341

Right. That’s what I’m saying. It’s silly to make fun of West for apparently (you’re right, maybe it’s insincere) showing emotion. I think what people have supposed to be a big reason why the book got torn up so is not just *how* West is expressing emotion, but *that* he is (apparently) being so openly emotional. That was not me, it was Henry (and others I think) who (presumably by way of hyperbole) criticized West’s book for lack of intellectual content, for not clearly expressing serious ideas.

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Steven Augustine 12.06.09 at 8:26 am

“He is reaching the people who need his philosophy the most. He has stepped away from the ivory tower and is providing hope and and alternatives to the nihilism of the people whom he describes in Race Matters.” (from Bill’s citation of a comment from another thread, at 301)

Then why enter the “ivory tower” in the first place? Why not make unfiltered contributions to the Nihilism-bedeviled as a community organizer or a Baptist preacher or high school counselor… instead of selling the aid to the community in the form of a tritely self-aggrandizing book?

West would have made an infinitely more durable (and far-reaching) contribution by keeping the standard of his output high… but that would have been much harder to do. As the laundry list of West’s unwritten books (provided by Scott) laments.

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Michael Harris 12.06.09 at 10:41 am

I, for one, cannot wait for D-squared’s review of Paul Krugman’s upcoming country music and spoken-word CD “Bushwhackin’! A Tale of Me and My Awesomeness.”

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JoB 12.06.09 at 10:59 am

Well, Henry (after you apparently took away your responses to Kaveh which might, all in all have been a good idea), the sentence in question is good writing because it links in a very telling way the tradition of funk and that of sublime. If you disregard the Bronte and Schubert inessentials at the beginning it is quite probably a sentence that will last a little longer than most other sentences (I’m neither romantic nor black nor academic, I hasten to add before somebody would take my contribution to be qualified).

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tom s. 12.06.09 at 2:17 pm

I don’t know Cornel West or his work, but the first thing that strikes me (and Scott McLemee’s wife, I would guess) about the sublime and funky sentence is its self-regard. Does he have children? West is declaring their interests to be less important than the pursuit of his own emotional goals. It is the rationale of many famous men: that their own sublime sensibilities and talents are so extraordinary as to demand realization, regardless of the cost to those around them. With an admittedly similar level of ignorance about the person, stuff I have read about Conor Cruise O’Brien suggests a similar attitude, as one example.

Mockery seems like an appropriate and feminist response to the passage; defence of the text comes across to me as anti-women.

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Bill Benzon 12.06.09 at 3:12 pm

Judging from this excerpt, West is a grandfather. He’s got an adult son, Clifton, who is in his early 30s, and is father to Kalen; he’s also got a young daughter, Zeytun, living in Germany. Presumably the two children are by different wives.

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JoB 12.06.09 at 3:38 pm

So with children you loose the option of self-regard! I didn’t know I didn’t love mine. I guess I should tell my wife to kick me out. All zero sum this children business, glad that I know it – even if a tad too late.

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tom s. 12.06.09 at 3:49 pm

Not what I wrote. But if you are a parent, uncompromising pursuit of your own self-realization compromises those who depend on you.

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Sam Robinsta 12.06.09 at 5:09 pm

In post number 60, Bill wrote “Cornel West, keepin’ it real, the real grill!” Is that supposed to be a parody of how Cornell West talks? Is that supposed to be a parody of how black people talk? Did I miss the excerpt where he discusses his grill? What is gained by linking a prominent Black academic, albeit one now addressing a popular audience, to language which is not his, but is also stereotypically Black, but lower-class, “gangsta” Black?

And why has it taken ~300 posts for anybody else to point this out?

And then, in 337, Bill goes out of his way to list a bunch of people who are yes, famous and Black, to demonstrate his “credentials” in judging West. Well, Bill, I’ve read Gertrude Stein, William Shakespeare, Hitler, and the autobiography of Mae West. None of them read like you, and so I suppose I can conclude that you’re not coming from any tradition either.

And to cap it off, we now have a discussion, taking place admittedly ignorant of facts, castigating West for supposedly, perhaps, it doesn’t matter because the insinuation matters more than the reality, being a poor father. Parenting is something that white people sure like to complain about black people being bad at, even, especially, when there’s no particular evidence in the offing.

Some of these comments are about two steps removed from email forwards with watermelons photoshopped onto the White House lawn.

This thread is rife with such casual racism and exercise of privilege. Whatever the views of individual commentators, and with some exceptions, the overall effect is a bunch of white people getting their backs up in defense of the inalienable right of white people to mock prominent black people for not being academic (read: white) enough.

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tom s. 12.06.09 at 5:17 pm

“And to cap it off, we now have a discussion, taking place admittedly ignorant of facts, castigating West for supposedly, perhaps, it doesn’t matter because the insinuation matters more than the reality, being a poor father.”

Not what I wrote. I wrote about the text and its meaning, and did not castigate West’s parenting about which I know nothing.

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engels 12.06.09 at 5:18 pm

So you read West as saying that he puts his need for romantic fulfillment ahead of any obligations he might have to anyone else, including his children? He’d be prepared to detonate a nuclear bomb in the middle of New York, say, if he thought it would help him attain his grand amour?

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tom s. 12.06.09 at 5:36 pm

We all bring our own baggage to reading, and I am no exception. Perhaps it was unwise to add it to such an already-inflamed thread.

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Kevin Donoghue 12.06.09 at 5:43 pm

tom s: I wrote about the text and its meaning, and did not castigate West’s parenting about which I know nothing.

You wrote that West “is declaring [his children’s] interests to be less important than the pursuit of his own emotional goals” which is certainly a statement about the text, but it also calls into question the man’s love for his family. You followed up with a swipe at Conor Cruise O’Brien based on “stuff” you have read. So I suppose West can count himself lucky, since in his case we at least get to see the text you are relying on.

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alex 12.06.09 at 6:11 pm

See that, waaay down there, the little white dot? That’s a shark. This thread is about to set a record for height of clearance.

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Phil 12.06.09 at 6:20 pm

which is certainly a statement about the text, but it also calls into question the man’s love for his family.

How? As far as I can see Tom is saying that West is writing like a jerk, not that he is a jerk.

I mean, I think it’s reasonable to assume that, if someone says they won’t let life or death stand in the way of something, they don’t have a separate list of things that they would allow to stand in the way. So anyone who pronounced That Line seriously & with forethought would thereby reveal hirself to be monstrously narcissistic. I don’t think Cornel West is a monster of narcissism; I don’t think he was writing seriously & with forethought, either. That’s actually what makes it a funny line.

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Doctor Slack 12.06.09 at 6:39 pm

@Sam: This thread is rife with such casual racism and exercise of privilege. Whatever the views of individual commentators, and with some exceptions, the overall effect is a bunch of white people getting their backs up in defense of the inalienable right of white people to mock prominent black people for not being academic (read: white) enough.

I’m with you that the digression on West’s children is weird. For reasons you and others have already pointed out.

However, for most of the rest of your comment, we run into the central problem with otherwise fine sites like the “Derailing for Dummies” page you linked earlier. Because while it’s good to focus on derailment behavior and call it out, it’s bad to have no means of recognizing when you yourself (either the Marginalized Person(tm) or a self-appointed spokesperson thereof) are actually getting it wrong*. It’s also bad to have no sense of perspective or proportion. And the temptation, when called on such errors — or on sloppy responses, like your careful missing of Bill’s point about African-American literary tradition, or on sloppy habits, like your mirroring of kmack’s earlier and quite stupid assumption that all parties to the thread are white — you will be tempted to weaken the toolkit of identifying derailment behavior by reaching for it as a petty cudgel. Which I would be unsurprised to see you do after reading these words, if you respond to them at all.

Bill’s point about literature, which can’t be batted aside as easily you seem to think, is of course that there are plenty of black writers who’ve produced recognizably excellent prose by any standard. This — and the fact that it’s not just white writers who look at a passage like the “sublime and funky love” paragraph and roll their eyes — rather complicates your attempt to equate “good prose” with “academic” with “white.” Which is rather ironic, because you start your post out complaining (in rather classist fashion, arguably) about a joke by Bill identifying Cornell West with a class and discourse to which he should not be assumed belong. Except from Bill, it was a joke; you’re deadly serious about it. That’s a problem for you.

That kind of sloppiness weakens critiques of racism and privilege. It’s easy to get sucked off balance by frustration, I understand that, but I urge you to think more carefully before commenting.

(* This, BTW, was the initial error that kicked off the infamous RaceFail ’09 — a.k.a. Stupidest LiveJournal Drama Ever — to which Derailing for Dummies is according to its author partly a reaction. Because the person initially attacking Elizabeth Bear was identifying as a Marginalized Person, it seems to have occurred to relatively few of the people who jumped into things on her behalf that she might actually also be capable of being a toxic troll — which, in fact, she was. Which is not to say that the Author Brigade don’t need to take responsibility for their own parade of cluelessness and crazy. But the poisonous genesis of the whole conversation virtually ensured a poor outcome.)

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Joaquin Tamiroff 12.07.09 at 12:16 am

Aside from my last snarky comment, which I will stand by, this one’s for Dr. Slack, with no disrespect to him [or her. But I’d place money on the former]

So why is it that your comments are so much better than the posts they comment on?
It has a lot to do with the fact that you’re sharp as a tack. But on this site and in the context of academia, and its pretensions, it also has something to do with race, and a lot to do with why I’m responding to #359.
Clarence Thomas isn’t the only man who owes his position more to affirmative action than to his abilities. But if someone wants to joke about this sh-t they should think about it very seriously. More seriously than most people here do.
It’s all very very heavy. More heavy than Scott McLemee. proud ex-sectarian teenage wannabe leftist, or H. Farrell take it to be.

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Henry 12.07.09 at 1:57 am

I’m possibly going to bow out here, unless someone comes along with something genuine new to say, but quick responses to a few of the above:

Kaveh – yes – I think that this excerpt was guilty of sloppy thinking. Good metaphors are revealing and useful because they highlight something interesting about the things being compared. They reflect not only clear, but original, thinking The Schubert and Wuthering Heights metaphors were not good ones. Obviously, West knows Bronte and knows his music – but he is being lazy here, and letting vague and fuzzy comparisons stand in for something good and interesting.

JoB – my responses to Kaveh are still there, unchanged.

Sam Robinsta – as with Kathleen way, way above, you are letting inflammatory rhetoric stand in for thinking here. And if you are claiming that being ‘academic’ (actually, we’re not interested in ‘being academic’; we are interested in sharp, intelligent writing) equates to whiteness, then you have a mental closet that really, really needs some good cleaning out.

Alex – compared to RaceFail, the orbit around the shark is pretty close cutting. These discussions can get far more stupid and nastier than they have here.

Joaquin Tamiroff – the snide personal remarks aside, I don’t see either Scott or me joking about racial discrimination in the academy or elsewhere. We do joke about bad writing, and I have been snarky to people who accuse Scott of being a racist, or who have made arguments that don’t seem to me to be serious ones. That is quite different.

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Sam Robinsta 12.07.09 at 2:40 am

Doctor Slack: You raise “kmack’s earlier and quite stupid assumption that all parties to the thread are white.” Kmack actually made no such assumption ( I just double checked). But then when you’re bashing so-called PC, getting your own facts straight hardly matters, does it?

As for what kmack actually was attempting to discuss, there have been real and important discussions of the problems surrounding prestige Af-Am departments at the Ivys. Black Scholar v. 31 # 1 is one issue that I recall being devoted to the topic.

The problem demonstrated in this thread is that everyone wants to agree with Larry Summers on West, while distancing themselves from what Summers’ attack meant at the time. The two remain inseparable, and on this thread it is rather striking that the only people who have attempted to call out clear, obvious, racism are those who draw fire from all around for “political correctness gone mad” (even if as, in the case of Dr. Slack and kmack, the “evidence” is somewhat-to-entirely lacking).

This thread (and McLemee’s article) isn’t about “good fun” with some clunky sentences. The book on the whole is brisk, engaging, but neither particularly deep nor particularly outrageous. There’s a very creepy subtext both in McLemee singling out an example of absurdist rhetorical flourish as typical of West’s style, and in the glee with which this has been seized on and grotesquely magnified on this thread.

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Joaquin Tamiroff 12.07.09 at 2:49 am

I didn’t say anyone was joking about racial discrimination. But the reason this thread has reached 361 comments -now- is that Scott M. was joking about a minority matinee idol doing a minority shtick. The response was predictable; even the response from insecure holier than thou whites worried about their status as righteous “gentiles.”
The lack of awareness of of that predictability has left Dr Slack to try to clear things up.

I’ve made it clear I’m not a fan of Cornel West, shtick included, or especially. But due to the situation, its not just about him. I know plenty of people who are tired of Woody Allen but not many goyim would mock his Jewish whine in public without expecting some sort of trouble. If not Allen think Al Sharpton, ebonics., or Jackie Mason.

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Doctor Slack 12.07.09 at 2:52 am

Kmack actually made no such assumption ( I just double checked).

Really? What exactly do you suppose “”Perhaps you missed West’s poignant discourses on “white privilege” in his earlier work” was an attempt to imply?

But then when you’re bashing so-called PC . . . “political correctness gone mad”

Speaking of getting your facts straight, the only person in this thread to use the latter phrase is you. Exactly one other person, not me, has used the term PC in exactly one comment. And as far as I can see, it’s you who’s engaged in “grotesque magnification” here or in the defense of it — cf. your bizarre attempt to portray kmack, the only person on this thread to seize on McLemee’s review as an excuse to call West a fraud entire in the most insulting possible terms (albeit leavened with the odd weasel-phrase), as some sort of particularly brave questioner.

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Wax Banks 12.07.09 at 3:16 am

Slack, you goddamn bastard

This, BTW, was the initial error that kicked off the infamous RaceFail ‘09—a.k.a. Stupidest LiveJournal Drama Ever…

You made me go look up ‘RaceFail ’09’ and filled my life with one entire hour of pure, unmitigated stupidity! Damn you. Any conversation that ends with (or rather steamrolls right past) one of the Nielsen Haydens embarrassing him/herself is obviously worth reading for sheer variety, but even among the radioactive sewage that is media metafandom this is impressive stuff. Thank you; kill yourself. Me too.

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parsimon 12.07.09 at 5:17 am

Wax Banks at 364:

Indeed. On the other hand, if you want to see how badly things can go, and in what ways, it’s instructive.

This is not to say that Derailing for Dummies isn’t pretty funny/painful/funny.

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novakant 12.07.09 at 6:47 am

The problem with Lemee’s apparent views on relationships is that they seem terribly narrow-minded. Let me back this up with some speculative statistics: since there are 6.7 billion people on this earth, we can assume at least 1 billion current relationships – so the nature of Lemee’s relationship or his wife’s views on the matter seem rather insignificant and using them as a benchmark ridiculous.

As for jazz improvisation, Tord Gustavsen, wrote a thesis on the matter. I haven’t read it, but “The Dialectical Eroticism of Improvisation” sounds intriguing.

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JoB 12.07.09 at 8:22 am

Well, Henry (after taking away my entre parenthèses on the responses you didn’t take away whilst maintaining that, all in all, it would have been a good idea to have done so), let me respond to your challenge: the sentence in question is of good writing because it links in a very telling way the tradition of funk and that of sublime. If you disregard the Bronte and Schubert inessentials at the beginning it is quite probably a sentence that’ll last a little longer than most other sentences, and, quite possibly, any sentence uttered by anyone on this blog.

The funkiness of that sentence is almost sublime.

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engels 12.07.09 at 9:56 am

I must say I was disappointed by the treatment of KMack’s contributions to this thread. He made a number of points that I thought were interesting and reasonable, appeared to be based on knowledge/experience of some of the issues being discussed that I am guessing most people commenting here don’t have and were obviously sincere. To see that dismissed as ‘trolling’ seems very wrong. As far as I can see, most of the replies to him badly misrepresented things he wrote, eg. Henry’s initial response which quite unjustifiably attributes to him Rush Limbaugh type views about ‘white liberal guilt’ and ‘preferential treatment’ that he didn’t express.

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Henry 12.07.09 at 3:10 pm

JoB – I took you to be saying that the comments had been taken down, which they had not been

bq. it links in a very telling way the tradition of funk and that of sublime

So the sentence is good, despite the horribly sloppy metaphors, because it links together the funky and the sublime? But _how_ does it link together the funky and the sublime? What is “telling” about merely putting the two of them together in the same sentence? Or would it be telling to tell me what is telling? I will, however, agree without any hesitation that it is a sentence that will last a little longer than most other sentences, even if we disagree about the reasons why it will endure for the ages.

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JoB 12.07.09 at 3:43 pm

Not all ages, I’m sure.

(I’m only taling about the bit isolated out, and righty so, by you)

The obvious thing ís that it links the funky and the sublime in the same one sentence. I gather that that is not enough for you as far as creativity goes but, hey, I guess you are not a big fan of poetry or any use of words outside of demonstrative arguments (& that is quite all right, dude; you don’t need to dig; just let ’em loose; see what gives).

In Kaveh’s line though it is not very difficult to see how people from funky persuasions(& that would be most young people not born onto academics or other higher brackets earners, quite regardless of race) would be tempted into venturing in a more classically sublime.

Hell, maybe Schubert and Bronte or even in their right places there.

PS: I particularly like the word ‘crave’ and would hope many would feel the hole that is to be filled up only with the ambition for something else than a banker’s bonus

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Richard Cownie 12.07.09 at 4:37 pm

“So the sentence is good, despite the horribly sloppy metaphors, because it links together the funky and the sublime?”

Read salient’s review: “big-hearted comedic performance … glorious fun”. The sentence
is *meant* to be funny. And it is. Though also poignant IMO, and the yin-and-yang of
sublime and funky has some resonance.

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Mrs Tilton 12.07.09 at 4:39 pm

roac @255,

To remark on spelling/typographical errors is obnoxious unless done cleverly. Ajay at 249 is extremely clever

Agreed, Ajay’s is pretty damn good. But Kieran’s @203 beats it, and I say that though I was its target.

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Bill Benzon 12.07.09 at 4:49 pm

FWIW, if you google “sublime and funky” you’ll find that that specific phase has been around since at least 1999. West-Ritz didn’t invent that particular coupling, or they aren’t the first to invent it.

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Doctor Slack 12.07.09 at 5:42 pm

engels: Henry’s initial response which quite unjustifiably attributes to him Rush Limbaugh type views about ‘white liberal guilt’ and ‘preferential treatment’ that he didn’t express.

That was a commenter named “Mrs. Tilton,” not Henry.

And actually I would maintain that she wasn’t attributing anything at all “unjustifiably.” Here is the actual Limbaugh quote:

“I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve.”

The basic theme there is that a (distinct-from-black) body of authority (in this case, the media) has been unjustifiably crediting a particular superstar for the work done by a group. Kmack differs in the specific body of authority and the attributed motive — preferring gullibility and bedazzlement to “social concern,” not really all that much of a difference (since for this form of argument “social concern” would usually be a subset of “gullibility” anyway) — but it’s otherwise a fair comparison, kmack’s periodic disclaimers notwithstanding.

Why “notwithstanding”? Well, I think the persistent insinuation that West used his performance skills to bedazzle Harvard’s white liberal elite into giving him a mostly undeserved position wants a bit of explaining, particularly if we’re to take as sincere kmack’s earlier disclaimer that “no one has his range as an intellectual and cultural observer” (if so, why would anyone have cause to appeal to the “non-scholarly” reasons for hiring him?). I think the constant dropped hints purporting a simmering anti-West sentiment in Af-Am studies departments want some specifics, particularly if we’re to take as honest the disclaimer that “I am not suggesting that West’s brand of success actually crowded out the work of such others” (if not, then why would the “West phenomenon” be a big enough deal for other scholars to be accumulating such resentment over it?). Put frankly, I think the disclaimers are here just functioning as weasel-language. They don’t fit with the argument. Their much more likely function is to throw a bit of smoke around the fact that what’s being made is basically the Limbaugh vs. Donovan McNabb argument.

Now, as to the supposed discontent with West: far as I’ve ever seen, there has been no great controversy over his original scholarly bona fides in Af-Am studies departments, and no signs of any great resentment of him over that appointment… but then, “Black scholars with any sense and integrity,” while having always seen his feet of clay, have been “protecting” him because he puts bums in seats for discussions of race, so presumably these signs are all well-hidden. Perhaps this secret shame is so closely guarded that black American scholars don’t even discuss it with black scholars from other countries. Who knows. It’s all very conveniently vague.

West deserves to be made fun of, AFAIC, for prose like that in Brother West. Too much self-regard can be extraordinarily bad for a person, especially if other people aren’t willing to point that out. If there’s a “reasonable” and “interesting” case for the way larger argument that he was always a fraud enabled by a gullible white establishment, it hasn’t appeared in this thread.

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Doctor Slack 12.07.09 at 5:49 pm

Wax Banks: Slack, you goddamn bastard –

I did not provide enough warning. Mea culpa.

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Doctor Slack 12.07.09 at 5:56 pm

(Having said all of that, I should clarify that as regards McLemee’s larger point, some of the counter-arguments about West reaching out to a broader audience with things like positive rap CDs or appearances in film may well be valid. It just doesn’t make the quoted passages from the book look any less awful.)

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Substance McGravitas 12.07.09 at 6:13 pm

378

Substance McGravitas 12.07.09 at 6:16 pm

The sentence is meant to be funny. And it is.

This thread is all about providing straws to clutch at.

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alex 12.07.09 at 6:22 pm

I like the way Richard finds it necessary to assert that salient was a) serious and b) authoritative in making that claim. It says a lot, really it does.

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geo 12.07.09 at 6:26 pm

a man who doesn’t even possess a bachelor’s degree

Hmmm … that changes everything.

381

novakant 12.07.09 at 6:57 pm

This thread is all about providing straws to clutch at.

I view it as an exercise in tribalism – case in point: Henry’s update.

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Substance McGravitas 12.07.09 at 7:03 pm

I view it as an exercise in tribalism

Oh dear.

383

engels 12.07.09 at 7:07 pm

He didn’t say West was a ‘fraud’. He just said there were other African-American scholars who have produced better quality work, who haven’t had anything like his renown. Is this really so outrageous? I’m sure you could say the same thing about Larry Summers (compared to other economists), or Steven Pinker (o cognitive scientists)… And yes, Virginia, high-flying academic careers aren’t generally attained on the basis of ‘scholarly merit’, but, in a nutshell, by being held in high regard by people whose opinions on such things matter. In the US such people tend to white and liberal.

And the main point was that even though many African-American scholars have felt underwhelmed by the ‘West phenomenon’ for some time they will still be very uncomfortable with the kind of all-out ridicule you see in this piece, because it easily comes across as ridicule of African-Americans.

For the record, I know very little about Cornel West’s work and wouldn’t want to judge him one way or the other. Just saying that imo there is nothing outrageous about the above, especially if it comes from someone who evidently has some familiarity with West’s field.

384

bianca steele 12.07.09 at 7:11 pm

I’ve almost always found both McLemee and Champion readable and enjoyable,* actually, though the latter’s angry pose gets tiresome.

* Until I read his 12/2 post about Obama. Teabaggers, indeed.

385

bianca steele 12.07.09 at 7:17 pm

@383: What kmack said is that the white guys wanted a token black and chose West because he has attributes that made him suitable for his purposes. Granted, he didn’t say West actually lacked scholarly merits, though it was strongly implied. He did say that we don’t hear much about younger African-American scholars, which I think is true, and which actually has nothing to do with the other point about whether West is a good scholar and was hired for his scholarly accomplishments. He implied, I thought, that “we” aren’t worried about opportunities for good African American scholars because we can point to West as supposed proof they exist. (Of course, this assumes his good will, and his first point makes it difficult to ascribe good faith to him, as does the fact that he blames younger African American scholars for failing to attack him. So, actually, you can think he meant what I’m suggesting he may have meant to imply, only if you ignore the first and last sentences of his post.)

386

klk 12.07.09 at 7:19 pm

People like me sure are funny.

387

Doctor Slack 12.07.09 at 7:30 pm

engels: He didn’t say West was a ‘fraud’.

Oh, of course not. Just strongly implied it: “In this case, the gatekeepers, along with impressionable students and some academics who ought to have known better, significantly overestimated the scholarly value of the work while being dazzled and entertained by a brilliant academic performance artist.”

It’s pretty much unmissable that that’s a description of a fraud, an Uncle Tom. All that’s missing is the actual epithets. And if the main point was supposed to be that even West’s anonymous hordes of black scholarly detractors would gape in horror at McLemee’s “all-out ridicule,” one might think that one-upping the so-called “ridicule” in question as a means of demonstrating that some of you “white liberals” protest too much is a rather odd way to go about it.

And there is no particular reason to believe that the anonymous “they” of the black scholarly world would buy the characterization (yours, not kmack’s) of McLemee’s piece as “all-out-ridicule,” nor that it “easily comes across as ridicule of African-Americans.”

388

Doctor Slack 12.07.09 at 7:44 pm

385: He did say that we don’t hear much about younger African-American scholars, which I think is true . . . He implied, I thought, that “we” aren’t worried about opportunities for good African American scholars because we can point to West as supposed proof they exist

Kmack specifically disavowed this argument — saying West had not crowded anyone out — so if (as I tend to think) that disavowal was disingenuous and the tokenism angle is meant to be significant, we’d need to look at some specifics. If OTOH that disavowal wasn’t disingenuous, and could moreover be taken as a correct characterization, then it would be hard to see how the tokenism angle would be relevant.

389

bianca steele 12.07.09 at 7:44 pm

@387: You’re right, “, significantly overestimated the scholarly value of the work,” does accuse Cornel West’s scholarship of having been valued improperly highly. “Some academics” presumably refers to the ones who hired him.

I can understand McLemee’s frustration that a fellow leftist, whose work is already disliked by the right, appears to him to have made himself a poster boy for rightwingers to attack all leftleaning humanities scholars as postmodern. I can understand, though I don’t totally share, McLemee’s frustration that identity group politics have more standing on the left than he would like. However: I wonder whether a white left leaning scholar who wrote a similar book, ghostwritten by, say, Dave Eggers, would have been attacked that way.

390

Substance McGravitas 12.07.09 at 8:02 pm

I wonder whether a white left leaning scholar who wrote a similar book, ghostwritten by, say, Dave Eggers, would have been attacked that way.

A further variable would be prior output, right?Dave Eggers has collaborated on an autobiography for someone, and the prose is not nearly so embarrassing as the West/Ritz collaboration. Living embarrassment Lee Siegel believes Deng’s voice – and authenticity – has been compromised by Eggers.

391

Substance McGravitas 12.07.09 at 8:03 pm

Yay! Paragraph tags do nothing.

392

Doctor Slack 12.07.09 at 8:05 pm

bianca: I wonder whether a white left leaning scholar who wrote a similar book, ghostwritten by, say, Dave Eggers, would have been attacked that way.

Well, I don’t see why not; McLemee’s “attack” was pretty mild, at any rate, no snarkier than reviews I’ve seen of Fred Jameson, or Jonathan Safran Foer, or Eggers. Had McLemee decided to attack him as an obvious token Negro, that would have raised this kind of question for me.

393

bianca steele 12.07.09 at 8:15 pm

Doctor Slack, we cross-posted. kmack wrote: … relatively non-scholarly reasons. Black scholars with any sense and integrity have known that. Presumably, their concern was that since so few have made it so high, and his politics are generally progressive, better to protect him …. Challenged, he replied: If scholarly considerations were mainly the reason for West-type reception and success, it’s not too hard to come up with other black academics whose scholarly work warrants at least as much attention and reward. I am not suggesting that West’s brand of success actually crowded out the work of such others.

If kmack really means West did not crowd out other scholars, then he must mean to say there are other black academics whose scholarly work warrants AND CONSEQUENTLY GARNERS at least as much attention and reward, and if he intends to imply there are more than a handful, this is not true. If he meant to imply there were significant numbers of black scholars in the academy at the time West got tenure, scholars who could have spoken out against him if they’d resented it, this is again untrue.

As to whether he’s in good faith or not, I don’t profess to know what’s in his mind, and my secret decoder ring has been misplaced. Maybe he’s wrong on the facts. Maybe he writes very poorly or even is not fluent in English. He’s not the only poor writer on these threads.

394

bianca steele 12.07.09 at 8:28 pm

@392: It’s possible that in my ignorance I’m overestimating the deference usually shown to academics by journalists, whether or not in publications like IHE.

395

Doctor Slack 12.07.09 at 8:35 pm

393: All well said.

396

bianca steele 12.07.09 at 8:48 pm

Thank you.

397

novakant 12.07.09 at 10:11 pm

Oh dear.

Well, give me a better word then for what’s been going on in this thread. Lemee actually made some valid points, but went way over the top and let his own prejudices shine through. Henry came to the rescue of a friend and fellow CT poster and in the course of that lost all objectivity, which is crystal clear when you read both his update and the blog post it’s referring to, the latter pointing out some shortcomings of Lemee’s post which are immediately obvious to any neutral observer. The rest is mudslinging and one-upmanship.

398

Substance McGravitas 12.07.09 at 10:18 pm

McLemee.

399

J— 12.07.09 at 10:30 pm

“a man who doesn’t even possess a bachelor’s degree”

Some of the old boys in British history would make a concerted effort to write “Mr. Thompson” whenever they referred to E.P. Thompson. He didn’t have a doctoral degree, you see. They sure showed him!

400

Doctor Slack 12.07.09 at 10:35 pm

Presumably Henry was less than inclined to be scrupulously fair to Champion given the nastily personal tone of the post and after the guy’s opening salvo involved describing McLemee as a “middle-age loser.” It has to be said, though, the opening crack about the Salon byline is a pretty palpable hit, and Champion makes a couple of other good points. OTOH, points off for the exceedingly lame attempt to genre-check “crunk” and “glitch” as though Champion knows anything more than his target about either, and Champion is still trying (at least by implication) to defend the book’s dreadful prose as being non-dreadful, which won’t do.

401

Henry 12.07.09 at 10:38 pm

novakant

(1) It’s McLemee, not Lemee.

(2) I certainly object to people describing my friends as racist on the basis of bad readings and shoddy argument and am likely publicly to object to same. Perhaps this can be described as ‘tribalism’ – but I think that this is a silly and pejorative description, as well as one which has unfortunate connotations in this context. I’d be less likely to invest the effort of writing repeated comments in an umpteen hundred long comment thread if Scott wasn’t a friend – but my views on the bad and tendentious readings of this piece would be unchanged.

(3) put it another way – if I, or Scott, had used the word ‘tribalism’ to describe some of our commenters, do you think that it would have been treated as an innocent and neutral term, given the standards of reading that have been applied by Scott’s critics? Or (as I would contend is more likely), do you think it would be taken as more evidence of innate racism? If you want to maintain that Scott’s post “lets his own prejudices shine through,” (and which precise prejudices would they be?) do you believe that you are entitled to a degree of interpretative charity (which I, for one, would be happy to grant), that you are apparently not inclined to grant to him? The point is straightforward – it is hard to avoid writing in a way that cannot be tendentiously misread by someone who is eager to find evidence of bad intent, and your prose in this thread could be easily subjected to the same unpleasant kinds of systematic misreading as Scott’s have been.

(4) As for the charge that I have lost all objectivity, I plead not guilty – the misreadings of Scott’s piece that have been applied e.g. by Kathleen and Richard seem to me to be egregious on their face, for the reasons I have laid out. If you think that, say, Kathleen’s comparison of Scott’s piece with Fed-Exed fried chicken, or Richard’s suggestion that Scott is biased against Frenchmen and other forms of the other are defensible on their face, I would like to see a defence.

(4) Finally, do you think that the specific features of Champion’s response that I objected to – his suggestion that Scott’s opinion was worthless because he “doesn’t even have a bachelor’s degree” and his guff about Scott’s involvement in an organization that he has a quite specific and personal grievance against are credible and important points? It seemed to me that Champion was trying to pull off the kind of thing that Scott did, and failing, both because he lacks the essential sympathy that Scott has with his subject (Scott would not have been so hard on West if he didn’t think that he was an important and brilliant writer and thinker who was wasting his talents), and, more simply, because he can’t write. Perhaps you disagree – but if so, you owe more than just a rather lazy ‘youse are all a bunch of tribalists’ response. And you especially owe an explanation of the claim about Scott’s prejudices, which could obviously be read in a number of ways.

402

Salient 12.07.09 at 11:41 pm

I like the way Richard finds it necessary to assert that salient was a) serious and b) authoritative in making that claim. It says a lot, really it does.

It amused me to see that Richard thinks my “review” somehow supports any of the points he has been making, and manages to not notice that I very clearly asserted that McLemee is categorically right about the book. It would sadden me immensely to learn anyone here took his appropriation of my comment seriously. (It would also sadden me to learn that anyone here takes a review that put awesome in italics too terribly seriously.)

[Note, I’m a little curious what you mean by “authoritative” here — what, are my credentials in order? — but not curious enough to really pursue it.]

403

Richard Cownie 12.08.09 at 12:09 am

“somehow supports any of the points he has been”

More that I was abandoning my interpretation in favor of what I mistakenly thought was
yours … But I’m still of the opinion – as you suggested far more elegantly than I could
in your earlier comments – that a much-divorced man writing about “the sublime and funky
love that I crave” has a strong element of deliberate self-mocking humor.

Yeah, yeah. Clutching at straws.

404

Richard Cownie 12.08.09 at 1:16 am

“Richard’s suggestion that Scott is biased against Frenchmen and other forms of the other are defensible on their face”

Well, no-one in this forum cares – nor should they – what I think. But there’s always karma …
Evidently I have blundered in far out of my depth and am an idiot in these matters. But to
the extent that I questioned Scott McLemee’s impartiality and judgment, I unreservedly retract
any such questions, apologize, and stand corrected. And resolve to try to keep my big mouth shut
in future on matters that I don’t understand.

Releases straw … deep breath … glug glug glug …

405

Henry 12.08.09 at 1:41 am

Richard – as far as I am concerned, fair enough.

406

Richard Cownie 12.08.09 at 2:17 am

Thanks. If I offended any others in my blundering, I apologize to them also. And to everyone
for the waste of time and bandwidth.

407

waymondzap 12.08.09 at 3:36 am

effects link per regions retrieved [url=http://www.adpc.net]limits relatively trends burning states[/url] http://www.nicholas.duke.edu

408

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.08.09 at 5:51 am

From a letter to Brian Cardinal Leiter;
“As a generally appreciative reader of your blog, I write to offer clarification that might be helpful. The Summers/West controversy was not mainly about the judgment of West’s scholarly work and activities. Rather, it was about the tone of “street” familiarity and subsequent condescension that Summers adopted in his infamous meeting with West.

This was the view of many academics sympathetic to West, particularly those who had nearby experience with Summers or knew others who had. West himself made clear that the issue was mainly about manner of address. Had the issue been mainly about West’s scholarly output and its quality, and whether this ever merited appointment as a University Professor at Harvard, I am fairly confident that many of these sympathetic academics, at least those with some knowledge of areas closely related to his work, would not have been nearly as sympathetic. Indeed, some of these academics might question McLemee’s highly favorable judgment of West’s earlier work.

In short, if Summers were to now feel vindicated regarding the controversy, this largely suggests that he would feel vindicated about his manner of address to West. I doubt that this is what you meant to suggest.”
http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2009/12/the-narcissist-reviewed.html

409

JoB 12.08.09 at 8:37 am

373 – so you think it’s such a good meme that it was picked up by West’s crew ;-)

410

novakant 12.08.09 at 11:18 am

Henry, you mention the principle of charity – great, I’m a big fan. How about you apply it to those who see Lemee’s text as problematic. Chances are that if a number of intelligent people point out various aspects of a text that strike them as problematic, they might have a point. You can claim an interpretative monopoly, sure, but the text as well as people’s reactions to it remains a factum brutum, that all your valiant rhetorical attempts cannot erase.

411

Henry 12.08.09 at 1:53 pm

Novakant – you are ducking the question. You have not made a claim that the text is unproblematic at the point of _reading_ but at the point of _writing_ -i.e. your claim that it reveals Scott’s prejudices. So too with Kathleen Lowrey – who suggested that it revealed that Scott was a racist, and that it was equivalent to sending West fried chicken. I do not know whether you agree with Kathleen – I asked you to specify what you meant by Scott’s prejudices – you have so far declined to do so. If Kathleen had said that the text _could be read_ (as one among many possible readings) as problematic, I would have treated her quite differently than I did when she made the claim that she had made – which was that Scott was unambiguously a racist. It is not me who is claiming an interpretative monopoly here – and I am disappointed that you should wriggle away from trying to answer the questions that I asked.

Which are – again – (1) what are the prejudices that you claim have been revealed by Scott’s writing, and (2) why is it that an interpretative charity should be applied to you when you use terms like ‘tribalism, ‘ that you appear unwilling to extend to Scott. At the moment, your interpretative position appears to be a variety of ‘Yes Minister’ hermeneutics – _I_ use possibly loaded terms without any taint of racism, because they are the only ones that describe what is going on, _you_ use terms that you should really be a bit more careful with in case you are misinterpreted, _he_ uses terms that reveal his unacknowledged prejudices.

412

Henry 12.08.09 at 2:53 pm

Joaquin – fwiw I imagine that Scott would agree with everything this letter to Leiter said. For some direct McLemee/Leiter repartee see “this”:http://www.insidehighered.com/views/mclemee/mclemee222. It is also notable that Leiter has recently described this blog as an example of the dangers of having unmoderated comments; recent kerfuffles notwithstanding, I greatly prefer a little bit of push and shove to a Heavenly Chorus of handpicked slavish sycophants (Leiter having abandoned his cardinalship some considerable time ago, and advanced several steps up the Great Value Chain of being).

413

Matt 12.08.09 at 3:10 pm

Henry- I’m pretty sure that if you read the comments on Leiter’s blog you’ll have a hard time describing them as “a Heavenly Chorus of handpicked slavish sycophants.” At the very least that’s a bit offensive to the large number of professional philosophers who regularly post there, many, perhaps most, of whom disagree with Leiter on all sorts of topics, including the topics of the posts with comments. It’s fine, of course, to disagree with Leiter on all sorts of things, including the sort of comment policies that are best for a blog, but this remark is just silly and, being so obviously misguided, makes your points weaker.

414

Henry 12.08.09 at 3:27 pm

Sorry – that was unfair and I’ll withdraw it – but Leiter seems exceptionally thin-skinned on certain topics, and has made it abundantly clear that he believes we ought to ban certain kinds of criticism, especially criticisms of the current direction of philosophy that come from non-philosophers.

415

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.08.09 at 5:46 pm

HF “fwiw I imagine that Scott would agree with everything this letter”

From the letter:
“Had the issue been mainly about West’s scholarly output and its quality, and whether this ever merited appointment as a University Professor at Harvard, I am fairly confident that many of these sympathetic academics, at least those with some knowledge of areas closely related to his work, would not have been nearly as sympathetic. “

So the question remains: what has made West so successful in the [white] academy?
The answer would seem to be his g-rated unthreatening but shallow “funkiness.” He’s seen as “authentically” but safely black.
And here we’re back to where I started: describing why it was predicable that this thread would as long as it is.
I’m not interested in defending or attacking McLemee or West (Leiter is in another category) There’s a lot of defensiveness in this debate. I’m trying to describe why.
And if I’m willing to call West shallow, it doesn’t imply I’m calling anyone else deep.
Since when has shallowness ever been anything but helpful, in the academy as elsewhere? He’s not a fraud.

416

Henry 12.08.09 at 5:53 pm

Sorry Joaquin – my sloppy reading here – I missed the sting at the end, which Scott, on the evidence of the review, would not have agreed with – as the letter notes, Scott believes that the original work was excellent.

417

Joaquin Tamiroff 12.08.09 at 5:58 pm

Fair enough.

418

tigerbear 12.08.09 at 7:04 pm

The point is straightforward – it is hard to avoid writing in a way that cannot be tendentiously misread by someone who is eager to find evidence of bad intent, and your prose in this thread could be easily subjected to the same unpleasant kinds of systematic misreading as Scott’s have been.

But what if the person isn’t eager to find evidence of bad intent? I’m a long-time reader of Crooked Timber – although I rarely ever comment – and I’ve certainly no interest nor eagerness to find bad intent with the writers of a site I visit so frequently, and yet I don’t find Kathleen or novakant et. al.’s opinions on Scott McLemee’s article easy to dismiss at all.

I’ve certainly found Henry’s response to Kathleen at #50 to be needlessly pejorative – I think I’ve read this blog for long enough to know what that post refers to, but surely, without a link to what was discussed then, why should anyone read it as anything other than an airy and extremely high-handed dismissal? Basic intellectual charity – and I don’t see why she does not deserve that – surely requires a link to the original discussion.

Mostly though, what has struck me is that despite repeated commenters sticking their heads above the parapet (not easy, I can tell you!), Henry’s response has been blanket refusal to countenance their opinions with any worth at all. I’ve noticed no introspection nor reflection on this, just a dismissal of ‘bad and tendentious’ readings as if their very existence somehow precludes the possibility that stronger readings could come to the same conclusion. I wrote this before novakant made the point about interpretative monopoly, and I don’t think it can be a coincidence that we’ve both reacted similarly.

No doubt I’ll be dismissed by some as a concern troll, I can accept that. But I can’t accept that Henry’s responses are the best he could manage.

419

novakant 12.08.09 at 8:17 pm

Henry, I don’t know McLemee and I haven’t read anything by him except the “review” in question, so the only thing I can base my judgment on is the text in front of me. This is why I didn’t say “McLemee is x”, but instead referred to the text and what it conveyed to me. And based on this limited amount of information, I can say that in this case McLemee is at best tone-deaf when it comes to race and seems to have very narrow-minded views regarding love and relationships. These things “shine through” the text, they don’t come out of nowhere and have been noticed by others.

As a professional journalist McLemee should be aware of how his writing can be perceived by intelligent and educated readers and if there is a big discrepancy between the intentio auctoris and the perception of a sizable part of his readership, then this constitutes a failure to communicate on his part and not the part of the latter. I have a circle of friends who come from all sorts of backgrounds, nations, races, sexual orientations and we often take the piss out of each other based on those attributes, but even with them you have to be careful not to cross the line and say something that could be perceived as hurtful, even if it wasn’t meant that way. Sometimes that does happen and since we’re friends the damage can generally be undone quite quickly.

A professional writer should be even more mindful of what he is saying and how he is saying it, since he is catering to a large, anonymous readership and rifts aren’t so easily mended. Simply blaming the audience is a bit weak.

420

Substance McGravitas 12.08.09 at 8:25 pm

And based on this limited amount of information, I can say that in this case McLemee is at best tone-deaf when it comes to race and seems to have very narrow-minded views regarding love and relationships. These things “shine through” the text, they don’t come out of nowhere and have been noticed by others.

As a fellow non-reader of McLemee except on (and via) CT I disagree. Who are the “others” who have noticed the things you noticed?

421

Henry 12.08.09 at 8:45 pm

tigerbear – let me ask you straightforwardly – do you consider Scott’s article to be racist? Claiming that someone is racist – and Kathleen made it quite clear that she considered Scott to have been deliberately and offensively racist with the “fried chicken” remark – is an extremely serious accusation. As such, it deserves substantial proof. I haven’t seen anything which even begins to approximate such proof. And yes – I do think that the opinion that this piece “all but mailed Professor West a box of fried chicken” is without any worth. And that she came into this thread looking for bad intent – her first comment, very obviously made _before she read the article in question_ described the piece as a “putatively race-neutral critique.” Those are fighting words.

To put it another way – when someone comes into a thread and starts launching accusations of racism (not of racial insensitivity, or unfortunate language or whatever – of racism), I don’t think that it is realistic of you to ask someone who believes this claim to be completely unwarranted to act with intellectual charity towards the accuser. The accusation of overt racism, like the accusation of anti-semitism, is a scorched earth tactic which makes polite, reasoned responses unlikely to obtain. This is in large part because it really does create an interpretative monopoly by driving out any possibility of an innocent explanation – it claims that the discussion should start from the premiss that racism is indeed on display. Furthermore, it may often suggest (and I suspect that this is what Kathleen _is_ suggesting in her later comments about ‘white dudes’ etc) that anyone who fails to see the obvious racism of person _x_ is either completely in denial or themselves racist.

I haven’t attacked people like ‘J’ or ‘Vivian’ who clearly felt uncomfortable with Scott’s language – while I believe that their interpretation isn’t the right one, this is in part because I know Scott very well, and know his work on CLR James a little, and find it pretty well unthinkable that Scott _could_ be a racist in the sense that has been suggested. Obviously though, this is personal knowledge and experience, which will not convince those who don’t know him. I have also engaged with a few people who seem to actually be interested in arguing through the issues, rather than starting from the blanket presupposition that Scott is somehow racist. What I _have_ consistently done is to be tough (and yes, rude) to people who claim (on the basis of what appears to me to be slipshod arguments) to somehow ‘know’ that Scott is prejudiced or racist. Perhaps there is a “stronger reading” out there that would back up Kathleen’s fried chicken theory of Scott’s intentionality (I doubt it strongly) – but in any event, nothing approximating to this reading has been provided. Instead, we get Kathleen and apparently (he has _still_ declined to clarify his ‘prejudices’ remark) Novakant. {HF – when I added a strikethrough to the last, since Novakant had in fact replied while I was drafting this, I apparently deleted the rest of this comment by accident; what follows is my reconstruction} suggesting that they can get into Scott’s head and know what he is thinking.

Shorter Henry: when people use shoddy arguments to accuse my non-racist friends of racism, I am likely to respond in quite sharp terms, by showing that these arguments are indeed shoddy. The charge of racism, like the charge of anti-semitism is an extremely serious accusation, which can hurt people’s lives and professional careers badly, and it should only be made where there is substantial evidence that it is justified. Hence, I see no reason for intellectual charity to people who make sloppy accusations of racism. To the contrary: I think that these people should be discouraged from doing so in the strongest possible terms, as they are a danger to themselves and others. If this doesn’t seem to you to be “the best [I] can manage, I will have to respectfully disagree.

422

Henry 12.08.09 at 8:57 pm

novakant – I am glad you have finally replied – but I don’t get what you are saying. Your post could be interpreted as either:

(1) a claim of mental blinkers at best or racial bias at worst (laid out in the ‘at best tone-deaf when it comes to race and seems to have very narrow-minded views regarding love and relationships’ bit. This seems to claim that Scott does have personal biases which ‘shine through’ the text. The ‘at best tone-deaf’ may be read as carrying a strong implication of ‘quite likely, something rather worse than tone-deaf.’ If I am wrong in that suggestion, I would be grateful if you clarified accordingly. If I am right in it, I would like to see some actual arguments to support the claims of racial bias.

or

(2) A claim that Scott has not done his job as a journalist well, because readers have misconstrued his ‘intentio auctoris.’ Obviously, this is a considerably less wide-reaching claim.

In short: I am not sure whether you are suggesting that the problematic aspects lie in the intentions (whether conscious or unconscious) of the author, or in the ways that he has been read (whether through his own fault, as you suggest, or otherwise). Obviously, these criticisms lead in quite different directions. It would be nice to know which you are suggesting.

423

Russell Arben Fox 12.08.09 at 9:29 pm

Just checking in and…merciful heavens, it’s an Old School Unfogged thread, right here on Crooked Timber. Wonders never cease.

424

Doctor Slack 12.08.09 at 9:52 pm

Merciful heavens, indeed. Complete with people popping up after several hundred comments’ worth of back-and-forth discussion to add absolutely nothing new at all… except a plaintive call for the thus-far-unconvinced blogger to admit he’s just a big meanie. Because why would that try anyone’s patience?

425

novakant 12.08.09 at 10:32 pm

Henry, how am I supposed to look into McLemee’s head, all I have is a text which allows me to draw certain inferences, especially since the writer is an experienced professional who should be expected to know what he’s doing.

I’m not going to rehash debates about racism conducted ad nauseam above, suffice it to say that I think Kaveh made some very valuable points in this regard. As for McLemee’s views on love and relationships as expressed in the text, I think they are narrow-minded and lacking in imagination and tolerance.

Both these aspects can be found “in the text” by simply reading it with open eyes and as is proven by the rather mixed response it has received both here and on the site of original publication. If you don’t detect them, if you claim that everybody who has taken issue with the text is arguing in bad faith, looking for trouble or has an axe to grind, then I’m afraid you might be a bit tone-deaf as well.

How exactly these elements got in there – I don’t know, and if you’re trying to lure me into saying terrible things about your friend so as to be able to dismiss me as a crank with an agenda, look elsewhere.

Generally speaking, binary logic will not get you very far in the interpretation of texts.

426

Doctor Slack 12.08.09 at 10:43 pm

I mean, come on: suffice it to say that I think Kaveh made some very valuable points in this regard.

No, it doesn’t “suffice” to say. Kaveh’s points elicited responses. If you find the responses adequate, be specific about why. Vaguely gesturing about “valuable points” is useless.

The same with the stuff about “views on love and relationships.” Of course you shouldn’t “rehash” the debates “conducated ad nauseam above,” you should add something new to them. It should be pretty obvious that people aren’t going to reconsider responses that were sufficient, for them, in the initial instance unless you have some more specific objection to make to those responses. If you feel there are points that haven’t received a response, you need to be specific about where.

Both these aspects can be found “in the text” by simply reading it with open eyes

Many things can be found in a text. Finding something in the text isn’t the same thing as arguing for an interpretation. Henry is asking, quite reasonably, that interlocutors should argue effectively for their interpretations, and not demand that their preferred interpretation be taken as gospel simply because they prefer it (and on pain of being tarred as “tone-deaf” to “racist” or various points between).

This is not difficult.

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Henry 12.08.09 at 10:50 pm

novakant – but the point is that you did say unequivocally that the piece “let [Scott’s] own prejudices shine through. ” You then seemed to be backing down on that by suggesting that perhaps he had written it badly. And now, I am not sure exactly what you are arguing except that whatever it was, It Was All Scott’s Fault. And (on this _I would love_ to see the textual support for this claim, especially given that I have explicitly argued the contrary) that I am claiming that ‘that everybody who has taken issue with the text is arguing in bad faith, looking for trouble or has an axe to grind.’ Whatever.

I’m not trying to lure you into anything. I’m trying to get a straight answer from you as to what you actually believe happened here, and why you believe that offhand comments about ‘tribalism’ deserve more interpretational charity than jibes at Larry Summers (there may well be a good argument on this – but you have refused to provide it). You seemed to have a straight – if potentially offensive – answer to the first of these earlier – that Scott was prejudiced. You now seem to want, not exactly to withdraw from that claim, but rather to position yourself so that you can enjoy the best of both worlds – neither making claims of racist prejudice nor exactly denying them either. And if you aren’t prepared to provide straight answers (you seem to me to have been ducking and weaving at a fairly furious rate) then I really don’t think this dialogue is going anywhere useful.

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Doctor Slack 12.08.09 at 10:50 pm

Kaveh’s points elicited responses. If you find the responses adequate, be specific about why.

“Adequate” there should be “inadequate,” obvs.

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Henry 12.08.09 at 11:12 pm

“Denying them” above should be “denying that you are making them.”

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engels 12.08.09 at 11:13 pm

Slack, what your third para boils down is that if I say ‘A’, and you respond with ‘B’, then you’ve won, unless someone is prepared to venture some further reasons (‘C’) about why ‘B’ is inadequate…

It doesn’t work that way, dude. Reasonable people can look at an argument and decide which side is more compelling on balance. There’s no logical merit in having the last word.

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Kathleen Lowrey 12.08.09 at 11:20 pm

Henry, muffin, *stop digging*. Honestly. This hole is already more than 400 leagues deep. Jumping on novakant for using the term “tribalism” — oh, poor lamb. Do you not see that this says something about *you*, not about him/her? There is only one reason you can have seized on this as a line of attack, and it’s because of a mental association series that looks transparently like this: tribalism! darkies! who’s a racist NOW?.

God, it’s beyond satire and inspires pity.

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J— 12.08.09 at 11:29 pm

This thread continues to amuse. Now Lowrey elevated her game and has taken it to the next level!

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Doctor Slack 12.08.09 at 11:32 pm

engels: Slack, what your third para boils down is that if I say ‘A’, and you respond with ‘B’, then you’ve won

Ummm, no it doesn’t. What? What my third para boils down to is that not all interpretations of a text are equally compelling, and “reasonable people” should be able to supply reasons to prefer their interpretation of a text.

Kathleen: Henry, muffin, stop digging . . . God, it’s beyond satire and inspires pity.

I’m sorry, but you should consider taking your own advice, since your own case has not been compelling at any point on this thread and you appear to have rather painfully missed the point of the “tribalism” digression into the bargain.

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Doctor Slack 12.08.09 at 11:34 pm

(Shit, I missed the chance to insert a condescending endearment in my reply to Kathleen. We could’ve had a sexism argument, too!)

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Greg 12.08.09 at 11:34 pm

@Kathleen Lowrey:

Henry wasn’t ‘attacking’ novakant for using the word ‘tribalism’ as a last defense. He was making a point about how the participants in this thread have selectively applied the principle of interpretative charity. Of course, to practice charity, one usually has a surfeit of the good in question, so I understand why your interpretations of this thread are so mean. In all senses of the word.

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engels 12.08.09 at 11:38 pm

Yes, but Kaveh did supply reasons. What youseemed to be saying is that, since you offered counter-reasons, Novakant can’t just say ‘I think Kaveh was right about that’ he has to give counter-counter-reasons for why your counter-reasons didn’t win out. That’s a bit silly…

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engels 12.08.09 at 11:43 pm

I understand why your interpretations of this thread are so mean. In all senses of the word.

What? Even in the sense of

2 math, statistics a mathematical average, in particular: a the average value of a set of n numbers, equal to the sum of the numbers divided by n. Also called arithmetic mean; b the average value of a set of n numbers, also taking into account their frequency, by multiplying each number by the number of times it occurs, summing the resulting values and dividing them by n. Also called weighted mean; c the nth root of the product of n quantities or numbers, eg the geometric mean of 2 and 3 is the second (square) root of 6, ie Ã6. Also called geometric mean. Compare median, mode.

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Darius Jedburgh 12.08.09 at 11:46 pm

Nice one Kathleen. All you did was call Henry a racist on no grounds and the poor poppet got all worked up. “Muffin”? “Poor lamb”? You might as well have mailed him a box of gently wagging finger and slow, regretful, half-smiling shake of the head. Who do you think this says something about?

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Doctor Slack 12.08.09 at 11:47 pm

I wasn’t involved in the conversation with Kaveh. But naturally I do indeed think that Novakant should offer something further to the counter-arguments already supplied to Kaveh if he wants to bring that thread of discussion back up. (He doesn’t have to, of course, but it would make his contribution substantial and interesting. What he’s done thus far is the basic equivalent of voting up a YouTube comment.)

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Greg 12.08.09 at 11:48 pm

Erm, yes, I stand corrected.

For the record then, ‘mean’ as in hurtful and ‘mean’ as in stingy.

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Kathleen Lowrey 12.08.09 at 11:50 pm

Greg, that’s just not true. Henry was saying, we could symmetrically attack you, novokant, for using the word tribalism – but we are refraining from doing so, cause we’re just charitable that way.

Now, what kind of symmetrical attack did he have in mind? In context, it could only have been attack-via-a-charge-of-racism. How would such an attack be possible? Why, if use of the word tribalism = racism. Does this make sense in context of an overwhelmingly white boy gabfest? Only if you think “tribal” is inherently marked as “non-white”. This is quite revealing, and in ways I that think don’t serve Henry’s overall stance in this thread very well.

Dr. Slack — the use of condescending endearments was indeed uncharitable on my part, and I am sorry for it.

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engels 12.08.09 at 11:54 pm

As interpretative charity goes I’m pretty much the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as you can see.

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Henry 12.08.09 at 11:58 pm

Kathleen – the stupidity – it burns! it burns! That after having had a “everyone is now going to accuse me of being the _real_ racist – go ahead!” meltdown after having being called on your nonsense upthread, you are now trying the “real racist” shtick on someone else says a lot of things about your level of honesty with yourself (I am not questioning your sincerity) and ability to critically interrogate your own positions, none of them exactly complimentary. You are, in contexts like this, a profoundly toxic person, and the fact that you clearly do not realize your toxicity is a major part of your problem.

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novakant 12.08.09 at 11:59 pm

why you believe that offhand comments about ‘tribalism’ deserve more interpretational charity

No interpretational charity needed as you can look the word up in the dictionary:

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/tribalism
http://encarta.msn.com/dictionary_1861721759/tribalism.html
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/TRIBALISM

Due to the nature of this “debate”, I feel forced to point out that only one definition of the word makes any sense in the context in which I have used it.

As for what happened here, maybe you should ask Michael Berube to give you an introduction to the basic tools of textual analysis and literary theory – it’s complex, (which is why I refrain from simplistic aspersions) but I’m sure you can handle it. Also, should I take your persistent silence on the matter of McLemee’s views on what constitutes proper conduct in the area of love and passion as tacit agreement?

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Kathleen Lowrey 12.09.09 at 12:02 am

in contexts like this — a long thread devoted almost entirely to defending the deployment by a a white critic of gangsta phraseology to “comic” effect in his blistering critique of the work of a black scholar, and in which said black scholar is compared to Smoove B and no-one present so much as blinks — the prospect of making myself agreeable is quite repugnant.

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Doctor Slack 12.09.09 at 12:07 am

Kathleen, for my part, I don’t want to seem like I’m piling on against you. Truly I don’t, and I’m not about to start taunting.

Again, though, I think you’re mistaken. Henry said nothing about “symmetrically” attacking anyone. He said:

if I, or Scott, had used the word ‘tribalism’ to describe some of our commenters, do you think that it would have been treated as an innocent and neutral term, given the standards of reading that have been applied by Scott’s critics?. . . The point is straightforward – it is hard to avoid writing in a way that cannot be tendentiously misread by someone who is eager to find evidence of bad intent, and your prose in this thread could be easily subjected to the same unpleasant kinds of systematic misreading as Scott’s have been.

The conduct of some parties to this thread bears out this prediction rather well… including that you actually do segue (with some degree of creativity, it must be said, but also with depressing predictability) within a few dozen words into trying to turn “tribalism” into an implication of unsavory racial politics on Henry’s part. Had Henry been the one to make a direct allusion to the “tribalism” of the commentariat, this makes quite clear how you would’ve reacted — since quite obviously “tribalism” is in fact an insulting signifier of the non-white from a position of white privilege, as I expect you know perfectly well. The only difference would have been that you’d have needed to put less English on your shot, as it were.

Shorter version: you’ve very efficiently made Henry’s point for him.

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Doctor Slack 12.09.09 at 12:09 am

WOW: No interpretational charity needed as you can look the word up in the dictionary . . . As for what happened here, maybe you should ask Michael Berube to give you an introduction to the basic tools of textual analysis and literary theory . . .

My irony-meter just exploded in my hands. I’m off to dig out the shrapnel. Have fun, everyone.

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Henry 12.09.09 at 12:10 am

Novakant – thanks for the condescending suggestions about literary theory, which I know a reasonable amount about – enough anyway to know that the “only one definition of the word makes any sense in the context in which I have used it” claim is nonsense. I was not the first person in this thread to notice that tribalism could be construed as a loaded term in this context, if someone wanted to be unfair (and if I am not mistaken, the ‘responses in this thread’ standard is one that you yourself have put forward. And I have _no doubts whatsoever_ that if I had used it myself, Kathleen would be trumpeting it as yet more evidence of my white dude racism – her standard as to what constitutes evidence of racism being both remarkably broad and conveniently elastic. And as for the McLemee on love and passion thing – since you haven’t yet provided any arguments, or indeed interpretations which would allow me to decode what precisely you find so objectionable about that bit of the article (apart from a digression on one billion couples out of six billion which I confess to having found bizarre and incomprehensible), and since purported narrowmindedness about romantic life is not usually construed in the same way as purported racism, I haven’t responded. I construed Scott’s wife’s comment as a “if I was single and read something like this in a personals ad, I would run 100 miles” which is a standard that seems to me to not be especially narrowminded on its face.

More generally, if you actually made some arguments, as opposed to ducking and weaving, it would be helpful to debate. The “I know it when I see it” standard that you seem to be adopting tends to shut down argument rather.

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Greg 12.09.09 at 12:15 am

@Kathleen Lowrey

If you recognize that ‘tribal’, within particular contexts (though as you say, not inherently), is unfortunately marked as ‘non-white’, you might recognize that its use in this discussion is tone-deaf, revealing latent racial insensitivity on the part of the speaker. How is that not homologous to what’s going on in this thread? For clarity, it’s not that the use of the word ‘tribalism’ is racist, it’s that such an interpretation is uncharitable in the very same way as some of the interpretations of McLemee’s piece.

I might as well say your charge of ‘racist caricature’ make sense only if you think ‘popping a cap’ is inherently marked as non-white. Or that for your fried chicken comment to make sense, you must have a mental association series that looks like ‘black person – fried chicken.’ How revealing about you and your psyche!

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Kathleen Lowrey 12.09.09 at 12:29 am

Dr. Slack — the points you and Henry have been making more or less reduce to this: no harm, no foul — except on the part of people who think maybe there has been some harm; those folks are foul indeed.

Thus, there never was any actual racism in McLemee’s critique or the comment thread here; just the imputation of racism, all of which has been wrong and damaging and terrible and people who made such imputations should be sorry; and men & women of goodwill have nobly stood by and refrained from imputing racism although they could have, but being charitable about others’ intentions they didn’t; while a very few others, less noble in character, have jumped in with both feet because they are uncharitable about others’ intentions.

The problem, then, is not & never has been racism; it’s been the pathological over-eagerness of people like me (toxic people) to find racism where none exists. Oh, and there was M. Bérubé’s intervention about how real racism does exist some places, he can show you it, and it is very lamentable in those places, but clearly does not exist here.

If you all are right, you are right; God smiles down from above. But I think that some of these things are not actually like the others (in ways I’ve already pointed out at length) and I think those familiar formulas (it’s not racism that’s the problem, it’s over-sensitivity about it; or, racism is a real problem, somewhere, but not right here) is — well, I am surprised to see those formulas appear here. I really am.

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Michael Bérubé 12.09.09 at 12:33 am

As for what happened here, maybe you should ask Michael Berube to give you an introduction to the basic tools of textual analysis and literary theory

I was going to mail Henry a box of this, but he already had one.

Well, speaking as someone who has been chastised for (1) overpraising West, (2) criticizing West, and (3) pretending that West was the First Black American Intellectual Ever, all in the same essay, I have to say I’ve seen a lot of this kind of behavior before. And I’m not surprised that some of the most vociferous critics of this review acknowledge that they are unfamiliar not only with McLemee’s work but with West’s as well.

As for Kaveh. Although I take Kaveh’s general point @ 328, I think the attribution of “awkwardness” to Henry and Scott is a tad disingenuous:

@326: I was surprised by that too, it’s as if McLemee was worrying about whether people would think the pop a cap remark was directed at West. Kind of a guilty, defensive, thing to say. And I don’t see how you could read the comment as entirely directed at Summers, it seems like it has to be more about the situation, the whole interaction between them. And really, I don’t think it’s that racially tone-deaf a remark anyway, by itself, making the denial that it was about West all the more awkward. It’s funny to me how the review and appreciation of the review immediately created this awkwardness that persists into the 300th-plus comment because people tried to avoid acknowledging that awkwardness in the first place.

Scott stepped into this thread to confirm that Summers was the target of the cap-popping line (because of his alleged mode of address to West in re Mansfield) well after he’d been accused of sending West a box of fried chicken. So saying, as Kaveh effectively does, “why did McLemee have to clarify a remark that wasn’t racially tone-deaf? Maybe he’s anxious about something, hmmmmm? feeling guilty, perhaps?” strikes me as unfair. You want to provoke social awkwardness about writing and race? Just lob a “fried chicken” charge at a reviewer who’s written about an African-American writer even when the review itself said nothing about race. Then, when the reviewer replies in disbelief, insinuate that he’s in denial. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’ll work every time.

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BCB 12.09.09 at 12:43 am

@Kathleen Lowrey
Surely it matters whether the critique is justified? Surely prominent black scholars, like those of other races, sometimes produce foolish, irresponsible, and narcissistic work, and surely some white critics are in a position to recognize that. I think it’s much too much to ask of anyone, but especially academics, that they refrain from mocking the eminent when there is good reason to think they deserve it, even if the eminent belong to some marginalized group.

More generally, I’m very uncomfortable with the claim that considerations about racial politics could so decisively moot considerations about intellectual merit.

Plausibly, the Smoove B comparisons were racist. But if the excerpts from West’s book were at all representative, they were also very understandable. They still, ideally, should not have been made, but the gap between them, and, say, Thomas Jefferson’s response to Benjamin Banneker is pretty damn wide, and–if West’s writing really is bad–it strains credence to claim that they demand virtual stoning of the transgressor and shared penitence.

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Doctor Slack 12.09.09 at 12:45 am

Kathleen:

The problem is — as I pointed out to Sam Robinsta upthread — ‘formulas’ can be a useful signpost, but they don’t actually make the argument for you. The ‘over-sensitivity’ defense is overused… but that doesn’t mean over-sensitivity doesn’t actually happen. It can be and often is derailing behavior to tell critics about how ‘this time, it’s different’… but that doesn’t make every aspiring critique of either racism or derailing automatically correct. Indignation about being called a racist can be, and often is, a response use to choke off honest discussion… but that doesn’t make every instance invalid. We still have to think and put some work in. You can’t say “Aha! I detect a formal resemblance to a possibly-annoying trope!” and wait for the other party to fall at your feet. It isn’t going to happen, and with good reason.

Responding to this with melodrama and attempts to stuff words in others’ mouths (“men & women of goodwill have nobly stood by” blah blah blah) isn’t going to get you over this hurdle. What my point more or less reduces to is simple, not a chain of grandiose statements: you are, in this case, mistaken. Henry is, in this case, not mistaken. His interpretation of the text is more convincing than yours. That’s it. That’s a thing that can happen. You should never go into a conversation assuming that that is not a thing that can happen.

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Kathleen Lowrey 12.09.09 at 12:47 am

Greg, there is no context in which “popping a cap in someone’s ass” is not marked as black. There is no context in which Smoove B is not marked as black. To use these phrases and images to comic effect in relation to the work of a black scholar — well, sure, perhaps it is not racist, and perhaps rocks are delicious snacks. To attribute ‘cap popping’ to the white president of Harvard in a conversation with a black scholar for extra comic effect (the incongruity! hee hee!) — perhaps that isn’t racist either. And you’re right about my example, too, — perhaps mailing a box of fried chicken to a black scholar would be just a friendly gesture. Who is to say? What’s important, after all, with questions like these is to be charitable. Especially when it comes to white men! Haven’t they suffered enough?

On the other hand, if someone uses the word “tribalism” to describe the clubbiness of mutual white dude defensiveness, probably they are making a racist joke! Isn’t that terrible of them? Also, up is the new down.

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engels 12.09.09 at 12:49 am

When you consider that many of the original objections to the West excerpt went along the lines of ‘piano sonatas can’t crave love, they are not sentient beings!’ maybe you’d concede that interpretative charity hasn’t really been in abundance at any point in this discussion. The original review was arguably not what you would call model of sympathetic engagement…

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Doctor Slack 12.09.09 at 12:51 am

And yeah, mechanically repeating yourself and deliberately misconstruing the words of others also isn’t going to prove very helpful. But hey, do what you like.

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Doctor Slack 12.09.09 at 12:53 am

(That last to Kathleen, not engels.)

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Kathleen Lowrey 12.09.09 at 12:59 am

BCB — hey, critique anybody’s work; I’ve never once said McLemee should not have written a critical appraisal of West’s work. What I have said, over and over, is that the value of the critique is lowered immeasurably by the inclusion of a joke that scores cheap racist laffs; that it makes one more wary of the critic than the work critiqued; that it invites even cheaper racist laffs (Smoove B jokes); and that a thread that stubbornly defends the first joke and then doesn’t bat an eye at the second can’t be taken seriously as an engagement of West but is instead an object-lesson in white academics (mostly men, though it’s hard to tell decisively given the fondness for pseudonym here) circling the wagons; and, finally, that this tells you something really disheartening about the status of race-consciousness in the American academia in 2009, and Cornel West is not the one who comes out not looking so good at this late stage in his scholarly career.

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Bill Benzon 12.09.09 at 1:05 am

… an introduction to the basic tools of textual analysis and literary theory …

Well, there’s something known as the hermeneutic circle. You can’t understand the meaning of a whole except by reference to the meaning of its parts. And you can’t understand the meaning of any part except by reference to the whole. This principle applies to fixed texts.

This comment thread seems to just grow and grow. It might, in fact, be constituted of what Ishmael Reed called Jes Grew (both a phenomenon and a character) in Mumbo Jumbo. Whatever.

In view of this growth I don’t think the hermeneutic circle will cut it. Perhaps a hermeneutic helix, maybe even a double-helix. Better yet, the Hermeneutic Spiral of Death.

sotto voce . . . yes, yes, the sublime and funky hermeneutic death spiral.
. . . .ain’t no mountain high enough . . . .

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MQ 12.09.09 at 1:30 am

You are, in contexts like this, a profoundly toxic person, and the fact that you clearly do not realize your toxicity is a major part of your problem.

hey, she’s just an annoying blog commenter. Geez.

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BCB 12.09.09 at 1:31 am

@Kathleen Lowrey

Thanks for the response. While, on this issue, I suppose I’m one of the wagon-circlers (I enjoyed McLemee’s review, and the scadenfreude it prompted), I want to say I’m sympathetic to at least much of your discomfort–the thread can’t help but seem at least a little disconcerting set in the context of the long history of genuinely racist responses to West’s work–responses that made similar (but, in those cases, much less justified) accusations of narcissism and unseriousness. I think it’s productive for many of us to ask ourselves whether we would take quite so much pleasure at a comparably scathing review of analogous work by a white scholar; the answer may be disquieting. (Then again–when I think of, say, Neil LaBute collaborating on the Life of Harvey Mansfield–the possibility may be at least as hilarious as horrifying; so perhaps not.)

Still, I do think the phenomenon is real, and deserves much more attention than it’s getting. In my discipline there are many eminent hacks, of whom some (almost certainly a minority) are women, but for some reason it’s still the women hacks who seem to get all the attention–often in more or less explicitly gendered terms. (I mention women because there are practically no eminent people of color in my discipline.) Needless to say this is very troubling!

From my perspective it’s a shame that we’re focussing so on the specifics of the review, and not its place in the (much more obviously problematic) broader pattern.

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engels 12.09.09 at 1:35 am

More generally, I’m very uncomfortable with the claim that considerations about racial politics could so decisively moot considerations about intellectual merit.

I’m probably going to regret wading into this. I’d say part of the problem is that most the essay wasn’t really an evaluation of the book’s intellectual merits. It was a sort of free-wheeling mockery of West, as he now is, as a writer and as a person, which was frequently based on somewhat subjective, moral or cultural assumptions: McLemee’s wife’s views about what might make a man seem attractive or frightening, for example, the appropriateness of speaking positively of oneself in public or being candid about one’s emotional life. (I haven’t re-read the piece, someone else could probably do a better job of drawing out the assumptions McLemee relies on, and which evidently most of his readers share.) When this kind of thing is done across a cultural divide, particularly when aimed at a member of a group which is marginalised within the mainstream academic culture, I would guess that more sensitivity is needed.

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Doctor Slack 12.09.09 at 1:39 am

Kathleen: What I have said, over and over

And over. And over. But since you’ve been non-responsive to responses to this critique, other than to dismiss the mere fact of arguing-back as obvious “circling of the wagons” by “white academics” and to insist that your interpretations of the jokes in question are true by definition, does it surprise you that you’ve failed to convince? Because it shouldn’t.

However, since I’ve been back-and-forthing with you, I’ll explain more fully why I, specifically, don’t find you convincing here:

1. The “cap-popping” joke doesn’t trigger the outrage for me that it does for you because this kind of language has been part of mass culture for almost twenty years now (via the vector of hip-hop music, a multiracial art form since the Beasties at least) and no longer signifies as exclusively in all instances as you seem to think it does, nor belongs exclusively to black discourse. “Cheap racist laffs” is therefore neither sufficient nor particularly efficient as a characterization of it, and your insistence on reading it this way is not particularly compelling. (For similar reasons, Sam Robinsta’s indignation at Bill’s “keepin’ it real” joke fell flat.)

2. “Smoove B” was an uninteresting (sorry Paul) side joke from one commenter that attracted attention from maybe two or three others, whose originator has since tried to explain himself by prompting of your critique. You can make a case for “racist” or “clumsy” there in the initial instance, but what you can’t do is transfigure it into a remotely interesting indictment of all participants to the thread. (“Where is the outrage games?” like tendentious readings, can of course be played by more than one party. But as a noble, nay, saintly representative of Sweet Reason, I shall of course refrain from do so, which will obviously signify that I think I’m better than you.)

3. The above two points are therefore extremely thin reeds for supporting a claim about what the thread is supposed to mean about “white academics” or bode for “race consciousness in American academia in 2009.” Your attempts at portentous statements on this subject are therefore over-the-top and uninteresting AFAICS.

If you follow previous patterns, you’ll attempt to inflate this into a general defense of the white-privileged consensus of academia in general and a hostility to any critique of race politics. Which will be convenient, no doubt, but to be clear, what’s insufficient here is not the critique of race politics and discourse generally: it’s your arguments, specifically. That you think “formula” can stand in for specificity of critique is a big hint as to what’s steered you wrong in this thread. Maybe what you should think about doing is to “stop digging,” as you advised Henry, and learn from the experience.

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Doctor Slack 12.09.09 at 1:44 am

Some misplaced punctuation and typos in there. Oh well. Hopefully it’s still readable.

BCB: From my perspective it’s a shame that we’re focussing so on the specifics of the review, and not its place in the (much more obviously problematic) broader pattern.

I should think it’s useful to establish the specifics before you can move on to the general, isn’t it?

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engels 12.09.09 at 1:55 am

And frankly, even if cultural/race issues were not invovled, I wouldn’t much care for it. Maybe I’m just incurious but I honestly could’nt really give a crap how many times Cornel West has been divorced.

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BCB 12.09.09 at 2:01 am

@ Doctor Slack
Only if the specifics aren’t a red herring, which I think they are in this case. But while I stand by the claim that it’s probably worthwhile for everyone to be clear on the history of racist responses to West when they think through the reception of this review, this thread may not have been the place for extended discussion of that. (Although it’s more credible that it is now.) I’m not really interested in staking out a position on this.

I suppose this is more waffling than is really appropriate on the internet.

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Kaveh 12.09.09 at 2:09 am

@426: While I was, myself, mostly satisfied with the responses, and so didn’t post a lot of further replies, I think the issue I raised in #336, where I brought up Tavis Smiley, was not really resolved, it just kind of fizzled out.

Now that the thread has gone on for another 100 comments, I think Joaquin @362 did a great job of making a point I had wanted to make, when he brought up a hypothetical about Woody Allen’s “whiny voice”–and that is, it is totally predictable there should some indignant responses to a parody like the one McLemee wrote. Totally predictable.

Now, Michael Berube @451, if you don’t mind (or even if you do) I’m going to nitpick like crazy for a second: if you think my point about awkwardness @328 was wrong, and you disagree, that is one thing, but that doesn’t make it disingenuous! (That would mean I was misrepresenting my own intentions, right?) I submit to you that, if I did misattribute the origin of awkwardness in this thread, it was an honest mistake.

For the record, my intent was not to insinuate that I thought McLemee acted guilty because he is racist, it was that I thought he overcorrected, and that (the overcorrection) made it easier to imagine bad things about his inner life. I did not, as far as I remember (I’m not scrolling up again to reread my comment) speculate that the cause of his overcorrection was a justified feeling of guilt. Of course your point about the chronology is well-taken, and I’m not sure I would be any less awkward were I to find myself in the same position, but then I could just make the same point (about awkwardness) again about the original review by McLemee (actually I think I did, somewhere). And, then again, maybe the whole reason for overcorrecting is not racism, but an awareness that he (and the same goes for Henry) is just a little bit out of his depth, relative to people who are much more aware of the black cultural scene(s)–and they are out there–in other words awareness of his own inadequacy to the task, which is not surprising, because people are all products of their own particular histories, each carrying their own basket of privileges, making each of us an imperfect witness relying on limited information, like in the parable of the three blind men and the elephant BOOYA!

But seriously, again, and if this is the logical equivalent of reccing a youtube video, so be it, I think Joaquin @362 really hit the nail on the head re Woody Allen, you just can’t write something like McLemee’s review and expect not to take some heat (unless it’s about Islam or the Middle East) and that doesn’t even necessarily make it a bad thing to do, I just think, with my 20/20 hindsight, that the awkwardness (which, I think, wasn’t entirely due to a certain culinary reference) could be avoided by McLemee’s more explicitly acknowledging his own stake/position as a white person writing about a black person, a little self-deprecating humor, something like that. That burden is necessarily on the critic.

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Substance McGravitas 12.09.09 at 2:17 am

Joaquin @362 really hit the nail on the head re Woody Allen

I think it fails because mockery of Woody Allen’s “Jewish whine” is not the same as mockery of Woody Allen’s stupid words. The former is obviously racist, the latter may or may not be.

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Doctor Slack 12.09.09 at 2:19 am

And, then again, maybe the whole reason for overcorrecting is not racism, but an awareness that he (and the same goes for Henry) is just a little bit out of his depth, relative to people who are much more aware of the black cultural scene(s)

Speaking as a card-carrying member of the “black cultural scene” (at least one of them), neither Scott nor Henry come across as particularly out of their depth in this thread, nor does the contra-McLemee “side” (to put it roughly) come off as especially knowledgeable about “black cultural scene(s).” (One reason why I find a faint ridiculousness in the spectacle of people fretting over, say, how across certain “cultural/racial divides” a certain sort of woman might not take issue with a demanding list of sublime qualities of which her relationships with West should be composed. Seriously, you haven’t known very many black women if you don’t know just how mild McLemee’s wife’s response to that shit really was.)

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Substance McGravitas 12.09.09 at 2:32 am

Seriously, you haven’t known very many black women

Uh-oh.

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engels 12.09.09 at 2:40 am

#469 I’d rather leave my own relationships out of this as well, thanks. I didn’t say, or imply, that a black woman couldn’t have the same, or a stronger reaction. (That would, in fact, be a very stupid thing to say.) My point, to be clear, was that it was an inherently subjective assessment and it certainly has nothing to do with West’s ‘intellectual merits’. (The original claim I was responding to.)

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Kathleen Lowrey 12.09.09 at 2:48 am

BCB — if you think the phenomenon of scholarly hacks who get too much praise who are either (a) female or (b) of color is a serious issue that doesn’t receive enough attention, and is the real “broader pattern” that deserves more interrogation here, all I can say is, you’ve found your intellectual home in this thread.

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Doctor Slack 12.09.09 at 2:50 am

engels: Point taken. He should have said “intellectual or aesthetic merit.”

Substance: “Uh-oh.”

You’re right, what was I thinking? Add to that sentence: “… whereas I have known a statistically robust sample… laydeez.”

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Kathleen Lowrey 12.09.09 at 2:59 am

and… scene.

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Doctor Slack 12.09.09 at 3:04 am

if you think the phenomenon of scholarly hacks who get too much praise who are either (a) female or (b) of color is a serious issue that doesn’t receive enough attention . . . and… scene.

Oh, and substituting failed sarcasm and deliberate misreading for effective arguments is also a bad idea. Future reference.

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Salient 12.09.09 at 3:38 am

This thread is killing me with death and I am going to die.

You want to read a racist review of a book? Here is a racist review of a book.

Look, I didn’t like McLemee’s use of the phrase “popping a cap in a fellow faculty member’s ass” in the original review; I think his use of the phrase in comment #75 above indicates he thinks it’s an inherently funny phrase. That’s a little immature,^1^ perhaps, and possibly a little insensitive: at absolute worst, and I feel this is being uncharitable to McLemee, it’s equivalent to using “gay” as an epithet. The most appropriate label for that category of misstep is insensitive.

Here is the Thesis I submit: (1). If Cornel West were white, McLemee wouldn’t have to change a word of his review for it to be equally funny and equally apropos. If anything, the only comment which would become disassociated would be Summers’ comment to Cornel West, which McLemee cannot be held responsible for.
(2). If condition (1) holds, it’s hard to see how the review could be racist. Those who claim the review is racist should therefore have carefully explained^2^ [a] exactly what they mean by this claim (which I think is what is really missing here), and [b] what in the review prompts them to make the claim.

^1^& I am so one to talk.

^2^Why past tense? Good advice: don’t stay on board a train wreck.

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Michael Bérubé 12.09.09 at 4:49 am

Kaveh @ 467: if you think my point about awkwardness @328 was wrong, and you disagree, that is one thing, but that doesn’t make it disingenuous! (That would mean I was misrepresenting my own intentions, right?) I submit to you that, if I did misattribute the origin of awkwardness in this thread, it was an honest mistake.

I hear you, Kaveh. That’s a good nitpick, and I’m glad that nit got picked. I withdraw both “disingenuous” and “tad.” I’m merely saying that things got awkward on this thread very early on, and the awkwardness had a great deal to do with the invocation of iedfray ickenchay. Scott was replying to that, and from what I can see was sincerely gobsmacked that he had to do so.

And I did mean it when I say I take your general point: it is always possible that mockery of an African-American man’s reference to a “sublime and funky love” is tinged (or perhaps even suffused) with racism. Speaking only for myself, I think there’s nothing mockable about the desire for a sublime and funky love; may we all have such loves at some point in our lives. Rather, what’s mockable in that utterance is the bit about Wuthering Heights licensing one to pursue that love even if life and death stand in the way. I have checked this with the International Center for Race-Neutral Standards for the Mockery of Awkward Prose, Inappropriate Allusions, and Unfortunate Solecisms in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and they confirm, so it’s not just my opinion.

As for Woody Allen, what Substance McGravitas said @ 468. Mockery of Woody Allen’s stupid words, OK; mockery of his “Jewish whine,” definitely not OK. That’s what I was trying to get at by citing Andrew O’Hehir’s review of Examined Life @ 176: McLemee’s use of “pop a cap in one’s ass” in the context of the Summers-West exchange, not palpably racist; O’Hehir’s utterly gratuitous use of “pimpin'” to refer to West greeting a “young and attractive blond woman” at the end of the film — straight up racist that sucker is, simple and plain. Motherfuck him and John Wayne. Again, check with the good people in Porto Alegre for confirmation — they’re the only reliable arbiters of these things.

And thanks for replying.

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Joaquin Tamiroff 12.09.09 at 5:57 am

Mockery of Woody Allen’s stupid words, OK; mockery of his “Jewish whine,” definitely not OK.”

So I should have used scare quotes like you?
It’s the manner not the words; therefore its a critique of a performance, of his using Jewishness as a shtick. But can you separate the Jew from the shtick?
And who has the right to claim that ability? Only a Jew?
Who gets to critique West’s BS negritude?
Maybe not me. Maybe.
Again, you try (or someone else does) to argue that there is really a line there somewhere: something concrete to separate the righteous from the suspect.
There is no line. We know the world only in perspectives.
I know philosophers like to say perspectives are irrelevant. Sorry.

The world of ideas is not the world.

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Substance McGravitas 12.09.09 at 6:00 am

So I should have used scare quotes like you?

Those aren’t scare quotes, they quote you.

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Doctor Slack 12.09.09 at 6:11 am

Completely OT: I wish my nick had been “Civility McDignitas” all these years, but if I change now I’ll just look like I’m imitating Substance. Dammit. What a cruel world.

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Joaquin Tamiroff 12.09.09 at 6:12 am

“Those aren’t scare quotes, they quote you.”
True… True.
But being a gentile I’d hope he’d put scare quotes around such a phrase.
Otherwise I might start to wonder.
((:-)
(smiley with a yarmulke)

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Substance McGravitas 12.09.09 at 6:12 am

I was going to go for Serious O’Thoughtful but I was persuaded otherwise.

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anon/portly 12.09.09 at 9:17 am

454 To use [“popping a cap in someone’s ass”] to comic effect in relation to the work of a black scholar—well, sure, perhaps it is not racist, and perhaps rocks are delicious snacks. To attribute ‘cap popping’ to the white president of Harvard in a conversation with a black scholar for extra comic effect (the incongruity! hee hee!)—perhaps that isn’t racist either.

476 I didn’t like McLemee’s use of the phrase “popping a cap in a fellow faculty member’s ass” in the original review; I think his use of the phrase in comment #75 above indicates he thinks it’s an inherently funny phrase. That’s a little immature,1 perhaps, and possibly a little insensitive: at absolute worst, and I feel this is being uncharitable to McLemee, it’s equivalent to using “gay” as an epithet.

It would be one thing if McLemee threw in the “pop a cap” line out of nowhere – a la the Salon film critic’s “pimpin'”. But it is not McLemee, but West himself (apparently) who attributes gangsta phraseology (“Help me f___ him up”) “to the white president of Harvard in a conversation with a black scholar.” However poorly or offensively Summers may (or may not) have treated West, West, not McLemee, is responsible for any comic potential inherent in his portrayal of this encounter.

I suppose it’s true in general that the language of young male machismo culture, like the language of academia, should never be used as an excuse or occasion for mirth. This is my attitude towards”Jersey Shore” from now on.

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novakant 12.09.09 at 9:43 am

thanks for the condescending suggestions about literary theory, which I know a reasonable amount about

As far as condescension is concerned, you are hard to beat – but hey, I try. Your insistence on a type of logic suited maybe to some forms of philosophical discussion, but not so much to hermeneutics, as well as your refusal to truly engage with the multiple layers of a text, reveals that, while you might have consumed some amount of literary theory, you haven’t really learned much in the course of that.

to know that the “only one definition of the word makes any sense in the context in which I have used it” claim is nonsense.

As Kathleen has pointed out, this is an utterly ridiculous last ditch attempt at a “back at ya”. I have made it very clear what I meant by “tribalism”, when I wrote the following:

give me a better word [than “tribalism”] then for what’s been going on in this thread. Lemee actually made some valid points, but went way over the top and let his own prejudices shine through. Henry came to the rescue of a friend and fellow CT poster and in the course of that lost all objectivity, which is crystal clear when you read both his update and the blog post it’s referring to, the latter pointing out some shortcomings of Lemee’s post which are immediately obvious to any neutral observer. The rest is mudslinging and one-upmanship.

How this leaves open the possibility, that I could have alluded to “the customs, life, and organization of a tribal society” rather than “strong in-group loyalty” is beyond me and implying any racist motives on my part for using the word makes even less sense in the context. The fact that text may have multi-layered levels of meaning and that analyzing texts can be a complex business dose not entail an interpretative free-for-all or anything goes – this is one of the first things a good introductory course in literary theory will teach students.

And as for the McLemee on love and passion thing – since you haven’t yet provided any arguments, or indeed interpretations which would allow me to decode what precisely you find so objectionable about that bit of the article (…)

Again, I am puzzled as to what you would consider a valid argument or interpretation. It is quite clear that McLemee dismisses West’s approach towards love and relationships and considers him to be a failure in this regard. By bringing his wife, and thereby his presumably happy and stable marriage as opposed to West’s four divorces, into the mix, he parades his own lifestyle choices as being more valid and successful than West’s and by extension anybody else’s, who might choose to approach these matters differently. To me this is incredibly narrow-minded, offensive and below the belt – I don’t know what else to say about that.

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Bill Benzon 12.09.09 at 1:31 pm

Not so long ago I was wondering whether or not this rhetorical potlatch would hit 400 comments under its own steam. Now it’s closing on 500. In honor of that, shall we say, achievement, it’s time for another hit of Authentic African-American Rhetorical Stylings. This is from the stump speech Dizzy Gillespie developed for his 1964 run on the Presidency. You can find it in his as-told-to (Al Fraser) autobiography To Be or Not to Bop (Doubleday 1979 pp. 457-458). Think of Dizzy an idea man in the world of jazz.

When I am elected President of the United States, my first executive order will be to change the name of the White House! To the Blues House.

Income tax must be abolished, and we plan to legalize ‘numbers’ – you know, the same way they brought jazz into the concert halls and made it respectable. We refuse to be influenced by the warnings of one NAACP official who claims that making this particular aspect of big business legal would upset the nation’s economy disastrously.

One of the ways we can cut down governmental expenditures is to disband the FBI and have the Senate Internal Security Committee investigate everything under white sheets for un-American activities. Understand, we won’t take no ‘sheet’ off anybody!

All U.S. Attorneys and judges in the South will be our people so we can get some redress. ‘One Man-One Vote’ – that’s our motto. We might even disenfranchise women and let them run the country. They’ll do it anyhow.

The Army and Navy will be combined so no promoter can take too big a cut off the top of the ‘double-gig’ setup they have now.

The National Labor Relations Board will rule that people applying for jobs have to wear sheets over their heads so bosses won’t know what they are until after they’ve been hired. The sheets, of course, will all be colored!

We’re going to recall every U.S. ambassador except Chester Bowles and give the assignments to jazz musicians because they really ‘know where it is.’

The title of ‘Secretary’ will be replaced by the more appropriately dignified ‘Minister.’ Miles Davis has offered to serve as Minister of the Treasury, but I’ve persuaded him to head the CIA instead. Mrs. Jeannie Gleason, whose husband Ralph writes a lot, will be Ministress of the Treasury. Max Roach argued for the position of Minister of War. He said he wanted to declare it. But since we’re not going to have any, I gave him some books by C. Wright Mills and convinced him to be Minister of Defense. I have Charles Mingus lined up for Minister of Peace because he’ll take a piece of your head faster than anybody I know.

Ray Charles will be in charge of the Library of Congress, and we have found a place for Ross Barnett – U.S. Information Officer in the Congo. We will also recommend a special act of Congress to revoke the citizenship of Governor George Wallace and deport him to Vietnam.

Since integration will be so complete under my administration, the Muslims will be out of business, and even Malcolm X’s group won’t have anything to do, so rather than let all that talent go to waste, Malcolm be appointed U.S. Attorney General, immediately. He’s one cat we want on our side.

Although Bo Diddley applied first, I told him my choice is the great Duke Ellington for Minister of State. He’s a natural and can con anybody. Louis Armstrong is set for Minister of Agriculture. He knows all about raising those crops. Mary Lou Williams has already agreed to be Ambassadress to the Vatican. And, after considering the qualifications and potential of a great many candidates, I have decided that the Rabbi of Modern Jazz . . . the Maharajah of Contemporary Music . . . one of the most creative and gifted and avant-garde young men I know – Thelonious Sphere Monk – will be booked for a four-year tour as Roving Ambassador Plenipotentiary.

There will be places in the cabinet for Peggy Lee (Ministress of Labor), Ella Fitzgerald (HEW), Carmen McRae, Benny Carter, Woody Herman, and Count Basie. They are collaborating now on the jazz curriculum to be taught to kids in every school in the country.

The distinguished post of National Poet Laureate, a paid position, will go to Jon Hendricks, who has been donating his services to our movement as a campaign lyricist.

As Vice-President, I would like Ramona Crowell, a leader of the John Birks Society and a registered Sioux Indian.

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Bill Benzon 12.09.09 at 1:35 pm

Hmmm . . . . I do not understand how this thing handels html tags. Just so it’s clear, in that previous post (485), every thing from “When I am elected . . .” to the end is Dizzy’s speech.

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JoB 12.09.09 at 1:40 pm

And all that whilst he could have been theorizing on the influence of Royce on modern impro!

… campaign lyricist, LOL

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JoB 12.09.09 at 1:41 pm

Make that: ‘should have (maybe)’, the (maybe) placed well inside the quotes.

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Henry 12.09.09 at 1:49 pm

novakant – I am not insisting on some abstract form of philosophy – this is basic Paul Ricouer hermeneutics – the meaning of the written text escapes, and is different from, the intention of the writer. This does not mean (and here I am _not_ grounding these distinctions in philosophy, but in pragmatism) that there aren’t good readings and lousy readings. It _does_ mean that you cannot insulate your use of a term from readings by claiming that their context makes its use self-evident, given literary theory. Literary theory as such points to the instability of the reading of a text – it doesn’t provide a surefire guide as to which readings are allowable and which aren’t. For that, you need a bunch of ancillary assumptions, additional tools and plain common sense. Uncharitable readings may still find meanings in your text that you didn’t intend, and that you find offensive. These may be lousy readings – and a reading of your use of the term tribalism as evidence of your innate racism _would_ imo be a lousy and extremely uncharitable reading – but there are a lot of lousy and extremely uncharitable readings floating around in this thread. Your suggestion that Scott is “parading” his wife and happy relationship history being one which is at a minimum uncharitable. You don’t _know_ that Scott has had a happy relationship history. All you know is that he likes and trusts his wife’s judgment enough to ask her about the book he is reading. A more charitable reading, which is much more consistent with the text as I at least read it, is that Scott, being a guy, is asking a woman whom he trusts whether this comes across better to her as a woman than it comes across as being to him. Perhaps you can say that Scott shouldn’t have said anything about West’s relationship history. This is a plausible criticism. The plausible reply to this criticism is that West is writing explicitly about his attitude to life and relationships, and writing about his relationships, and that it is fair game for a review of an autobiography to talk to this.

More generally, what Dr. Slack said in response to the Kathleen criticism that you find compelling in 446 (and Greg in 435 and 449):

Again, though, I think you’re mistaken. Henry said nothing about “symmetrically” attacking anyone. He said:

if I, or Scott, had used the word ‘tribalism’ to describe some of our commenters, do you think that it would have been treated as an innocent and neutral term, given the standards of reading that have been applied by Scott’s critics?. . . The point is straightforward – it is hard to avoid writing in a way that cannot be tendentiously misread by someone who is eager to find evidence of bad intent, and your prose in this thread could be easily subjected to the same unpleasant kinds of systematic misreading as Scott’s have been.

The conduct of some parties to this thread bears out this prediction rather well… including that you actually do segue (with some degree of creativity, it must be said, but also with depressing predictability) within a few dozen words into trying to turn “tribalism” into an implication of unsavory racial politics on Henry’s part. Had Henry been the one to make a direct allusion to the “tribalism” of the commentariat, this makes quite clear how you would’ve reacted—since quite obviously “tribalism” is in fact an insulting signifier of the non-white from a position of white privilege, as I expect you know perfectly well. The only difference would have been that you’d have needed to put less English on your shot, as it were.

You appear to be endorsing Kathleen’s line of argument here – but it is an example of _precisely_ the “interpretative free-for-all or anything goes” that you declare out-of-bounds. Or do you think that my response on “tribalism” provides resounding and irrefutable evidence that I am obsessed with “darkies?” Is this a plausible reading in your view? I do not think that you are as uncharitable as Kathleen. I certainly do not think that you are as stupid (for academic values of stupid). But I also don’t think that you have come to this discussion with any particular charity (charity here being defined as an assumption of goodwill on the part of your interlocutor barring decisive evidence to the contrary). You have stated outright that Scott’s prejudices shine through, and that they are somewhere on the unpleasant gamut between racial insensitivity and actual flat-out racism. You have done so, on the reading of one paragraph, which you seem yourself to admit is ambiguous. I would suggest that if you want to make a strong accusation (and yes – I think you are trying to make that accusation), you should really have much stronger evidence than this before you proceed. One doesn’t declare someone to plausibly be a racist, merely because one is irritated with a particular piece that doesn’t (you do not seem to disagree on this) present clear evidence of racism. One useful place to find such evidence is the person’s other writings. Scott’s work on CLR James is obviously an excellent place to start if one wants to disentangle his views on race, activism etc.

By the way, I should make something clear to Kathleen. You are permitted to continue posting on this thread, as long as you don’t make any comments that are more offensive and unhinged than those you have already shared with us (a task that would be difficult, but, I think, possible). I don’t want to have to deal with you shouting censorship!, CENSORSHIP! After that, you are barred from commenting on my threads. Specious accusations that your hosts are racists will do that for you.

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ajay 12.09.09 at 1:59 pm

485 is great. And you could argue that a jazz-based approach to government would have been a lot better for the US than what it ended up with. Certainly the only jazz-centred policy initiative of the Cold War was also one of the most successful at opposing the Communist threat…

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Dave Twombly 12.09.09 at 2:05 pm

Kathleen @ 454: “On the other hand, if someone uses the word “tribalism” to describe the clubbiness of mutual white dude defensiveness, probably they are making a racist joke! Isn’t that terrible of them? Also, up is the new down.”

I thought we were ready for a breakthrough here, Kathleen. If I understand your sarcasm correctly, you’re approving of this otherwise-offensive use of “tribalism” because it’s used to accuse the clubby white dudes of racism. But that’s roughly how I understood Scott’s use of the “pop a cap” expression (as several commenters have already argued): it was Summers’ white dude offensiveness being sent up. Clearly, Scott could have made this connection clearer — like others here, I re-read it a few times before moving on — but I don’t see any reason to take Kaveh’s view that the expression referred to the whole interaction.

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bianca steele 12.09.09 at 2:21 pm

Doctor Slack @ 480: It could be worse. Imagine if your name really were “Civility McDignitas” but when you got here everyone thought you were imitating SMcG. My God! Your real name could be Jonah.

(An almost uneradicable habit for your snark to sound like a Jane Austen character is also a liability.)

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bianca steele 12.09.09 at 2:55 pm

Bill Benzon @ 486: Based on my years of experience working on software development, I think there is a bug in WordPress (or in CT’s enhancements to WordPress if there are any). Some necessary, security-related handing of your comments requires you to separate the paragraphs by extra stuff if you want them to appear correctly.

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