As Mark Bahnisch observes below, the confected furore over Wayne Sawyer’s silly editorial has now given federal Education Minister Brendon Nelson a pretext to launch an enquiry into teacher education. Readers will recall from multiple previous posts (here and here and here) that Sawyer’s editorial lamented the failure of former high school English students to share his insight that “critical literacy” required a vote against the Howard government.
Others have also blogged on the controversy. Graham Young at Ambit Gambit makes some commonsensical observations:
There are numerous defenders of Sawyer, and a common theme in their defence of him is that because he was speaking in a private capacity, criticism of him amounts to censorship. In fact, this defence itself amounts to censorship. If criticism equals censorship, and censorship is wrong, then criticism must be wrong, making the expression of contrary opinions impossible.
Professor Bunyip also blogs on the furore in his usual acerbic style. But the Bunyip’s elegant prose disguises the grievous sin of hypocritical double standards at the very least:
Even the classics aren’t immune. Again last year, the fruit of Professor’s loins was up to his young sporran in Macbeth. All the conventional theories and analyses of the Scottish Play were covered, but the one that Squirt recognised as a stretch, even in his relative innocence, was his teacher’s favourite: Lady Macbeth had to be considered in light of society’s refusal to grant women open access to power; therefore, when her husband took up the dagger at her behest, the play became an uprising by proxy of the oppressed. And, yes, the Professor is paying to have this stuff jammed between his child’s ears. …
The best answer to those questions comes not from the Professor nor any other RWDB yearning for the ways of the past, but from Susan Sontag, of all people. In writing of the Jewish mystic Simone Weil, she inadvertently let the truth slip out, “An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth.” she observed. “It may better serve the needs of the spirit.”
Bunyip implies that this quote shows Sontag making the almost apocryphally po-mo suggestion that distortion and misrepresentation of meaning may sometimes be preferable to faithfully seeking authorial intention. But strangely, he doesn’t supply a hyperlink to the Sontag article from which he quotes. Having a couple of minutes to spare from battling the forces of evil in the tertiary education bureaucracy, I Googled the Sontag quote, and made a fascinating discovery. The quote is from an article Sontag wrote in the New York Review of Books way back in 1963. Frequent visitors to the Bunyip’s Billabong will instantly recognise the irony here. The Professor frequently castigates his favourite bete noire Phillip Adams for borrowing ideas from the New York Review of Books in a dishonest manner verging on plagiarism. Adams habitually mentions the source of inspiration for his op-ed articles in passing, but then fails to make clear that most of the rest of his article is a close paraphrase of it ( see here and here and ABC Media Watch’s somewhat generous take on Adams’ habit here).
The Professor avoids this particular sin, because he not only mentions Sontag but makes clear that he’s quoting from her. But when you actually read the article, you find that he’s not only quoting her out of context, but that Sontag’s actual intended meaning is almost diametrically opposite to the one Bunyip ascribes to her:
There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering¢â¬ârather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr. …
Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.
Thus I do not mean to decry a fashion, but to underscore the motive behind the contemporary taste for the extreme in art and thought. All that is necessary is that we not be hypocritical, that we recognize why we read and admire writers like Simone Weil. I cannot believe that more than a handful of the tens of thousands of readers she has won since the posthumous publication of her books and essays really share her ideas. Nor is it necessary¢â¬ânecessary to share Simone Weil’s anguished and unconsummated love affair with the Catholic Church, or accept her gnostic theology of divine absence, or espouse her ideals of body denial, or concur in her violently unfair hatred of Roman civilization and the Jews. Similarly, with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; most of their modern admirers could not, and do not embrace their ideas. We read writers of such scathing originality for their personal authority, for the example of their seriousness, for their manifest willingness to sacrifice themselves for their truths, and¢â¬âonly piecemeal¢â¬âfor their “views.” …
Some lives are exemplary, others not; and of exemplary lives, there are those which invite us to imitate them, and those which we regard from a distance with a mixture of revulsion, pity, and reverence. It is, roughly, the difference between the hero and the saint (if one may use the latter term in an aesthetic, rather than a religious sense). Such a life, absurd in its exaggerations and degree of self-mutilation¢â¬âlike Kleist’s, like Kierkegaard’s¢â¬âwas Simone Weil’s. I am thinking of the fanatical asceticism of Simone Weil’s life, her contempt for pleasure and for happiness, her noble and ridiculous political gestures, her elaborate self-denials, her tireless courting of affliction; and I do not exclude her homeliness, her physical clumsiness, her migraines, her tuberculosis. No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom nor would wish it for his children nor for anyone else whom he loves. Yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it. In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world¢â¬âand mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing. …
According to Simone Weil, who displays an unpleasant silence on the Nazi persecution of the Jews, Hitler is no worse than Napoleon, than Richelieu, than Caesar. Hitler’s racialism, she says, is nothing more than “a rather more romantic name for nationalism.” Her fascination with the psychological effects of wielding power and submitting to coercion, combined with her strict denial of any idea of historical progress, led her to equate all forms of state authority as manifestations of what she calls “the great beast.” …
Simone Weil as a historical writer is tendentious, exhaustive, and infuriatingly certain. As a historian she is simply not at her best; no one who disbelieves so fundamentally in the phenomena of historical change and innovation can be wholly satisfying as a historian. This is not to deny that there are subtle historical insights in these essays: as for example, when she points out that Hitlerism consists in the application by Germany to the European continent, and the white race generally, of colonial methods of conquest and domination. (Immediately after, of course, she says that these¢â¬âboth Hitler’s methods and the “normal colonial ones”¢â¬âare derived from the Roman model.) …
The originality of her psychological insight, the passion and subtlety of her theological imagination , the fecundity of her exegetical talents are unevenly displayed here. Yet the person of Simone Weil is here as surely as in any of her other books¢â¬âthe person who is excruciatingly identical with her ideas, the person who is rightly regarded as one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit.
In other words, Sontag is saying nothing even remotely resembling Bunyip’s claimed meaning (that it’s sometimes OK to assert a false and confected meaning for a text instead of the one the author intended). Ironically, that’s exactly what Bunyip himself does, by citing Sontag as authority for a proposition almost diametrically opposed to what she was actually saying!! It’s a classic example of the propensity of some on the right to embrace post-modernism in its most pejorative, caricatured sense, while simulaneously professing to deplore it.
Incidentally, except in its most corrupted form in the hands of semi-educated, unintelligent practitioners, post-modernism/post-structuralism doesn’t stand for the proposition that a text can mean whatever the reader wants it to mean. As US legal academic and blogger Jack Balkin explained in a 1987 article about post-modernism:
Deconstruction began as a series of techniques invented by Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and others to interpret literary and philosophical texts. These techniques, in turn, were connected to larger philosophical claims about the nature of language and meaning. One such assertion is that the repetition of a text in a new context often subtly changes its meaning. Deconstruction was first imported from Continental philosophy to American literature departments and later migrated to American law schools. Deconstruction became fashionable in America about the same time as reader response theory, which held that the meaning of a text is produced as the reader encounters it. As a result, deconstruction became wrongly associated with the improbable claim that texts mean whatever readers want them to mean. This notion is not only a misinterpretation of deconstruction, but also of reader response theory.
Both deconstruction and structuralism are antihumanist theories; that is, they tend to emphasize that people’s thought is shaped and determined by structures of linguistic and cultural meaning. Both deconstruction and structuralism asserted that people are culturally and socially constructed, and that they internalize culture much in the same way that they internalize a natural language. The linguistic analogy is particularly appropriate: A speaker of English cannot make the words of that language mean whatever she likes; more importantly, she doesn’t even want this to be the case, because part of being an English speaker is having internalized a sense about what is the proper way of talking and thinking. For the structuralist and the deconstructionist, language speaks us as much as we speak it.
Distorting the intended meaning of a text and twisting it to one’s own purpose is a sin that knows no ideological boundaries. It can equally be committed by lefties, feminists, gay rights activists, conservative christian fundamentalists or RWDB bloggers. It has little connection with post-modernism but a very close link with intellectual dishonesty.