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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Philip Levine and Allen Mendenhall on “Meet the Authors”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Literature, Writing on May 29, 2019 at 6:45 am

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Suzie Wiley and Allen Mendenhall on “Writers on Writing”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Literature, Writing on May 22, 2019 at 6:45 am

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A (Mostly) Misbegotten Attempt to Take Scalia’s Measure

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Essays, Humanities, Judicial Activism, Judicial Restraint, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Politics, Scholarship on May 15, 2019 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here at Law & Liberty.

On Wednesday [editorial note: this review was published on February 11, 2019] it will be exactly three years since Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, yet his towering presence is still felt. Given the extent of his influence on legal education and his popularization of both originalism and textualism, it is no surprise to see a growing number of books and conferences addressing the importance of his legacy. One such book is The Conservative Revolution of Antonin Scalia, a collection of disparate essays edited by the political scientists David A. Schultz of Hamline University and Howard Schweber of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and published by Lexington Books.

No consensus view emerges from these wide-ranging essays on everything from Scalia’s contributions to administrative law to his Senate confirmation hearings. Nor are the essays  universally admiring. On the contrary, most of them are critical. “Was Antonin Scalia a sissy when it came to administrative law?” Schultz asks—unprofessionally, in my view. Mary Welek Atwell of Radford University scrutinizes Scalia’s opinions in cases about race and gender, highlighting his apparent “comfort” with the “patriarchal, hierarchical” elements of the Roman Catholic Church, and grandly declaring that Scalia “sympathized more with those who were trying to hold on to their privilege by excluding others than with those who sought to be included.”

Is that so? And is it so that Scalia, in the words of contributor Henry L. Chambers, Jr., of the University of Richmond School of Law, “read statutory text relatively simply”? What a relatively simple claim! Scalia’s Reading Law (2012), coauthored with Bryan Garner, outlines principles or canons for interpreting statutes and legal instruments; it has become a landmark in the field, having been cited in hundreds of cases and over a thousand law review articles in the seven years since its release. While it aims to simplify hermeneutics, providing sound methodological guidance to interpreters of legal texts, it is by no measure simple.

Scalia “might be our most Machiavellian Supreme Court justice,” the University of Wyoming law professor Stephen M. Feldman submits. “Scalia sneered, as was his wont,” he writes in an aside. Less ad hominem but equally breezy assertions by Feldman: that originalism “is most often applied in practice as a subterfuge for conservative conclusions,” and that, in any case, “Scalia’s implementation of originalism failed on multiple grounds.”

Most of the critiques in this book, in contrast to those just cited, are responsibly researched and tonally reserved. No reasonable person expects scholarly assessments of a controversial jurist’s legacy to be an exercise in hagiography. On the other hand, such assessments should avoid coming off like intemperate outbursts.

The 18 contributors come from a range of disciplines. Only three are law professors; two are professors of criminal justice; two are doctoral candidates; and one clerks for a federal judge. Equally diverse are the essays’ methodological approaches. The most distinctive belongs to Timothy R. Johnson, Ryan C. Black, and Ryan J. Owens, who in a coauthored chapter attempt to examine empirically—with graphs and figures—Scalia’s influence on the behavior of his Court colleagues during oral argument. Whether they succeed is a determination better left to experts in quantitative research.

Scalia the Liberal?

Coauthors Christopher E. Smith of Michigan State University and Charles F. Jacobs of St. Norbert College consider Scalia’s conservatism in the context of the criminal law. They do not define what they mean by “conservatism.” Before long one gathers that their understanding of it is woefully limited. They conclude, with apparent surprise, that “in nearly 1 in 6 decisions, Scalia cast his vote in support of criminal rights.” If Scalia’s method involved choosing results and then supplying reasoning to justify them, then perhaps some of his opinions regarding the Fourth Amendment might seem uncharacteristically “liberal.” Of course, Scalia’s originalism and textualism do not presuppose conclusions; they demand, instead, a rigorous process of determining the meaning and semantic context of written laws. This process may lead to “liberal” or “conservative” outcomes that do not align with a judge’s political preferences but that the words of the law necessarily require.

The process is conservative even when it yields “liberal” results.

“One might expect,” the editors say of the Smith-Jacobs chapter, “that as a political conservative Justice Scalia would have authored opinions that gave the greatest possible latitude to agents of government.” Such an obtuse claim is enough to cast doubt on Schultz and Schweber’s understanding of conservatism and, hence, of their ability to critique the claims about conservatism that one comes across throughout the book.

By contrast, the essay by Jesse Merriam of Loyola University Maryland, “Justice Scalia and the Legal Conservative Movement: An Exploration of Nino’s Neoconservatism,” stands out as historically informed on matters of conservatism—including the relationship between Scalia’s jurisprudence and the so-called conservative movement as represented by think tanks, politicos, journalists, and academics.

James Staab of the University of Central Missouri asks in the final chapter whether Antonin Scalia was a great Supreme Court justice. Staab answers no, basing his finding on seven factors:

  1. “length of service, including the production of a large body of respected judicial work”;
  2. “judicial craftsmanship, or the ability to communicate clearly and memorably in writing”;
  3. “influence, or whether the judge left an indelible mark on the law”;
  4. “judicial temperament, or the qualities of being dispassionate and even-tempered”;
  5. “impartiality, or the qualities of disinterestedness and maintaining a strict detachment from partisan activities”;
  6. “vision of the judicial function, or the proper role of judges in a constitutional democracy”; and
  7. “game changers, or whether the judge foreshadowed the future direction of the law and was on the right side of history.”

This factoring raises the expectation of a quantitative methodology, yet the chapter lacks any mathematical analysis. Regarding the first criterion, Staab simply offers several paragraphs about Scalia’s years of service and many opinions, discusses the jurist’s extrajudicial writings, and then declares: “In sum, the body of judicial work produced by Scalia is truly impressive. It is safe to say that he easily satisfies the first criteria [sic] of what constitutes a great judge.”

Regarding the second criterion, Staab mentions Scalia’s oft-celebrated writing skills and then lists some of the many memorable Scalia opinions, deducing from this evidence that “Scalia again receives the highest of remarks.” He adds that the quality of Scalia’s opinions “has sometimes been compared to those of Holmes, Cardozo, and Robert Jackson—a comparison I would agree with.” Why should Staab’s agreement or disagreement have any bearing? Where are the statistical and computational values that back up his personal judgments? Staab sounds like someone unconvincingly pretending to do quantitative research. Are his factors the best measure of greatness?

The Vagaries of Balancing Tests

What of Staab’s negative verdicts? He questions Scalia’s temperament and collegiality, pointing to his “strident dissenting opinions” and “no-holds-barred opinions.” These opinions, says Staab, “struck a partisan tone,” and the jurist’s association with the Federalist Society (gasp!) “compromised his impartiality.” Staab suggests that Scalia should have recused himself in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006) and Cheney v. United States District Court (2004). He qualifies as “unprincipled” Scalia’s opinions in the areas of the veto power, state sovereign immunity, the incorporation doctrine, regulatory takings, and affirmative action. He alleges that a “major problem for Justice Scalia’s legacy is that his originalist jurisprudence was on the wrong side of history” in the sense that several of his views did not win out. Scalia was forced to dissent in controversial cases with sweeping results for the country.

Staab’s checklist reminds me of the Scalia line about the utility of balancing tests, or the lack thereof. “The scale analogy is not really appropriate,” he wrote in Bendix Autolite Corporation v. Midwesco Enterprises(1988), “since the interests on both sides are incommensurate. It is more like judging whether a particular line is longer than a particular rock is heavy.”

Whatever criteria you use to evaluate greatness, this edition is unlikely to qualify.

Taxis and Cosmos: A Clarifying Table

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Books, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on April 3, 2019 at 6:45 am

This table is meant to clarify the distinction between taxis (“made order”) and cosmos (“grown order”), two forms of order as described by F. A. Hayek in Law, Legislation and Liberty: Volume One, Rules and Order (The University of Chicago Press, 1973). According to Hayek, “Classical Greek was more fortunate in possessing distinct single words for the two kinds of order, namely taxis for a made order, such as, for example, an order of battle, and kosmos for a grown order, meaning originally ‘a right order in a state or a community.’”[9]

Taxis Cosmos
Made Order[1] Grown Order[2]
Constructionist[3] Evolutionary[4]
Exogenous[5] Endogenous[6]
Planned / Designed Spontaneous
Simple Complex
Concrete Abstract
Purposeful Purposeless[7]
Centralized power Dispersed / weakened power

 

[1] “The first answer to which our anthropomorphic habits of thought almost inevitably lead us is that it must be due to the design of some thinking mind. And because order has been generally interpreted as such a deliberate arrangement by somebody, the concept has become unpopular among most friends of liberty and has been favored by authoritarians. According to this interpretation of order in society must rest on a relation of command and obedience, or a hierarchical structure of the whole of society in which the will of superiors, and ultimately of some single supreme authority, determines what each individual must do.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 37.

[2] “The grown order … is in English most conveniently described as a spontaneous order.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 37. “Since a spontaneous order results from the individual elements adapting themselves to circumstances which directly affect only some of them, and which in their totality need not be known to anyone, it may extend to circumstances so complex that no mind can comprehend them all. … Since we can know at most the rules observed by the elements of various kinds of which the structures are made up, but not all the individual elements and never all the particular circumstances in which each of them is placed, our knowledge will be restricted to the general character of the order which will form itself. And even where, as is true of a society of human beings, we may be in a position to alter at least some of the rules of conduct which the elements obey, we shall thereby be able to influence only the general character and not the detail of the resulting order.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 41.

[3] “[This] view holds that human institutions will serve human society only if they have been deliberately designed for these purposes, often also that the fact that an institution exists is evidence of its having been created for a purpose, and always that we should so re-design society and its institutions that all our actions will be wholly guided by known purposes.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 8-9.

[4] “[This] view, which has slowly and gradually advanced since antiquity but for a time was almost entirely overwhelmed by the more glamorous constructivist view, was that that orderliness of society which greatly increased the effectiveness of individual action was not due solely to institutions and practices which had been invented or designed for that purpose, but was largely due to a process described at first as ‘growth’ and later as ‘evolution,’ a process in which practices which had first been adopted for other reasons, or even purely accidentally, were preserved because they enabled the group in which they had arisen to prevail over others.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 9.

[5] “[The] authoritarian connotation of the concept of order derives … entirely from the belief that order can be created only by forces outside the system (or ‘exogenously’).” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 36.

[6] “[The authoritarian connotation of the concept of order] does not apply to an equilibrium set up from within (or ‘endogenously’) such as that which the general theory of the market endeavors to explain.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 36.

[7] “Most important … is the relation of a spontaneous order to the conception of purpose. Since such an order has not been created by an outside agency, the order as such also can have no purpose, although its existence may be very serviceable to the individuals which move within such order. But in a different sense it may well be said that the order rests on purposive action of its elements, when ‘purpose’ would, of course, mean nothing more than that their actions tend to secure the preservation and restoration of that order. The ‘purposive’ in this sense as a sort of ‘teleological’ shorthand’, as it as been called by biologists, is unobjectionable so long as we do not imply an awareness of purpose of the part of the elements, but mean merely that the elements have acquired regularities of conduct conducive to the maintenance of the order—presumably because those who did act in certain ways had within the resulting order a better chance of survival than those who did not. In general, however, it is preferable to avoid in this connection the term ‘purpose’ and to speak instead of ‘function’.” Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 39.

[8] All citations in this post are to this version of the book.

[9] Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty at p. 37.

Cultural Marxism is Real

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Philosophy on March 27, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

Samuel Moyn, a Yale law professor, recently asked, “What is ‘cultural Marxism?’” His answer: “Nothing of the kind actually exists.” Moyn attributes the term cultural Marxism to the “runaway alt-right imagination,” claiming that it implicates zany conspiracy theories and has been “percolating for years through global sewers of hatred.”

Alexander Zubatov, an attorney writing in Tabletcountered that the “somewhat unclear and contested” term cultural Marxism “has been in circulation for over forty years.” It has, moreover, “perfectly respectable uses outside the dark, dank silos of the far right.” He concluded that cultural Marxism is neither a “conspiracy” nor a “mere right-wing ‘phantasmagoria,’” but a “coherent intellectual program, a constellation of dangerous ideas.”

In this debate, I side with Zubatov.  Here’s why.

Despite the bewildering range of controversies and meanings attributed to it, cultural Marxism (the term and the movement) has a deep, complex history in Theory. The word “Theory” (with a capital T) is the general heading for research within the interpretative branches of the humanities known as cultural and critical studies, literary criticism, and literary theory—each of which includes a variety of approaches from the phenomenological to the psychoanalytic. In the United States, Theory is commonly taught and applied in English departments, although its influence is discernable throughout the humanities.

A brief genealogy of different schools of Theory—which originated outside English departments, among philosophers and sociologists for example, but became part of English departments’ core curricula—shows not only that cultural Marxism is a nameable, describable phenomenon, but also that it proliferates beyond the academy.

Scholars versed in Theory are reasonably suspicious of crude, tendentious portrayals of their field. Nevertheless, these fields retain elements of Marxism that, in my view, require heightened and sustained scrutiny. Given estimates that communism killed over 100 million people, we must openly and honestly discuss those currents of Marxism that run through different modes of interpretation and schools of thought. To avoid complicity, moreover, we must ask whether and why Marxist ideas, however attenuated, still motivate leading scholars and spread into the broader culture.

English departments sprang up in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, ushering in increasingly professionalized studies of literature and other forms of aesthetic expression. As English became a distinct university discipline with its own curriculum, it moved away from the study of British literature and canonical works of the Western tradition in translation, and toward the philosophies that guide textual interpretation.

Although a short, sweeping survey of what followed may not satisfy those in the field, it provides others with the relevant background.

The New Criticism

The first major school to establish itself in English departments was the New Criticism. Its counterpart was Russian formalism, characterized by figures like Victor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson, who attempted to distinguish literary texts from other texts, examining what qualities made written representations poetic, compelling, original, or moving rather than merely practical or utilitarian.

One such quality was defamiliarization. Literature, in other words, defamiliarizes language by using sound, syntax, metaphor, alliteration, assonance, and other rhetorical devices.

The New Criticism, which was chiefly pedagogical, emphasized close reading, maintaining that readers searching for meaning must isolate the text under consideration from externalities like authorial intent, biography, or historical context. This method is similar to legal textualism whereby judges look strictly at the language of a statute, not to legislative history or intent, to interpret the import or meaning of that statute. The New Critics coined the term “intentional fallacy” to refer to the search for the meaning of a text anywhere but in the text itself. The New Criticism is associated with John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards, and T.S. Eliot. In a way, all subsequent schools of Theory are responses or reactions to the New Criticism.

Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

Structuralism permeated French intellectual circles in the 1960s. Through structuralism, thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and Louis Althusser imported leftist politics into the study of literary texts. Structuralism is rooted in the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist who observed how linguistic signs become differentiated within a system of language. When we say or write something, we do it according to rules and conventions in which our anticipated audience also operates. The implied order we use and communicate in is the “structure” referred to in structuralism.

The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss extended Saussure’s ideas about the linguistic sign to culture, arguing that the beliefs, values, and characteristic features of a social group function according to a set of tacitly known rules. These structures are “discourse,” a term that encompasses cultural norms and not just language practices.

Out of structuralism and post-structuralism emerged Structural Marxism, a school of thought linked to Althusser that analyzes the role of the state in perpetuating the dominance of the ruling class, the capitalists.

Marxism and Neo-Marxism

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Frankfurt School popularized the type of work usually labeled as “cultural Marxism.” Figures involved or associated with this school include Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin. These men revised, repurposed, and extended classical Marxism by emphasizing culture and ideology, incorporating insights from emerging fields such as psychoanalysis, and researching the rise of mass media and mass culture.

Dissatisfied with economic determinism and the illusory coherence of historical materialism—and jaded by the failures of socialist and communist governments—these thinkers retooled Marxist tactics and premises in their own ways without entirely repudiating Marxist designs or ambitions.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, scholars like Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson were explicit in embracing Marxism. They rejected the New Critical approaches that divorced literature from culture, stressing that literature reflected class and economic interest, social and political structures, and power. Accordingly, they considered how literary texts reproduced (or undermined) cultural or economic structures and conditions.

Slavoj Žižek arguably has done more than any member of the Frankfurt School to integrate psychoanalysis into Marxist variants. “Žižek’s scholarship holds a particularly high place within cultural criticism that seeks to account for the intersections between psychoanalysis and Marxism,” wrote the scholar Erin Labbie.[1] She added, “Žižek’s prolific writings about ideology, revealing the relationships between psychoanalysis and Marxism, have altered the way in which literary and cultural criticism is approached and accomplished to the extent that most scholars can no longer hold tightly to the former notion that the two fields are at odds.”[2] Žižek is just one among many continental philosophers whose Marxist and Marxist-inflected prognostications command the attention of American academics. 

Deconstruction

Jacques Derrida is recognized as the founder of deconstruction. He borrowed from Saussure’s theory that the meaning of a linguistic sign depends on its relation to its opposite, or to things from which it differs. For instance, the meaning of male depends on the meaning of female; the meaning of happy depends on the meaning of sad; and so forth. Thus, the theoretical difference between two opposing terms, or binaries, unites them in our consciousness. And one binary is privileged while the other is devalued. For example, “beautiful” is privileged over “ugly,” and “good” over “bad.”

The result is a hierarchy of binaries that are contextually or arbitrarily dependent, according to Derrida, and cannot be fixed or definite across time and space. That is because meaning exists in a state of flux, never becoming part of an object or idea.

Derrida himself, having re-read The Communist Manifesto, recognized the “spectral” furtherance of a “spirit” of Marx and Marxism.[3] Although Derrida’s so-called “hauntology” precludes the messianic meta-narratives of unfulfilled Marxism, commentators have salvaged from Derrida a modified Marxism for the climate of today’s “late capitalism.”

Derrida used the term diffèrance to describe the elusive process humans use to attach meaning to arbitrary signs, even if signs—the codes and grammatical structures of communication—cannot adequately represent an actual object or idea in reality. Derrida’s theories had a broad impact that enabled him and his followers to consider linguistic signs and the concepts created by those signs, many of which were central to the Western tradition and Western culture. For example, Derrida’s critique of logocentrism contests nearly all philosophical foundations deriving from Athens and Jerusalem. 

New Historicism

New Historicism, a multifaceted enterprise, is associated with Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt. It looks at historical forces and conditions with a structuralist and post-structuralist eye, treating literary texts as both products of and contributors to discourse and discursive communities. It is founded on the idea that literature and art circulate through discourse and inform and destabilize cultural norms and institutions.

New historicists explore how literary representations reinforce power structures or work against entrenched privilege, extrapolating from Foucault’s paradox that power grows when it is subverted because it is able to reassert itself over the subversive person or act in a show of power. Marxism and materialism often surface when new historicists seek to highlight texts and authors (or literary scenes and characters) in terms of their effects on culture, class, and power. New historicists focus on low-class or marginalized figures, supplying them with a voice or agency and giving them overdue attention. This political reclamation, while purporting to provide context, nevertheless risks projecting contemporary concerns onto works that are situated in a particular culture and historical moment.

In the words of literary critic Paul Cantor, “There is a difference between political approaches to literature and politicized approaches, that is, between those that rightly take into account the centrality of political concerns in many literary classics and those that willfully seek to reinterpret and virtually recreate class works in light of contemporary political agendas.”[4]

Cultural Marxism Is Real

Much of the outcry about cultural Marxism is outrageous, uninformed, and conspiratorial. Some of it simplifies, ignores, or downplays the fissures and tensions among leftist groups and ideas. Cultural Marxism cannot be reduced, for instance, to “political correctness” or “identity politics.” (I recommend Andrew Lynn’s short piece “Cultural Marxism” in the Fall 2018 issue of The Hedgehog Review for a concise critique of sloppy and paranoid treatments of cultural Marxism.)

Nevertheless, Marxism pervades Theory, despite the competition among the several ideas under that broad label. Sometimes this Marxism is self-evident; at other times, it’s residual and implied. At any rate, it has attained a distinct but evolving character as literary scholars have reworked classical Marxism to account for the relation of literature and culture to class, power, and discourse.

Feminism, gender studies, critical race theory, post-colonialism, disability studies—these and other disciplines routinely get pulled through one or more of the theoretical paradigms I’ve outlined. The fact that they’re guided by Marxism or adopt Marxist terms and concepts, however, does not make them off-limits or unworthy of attention.

Which brings me to a warning: Condemning these ideas as forbidden, as dangers that corrupt young minds, might have unintended consequences. Marxist spinoffs must be studied to be comprehensively understood. Don’t remove them from the curriculum: contextualize them, challenge them, and question them. Don’t reify their power by ignoring or neglecting them.

Popular iterations of cultural Marxism reveal themselves in the casual use of terms like “privilege,” “alienation,” “commodification,” “fetishism,” “materialism,” “hegemony,” or “superstructure.” As Zubatov wrote for Tablet, “It is a short step from Gramsci’s ‘hegemony’ to the now-ubiquitous toxic memes of ‘patriarchy,’ ‘heteronormativity,’ ‘white supremacy,’ ‘white privilege,’ ‘white fragility,’ ‘and whiteness.’” He adds, “It is a short step from the Marxist and cultural Marxist premise that ideas are, at their core, expressions of power to rampant, divisive identity politics and the routine judging of people and their cultural contributions based on their race, gender, sexuality and religion.”

My brief summary is merely the simplified, approximate version of a much larger and more complex story, but it orients curious readers who wish to learn more about cultural Marxism in literary studies. Today, English departments suffer from the lack of a clearly defined mission, purpose, and identity. Having lost rigor in favor of leftist politics as their chief end of study, English departments at many universities are jeopardized by the renewed emphasis on practical skills and jobs training. Just as English departments replaced religion and classics departments as the principal places to study culture, so too could future departments or schools replace English departments.

And those places may not tolerate political agitations posturing as pedagogical technique.

The point, however, is that cultural Marxism exists. It has a history, followers, adherents, and left a perceptible mark on academic subjects and lines of inquiry. Moyn may wish it out of existence, or dismiss it as a bogeyman, but it is real. We must know its effects on society, and in what forms it materializes in our culture. Moyn’s intemperate polemic demonstrates, in fact, the urgency and importance of examining cultural Marxism, rather than closing our eyes to its meaning, properties, and significance.

 

[1] Erin F. Labbie, “Žižek Avec Lacan: Splitting the Dialectics of Desire,” Slovene Studies, Vol. 25 (2003), p. 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (Peggy Kamuf, trans.) (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), p. 3-4.

[4] Paul Cantor, “Shakespeare—‘For all time’?” The Public Interest, Issue 110 (1993), p. 35.

John William Corrington on the History of Gnosticism

In Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Philosophy, Religion, Western Philosophy on March 20, 2019 at 6:45 am

In two essays from 1976, John William Corrington supplies his brief version of the history of Gnosticism. Both essays appear in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the book-cover image below:

The first essay examines how our empirical knowledge of the world, or experience, is necessarily bound up in the sum of our memory and interpretation of events and hence of our comprehension of history. Our experience is also an element of consciousness insofar as consciousness is the mind’s awareness of itself in relation to the phenomenal world.

The structure or makeup of consciousness is an ordered pattern of symbols. The structure of Gnostic consciousness is shaped by a hatred or dissatisfaction with the concrete reality of the world and an attempt to remake the world in the image of a false reality. Gnostic thought is regressive because it seeks to unite all things in an ideal state of unification that recalls the state of the infant in the womb whose radical break from the womb resulted in alienation and a sense of disorder.

In the second essay, Corrington points out that there have been many Gnostic schools and sects over time. The attempt to understand early Gnostics presupposes something innate or universal in the human condition because it necessarily involves a projection of our own experience and empirical knowledge of the world onto past figures, events, and modes of thought.

The Gnostics expressed in symbols their experiential knowledge of the divine that was a source of freedom from the hated reality of the concrete world. Corrington here maps different forms of Gnosticism and describes important Gnostic figures throughout various times and places. The structured symbols of Gnosticism that ordered Gnostic consciousness, he suggests, rectified the sense of alienation that derived from the unintelligibility and disorder of the cosmos.

Gnosticism considered ideal unity to be the desired end of empirical knowledge. The drive for ideal unity is evident in modern ideologies such as National Socialism, Marxist-Leninism, and other forms of totalitarianism that seek to realize an eschatological state of an eternally perfect order or ultimate reality here on earth. The Gnostic field of symbology fulfills a desire for perfect order or ultimate reality that has never been actualized concretely.

Seth Vannatta’s Justice Holmes

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on March 6, 2019 at 6:45 am

Seth Vannatta identifies the common law as a central feature of the jurisprudence of former United States Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Holmes treated the common law as if it were an epistemology or a reliable mode for knowledge transmission over successive generations. Against the grand notion that the common law reflected a priori principles consistent with the natural law, Holmes detected that the common law was historical, aggregated, and evolutionary, the sum of the concrete facts and operative principles of innumerable cases with reasonable solutions to complex problems. This view of the common law is both conservative and pragmatic.

Vannatta’s analysis of Holmes opens new directions for the study of conservatism and pragmatism—and pragmatic conservatism—demonstrating that common-law processes and practices have much in common with the form of communal inquiry championed by C.S. Peirce. For more on this subject, download “Seth Vannatta’s Justice Holmes,” which appeared in the journal Contemporary Pragmatism in the fall of 2018.

Writers on Writing (Red Dirt Press, 2019)

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, liberal arts, Literature, Uncategorized, Writing on January 23, 2019 at 6:45 am

My latest book, Writers on Writing, is available for purchase here at Amazon and here at Red Dirt Press’s website.  From the publisher:

As a lawyer, Allen Mendenhall asks questions. As a writer, he’s interested in the craft. Combine these two and you get this, a collection of writers discussing writing. Writers on Writing: Conversations with Allen Mendenhall is an anthology of penetrating interviews with prominent and diverse authors who discuss arts, literature, books, culture, life, and the writing process with Allen Mendenhall, editor of Southern Literary Review and associate dean at Faulkner University Thomas Goode Jones School of Law. Featuring the telling insights and sage advice of novelists, historians, poets, professors, philosophers, and more, Writers on Writing is not just an informative guide or a useful resource but a fount of inspiration. Readers will find in these pages authentic voices, frank exchanges, and unique perspectives on a wide variety of matters. Aspiring and established writers alike will learn from this book.

Why I Write: Daren Dean

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Writing on December 26, 2018 at 6:45 am

Daren Dean

Daren Dean writes in the American South, and is the author of the novel Far Beyond the Pale, which was recently reviewed in The Huffington Post. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Louisiana Literature, Red Dirt Forum, Cowboy Jamboree, BULL, Midwestern Gothic, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Missouri Life, The Oklahoma ReviewFiction Southeast, storySouth, Crixeo, and elsewhere. He’s been interviewed in or for diverse publications such as Ecotone online, Chattahoochee Review, Image, Ploughshares and Little, Brown and Company. His story “Bring Your Sorrow Over Here” was selected as Runner-up by Judge George Singleton in Yemassee’s William Richey Short Fiction contest. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His favorite unofficial title comes from Robert Olen Butler who wrote, “Dean writes like the laureate of fallen angels.” He teaches creative writing and composition in the English department at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

This piece originally appeared here in Fiction Southeast.

“The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”—Flannery O’Connor

 

Why do I write? Who can answer this question definitely? No one thing made me want to write. In fact, I think it was an accumulation of experiences from childhood and maybe even lives before I was born. I guess it’s the idea of the transience in life. The way our family moved in and out of each other’s lives and into the lives of other families as well. I never worried about this as a kid, but as an adult looking back I see it as both a blessing and a curse. I was being groomed to be a writer I think and all I can do is point to some of these signposts. Some of my earliest memories are probably what everyone would agree are the those emotional events that your memory holds onto because even as a child you know they hint at something profound though you can’t quite put your finger on it. The mystery surrounding all of us all the time is what drove me to want to write. It’s the mystery that is lived as O’Connor said. Flannery O’Connor said the modern world wants to eliminate mystery, but it is this fundamental mysteriousness inherent in each of our lives that drives me to write.

As a boy, I can remember lying next to my brother Lane on the floor. Lane was older than me by a year. He was born mentally handicapped. He could not communicate. It was never clear to me that he recognized us, my mom and me, for sure. He would sometimes sit in the sunlight with the dustmotes coming in from a window and slap the back of his hand so hard over and over, he would also gnaw on his hand, until there was a callous on it. Well, I would lay there on the floor and stare into his blue blue eyes and try to communicate with him telepathically. I’m not sure  I knew that word then but for some reason I was convinced it might be possible. He would stare back at me very calmly, but as far as I know we never communicated in words but at least I did feel love and an indescribable emotion. This impulse to communicate with another human being, a friend, a mother, a father, a son or daughter, is the heart of what a writer does. Interestingly, when my children were born, this idea of communicating emotion returned to me. The feeling I had when I attempted to communicate with Lane.

I talked quite a bit as a young boy. I see it in my kids now. It’s this fundamental need to know, to share, and to love in that way. There was a time in my adolescence when I almost quit talking to anyone I didn’t know. I think there were reasons for it. We moved so much. I didn’t want to try to make new friends and connections when they were going to come to nothing. Even then I still yearned for understanding. It was a frustrating time as it is for most everyone. However, communicating emotion through stories is T. S. Eliot’s Objective Correlative but it’s a pretty tall order. I feel emotion. You feel emotion. It’s tough to put it into words. I can remember every time we drove over the Missouri River bridge going in and out of Jefferson City, my great Aunt Vivian would point out that my great grandfather was one of the carpenters who worked on the state capitol, which seemed pretty magnificent to me. The giant dome. Over time I began to associate it with my great grandpa. I could remember him vaguely, he had quite a sense of humor, but he died when I was young. In my mind, he built the capitol all by himself. But since we moved around so much, I was not around family much and I felt this void. Who was I? A question that haunted me for a long time. It haunts most of us one way or another I suppose. How did I fit? It was one of the negative things to constantly moving, this alienation. I wanted to make sense of life and know who I was. My parents had divorced when I was so young, I could not remember them ever being together as husband and wife. I saw my father on average about once every two years. He was a handsome stranger, a mystery, I could never unlock. At other times, my mother also mysteriously disappeared and I lived with my great aunt and uncle. They were wonderful for taking me in. I think my mom had us so young she wanted to sow her own wild oats. I couldn’t articulate any of this except that I yearned for her to return.

As I grew older, I was around an independent Christian denomination based on the Holiness movement. It was charismatic. Spirit-filled. My Uncle introduced me to it as a boy. The church was called the Christian Center and later they opened a school called the Christian Center Academy. I went there for a few years in grade school. Again, it was an introduction to the spiritual world and still more mysteries. Could human beings communicate with God? I saw people being prayed for: Miraculous healings; people being slain in the spirit; the faithful speaking in tongues; the beauty of the Psalms. The metaphors in the Book of John are still quite wonderful to me. The Word was God. I remember in one of the upper rooms of the Christian Center (the Church was in an old building on the main drag through town and situated right next to a tavern) there was a big painting of a giant white cross over a fiery abyss and the faithful ran across it. No one needed to explain this. Also, the themes of impending apocalypse, fire, and redemption were real to me in a way that was so literal that if you found yourself alone you might wonder if the Rapture had already taken place. It reminds me that in an interview the Mississippi writer, Larry Brown was asked something like if he’d ever been Born Again. And he said something like, ‘I feel like I’ve been saved many, many times in my life.’ I love that and it resonates with me—and my experience too. I was very passionate about my own spirituality in my twenties. In the Church they talk about the feeling of the Spirit moving in the congregation and that is a very palpable feeling.

As a teenager, I read Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and all about the Lost Generation of writers and artists. I loved the Surrealists and wished I could be an artist of some kind but I seemed to have no physical talent for it. So, I remember reading things by and about Andre Breton and even the Dadaists. I thought maybe I could write if I could train myself to think in words instead of images. So I started to try this and some of those early experiments were bizarre to say the least. Most were terrible. But I was reading and dreaming so much then. This is very necessary to the development of any writer. There was a great deal of emotion going into poetry and something like prose back then. I felt like I was tapping into something, but I didn’t know what it was. Now, I know I was tapping into the universe. Around that time I remember coming across an old hardback copy of Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. What a great novel! There was an author photo of the young Capote in a white t-shirt. I was hooked!

In college I read A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor in an English class. I remember thinking, why haven’t I read her before now! Why have they hid this writer from me! I don’t know who hid her per se but I couldn’t believe I’d never even heard anyone talk about her before! My English professor told me about Wise Blood. I read all of O’Connor’s work. It resonated with me because of my religious experiences. Wise Blood was the book that made me want to be a writer again. Several years went by. I really didn’t write that much. I wasn’t that good at it. Writing was, and is, hard work unless you totally immerse yourself in it. Then, it can be sublime.

Several years went by. I discovered the annual New Stories from the South collection. I started to read that collection religiously. I came across Larry Brown’s works because of that series. I think I read Facing the Music first. Then, I found Joe. I sensed that my spiritual experiences along with the kind of rural characters I recognized in Brown’s work was something I could write about as well. Even before Brown, I read a couple of books by Harry Crews. In a Childhood: The Biography of a Place, Crews opens with these startling lines: “My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.” This line really spoke volumes to me as I mentioned earlier that I felt disconnected. Now, I can see that one reason I decided to write was to find these connections and some of them I’ve found in events real and imagined. The historic record and the fictional world of imagination come together in the writer’s mind and form this bridge to emotion, to understanding and connection. Readers read for this connection just as much as writer’s write for it. I recently read this piece in the Oxford American that Barry Hannah wrote. Something he said stuck out to me: “But I believe he (a writer) might also be a sort of narcoleptic who requires constant waking up by his own imaginative work. He is closer to sleep and dream, and his memory is more haunted . . .”

At one time I thought I would find all the answers in a person…and later I thought I might find them in a book…then I thought I might find them within and from my own writing. Now, pushing 50, I find I’m more resigned with being (with process) than thinking I know all the answers. My advice would be don’t be so quick to eliminate all of the mystery. You only get that sense of wonder one time and it cannot be duplicated. This is the mystery I’m talking about.

John William Corrington on Gnosticism and Modern Thought

In Academia, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy on December 12, 2018 at 6:45 am

Corrington delivered “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a lecture at a conference on Gnosticism (“Gnosticism and Modernity”) held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978. The original version of this essay, located in the archives at Centenary College, consists of a typed document with handwritten pages at the end. An edited version of this essay appears in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the book-cover image below.

Corrington opens the essay with a reference to Nick Adams, a character from a short story by Ernest Hemingway who has established for himself an alternate, deformed sense of reality—a Second Reality—whereby he orders his experience. Corrington likens this Second Reality to the structure of consciousness accepted and propagated by Gnosticism. Corrington argues that the Gnostic acceptance of a false reality brought about an embrace of magic and fantasy, both of which the Gnostics used to order their social and political experience.

This perceived form of order is, in fact, disorder. Gnosticism is manifest in modern political movements, Corrington suggests, and it renews and reuses certain symbols to describe the nature of the world. It premises itself, moreover, on assumptions about the divine ability of man to achieve a unified, monistic, salvational telos on earth.

Gnosticism, which is part of an irrepressible drive for the divine that is common to each psyche, has a coherent ideational, narrative structure that makes its symbology appealing and plausible. Gnosticism is a symptom of the desire to achieve the symbolic return to the womb, a representation of paradise in which unity and perfection and order are attained. The Gnostic thus seeks to realize in the concrete world, by way of magic and other breaks from reality, the supposedly ultimate and eternal state in which pure, transcendent unity and monism are instantiated.

Corrington sees Gnosticism in the scientism of the modern era. If metaxy represents the proper understanding of the place of man and the divine on earth, the Second Reality, which the Gnostic chooses over metaxy, is a distorted teleological worldview. Corrington submits that more would be known about modern Gnostic tendencies in the form of ideology if there were not a breakdown of the disciplines into such compartments as history, science, political science, theology, psychology, and so on.

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