28 jul 2010

Words | Tony Judt

I was raised on words. They tumbled off the kitchen table onto the floor where I sat: grandfather, uncles, and refugees flung Russian, Polish, Yiddish, French, and what passed for English at one another in a competitive cascade of assertion and interrogation. Sententious flotsam from the Edwardian-era Socialist Party of Great Britain hung around our kitchen promoting the True Cause. I spent long, happy hours listening to Central European autodidacts arguing deep into the night: Marxismus, Zionismus, Socialismus. Talking, it seemed to me, was the point of adult existence. I have never lost that sense. 

In my turn—and to find my place—I too talked. For party pieces I would remember words, perform them, translate them. “Ooh, he’ll be a lawyer,” they’d say. “He’ll charm the birds off the trees”: something I attempted fruitlessly in parks for a while before applying the admonition in its Cockney usage to no greater effect during my adolescent years. By then I had graduated from the intensity of polyglot exchanges to the cooler elegance of BBC English.
The 1950s—when I attended elementary school—were a rule-bound age in the teaching and use of the English language. We were instructed in the unacceptability of even the most minor syntactical transgression. “Good” English was at its peak. Thanks to BBC radio and cinema newsreels, there were nationally accepted norms for proper speech; the authority of class and region determined not just how you said things but the kind of things it was appropriate to say. “Accents” abounded (my own included), but were ranked according to respectability: typically a function of social standing and geographical distance from London. 

I was seduced by the sheen of English prose at its evanescent apogee. This was the age of mass literacy whose decline Richard Hoggart anticipated in his elegiac essay The Uses of Literacy (1957). A literature of protest and revolt was rising through the culture. From Lucky Jim through Look Back in Anger, and on to the “kitchen sink” dramas of the end of the decade, the class-bound frontiers of suffocating respectability and “proper” speech were under attack. But the barbarians themselves, in their assaults on the heritage, resorted to the perfected cadences of received English: it never occurred to me, reading them, that in order to rebel one must dispense with good form. 

By the time I reached college, words were my “thing.” As one teacher equivocally observed, I had the talents of a “silver-tongued orator”—combining (as I fondly assured myself) the inherited confidence of the milieu with the critical edge of the outsider. Oxbridge tutorials reward the verbally felicitous student: the neo-Socratic style (“why did you write this?” “what did you mean by it?”) invites the solitary recipient to explain himself at length, while implicitly disadvantaging the shy, reflective undergraduate who would prefer to retreat to the back of a seminar. My self-serving faith in articulacy was reinforced: not merely evidence of intelligence but intelligence itself. 

Did it occur to me that the silence of the teacher in this pedagogical setting was crucial? Certainly silence was something at which I was never adept, whether as student or teacher. Some of my most impressive colleagues over the years have been withdrawn to the point of inarticulacy in debates and even conversation, thinking with deliberation before committing themselves. I have envied them this self-restraint. 

Articulacy is typically regarded as an aggressive talent. But for me its functions were substantively defensive: rhetorical flexibility allows for a certain feigned closeness—conveying proximity while maintaining distance. That is what actors do—but the world is not really a stage and there is something artificial in the exercise: one sees it in the current US president. I too have marshaled language to fend off intimacy—which perhaps explains a romantic penchant for Protestants and Native Americans, reticent cultures both.

In matters of language, of course, outsiders are frequently deceived: I recall a senior American partner at the consulting firm McKinsey once explaining to me that in the early days of their recruitment in England he found it nearly impossible to choose young associates—everyone seemed so articulate, the analyses tripping off their pens. How could you tell who was smart and who was merely polished? 

Words may deceive—mischievous and untrustworthy. I remember being spellbound by the fantasy history of the Soviet Union woven in his Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge by the elderly Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher (published in 1967 under the title The Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917–1967). The form so elegantly transcended the content that we accepted the latter on trust: detoxification took a while. Sheer rhetorical facility, whatever its appeal, need not denote originality and depth of content. 

All the same, inarticulacy surely suggests a shortcoming of thought. This idea will sound odd to a generation praised for what they are trying to say rather than the thing said. Articulacy itself became an object of suspicion in the 1970s: the retreat from “form” favored uncritical approbation of mere “self-expression,” above all in the classroom. But it is one thing to encourage students to express their opinions freely and to take care not to crush these under the weight of prematurely imposed authority. It is quite another for teachers to retreat from formal criticism in the hope that the freedom thereby accorded will favor independent thought: “Don’t worry how you say it, it’s the ideas that count.” 

Forty years on from the 1960s, there are not many instructors left with the self-confidence (or the training) to pounce on infelicitous expression and explain clearly just why it inhibits intelligent reflection. The revolution of my generation played an important role in this unraveling: the priority accorded the autonomous individual in every sphere of life should not be underestimated— "doing your own thing" took protean form. 

Today “natural” expression—in language as in art—is preferred to artifice. We unreflectively suppose that truth no less than beauty is conveyed more effectively thereby. Alexander Pope knew better ("True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,/ What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest". Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism, 1711).
For many centuries in the Western tradition, how well you expressed a position corresponded closely to the credibility of your argument. Rhetorical styles might vary from the spartan to the baroque, but style itself was never a matter of indifference. And “style” was not just a well-turned sentence: poor expression belied poor thought. Confused words suggested confused ideas at best, dissimulation at worst. 

The “professionalization” of academic writing—and the self-conscious grasping of humanists for the security of “theory” and “methodology”—favors obscurantism. This has encouraged the rise of a counterfeit currency of glib “popular” articulacy: in the discipline of history this is exemplified by the ascent of the “television don,” whose appeal lies precisely in his claim to attract a mass audience in an age when fellow scholars have lost interest in communication. But whereas an earlier generation of popular scholarship distilled authorial authority into plain text, today’s “accessible” writers protrude uncomfortably into the audience’s consciousness. It is the performer, rather than the subject, to whom the audience’s attention is drawn. 

Cultural insecurity begets its linguistic doppelgänger. The same is true of technical advance. In a world of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (not to mention texting), pithy allusion substitutes for exposition. Where once the Internet seemed an opportunity for unrestricted communication, the increasingly commercial bias of the medium—”I am what I buy”—brings impoverishment of its own. My children observe of their own generation that the communicative shorthand of their hardware has begun to seep into communication itself: “people talk like texts.”

This ought to worry us. When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Alice was right: the outcome is anarchy. 

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise of “nospeak.” 

I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts—the view from inside is as rich as ever—but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections. 

Though I am now more sympathetic to those constrained to silence I remain contemptuous of garbled language. No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right—and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.
Tony Judt

27 jul 2010

On Intellectual History and the History of Books | Quentin Skinner

These remarks take as their point of departure the paper contributed by Robert Darnton to our conference. I am less concerned, however, with following up Bob's arguments than with drawing a number of contrasts between how I envisage the study of intellectual history and how historians of the book (at least on the evidence of Bob's paper) appear to think about their research.
         One obvious contrast lies in the range of topics covered by these two sub-disciplines. To speak of the history of the book is to name a specialised form of enquiry into the production, diffusion and enjoyment of print culture. But to speak of intellectual history is to refer to a much less clearly articulated field of research. Some intellectual historians want to make the purview of their subject more or less coterminous with the whole of a society’s cultural production. Under the heading of intellectual history they want to include the study of religious and other systems of belief; the study of hypotheses in the sciences, including the social and political sciences; the study of certain aspects of the history of art, including notational methods in music and iconological problems in painting and sculpture; and the study of the history of philosophy in all its manifold branches, including the analysis of moral, social, aesthetic and political theories as well as metaphysical arguments.
Most intellectual historians, it is true, think in less imperialist terms. But perhaps this is only because they cannot hope to challenge the established institutional structures of modern Universities, in which the history of art, the history of science and to some degree the history of religion are principally studied and taught in Departments other than Departments of History. Despite these restrictions, many intellectual historians remain keen to work across such arbitrary divisions, and the greatest of them –from Burckhardt onwards– have given us works that not only range across the centuries but at the same time speak of developments not merely in philosophy but in social, moral and religious thought. Practised in this way, the sub-discipline of intellectual history is clearly one with boundaries that are at once highly porous and continually liable to expand and contract as academic politics and different research-programme change. This must be one reason, I think, and perhaps the most obvious, why it has not always been easy, as Bob Darnton rightly notes, for intellectual historians and historians of the book to get together as easily as one might expect.
This is not to say that intellectual historians are uninterested in the kinds of preoccupations that mark out historians of the book. Or if they are uninterested, then I am sure they are misguided. The recent upsurge of interest in the history of the book has undoubtedly helped intellectual historians to become far more aware of a number of important considerations that they need to treat far more seriously than they have generally done. 
Perhaps the most basic point I have in mind here is that the physical appearance of early-modern books affects in various ways how we interpret them. For example, modern editions of the Declarations and Proclamations issued by early-modern governments hardly ever reproduce the difference between Roman and Black-letter type. But it is essential to know which form of type is being used in any given instance, because the use of Black-letter was generally a signal of the special importance of the text in question from the point of view of those who issued it.
For a more important example, consider the implications of the fact that, in the early-modern period, proof-correcting was a continuous process as large texts were run off the press signature by signature.  Sometimes we even find so-called cancels in published texts, where a piece of type has been pasted over an earlier word or sentence at the last moment. The crucial implication is that, in the case of such early-modern books, there can be no such thing as a single copy-text. If we wish to create the best possible editions, we need to collate all surviving copies of the texts in question in order to be sure of tracing the correcting process, and thereby coming as close as possible to the words that the author wanted us to read.  It is an astonishing fact that this form of research is only just beginning to be undertaken for some of the most important texts that early-modern intellectual historians often devote their lives to studying. A vast structure of interpretation in many cases rests on no proper textual foundation at all.  This remains true, for example, in the case of both Bacon and Hobbes, although the situation is at last in the process of being remedied. That intellectual historians are now beginning to devote systematic effort to repairing these deficiencies is surely a reflection, in large part, of the benign influence exercised by historians of the book.
As I began by intimating, however, I was mainly struck on reading Bob’s paper by a number of contrasts between the two sub-disciplines that we are here to discuss. I want to pick up and comment on three contrasts that struck me with particular force. One is that intellectual historians often, and perhaps characteristically, pay little attention to a question that seems, on the evidence of Bob’s paper, to be of central importance to historians of the book. This is the question of the exact extent of the diffusion of particular books.  It is true that some intellectual historians used to be interested in what came to be known in the German tradition as Reception-history. This kind of study is not much written nowadays, for what seem to me excellent methodological reasons, but in its heyday it gave rise to books with titles like Spinoza in Eighteenth Century France, Machiavelli in Modern Germany and so on. It also needs to be stressed that a new and much more sophisticated version of this kind of history is now being written, most magisterially by John Pocock, in which the focus of attention is on the multifarious ways in which books escape their original contexts and play divergent roles in later ideological debates of which their original authors and readers would have known nothing. 
These are important qualifications, but it still seems to me that a fairly strong distinction needs be drawn at this point between intellectual historians and historians of the book. Consider, for example, Newton’s Principia Mathematica. This was probably read and understood in its entirety in the course of the Enlightenment by at most a handful of people. To historians of the book, concerned with questions about diffusion, this is an important and potentially even a disquieting fact. To an intellectual historian, however, concerned with the genesis of Newton’s masterpiece and the nature of its arguments about the mechanistic universe, the same fact is of virtually no importance at all. Nor is the fact that Newton’s book was so little studied likely to prevent such an historian from concluding that it was one of the greatest works of the European Enlightenment.
This brings me to what appears to be a second and associated difference of outlook between intellectual historians and historians of the book. On the evidence of Bob Darnton’s paper, the latter tend to worry that, if a book is read and understood only by a small handful of people, then to make that book a central object of our own studies would be, as Bob put it, elitist. And such elitism, it seems to be assumed, is to be avoided. I am not sure what intellectual historians in general would say about this argument, but their practice suggests that they reject it outright. Practitioners of early-modern intellectual history, for example, constantly publish technical monographs on figures such as Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Leibniz and other seventeenth-century thinkers who, while they never reached the best-seller lists, are still taken to be worthy of study in ever greater detail and depth. 
But are intellectual historians right implicitly to repudiate the charge of elitism? My own view is that they certainly are, if only because the charge itself embodies such an arrogant form of philistinism.  Think, for example, about the painting of decorative tiles in seventeenth century Delft. This became a major industry, and if we consider how many people bought and appreciated these tiles in Vermeer’s Delft, by comparison with the number of people who bought and appreciated Vermeer’s paintings, we find thousands on the one hand and a tiny handful on the other. Do these facts somehow make the study of Delft tiles of more importance than the study of Vermeer’s paintings? If this is not what the accusation of elitism implies, then I am not sure that I understand the accusation itself. But if this is what the accusation implies, then it seems to me to embody just the kind of philistinism that the humanities exist to challenge, not to embrace.
One further difference between the two sub-disciples that struck me on reading Bob’s paper is that historians of the book appear to be little worried by a question that intellectual historians often fret about a lot.  What is the point or purpose of our research? Why do we want the information we dig out?  What is it for?
I have little idea what historians of the book tend to say by way of answering these questions, but historians in general often respond by speaking about the important of memory and the value of satisfying our intellectual curiosity. These have always been powerful reasons for learning about the past, and many intellectual historians are clearly motivated by them as well. Some people, for example, want to know more about Plato, Aquinas, Spinoza, Hegel and other systematic philosophers simply because they find themselves entranced by their systems of thought. Not everyone experiences such entrancement, of course, and even most historians seem immune to it. But the discipline of intellectual history undoubtedly exists in part to satisfy just this kind of curiosity.
Among intellectual historians, however, there are some –and I count myself among them– who remain unsatisfied with this type of answer, and find themselves drawn to intellectual history because it seems to promise something more like a kind of practical importance. Let me try to illustrate what I have in mind by saying a word about the kind of intellectual history that I myself, in company with a number of recent and present colleagues at the University of Cambridge, have been trying to write. We are interested in the history of the moral and political concepts that are nowadays used to construct and appraise our common world. I am thinking here of colleagues like Annabel Brett and her work on the origins of our understanding of rights, Tim Hochstrasser on the development of theories of natural law, David Runciman on the character of the state, David Armitage on the early-modern concept of Empire, Eric Nelson on early-modern views about the res publica, to which I may perhaps be allowed to add a mention of my own recent work on the concept of political representation.  (By the way, I ought to add that all the books to which I am alluding here are published in the series I edit called Ideas in Context, in which I have been trying to promote this research programme.)
The books to which I am referring might all be described as historicist as well as historical in character. By this I mean that they are all imbued with one particular belief, a belief that can most easily be expressed in negative terms. This is that the best way to understand a concept such as liberty, or natural rights, or political representation, or the state, is never going to be to try to offer an analysis of the concept that purports to tell us how the terms that express the concept ought properly to be applied.
Take the concept of political representation, for example. What does it mean for someone to represent someone else? Does it mean to symbolise them? Or to picture them? Or to typify them? Or to impersonate them? Or some combination of these? Or none of the above? To espouse the negative commitment, as I have called it, is to insist that these are not questions that can profitably be asked.  Concepts like liberty, or natural rights, or political representation, or the state have been so deeply embedded in our culture for so long, and have given rise to so many rival theories, that there is no prospect of gaining any significant measure of agreement about what the terms we use to express these concepts really mean (still less what they really mean really). The belief that there is some definitive conceptual analysis to be offered has been one of the governing illusions of recent moral and political philosophy, and it goes a long way towards explaining why the purported findings of analytical philosophers so often look so purely stipulative.
To understand such concepts, the intellectual historians I have cited agree, what we need to find out is when, and how, and why the vocabulary in which they are expressed originally arose, what purposes this vocabulary was used to serve, what role it played in argument. What is needed, in short, is a history of concepts. Now many such histories have of late been written, above all by Reinhart Koselleck and his army of associates, who have created an entire research programme centred on what Koselleck likes to call Begriffsgeschichte. This kind of research, however, is not what I have in mind, or not exclusively what I have in mind. The programme in which I am interested is concerned not so much with the history of concepts as with the history of their acquisition and deployment in argument, the history of what has been done with them, and thus with the changing roles they have played in our culture.
How can this kind of history have the sort of practical value I began by mentioning? The suggestion is that, by following the kind of archaeological process of research I have sketched, we may be able to uncover when and why certain concepts initially came to be formulated, how they may subsequently have been put to radically different uses, how they may have eventually become confused in the process, and how they came to bequeath to us the complex and often contradictory understandings we now confront.
To take a compelling example of this kind of history, think of Philip Pettit’s recent work on the concept of individual liberty.  Philip has shown that, for powerful ideological reasons, an originary understanding of the term as the antonym of dependence was replaced by an understanding of the same term as the antonym of interference. With the rise of modern liberal political theory, Philip has also shown, the latter understanding was encouraged to occupy the entire conceptual space, with rival readings being outlawed as either irrelevant or confused.
The example is brief and schematised, but it is nevertheless sufficient, I hope, to indicate what I mean by saying that this kind of history can have some practical value for us here and now. By writing about the history of freedom in this way, we can hope to uncover the ideological forces at work both in the original construction of the concept and in its subsequent undermining and replacement. This in turn enables us to see our modern liberal concept of freedom is just that – it is our concept, and a rival to a concept that has largely been lost to sight. To see that this is so, however, is at once to liberate ourselves from any disposition to suppose that our concept must somehow be the real or the only one, and at the same time to give ourselves the chance reflect anew on the concept we have lost, and to reconsider what we should think of it. Perhaps, as Philip ends by suggesting, we should actually embrace it and throw away the concept with which we have been brought up, thereby opening up wholly new perspectives on questions about when we are and are not free, what the additional duties our governments may have to protect our freedom, and other questions so far from being ‘merely’ historical that I have dared to describe them as having a practical significance.
This, for me, is the promise of intellectual history, and it is I think in part because the subject has been recognised as having this promise that it has come to be more widely practised in recent times.  Or rather, it has come to be more widely practised in some places, although not in others. Important research of this kind has been done in France: one immediately thinks of Foucault’s studies in this idiom, which have had such a powerful impact. Important research of a similar kind has also been done in Canada: one thinks of Jim Tully, and also of Ian Hacking, who is now to be found at Foucault’s old stamping-ground, the Collège de France. So too in Australia: here one thinks of Conal Condren, Andrew Fitzmaurice, Steve Gaukroger and many others. And so too England, where a younger generation of intellectual historians, as I have noted, is now busily at work. By contrast, the subject remains relatively marginal in the United States. Why this should be so I do not know, but it is has been one of my underlying aims in these remarks to suggest that it is a matter for regret.
Quentin Skinner

22 jul 2010

El Indulto en Chile: hiperpresidencialismo y contradicción constitucional | Nicolás Ocaranza

El indulto presidencial es una facultad constitucional del Presidente de la República por la cual se remite total o parcialmente un delito, se conmuta una pena o se exime de una responsabilidad a aquellas personas que han sido sentenciadas conforme a la resolución de los jueces y Tribunales en un debido proceso. Aún cuando el indulto no elimina el carácter de condenado de un individuo, puesto que sólo modifica la pena del beneficiado, contradice uno de los principios fundamentales de una Constitución republicana: la separación de los poderes del Estado. Esta “atribución judicial” excepcional del presidente de la República, no sólo es un fiel ejemplo del desmedido presidencialismo que rige a nuestro sistema político actual, sino que es una muestra más de la interferencia del poder Ejecutivo en las resoluciones del poder Judicial, y una evidente contradicción con el artículo 76 de la Constitución.
En países donde existe la pena de muerte, el indulto se ha utilizado invocando el derecho a la vida, o bien, por razones humanitarias. Sin embargo, en Chile la pena de muerte fue derogada el año 2001, por lo cual, la utilización sistemática del indulto durante los dos últimos gobiernos de la Concertación (305 personas indultadas) no ha obedecido a esos criterios, sino más bien a la voluntad particular de cada mandatario que se ha amparado en el carácter “confidencial” de esta atribución. Este carácter secreto impide a la ciudadanía conocer los criterios éticos, jurídicos y políticos por los que un mandatario concede el indulto a un individuo ya condenado por la Justicia, y deja una serie de dudas sobre la transparencia del proceso que lo concede y varios cuestionamientos a la arbitrariedad de esta facultad presidencial.
Junto a esto, el intenso lobby realizado por algunos representantes de las iglesias católica y evangélica, interviniendo en un tema que debiera ser de absoluta competencia de los Tribunales, es otro aspecto a considerar en este nuevo affaire político. Una democracia sana no sólo debe promover una serie de mecanismos de frenos y contrapesos al poder, sino que también debe garantizar una genuina independencia entre la esfera política, las instituciones religiosas y las corporaciones privadas.
Para que en un Estado de Derecho prime la división de poderes es necesario que la función jurisdiccional sea una potestad particular del poder Judicial sin concesiones excepcionales al Ejecutivo o al Legislativo. Sin embargo, esta es una premisa que las reformas a la Constitución de 1980 -elaboradas durante el gobierno de Ricardo Lagos- pasaron por alto, al continuar legitimando la hipertrofia presidencial.

Resulta urgente, entonces, iniciar un debate público sobre la real necesidad de esta atribución presidencial, advirtiendo la evidente contradicción entre esta facultad constitucional –más propia de una Monarquía que de una República democrática- y el principio constitucional que establece la separación de los poderes públicos. En una coyuntura en la cual podrían ser indultados individuos involucrados en violaciones a los Derechos Humanos, se vuelve aún más necesario intentar regular o derogar esta figura jurídica, más aún si el criterio que la anima no es la justicia sino una equívoca razón política.