Sunday, April 29, 2012

How There Is Something Rather Than Nothing

This article by Sean Carroll, "A Universe from Nothing?", is a very clear explication of the two primary explanations in contemporary physics of how it is that there is something (the universe) rather than nothing. Carroll begins by referring to Lawrence Krauss's book "A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing" and David Albert's negative review of Krauss's book in the New York Times. Carroll also nicely lays out how Krauss and Albert are talking past each other, as they are addressing two different versions of the questions they differ on. 

But the real reason to read Carroll's article is independent of its occasion (the dispute between Krauss and Albert). Even those for those with little or no background in physics, Carroll lays out the issues so clearly that you can get a sense of what possibilities are established by contemporary physical theory. I cannot recommend the article highly enough!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


The article about Camus in the April 9 issue of the New Yorker (which is unfortunately only online for subscribers) contains this quotation from Camus:

We have witnessed lying, humiliation, killing, deportation, and torture, and in each instance it was impossible to persuade the people who were doing these things not to do them, because they were sure of themselves, and because there is no way of persuading an abstraction.

How does one talk to those who are so sure of themselves that they never doubt the validity of their actions, no matter what the content of those actions may be? If you perceive someone as being so full of certainty and completely unwilling/unable to be skeptical about their own beliefs, then perhaps the only thing to do is not to talk to them, but to talk to others who are not as uncertain, to help them avoid being persuaded by abstract certainties that lead to "lying, humiliation, killing, deportation, and torture."

Still, it would be nice if the people in power were not engaged in those activities quite so unreservedly.


Near the end of the article, Adam Gopnik paraphrases Camus's position on place as follows: No human being is more indigenous to a place than any other. This rootless cosmopolitan applauds such a point, but Camus's basis for it is quite convincing: his mother may have been a French colonist in Algeria, but she worked as a cleaning lady; she had none of the privileges of the colonial. And Camus, born and raised in Algeria, was as Algerian as anyone else born and raised there.

Speak Softly ... no, Whisper

I was planning to write a rather scathing takedown of this article by Constance Hale from the NYT Opinionator blog: "Make-or-break verbs." But Geoffrey Pullum beat me to it: "Not Rage So Much, But a Modicum of Fear." As I wanted to, Pullum went after Hale's complete misuse of the terms "active" and "passive." But he did leave me some points to make.

Hale writes: "Picking pointed verbs also allows us to forgo adverbs. Many of these modifiers merely prop up a limp verb anyway. Strike speaks softly and insert whispers." If Teddy Roosevelt had followed that advice, he would have made himself ridiculous: "Whisper and carry a big stick." Beyond that, "speaking softly" is something quite different than "whispering" anyway. And finally, there's absolutely nothing wrong with adverbs anyway!

Further, Hale also has trouble with grammatical categories that Pullum does not take her down for. She uses the opening of a short story by Jo Ann Beard to talk about "static verbs": "Here is a scene. Two sisters are fishing together in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake ..." Apparently, Hale sees "is" in the first sentence and "are" in the second as "static" verbs that should be used carefully so as not to make one's writing too static. But the "are" in the second sentence is part of the phrase "are fishing", and "to fish" is surely not one of her "static" verbs.

So all in all, if you want good writing advice, avoid Constance Hale. On the evidence of this article, she does not know what she is talking about.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Statement of Accounts

Samuel Beckett wrote about Kafka (specifically, The Castle, which he stopped reading three-quarters of the way through): I am wary of disasters that let themselves be recorded like a statement of accounts. (I came across this in a footnote to John Banville's review of the second volume of The Letters of Samuel Beckett in The New York Review of Books.) He may have been wary of Kafka, but Beckett nicely captured one feature of Kafka's work: the lack of drama with which its dramas are presented.

I find myself increasingly put off by the way the word "Kafkaesque" is used, and Beckett's formulation makes the reason clear: all too often, the term is used to refer to events that are strange, surreal, and nightmarish — disastrous — but which are also presented as disasters, as oddities, surrealities, nightmares. But what makes Kafka's work so singular and striking is precisely its cool presentation of what others would present as dramas, or perhaps more precisely, as melodramas or tragedies. References to the Kafkaesque ought to include what they never do: the absence of the affect of disaster.

Friday, April 13, 2012

"The Lyric I"?

The other day, one of my poet friends on Facebook (I don't remember who, unfortunately) used the expression "the lyric I". This clearly derives from the German expression "das lyrische Ich", and I have always told my students and colleagues here in Basel that an appropriate translation would be "persona." But I have begun to see the expression used occasionally by English speakers far from the German-speaking world. I wonder if it has entered some parts of poetry discourse in the English-speaking word through translations of Adorno.

In any case, I am curious how my friends, acquaintances, and fellows in the poetry world in English find the expression:
  • Do you use it?
  • Have you heard others use it?
  • Does it sound odd you?
And behind all this, of course, is what, for me, is the ultimate question: should I stop telling my German-speaking colleagues to avoid the expression?

Thursday, April 05, 2012

... was gesagt werden muss.

Günter Grass has written a bad poem. Andreas Heidtmann's analysis hits all the right points about what makes it a bad poem (in German).

But here's a little linguistic supplement to Heidtmann's remarks:

sage ich, was gesagt werden muss.

The passive voice, it is said, can be used to conceal agency. But here it's not the concealment of agency that is the problem, but the use of the passive to allow one speaker to claim to speak for many.

As with the concealment-of-agency issue, the question is who the active subject of the passive verb "gesagt werden" is. There are two valid interpretations: one is that the speaker (the "ich") is the one who "has to say this." The other is that an indeterminate group of people (in German, you could say "man"; in English, "they" or "people") "has to say this." This latter is probably the salient interpretation for most people, but it also makes clear how Grass makes his complaint seem like something that many people agree with: by not saying "sage ich, was ich sagen muss" but "sage ich, was gesagt werden muss", he lets his claim slip from something personal to something that many people will agree with. 

So the passive here is not a tool of concealment of agency, but a tool for making the claims of an individual sound general, a way to make yourself sound like you speak for a silenced minority that is afraid to speak.

Afterthought: The salient interpretation of the "was gesagt werden muss" construction is actually a third possibility: the implied active subject is "jemand", as in "somebody has to say it, so I will."

There are two further implications: nobody else was willing to take on the risk of saying it, and "I am the one who is courageous enough to sacrifice himself by saying it."

This is connected to the overall tenor of the poem, which focuses less on the critique of Israel than on Grass's perception of himself as a victim of the criticism that he expects to receive for having written the poem.

In this respect, all criticism of the poem for its representation of Israel fulfills one of the poem's goals (I would say "implicit" goals, but in fact, it's pretty explicit): that Grass will be criticized for it. One could call this masochism, but what it really is a rhetorical use of the passive voice to stylize oneself as a victim of the criticism one expects to attract.

The rhetoric is quite powerful, in fact, as it defuses all criticism of the poem's contents by anticipating it and putting those who do criticize the contents in the position of protecting taboos that only Grass has had the guts to break: somebody has to say it, and I will say it, and if you criticize me for it, then you are part of the reason that nobody had said it before.