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Letters

Vol. 20 No. 15 · 30 July 1998

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Plato’s Gulag

Charles Simic (Letters, 2 July) is right to see similarity between Plato’s ideas and Stalin’s. With characteristic effrontery, Plato actually cites great wickedness as proof that, given the right education, you can produce people with the talents and virtues needed to rule the ideal city: ‘It is the best endowed souls, is it not, who become outstandingly bad when they receive a bad education. Great crimes and pure wickedness come from a vigorous nature corrupted by its upbringing. A weak nature is incapable of either great good or great evil.’ According to Plato, if Stalin had been brought up in the ideal city, he would have become a paragon of virtue.

Plato wants Utopia to be brought about by persuasion and argument, not revolutionary force, which he deplored. He is not imagining a philosopher taking over a modern nation state, but the founding of a new city. That was not an unusual event in the Greek world, and it is important that, by our standards, Greek cities were very small. To get the right perspective on Plato’s project, we might think of the communities that Shakers and other groups founded in New England. Maybe in Maine, where Simic writes his wonderful and disturbing poems.

M.F. Burnyeat
All Souls College, Oxford

The Old Country

Thomas Laqueur brings a gratifying seriousness and an almost puzzling variety of argument to his discussion of my book Shtetl: The History of a Small Town and an Extinguished World (LRB, 4 June). In his summaries of events, however, there are several instances in which he selects evidence quite tendentiously. For example, when referring to an important debate about the status of the Jews at the end of the 18th century, he focuses on one anti-semitic phrase used by a Polish Enlightenment thinker, while omitting to mention that this liberal’s views and proposals were nearly identical to those embraced by progressive Haskalic Jews. In my examination of peasant attitudes toward Jews, I try to show that notions of Otherness were fascinatingly mixed, and that Jews were not seen – as Laqueur puts it – ‘as a sort of evil incarnate’. Nor can one properly speak, as Laqueur does, of a ‘history of national anti-semitic legislation’ in Poland. Before Poland was partitioned at the end of the 18th century, there were indeed local anti-semitic laws, together with ones granting Jews considerable privileges. During the brief interwar period of national sovereignty, the only piece of anti-semitic legislation, forbidding ritual slaughter, was passed in 1938, and never enforced. Even in an increasingly anti-semitic period, when university students used ugly tactics to enforce the numerus clausus, right-wing factions found it impossible to pass laws requiring a quota system in the Seym (Parliament). Finally, for the sake of accuracy: in the painful episode of 1968, some 20,000 Jews emigrated from Poland, not 99,000 as Laqueur asserts; it is unclear how many were left, but there were certainly more than his figure of a thousand (estimates for the number of Jews living in Poland now have been revised upwards to as many as 25,000).

Laqueur upbraids me for writing a ‘nationalist history’, but it is he who seems to want to return us to a history of intrinsic qualities and attitudes. One of my chief aims in Shtetl was to decode a very powerful national stereotype and try to analyse the circumstances in which prejudices remain dormant, and those in which they erupt into active hostility and violence (something we still need to understand urgently today). Laqueur’s rejoinder takes us back to square one: in his view, anti-semitism is the underlying, essential – finally, the only significant – feature defining Polish-Jewish relations. His explanation for the ‘rich culture’ of Polish Jews is that it was ‘shaped by both the spiritual and the legal structures of anti-semitism’, just as African American jazz and religion were shaped by racism. But such spurious analogies – pace William Styron – can only spring from a fundamental misunderstanding of both peoples’ histories. While Polish Jews experienced constraints imposed by prejudice and minority position, they were not burdened with the terrible legacy of slavery; indeed, their communities, laws, political institutions and economic life developed in conditions of far-reaching autonomy. To say that their culture was shaped by anti-semitism is surely a grievous injustice to the many generations of Jews who nurtured their traditions with zeal and energetically insisted on retaining their specific and separate identity.

Laqueur concludes that ‘the world would be safer … if we relied less on culture and more on constitutions.’ I could not agree more, although he seems to think I argue the opposite. Given that I explicitly and repeatedly emphasise the importance of political institutions, I can only conjecture that Laqueur is implicitly answering his own German-Jewish grandfather, whom he describes as ‘a passionate believer in the redemptive power of Kultur’, and whose faith was, of course, cruelly betrayed. I believe this elision suggests the extent to which Laqueur has read my book through a particular, and perhaps a personal, lens.

Eva Hoffman
London NW6

Hello!

Why on earth does Fred Inglis (Letters, 16 July) suppose that because I publish my recollections of two meetings with the late Enoch Powell, and use the adjective ‘remarkable’ to describe him, I must therefore share his political views? In any case, on the occasion when I remember his scoring points to good effect against his discussants the issue wasn’t immigration policy but the National Health Service, about whose inescapable dilemmas he was (dare I say?) remarkably prescient.

W.G. Runciman
London NW8

Agitflop

Aidan Foster-Carter (Letters, 16 July) is wrong about the Lao loudspeakers: they were still operating in Vientiane last year, providing a cost-effective version of a Walkman to those jogging along the banks of the Mekong in the early morning. They have not left the people in peace, nor do they ‘harangue the masses’. They relay state radio, leaving one wondering if the Lao news bulletins are preferable to the Radio One versions wafting across the river from Thailand.

In a country short on mass media (Lao, not Thai) public speakers provide some communication at least. The most interesting example of mass communication I came across – in a remote village – was a van with loud-hailer lumbering down a rutted road offering small fortunes for aphrodisiac lizard supplies.

David Mason
Tillington, Hereford

Sonic Boom

Let’s see if we’ve got this straight. John Sturrock (LRB, 16 July) thinks that clarity and rigour are admirable qualities in the natural sciences, but dispensable or even deleterious in the humanities and the social sciences. And he has the chutzpah to accuse us of insulting our humanist colleagues?

Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont
London SW7 & Louvain-la-Neuve

Hearing one of the visiting hackettes on Radio Four’s Start the Week confessing how her young life had been blighted by having to read Derrida is enough to establish that what the world needs now is a negative review of Sokal and Bricmont. But John Sturrock fluffs it. He wants to defend Bruno Latour against the authors’ charge that he confuses scientific theory and scientific pedagogy (Einstein’s in this case) – and, more broadly, that he confuses scientists’ theories with how and why they launch them. Sturrock says: ‘If I’ve got this right, they’re saying that the theory of relativity as propounded by Einstein, and the theory in its ideal, unpropounded state are not identical, because the act of propounding introduces an agent who is necessarily a reference-point in space-time that the “theory itself" can do without; in which event, it beats me how we can ever have access to the theory except through pedagogy, which I take to be the sum of those real-life moments when the theory is communicated by one person to others.’ This is the kind of garbage that a not very bright sixth-former might hope to pass off as a philosophical argument. Sturrock should hang his head in shame.

James Russell
Department of Experimental Psychology, Cambridge

I was disappointed by John Sturrock’s article on Sokal and Bricmont. Despite an attack mounted with passion and peevishness, he doesn’t find any clear line of argument. But then a clear line of argument is not the kind of thing with which he’d wish to be associated! One can appreciate his claim that in the humanities the process of carrying out daring intellectual pirouettes is often the heart of the matter, and not a distraction. But this misses the point that the French writers concerned were trying, by the very use of scientific comparisons which is in question, to move beyond that, to suggest that their particular trapeze acts were not only exciting but rooted in a privileged position. Nobody, in Sturrock’s view, was ever convinced that these claims constituted a cogent argument: apparently everyone saw them as a ‘floorshow, without seeing any need to determine their truth value’. So, that’s all right then.

His next line is that ‘clarity and univocity’ are ‘inappropriate’ except in the discourse of Sokal and Bricmont’s own disciplines, ‘formal and stunted as this is called on to be’. Well, neither Sokal and Bricmont nor science as a whole have asked for ‘univocity’ – Sturrock clearly has little acquaintance with scientific debate. But to throw away clarity quite so casually is a more damaging concession than he realises. And would he like to specify why he believes a debate concerned with reaching as objective an agreement as we can achieve to be ‘stunted’? This is a defence witness who proves more useful to the prosecution.

Hugh Macpherson
Edinburgh

John Sturrock begins his review of Sokal and Bricmont’s book by attempting to incriminate them by association (with that illustre inconnu, Ivor Brown), but not even a bad case of galloping francophilia (of which I was a victim for a number of years) can justify the nonsense being put about by these Parisian intellectuals and their disciples around the world. Those of us who find Kristeva, Lacan and tutti quanti plain silly are not a bunch of anti-theoretical empiricists. Theory may be speculative, but it must contain at least some potential for proof. It ought, moreover, to be expressed in language of some clarity (at least to specialists), rather than being wrapped in clouds of obscurity so thick that no rain can possibly come from them.

Jeffry Kaplow
London SE3

There are more than two million known chemical compounds: they are all interconnected and there is no contradiction in the whole edifice. The linguistic confusions that hung about the birth of chemistry – such as, what is a truly simple substance? – have faded into irrelevance with the appearance of this chemical edifice. The individual refutable proposition is the staple of philosophy and the reason that it never makes any progress: the interlocking web is the staple of science and the reason it does. It may be anathema to John Sturrock but science really is ‘all langue and no parole’.

Peter Forbes
Editor, Poetry Review, London N2

John Sturrock was delighted to discover Luce Irigaray quoted as arguing that ‘the 20th century’s most resonant (and sinister) equation, E=MC2, may be sexist for having “privileged the speed of light" or “what goes fastest" over other velocities.’ He then argues that ‘in the intellectual world in which Irigaray functions, far better wild and contentious theses of this sort than the stultifying rigour so inappropriately demanded by Sokal and Bricmont’. He wants us to be ‘exposed to more arguments, good as well as bad’, so that ‘the science we barely understand is … forced to be as explicit’ as possible.

How saying ‘E=MC2 is sexist’ forces science to be more explicit is beyond me. Perhaps my wits have been made dull by the ‘stultifying rigour’ of scientific method. If bad arguments are as good as good ones, why not let M stand for Tinkerbell and E stand for jouissance?

David Powell
Diss, Norfolk

John Sturrock suggests that for the editors of Social Text, Sokal’s ‘spoof’ article was just one more bit of intellectual excitement: its ‘truth’ or ‘correctness’ totally irrelevant. That’s scary enough. But then why didn’t they publish the explanatory piece that Sokal submitted to them? That would have added to the fizzle in their journal.

D.R. Hughes
Siena

Sokal and Bricmont must have been very gratified to receive a review that so perfectly exemplified their thesis and so amply justified their concerns. And how generous of you to choose as their reviewer someone who is not afraid to declare openly that frank nonsense adds to ‘intellectual provocations’ and is a legitimate part of lively debate. On the other hand, if John Sturrock really is your consulting editor, what on earth do you consult him on? Hopefully not on whether the articles you print make any sense.

Roger Bacon
Cambridge Psychotherapy Practice

John Sturrock’s fractured, incoherent, pointless, headless piece causes me to suspect that his senses have been assailed by a sonic boom of sorts.

Roy Faibish
London SW10

Halley Dry and Halley Moist

Semi-popular but ‘inexcusably dull’ and accessible only to scientific specialists, defiantly ‘old-fashioned’ in its perfunctory dismissal of social constructivism, the work of a scientist rather than a professional historian: such are the terms in which Steven Shapin (LRB, 2 July) castigates Alan Cook’s Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas. Reviewers who pontificate from professional high ground should be a bit more careful. Cook’s book addresses the scientifically literate public. Unlike the semi-popular biographies with which Shapin unfavourably compares it, Cook’s work presents important archival discoveries which add significantly to our knowledge of Halley’s life and social circumstances and his wide-ranging contributions to the sciences. As evidence of inaccessibility to all but ‘professional astronomers or geophysicists’, Shapin cites Cook’s mentions of ‘collimation’, ‘nutation’, ‘libration’ and ‘the Coriolis force’. GCSE science students know what the Coriolis force is; and the others, far from being advanced technical terms, were well established in Halley’s time and can readily be looked up in the Concise Oxford Dictionary. As for dullness, well, it’s a matter of taste. Cook is chary of the fruity tales of low life and high living spread about by Halley’s enemies; and his Halley is indeed on the dry side. Shapin is less fastidious, and the Halley he sketches is exceedingly moist.

As for Cook’s alleged dismissal of social constructivism, Shapin is disingenuous. The issue is not, as he implies, whether ‘passions and personality’ have a role in the establishment of scientific facts. Shapin is generally acknowledged as an architect of the social constructivist approach to the history of the sciences, and he well knows that this involves more than platitudes about the need for energy, sociability and sound judgment of people in the collaborative enterprises of the sciences. Thus Leviathan and the Air Pump, which he co-authored, concludes that ‘as we come to recognise the conventional and artefactual status of our forms of knowing, we put ourselves in the position to realise that it is ourselves and not reality that are responsible for what we know.’ Such is the provocative claim from which Cook distances himself when he remarks in his preface that ‘the “construction" of science is not a subjective undertaking; it must agree with the empirical structure of the world around us.’ Shapin counters this moderate empiricism by associating Cook’s good-natured and scholarly book with ‘the Science Wars that are threatening to poison our cultural conversations’. Insensitivity to the contents of the sciences, macho images of scientists, misplaced professional élitism, insolent reviewing – these, I think, rank higher among the real enemies of conversation about the sciences.

Nicholas Jardine
Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge

Feathered Wombs

I may be belated in this reply to Maud Sulter’s terse dismissal (Letters, 4 June) of Zoë Heller’s review of Toni Morrison’s latest novel Paradise, but Sulter’s remarks continue to unsettle me with their assumptions and appropriations. Certainly, the review was less than sympathetic, and seemed to argue that Morrison’s work is increasingly unworthy of the accolades accorded her. This may or may not be the case, but I did not feel that Heller was claiming to be an authority on black women’s writing; nor, indeed, that such a position would be helpful. Heller was responding to Paradise in tones of critical disappointment. Sulter’s stance implies that Morrison’s work can only be viewed in relation to its place in the canon of black women’s writing, a reductive approach which valorises commonality at the expense of diversity. Nor does it change the possibility that Heller is right, and that Morrison has fallen prey to the kind of cloying ‘woman-imagery’ in which Adrienne Rich glories. Feathers, wombs, fiddle-headed ferns – mercifully, this is not the sum of what women, black or white, write about.

Kym Martindale
Bristol

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