Saturday, March 03, 2007


OK, instead of going into every comments section to respond, I'm going to take the risk of writing a diffuse post every once in a while and go back to various issues readers have raised.

Lesboprof: the way I know how many readers I have is that I installed that little sitemeter on the right side of the blog, atop the links section. It gives me all kinds of interesting information, although some of it is inexact. For example, it gives me referrals, which lets me know how some people got to the blog in the first place, thus leading me to interesting blogs who have linked me. As far as I can tell, the best way to acquire a lot of readers fast is to get linked to Inside Higher Ed or to be mentioned on another popular blog like Sivacracy or the Valve. My props from Siva bounced me up by twenty or thirty readers per day, and mentions on other blogs like Ferule and Fescue and Lumpenprofessoriat have also made me more visible. My post on tenure at MIT also bounced me -- there was a lot of interest from web addresses in and around Cambridge for a while, although I haven't seen those folks much since. Probably too busy changing regimes.

On the other hand, if you have your hopes pinned to remaining anonymous (I do not), be warned that being popular is not such a boon. I have already been located by at least two of my younger colleagues, who have notified me that they are readers (note: I have told no one that they are readers, thus preserving their capacity to comment anonymously should they choose to do so), but my guess from the sitemeter is that there are a couple other Zenith readers out there too. The lurking colleagues provide kind of a useful function, in that when I am writing about Zenith, particularly personnel issues, I have an internal editor that clicks on, asking me whether my friends would reprove me for what I say on line and whether or not they would be right.

To those who wrote on the topic of "denigrate:" these are very interesting and helpful, particular when taken as a group. Combat Philosopher, I share your exasperation, and while subsequent comments argue that the students are not entirely out to lunch on this, what I think all the comments suggest is that "denigrate" still falls into the ample realm of reasonable word use. And the practice of establishing petty hierarchies of virtue over things that don't matter is a real problem at Zenith because it produces an atmosphere in which being "right" is more important than thinking, and the free exchange of ideas is inevitably suppressed because students are afraid of being shamed by their peers for ideological error. Professor Z's response about how to teach this moment is particularly helpful, in my view, because it doesn't privilege my knowledge over theirs, tempting as it might be to do that. Such a move at a moment characterized by self-righteousness on their part is guaranteed to cause them to stop listening and dig in.

Neophyte, I can't tell whether you are pissed at me for being racially insensitive or pissed at the students for the politics of disengagement, as you usefully call it. I do think etymology is important - in exactly the ways that you and professor z sketch it out in your responses, but I also don't think that all words that stem from the ancient word for black need to be purged from our vocabulary. I don't mean to be dismissive here when I ask, under what conditions are allusions to black possible if a word like denigrate, which was initially produced under conditions in which white slavery was the norm, cannot be used? PS: at Banana Republic (aargh! colonialism!!!) I was told last week that lime green is the new black. And no, I won't stop shopping there, because their clothes fit, dammit, and I need a new suit for the OAH annual meeting. And the real ethical problem here that is directly related to colonialism is not the name of the bloody store but that practically every garment we buy, anywhere, is made under appallingly oppressive labor conditions in countries where all workers are invisible to us.

But once again, I digress.

If you go back to the original context in which the word "denigrating" was used -- it made a lot of sense, since I was talking about a process of racialization that in fact is associated with shame and a history of subordinaiton by race, and which a racialized group is resisting for a *reason.* So in their haste to cleanse the classroom, actually the students conveniently skipped over a rather complex point. And I guess I am in the Grafton camp, perhaps because we are both historians or because we are both middle-aged -- there is a modern revisionism typical of this exchange that acts to wipe one kind of history away in the interest of a more facile, not a more critical, just or even *comfortable* classroom environment. As Neophyte notes, that moment where white students are ventriloquizing what they assume students of color are feeling has some pretty tricky issues attached to it too. If, in fact, the word "denigrate" is associated with slavery, and I am still not convinced that the intersection of blackness with an exclusive availability for enslavement that doesn't emerge until the Early Modern period (see David Eltis and professor z on this question) awards a meaning to this word that is more or less exclusive, why shouldn't this be useful knowledge rather than grounds for a criticism/self-criticism session? African slavery is one of the primary foundations for the social, cultural and political history of the modern world. I don't think the job of the historian is to erase the traces of that in our language -- which might do the work, actually, of erasing the cultural and intellectual histories associated with American racism.

So that's what I think right now in relation to a set of incredibly thoughtful comments. And speaking of language, did anyone catch the Ann Coulter speech at the American Conservative Union going around the 'net? In discussing the current crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls, she said, interrupted by the raucous laughter of her ACU cronies, that she would discuss John Edwards, "but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word faggot." I bring this up for two reasons. One is that my use of the verb "to denigrate" in its gerundial form described a mentalite; it did not categorize a person, or group of persons, as something inherently shameful, like many other racialized nouns that we keep out of our vocabulary for good reason, but rather as the objects of a discourse that is intended to convey shame. Second, Coulter may have catalyzed yet another step in John Edwards' move into the twenty-first century. Having initially changed his position on gay marriage to say that he believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, but that his personal beliefs have no place in shaping policy, he has -- along with David Bonior -- now sent out an email to his supporters that blasts Coulter and her ship of fools for "bigotry."

And here's one of the places I do draw the line in using language: I would say that Coulter is a big bitch, but that would be disrespectful a) to my dog, Sailor, to whom I am devoted; b) to all women, for whom the term bitch has historically been used to shame or marginalize in an undifferentiated way that is linked to their reproductive capacities; and c) to the famous Bitch, Ph.D., who recuperates this word on a daily basis in her high level of radical political engagement.

So I'll just characterize Ann Coulter as dumb and rude. And John Edwards -- we dykes and faggots welcome you to the politics of equality and justice, baby.


neophyte said...

First, I don't want Sisyphus to take the fall for anything I said -- that less-eloquent chiming-in on "denigrate" was me. And I wasn't pissed - I'm just very language-sensitive and tend to demand it of everyone around me.

I love what you have to say about the vileness of students' impulses to "cleanse the classroom" -- one of the best teachers I've ever had the luck to encounter based her pedagogical philosophy on the premise that the classroom is not, and should not be, a "safe space" in the conventional sense, and since she shook me up, most of my most productive learning experiences have been very uncomfortable ones. The problem with PC white students (myself included) is that they (we) frequently don't know how to deal with the dangers of learning.

And your remark about the risk of "erasing the traces" of African slavery, or any other embarassing historical/cultural phenomenon, raises a very important question. If the goal of unearthing the latent meanings of what Prof Z terms "naturalized figurative language" is not to purge or to cleanse or to erase, then what is it? How do we use words like "denigrate," if we wish to continue to use them, in a way that does not further erase history by ignoring their origins, but rather cathects that history by attending to their complexity?

Okay. Inchoate harping over.

(Re: Ann Coulter, she is one of the many reasons I was glad to discover once upon a fledgling-feminist time that vaginal douches are unhealthy implements of Patriarchal Evil. Because that means I can call her a douchebag with, more or less, impunity.)

Tenured Radical said...


Thanks for the heads up -- I have edited as per your alert. Anyway, I wasn't taking it hard if you were pissed at me -- I just wasn't sure.

Thanks for your great comment.


Lesboprof said...

Well, once I visited your sitemeter, I was totally freaked out! I had no idea there was so much info leaking out just from checking in on people's websites. I am glad that there are multiple schools where I am, tho admittedly not many fit my description of my school!

I guess if I can just get through tenure, I can relax a little about who sees my site and knows who I am.

Good grief.

And Ann Coulter makes my skin crawl... and makes me glad to be a lesbian!

The Combat Philosopher said...

Did you know that your Sitemeter is actually under counting your hits? The version of Sitemeter you have installed is the JavaScript version. I am not a big fan of JavaScript (if I know how to do really evil things with it, and I am one of the good guys, then god knows what the bad guys could do with it). For this reason, I usually work with it disabled, unless there is a specific reason not to (like posting on your blog).

When I first installed the Sitemeter, I used the boring HTML version. After a while, I decided to give the spiffy JavaScript version a whirl. I discovered through this experiment that the JavaScript version of the hit counter fails to count hits from people who do not have JavaScript turned on. In other words, I was missing hits! Thus, I went back to the old HTML only version.

I would also recommend registering with the google service for web pages. That can give some interesting information. Oh yes, I also recommend having a second hit counter too. From time to time, Sitemeter goes a bit haywire and does not report hits properly, so a back up is useful. I quite like the one available free from StatCounter. Again, I prefer their non-JavaScript version. Give it a whirl!

In the meantime, congrats on you site being so popular. It is well deserved of course!

The Combat Philosopher

Anonymous said...

I can't quite help myself to a few more thoughts on "denigrate." Looking back on what I wrote originally, I definitely overstated the case for the racist "origins" of the word denigrate. I don't have nearly the evidence to make that claim definitively, I only would suggest that the timing of the word's entrance into English is noteworthy given that the black/white opposition seems to have become racialized in English at about the same time. I take Anthony Grafton's point about the word's Latin roots and the very different set of cultural norms in play. But being a historian surely doesn't require one to only think about the word's oldest possible meaning; indeed, to the extent that there is a question about the meaning and proper usage of the term, the relevance of various older usages is precisely what might be profitably contemplated.

As for neophyte's question about what purpose such knowledge can serve, I would suggest that purging or erasing are not the only options. To go back to my other example, I'm not going to abandon the word "fair," but if I am teaching a Shakespeare sonnet that puns upon the word, I am going to try to help my students see how many different valences the term has, how much cultural water it is made to bear.

Finally, though, I'm down with TR's comment re. the importance of good old fashioned materialism. Language matters, but it rarely matters as much as the material practices that drive and - yes, I'll say it - often determine what kinds of language we use.

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