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Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Essay: Are You An Academic In A Hurry? Be Prepared to Wait Twenty Five Years

Academic work is a slow business, academic publishing was always crushingly slow, and the reception of academic work even slower. The chronology which follows may give dubious comfort to those who wonder if there will ever be a day when …

Academic year 1971 – 1972: As a Leverhulme scholar, I attend lectures by Claude Lévi-Strauss at the Collège de France in Paris. He takes as his subject for the year the plastic art of the American / Canadian North West coast Indian tribes. I take notes.

1975: The Geneva publisher Albert Skira publishes an elegant, heavily illustrated two volume work based on the lectures titled La Voie des Masques

1979: The Paris publisher Plon publishes a cheaper one volume version which I buy

1982: A Vancouver publisher brings out a translation by Sylvia Modelski titled The Way of the Masks

1983: The London publisher Jonathan Cape brings out Modelski’s translation, and I buy it.

1984: The editor of a student magazine published by the Philosophy Society at the University of Sussex, where I am teaching, asks me to contribute something and I do a review/essay based on Modelski’s translation and title it “The Dialogue of  Masks”. The journal is called Aletheia and my essay appears in issue 4, pages 16 – 22. I argue that in relation to the standard structuralist formula A:B::C:D (A is to B as C is to D) there is a missing fourth term in Lévi-Strauss’s analysis. You would be very lucky to find a copy of this journal!

2003: I add the 1984 article, with a few small changes, to my academic website which at the time was unusual in allowing free download access to unabridged work

2009: In a Serbian journal published in French, Problèmes d’ethnologie et d’anthropologie, nouvelle série, vol. 4, nr. 2, pp 121 -134, Senka Kovač  publishes an article “Claude Lévi-Strauss: le masque et le mythe” which includes an extensive summary of my essay: for example,  seven paragraphs begin with the word “Pateman”. I come across this article in 2017

2012: In a French journal Gradhiva, published by the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, Baptiste Gille publishes a long essay (pages 216 – 39) “Le visage des Bébés des eaux et des Gens du ciel. Nouvelles perspectives sur les masques swaihwé”.This also makes some use of my 1984 essay. I come across this article in 2017

But for the Internet, this little piece of work - just a few pages -  would never have lived: the student journal publication could be reckoned as a bit like auto-destructive art. Since website publication in 2003, it has been discussed twice, but the first time in  2009 was twenty five years after the original 1984 publication.

I'm still hoping that one day the hours sweated on "Liberty, Authority and the Negative Dialectics of John Stuart Mill" will be rewarded by  a reader :)

Monday, 5 February 2018

Review Philippe Sands, East West Street

I don’t usually provide quotable quotes about books I read but I have to say of this one that it is an extraordinary achievement, both in terms of the research on which it is based and the narrative manner in which it is presented. The main text runs to 387 pages, readable throughout. Sands recounts the history of his mother’s family; the history of two great international lawyers (Hersch Lauterpacht, Rafael Lemkin); the life and crimes of Hans Frank, governor of German-occupied Poland; the story of the Nuremberg trials and something of their  aftermath. He holds it all together by constant references back to Lemberg / Lwow/ Lvov /Lviv the city in Austrian Galicia where his grandfather Leon Buchholz and the two lawyers, Lauterpacht and Lemkin, were born and later the site of some of the worst Nazi crimes.

Lauterpacht gave us the expression “crimes against humanity” and Lemkin gave us the term “genocide”. One of the main achievements of this book is to make us think about what those things mean and how they have different implications for law and politics. In particular, Sands points out dangers involved in focusing on crimes against groups (genocide) rather than crimes against individuals, however large their number (crimes against humanity). There are not only the problems of proving intent to destroy a group as such, but also the danger that the idea of genocide re-enforces habits of thinking and acting by using categories which themselves are part of the problem. Though he does not draw it out, it is obvious that if the word “genocide” had never been used then Armenia and Turkey might have progressed much farther towards a resolution of  their century-old dispute than they have. But the Armenians insist they were victims of a genocide and the Turks do not want to accept responsibility for one, though they are clearly willing to acknowledge all or most of the main narrative of mass deportation, starvation and killing. One of the stumbling blocks is the fact that Turkey in World War One saw the Armenian population in its eastern parts as likely to favour enemy Russia over their own Ottoman rulers. That gave rise to military anxieties about fifth columns,  similar to those which led Stalin to organise mass deportations. But those deportations were not significantly driven by racial theorising. 

The archival research which Sands has conducted or directed is astonishing, and the reader must surely come to think that if only you persist long enough with your Google searches and your actual visits to people and places you will eventually turn up the truth. The remarkable chapter on Miss Tilney of Norwich, who took Sands’ mother from Vienna to Paris, is a handproof of that claim and within the book itself it reads like a polished gem of the archival researcher’s craft. It is all the more remarkable that Sands is working on questions where the archival evidence has so often been destroyed by war, neglect, sell-offs and looting - Sands does not mention that in the 1990s when the Soviet Union became the Wild East, chunks of Lemberg archive material were either sold off to cover things like building repairs and staff salaries or looted by new-style small entrepreneurs who paid bribes for easy access to material. I don't know the details of the transactions involved, but I have seen lots of  the archive material,  low-grade it's true but still part of a history which had been preserved for decades until the Soviet Union imploded. 

I think I will have a hard task to find a more impressive book to read in 2018 and for once the jacket endorsements (led off by John le Carré) are entirely justified.