Monday, 15 August 2005

Stick It To The Historians! or Social Darwinism? No Such Beast. Responding to last Saturday's outburst of robust hatred, Luther Blissett jokingly recommended I avoid criticizing scholars in my field by criticizing historians instead. A week of dissertation frustration later, I'm seriously considering seriously considering his advice. Here's the dilemma: Social Darwinism is less coherent fin de siècle philosophy and more convenient myth unwittingly perpetuated by the well-meaning Richard Hofstadter.[1] Hofstadter emphasized the Herbert Spencer vogue in the person of William Graham Sumner, connected it to racist imperialism and thus was born a philosophical movement that only ever existed conceptually. Now, I could discuss (at great length) how Hofstadter should've undertaken a more comprehensive revision of his seminal Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944) when the "Revised Edition" appeared in 1959. After all, by 1959 he had already written The Age of Reform, and should've known that the majority of references to evolutionary theory (though rarely "Darwinian" in anything but name) between 1890 and 1910 weren't mouthed by laissez faire capitalists like Spencer's friend Andrew Carnegie but by reformers like pioneering sociologists Lester Frank Ward and James Mark Baldwin. Of all the robber barons, only Carnegie--whose ideas on social evolution were more Malthussian than Darwinian--fit Hofstadter's mold. Not that it's even that important: in terms of the frequency with which people applied evolutionary theory to social, cultural and political matters, "social Darwinism" pales in comparison to appeals to a Lamarckian model of evolution made by advocates of social reform. The real impact of evolutionary theory can be seen in someone like John Dewey, whose firm belief that anyone could acquire an education is founded on an idea that characteristics like "intelligence" and "culture" could be acquired over the course of an individual lifetime. That's classic how-giraffes-got-long-necks Lamarckism. If you're still reading you may be one of the lucky few I eventually ask to read this dissertation of mine when it nears completion. Rest assured I've almost reached my point. Because you've not done the primary research on your own and I haven't cited it here, I beg you to grant me all that and then tell me what I should when every article I read begins something like this: As popularized at the time, Social Darwinism was reduced to a crude argument claiming the survival of the fittest among individuals within soicety and among societies as well. The doctrine appealed to the privileged Anglo-Saxon elite because it reinforced ethnocentric and evolutionist attitudes towards so-called primitive peoples... ...or it would have if such a doctrine predicated on such a reduction had existed. Clarice Stasz's overall argument is whip-smart, but because of its assumptions (quoted above) it can't help but flounder. The section above's followed by an argument whose assumptions render it entirely useless for my purposes; and because of Hofstadter's eminence, Stasz's assumptions may well represent those of all literary scholars who have worked on literature of the period.[2] So should I take Luther's advice and nail my theses to Hofstadter's door and write a dissertation in which I appear to ignore...
Seminars and Seders: A Lazy Quasi-Comparative History of Neither I wrote the previous post I fully intending on working on my dissertation until the very moment I fell asleep. Alas! I had to check my email, and it contained the graduate seminar descriptions for the fall quarter. Since I've been having this conversation about the extent to which literary studies houses Theory quite a bit lately, I can't help myself: I will post some of the course descriptions of some of the upcoming UCI English, Comparative Literature and Critical Theory Emphasis seminars below the fold. Lest I seem to be attacking the venerable institution which will someday (maybe even soon) authorize all the shit I've stuffed in my head the past six years, I should note that, as a genre, the "course description" suffers from the same Madison Avenue-inflected bombast of theory or anti-theory anthologies, i.e. just as you must buy this anthology over all other anthologies so must you attend this seminar above all other seminars. Wow. Amazing what'll spur Seder flashbacks. If I could figure out how to type in Hebrew, I'd impress you all by reproducing the Four Questions which must be answered once a year, every year, by the youngest, drunkest Jew at the table during what's supposed to be a celebration of the Egyptian Exodus. (As recounted in one of the books of the Original Testament. Which one escapes me for the moment. I'll be brainier come morning.) Since I'm unable to impress you with the modicum of Hebrew I acquired during a decade of Wednesday evenings spent attending Hebrew school, I'll have to settle for saying that to my knowledge these seminar descriptions aren't different from all other seminar descriptions. We "Irvinites" don't place pillows behind our heads and backs to differentiate this seminar from all other seminars. We're not required by the Lord who brought us out of Egypt to be Our Lord to sing the most entertaining and repetitive song ever written; one which is both called and seemingly consists only of the word dahyenu. Typical lyrics run the gamut from dahy-dahyenu, dahy-dahyenu to dahy-dahy-enu, dahy-dahy-enu, dahy-dahy-enu, dahyenu, dahyenu! Few songs are more fun to sing but none are more fun to sing as an increasingly drunk fourth grader. (I'm convinced that Andy Merrill, creator and writer of The Brak Show, is both Jewish and Dahyenu's biggest fan. How else to explain "The Song that Never Ends"?) We neither drink to excess as the Lord commandeth nor do we leave any alcohol for Elijah. We know Elijah's the absent-presence of all that's phallogocentric...alright, alright, we know that Elijah's an absent-presence who somehow manages to imbibe a goblet of wine better left for the Easter Bunny. Because if you had to choose between a guy whose name--in Hebrew Eliyahu, which just so happens to my Hebrew name and is the name (abbreviated as "Eli") I went by for about half of my formative years--means "my God's name is Yahu" and the Easter Bunny, who would you prefer do the drinking? But I...

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