HOWARD ZINN, RIP.

One of my heroes, Howard Zinn, died recently, and this moving reminiscence by Alice Walker gives me a hook to post about him here:

Coming back to Spelman, I discovered Howard Zinn was teaching a course on Russian History and Literature and a little of the language. I signed up for it, though I was only a sophomore and the course was for juniors (as I recall). I had loved Russian Literature since I discovered Tolstoy and Dostoevsky back in the school library in Putnam County, Georgia. As for the Russian language, as with any language, I most wanted to learn to say hello, goodbye, please, and thank you.

Howard Zinn was magical as a teacher. Witty, irreverent, and wise, he loved what he was teaching and clearly wanted his students to love it also. We did. My mother, who earned $17 a week working 12-hour days as a maid, had somehow managed to buy a typewriter for me and I had learned typing in school. I said hardly a word in class (as Howie would later recall), but inspired by his warm and brilliant ability to communicate ideas and conundrums and passions of the characters and complexities of Russian life in the 19th century, I flew back to my room after class and wrote my response to what I was learning about these writers and their stories that I adored. He was proud of my paper, and, in his enthusiastic fashion, waved it about. I learned later there were those among other professors at the school who thought that I could not possibly have written it. His rejoinder: “Why, there’s nobody else in Atlanta who could have written it!”

Thanks, Bonnie!

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:

    The liberal internet intelligentsia has been pretty consistent in ever so slightly dissociating themselves from Zinn when noting his death. You really don’t need to hedge the obituaries of people you don’t agree with on every point.

  2. Of course, the right-wing internet intelligentsia have never even heard of him.
    Eheu fugaces.

  3. I read a chapter of his People’s History that I came across at a closing-down sale at Border’s. I confess that I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. He seemed to take the view that much American historiography was just a recounting of fairy-tales, but that’s pretty obvious to any interested foreigner.

  4. NPR: As he wrote in his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994), “From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”
    It sounds like he was a wonderfully inspiring teacher, the kind you never forget. Teaching history students “to act against injustice wherever they saw it” sounds all wrong, though. One person’s injustice is another person’s justice.

  5. The beef is ultimately, and ironically, post-modern. By teaching Chomsky and Zinn to high-school seniors and college freshmen, you recontextualize away their patriotism at a vulnerable age. The dissonance is easier to spot not with Christopher Columbus, but later. Maybe the generals did have a strategic objective at Royan. Maybe the French laid the flares wrong. Who knows? War is messy. What matters is, what if Howard Zinn or Edith Keeler had persuaded the Greatest Generation not to fight Hitler? Godwin. QED.
    But then I went to college around Boston in the 70s.

  6. Another recent LH-related obit: Simon Digby, probably the last Indologist cum Arabist without an academic post.
    Wikipedia.
    Appreciation by Pratapaditya Pal as a review of his Burton lecture in Marg.

  7. John Emerson says:

    The People’s History was neither an objective scholarly history nor a bold and original work of research. It was polemical and the expression of a point of view which almost went extinct in the US between 1938 and 1965, and which even today is distinctly a minority opinion. Zinn pretty much admitted this.
    People who travel in educated liberal circles can get tired of the pervasive Zinnians, but these are really enclaves. Even here in Wobegon (probably the least reactionary, least militaristic, least chauvinistic rural area in the U.S., and once a hotbed of left populism) Zinn’s kind of politics is at the vanishing point.
    Peace hippies can be annoying, but there’s an equally large minority that would be willing to go to war against France right now, and I find them much more annoying.

  8. There is no such thing as “an objective scholarly history.” That was one of Zinn’s points. So-called objectivity means reinforcement of the prevailing worldview. And I certainly wouldn’t call Zinn a “peace hippie.”

  9. John Emerson says:

    Probably because you’re a peace hippie yourself, Hat. We often forget.

  10. j. del col says:

    The assumption that objectivity means ‘reinforcement of the prevailing world view’ is sheer post-modern canting.

  11. So-called objectivity means reinforcement of the prevailing worldview.
    No more so than non-objectivity does (e.g. I can say I’m representing the prevailing worldview). Therefore it’s irrelevant.
    If you’re a historian, particularly if you think of modern history as a social science, then as you research and write you try to be objective–just like a physicist does. You don’t just go “oh, there’s no such thing as objective, I give up”. If I want to read someone’s boring old prejudices masquerading as history I go to the Autobiography section.
    I don’t understand why people want to go to war with France. It’s the first I’ve heard of it. Is it a linguistic thing?

  12. John Emerson says:

    A certain kind of American believes that much of Europe supports Osama Bin Laden, especially France. It’s not merely ignorant nobodies, a certain part of the conservative intelligentsia, if you call them that, has declared that France is on the other side.
    I think that objectivity is attainable in proportion to distance from the present (temporal, geographical, ideological, and emotional.) Most claims to objectivity and neutrality with regard to topics of present interest are bogus. It’s been a harmful cliche of American social science as long as I’ve been around.
    There’s plenty of modernist cant, and that’s where the postmodernism comes from.

  13. It’s not a question of claiming you’re being objective, so much as simply being aware of objectivity. As M said so well, you ought not to dismiss objectivity if you’re teaching history to high schoolers or undergraduates. They have to learn the craft first, I believe.
    Do those people know that the French president & parliament are trying to ban the burka?

  14. It’s not a question of claiming you’re being objective, so much as simply being aware of objectivity. As M said so well, you ought not to dismiss objectivity if you’re teaching history to high schoolers or undergraduates. They have to learn the craft first, I believe.
    Do those people know that the French president & parliament are trying to ban the burka?

  15. What matters is, what if Howard Zinn or Edith Keeler had persuaded the Greatest Generation not to fight Hitler?
    The “Greatest Generation” persuaded itself perfectly well not to fight Hitler without any help from Zinn or Keeler. If you remember, Hitler declared war on the U.S., not vice versa.

  16. It’s not just the conservative intelligentsia who have been infected with the anti-France meme. I had lunch with two colleagues today, both pretty much straight down the line moderate New England Democrats, and business people, not intelligentsia. One of them made an offhand remark about how Parisians are such arrogant SOBs who hate everybody and produce nothing, if the city was wiped off the map we’d all be better off. People nodded their heads knowingly, I really had no response to that kind of crazy ignorance. Where do you begin?
    At least in New England you could argue there is a continuous tradition of anti-French feeling going back to the French & Indian War, and in my native New Hampshire anti-French Canadian prejudice was still alive and kicking in the 1970s. I’m not sure where the rest of the country gets their Francophobia from.

  17. John Emerson says:

    Too little and too late, Crown.

  18. John Emerson says:

    For a period of time it was fashionable to ridicule the French for having lost WWII. It was always assumed that France surrendered without fighting, which is not true.
    Per wiki, the Netherlands suffered proportionately more WWII deaths than any other Western European nation except Germany, more than Finland or Czechoslovakia, and almost as many as Japan. Almost all were civilians. The suffering was very unevenly distributed.

  19. Not so, Crown. Justice is for all to receive their due. Injustice is for some to receive more than their due and others less. We may disagree about which situations are just and which unjust, but not about the general distinction between them. If you see injustice it is your duty (of imperfect obligation, to be sure) to work against it, and equally your duty to be open to being convinced that you are wrong.
    As for bias in historians, Herbert Butterfield nailed it eighty years ago in The Whig Interpretation Of History:

    The historian may be cynical with Gibbon or sentimental with Carlyle; he may have religious ardour or he may be a humorist. He may run through the whole gamut of the emotions, and there is no reason why he should not meet history in any or all of the moods that a man may have in meeting life itself. It is not sin in a historian to introduce a personal bias that can be recognized and discounted. The sin in historical composition is the organization of the story in such a way that bias cannot be recognized, and the reader is locked along with the writer in what is really a treacherous argument in a circle. It is to abstract events from their context and set them up in implied comparison with the present day, and then to pretend that by this “the facts” are being allowed to “speak for themselves”. It is to imagine that history as such, or historical research however intense, or historical surveys however broad, can give us judgements of value – to assume that this ideal or that person can be proved to have been wrong by the mere lapse of time.

  20. An excellent and apposite quote; thanks.

  21. Do those people know that …
    If you remember, …
    The point is that the dialogue, if we can call it that, isn’t about facts any more.
    This is the world where you cut the live feed when it starts to veer away from the narrative.
    And The Big Sort means no one notices.

  22. The Creed of Objectivity Killed the News, by Chris Hedges, a superb reporter who’s been shut out of a lot of periodicals because he insists on writing what he sees and learns and not tailoring it to the “objective,” spokesman-oriented system they depend on and worship.

  23. Since the “Hitler” card has been played: is it so certain that Zinn would not have fought against the Axis, not on the grounds of a pacificism like that of the Society of Friends, but rather on the grounds that ‘America is wicked in a way that cannot decently be preferred to “Hitler”‘?
    Is opposing conventional and/or official narratives of the War of 1812, the Mexican American War, the Spanish American War, and many decades of (attempted) genocide of American Indians really the same as not being willing to fight Hitler??
    Are the Vietnam War, the glorious conquest of . . . Grenada, and the Stupid War (today, in Iraq) really to be accepted or contested in the same framework as the war against Hitler???
    We Americans can surely criticize with fairness – albeit in the angriest ways – the repellent bullshit that characterizes the perspectives of American “history” bruited by American chest-beaters-and-flag-wavers without having fucking “Hitler” thrown in our teeth. In my opinion.

  24. Anti-France (and anti-French-people) prejudice in the US is painfully idiotic, but not more so than the fact-abysses and hypocrisies of European anti-American robot programming. As I see things.

  25. It was always assumed that France surrendered without fighting
    Well, there are those nitwits. But it’s also been ‘known’ – under the epistemic sign of empirical compulsion – that France surrendered after six weeks of “fighting”. Perhaps an unfair source of resentment, but that would be the source. From my point of view.

  26. Sorry, MMcM – I (at least) didn’t catch the satiricality. (Fact.) The rancor I expressed remains perfectly reasonable. (Opinion.)

  27. But it’s also been ‘known’ – under the epistemic sign of empirical compulsion – that France surrendered after six weeks of “fighting”.
    With their WWI era cavalry units leading the chevalresque charge against German precision steel! Will the French ever learn to laugh at themselves?

  28. I certainly hope that it was clear that what I wrote was a summary (parody, if you prefer) of a certain anti-Zinn perspective and not my own play. I have read his major works and liked going to hear him speak (which might make John Emerson conclude that I’m a peace hippie).
    Zinn enlisted in WWII and did fight again the Axis. But he was much more ambivalent in later life about even the possibility of any just war. In part from a lot of introspection about bombing Royan.

  29. On May 10, 1940, there were about 3 million German soldiers conscripted for their western front, with about 2700 tanks and self-propelled guns and 7500 artillery pieces. The French alone had about 2.2 million soldiers to their north and north-east, with another 1.1 million Belgian, British, and Dutch soldiers. The Allies had 3100 modern tanks and self-propelled guns, another 1200 such vehicles in new or reserve units, and 1500 obsolete (but functional) tanks, accompanied by 14,000 artillery pieces. Excepting the air corps, for the six-week Battle of France, the Allies outnumbered and outgunned the Germans on the French-German front.
    Perhaps the Polish cavalry has been confused with the French army of 1940. Of course, the Poles, fighting two armies on two fronts, had held out for longer than the French managed to do.
    It’s ridiculous to harbor a specious grudge against France and the French people for their ancestors (and the other Allies) having lost the Battle of France, and even more so for having rationally challenged the recent neo-con dementia in western Asia. But one place to start looking for a generative stratum within living memory for such a grudge would be the spectacle of de Gaulle sitting at the table of “winners” before the war was even over. From my point of view.

  30. That is a great quote you dropped, JC. I suspect I’m talking to some people (e.g. Language & JE) at cross purposes about objectivity: the word is apparently being used as a US media euphemism. I’ll draw a distinction in studying history (because that’s all I’m talking about), between “being objective” and “drawing conclusions”. Though both are good in my view, I expect everyone can agree that a historian needs to do the latter.
    Butter says: The sin in historical composition is the organization of the story in such a way that bias cannot be recognized, and the reader is locked along with the writer in what is really a treacherous argument in a circle.
    The Webbs nailed this mistake and many of the others he mentions, in a practical way, a good twenty years before Butterfield’s book. They collected “facts”–newspaper cuttings and dated quotations and so on, made at the time of events–stuck in card indexes. When they wanted to write about the subject of the collection they would spread the index cards out like jigsaw pieces and arrange & rearrange them to show different connections and paths. I expect the Webbs used their method in a dialectical way, but that’s not a necessary part of the technique. It was revived in the 1960s by Keith Thomas, among others. He collects dated information he comes across in books and newsmedia on something (let’s say “witchcraft”), he copies it in tiny handwriting onto slips of paper that are kept in envelopes pinned to a wall; when the “witchcraft” envelope is bulging he spreads everything out, shuffles the like-sized pieces around and writes an article. Others must use a computer screen for this nowadays, I’ve no idea if it works equally well.
    JC, what I mean about “justice” and “injustice” is the type of thing Butterfield writes about: “to abstract events from their context and set them up in implied comparison with the present day, and then to pretend that by this “the facts” are being allowed to “speak for themselves”. We even see this kind of nutty behaviour at LH once in a while; I’ll bet that high school & undergraduate history students aren’t immune to it, either.

  31. On France, I’d say the Francophobes in the US (on the coasts, anyway) are canceled out by the Francophiles, in fact I thought the US was built on an admiration of France by Jefferson & co. You can certainly see it in the architecture. When I was in US architecture school in the late 70s there was some kind of absurd prejudice that the French had invented everything. Everybody knows it was really the Italians.

  32. I expect everyone can agree that a historian needs to do the latter.
    Of course; the sin is not to draw conclusions but to pretend that those conclusions somehow emerge from the facts all by themselves and are not the product of a particular angle of view.
    On France, I’d say the Francophobes in the US (on the coasts, anyway) are canceled out by the Francophiles, in fact I thought the US was built on an admiration of France by Jefferson & co.
    I’m not sure how admiration over 200 years ago by a small group of founders (who even at the time were counterbalanced by an equally vocal and more powerful group of France-bashers) could be said to cancel anything out today, unless you view time from the perspective of the omnipresent creator. I do not think (from the perspective of a news-reading American of the 21st century) that there is a prominent and powerful group of Francophiles today. If you’re talking about the admittedly well-off group of people who buy good vintages of Bordeaux and eat fine French cheeses, I’m not sure how they cancel out anything but their attempts to lose weight.

  33. In any event, I suggest we not re-fight WWII here. It takes time and energy away from the struggle against prescriptivism and bad writing.

  34. Maybe I need to take some time away from bad writing.

  35. Coincidentally (and less contentiously), I just read Mistress of Modernism, which seems to do a better job of explaining the relationship between Emma Goldman (subject of one of Zinn’s plays) and Peggy Guggenheim than bios of either one I’d read before. It’s cited by Wikipedia at the relevant point, though that text gives the usual abbreviated form: “P. started a foundation for E. and bought her a house in Saint-Tropez so she could write Living My Life, which thanks her in a couple places.”

  36. I don’t want to refight WWII either, but I would like to revisit how the meme that French “surrendered without a fight” began to spread in American pop culture. It seems to me this is of fairly recent (well, 20-30 years) vintage. When I learned about WWII in the 70s it was always made clear to us children that the British and the French were our allies, D-Day won WWII and the Eastern Front was a sideshow. That was certainly the message from TV and Hollywood anyway.

  37. Yes, I agree that the “French surrender” meme is a recent development, and I wish it would go back where it came from. (I also find the “surly Parisians” meme irritating—when I was in Paris, everyone was nice as pie except the landlady, and landladies are surly by profession. Besides, my then wife peed in the bidet, which could hardly be expected to win her over.)

  38. I’d no idea Peggy Guggenheim & Emma Goldman had any relationship, how interesting.

  39. I wish the word “meme” would go back where it came from!

  40. John Emerson says:

    I love the word “meme”. To me it means ideas that circulate with lightning speed without necessarily being understood by anyone.

  41. It’s from Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, of course.

  42. Hating the word “meme” is itself a meme.

  43. Here is what Peggy said in Out of this Century

    Emma was very vain and it took me years to see through her. First I worshiped her and when later I was disillusioned she did not like it and she revenged herself by leaving me out of her memoirs.

    The problem is that this is well after the fact and so informed by the separation. Still, she can’t help complimenting Emma’s Jewish home cooking, and in particular the gefilte fish. And that’s pretty much how Gill and Tacou-Rumey tell it (IIRC). And Emma’s biographers like Drinnon (who introduced Zinn to anarchism) say even less.
    Dearborn proposes that Emma was the force behind Peggy finally managing to end her relationship with the abusive Laurence Vail, John Holms being too indecisive to force it. Also, that Emma helped find Dr. Popoff, the abortionist, mentioned with no certain timeframe in Peggy’s autobiography. And that the falling out was a misunderstanding: Peggy wasn’t initially so put out by only being mentioned in the Appreciation, but Emma interpreted something she said to mean she was, and then rethought taking money from a rich person, so that Peggy put up the defenses that come out in her final telling.
    And, of course, this isn’t the only time these two threads of the first half of the 20th century cross in significant ways. Recall that the revamped MoMA made Signac’s Félix Fénéon the starting point. And Herbert Read (whose Anarchy & Order I just checked and, as I remembered, when it was reissused by Beacon Press in the early 70′s was edited by Howard Zinn).

  44. John Emerson says:

    Peggy must also have idolized Gertrude Stein.

  45. Yes, you would think so.
    Thank you for that, M.

  46. There is logic to that, yes. Certainly their circles overlapped significantly; e.g., Djuna Barnes. And now I’m wondering what each thought of the other specifically, if that’s known.
    And whether rootlesscosmo’s friend ever finished his/her bio of Myrna Loy. (The Thin Man was on the tube last night.)

  47. Well, the idea wasn’t to “re-fight” the war, but rather to perceive Francophobia (briefly) through the lens behind which it feels rational.
    -
    language hat, I think there are (at least) two strengths of ‘objectivity’ at play when talking of journalism or historical investigation.
    A strong “objectivity” would be a simultaneous comprehension of all possible perspectives, so that one were comprehending without any perspectival bias (disregarding for a moment the question of priorities, values, interests). Strong “objectivity” means comprehending all the balls on a billiard table simultaneously and continuously as to their mass and momentum, so that their movements are never a surprise.
    Weak “objectivity” would be the disinterest of an “objective” referee in a game of basketball. The ref can’t see every angle from where he sees the play, so his “objectivity” lies in knowing that his perspective is, by definition, limited, and in not having a stake, as much as emotionally possible, in who wins the game – so the ref evaluates what he sees (true: as part of a team of two or three referees) knowing that his ‘knowledge’ is limited and yet calling play as he can see it (and without favor).
    (Of course, the inescapability, ultimately, of “favor” would be where the inevitable shaping of “priorities, values, interests” would affect one’s assessment of one’s own perceptions – but these orientations are, to a useful extent – governable from within by privileging the “value” of justice, and from without, systematically, by subjection to other perspectives (the other refs, the league’s review policy, and so on).)
    The everyday use of “objectivity” usually refers to the latter, weaker idea: disinterestedness; tempering one’s judgements with the priority of getting facts ‘right’ even at the expense of understanding that one has erred. But often it’s the strong idea – panperspectival knowledge – that’s attacked and defended (“postmodernity”) vigorously enough to be tempted to discard the possibility that object could be both philosophically consistent and pragmatic – in the sense of fact.
    -
    What Hedges is talking about – and you, in your equine singer mode – is using “objectivity” as a disguise for privileging particular points of view and claims to expertise, such that, in some particular conflict, one side is ‘maintaining security’ where the other is ‘turning to terror’ – and if their actions were revealed without identification of those actions authors, the two sides would be much harder to distinguish ethically than ‘security’ and ‘terror’ are, with respect to legitimizing violence. In other words, not any kind of object-ive, except that of deception.

  48. the struggle against prescriptivism and bad writing
    Is it possible to tell “bad writing” from “good” without prescribing notionally objective standards? How so?

  49. Quality need not be defined to be perceived, deadgod.

  50. It’s like art.

  51. Or pornography.

  52. There’s a right way and a wrong way to judge writing. You can’t just say “I know good writing when I see it”.
    I can’t explain why. I just know this.

  53. Quality need not be defined to be perceived[.]
    There was no such ‘necessity’ stated or implied; it’s a matter not of ‘definition’, but rather of disclosure.
    The point was that, once a judgement [not really a "perception" (?)] of “quality” (I mean by “quality” what I think is meant in the truism above: an evaluation on the spectrum from ‘bad’ to ‘good’, rather than any characteristic or property) has been made, regardless of however preliminary or unrefined – say, simply: ‘bad’ or ‘good’ -, evidence of the criterion/a for that judgement is embedded in it.
    So, for example, if you read a piece of writing and you find it ‘good’ or ‘bad’, this judgement, however qualified, already indicates the priorities, interests, values and so on through which ‘perceiving’ that text led to such a judgement. You’ve disclosed the principles that govern your judgement of the “quality” of a piece of writing in and by that judgement.
    There’s no question of a rigorous, all-encompassing ‘definition’ of “quality” – even less, one generative of “quality” – that brings about judgement. When you think a piece of writing is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in some particular way, you’re disclosing why you think it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — if you or anyone else is interested in figuring that out.
    -
    The question remains: if one finds that, say, this poem is ‘good’, while that story is ‘bad’ and the other internet post is ‘so-so’, one has shown the distinction one discovers in or imposes on writing, with respect to that text. Isn’t this discernment evidence of a kind of prescriptivism? – even to the point of linguistic “prescriptivism”? (- such as ‘no passive voice’, ‘few adverbs’, and so on)

  54. -[...] Here are some questions I set myself: Is a chair finely made tragic or comic? Is the portrait of Mona Lisa good if I desire to see it? Is the bust of Sir Philip Crampton lyrical, epical or dramatic? If not, why not?
    -Why not indeed?, said Lynch, laughing.
    -If a man hacking in fury at a block of wood, Stephen continued, make there an image of a cow, is that image a work of art? If not, why not?
    -That’s a lovely one, said Lynch, laughing again. -That has the true scholastic stink.
    –Joyce

  55. Prescriptivism is not some all-encompassing term, like “nihilism,” meaning you shouldn’t make value judgments about anything. It has nothing whatever to do with literary criticism. It is specifically about language as an object of study and description, and its point is that a linguist or lexicographer should no more favor one usage over another than an anatomist or biologist should favor one organ or species over another. For more, see this oldie but goodie.

  56. And living well.
    Unfortunately, all these things suffer from the lack of a definition, they’re subject to the whims of fashion, and committing yourself to something so subject has its disadvantages in the long term.

  57. its point is that a linguist or lexicographer should no more favor one usage over another than an anatomist or biologist should favor one organ or species over another.
    Hat’s intended antecedent is descriptivism, of course. Prescriptivism (as well as descriptivism’s opposite) can also be described as an undiscriminating and snobbish espousal of the rules promulgated by Lowth, Murray, Fowler, Bernstein, Simon, et al.
    Separately, a postcard from the road: Robin is reading (often aloud to me in our hotel room in Savannah) Zinn’s A People’s History. We’re both loving it.
    (For my part, I’m enjoying an Xmas gift from AJP: Alan Bennett’s play The Habit of Art. Enormous fun.)

  58. I thought living well was supposed to be the best revenge.

  59. Yes, language hat, “prescriptivism” in linguistics means something other than ‘prescribing’ language usage (which would, ostensibly, produce better-quality writing in some particular context). I took advantage of an equivocation to provoke, because, to me, ruling against (say) ever splitting an infinitive is in a similar category – that is, the two are each in a more inclusive category – to applying some criterion, reflective of one’s interests, priorities, values, to a piece of writing in calling that text ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
    (I don’t mean trivial discernments, like ‘I don’t understand it, so it’s gibberish’ or ‘it’s offensive to me personally, so it’s badly composed’.)
    But if you say, to use an above example, that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a “great” novel, or a “boring” one, or not a “novel” at all (If not, why not?), then you’re revealing a/some criterion/a (whether you’ve thought about what your reaction reveals or not) that prescribe, in the same way as the anti-split infinitive stickler would do.
    I guess I’m not sure what you mean by “literary criticism”, but talking “specifically about language as an object of study and description” is exactly what people are doing when, in talking about writing, they refer their assessments directly to the evidence of the words in the writing. I mean that there must be a unity between talking about some particular piece of writing (as writing) and talking about language (as ‘linguistic’).
    -
    I agree that “nihilism” makes a lousy analogy to “prescriptivism”. I understand you to have meant ‘being against “prescriptivism” is not like nihilism – being against “prescriptivism” doesn’t mean that one is for “anything goes”‘. ?

  60. Cross-posted with jamessal, with respect to antecedentialitisticality.

  61. Hat’s intended antecedent is descriptivism, of course.
    D’oh! Thanks, jamessal.
    But if you say, to use an above example, that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a “great” novel, or a “boring” one, or not a “novel” at all (If not, why not?), then you’re revealing a/some criterion/a (whether you’ve thought about what your reaction reveals or not) that prescribe, in the same way as the anti-split infinitive stickler would do.
    The two are unrelated.
    I mean that there must be a unity between talking about some particular piece of writing (as writing) and talking about language (as ‘linguistic’).
    This is incorrect. One of the hardest things to do when teaching linguistics is to get people out of that frame of mind.

  62. John Emerson says:

    I took advantage of an equivocation to provoke, because, to me, ruling against (say) ever splitting an infinitive is in a similar category – that is, the two are each in a more inclusive category – to applying some criterion, reflective of one’s interests, priorities, values, to a piece of writing in calling that text ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
    That was a really long stretch, tending in the apples and oranges direction.
    As far as judging good and bad writing, I don’t think that you ever get away from questions of personal taste. Sometimes you just say “That’s a good thing of its kind, but I can’t stand that kind of thing” or at the other extreme “He doesn’t write well, but he has valuable things to say”. At the extreme you will say, about something that’s not to your taste, poorly done, and not very interesting,”His imitation of Updike is laughably poor, and I can’t stand Updike anyway”.

  63. personal taste, lack of a definition, etc…
    It is somehow unsatisfying just to hear someone say “I know pornography when I see it” or “I know art when I see it” and then lambast anyone who expresses curiosity. Surely this crowd can take it further. I’m thinking of some of the discussions of modernism here in general. (And thanks to deadgod and Hat for recommending Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era–I finally returned it to the library and obtained my own copy.) Just as you can study music in order to refine your sense of pitch and rhythm or get a better idea of your own taste, surely it’s possible to do the same with literary criticism. If only the people who enjoy these things and have spent a lot of time studying them could make the leap to imparting the reasons for their enthusiasm…
    Since this is a thread about Zinn, I have to say I was disappointed in NPR’s obit, which I thought was a bit snooty. As I recall, they called him a “liberal historian”. Why not just a historian? What on earth is a “liberal historian”? As far as I can tell, the label “liberal” doesn’t really mean much, except as used as a pejorative by certain political factions. You can speak of someone who is “a fiscal conservative and a social liberal” and it does refer to a general position on certain issues, but “liberal” applied to history? That tells me absolutely nothing about Zinn. I haven’t read more than a few pages of his book though, now I’ll have to dig it out.
    [I see now I have sprinkled this with qualifying phrases that weaken the writing - "somehow, surely, I'm thinking, I was disappointed, surely it's possible, I have to say, if only, which I thought, as far as I can tell". I won't edit them out this time, and y'all can tell me if I sound like a stereotypical insecure, self-effacing bimbo too intimated to speak publicly where there are males present, as I was brought up to believe was proper.]

  64. Howard Zinn talking about his experience as an Air Force bombadier–the link to the video came from the Spelman College website.

  65. I know [hard-core pornography] when I see it.
    Jacobellis v. Ohio
    Yes, Stewart’s ‘have-an-opinion-for-free’ card has become the Scarlet Flag of Monologue of pragmatism. To his credit – and what is far less known – , he later criticized this view (in the case Miller v. California) for being “untenable”.
    If you know something, even something as abstract as whether you think Duchamp’s urinal, Cage’s 4′ 33”, or Warhol’s Brillo boxes are “art”, then you have the raw material for figuring out, to some degree of subtlety and rigor, what ‘definition’ of “art” you pragmatically, intuitively, (perhaps) spontaneously impose on – or what ‘principle’ you discover in – objects or actions you’re asked to consider as “art”.
    -
    Nijma, don’t surrender to the malign Prescriptivizers Against Qualification ! Qualifiers aren’t just namby-pamby limp grips on one’s opinions, nor a devious inoculation against accusations of “arrogance” – though they can be each of those.
    Qualifiers like ‘as I see things’ and ‘I’m guessing’ are ways of putting one’s confidence in facts and one’s hazarding of perspective in each other’s contexts.
    I know an excellent example of this ‘reliefing’ – and a predecessor of Zinn – : Herodotus. My reading of him, which might be common (but I haven’t seen much evidence of that), is that he’s remarkably subtle in his use of indicators of layers of confidence in his sources (which ‘sources’ include, of course, his own experiences). Common examples: indirect discourse and legetai/legontai [h]oti. Of course, all the Greek prose writers, and many poets, use these (and other) normal techniques for showing the difference between, say, ‘I heard that . . .’ and ‘I know that . . .’. But Herodotus thematizes the relative skepticism he, as the conduit of the information he’s relating, filters that info through – very much the opposite of a Father of Lies.
    At least, from my perspective, that’s my take on things, in my opinion.
    [Assuming that you liked The Pound Era - you might also enjoy A Homemade World, with which you're sure to disagree some (at least), but that's cool.]

  66. the apples and oranges direction
    Who’s really in a cognitive quandary when asked to understand the similarities between apples and oranges? compared, say, to a steak or a candy bar or a unicycle?
    Indeed, one’s discernment of apples from oranges is evidence that one’s comparison of them to each other is, after all, easy.
    -
    language hat states that (to paraphrase) ‘talking about writing as writing’ and ‘talking about language linguistically’ are “unrelated” – so much so as perhaps not to be fruitfully comparable. Ok.
    -
    [never] get away from questions of personal taste
    Well, no, one can’t – that subjectivity with respect to “art” is ubiquitous and inescapable is, or ought to be, expected from each of the conversation partners ‘here’.
    My interest was in showing the ubiquity and inescapability in any particular point of view of: a) criteria of judgement that that perspective is exhibiting; and b) the presumption of “objectivity” (no matter how ‘humble’ the person) that those criteria evince.

  67. Living well is better than revenge.
    But who’s that mature??

  68. I agree with deadgod about Herodotus, who is too often dismissed or condescended to as a mere storyteller, so much less professional than the stern military man Thucydides.

  69. Assuming that you liked The Pound Era
    Thanks deadgod, I’ve added it to my wish list. I find Kenner’s writing style to be almost opaque; I prefer to skim things and he requires close reading, but if you take the time he does make things clearer.
    Herodotus is much appreciated in the midwest. No one writes without bias and his is easy to figure out. As a military commander whose mission failed, he would perhaps be eager to offer explanations, but he was also in a unique position as an eyewitness to events. As someone writing about historical events he also presents the sourcing for his information. Was this the world’s first footnote? Even where he is skeptical, as with the story of the ants gathering gold dust, he methodically records both the information and where it was acquired. In the case of Greek soldiers who deserted in Egypt, there has been some later corroboration of the accounts he wrote down. Graham Handcock explores this in connection with the Ark in Ethiopia in The Sign and the Seal.

  70. John Emerson says:

    Kenner was deaf and as a result, he was an early adopter of computers and also an elctronics buff.
    I liked his Pound book better than I like Pound. I’m planning to read his Joyce book someday.

  71. Is pound cake anything to do with Ezra Pound? Are there other foodstuffs named after poets?

  72. Trond Engen says:

    Much can be said about Ezra Pound, but he sure knew how to make a cake.
    [Ok, said in Norwegian and about Napoleon by Fredrik Stabell. (His creation Dusteforbundet lacks a WP entry. I might think about doing something with that)]

  73. Foodstuffs named after poets: Schillerlocken
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_foods_named_after_people

  74. John Emerson says:

    Last I looked chateaubriand was really so named by, or for, Chateaubriand.

  75. Languagehat (the blog) has a nice Kenner obit* on Nov. 25, 2003. Of course, no piece of criticism of great writing is going to be better than the great book/writer it’s about, but Kenner is an example of great writing about great writing (it’s not impossible . . .).
    I’ve always thought of his name (with absolutely no critical justice) as ‘Hugh Selwyn Kenner’.
    He has, that I know, three Joyce books. Of them, I enjoyed most Joyce’s Voices, the most eccentric of the three. His Youlieseas manual is as much a meeting of literary minds as The Pound Era.
    If you’re a Beckett freak – Kenner’s very convincing in his discussions of Beckett’s writing.
    * There’s no “missing” apostrophe in Finnegans Wake – they do that if you shout loudly enough at them. If you deposit an apostrophe (before or after the “s”), you might not like to be left in one after sunrise.

  76. Back on historiography: Keith Thomas’s review of Anthony Grafton’s new[ish] work happened to be kitchen-table reading material. So, now I’m wondering whether people (well, undergraduates, maybe) read E. H. Carr any more.

  77. What do I know. They probably read “What Is History?”; we read it at school, but that was in 1970. I doubt his Russian work survived the ‘eighties at undergraduate level. I expect he’s considered more reliable than Hobsbawm, who remained in the CP after 1956.

  78. What do I know. They probably read “What Is History?”; we read it at school, but that was in 1970. I doubt his Russian work survived the ‘eighties at undergraduate level. I expect he’s considered more reliable than Hobsbawm, who remained in the CP after 1956.

  79. Right. It was What is History? that I was wondering about specifically, because of that whole objectivity thing. When someone of the generation previous to mine refers to something well-established when we were in school as read by “generations of undergraduates,” I naturally wonder whether it’s still used.

  80. I don’t remember hearing his name in the 80′s, and we covered authors from areas like women’s history and psychohistory. But googling him, I see he was a Marxist, so in America that wouldn’t be particularly surprising, given our history of McCarthyism. When we studied Marxists at all it would be a brief overview and within the context of Marxism or whatever ism, for instance a review of economists might have Marx on the list. The book also looks boring, judging by the reviews.

  81. “Generations of undergraduates” rings a bell, but I can’t find it. I can’t imagine studying history without knowing something of its methods & in that case you can’t avoid What Is History; it’s a remarkable book that still seems to annoy right-wing historians, according to the very long and thorough Wikipedia entry for Carr. I’ll ask my cousin next time I talk to him, he’s a right-wing history professor. By the way, in view of what you wrote at the top, one thing I learnt from the Wikipedia article is that Carr was an appeaser in the thirties. He’d taken part in the Versailles negotiations and felt that Germany hadn’t received a fair deal, but he thought it was in Britain’s best interest for Germany to expand eastwards. He was a complicated, counter-intuitive thinker, and some of his thinking was disastrous.

  82. My, my, my…
    All this fuss over a Radical Historian! ;-D
    Fascinating reading.
    I’ll admit to having read, and enjoyed, his earliest edition of the History… way back in the misguided glory days of my youth, but I got older, wider read, and smarter. ;-D

  83. no piece of criticism of great writing is going to be better than the great book/writer it’s about

    This is pretty clearly false if we leave authorial greatness out of it: first-rate criticism of third-rate authors is definitely possible, though I admit to not being able to cite examples at the moment.

  84. It’s amazing how many truisms become false if you omit crucial words.

  85. Yeah, point. Frye says something about how the critic judges the ordinary writer, but is judged by the great writer.

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