The Clare Spark Blog

September 8, 2013

Reading between the lines

Humpty-DumptyIn an often contentious thread on my Facebook page yesterday, I responded to a critic who suggested that I view my website as if it had the legitimacy of Biblical texts and rabbinic commentary. As part of my response, I argued that Biblical texts and associated commentary were “texts” susceptible to criticism and analysis (just as my blogs are meant to be by readers who fault my reasoning and/or facts).

Mine was postmodern talk (i.e., that all communications are “texts” susceptible to deconstruction) so this blog is about where I stand regarding postmodernism, which I do use selectively as part of my critical toolbox, along with “historicism” (See https://clarespark.com/2013/09/04/the-syria-crisis-and-historicism/.).

I.First, wherefore the term “postmodernism”? Here is the Wikipedia definition of the movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism. Its critics are vehemently opposed to this movement in criticism because of its “nihilism,” its denial of “truth,” its challenge to the authority of “science,” its tendency to “anarchism,” and its “moral relativism.” In practice, the postmodernists often point to bureaucratic rationality (Max Weber, not Karl Marx!) and mechanistic thinking as the cause of such catastrophic phenomena as the Holocaust. Since the general tendency of cultural studies follows the postmodern/poststructuralist agenda, I will explain why I find much of it useful, if not all.

While in graduate school at UCLA, many postmodernists saw me as sympathetic to their cause, perhaps because I was doing “reader-reception theory” (exploring the drastically changing meanings assigned to Herman Melville’s texts since the 19thcentury). I.e., I was looking competing narratives that explained Melville’s sometimes difficult texts . There was a similar interest in my finding that many of the key Melville revivers were practicing psychological warfare, while in some cases, caving to academic pressures that conflicted with their spontaneous responses to Melville’s often ambiguous, even mysterious life and art.

The key word is “ambiguity” along with “indeterminacy,” terms espoused by “pomos.”  Being an introspective person, I do find my own life to be ambiguous in the sense that I cannot relate a personal history with a definite cause and effect sequence. Where I depart from postmodernism is in its insistence that all of science is “a swindle”, or that “mechanical materialism” is a philistine element of the Enlightenment that caused “the Holocaust,”  or that all attempts at reconstructing the past are fool’s errands.

II. Second, a few words about cultural pluralism as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. It is undoubtedly offensive to some readers that I view the Bible as a text, rather than seeing it as God-originated revelation; I imagine that my Orthodox Jewish son-in-law would see my position as Talmudic and typically Jewish. One reason for the duration of our representative republic is the notion of tolerance and relatively free exchange of ideas. Whereas Europe was engulfed in war following the Reformation, the Founders very wisely insisted in a separation of Church and State: there would be no established state religion. The culture wars are fought over this point, and they have polarized the country around competing readings of the Constitution, with “secular progressives” read out of the polity by some pundits on the Right.

PluralismCenter_MikeGhouse_Pluralist

III. Third, the notion of “the will to power” (the title of one of Nietzsche’s books).  I have seen many Facebook comments attributing “the will to power” as the driving purpose of their ideological opponents. Indeed, in a past field exam for the U.S. history graduate students, one question asked us to comment on feminism as “the will to power.” I took this to be a hostile response to such usurpers of male authority as Anne Hutchinson in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But in my dissertation research, I noticed that aristocrats threatened with dispossession by partly emancipated women, Jews, and workers after the French Revolution, attacked these rising groups as motivated solely by a demonic, hence illegitimate, desire to control them. It is my view that Foucault and his followers come out of this aristocratic reaction to the rise of the bourgeoisie with its all-engulfing “cash nexus.”

During the period that I was shopping my book manuscript, an occasional reader would accuse me of too closely identifying with the dastardly Captain Ahab, and imagining that I had the right answer to the Melville problem, notwithstanding that I refused to conclude anything in particular other than the suppression of key documents in Melville’s life and art that would have made his more influential critics look really bad. There are problems that are insoluble, particularly where the human psyche and a dearth of primary source documents are involved.

Some other Melvilleans claimed that I was vindictive owing to my firing as Program Director of KPFK in 1982! Obviously, I, a female with strong views about censorship, must be possessed by “the will to power” over authoritative male literary historians.  Whereas I should have backed off and admitted that there are a “multiplicity of readings” on all matters of fact. For these nay-sayers I perhaps invoked Hawthorne’s sketch of the uppity, puffed-up “Woman” : Hester Prynne was modeled on Anne Hutchinson as Michael Colacurcio once argued.

As the late Norman J. Levitt insisted in his takedown of the postmodernists among the academic Left, some science is “settled.”  But the “bourgeois apologist” Levitt is dead, and I hear rumors that 2+2=5.

will to power

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April 14, 2013

Pretend you are a Nazi

From Julius Streicher's Der Sturmer

From Julius Streicher’s Der Sturmer

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/13/nyregion/albany-teacher-gives-pro-nazi-writing-assignment.html?smid=fb-share

http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/School-apologizes-for-Nazi-writing-assignment-4428669.php

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/13/my-take-nothing-wrong-with-nazi-assignment/

http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2013/04/14/albany_teacher_who_assigned_nazi_essay_put_on_leave.html

http://metro.co.uk/2013/04/14/nazi-letter-teacher-placed-on-leave-as-new-york-pupils-say-it-didnt-make-sense-3615363/

Immediately above, I have compiled some of the stories about an assignment that asked three sophomore classes in English at Albany High School to pretend that the student was persuading a Nazi who had power over him or her,  that s/he acquiesced in the core principle of Nazi propaganda: that Jews are evil. Subsequent to this assignment, students were to read Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. (On Wiesel’s memoir, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_(book). On Wiesel’s generally conservative politics, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elie_Wiesel.)  According to one report, the “pretend you are a Nazi”assignment was a response to the Common Core curriculum mandated by the federal government that English students be able to write about problems usually taught in history classes. (I have written previously on the Common Core curriculum, noting its critics and adherents: https://clarespark.com/2013/01/05/american-fascism-and-the-future-of-english-and-american-literature/.

The teacher’s name is not given, but has been put on leave, and there is talk of potential termination.

I find this incident very disturbing, as this unnamed teacher is being harshly disciplined before all the facts are in. And  no group holds the moral high ground in this scandal.

We do know (or should know) that antisemitism took a new turn in the 19th century, and that in addition to the usual accusation of deicide, Jews were now held responsible for all the revolutions and other dislocations of modernity. It is dubious that the Albany high school classes in any subject whatsoever taught a single word about antisemitism, though some European countries (Sweden for instance) have dealt with the mechanics of the Holocaust, and I would hope that they include the politics of those countries that participated in the extermination of European Jewry, and that such courses explored the mass appeal of Hitler. I would also hope that teaching about antisemitism is not diluted by inclusion on the general subject of “diversity” (On my blogs on antisemitism, see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/29/index-to-blogs-on-antisemitism/, but especially this one: https://clarespark.com/2009/07/29/the-centrality-of-the-holocaust-to-nazi-war-aims/. The illustration for this blog was taken from a Suffolk England “diversity” program that misspelled Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer.)

From the press reports listed above, I have seen no evidence that the anonymous teacher adequately prepared her or his students for the performance of such an obviously provocative assignment. It appears that liberal Jewish organizations are quick to condemn the assignment. One might ask, however, what have they ever done to insist on the accurate teaching of European history after the French Revolution, with special attention to Jew-hatred and finger-pointing? Or have these same organizations cowered in their own little corners, hoping not to “make trouble” but simultaneously adding to the international silence over a history that should have been uncovered and thoroughly publicized long ago?

Finally, to those who find the assignment, no matter how carefully prepared, distasteful and even verboten, may I suggest that it is impossible to do history at all without projecting oneself into the brains and hearts of even the most horrifying characters in our specie’s usually rotten history. Every artist understands this, so why is the goody-goody general public so inadequately prepared, emotionally and intellectually, to understand their opposition? It appears that our adulation of the military is missing the key ingredient of victory: know thy enemy.

[A note on the illustration from Streicher’s pornographic rag: out of the ten ugly Jews depicted on Streicher’s poster, five are wearing the caps of the working class. Recall that anticommunism was the chief appeal of the Nazi Party, and that Bolsheviks were held by Hitler to be lying Jews who were mere fronts for finance capital. Hitler presented himself as the true protector of the German working class/the Volk, while (he claimed) Jews were their worst exploiters and enemies, the anti-race par excellence. It not enough to say that Nazis viewed the Jews as evil, as did this surely well-meaning, but undereducated, high school English teacher.]

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