Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category
Last week, I spent a few days in the Dalton-Brand Research Room, at Duke University, skimming through the Samuelson papers. They make everybody excited there, and for good reasons. Samuelson was all over the place for about 70 years: in the academia, in the medias, in the arcane secrets of governmental policies. As a result, some of his papers read as mystery novels. There are many different plots intertwined there and you just want to read the end of the story – okay, I might be exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. Of course, when one sees this kind of materials, he has many ideas for future papers and want to have them written – and published – as soon as possible. Accordingly, the Samuelson papers seem to generate a very competitive market. There will be a roundtable on “the prospects of writing on Paul Samuelson” at the next HES meeting, (at least) two biographical projects are being undertaken at the moment, and of course, there is also the perspective of the 2013 HOPE conference on MIT, which will hopefully result in a lot of new fascinating contributions, not only on Samuelson but on the many other important economists who interacted in this place where a lot of what constitutes the economists’ workaday toolbox has allegedly originated. There is this sensation that things will come out rather quickly but also an uneasy feeling of misplaced haste and pressure. Of course, I am not blaming anyone: that feeling has gotten all over me as well!
Yet, it is not without an afterthought that, soon after my return to Paris, I grabbed the copy of Robert Leonard’s Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and the Creation of Game Theory: From Chess to Social Science, 1900-1960 that I had ordered from my university’s library and which had finally arrived on shelf during my absence. Leonard’s book has been expected for over a decade and it fully delivers on its promises. It does not rely on a forced grand narrative or on an overly repeated thesis. Instead, it is constructed like an impressionistic picture, where individual paths and the larger context are subtly intertwined until they finally make sense to the reader. Robert Leonard is never where you expect him to be. When one anticipates pages on abstract formalism, Leonard depicts Chess games and the politics of Red Vienna, when one sees a critique of neoclassical economics, he describes a theory of social interaction and when one thinks of wartime reorganization of science and its aftermath, he tells the ending of a very personal journey. It is meticulously crafted, with an economy of words that makes every sentence necessary. Obviously, these things take time.
The beginning of a new year is always the occasion to reflect on the recent past, as the posts of my fellows Benjamin, Clément and Béatrice [to whom the opposite Calvin & Hobbes comic strip is dedicated] have shown. Though their interrogations mainly concern the purposes and practices of historians, I would like to add another one, which may be a bit more ‘philosophical’ – pardon the grand word! What has struck me during the year is the slow decline of what some thinkers call relativism.
Relativism (not to be confused with moral relativism), as I have argued here and there, is not the idea that everything is equal or that there is nothing demarcating the good and the bad, the true and the false. Instead, it is the observation that what we call truth or scientific facts or fair decisions is affected by the context in which we are located and that they can be appraised differently in different communities or cultures. It is not surprising that relativism – a term sometimes used pejoratively by its detractors – has been associated with literary theorists such as Stanley Fish, because rhetoric is where it is used more conspicuously. My literary style will greatly change depending on the people I am addressing to and, as a result, the meaning of what I am saying too. For instance, while writing a scientific paper, I can call some previous contribution ‘misleading’ or ‘unfortunate’ while in front of friends researchers, I will call it a ‘piece of crap’, and back at home, in a sign of deep fatigue and irritation, I will paraphrase Lennon and call it ‘the shittiest pile of shit ever’. Talking about Samuelson in a private correspondence, Stigler wrote Friedman: “It may merely be prejudice, but I’m inclined to write him off as an economist” [in Hammond, Making Chicago Price Theory: Friedman-Stigler Correspondence, 1945-1957, p. 97]. This is certainly not something he would have used – in spite of his renowned acerbic wit – in publication, and though Samuelson may have been conscious of such animosity he certainly did not take it into account when he called Friedman “an able scholar” and “an old friend” [Samuelson, Economics From the Heart, p. xi). There is nothing abnormal in this. Whatever our opinions are, we have different ways of communicating them to our interlocutors – from our closest friends to the scientific community and the public at large.
This, however, has seriously been threatened in 2010 and I will only mention two events that struck me in this respect: the first one is the fact that a few people have been legally fired from their jobs after talking badly about their supervisors on Facebook, the other one is the whole Wikileaks affair. In the former, it is quite striking that people who have written on their wall a few negative words about their work environment – like calling their boss an idiot, or their job crappy – have been recognized as guilty of serious professional mistakes while we know that everyday people spend most of their time at the workplace, near the coffee machine for instance, unfearfully disparaging other colleagues and immediate superiors. Why is something that is considered normal in the workplace is suddenly demonized when it is done outside of it? The wikileaks affair is quite similar, as it simply shows that when diplomats talk between then, they do not adopt the same discourse that they will use publicly. Is there anything shocking about that? I don’t believe so. You may have to deal in a friendly manner with that head of state you believe is an arrogant and disagreeable human being, especially if world peace is threatened. Similarly, you can perfectly envision with some allied country the use of the military force toward a country you are simultaneously conducting amiable negotiations with – just in case this does not work, as Clausewitz believed . The fact that these seemingly inconsistent behaviors are suddenly judged negatively by law courts and the public opinion at large will make people adopt the same discourse whoever they talk to. Whether we are blogging, writing academic papers or chatting on our Facebook walls, should we adopt the same writing style? Some people obviously believe we should and the huge informational database that is constituted on the internet seems to put some pressure upon us to do so as well.
How much our practices as historians [of economics] are to be affected by that? I believe History as we construct it is built upon the idea that things – ideas, objects, etc. – evolve and differ in different periods of time and among different communities. If they do not, there is simply no story to be told. The denial of relativism is then the denial of historicity. Happy new year!
My bedside table is a victim of the debt crisis – how else can I explain it being overburdened by Reinhart & Rogoff’s This time is different (2010), Galbraith’s The Great Crash 1929 (1954) and Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions (1841) ? Reinhart & Rogoff”s book nearly topped the Amazon best-seller list (only beaten by Stieg Larsson), but will it become a classic like Galbraith or Mackay? I don’t think so, even though Reinhart & Rogoff make an incredible important historical argument about national debt crisis, and crises more generally. It turns out that crises happen often – every country it seems has had one or more in recent times - they play out in various ways and there is a lot of novel data and research in the book (!) to prove it. But it’s a pain to read…
I don’t understand why it is so difficult to make an argument simply and clearly. The writing – or possibly the editing – is just poor. Never mind that they make a lot of technical points first, that’s fine; it’s the general structure of the writing which is frustrating. Whenever an argument begins to be developed (and you have to get to chapter 4 before arguments appear) they interrupt the story with two-page text-boxes, unrelated tables or other random elements. All of them valuable in their own right, but none of them in an order that makes much sense. Consider the opening of chapter five on page 68:
We open our tour of the panorama of financial crisis by discussing sovereign default on external debt… (Some background on the historical emergence of sovereign debt markets is provided in box 5.1). Figure 5.1 plots the percentage of all independent countries… [and between 1820-1840s] nearly half the countries in the world were in default (including all
That’s where the page ends… ! The next two and half pages are one long text box, and thereafter the sentence “(including all…” is completed. By the next page we get to see figure 5.1 (promised at the start), but they throw in figure 5.2 for good measure, not that it’s clear what it means yet (Reinhart & Rogoff, 2010: 68-72).
It’s annoying. And particularly so, as Reinhart & Rogoff has such an important point to make, with such interesting data. Apparently it took 10 years to write this book. I wish they’d spent some more time editing. There is a reason why Galbraith’s and Mackay’s work not only became standard references in the literature (as Reinhart & Rogoff’s will), but also became classics (which Reinhart & Rogoff’s won’t). The classics are well researched and well written. At times wonderfully so; as with Galbraith’s commentary on how banks are shy to advertise their very efficient operations which actually facilitate speculators liquidity positions and led to instability:
Banks supply funds to brokers, brokers to customers and the collateral [which customers use to leverage stock transactions] goes back to the banks… Wall Street, in these matters, is like a lovely and accomplished woman who must wear black cotton stockings, heavy woollen underwear, and parade her knowledge as a cook because, unhappily, her supreme accomplishment is as a harlot. (1954 [2009: 47-8])
Reinhart & Rogoff has much to contribute with their book. A good read is tragically not one of them, and that may stop its transition from good research into great piece of work. What a shame.
There is a frequent bias in the history of science – and the history of economics alike. We are mainly interested in people who have published, and particularly in people having published in the main field we are interested in. People having greatly contributed to the development of departments – think of Aaron Director and Gregg Lewis at Chicago, for instance – or operating at the crossroads of disciplines are often neglected. When my co-author Loic Charles and I began to be interested in the history of visualization in the interwar social sciences in general and in the dispersion of Otto Neurath‘s pictorial statistics in the US in particular, we quickly found that one man was particularly influential in these developments: Rudolf Modley.
Modley, a former student of Neurath in Vienna, moved to the US in the early 30s, where he was appointed as curator of social sciences at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, under Waldemar Kaempffert (Neurath’s cousin). Modley, after experiencing numerous difficulties, created a flourishing business in illustrating magazines, newspapers, official reports and pamphlets with Neurath-like Isotypes. The name of his corporation, Pictograph Inc., could be seen anywhere in these different medias. As Loic and I put it in our paper: “the American reader was [then] more likely to encounter Modley’s version of [pictorial statistics], rather than the original [Neurath's]“. One could dismiss Modley as someone who’s only responsible for the little men and women we find on our bathroom doors. After all, Modley’s pictorial statistics was almost completely stripped of the theoretical and political contents Neurath would attach to it. Neurath himself was quite critical of the way his former disciple used his method. On the other hand, social scientists were very interested in Modley’s enterprise. In the course of our research, we have encountered some important names of social scientists of the period (including economists) who were quite eager to participate in the diffusion of Modley’s little men. On the whole, Modley is one of the central characters in the Americanization of Neurath’s visual method, namely its transformation from a tool of conceptualization into a tool of illustration and consequently, its move from social sciences to propaganda and finally, to graphic design.
Though he was the object of only one scholarly article (Crawley 1994) and was briefly mentioned in another one (Lupton 1986), Modley has lately attracted more and more fans on the internet. You just have to google his name to find several blog posts and websites devoted to his use of Neurath’s method. By contrast, when I began being interested in Modley while finishing my PhD dissertation in late 2007, there was almost nothing to be found on the internet. Meanwhile, websites devoted to pictorial statistics are flourishing (see examples here or here). Loic and I would like to take advantage of this recent proliferation and try to gather as much information as possible on Modley from all those contributors. In particular, if some people do know whether some archives exist and if so, where they are located, that would be highly useful for further research. Besides, we would be curious to know the various background of those who have contributed to disperse Modley’s pictures on the internet and how they got interested in his work in the first place.
My dear friend Katy is annoyed. For a few months, she’s been teaching French at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, while writing her master thesis for a French faculty. Every time she shows up at a literary theory class, the Professor expects her to master everything about Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jean-François Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze. Yet, Katy, like most of her French contemporaries – including, I must admit, the author of these lines -, does not know these thinkers beyond the usual cliches: cool guys with turtleneck sweaters and leather jackets who supported the May 68 events before dying of AIDS or crushed by a car, but whose writings are mostly unreadable – if not simply mocked by serious scientists such as Alan Sokal. Though nothing should justify ignorance, let me tell you that we French are not really to blame. Philosophy programs in high school do not include any of these authors – we study Plato, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx and Sartre, leaving aside everything that has been written after the 1960s. Mainstream philosophy consists mostly of neo-Kantian scholars with long hair and white shirts – most often leaving their chest exposed – who bash May 68 on popular TV shows while advocating the return to the universal values we - the French and more widely the Western countries – have brought to the civilized world since the 1789 Revolution. There are several variants of this discourse – some more progressive and some more conservative – but this is pretty much what they say.
Why such a significant portion of recent French thought remains mostly unknown in its home country yet praised and embraced by academics all over the world is the difficult question François Cusset tries to answer in his fascinating book, French Theory : Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux Etats-Unis, certainly one of the best accounts of recent history of thought written in French I have read so far. Cusset’s main argument in this book is that the French Theory, as it is called in the US, is an American invention. He convincingly shows how the American academia, from the most revered scholars to the average undergrad, has managed to appropriate a set of loosely-related if not mutually contradictory texts to build a cohesive curriculum of knowledge which has been used to understand all the aspects of the American society in the second half of the twentieth century. Starting from the recent controversies surrounding the Sokal hoax, which at least served as a reminder for the French public that there were still a few influential fellow-countrymen in the United States, Cusset traces back the influence of postmodern philosophy in the foundations of the American university, showing that its location in the American society allowed for the formation of a theoretical discourse which would accompany the changes in the society – the struggle for civil rights and thereafter the birth of identity and community politics – while remaining strictly confined to the academic debate. Exploring the evolution of literary theory, the rise of gender, race and cultural studies, he shows that for all these questions, French Theory offered a convenient and malleable discourse which has been transformed and affected by the leading scholars in all of these fields. His description of some “campus stars” such as Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish and Fredric Jameson – whose main works had not been translated into French when the author wrote the first edition (2003) – is both luscious and accurate. One of the qualities of Cusset’s work lies in the way he shows that even the criticisms of postmodernism by US scholars have fostered the dispersion of French thought. The author also devotes a chapter on the way the average undergraduate student manages to appropriate these difficult texts by applying Derridian deconstructionism or Deleuze’s “surface effects” to his everyday experiences and the study of pop culture – from Philip K. Dick to Talking Heads. What I liked the most in this account is the fact that Cusset, though he undoubtedly appears as a defender of these French and American trends in thinking, never tries to apply his judgment on the theory itself. Sometimes, he shows how X tried to demonstrate that Y’s philosophy is self-refuting or relativistic but he never commits himself to this criticism. Actually, Cusset’s own views appear only clearly at the very end when he describes the reasons why Foucault, Deleuze and Lyotard have become persona non grata in their home country. The coming into power of a peculiar branch of the left in the early 80s, the rise of new philosophers, their penetration in the publishing market and their fame in the medias, the appropriation of Foucault and Baudrillard by French neoliberals leading to a lot of confusion are what prevented the French from recognizing the importance of their fellow citizens in modern thought. Cusset’s conclusion is hard to read but perfectly accurate : “What overconfident French rationalists quickly see as an old structuralist tune, as a badly assimilated linguistic turn or even as a textual relativism for Amerloques* most simply characterizes the way people, all in all, act and think since a quarter Century in the rest of the worldwide intellectual landscape” [my translation]. Finally, French Theory (the book) provides a wonderful example of how ideas travel. While writing this blog entry, I realized that it has been translated into English and published by the University of Minnesota Press. I highly recommend this reading.
* “Amerloques” is the French slang for Americans. By using the term, Cusset implies that a widespread anti-americanism might also be responsible for the fate of the French Theory in its home country.
No theorizing today, just a quote from the last paragraph of the preface of the very interesting Let us now praise famous men.
Here it is: “This is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell.Those who wich actively to participate in the subject, in whatever degree of understanding, friendship, or hostility, are invited to address the authors in care of the publishers. In material that is used, privately or publicly, names will be withheld on request.”
I am wondering whether anyone ever wrote to the authors/the publisher and what did he wrote?