Supplemental: Does our own private language make sense?

THURSDAY, MARCH 12, 2015

Our own philosophers speak:
Two weeks ago, Professor Yancy conducted a rather abstruse discussion with Professor Sheth for the New York Times.

Their web discussion appeared on The Stone, “a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.”

Professor Sheth hails from Hampshire College; she does a monthly post for Salon. Over at the New York Times, Professor Yancy (Duquesne) has conducted interviews about race with a series of self-identifying philosophers.

His discussion with Professor Sheth was the seventh in this series. It carried a headline which many commenters didn’t seem to understand:

“How Liberalism and Racism Are Wed”

If anything, that headline seems a bit soft as an account of Professor Sheth’s views. In the discussion’s first exchange, she seemed to offer a harsh assessment of something, although we're not quite sure of what.

She seemed to say that “systemic racism” is “essential to liberalism.” Many commenters seemed puzzled by that claim in this, the first Q-and-A:
PROFESSOR YANCY (2/27/15): Can you discuss your own view of your “racial” identity and how that identity is linked to your critical explorations into the philosophical and political significance of race?

PROFESSOR SHETH: Until 2001, I thought of my identity in terms of ethnicity rather than race. I was an immigrant, and in the American imaginary, immigrants were rarely discussed in terms of race. After September 11, 2001, I tried to reconcile what I saw as the profound racist treatment of people (often Arabs and South Asians) who were perceived as Muslim, with a politically neutral understanding of “racial identity,” but it didn’t work. That’s when I began to explore race as a critical category of political philosophy, and as a product of political institutions. The biggest surprise was my coming to understand that “liberalism” and systematic racism were not antithetical, but inherently compatible, and that systemic racism was even necessary to liberalism. Soon after, I read Charles Mills’s “The Racial Contract,” which supported that view.
Is “systemic racism” really “necessary to liberalism?” While we're at it, what does that claim even mean?

We ourselves have had a hard time puzzling out an answer to that second question. All too often, such confusion occurs when our own progressive professors talk about gender or race.

What the heck did Professor Sheth mean when she said that “systemic racism” is “necessary to liberalism?” You’re asking a very good question!

This is the kind of challenging statement which frequently gives our progressive professors their air of frisson and danger. That said, you will see, all through the comments, that many readers weren’t real clear about the meaning of that dramatic claim.

What was Professor Sheth actually saying? Commenters seemed confused.

In our view, there was a good reason for their confusion. In our view, Professor Sheth never really explained what she meant by that statement. For his part, Professor Yancy never really seemed to see how much confusion might surround his guest’s principal claim.

On and on the professors went. They pleased and thrilled the true believers, frustrated and angered pretty much everyone else. To us, that doesn't seem helpful.

Do you understand what Professor Sheth meant? For our money, she never really explained what she meant. But then, so it often seems to go with our own progressive professors.

What the heck was Professor Sheth claiming? More specifically, was she talking about modern-day political “liberalism,” as opposed to modern-day “conservatism?” Or was she talking about something else? Did she have something else in mind when she made her fiery statement?

Commenters seemed to have different ideas about what the professor meant. In part, that’s because she never explained what she meant, and because Professor Yancy never required her to.

Alas! Continuing from that first Q-and-A, Professor Yancy asked his second question, as shown below. To us, it seems like a slightly soft paraphrase of what Professor Sheth had just excitingly said:
PROFESSOR YANCY (continuing directly): In what ways do you see liberalism and systemic racism as complementary?
In this paraphrase, systemic racism and liberalism were now said to be “complementary.” At any rate, this question triggered a bit of a ramble by Professor Sheth, in which she described many of her experiences as a younger person.

Eventually, we found ourselves deep in the weeds. Why not take The Our Own Professors Challenge? Read Professor Sheth's full answer and see if this personal anecdote makes any sense in context:
PROFESSOR SHETH: When I was finally granted an interview for U.S. citizenship in December 2000, I asked a relative to accompany me in the event that there was trouble. The interview was demanded by the government during the American Philosophical Association meetings in December 2000 (it was virtually impossible to renegotiate the appointment without a long, punishing, delay). Despite a heavy snowfall, we arrived an hour early. The I.N.S. interviewer was over an hour late in opening up the office, and cheerfully told me that I was lucky he had decided to show up. Conversationally and with a broad smile, he told me a series of stories about the various applicants he had had deported, even if they—like myself—had been in the United States since they were toddlers or infants, even if they knew no one from their countries of birth, and even if they stood to be in danger there. He emphasized how few protections immigrants had, and his message was: The United States will deport without a second thought, and hey, it’s the immigrant’s problem, not theirs.
Is that what actually happened? In asking that, we'll also say this:

As Freud himself once noted, sometimes a late arrival during a snowstorm is just a late arrival. Beyond that, we’ll assume that the appointment at the heart of this story wasn’t deliberately scheduled to deprive the professor of the chance to attend the APA meetings, though that’s almost the way she makes it sound.

At any rate, Professor Sheth paints an unattractive portrait of this INS official. If her portrait is accurate—and of course, there’s no way to know—the official seems to have behaved in an imperious manner.

That would be unattractive. But even assuming this occurred, how would that mean that systemic racism was “necessary to liberalism?” In his fourth question, Professor Yancy actually seemed to ask:
PROFESSOR YANCY: Given the continuing racial tensions across the nation, how do you see these events as deep problems endemic to liberalism? Or, are such events just a “misapplication” of liberal theory?
Go ahead! See if you think that Professor Sheth ever explains what she means by “liberalism.” See if you think she ever explains why systemic racism would be “endemic” or “necessary” to such a system, rather than a mere “misapplication of liberal theory.”

For our money, these basic questions never come clear. This touched off a lot of turmoil among the many commenters. This type of turmoil is often triggered by the fiery if often murky statements emitted by our current stock of progressive professors.

At several points in this discussion, you see the professors lapsing into the unfamiliar language which is often used as part of so-called “critical theory,” whether of race or gender. Such specialized language often seems to turn progressives into a separate tribe—a separate tribe which seems to be speaking its own private language.

On balance, we find it hard to believe that that constitutes a winning political approach—unless the goal is to establish a new and separate, more glorious tribe.

What kind of language are we talking about? This is part of Professor Yancy’s official bio at Duquesne:
YANCY BIO: His current work has focused on the theme of whiteness and how it constitutes a site of embedded social reality and a site of opacity. He links these two foci to such themes as white subject formation, white epistemic ways of knowing/not knowing, privilege and hegemony, and forms of white spatial bonding as processes of white solidarity and interpellation.

He is also interested in how such forms of white epistemic bonding constitute sites of white intelligibility formation.

Yancy also explores the theme of racial embodiment, particularly in terms of how white bodies live their whiteness unreflectively vis-a-vis the interpellation and deformation of the black body and other bodies of color. Within this context, his work also explores Black Erlebnis or the lived experience of black people, which raises important questions regarding Black subjectivity, modes of Black spatial mobility, and embodied resistance.
Few people will have any idea what those sentences mean.

With that in mind, let us advance an unpleasant thought. Let us suggest the possibility that all that unfamiliar language actually means nothing at all.

Could such a thing be possible? Is it possible that a philosophy professor employed by our most brilliant newspaper is speaking a version of gobbledygook—is making statements that even he couldn’t paraphrase or explain?

To many liberals, that will seem implausible, counterintuitive. For better or worse, we liberals will often find ourselves inclined to defer to academic authority.

On balance, we think that instinct is misguided. We think it’s entirely possible that Professor Yancy would have a very hard time translating those sentences into recognizable English.

This type of problem dogs so-called critical theory, but it hardly started there. Are we sure that the start to Kierkegaard’s opus, The Sickness Unto Death, could actually be parsed, translated, explained?

This is perhaps the current standard translation, by Hong and Hong, for the Princeton University Press. Believe it or not, this is the actual start of Part One, Section A by the tortured Dane:
KIERKEGAARD: A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way, a human being is still not a self.

In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.
Who knows? Maybe Hong and Hong are at fault, but that's a standard translation. Do you feel sure that any person could ever explain what that passage means? Are you sure it means anything at all, even in the original Danish?

Final point—after reading the Yancy bio, we looked up “interpellation” to see if it’s really a word. Normally, we’d call Vanna White, but she was on sabbatical.

Using Nexis, we then checked to see how often the word has ever been used in the New York Times.

Dating to 1969, the word has appeared in the hard-copy Times four times. In 1969 and 1974, the word was used in reference to specific legislative acts. Its most recent usage occurred in 2005. Christopher Hitchens quoted a passage from an academic text in order to ridicule the text for its high pomposity.

In our view, you probably shouldn’t put your faith in our own philosophy professors. We tend to think they’re doing some harm with their love of private language. And no, we don’t feel sure that they could explain what they’re talking about.

We’re inclined to blame this on Foucault, a point we may explain further tomorrow. As Steve Martin once thoughtfully said, “Those French! They have a different word for everything!”

Did Professor Sheth explain herself in that discussion in the New York Times, our nation’s most brilliant newspaper?

We can’t say that she ever did. Did Professor Yancy notice?

57 comments:

  1. Am here to testify what this great blog done for me. I never believe in Philosophy, until when I was was reading this post.

    The blogger will always not make me happy because he have fallen in practice of making fun of my tribal elders. The more I write to him the more his friends tell me he never reads our comments. He instead gives attention to comments and letters outside his home. Most tell me to divorce this blog and spend time elsewhere. Then a cousin told me that my blogger is really under a great spell that he have been charm by some magic called Philosophy, which he study in college.

    So she told me that she was going to make all things normal back. She told me to read all his posts on philosophy and that might make make me understand the way he treated the tribe when he was not him self.

    I now understand everything but my cousin is now sleeping with my husband and not totally in a restful way. Which gives me more time to care about Philosophy and understand why some say God and professors are dead.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Do you feel sure that any person could ever explain what that passage means?

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    2. It could be translated from the Danish by native speakers of Nubian.

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    3. No it couldn't

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  2. From today's comment box in yesterday's post comes this stirring defense of Blogger Somerby:

    "Anonymous March 12, 2015 at 8:01 AM

    You don't figure out what an essay is about by counting frequencies of word use."

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    1. Somerby counted the times interpellation was used to support his claim that it was an obscure word, not to determine what it meant. I didn't suggest yesterday that everyone stop counting things.

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  3. Kenton from RentonMarch 12, 2015 at 6:21 PM

    Blogger's shoddy excuse for working in a Vanna White reference. Bob Somerby, the Dennis Miller of the blogosphere.

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    1. In our view, you probably shouldn’t put your faith in our own philosophy majors.

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    2. Dennis Miller? To many liberals, that will seem implausible, counterintuitive.

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  4. Let's review: According to those here who criticize Bob's criticism here of Seth he is so ignorant that he confuses "classical" liberalism with modern liberalism, which he should have known was being talked about, although the article itself doesn't make that clear or even ... seems ... to be intentionally conflating the two, but that's not the article's problem, but that of the dumb commenters. According to the same critics of the blogger, many of the latter may be racist (probably) and white (assumption). Also, dispute over the meaning of words is a deflection from the evil of racism. Racism being, you know, a word. Like liberal. Like white.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Could you provide subtitles next comment?

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    2. No. We don’t feel sure that they could explain what we're talking about.

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    3. We tend to think they’re doing some harm with her love of private e-mail.

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  5. I agree with Bob. Hillary is not really Presidential material. Too baggy in the press corps. Though she might not turn out to be. That could depend
    on what is served up in the servers.

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    Replies
    1. Bottom line - we just don't know.

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    2. Yes the press corps has and continues to paint an unflattering portrait. Of course, there’s no way to know.

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  6. Bob's current posts have focused on the theme of professorhip and how it constitutes a site of dead people and a site of inanity. He links these two foci to such themes as professorial word formation, blogger ways of knowing/not knowing, word counting and Irish spotting, and forms of professorial newspaper space wasting as processes of intellectual masturbation and gackery.

    In our view he identifies a very clear and present danger. After all, if it happened to him, it could happen to you.

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  7. Is it just me, or does Bob seem to want to scare even his new conservative trolls?

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  8. B.S. is trolling his own blog. Why do the libs bother to show up?

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    Replies
    1. Looks like the tactic worked on the guy with the spud but not the one pulling his pud.

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    2. He'll trollpellate anywhere he thinks liberals might glance his was when he opens his overcoat and slaps hands on his friend "The Interpellator."

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    3. 7:30 & 7:40 need to get a room.

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    4. cicero already has his lebensraum.

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    5. @ 12:35

      Are you still carrying the torch for the NSDAP?

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    6. You seem permanently assigned to this part of the coastal defense, Corporal cicero. Don't worry. When the invasion comes they will reassign you to a post with higher traffic.

      Your attention to duty and rapid response is noticed by those of higher rank!

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    7. Corporal? Another reference to an Axis leader? Whenever libs attempt to squash discussion they invariably invoke the jejune comparison. Libs have managed to render the term racist meaningless as well. Libs really need new material. Hasn't the brain trust of Brock/DWS/Carville/Davis provided you with ammunition that is actually stings?

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    8. NEA to merit response.

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  9. Aha - blogger drops "we librulz" and like a red-blooded Limbaugh or O'Reilly lambasts effete liberals for speaking gobbledygook.

    This guy reminds me of a Radio Talk Show host who used to be a virulently anti-black racist but though himself to be clever enough to express it only with code.

    But one day the plane carrying secretary Ron Brown crashed and there were reports of a survivor. And this guy's gut took over and he said on the air "Just our luck, the survivor will turn out to be Brown" and that temporarily ended his career.

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    1. I was earlier mourning the death of all our professors when Somerby broke in with the terrible news about Al Gore and the fact that Dowd and Collins are still alive.

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    2. Effete liberals often do speak gobbledygook that only impresses the gullible, who think it must make sense because they don't understand it. Labeling such an observation similar to a red-blooded Limbaugh or O'Reilly does not undermine its validity.

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  10. Not to mention that students pay a quarter of a million dollars to be "educated" in this meaningless gobbledygook.

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    Replies
    1. Bob should have warned them not to take philosophy.

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  11. You had me at Black Erlebnis.

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    1. You spatial mobility embodies resistance. I am not myself in spirit.

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  12. Your Howler ReadersMarch 13, 2015 at 9:35 AM

    A comments section devoted entirely to pretending sophistication?

    Displaying a supposedly hip cynicism as though that could ever constitute some sort of rebuttal?

    The sadness of the Somerby trolls has rarely (but certainly not never) been so plain.

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    1. The madness of Somerby has never been more evident than in the last few posts.

      The defensiveness of YHR and other Somerby fans is constant.

      Comment 1 is pretending sophistication? Try a satire on Somerby's post using the spellcaster spam he hasn't been able to stop. The responses seemed to understand that.

      Comment 2 and the response seems a carry over from the day before.

      Comment 3 certainly contains all the sophistication due to Wheel of Fortune references. The responses are pure Somerby language.

      Comment 4 appears to be satire in the vein of Comment 1 but its origin baffles me.

      Comment 5 looks again to be Somerby language, perhaps poking fun at his tendency to jump topics within posts.

      Comment 6 is easily recognizable as a play on Yancy's bio.

      I'd say given the topic and tenor of the post, the comments are in keeping with the work of an author whose esteem is unreflected. Sophisticated? Debatable. Pretending? Nah.

      And then there is cicero.



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    2. I'll take just one.

      That a comment is "easily recognizable as a play on" something does nothing -- zero -- to establish that's the work of anything but the "supposedly hip cynicism" indicted by the OP.

      Looking again at each and all of these "satires," "plays" and regurgitations of "Somerby language" confirms the initial impression.

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    3. My apologies. You seemed to be crying out for "rebuttal" and I only had time to address your objections in the first sentence.

      I can address your second sentence now that I have time. I am afraid I have no rebuttal for that. Most of Somerby's critics seem quite hip and very cynical. It is hard to wade through the bodies of so many dead liberal professors and the unrelenting reminders of the lost War on Gore without some of that spirit.

      So to sum up. Your comment is a synthesis of sentences one and two. Considered in this way, your argument is still not a valid whole.

      In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation and in the relation to the relation. As the Danes might say.

      Delete
  13. The Daily Howler gives Hitchens a nod, now that he's safely in his grave.

    That suggests something here. Anyone who subjects themselves to Salon should know they indulge a lot of reverse racist goobilty gook that seems to have sprung from Academia. So are all academics full of it? Is there a right counterpoint well funded in our colleges as well? Whatever.

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    1. Greg -- I'm afraid there are relatively few conservative college faculty. Robert Bork had a story from when he was a Professor at Yale Law School. The faculty at Yale Law School was around 10 to 1 libs to cons. A conservative applied for a job on that faculty. Bork's colleague explained that he voted against the applicant, because hiring him would "destroy the balance."

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    2. If Robert Bork said so, it has to be true. No need to be skeptical and look for further evidence.

      By the way, Clarence Thomas is a product of Yale Law. So was Samuel Alito. Imagine that.


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    3. Bork embodies the essence of conservative intelligentsia.

      Many had miserable childhoods in college.

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    4. SCOTUS RBG embodies the essence of narcolepsy. That may explain liberal orthodoxy in general.

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    5. Blog del Narco is a blog that documents events and people of the Mexican Drug War. MSNBC described Blog del Narco as "Mexico's go-to Web site on information on the country's drug war."[2] Additionally, The Houston Chronicle said that Blog del Narco is "a gritty, front-row seat to Mexico's drug war."[3]

      The author spends four hours per day working on the website. To deal with the increased workload, he asked a friend to help him.[4] In Mexico many traditional journalistic outlets received harassment due to stories they publish, so anonymous blogs like Blog del Narco have taken the role of reporting on events related to the drug war.[5] The author, an anonymous computer security student in his 20s from northern Mexico,[4] uses computer security techniques to obscure his identity.[6] His anonymity has been maintained. When he conducted an interview with the Associated Press, he used a disguised telephone number. Nate Freeman of The Observer said "his facelessness allowed him get away with stories that would endanger known journalists[...]"[7]

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  14. When someone in science invents a word to describe something that hasn't been discussed before, they pick a new word (like photon or chromosome). In the social sciences and humanities they have repurposed existing words to describe new concepts and that has created a lot of confusion. People mistakenly believe the field is more accessible than it is, do not invest the effort necessary to learn the new vocabulary and then blame the field for their problems. No one expects "heart" to mean the same thing to a doctor and a poet. I don't think the professors are to blame when their audience is uneducated. Suggesting that maybe their secret language means nothing would sound ignorant if applied to a conversation between biologists. The only difference here is that Somerby expects to understand fully without training. I think that is unreasonable. Intelligence needs to be combined with education.

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  15. All academia is any more is echo cambers of gobbledygook. That way they can justify their pay checks for essentially doing nothing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Doing nothing is monotonous. Essentially it is a tedious job. But somebody has to do it while the corporate masters play a round of golf and the real workforce comments online.

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  16. Does Hillary's own private server make sense?

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  17. Uneducated liberal-leaning low IQ individuals can easily access the gobbledegook on the internet and are also inclined to defer to academic authority, without ability to discern which sources deserve serious attention. A combination that created the modern progressive, a dangerous hybrid of brain dead herd animal and zealot, particularly where race and gender are concerned.

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    1. Good to see young consevatives embracing evolutionary science.

      Delete
  18. Generally, few people pay attention to philosophy professors - the profession ain't what it used to be. But they can still get pieces into the NY Times.

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    Replies
    1. I'd say the profession is what it always has and will be.

      Look at the game changers it has produced. Like Bob
      Somerby.

      Delete
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