Tuesday, April 05, 2005


In the comments section of a recent post, Evan brought up a very good counterintuition to the case I've been making about identity-studies programs:
I'm a classicist. If it weren't for the discipline's long standing in the academy, mightn't it be possible to disparage as "Ancient Mediterranean Studies" or something similar? Is this just another self-conscious cloistering of literarture and historical interest to a "demographic" or can it be distinguished? There's a lot of gray area in here, so where to draw the line?
Before I try to answer that, I want to talk about something Evan didn't explicitly address, but that came to my mind through a bit of free association.

One of the dirtier rhetorical/argumentative tricks that gets deployed all too often, especially in political discourse, is the idea that vagueness about a property implies the non-existence or invalidity of that property. You see this all the time in talk about moral and political distinctions: some fat-headed pundit will say, "It's unclear where to draw the line about x, so in fact, there's really no distinction at all." A concrete example? "Who can say for sure at what definitive point life begins? Therefore we must err on the side of life and assume that it begins at conception." Apply the same thinking to Evan's example, and you've got one of the most bothersome tropes of the academic left: There's no clear distinction between which fields are valuable or appropriate (refer to my thoughts on value and appropriateness in the post cited above), therefore there is no distinction to be made at all.

Either iteration, and really all iterations of this logic, are simply vapid. Vagueness is the omnipresent problem in any effort to relate appearance and reality, regardless of how abstract the level of relatibility. Notice that you don't see this kind of thing cropping up in ordinary (and flipping obvious) vagueness cases: No one says that because the line between baldness and not-baldness is indeterminate, baldness doesn't exist.

As a matter of fact---refer to the argument I tried to explain and comment on here--- a thorough-going look at vagueness is going to lead back to the quantifier itself. Who wants to claim that nothing exists just in case existence-statements are indeterminate in truth value?

The first step out of this mess is supervaluationism, which, simply put, is a way of looking at every coherent means of making a particular vague distinction precise, and seeing which states of affairs wind up super-p or super-~p. E.g., under every possible precissification of baldness, someone who has no hair comes out bald, and is thus super-bald.

Reverting back to Evan's comment, this much needs to be said: whether or not my substantive reply to his question is sufficient, it's still the case that if my criticism of identity-studies was valid in the first place, the fact that there are derivable indeterminacies doesn't invalidate the criticism.

Now, Evan's example is not actually the most problematic counterpoint he could have adduced. In the case of classics, we could say something like the social fact of our discontinuity from the ancient Greeks and Romans shields classics from the critique of WGSS. But how then, would we deal with something like Germanic Studies or Slavic Studies? My intuition is this: While those programs do single out slices of humanity upon which to focus, they seem to do so with the explicit intent of reincorporating them with in a larger frame of reference. Not so, based on my experience, with identity-studies. So perhaps my original critique needs refinement; the problemata do not arise simply out of attenuating one's humanism to focus on a particular cultural perspective, but on top of that, doing so with an express militancy and hostility towards the rest of the humanities. That, anyway, is the best I can do for now, though I'm not really satisfied and I need to think about this more.


Post a Comment

<< Home

  • E-mail me: Dan Koffler
  • My YDN Column: Smashing Idols
  • The Reasonsphere
  • Hit & Run
  • Matt Welch
  • Julian Sanchez
  • Jesse Walker
  • Virginia Postrel
  • Tim Cavanaugh
  • Ringers
  • Andrew Sullivan
  • Josh Marshall
  • Crooked Timber
  • Matthew Yglesias
  • Kevin Drum
  • John Cole
  • Leiter Reports
  • Pharyngula
  • Gregory Djerjian
  • Atrios
  • Mickey Kaus
  • Jim Henley
  • Radley Balko
  • TNR's Plank
  • Balkinization
  • Glenn Greenwald
  • Thomas Knapp
  • Justin Logan
  • Laura Rozen
  • Mark Kleiman
  • Print Culture
  • Arthur Silber
  • Tom Tomorrow
  • James Wolcott
  • OxBlog
  • Eric Muller
  • Majikthise
  • Pandagon
  • The American Scene
  • Daniel Drezner
  • Will Wilkinson
  • The Volokh Conspiracy
  • Intel Dump
  • Prequels
  • Johan Ugander
  • Dan Munz
  • Josh Eidelson
  • Future Less Vivid
  • Sequels
  • (not)Delino Deshields
  • Actual God
  • Hidden Hand
  • I am justice
  • Death/Media Incarnate
  • (not)Marquis Grissom
  • Yanqui At Cambridge
  • Beneficent Allah
  • Mr. Wrongway
  • The Hippolytic
  • Discourse Decision
  • Tight Toy Night
  • Mulatto Jesus
  • Sago Boulevard
  • Immortalized Stillicide
  • Nick's Corner
  • Dead Trees
  • Reason
  • Dissent
  • The New Republic
  • The New Yorker
  • The Atlantic Monthly
  • The American Prospect
  • Arts & Letters Daily
  • The Economist
  • The Nation
  • Yale Daily News
  • Virtual Reality
  • Wikipedia
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Symbolic Logic into HTML
  • Slate
  • Salon
  • The Huffington Post
  • Crooks and Liars
  • The Smoking Gun
  • The Smoking Gun: Bill O'Reilly
  • Romenesko
  • The Christopher Hitchens Web
  • Draft Russ
  • Rotten.com's Library
  • Urban Dictionary
  • Homestar Runner
  • Planet Rugby
  • Flex Online
  • Card Player Magazine
  • Gawker & Such
  • News
  • Politics
  • Gambling
  • Gossip (NY edition)
  • Gossip (LA edition)
  • Cool Shit
  • Cars
  • Video Games
  • Photoshop Fun &c.
  • Travel
  • MacGuyver Yourself
  • Porn
  • Prepare For The Worst
  • Bull Moose Blog
  • The Corner
  • Instapundit
  • Reel Blogs
  • BathTubYoga
  • More TK
  • R.I.P.
  • Jamie Kirchick
  • That Girl