How does the New York Times understand "race?"

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 17, 2021

First, though, deconstruction: How does the New York Times tend to understand the concept of "race?"

An op-ed column in today's paper helps us consider that question. It deals with These DNA Tests Today. Its headlines offer this:

America’s Brutal Racial History Is Written All Over Our Genes
Our country has struggled to reckon with the horrors of the past. Could DNA tests help?

Interesting! Can DNA tests help us reckon with the horrors of our nation's brutal racial history? There's no question that our nation has such a history. But can DNA tests somehow help?

We may tackle race and the Times next week. For the most part, we think today's column helps advance some of the unenlightening, unconstructive ways we tend to think about "race." 

That said:

Yesterday, we asked a question. Familiar branding notwithstanding, is it possible that the New York Times is perhaps just a tiny bit dumb on the rare occasion?

Suggesting the answer might be yes, we mentioned a report about the "Yale School" and its approach to deconstruction.  We're sorry to say that the report in question was an obituary—an obituary of J. Hillis Miller, an extremely prolific literary critic who died last week at the age of 92, having lived an exemplary life.

What follows isn't intended as a commentary on the work of Professor Miller. We mean it as a commentary on the work of the New York Times.

As we noted yesterday, Miller's work may have made perfect sense. Yesterday's report in the New York Times rather plainly didn't. 

Below, you see the way the report began:

RISEN (2/16/21): J. Hillis Miller, a literary critic who, by applying the wickedly difficult analytic method known as deconstruction to a broad range of British and American prose and poetry, helped revolutionize the study of literature, died on Feb. 7 at his home in Sedgwick, Me. He was 92.

[...]

Though his career spanned nearly 70 years at three universities, Professor Miller was most closely associated with the so-called Yale School, a band of scholars in the 1970s and ’80s that included Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey H. Hartman and, for a time, Harold Bloom.

Scattered across the English, French and comparative literature departments at Yale, they were united by their interest in deconstruction, the theory that words and texts have meaning only in relation to other words and texts—an idea first propounded by Mr. de Man and Mr. Derrida, imposing intellects who brought the approach with them from Europe.

What follows is not intended as a critique of Professor Miller's work. It's intended as a critique of the Times, a publication widely believed to be Our Town's brightest newspaper.

As the report begins, we're told that Professor Miller applied "the wickedly difficult analytic method known as deconstruction" to a broad range of British and American prose and poetry. Before long, that difficult analytic method is defined:

Deconstruction: The theory that words and texts have meaning only in relation to other words and texts.

Question: Do you have even the slightest idea what that might possibly mean?

Answer: No, of course you don't. And neither does anyone else!

As we've noted in the past, we're never happier than when we encounter incoherent prose. We think first of the many indecipherable "Einstein-made-easy" books, not excluding the original Einstein-made-easy book, the one written by Einstein himself.

Even Albert Einstein couldn't make Einstein easy! In his 2007 biography of Einstein, Walter Isaacson told the humorous, all-too-human story of the way that "general interest" book came to be so incoherent.

We also think of Bertrand Russell's obsession with "Russell's paradox," the foolishness which lured Wittgenstein to England, then eventually drove his work in a whole new direction.

The widespread existence of such prose, especially within the high academy, was the subject of the later Wittgenstein's work. Beyond that, the widespread existence of such prose is deeply instructive as a matter of anthropology.

For the person with a  sense of humor, incoherent high-level prose can also be wonderfully funny. Channeling Homer himself, we strongly suspect that it makes the gods on Olympus laugh,

Getting back to deconstruction—at the New York Times, people thought the salad posted above made sense as a definition. Reading further, we come upon additional amusements, such as the one shown here:

RISEN: In 1953 Professor Miller joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where in the late 1960s he became friends with Mr. de Man, who also taught there, and Mr. Derrida, who was a visiting lecturer.

Mr. Derrida, with whom he had lunch every Tuesday, was particularly taken with Professor Miller’s use of his first initial, J., which sounds like the French word for “I” and yet also contains a “hidden” meaning, his first name—exactly the sort of linguistic slipperiness deconstructionists loved.

Mr. de Man moved to Yale in 1971, and Professor Miller followed a year later. Mr. Derrida arrived in 1975.

As noted, Professor Miller published as J. Hillis Miller. According to the New York Times, the world-famous Professor Derrida "was particularly taken with Professor Miller’s use of his first initial."

The Times then tries to explain why that was. We're told that his use of that first initial contained or involved "exactly the sort of linguistic slipperiness deconstructionists loved."

As obedient readers of the Times, we're supposed to pretend that the anecdote in question makes some sort of decipherable sense. Obviously, it doesn't. "But then, this is the New York Times," to borrow from the poet.

We humans are wired to function this way. Leading top experts all say this.


20 comments:

  1. Yes, dear Bob, the so-called 'intellectuals' are idiots, often clinically insane. And extremely influential.

    But of course you're only concerned about QAnon: a few working people who are of the opinion (quite reasonably, we might add) that your liberal cult's managers are shape-shifting alien reptilians.

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  4. "Deconstruction: The theory that words and texts have meaning only in relation to other words and texts."

    Somerby mocks this definition, but how else can words and texts have meaning except in the context in which they were expressed? Words and texts are communications between people, not things with an independent existence separate from the people who use them to communicate.

    Literal to the death, Somerby generally ignores context. Here, he mocks those who work in difficult-to-explain fields, as if he understands what experts mean and not the people whose work is being explained (i.e., Einstein).

    If Somerby understood deconstructionism at all, even a tiny bit, he would know that the anecdote presented was intended as a pleasantry, not any kind of definition of deconstructionism. For one thing Miller didn't pronounce his first initial in the French manner, so Miller obviously did not intend his initial to signify his self, and Derrida would know that, but is just indulging in some word play, which Somerby takes seriously enough to deride.

    If Somerby knew anything at all about deconstructionism, he would also know that it, and postmodernism, were rejected in nearly all fields except literature and the arts. Human beings do create symbols and think in camoflaged ways where meanings are not straightforward. Freud explained some of that and others took it from there. However, this is a uniquely human construction and not something that helps fields such as history or psychology make advances in knowledge. Miller's work is appropriate, just as analyzing a text both in terms of what the recepient understands and what the sender intended, is appropriate. Somerby refuses to engage this subject at all, except to mock it. And that makes him the buffoon, not Miller, not Derrida, not the NY Times.

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  5. Somerby has argued here against platonic forms (when expressed in books by other philosophers), but today seems to be arguing the opposite, in his derision of Derrida.

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  6. "Interesting! Can DNA tests help us reckon with the horrors of our nation's brutal racial history? "

    What if Somerby were to discover that he himself is some percentage African by DNA analysis?

    Some have suggested that Hitler's own Jewish heritage motivated his targeting of Jews during the Third Reich, so there is no telling how a white supremacist might react to knowing that they have a heritage (by DNA) that they consider inferior. It might contribute to their feeling inferior, which might make them more insistent on racial cleansing, not less.

    I think it is an interesting topic. The ads for such DNA services portray people enjoying finding out they have trace amounts of some unexpected heritage. But if everyone is a mixture, how can it not change our perception of who we are, individually and collectively?

    DNA, of course, is not culture. Our history of slavery cannot be undone via DNA analysis, no matter what the results. We still need to examine our cultural attitudes and practices to fix the legacy of slavery.

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  7. One of the best satirical pieces I've read in years.

    Radical Chic lives!

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  8. “We also think of Bertrand Russell's obsession with "Russell's paradox,”

    Somerby is certainly obsessed with Russell’s paradox. He has mocked it dozens of times.

    He has turned it into some sort of symbol of egghead incoherence for some reason. He thinks it sounds stupid and meaningless when rendered into English: “consider the set of all sets not members of themselves...” Somerby can’t fathom that phrase, so he mocks it.

    Russell himself, rather than trying to engage in bs, was taking a critical look at Cantor’s set theory. Russell realized that the way it was designed allowed such a thing as “the set of all sets not members of themselves” and that this led to a contradiction, a big no-no in mathematics. In other words, Russell was attempting to point out an incoherence within set theory. That should warm the cockles of Somerby’s heart, but alas, he would rather accuse Russell of incoherence.

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  9. “The widespread existence of such prose, especially within the high academy, was the subject of the later Wittgenstein's work. “

    Here’s an example of Wittgenstein’s prose. In this case, he is attempting to debunk the “foolishness” of Russell’s paradox:

    “The reason why a function cannot be its own argument is that the sign for a function already contains the prototype of its argument, and it cannot contain itself. For let us suppose that the function F(fx) could be its own argument: in that case there would be a proposition F(F(fx)), in which the outer function F and the inner function F must have different meanings, since the inner one has the form O(fx) and the outer one has the form Y(O(fx)). Only the letter 'F' is common to the two functions, but the letter by itself signifies nothing. This immediately becomes clear if instead of F(Fu) we write (do) : F(Ou) . Ou = Fu. That disposes of Russell's paradox.”

    Whew! I’m glad we had Wittgenstein to debunk such foolishness and write such clear, coherent prose, amirite?

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  10. "An op-ed column in today's paper helps us consider that question."

    How does an op-ed reflect the opinion of the NY Times on Race when it is written by someone else, not the paper's editors or editorial board, and is no doubt part of an op/ed section that is meant to reflect a variety of interesting ideas and opinions?

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