UK paperback

Purple rain

The fresh Prince

• Prince: A Thief in the Temple
by Brian Morton (Canongate)

Prince Prince is the black Bob Dylan. Both men are from Minnesota; both have had some of their biggest hits through performances of their songs by others (in Prince’s case: “Manic Monday” by the Bangles; “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor); both are very bad but somehow weirdly compelling film actors; both reserve the right on occasion to explore the limits of repetition (Dylan’s interminable blues jams, Prince’s interminable funk jams); and both are massively prolific and inventive musicians. Both are, to use the word with due care, geniuses.

The half-time show at this year’s SuperBowl saw Prince, in peach shirt and powder-blue suit on a giant neon-lit stage in the shape of his celebrated bi-gendered phallic symbol, a black chiffon headscarf offering his hairdo little protection against driving rain, effortlessly straddle rock epochs. He segued from “All Along the Watchtower” (by Dylan out of Hendrix) into “Best of You”, by the Foo Fighters, many of whose fans weren’t even alive when Prince first lit up the charts. The choice of covers might have been a deliberate historical framing device to set off the climactic number: “Purple Rain”, that cavernous masterpiece, with one of the most heart-wrenching applications ever conceived of the repeated riff over changing chords in a guitar solo.

Why, two decades on from his commercial pomp, could Prince still whip a stadium of sports fans into a singalong frenzy? Perhaps he reminded some spectators of a time of greater moral certainties (“Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?”), or of a time when showbiz was still showy, when pop stars dressed up rather than down in multinational shiny tracksuits or jeans. Certainly his undiminished stage artistry was more authentically shocking than the cynical stunt that was Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”. But just maybe, too, Prince could still personify America itself. As Morton relates, Prince had been picked out by the Soviet newspaper Pravda back in 1984 as a symbol of degenerate young American hedonism. In 2007, perhaps he stood in one fleeting instant for an America that was not justly figured by Dick Cheney: the America of jazz and funk, of epic spaces and joyous multiculturalism. Perhaps to some Americans, “Purple Rain” — a song in which initial melancholy and regret are somehow transmuted into wordless, whooping euphoria, with the almost Baudelairean, inscrutable symbolism of its title phrase — suddenly sounded like a truer national anthem than the one Jimi Hendrix had wrenched into sarcastic curlicues of overdrive all those years ago.

As Morton’s efficient and carefully researched biography shows, there is no mystery to Prince’s background (as opposed to the colossal mystery of his art): Prince Rogers Nelson grew up in a musical household, learned to play many instruments, and worked on music to the exclusion of all else, finding collaborators in the Minneapolis soul scene and honing his skills over several early albums until a record called 1999 made him a mainstream star in 1982. Morton usefully points out Prince’s fruitful early relationships with others, an arranger/producer here, a keyboardist there, who probably had more input into the early work than is normally recognized. But in the end, what counts is the music, so Morton proceeds album by album, relating studio anecdotes and offering his own analyses of the work. He has a nice line in evocation — the atmosphere of the album Purple Rain is said to be that of “post-apocalyptic libertinism” — and he rightly points out that on rhythm guitar — the shiny jigsaw chord fragments that hook the ears into Kiss, for example — Prince is “a — possibly the — unquestionable master”. On the other hand, Morton finds that Prince’s lead-guitar style “has little to do with the blues”, which is a bizarre comment given the soaring call-and-response solo and twanging Memphis blues-picking breakdown of a song such as “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”, or the Hendrix/Van Halen-esque eruption that introduces “When Doves Cry”.

Of the latter song, Morton writes: “Musically, it’s astonishing, not least because Prince dispensed with a bassline altogether, virtually unheard of in black music, accompanying his vocal with sparse keyboard stabs and a trademark Linn drum track which has been processed and thickened. Prince’s gospelly wails are the only other embellishment.” Well, it’s not quite so simple, and even more astonishing. There is a lot of tuned percussion along with the electronic drums, providing a gossamer harmonic web, a sustained synthesized string/organ voice appears halfway through, and the song also opens and climaxes with metal-blues guitar soloing. And crucially, there is a kind of bassline, but it’s a very minimalist one, playing the same note throughout, and only on the last beat of every second bar, with two stabs on something like a cross between bass guitar and a tuned drum, the notes falling away rapidly from their original pitch into a sub-bass underworld. And so it seems that Prince invented in 1984 the sound of an entire genre, drum’n’bass, which one had thought born in mid-1990s London.

It’s debatable, though, whether we should really call this a “bassline” in Morton’s sense, as in a traditional constant underpinning, and he is anyway astute to emphasize this facet of Prince’s remarkable sonic experimentalism, often reducing the mainstay of ordinary funk and rock to a subliminal ghost, without ever (this is the remarkable feat) making the song sound tinny and lightweight. The intensely happy, almost lighter-than-air lewd nursery rhyme that is “Alphabet St”, too, has a bassline, a constantly slithering slapped electric bass, travelling between notes as much as it stays on them, but mixed so low that anyone other than Prince would be sent back to the studio to “correct” it. For Prince, the rules don’t apply. No other global pop star has been so consistently avant-garde.

Strangely, though, Morton argues that Prince has not been an influential musician, that he is an “innovator only technically”. Well, I suppose it depends on what you mean by “technically”. The sonic formula of most contemporary hip-hop and R&B — sparse, dry beats; one or two melodic synth lines; stacks of harmonised backing vocals — was invented pretty much single-handedly by Prince in the 1980s. On his most recent album, 3121, he seems smirkingly to reinforce the point by offering a song, “Incense and Candles”, that is stuffed with currently fashionable production tricks such as vocal lines partly roboticized for a syllable or two at a time, yet which is slinkier, catchier and harmonically more adventurous than nearly all the competition — as if to say, “Now now, you young folk, this is how it’s done.”

On the other hand, that was only ever one of Prince’s bafflingly various styles. (He is among the few musicians who can announce that he will “change the show every night”, as he has promised for his London gigs in August, and really mean it.) There is also the remarkable, dissonant electro-jazz of the Parade album (“one of the unsung masterpieces of pop”, Morton rightly observes); surreally crooning Joni Mitchell tributes (“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”) or fiery metal-gospel prayers (“The Cross”); irresistible James Brown-meets-Latin-dance epics (“Get On the Boat”); or addictive devotional folk-funk with vocoded saxophone hook (“The Word”). And let’s not forget Prince’s most joyous pop songs, such as “Raspberry Beret”, an extraordinary marriage of jangly lasciviousness with mournful strings, or “Little Red Corvette”, a daringly downtempo, lolloping plea for chastity shot through with squealing Claptonesque guitar countermelodies — it’s true (and perhaps this is what Morton means) that such songs have not been exactly influential, but only because they are sui generis, daunting obelisks of conceptual perfection on which no purchase can be obtained.

Still, Morton’s book fulfils admirably its most important duty, which is to send you back to the music with fresh ears, and if there is room to disagree with him on analytical details, his conclusion that Prince is “arguably the most important popular musician of his time” is impeccable. No less a musician than Miles Davis, Morton notes, called Prince “the Duke Ellington of the 1980s”. (Prince once wrote a note to Miles suggesting a collaboration, and signed it “God”.) Two decades on at the SuperBowl, Prince, pushing 50, looked as impish, as playfully sparkly and pansexual, as when I saw him play Wembley Arena in 1988. Odd to remember that there was a time when Michael Jackson seemed to be Prince’s rival: now, like Dylan, he has no rivals except his past selves.



At Language Log, a sore Liberman

Bears of little brain often make the same criticism of Unspeak: that it sort of pretends to be politically “balanced”, but really is a thinly disguised rant against “the right”. Perhaps they just skip all that boring stuff about “pro-choice” or “community” or anti-GM paeans to what is “natural” or “ancient hatreds” or the Iraqi “resistance” or the “Apartheid Wall” et cetera; perhaps they think that Tony Blair, leader of the Labour party, is indisputably part of the “right”. Or perhaps they are just really confused as to why a topical book about official language should bang on so much about the current US government, which happens to be Republican. “Where is all the rage against Jimmy Carter?” they splutter incredulously into their soup. Perhaps they don’t even read the criticism of “balance” itself as Unspeak near the end of the book, so furious do they become. Anyway, I have a hypothesis about such critics, which contains a pleasing irony. The hypothesis goes: those whose major criticism of the book is that its “balance” is some kind of act or con-trick, and who pose as defenders of some “true” impartiality, are most likely (as was true of the dullard Spectator reviewer) to be indignant members of the “right” themselves. There are lots of arguments to be had with Unspeak and pointed criticisms to be made of it, but anyone who comes away from the book expressing more outrage towards its “balance” or lack thereof than towards its prime subject, the verbal massaging of torture and killing, is very possibly a partisan hack. Of course, this is only a hypothesis.

Now, a curious post by Professor Mark Liberman of Language Log (a linguistics group blog, some of whose contributors are excellent) takes the form of a sick-note or excuse-letter for not having reviewed Unspeak. Why should have he reviewed it? Well, he says, “the publisher sent me a review copy when it first came out last year”. He forgot to mention that the publicist sent him a copy five months after it came out last year because I asked her to, because he asked me for a “review copy” after I wrote to him, but never mind that now. Liberman explains that he never got around to reviewing Unspeak because he couldn’t quite work out what my intentions were. Sure, it seemed to be “balanced”, but who could really tell?

I got the distinct impression that his main motivation was anger at perceived sins of right-wing rhetoric — just as Milton gives Satan all the best lines, so Poole gives the right all the worst ones — and that the examples of misleading rhetoric from left of center were stuck in pro forma.

Sadly, Liberman couldn’t find a way to settle this important question, to arrive at a definitive answer through psychological speculation as to what exactly was going on in my private brainworld while I was composing the text in 2005 – so he “let it go”. Entirely understandable. Of course, I have no way of knowing what was going on in Don DeLillo’s head when he wrote Falling Man, and yet I got on and reviewed what was actually written in the book anyway. But it’s clearly a suboptimal way of working, having nothing but a volume of printed words to go on. Well, some of us have to do this for a living.

Now, however, Liberman is sure that his earlier suspicion that the book was “insincere” is correct, that Unspeak‘s “goal” is merely “the unilateral disarmament of [Poole’s] political enemies”. What new evidence has illuminated his mind? Why, the fact that here on I recently called “Melanie Phillips” a “frothing demagogic evilist”. Hey, he spurts triumphantly, that’s Unspeak! What a hypocrite! And Poole only goes after Phillips because “she supported the Iraq war”! ((After I emailed Liberman today to inform him politely why I do go after Phillips – because, for example, she claims that global warming is a “totalitarian” fiction while demonstrating herself to be scientifically illiterate, and because she is a serially bigoted user of Unspeak – he did not reply but silently updated his post to argue that the real reason I don’t like her is on account of her book Londonistan and its critique of “multiculturalism”. Er, riiiight.)) QED!

Eh? Liberman implies that he has read the book: he does cite bits from the Introduction and Epilogue, so I’ll assume he at least read those chapters before careening off into his unverifiable fantasies about my motivation. In that case he knows that Unspeak is defined as a style of language that attempts to smuggle in an unspoken argument by insinuation. Now, pop quiz: what is the unspoken argument behind “frothing demagogic evilist”, the argument that I don’t want to go into explicitly? Er, that’s right, there isn’t any. It’s quite clear about what it says: it is honest, forthright abuse, spiced with a satirical nod towards the repeated use of the word “evil” by Mr George W Bush, as examined in Chapter 6 of Unspeak, and by “Melanie” herself. ((To understand, as regular readers do, why “Melanie” merits forthright abuse, see previous instalments of forthright abuse based on analysis of the language “she” actually uses, eg An agenda or Infinitely more or Enemies of civilisation.)) So I’m afraid the ponderous gotcha doesn’t quite work. You would hope that a linguist would be able to tell the difference between Unspeak and open ridicule. Or maybe it is so long since Liberman read the book that he can no longer quite remember.


Out of belief

Tony Blair: the triumph of sincerity

So farewell then, Tony Blair, who is not actually leaving for another month and a half, but delivered his resignation speech yesterday anyway.

Sometimes the only way you conquer the pull of power is to set it down.

After ten years.

It is difficult to know how to make this speech today.

Can you turn the autocue a bit to the right…? Ah, that’s better.

Britain is not a follower. It is a leader.

Yo, Blair.

And, in time, you realise putting the country first doesn’t mean doing the right thing according to conventional wisdom or the prevailing consensus or the latest snapshot of opinion.

“Democracy” is for Iraqis.

It means doing what you genuinely believe to be right. Your duty is to act according to your conviction.

Not to listen to those pedants in the Foreign Office.

All of that can get contorted so that people think you act according to some messianic zeal.

The idiots! If only they had my faith!

Doubt, hesitation, reflection, consideration and re-consideration, these are all the good companions of proper decision-making. But the ultimate obligation is to decide.

Never mind the actual decisions – feel the deciding!

Sometimes, like tuition fees or trying to break up old monolithic public services, they are deeply controversial, hellish hard to do, but you can see you are moving with the grain of change round the word.

Everyone else is doing this shit, so we might as well too. (I hope you’ve already forgotten the bit about “Britain is not a follower”. I didn’t really mean that.)

Sometimes, like with Europe, where I believe Britain should keep its position strong, you know you are fighting opinion, but you are content with doing so.

Fighting opinion or “moving with the grain of change” – who cares? I made decisions!

I decided we should stand shoulder to shoulder with our oldest ally. I did so out of belief.

Not out of weighing the pros and cons of any particular course of action.

So Afghanistan and then Iraq – the latter, bitterly controversial.

See? Belief – so Iraq. It’s easy!

Removing Saddam and his sons from power, as with removing the Taleban, was over with relative ease.

Apart from all the people who got killed, but who remembers them? Honestly.

But the blowback since, from global terrorism and those elements that support it, has been fierce and unrelenting and costly. For many, it simply isn’t and can’t be worth it. For me, I think we must see it through. They, the terrorists, who threaten us here and round the world, will never give up if we give up. It is a test of will and of belief. And we can’t fail it.

Test me on my belief! Go on! This is not messianic zeal!

But I ask you to accept one thing. Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right.

Should I actually put my hand on my heart for this bit? Nah, you’re right, that would be cheesy. I’ll keep gripping the lectern and bobbing my head ruefully.

I may have been wrong. That is your call.

I wasn’t wrong.

But believe one thing if nothing else. I did what I thought was right for our country.

Dig this: I believed.

I give my thanks to you, the British people, for the times I have succeeded, and my apologies to you for the times I have fallen short. Good luck.

You’re gonna need it.


Falling Man

DeLillo on 9/11

Falling Man
by Don DeLillo

You could say there have been foreshadowings. From Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), the great American novel of the second half of the 20th century: “My son used to believe that he could look at a plane in flight and make it explode in midair by simply thinking it . . . he’d sense an element of catastrophe tacit in the very fact of a flying object filled with people.” Elsewhere in that novel, in 1974, two characters watch the World Trade Center being constructed: “Very terrible thing but you have to look at it, I think.” DeLillo’s fifth novel, Players (1977), features a woman who works in a grief management firm high up in the newly finished World Trade Center: “the towers didn’t seem permanent”, she thinks, but then, “Where else would you stack all that grief?” The same novel also depicts a cabal of terrorists who want to blow up the Stock Exchange.

In Mao II (1991): “Out the south windows the Trade towers stood cut against the night, intensely massed and near. This is the word ‘loomed’ in all its prolonged and impending force.” Mao II‘s novelist protagonist argues that terrorists are winning a “zero-sum game” against novelists: “Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.” White Noise (1984) is, among other things, a comedy of disaster response, as victims of an “airborne toxic event” are chided for not acting as they would in a drill. The jacket image of Underworld, in its US and UK first editions, is a photograph of the twin towers, their upper stories shrouded in mist, with a bird flying towards them.

There is already a blackly satirical, weirdly prescient 9/11 novel scattered in arcane fragments through DeLillo’s existing work. But the real event, it seems, demands an explicit response. Very terrible thing but you have to look at it. Falling Man‘s title alludes to the famous, horrific photograph of an unidentified man falling headfirst from one of the towers after the attack. In one of those DeLilloan cultural inventions that seem more dense with meaning than actual cultural events, New York in this novel is haunted after the attacks by a performance artist known as the Falling Man, who hangs himself upside-down from balconies and bridges across the city in wordless imitation of the unknown victim.

The story focuses on a small group of characters in the aftermath: Keith, an office worker in one of the towers who managed to get out, and Lianne, the wife to whom he returns, plus her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, a cynically provocative European art dealer; and Keith and Lianne’s nine-year-old son, who scans the skies with binoculars for the return of a man called “Bill Lawton”, figment of misheard news. This being a DeLillo novel, it is not a confection of sentimental adultery and cheap hope, as was Jay McInerney’s post-9/11 effort, The Good Life. Indeed, the novel explicitly warns the reader what not to expect, as Keith returns to his old apartment: “In the movie version, someone would be in the building, an emotionally damaged woman or a homeless old man, and there would be dialogue and close-ups.” Difficult to imagine a movie version of this novel, patterned as a sequence of charged tableaux and moods, shot through with streaks of obsidian comedy. Picking out slivers of glass from Keith’s face, a doctor describes to him the phenomenon of “organic shrapnel”, whereby bits of a suicide bomber’s blown-up body can lodge in the skin of bystanders. After much revolting detail, the doctor finishes with casual reassurance: “This is something I don’t think you have.” Throughout the book, bombs of laconic irony explode when least expected, such as when Keith “walked north toward the barricades, thinking it might be hard to find a taxi at a time when every cab driver in New York was named Muhammad”.

In such a context, DeLillo’s idiosyncratic method of dialogue acquires even more allusive and slyly destabilising force. Beginning every DeLillo novel, during the period of acclimatisation, one has the impression that the dialogue is highly stylised: people talk at angles past one another, in sometimes nonsensical fragments of sentences. Then one realises that it is the very fluidity of other novels’ dialogue that is artificial: the improbably easy, logical and perfectly parsed flow of most fictional conversation does not resemble the way people speak. DeLillo refuses even to chivvy along his characters with expressive punctuation. Where other writers use dashes and ellipses, he is surgical with the full stop. Lianne’s mother warns her: “But if you let your sympathy and goodwill affect your judgment.” No trailing dots, no “then” to the “if”. Sometimes people do not have a thing and leave it unsaid; sometimes they don’t have another thing to say. Some scenes of the novel are written as though deafened and exhausted beyond all language – for instance, when Lianne and Keith sit silently together watching television, “as a correspondent in a desolate landscape, Afghanistan or Pakistan, pointed over his shoulder to mountains in the distance”.

DeLillo’s prose has always had the quality of seeming stunned by the world, vitrified into shards of glassy perfection by the sheer force of light bouncing off people and things. A style often taken as deliberately remote or studiedly cool, it seems almost the opposite, a function of exquisite sensitivity. But can one still be sensitive to small things when such a big thing has happened? Such is the question implied by a curious moment when Keith is still wandering dazed through the city in the aftermath of the attack. “He crossed Canal Street and began to see things, somehow, differently. Things did not seem charged in the usual ways, the cobbled street, the cast-iron buildings.” The worry that ordinary things no longer seem “charged” might be read as an authorial lament, rather than one credibly belonging to this character. The novel is none the less full of beautiful, almost casually deployed observations – a day of “wind-whipped rain” is “the weather everywhere, the state of mind, generic Monday”; men betting on horse races are “showing the anxious lean of body english that marks money on the line”; the clicking of chips in a casino is “insect friction”. Through the eyes of Keith, in particular, DeLillo appears to be making an effort to render the ashen world newly strange, such as when Keith visits a gym and deadpans the scene: “They strained against weighted metal sleds and rode stationary bikes.”

And yet, there still seems something self-questioning about Falling Man, which also contains passages written from the point of view of one of the hijackers, named Hammad, whom we see first in Hamburg, then in America, and finally on the plane. Affectless, estranged, almost stereotypical, these interpolations seem primarily to work as an acknowledgement that hypersophisticated artistic humanism is not the only game in town. But their very existence in the scheme of the novel also allows some extraordinary cross-allusions – for example, when DeLillo describes, in a gorgeous celebration of the inexplicit dynamics of male friendship, the weekly games of poker that Keith used to play with his friends, most now dead. Once they decided to play only one variety of poker, they still observed the ritual of announcing five-card stud at every deal, “and they loved doing this, straight faced, because where else would they encounter the kind of mellow tradition exemplified by the needless utterance of a few archaic words”. Where else. No question mark. A slow fuse is lit that snakes and ramifies through the pages.

The presence of Hammad’s storyline is also, perhaps, finally justified by an extraordinary coup: as the plane approaches the tower, we are in the hijacker’s consciousness, and then, at the instant it hits, we are catapulted mid-paragraph into Keith’s point of view, as though by the force of the explosion itself, and so the reader is subjected to some faint analogue of the characters’ own disorientation and shock. The novel’s end recounts how Keith descends from his office and emerges into the plaza, where DeLillo recapitulates with variation the novel’s very first scene, drawing a tight circle of recurring nightmare. These are pages of magnificent force and control, DeLillo’s genius at full pelt. Reading them, you have to remind yourself to keep breathing.


Free Paris Hilton

She could save planet Earth

Scunthorpe TravelodgeFREE PARIS HILTON, it said, and I thought: “Fine, but where would I put it? My apartment is so compact and bijou. I don’t live in a bloody Tardis.” Then I realised they were talking about Paris Hilton aka Scunthorpe Travelodge. ((See Graham’s recent forum post for a link to Humphrey Lyttleton’s sublime entry in the traditional “jokes about Scunthorpe” sweepstakes.)) Ms Travelodge is facing 45 days’ jail time for driving while disqualified. The online petition offering a, I mean to “Free Paris Hilton” lists her virtues:

She provides hope for young people all over the U.S. and the world. She provides beauty and excitement to (most of) our otherwise mundane lives.

I think they mean that most of the petitioners enjoy mundane lives, although it seems actually to say that Ms Travelodge “provides beauty and excitement” to most of their lives, although not those bits of their lives where they are, say, buying carrots in the supermarket or singing karaoke versions of Lionel Richie songs. Or asleep. (But then probably they are dreaming about Ms Travelodge, so whatever.)

It is clearly absurd that such a beauty-and-excitement solutions-provider should be persecuted implacably by the US justice system. Haven’t they got any murderers or impeachable presidents to be getting on with? All the more so given her extraordinary promise before sentencing, as reported by the Guardian:

An attempt to win clemency from the judge by the soberly-dressed Hilton had little effect. With her parents in the courtroom, Hilton said: “I’m very sorry and from now on I’m going to pay complete attention to everything. I’m sorry and I did not do it on purpose at all.”

Wow – if only they don’t send her to jail, Paris promises to pay complete attention to everything. ((Hat-tip: DF.)) And they turn this down? Surely if Paris Hilton aka Scunthorpe Travelodge were to make good on her vow, paying complete attention to the fate of the endangered Siberian tiger, and also tracking infallibly any asteroids likely to collide with Earth, and reading religiously, perhaps occasionally offering her opinions on Slavoj Zizek, along with everything else, society would be far better served than if she were to languish in lock-up? Readers, I put it to you that the law is an ass.



Condoleezza Rice on the Iraqi ‘threat’

The word “imminent”, as we all know, comes from the Latin imminere: to project or lean over, overhang, be near. The English word is defined by the OED thus:

1. Of an event, etc. (almost always of evil or danger): Impending threateningly, hanging over one’s head; ready to befall or overtake one; close at hand in its incidence; coming on shortly.

So does Hamlet, on seeing the army of Fortinbras yomp impressively past, muse (at least in Q2):

How stand I then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep, while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds […]

So too in 2 Henry VI does Salisbury thank Richard: “three times today / You have defended me from imminent death”. Well, this is clear. We all know what “imminent” means, right?

Wrong! It falls to Condoleezza Rice to correct centuries of misunderstanding by idiots like Shakespeare. Asked repeatedly by George Stephanopoulos last week ((Thanks to Jason.)) whether Iraq was, after all, an “imminent threat” to the US in early 2003, Rice finally responded:

George, ((Note the virtuosically condescending use of the interviewer’s first name, as though patiently explaining a definition to a schoolchild. Nice.)) the question of imminence isn’t whether or not somebody is going to strike tomorrow. It’s whether you believe you’re in a stronger position today to deal with a threat or whether you’re going to be in a stronger position tomorrow.

Salisbury and Hamlet must be kicking themselves. Obviously, to call something “imminent” makes no claim about how soon the thing itself will arrive. Actually, it makes no claim about the thing itself at all. Instead it is redefined as a claim about “you”. How “strong” do you feel today? Well, that’s somehow proportional to how “imminent” the thing is, whatever the hell it is. ((So on this argument, Hamlet’s feeling self-pityingly wimpy after getting a sniff of Fortinbras’s martial testosterone means that the soldiers’ deaths are not in fact imminent. Which, after all, they’re not! Maybe there’s something to this after all.)) In fact, the “imminent” thing doesn’t even need to exist to be imminent. (“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”) Is it admissible to point out that, even on Condoleezza Rice’s unilateral redefinition of the word, global warming counts as an “imminent threat”?

But here ride the indefatigable lexicographers of the OED to the rescue once again. For, shaking their heads donnishly at the foolishness of the world, they note sadly at definition 4 for “imminent” that it is sometimes:

Confused with immanent.

Perhaps now we are getting somewhere. The primary sense of “immanent” given by OED is “Indwelling, inherent; actually present or abiding in; remaining within”. So if Iraq was an “immanent threat”, the threat was presumably strictly limited to its own borders. On the other hand, you might suppose an “immanent threat” to be a threat spread evenly throughout the entire universe, like some God. How to choose between such very different implications? Luckily, there is another sense of “immanent”, from the Scholastic idea of an “immanent act”:

2. immanent act (action): an act which is performed entirely within the mind of the subject, and produces no external effect.

I think it most likely that the research theologians of the White House intended to evoke this idea. Brilliantly, they thus openly insisted that Saddam’s “threat” was nothing but a kind of mental construct, performed entirely within the minds of Rice and her chums, and nowhere in reality. Government spokespersons were desperately trying to confess this all along, crying for help by shrieking: “Look, this is all just in our heads! It’s an immanent threat!”, but a vast leftwing conspiracy of journalists kept deliberately mistranscribing “immanent” as “imminent”, causing an unwitting public to suppose that the politicians were constructing an unwarranted fantasy about incipient catastrophe. And thus a great deal of undeserved scorn was heaped upon the Bush administration. I only hope it is not too late to correct this egregious error.


An agenda

“Melanie” rides again

Time for an apology. I am sorry for implying that Johann Hari in general was an “idiot” and an “anti-intellectual”, ((In this post, now updated with more handy footnotes for idiots.)) instead of limiting my contumely strictly to the idiotic and anti-intellectual nature of his printed assault on Zizek. There’s a difference between saying something is idiotic and calling someone an idiot. Another good reason to apologise for this is that, allowing too free a use of such words, we might run out of vocabulary for people like “Melanie Phillips”.

In this recent post, “Melanie” is writing about the recent resignation of Lord Browne, head of BP. Browne has been defended by Matthew Parris, who writes: “What this story is really about is the awkardness of gay sex in the business world and our general fascination with the lives of the rich and (in Lord Browne’s case) slightly famous.” “Melanie” responds:

What extraordinary insouciance towards dishonesty in court. And what a spectacular misrepresentation of the cause of Lord Browne’s downfall. That noise you can hear is the rumbling of an agenda that drives all before it. It is not a pretty sound.

“An agenda”? Time to conjugate:

I have principles;
You have interests;
They have an agenda.

And what is this nefarious “agenda” to which “Melanie” objects? The second half of Parris’s column is about what he calls “a lingering problem about homosexuality and business” in Britain. Obviously, Parris’s “agenda” is to discuss bigotry. What a terrible thing to have on your to-do list. Well, I suspect that that’s not quite what “Melanie” thinks the “agenda” is. Darkly warning of this “agenda” that is “rumbling” and “drives all [all!] before it”, making a sound that is not “pretty”, “Melanie” is really sticking her fingers in her ears and screaming: “Shut up y00 gayz!!!!!!!!”

Of course “Melanie” has no “agenda” of her own. I certainly doubt it has entered into the calculations taking place in her tiny mind that Lord Browne, for example, is widely admired as the head of an oil company who has stated clearly that anthropogenic global warming is real, and caused by burning fossil fuels. Doubtless her post is pure of intention, as far as shrill hatred goes.

Anyway, perhaps we should have a whip-round to buy “Melanie” a pair of earmuffs, to protect her from the horrible “noise” of this gay agenda. Ah, but on second thoughts, if an excellent pair of earmuffs were clamped or stapled to “Melanie”‘s head, we would still be able to hear her, even if she couldn’t hear anyone else: arguably, the worst of all possible worlds. Come to think of it, it’s rather like the one we live in already, isn’t it, readers?



i’m in ur Truth, killing ur ir0ny

The redoutable Ophelia Benson, still fuming at what she mystifyingly takes to be my insistence that criticism of Zizek is “impermissible”, now accuses me, in a post pleasingly entitled “Ironies”, of misrepresenting her own work in my published review of Benson & Stangroom’s Why Truth Matters last year. Since this is a slur on what passes for my “professional” reputation, allow me to recall that I wrote in the Guardian, at the end of a largely positive review:

Sadly, the authors also follow a modern tradition of lumping Jacques Derrida in with a bunch of his inferiors and slapping him around too, without showing persuasively that they have actually read much of the man’s work.

Benson now claims that this was “inaccurate”:

The inaccurate part is that we didn’t slap Derrida around, we slapped around some of his fans, which is a different thing.

In fact, on pp18-19 of Why Truth Matters, the authors say this:

But does it really matter? Is it worth bothering about? Academic fashions come and go. Dons and professors are always coming up with some New Big Thing, and then getting old and doddering off to the great library in the sky, while new dons and professors, hatch new big things, some more and some less silly than others. Casaubon had his key to all mythologies, Derrida had his, someone will have a new one tomorrow; what of it?

So this casually sneering comparison of Derrida’s oeuvre to the quixotic work of a fictional character, in the context of discussing “silly” “fashions”, is not an attack on Derrida? It’s just somehow about his “fans”? I don’t think so. Benson’s charge that my review was “inaccurate” is without merit: what is “inaccurate” is this defender of Truth’s account of what is in her own book. That’s ironic!

The “fans” do make an appearance later. On pp168-170 of Why Truth Matters, the authors first try a wan appeal to authority in citing Quine’s objection to Derrida’s nomination for an honorary degree at Cambridge, and then claim that the letters of complaint about the notorious New York Times obituary of Derrida (shorter version: French “abstruse theorist” who wrote “off-putting” books is dead) were written to protest the obituary’s “lack of unqualified admiration”: a plainly false characterization. Then they turn specifically to a letter by Derrida’s “fan” Judith Butler, ((As the first commenter on her new post points out, Benson now misrepresents Butler’s letter as claiming that criticism of Derrida is “impermissible”, by means of selective quotation: Butler’s statement that “There are reasonable disagreements to have with Derrida’s work” is left out from what Benson cites of the letter. Another irony from the indefatigable champion of “reasoned argument and the requirement of reference to evidence” (Why Truth Matters, p.171). To be fair, this might not be a deliberate attempt to mislead so much as an unconscious inability to see anything that contradicts her idée fixe – or, of course, mere incompetence.)) and end up saying this:

As a matter of fact why should we not simply conclude that much or most of Derrida’s renown is the result of frequent mention by Butler and others like her? That he merely has what in US electioneering and public relations circles is called “name recognition,” which is well known to be quite independent of merit and quality. Serial murderers have much higher name recognition than any intellectuals, and it’s not because of their precision of thought (though it may be because their thinking takes some unanticipated turns). [p. 170]

Lol. But perhaps you think that the insinuation that Derrida’s renown was entirely divorced from any “merit and quality”, and the sniggering segue from Derrida to “serial murderers”, constitute another slapping around of Derrida himself and not just of his “fans”, to be counted along with the Casaubon jibe?

Benson & Stangroom’s unserious attack on Derrida is, you will have noticed, rather like Hari’s unserious attack on Zizek (“you end up hating the academics who take this non-thought seriously”). That’s ironic too! ((Yet another delicious irony: when I bother to correct false claims of fact made by OB and her commenters, I am accused of engaging in “nitpicking” or “distraction”. They’d make a great bunch of “postmodernists”!))


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