Postmodern Poo: A Harvard course on scatalogical literature (“the canon is a chamber pot”)

January 19, 2018 • 11:00 am

An anonymous reader sent me this announcement for a course at Harvard, and at first I thought it was an enormous joke. Now I’ve learned it’s for real. For one thing, there is indeed a professor at Harvard called Annabel Kim: she’s an Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures. And her c.v., here, lists a related book in progress:

Unbecoming Language: Anti-Identitarian French Feminist Fictions (forthcoming from the Ohio State University Press)

Cacaphonies: Toward an Excremental Poetics (in progress)

But the ultimate proof is that Harvard lists the course in its catalogue, reproducing the text beneath the poster’s pile of friendly poo. The course description (the same as on the poster) is below, and I’ve bolded a few part. But hell—the whole thing should be bolded!

French literature, from the Middle Ages to today, has been consistently and remarkably scatological. Fecal matter is omnipresent in works and authors that we consider canonical (e.g. the fabliaux, Rabelais, de Sade, Beckett, Celine) and yet its presence has been remarkably submerged or passed over in readerly and critical reception of modern and contemporary French literature. This course proposes to take this fecal presence seriously and to attend to the things it has to tell us (hence the plurality of cacaphonies) by starting with the following premise: If literature is excrement, then the canon is a chamber pot. We will focus on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and read a diverse range of scatological texts in order to use the scatological as a means to: 1) Theorize an excremental poetics where excretion provides a model for the process of writing. The task of excretion, which translates into concrete form our experience of the world (we excrete what we take in, processing and giving it new form), is also the task of literature; 2) Allow for a new interrogation and critique of the canon and the ways in which it serves to conceal, contain, sanitize, and compel culture; 3) Provide another angle from which to approach the question of gender and writing, as gender organizes both literature (e.g. the paucity of canonical women writers) and defecation (e.g. the gendering of constipation as a feminine condition); 4) Offer an alternative theory of the significance of fecal matter to the dominant one provided by psychoanalysis (i.e. feces as gift, gold, a la Freud). The goal of the course is to begin to articulate and realize an original approach to literature that, rather than take feces as a site of disgust, takes it as a site of creation.

All I can say is this: the course is a damn travesty, larded with postmodernism. I pity the students who take it, and I pity the professor, who is not only going to have to deal with this for the rest of her professional life, but may be endangering her tenure. For surely even Harvard can’t think that this is worthy teaching or scholarship!

Now I’m not sure if Dr. Kim made this poster to advertise the course, or someone made it as a joke. But given that the whole course is an unwitting joke, it hardly matters.

British academics and students call for censorship of Israeli ambassador because his appearance could upset students

April 26, 2017 • 1:30 pm

I’ll be brief, as this is all too familiar. According to the Guardian and the Elder of Ziyon sites, students and professors at a British university have their knickers in knots because two student groups invited Mark Regev, Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, to speak.  His crime? Being the ambassador to Israel, of course, which, seen as an “apartheid regime”, cannot be allowed to have its views expressed anywhere, even through an official ambassador. The objections? Based on the mental damage Regev’s words may do to listeners, making his invitation a “deliberate provocation.” Lordy!

The objecting college is the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, part of the University of London and an institution that is diehard pro-Palestine and anti-Israeli. The groups inviting him were the SOAS Jewish and United Nations societies. The Guardian reports (my emphasis):

Students and academics at Soas University of London have said a visit by the Israeli ambassador Mark Regev this week could lead to serious tension and substantial distress on the campus.

Regev has been invited by two student societies to speak about the Middle East and prospects for peace on Thursday, but his visit has been criticised as provocative by other staff and students who are planning a protest.

More than 150 academics from Soas and other UK universities, plus 40 student societies at the university, have written to the Soas director Valerie Amos urging her to intervene to stop the meeting on Thursday at which Regev is due to speak.

A letter signed by more than 100 Soas staff says: “We fear that if this provocative event proceeds as planned, it will cause substantial distress and harm to many of our students and staff who are, have been or will be affected by the actions of what a recent UN report refers to as the Israeli ‘apartheid regime’.

“The event could further cause serious tension on campus and result in a charged atmosphere that will be detrimental to the wellbeing of all faculty, staff and students.”

This is an excuse we’re hearing increasingly often: “This person cannot speak because it will cause riots and also the words will injure our mental health.” These Regressives have learned well from the Muslim playbook. But wait! There’s more:

The students’ union challenged the university authorities over the staging of the event, raising concerns about possible safety and security risks posed by the ambassador’s visit and “the inability of students and staff – in particular Palestinian students – to participate openly in the debate, because of possible repercussions on their ability to enter Israel/Palestine”.

Soas, which is one of the world’s leading institutions for the study of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, has often been the focus of coverage of the sometimes fraught debate surrounding Israeli-Palestinian politics on university campuses. As a result, the small minority of Jewish students at Soas have complained of feeling uncomfortable on campus and unable to express themselves.

A statement posted on Facebook by the Soas students’ union said: “We stand with the Soas community in expressing our concern at Mark Regev’s presence on campus, and in rejecting the idea that our spaces of learning should serve as avenues for officials to put forward state propaganda.”

For crying out loud–state propaganda? Maybe Regev will give official government views, or maybe not, but that’s irrelevant. What’s relevant is that academics are baying for censorship on extremely stupid grounds. These objecting students have every right in the world to stage their own protests and to give counter-speeches or write critical articles, but that’s not enough. For them, nobody associated with the Israeli government, or expressing a pro-Israel position, must be allowed to poison the minds of students! I wonder what all these academics are afraid of. I think they are either afraid that Negev may actually persuade someone, but more likely they just are using this an an excuse to shut down views they don’t like.

To its credit, SOAS is standing firm, refusing to de-platform Regev.

One more bit: the “free speech but. . . ” argument:

Eighteen Palestinian students at Soas have written to Amos expressing their concerns. “The environment that Mr Regev would create on our campus for the event is unsafe for us as Palestinian students, many of whom have suffered directly at the hands of the Israeli security services,” they said.

A letter from 50 academics from other institutions across the UK agreed that everyone benefited from an open debate where Israel’s policies could be heard and challenged, but added: “There are two factors that make the projected meeting an exception to this rule, however. The first is that the format of this meeting does not permit Regev’s case, such as it is, to be subjected to any scrutiny.

“More importantly, there is Regev himself. He is the official representative of a government that is in violation of countless United Nations resolutions, and which routinely and for 50 years has denied human rights, including that of national self-determination, to the Palestinians.”

If these students really think that Israeli security will be taking names at the meeting, and preventing them from returning to Palestine (I doubt that they can, though I doubt even more that Israeli security services will be there), they just shouldn’t go. But these students have already signed the letter and so their opposition is already public! As for the lack of debate, there is a discussion with a professor from Queen Mary University AND there will be questions from the audience! What more do these clowns want?

What they want, clearly, is for the opposing voices to be silenced, and it’s sad that British academics are going the route of their American colleagues (see previous post). As for the second part, many of these objectors want to do away with the state of Israel (an open secret of the BDS movement), which is just as odious. And of course Palestine denies human rights to women, gays, and apostates, none of which are demonized in Israel, many of whose citizens are women, gays, and atheists!

Finally, Elders of Ziyon notes this (their emphasis):

A letter signed by more than 100 Soas staff says: “We fear that if this provocative event proceeds as planned, it will cause substantial distress and harm to many of our students and staff who are, have been or will be affected by the actions of what a recent UN report refers to as the Israeli ‘apartheid regime’.

The event could further cause serious tension on campus and result in a charged atmosphere that will be detrimental to the wellbeing of all faculty, staff and students.”

This is not a spoof. This is not satire. This is seriously what supposed academics are claiming will be the outcome of an Israeli representative speaking on campus, a single Zionist speech among the hundreds of anti-Zionist talks, activities, lectures  and boycotts that infest SOAS every year.

The students’ union challenged the university authorities over the staging of the event, raising concerns about possible safety and security risks posed by the ambassador’s visit and “the inability of students and staff – in particular Palestinian students – to participate openly in the debate, because of possible repercussions on their ability to enter Israel/Palestine”.

Apparently Israel is completely unaware of the anti-Israel activities they do the other 364 days of the year, but they will have Mossad operatives taking names on the day of the Regev speech just looking for excuses to ban Palestinians from coming home.

Prof Jonathan Rosenhead, one of the organisers of the academics’ protest letter to Lady Amos, said: “Holding this meeting at Soas, where staff and students have voted overwhelmingly in support of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, and in support of Palestinian rights, seems like a deliberate provocation.

Calling for the destruction of Israel isn’t a provocation. Holding a speech defending it is.

Another professor calls for censoring speakers

April 26, 2017 • 11:15 am

At the end of yesterday’s piece about a professor calling for censorship of speech that “dehumanizes people,” I predicted that we’re going to see more academics calling for censorship of invited speakers. After all, most professors are Leftists, some are Regressive Leftists, some Regressive Leftists (especially in universities) favor censorship, ergo you’ll probably find professors who favor censorship. This syllogism is mine and belongs to me. So did my prediction.

Well. after I wrote a draft of yesterday’s piece, reader Rodney called my attention to a new piece in the New Republic:Why colleges have a right to reject hateful speakers like Ann Coulter“. And it fulfills my prediction, with a college English professor calling for censorship.

The piece is by Aaron R. Hanlon, identified as “Assistant Professor of English at Colby College and advisor for Georgetown University’s MLA/Mellon Foundation ‘Connected Academics’ project.” And in his essay Hanlon argues that we should censor some speakers simply because there’s not enough time to hear everybody, and so we must choose judiciously. Who shall we choose? The speakers that should be censored are, of course, the ones that Hanlon considers to be purveyors of “hate” speech, like Coulter.  He doesn’t say who should make the decision, but argues that because speakers are chosen by clubs or subgroups within a university, that somehow makes their de-platforming or disinvitation not censorship:

Rejecting campus speakers is not an assault on free speech. Rather, like so many other decisions made every day by college students, teachers, and administrators, it’s a value judgment.

. . . But to understand these disinvitation attempts, we need to understand the unglamorous process by which speakers get invited.

When departments or groups arrange for a speaker, invitations are usually authorized by small committees or localized administrative offices without a campus-wide discussion or debate. Student groups, and even academic and administrative departments, operate with differing degrees of autonomy. Given the number and ideological diversity of these groups, they don’t typically hold a forum about whether to invite someone; they petition the appropriate offices for approval, put together a budget, and plan the event. A handful of people make judgment calls to authorize speakers before invitations go out. Hosting groups then advertise the event, at which point the controversy—if there’s destined to be one—begins.

Understanding this sequence of events is crucial, because no-platforming is as much a function of process as of politics. Instead of community-wide discussion and debate over the merits of bringing a given speaker to campus, the debate happens after the invitation, giving the misleading impression that no-platforming is about shutting down speech.

This is a distinction without a difference. Groups are allowed to invite their own speakers precisely to foster diversity. Why on earth should there even be university-wide debate or discussion about choosing a speaker? And why does the present process mean that no-platforming is not censorship?

Here we see an academic too clever for his own good, inventing superficially clever but ultimately stupid arguments about why de-platforming or disinvitation isn’t the same thing as censorship once a speaker has been invited. So when Hanlon says this:

Though the knowledge and skills we deem essential have changed over the years, the practice of curating and prioritizing them is still crucial to the mission of a classically liberal education. No-platforming may look like censorship from certain angles, but from others it’s a consequence of a challenging, never-ending process occurring at virtually all levels of the university: deciding what educational material to present to our students and what to leave out. In this sense, de-platforming isn’t censorship; it’s a product of free expression and the foundational aims of a classically liberal education.

. . .he’s engaging in classic doublespeak: deplatforming is an expression of free speech. How obtuse can somebody be?

If that wasn’t enough, Hanlon draws a false equivalence between deciding on university speakers and deciding whose work to include on a one-semester class syllabus and whose to leave out:

For my “Age of Revolution” course I have 14 weeks to cover the English Civil Wars, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution, which means it’s incumbent upon me—and every other professor—to think very carefully about what students need to know, and thus what to prioritize and what to leave out. In making that decision, I consult other scholars in the field and review other syllabi. I consider my research strengths, as well as the gaps or needs in the broader curriculum. If I end up leaving off James Madison in favor of Edmund Burke, I’m hardly “censoring” Madison. And if I deem it important to bring underrepresented voices into my course—like poet and former slave Phillis Wheatley—I’m judging Wheatley more appropriate for that platform. Such decisions aren’t about “shutting down” points of view; they’re about finding the most valuable ways to use our limited time and resources.

Now there IS a difference between Hanlon’s syllabus and campus speakers. The former allows only a limited number of readings, while campus groups can invite an essentially endless number of speakers. The former reflects the professor’s viewpoint, the latter the diverse viewpoints of college organizations. If the College Democrats invite Elizabeth Warren, the college Republicans can invite Ben Shapiro.  Choosing one doesn’t eliminate the opportunity for the other. Doesn’t Hanlon realize that?

And he doesn’t really tell us what sorts of speakers should  be allowed; only that Ann Coulter should not. Of course if you leave such choices to a consensus vote of the entire student body, you’ll never hear a speaker that goes against Lefist sentiments, or that says anything counter to received ideology.

Near the end of his piece, Hanlon has the temerity to argue that no-platforming was crucial for the success of ancient Greek and Roman society (my emphasis):

But no-platforming is better understood as the kind of value judgment that lies at heart of a liberal arts education—“liberal” referring not to politics, of course, but to the kinds of knowledge the ancient Greeks and Romans believed were necessary for the flourishing of a free person, necessary for full and effective participation in civic life. This has always meant deciding what people needed to know, but also what they don’t need to know—or at least which knowledge and skills deserved priority in one’s formal education.

To which I can reply no better than did Claire Lehmann, editor of Quillette (which you should be reading):

Here’s the miscreant. He’s an English professor, and the professor who argued for censorship in yesterday’s post was in comparative literature. These are disciplines particularly prone to postmodernism, and that’s no accident. I doubt you’ll ever see a biologist or physicist calling for censorship, for we value the clash of ideas.

Aaron Hanlon: Wants moar censorship


h/t: Rodney