The Essence of Things

Recently, I’ve stumbled on another paradox which I find difficult to resolve: it’s to do with “essentializing”, a term which has become popular and which is generally used to shame someone. Essentializing means: to concentrate on an essence, or even to claim an essence of things, cultures, any concept really, and then to generalize. In Germany, it is mostly used in cultural contexts: somebody says something about a culture, and then we hear the reproach: “you’re essentializing”. Sometimes, it is true; and sometimes, it’s more an instrument of silencing people. A classical example would be a claim like “Englishmen are known for a stiff upper lip.” Now, that is a common stereotype, which the English have earned by having produced quite a few Englishmen who indeed have a stiff upper lip. Nevertheless, quite a few don’t. That’s obvious, and here the problem starts!
As Germany has become very concerned about how to stop racism right at it roots, we have become accustomed to watchfulness. Since we don’t want to become racist or utter things which might pave the way for racism, generalizing about cultures is generally denounced, because it lends itself to stereotyping and then racism. So far, so good; but as with the example shown, sometimes there is a grain of truth in certain claims, which is not to say that all English people have a secret “stiff upper lip”, but rather that this attitude is well-known and widespread, even though not all English are like that.
There is a reason for cultural misunderstandings: it is precisely that cultures are different. It does not mean that people from different cultures cannot get along, it just means that we have to know other cultures in order to understand them. No one would argue against there being a difference between, say, the English culture and the Chinese culture; thus, ample opportunity for misunderstandings.
So, we might want to ignore that, but it isn’t particularly helpful when going abroad or communicating with people from other cultures. People interested in emigration, for example, do well by studying another culture. Now, if we say that cultures don’t have any essence at all, then we cannot study cultures, because there is nothing to study in the first place. And this is precisely where the whole thing becomes paradox and difficult to grasp.
I do see the point of why “essentializing” can be dangerous and why we should question what we say about other cultures. And it is obvious that cultures are rather divergent, that every culture has subcultures and that these won’t necessarily agree in all points. So, generalizing is not a good idea, and it can be used for racism.
Nevertheless, every nation also possesses stereotypes of which it is proud: the French are proud of their relaxed way of life and their famous cuisine, Arabs are known for hospitality and they treasure it, the British are famous for their humor and they also insist on it, Germans are known for punctuality, and they are also proud of it. Needless to say that not all people of a nation share those characteristics, but I still think it’s sad that it has become so very dangerous to say any such thing.

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Professor of Envy

As I said before, our literature department is bizarre, and sometimes it’s downright mean. A fellow student had a very disturbing experience: when you start German studies, in most universities you’ll have to pass a class called “Introduction to the Study of Literature”. At our department, this class is feared and loathed. It serves as a sieve, to filter good from bad students, and to get rid of some right in the beginning; it’s heavy on seriously difficult theory, extremely dense; thus, our average of failing grades is about 80%. You may repeat, but if you fail twice, you’ll be expelled. You can imagine the pressure.
Now this fellow student is very bright; she’s well-read, she is quick, she has analytical thinking, and she mostly passes exams with the highest grades. She did the exam, and then imagine her surprise when she was summoned to the grading professor who told her she’d failed. She asked, why? The professor explained that she’d received the failing grade because she’d cheated. The student (I’ll call her X) couldn’t believe it since she had not, in fact, cheated. She said so. The professor answered: “Oh, but I’m quite sure, you MUST have cheated.” X: “But why??? You can’t possibly prove it, since I really didn’t, so how can you just make me fail??” Prof: “Well, it’s like this. To write an analysis as good as this one, I would have needed to give it to a corrector three times over. Now, since you’re a student in your first semester, it’s obviously impossible that you should have managed in one go. Evidently, you cheated. You wrote the analysis before and then copied it down.”
Can you believe it? Well, X couldn’t. She was infuriated, she said so, yet the professor wouldn’t relent. Now the thing is, it’s actually impossible to cheat in the analysis part of this exam, as you get a literary text never discussed before, usually rather obscure, nothing you’ll have seen before; you get some questions, which are also unknown, and then you have to work with the text and apply analysis as learned during the semester.
Thus, it seems impossible to prepare a text beforehand, because there’s simply no saying which piece of literature you will have to work with! Still, the professor didn’t sway, and since X had not cheated but now understood that her text was extremely good, she was not ready to swallow this. She went to the dean with a formal complaint. Since the professor could not display any proof, she was asked to withdraw her accusation of cheating. So she did; she let X pass with a “C”. Apparently, there were some serious faults in the analysis.

Are People Good?

Recently, I mentioned that politics usually follow one’s idea of mankind. In order for socialism to work, people need to be good, or otherwise the socialist’s state’s head will exploit the people – something witnessed in every socialist state so far. Conservative politics assume a morally deficient humanity, and therefore people need to be restrained.
So the question for everyone remains: what do you believe? Do you think people are essentially good, or do you think they need harness?
Personally, I don’t subscribe to the idea of essentially good people. I do believe that every person has some goodness, that everyone has wonderful attributes in some degree; in some people, these seem more cultivated than in others. Nevertheless, I don’t think that anyone is essentially good. Every person also has a negative side, and in some it prevails quite obviously – as in murderers and such. So is a murderer a bad person but others are good people? This distinction falls short of reality. Some say: “there are a few bad ones, but the rest is good”. In order to find an honest answer to this, I suggest a look at history.
Think of the Third Reich. A whole people became guilty of the murder of 6 million Jews. Yes, not everyone pulled the trigger, but nearly everyone was accessory to the crime, since the proceedings in work camps were well-known. The German people elected Hitler in full awareness of his propaganda, as he had not sought to mask his intentions. Of course there were German resistance fighters, but the majority chose to accept Hitler’s plans and supported it.
Are Germans a particularly bad people? Again, I don’t think so. Ever heard of the Turkish genocide against the Armenians? The difference isn’t that big to the German crime – death marches, work camps, mass killings, poison, about 1,5 million dead. (Less people dead, but unfortunately the Germans are always very efficient.) Or think of the Japanese vs. the Chinese and the Koreans. Or think of China vs. Tibet, or simply the Chinese cultural revolution, which was no less brutal in China itself. Think of Burma. North Korea. Remember Stalin, remember Ceauşescu. Think of the brutal system of slavery in the USA, but also the colonization history of Europe in Africa (no less brutal). Think of the cruel past of the Aztecs, or remember the Hutu and Tutsi.
I’ll stop here for two reasons: a) the list would go on and on and on and on and….!, b) it’s really depressing. But I challenge anyone who believes in an essential goodness of humanity to look up the keywords above, and you’ll see ever the same: baseness, cruelty, so-called “inhuman” behavior that, unfortunately, animals rarely ever stoop to, sheer hatred and evil. For some reason, evil mostly looks the same – the methods/proceedings in all those different countries I mentioned are shockingly similar.
I believe the German crime is the most horrifying because it produced so terribly many victims. And because of the unbelievable death toll, the Holocaust has a singular position in history. Nevertheless, the Germans aren’t the only ones who committed horrible crimes against humanity; it happens all over the globe. John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton,

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

first Baron Acton also feared the dark side of humanity and assumed this general problem  would surface once you give a person power: “Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Why do people abuse power if not because of a moral deficiency?
I’ll conclude with this very old quote:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.
Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.
The venom of asps is under their lips.
Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
(Romans 3:10-18, the Bible, ESV)

On Tolerance and its Meaning

Every era has its obsessions and its formative ideas, and in every era there is one word that marks the zeitgeist. For example, people around 1900 obsessed about “progress”: progress in the sciences, progress in society, progress of humanity.
Today, one of the catchwords is tolerance. Everything seems to be about tolerance, and where other eras focussed on virtues like loyalty, honesty, and industriousness, today’s main virtue towering above everything else is tolerance. A person is no longer highly esteemed because s/he is loyal, but more so if s/he tolerates people who don’t share the same attribute.
Of course, tolerance is important for any society; if people can’t tolerate each other, this leads to violence and war. However, the word “tolerance” has become a carte blanche for just about any opinion; in popular parlance, “tolerance” just means: “accept and agree with every opinion”. To judge any opinion today makes one suspicious, because everyone demands absolute acceptance. Used in this manner, tolerance is a tool for gagging others. It is a misconception. You can do something offensive to others, and when people criticize you, it’s permissible to say: “This is my lifestyle, this is my opinion, I like it, and you should tolerate it, or you’re intolerant. And what gives you the right to judge?” Indeed, having a judgmental mindset isn’t exactly an endearing quality. However, the trend for “tolerance” has developped into the other extreme: you may NOT hint at any criticism.
Such a climate is restrictive, it also nips any possibility for debate in the bud. This is why freedom of expression was originally valued so highly by most democratic societies: because being able to utter deviant expressions is what makes for checks of balance. Whenever there is only one ruling mindset, totalitarianism is just around the corner! Freedom of expression means that we are allowed to say: “I don’t agree with you. I think you’re wrong.” Having a right to criticize doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to be judgmental or disrespectful; it is perfectly possible to criticize someone’s actions or ideas and still treat this person with due respect as a fellow and equal human. It is a question of how we utter criticism.
I would like to quote the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of tolerance:

“the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with.”

Please note: “… that one dislikes or disagrees with“! When I tolerate someone’s opinion, it does not mean I have to share it! It also doesn’t mean I have to like it, and it doesn’t mean I have to agree! This is not tolerance, even though people use it this way! Tolerance means that I “tolerate the existence” of divergent opinions, implying that I will not try to erase someone, I will not fight them. But it also implies that I don’t have to like what they’re doing.

To everyone who uses “tolerance” as a request to accept their ideas: please note this. The wording you’re looking for is: “Please accept my opinion”, or: “Please agree with me”, not: “You have to tolerate me”. In effect, tolerance means to leave someone be who I don’t agree with. Don’t try to gag others with “tolerance”, or you might just become intolerant yourself.

Super Short Introduction to Postmodern Theory IV – Political Dogma

In my third part on postmodern theory, I stated that politics have become the new morals in the postmodern university. However, this needs some clarification: when I say “politics”, I mean leftist politics. The true postmodern thinker can absolutely not be conservative or leaning towards the right, which is something the student will discover in time.
When I started my studies, I didn’t get that immediately, nor did I have much interest in politics. What I did notice, though, was that the theories I was taught to work with had only one possible outcome: criticizing the system. Since politics were rarely ever named, and since I was naive in the beginning, I wondered: how is it that when I analyze any given text with those theories, I end up pointing to “the system” and its deficiencies? When voicing this to my father, who is not a humanist but a scientist, he said immediately: “Aaaah, system? That’s marxism, darling. You’re using marxist theory.” – “What? No, no, this is not politics, this is about literature!” – “Darling, you’re clueless. Why do you think you end up with the system instead of literary symbolism or whatever?”

Cats Eyes

GULP. I’m now in politics.  (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Indeed! I was so naive… it was then that I started questioning the origins of theories. Edward Said/Orientalism? Check. Postcolonialism in general? Check. Foucault and the discourse? Check. Derrida? Check. Bourdieu? Check. Judith Butler? Check. I could go on an on, the list is long and covers nearly all theorists I had to study. Having realized how obvious the political aspect was and how little I had questioned it in my first semester, I felt foolish and fooled. (And to think that I started my studies because I was interested in literature, not in politics.) It’s not a question of political conviction but one of intellectual honesty. In Germany, we have laws for the educational system, and those include politics: no teacher or professor is allowed to teach students one specific political worldview! When politics are introduced, they need to be balanced by explaining the views of both sides, not just one. And this is where my studies fail. In the end, I felt like I didn’t study “literary theory”, which I was told it was, but marxist theory. I’m an educated marxist. Isn’t that great. I should apply for jobs with that qualification.

Hire Us

… because we’re educated in marxism.
(Photo credit: Dita Margarita)

The problem is not that we learn marxist theory, the problem is a) that it wasn’t taught as such and b) that it was presented without alternative. Not only did we not read conservative thinkers, we were even taught against it. “Moral” means politically engaged, and only as a leftist. My father was quite right when he pointed to the word “system”. Everyone can agree that our society is troubled, yet the question is why. Conservative thinkers say: there is a problem with mankind, so we need to keep it in check. Leftist thinkers say: there is a problem with the system, which corrupts mankind, so we need to abolish the system. This is an axiom that is at the base of it all and which decides on the future outlook. While conservatives tend to fault mankind for our social problems and therefore don’t see the answer in any specific system but in keeping mankind in check, leftists see things reversed: mankind is essentially good but the system is bad and thus corrupts us, and once we correct the system, mankind will be corrected as well. Essentially, these two views on human nature define your outlook on politics.

Now I’d like to point at the origins of German educational laws: the whole world knows what Germany did in the ’30s and ’40s, and everyone also knows that the Nazis were enabled to commit their crimes because they were very skilled in the art of brainwashing people, meaning Nazi propaganda. They taught their ideas in school. When you look at school books of that era, you will find such irrational claims as Jews having different head shapes than the brave German etc; the old antisemitist idea of Jews spreading sicknesses etc, all that can be found in those school books. Thus, children grew up knowing no better than the horrible Nazi ideology, and as Germany became a new nation after WWII, the whole point of our constitution was: how to avoid EVER falling into such depravity again. This is why political partisanship may not be taught in schools and universities: we don’t want any more totalitarian education, and therefore plurality is the key.
Obviously, I don’t mean to equate literary theory with Nazi propaganda, not at all. But I do think that our one-sided education provides a totalitarian outlook, even though it diverges completely from Nazi thought. Marxists like to claim that their ideology is supremely moral and thus needs no counter balance, but guess what, that’s the only claim every political ideology shares. Recently, a debate has started about freedom of opinion and expression in Germany, since most of the media present the same picture, and certain things can’t be said without getting judged with morality. The trend has been such: you may never criticize or blame a group directly, otherwise you’re intolerant and evil. This is our great silencing weapon. And since it seems to permeate our whole society, be it the media or our education system, its mindset has become monolithic, and thus totalitarian. Wasn’t the whole point of “freedom of opinion and expression” being able to utter just anything? And wasn’t the idea in postmodern thinking to free people from restrains? Then how did we end up with The Great Silence?

Analyzing Literature – Hermeneutic Somersaults II

In my last post, I told you about one assistant professor’s love for semantic condensation and “indepth analysis”. Actually, he entertains us quite a lot! There was another highlight in his class which I absolutely have to share with you:
We were discussing a novel about a writer/journalist. We had reached a scene in which the writer has been to a boring interview, and afterwards, he sits at the bar with another journalist, and they are both bored out of their minds. He is in his mid-30’s, the other is female, around 50, and they find nothing to talk about. Wondering whether he can make his exit, the writer fumbles around looking for his watch (therein accidentally hitting the woman), only to note: “Es war kurz nach sechs.” (English: It was shortly after six.)
Assistant Professor: “AHA! Do you notice something?”
Once again dumb silence after our FAVORITE question.
A.P.: “Well! Kurz nach sechs? SECHS???? Don’t you HEAR?”
No reaction.
A.P.: “Come on, people. “Sechs” sounds like “sex”, be a little more attentive! There is a highly charged atmosphere! Sex in the atmosphere!”
And once again, words failed us. Sechs and sex? Really? In a text where both nearly fall asleep, and immediately after that dude has looked at his watch, he makes his exit? Relieved to get away from that MUCH older woman? Sex? You THINK?
If you think this would be a typical reaction from teenagers who simply can’t stop thinking about sex even when reading things completely unrelated: Ah no. Even assistant professors can’t stop their thoughts, it seems! So much for maturity and literary analysis.
When one student actually dared to point out that the writer can’t wait for running away because he is so bored, and that he really couldn’t see any erotic in the atmosphere, the assistant professor waved it aside: “You people are really too young. Get older and you’ll understand: everything is about sex.”

Apparently, you get more teenaged the more you age. Yes! Hail to hermeneutic somersaults! Don’t you just love how much we’re sticking to the text? I know I do…

Analyzing Literature… Or What?

I have another wonderful incident for you which I just remembered – it happened a while ago, but it’s hilarious! We were sitting in class, analyzing a short story. To sum it up: Somebody’s aunt disappeared, his love life didn’t work out, so he started searching for his aunt as an excuse for travelling, just to get away from everything; and on this trip, he thinks about his life and meets strangers. So far the story. Now to our wonderful assistant professor – he likes to do INDEPTH ANALYSIS. To give you an example what this means to him: our protagonist’s aunt’s name is Stella. In German, Aunt Stella is “Tante Stella”. Now our protagonist’s car was running on low gas, so he had to stop at a gas station – in German, gas station is “Tankstelle”. We just read that word. Then:
Assistant Prof: “AAAAHA!! DO YOU NOTICE SOMETHING!!”
Class staring in dumb silence.
A.P.: “People! Look into the text! Tankstelle! Do you notice something?”
More dumb silence.
A.P.: “I sometimes wonder why you study literature. This is a case of semantic condensation! Look at the word ‘Tankstelle’. Think about ‘Tante Stella’. Don’t you see??”
Stupefied silence.
A.P.: “I wish you’d listen to language. You should get a feel for words. Tankstelle is obviously a semantic condensation of Tante Stella. Please note that.”

 

Would you believe it?? Tante Stella and Tankstelle? So they sound similar? So… WHAT? EXACTLY? And then? This was indeed a marvelous session of text analysis, and how elating to be with such lofty thinkers – my soul felt uplifted with the genius of semantic condensation. So much so that I had to share this with another professor who asked me whether I liked the class. When I told her of Tante Stella and Tankstelle, this truly honest professor said, after a sharp intake of breath: “You know, this is what I call doing hermeneutic somersaults!”

 

Ah, the glory of studying hermeneutic somersaults in semantic condensation! So what if the Tankstelle never actually mattered in the story? Duh, there’s semantic condensation!

So, enjoy the beautiful day outside, and should you happen to pass a gas station, remember Aunt Stella and semantic condensation!