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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Ramcat Reads #12


RAMCAT READS #12

Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press, 2010.  Hauser, Marc D. Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

Within the last decade, interest in the forms moral and ethical criticism might assume has increased among some humanists as faith in the efficacy of theory as theory has declined.  It is a sign of progress that Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, and Marc Hauser, a psychologist, have brought the sciences to the foreground in their very readable speculations about the origins of human morality.  The keyword is "readable."  Both authors strike a conversational tone in discussing issues of moral philosophy, and both are refreshingly honest about the limits of explanation.  Readers who are baffled by the flood of moral irrationality and hardcore hatreds that assaults critical thinking in 2016 can arm themselves by attending to the models of thought which Harris and Hauser provide.  Humanists who have been reluctant to make common cause with principled scientists may be persuaded to alter the course of their thinking.

Sollors, Werner. African American Writing: A Literary Approach. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2016.

Were a relatively unknown Professor of English at a small college to propose that her collection of essays provided a literary approach to African American writing, she would be challenged to (1) discriminate African American writing from African American literature and (2) devote several paragraphs to what was uniquely "literary" about her approach (and perhaps whether the "approach" involves motions of "objectivity" or "indulgence and subjective appreciation." When the Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Research Professor of English Literature at Harvard University makes the same proposal, a Columbia University Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies asserts that his "model of literary scholarship will be indispensable to those who study and teach African American literature."  In the Age of Trump, it is noteworthy that the unknown professor is virtually put on trial while the privileged Harvard professor gets off scot-free.  The discrepancy must not be passed over lightly, because it reveals one of the many hidden "rules" in the game of scholarship that is simultaneously a game of ideological hegemony.  Sollors' African American Writing does have some merit in its drawing of attention to works by Frank Webb and Adrienne Kennedy and to experiences W. E. B. DuBois had in Nazi Germany in 1936, but his meditations on Equiano, Jean Toomer, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston,  and Amiri Baraka are far less than indispensable. What is indispensable is the discussion of black writing that remains independent of colleges and universities. The status quo limits of the "literary" retard the growth of knowledge in the Age of Trump.  Occasionally, Sollors provides tidbits of contextualization to make up for the moral flabbiness of "a literary approach," and one hopes the ethical dimensions of doing so is not ignored by his Harvard students.  It they (and their peers who don't live in circles of privilege) examine those dimensions, they may profit from the lesson Phillis Wheatley tried to teach students at the University at Cambridge a couple of centuries ago.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.      August 28, 2016


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

growth


GROWTH

This summer's rejection,

its tart magic blazing

in the rainbow flood,



Can reflect no middling passing,

nor leave unremarked smirks

of sand-drying lips in repose;



Can betray not in mad oil

or colors watered down

rich economy of salient laughing,



For truly the sign, the signature,

the thing unclocked is death

redeemed in thundering growth.





Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

August 24, 2016


Saturday, August 20, 2016

THE BANALITY OF RACE


THE BANALITY OF RACE



                One should congratulate Michael Eric Dyson for exposing once again the banality of race in the recently published The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).  In an election year, it is a useful  nonfiction companion for Colson Whitehead's  novel The Underground Railroad (New York: Doubleday, 2016).  It is necessary to be reminded that much in our nation never changes.  The 346 pages of Dyson's book can be casually read in one sitting, because his prose flows as smoothly as a duet by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.  "Obama's presidency represents, " Dyson reminds his readers, "the paradox of American representation" (xi).  His observation about representing representation gives one pause.  It articulates at once the limits of human reason and the acute pathology of American political discourses before and after 2016.  How tempting to entertain in a sunlit region of imagination a comparison of what the Statue of Liberty is supposed to represent with what the brief display of a nude statue of Donald Trump in New York's Union Square actually represented.  Race in America is incapable of shame.

                Some years from now, people who will write trenchant critiques of Obama's two-term presidency may thank Dyson for depicting the thin line between instant, emotional reactions to race (which occupy the territory of nonsense) and sustained critical race theory (which searches for the land of wisdom).  They will perhaps thank Dyson for making the inspired mistake of urging readers to believe the American presidency is capable of having a complexion.

                In the language of classical rhetoric, The Black Presidency is an example of deliberative oratory.  It is a powerful magnet for 360 degrees of disagreement.  Casual reading of the book does suggest that Dyson's uncovering the pathetic operations of "race" in American thought simultaneously pulls a veil over the need to have panoptical disclosures about American presidents and their presidencies.  However desirable such disclosures might be, they are difficult to construct.  They are predicated on some ability to account for the knotty, intertwined domestic and international factors that define a modern presidency.  That accounting requires more than a year or two of interdisciplinary research and qualitative/quantitative analyses.  Be assured the disclosures shall not appear in the lifetimes of people who are now reading Dyson's book.

                The probability that a future will identify Obama's presidency with the death of American democracy --an identification Dyson has good reason not to make ---should not be attributed to Obama's frustrated audacity of hope.  Obama could recommend hope as a political virtue or as a pathway to sanity.  He could not force the American people to embrace a vision that lacked Machiavellian properties.  The death of democracy will have to be attributed, in part,  to the banality of race, to its remarkable success in moving American citizens to the Omega point they have purchased with freedom of choice.  Indeed, casual readings of The Black Presidency  ought to be supplemented with cautious readings of Teilhard de Cardin's The Phenomenon of Man (1955), or better yet,  Revelation 22: 12-16.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            August 20, 2016

Thursday, August 18, 2016

James Agee's Cotton Tenants


Agee's Cotton Tenants



                Reading James Agee's Cotton Tenants: Three Families (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2013) tempts one to sink into a past that is the present and to allow this book to magnify the finer elements of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).  The latter is Agee's great achievement.  It exposes the vexed morality of his art and confirms that invading the privacy of another human being falls a yard short of being a virtue.  Invasions Agee undertook  to fulfill an assignment from Fortune magazine in summer 1936, with Walker Evans in tow as "counter-spy, traveling as a photographer,"  to investigate white tenant farming in Alabama ----those invasions hit the ground with a violent thud. 

                The sound reverberates unto today.  Consider the quality of guilt and judgment in Agee's accomplished prose: "A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage; is worthy neither of the name nor continuance.  And a human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only…."(Cotton Tenants 34).  The vexed, formulaic morality screams from the page.  Is Agee speaking of American civilization? Of American citizens who live in 2016?  There is amorality afoot here.  In according serious attention to human life, Agee secured his self-condemnation.

                In his 1960 foreword for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Walker Evans confessed that  "Agee's rebellion was unquenchable, self-damaging, deeply principled, infinitely costly, and ultimately priceless."  Note well the superlatives.  There is a hint in such characterization of a major difference between William Faulkner and Agee as Southern modernist writers.  Faulkner so desperately yearned to be a man of quality.  Agee was a man who possessed qualities. Note the abyss between having and yearning to have, between exposing social amorality and hiding behind it.   Noting the difference allows one to discriminate judiciously between writers of merit who have something of value yet to say to contemporary readers.

                Let Us Now Praise Famous Men concludes with a poem wherein Agee indicated "our fathers that begat us" were as worthy of remembering as the famous who are remembered in official histories. And in Cotton Tenants, the report Fortune magazine refused to publish in 1936, Agee had the courage to suggest

"There is in Southern white man, distributed almost as thickly as the dialect, an epidemic capability of sadism which you would have to go as far to match and whose chief basis is possibly, but only possibly, and only one among many, a fear of the Negro, deeper and more terrible than any brief accounting can suggest or explain.  This flaw of sadism can turn its victims loose into extremities which the gaudiest report have only begun to suggest ." (223-234)

                This  infamous fear was magnificently depicted in Herman Melville's Benito Cereno, and there is some profit in seeing Agee as one of Melville's heirs.  Doing so, however, inspires existential dread. The cotton tenants Agee so ruthlessly depicted in 1936 may have reproduced themselves as the classless Americans of 2016, who are "as oblivious of country and state as of national politics" (49).  Dread comes home to roost.  The cotton tenants of now are not merely Southern; they are  "the people"  --- all of them ---whom Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump so assiduously seek to bamboozle and ensnare.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            August 18, 2016

Monday, August 15, 2016

THE STORIED SOUTH


Ferris, William. The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists.  Chapel Hill: University of

North Carolina Press, 2013.  $ 35.00    ISBN  978-1-4696-0754-2



            Fred Hobson suggested in Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain (1983) that Southerners have, or may be possessed by, a compulsion to explain, to apologize for, to defend, or to celebrate the history of a region which non-Southerners "have long been fascinated with…as spectacle, as land of extremes in the most innocent part of America in one respect and the guiltiest in another…."(9).  Hobson's speculation cuts both ways.  While many Southerners do have a gift for drawling in ways that fascinate, a significant number of them can be as taciturn as stereotyped New Englanders.  Hobson's hyperbole confirmed the very oddity he intended to place in an objective perspective regarding habits.  He exercised due diligence in borrowing his main title from William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! as he explored selected works by people who were neither novelists nor scholars.  He also used predictable Southern diligence in excluding black writers  (notably Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison) on the grounds that "it would be impossible to do them justice" (13) in the scope of his study.  Thus, Hobson self-fashioned himself as a quintessential Southern apologist.

            Thirty-three years later, it is instructive to contrast Tell About the South with William Ferris's The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists, which incorporates self-fashioning with minimal apology  Ferris acknowledges that Hobson and many other of his University of North Carolina colleagues gave him encouragement in every step of writing this book, a worthy companion to his earlier Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (2009).  One might argue that Hobson's work was a prelude to Ferris's explaining increasingly complex functions of narrative in the South.  Less an overt apologist than Hobson, Ferris tells us about his own "intellectual and artistic growth through friendships with" seven writers, five scholars, two musicians, three photographers, and nine painters. Ferris relies primarily on interviews to create a species of oral history. The absence of question and answer markers, however,  foregrounds shared authority in the making of historical explanation.  By exercising his autobiographical voice in prefaces for the stories the writers and artists tell, Ferris demonstrates that subjective artistry can enliven scholarship which focuses on difference in a region of the United States.

             To be sure, his method of presentation enables selected voices to expose or to demythologize  problems of credibility that arise in contemporary studies of geographical  regions. By virtue of  its celebratory, non-defensive aura , The Storied South  alerts readers to aspects of a story always untold in interdisciplinary investigations of Southern cultures. In that sense, the book has an inevitable relationship to a provocative series of manifestos about the future of Southern Studies in PMLA 131.1 (2016).  That relationship is defined, in part, by Ferris's rationale and folkloric methodological choices, items crucial for understanding the rewards of Southern storytelling.  This book is a remarkable self-portrait of Ferris as a white, male scholar who is a native son of Mississippi, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  It is simultaneously a documentation of how twentieth-century Southern writers, musicians, photographers, scholars, and painters "created a body of work that defined both their regions and their nation"(2).  Ferris's manipulation of interviews exposes how oral traditions give compelling forms to "the contested memory of black and white southerners who offer opposing views of the region's history" (3).

            The adequacy of this kind of binary narration (spinning of tales)  and history-making is itself contestable and open to passionate, rigorous scrutiny by a new generation of scholars who embrace motives and values quite unlike those espoused by Hobson and Ferris.  Younger scholars may believe, as does Jay Watson, that "we need the combined conceptual resources of southern and environmental studies to unpack the thick layers of meaning that accrue when southerners write ecologically and environmental thinkers write about the South" (PMLA 131.1: 159).  Just as Ferris refines Hobson's penchant for the rage to tell, recent developments in southern studies help us to identify the charming limitations of Ferris's traditional approach to the implications of story without diminishing the considerable value of how Ferris seeks to recuperate time past and to display it to its best advantage.  His intervention is a Faulknerian reminder that some Southern imperatives defy being wished into oblivion. They haunt the South and our entire nation; if they cannot be resolved, they can be addressed in ways that serve the commonweal.  Indeed, the rage of younger scholars to theorize the multiple facets of the South, to tell a new story, only amplifies the humanistic civility of Ferris's work.

            As an esteemed scholar of all things Southern, Ferris is keenly aware that the spatial and temporal dimensions of a Southern story must assume combative configurations in the Zeitgeist of now.  Our history-laden ideas about  Old South and  New South cultures are being rapidly relocated in scholarship by new fields of interpretation which draw attention to the dramatic clashes  of remembering and forgetting the centrality of story.  Meaning and significance are recast in discussions of the global South; the deep, down, and dirty South; the South as a racially and ecologically challenged locus of cognition and imagination.  The voices of the South retrofit themselves in concert with revisionist historiographies, emerging digital humanities and revitalized empiricism  Thus, Ferris wisely includes a generous and timely selected bibliography, discography, and filmography in The Storied South and appends CD (interview sound recordings) and DVD (archival films) companion discs as special resources or paratextual supplements.

From the vantage of a probable future, The Storied South is an excellent, authoritative record of how William Ferris at once mediates and  meditates on Southern exceptionalism.  It is a valuable foundational text for American and international scholars who are existentially obligated to tell explanatory stories which supersede regional boundedness.  If their stories prove to be as principled and good as the one Ferris tells, we shall indeed be fortunate and better prepared to avoid delusions that disguise themselves as contributions to knowledge.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Humanistic Protest


The Tragedy of Humanistic Protest

The Chronicle of Higher Education (online version) saturates readers with the complaints of humanists who seem to envy the relatively "good fortunes" of their colleagues in STEM-disciplines. For example, the historian L. D. Burnett moaned in the August 12 issue that the public and policy makers "view the purpose of college as purely vocational, and see humanistic inquiry  --  the study of literature, the arts, history, anthropology, philosophy  --  as a waste of time and money."  According to Burnett, it is urgent that we "defend the place of the humanities in higher education…defend the opportunity for our students to grapple with ideas and questions of enduring value."  Do American students not deal with such ideas and questions prior to entering colleges and universities; do they  not practice critical thinking while they are still in a state of lower education?  And if they do not, should we not ask hard questions about where waste of time and money is actually located in American society and its forms of education?  Instead of demanding that readers interrogate (severely question)  the energy-draining tragedy of humanistic protest, CHE and other publications broadcast the tragedy with tacit alacrity.

Perhaps this shortcoming is "normal" in the contexts of terrorism, the expanding gap between wealth and poverty, the banality of dying, and ecological imbalance.  Unfortunately, Burnett and some other humanists err in their annoying protests about the legitimacy of vocation in the training of the human mind. It is disingenuous to pretend that people who value what is practical and necessary in the conduct of daily economic, social and  cultural operations are guilty of (1) being aliterate, (2) never having aesthetic experiences in museums and art galleries, (3) ignoring the importance of temporal and spatial narratives, (4) dismissing the findings of anthropology, or (5) being immune to abstract speculation.  Indeed, it is fair to suspect that humanists who traffic with such pretense are either willfully tendentious or  enthralled by a tragic sense of life or both.

Job preparedness and acquiring cognitive and physical skill-sets are not necessarily segregated from  pleasures that resist quantification. Enlightened humanists should protest less and work harder (in concert with non-humanistic colleagues)  to forge pre-future projects wherein the humanities and the sciences cooperate in seeking the ultimate ends of human existence.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            August 13, 2016

Sonic Gadflies


SONIC GADFLIES

morph and mutate

become obese like hate

cursing

targeting

killing

kneeling down

before golden bullies

of her/history.

you have heard them

termite the logic of law,

with love

pledge allegiance

to a magic surrealism

of perfected madness.

ah, if you can spell

terror,

Eden is need.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

August 13, 2016