Jonathan Parry, in his short history of Sark, doesn’t mention that the island was for a time a haven for those seeking financial secrecy from tax and other authorities (LRB, 18 May). In the second half of the 20th century, a small industry grew whereby, for an annual fee, islanders could be made nominee directors of offshore companies, drawing a convenient veil over who actually owned and ran the businesses. A Home Office review of financial regulation in the Crown Dependencies found that in 1998, Sark’s population of around six hundred people held more than fifteen thousand company directorships between them. One overburdened (or incredibly organised) islander found the time to be a director of three thousand companies. Shortly afterwards, a court decision put a stop to much of what had become known as the ‘Sark Lark’, but a number of the island’s residents simply moved to other offshore jurisdictions such as Vanuatu, Mauritius and Nevis to continue their lucrative work. Parry notes that the de facto ruler of Sark is known as the ‘seigneur’. Because of their eagerness to put their names forward to sit on the boards of companies they knew little or nothing about, the Sark directors were known as the ‘signers’.
Francis Gooding writes about old ordnance being deployed against present-day communities (LRB, 18 May). I think I can say that I once saved the people of Falkirk from being so targeted. When I was a curator at the museum there, the town-centre manager asked to borrow a replica carronade from the collection, with the intention of displaying it in the High Street. It was a short-barrelled cannon made by the town’s Carron Company in the late 18th or early 19th century, most effective when used as an anti-personnel weapon at close range. The carronade’s sadistic potential found a ready market; it turned round the fortunes of the company and was a key element in securing iron founding as the basis of the local economy over the next two centuries.
The town-centre manager reckoned that his proposal would inspire pride in the town’s heritage, and in any case they had a carronade in Dunfermline. I expressed misgivings that celebrating a history of violence wasn’t conducive to generating community well-being, whatever they did in Dunfermline. I added that we could, however, tackle this dissonance directly, for example by quoting the John Lennon lyric ‘Happiness is a warm gun’ on the accompanying information panel. I didn’t hear any more on the subject after that.
Philip Kitcher is right to insist on the social impact of past philosophy, which I facetiously downplayed in my review of his book (Letters, 1 June). But I think he’s wrong about the trajectory of the field in the last fifty years. ‘Philosophy has turned inward,’ Kitcher writes, ‘generating scores of articles whose topics are “A’s defence of Y-ism against B’s version of the Z-objection” … Setiya and I disagree as to whether we should see this (as I do) as a falling-off.’ In fact, there is a prior disagreement, about the sociology of the discipline. As I argued, the complaint that philosophy is aridly technical and inward-looking was already conventional wisdom in the 1970s. In the twenty years since I left graduate school, philosophers have become more, not less, engaged with empirical psychology, physics, social science, gender studies and critical theory, among other fields. At the same time, more philosophers, including younger figures, are writing for audiences outside academia.
Kitcher’s letter picks apart two lines of defence of philosophy as it is. ‘The bolder of the two,’ he writes, ‘is to take the position that all knowledge is to be valued.’ But that was not my claim. What I argued is that philosophical curiosity is justified even when its object is useless knowledge, as there is value in music even when it fails to meet non-musical needs. To say this is not to imply that all knowledge matters or that it all matters equally, however hard it is to gauge what is, or is not, valuable in itself. Kitcher is right that trade-offs must be made, but that is not a reason to conclude that practical inquiries have absolute priority.
The second defence of academic philosophy is that it has moved on from the drab conceptual analysis with which Kitcher associates it. He concedes the point in his letter, but objects that I don’t explain how armchair thinking could arrive at substantive truths. It’s a reasonable question. I didn’t try to answer it, but others have, arguing that the price of dismissing armchair knowledge in philosophy is a disabling scepticism about everyday judgment, or that we can make sense of a priori knowledge in metaphysics by treating logic as a science in its own right. In both ways, armchair thinking is more continuous with other forms of knowledge than Kitcher fears. The philosopher Timothy Williamson has made a trenchant case for this position. There are other ways to vindicate armchair knowledge, but Kitcher doesn’t address them in his book. The irony is that he could do so only by engaging in the narrow, technically demanding work that he disparages. What we need is an article on Kitcher’s defence of pragmatism against Williamson’s version of the continuity objection. I hope someone takes the time to write it.
Erin Maglaque writes that Lauren Berlant ‘used the non-binary pronoun in professional life’ (LRB, 18 May). Of course Berlant had every right to do so – as much right as Queen Victoria had to the use of ‘we’ when referring to herself. Others may have done the same, out of respect, when speaking to or of Berlant. But that is not a compelling reason for Maglaque to do it now, after Berlant’s death.
In the article I think I can detect some occurrences of ‘Berlant’ where ‘they’ might have been written instead. Perhaps, like me, Maglaque feels a bit uncomfortable with the non-binary form and tried to minimise the use of this clumsy contrivance. Instead of third-person pronouns, binary or otherwise, she could have referred to Berlant by name in all cases, as I did in the first paragraph of this letter. But to forgo the use of personal pronouns throughout the article would have made it even more stilted and unnatural.
Using one word for two different jobs is always an impediment to clarity. Consider the passage: ‘Berlant was unusual not only in their attention to seemingly superficial feelings and desires, but also in their refusal to pass judgment on them, no matter how irrational or self-limiting. They used their own incoherent desires as raw material.’ Here ‘they’ and ‘their’ refer to Berlant, but the antecedent of ‘them’ must be ‘feelings and desires’. Writing ‘she’ in place of ‘they’ and ‘her’ in place of ‘their’, while leaving ‘them’ unchanged, would have made for easier reading. In fact, Berlant herself sometimes abandoned non-binary usage. The ‘comic epitaph’ she wrote uses the conventional feminine third-person singular pronoun: ‘She did what she could do at the time.’
Instead of ‘they’ we need a different word to serve as a common (ungendered) third-person singular personal pronoun. My own preference is for ‘tha’ (nominative and objective case; possessive, ‘tha’s’). It can be thought of as either a singular form of ‘they’ or an apocopated version of ‘that’. Even then some ambiguity will remain. ‘Tha’ is already a word in English. It is the dialectal pronunciation of ‘thou’ in some parts of the North of England, where it is used as a second-person singular.
Adam Mars-Jones, writing about James Purdy, mentions that Gordon Lish was ‘influenced by the example of Purdy’s style’ (LRB, 18 May). Indeed, as I reported in my biography of Raymond Carver, published in 2009, Lish imitated Purdy in ‘every respect’ for his sense of the ‘dark, the unexplained, the uncanny’ as he took his scalpel to Carver’s manuscripts and tried to create the ‘New Fiction’ he had promised to the publisher of Esquire, Arnold Gingrich. Heavily edited, ‘Are These Actual Miles?’ – the first of Carver’s stories to appear in Esquire – became ‘What Is It?’ Carver told his first wife, Maryann Burk Carver, that he’d change the story back when he could afford to do so. He restored his original title in the collection Where I’m Calling From, but he never chose – or bothered? – to restore the text.
William Davies quotes Paul Campos’s remark that ‘political allegiances can also be understood as a form of sublimated fandom,’ commenting that ‘Trump is one result of this’ (LRB, 18 May). He might have added that fandom is one of Trump’s chief ways of expressing his relationships with the world.
Among the people and things he is not a fan of are his former sycophant Ron DeSantis, his one-time buddy Jeffrey Epstein, Meghan Markle, sharks and cryptocurrency. He has ‘never been a fan of’ Harvey Weinstein or the Vietnam War; and he ‘never was a fan’ of the late Senator John McCain, ‘and never will be’. With Trump it’s mostly a matter of non-allegiances. You can, however, readily find a video clip of him from 2019 telling Recep Tayyip Erdoğan he’s a ‘big fan’, and another from 2016 in which he tells the audience at a fundraiser in New Jersey that ‘I am a big fan of Hindu and a big fan of India.’ As early as 2007, he sent a letter to Vladimir Putin: ‘As you probably have heard, I am a big fan of yours!’ To that allegiance, at least, he remains true.
James Meek writes about voter ID (LRB, 4 May). A full assessment of the impact of requiring voters to show photographic ID in May’s local elections isn’t yet available, though one group, Democracy Volunteers, found that at the polling stations they observed, more than 1 per cent of voters were turned away.
In a parliamentary election a discrepancy of 1 per cent in turnout could involve fewer than four or five hundred votes. In the 2017 general election, 31 seats were won with a majority of less than 1 per cent of votes cast. The majorities ranged from two to 348, with eleven constituencies decided by fewer than a hundred votes. Labour won Kensington by twenty votes, or 0.05 per cent: the Tories won the seat back in 2019 with an 0.34 per cent majority, or 150 votes. In 2019, the Conservatives gained the contested seat of Blyth Valley from Labour by 1.74 per cent, or 712 votes.
You don’t need to be an expert to predict that, without significant promotional activity and adjustments to the rules on accepted forms of identification before the 2024 general election, there will be tension over any result where the margin is narrow and a number of people are turned away and do not return to cast their votes.
Rosemary Hill’s piece on Kettle’s Yard reminded me of my first visit in the early 1970s (LRB, 18 May). I wandered happily for some time until I noticed the place had gone very quiet. Going downstairs I found that I was locked in and the staff and visitors were all gone. Fortunately the lock was only a Yale so I quietly let myself out, shutting the door behind me. A more recent visit revealed that security has been considerably tightened.
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