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Tuesday, May 24, 2011


After a very long and uneventful flight, Susie and I returned home last night, exhausted, but happy to see our cat. The Paris stay passed extraordinarily quickly this time, even though during the twenty days we were there, I wrote and posted a 20,000 word tutorial on the thought of Sigmund Freud. Several of you assured me that you were reading that tutorial, although it generated far fewer comments than my occasional blog posts about politics and other matters.

In the past fourteen months, since April 4, 2010, I have written and posted something like 385,000 words of sustained exposition and narration, including a three volume autobiography, tutorials on the thought of Karl Marx and the thought of Sigmund Freud, a brief tutorial on how to study society, and [on a second blog] a book-length tutorial on the use and abuse of formal methods in political philosophy.

You would think I would be about talked out by now, but Antaeus-like, each fall to the earth revives my spirits and I spring up eager to keep going. On the plane home, as I half dozed and watched several awful movies, I brooded about what I might do next. These extended multi-part tutorials are really very unusual for a blog, I believe. Blogging is by its nature episodic, up to the minute, gossipy, and evanescent. It is the polar opposite of both book writing and teaching. And yet, for more than a year now, I have been treating my blog as a venue for both book writing and teaching.

On the one hand, it all seems like a great deal of effort for very little result. We live in a world in which Lady Gaga has eight and a half million friends on Twitter. My blog draws an average of five hundred visitors a day, and has perhaps one to two thousand people checking in on it from time to time, if that. It is enough to make one genuinely modest [not my natural stance vis-a-vis the world.] On the other hand, if I gave a university course and five hundred people showed up, I would consider myself an academic rock star.

To I shall persevere. [Well, it didn't take much to persuade me, I must say.] While idling above the Atlantic at subsonic speeds, I had the following thought. I am going to sketch it and ask for some feedback. Doing what I am about to describe would be a good deal of work for me, so I do not want to launch on it unless there really is a groundswell of interest. Absent that, I shall go back to my animadversions at the passing scene, until some other idea strikes me.

What I think I would enjoy doing is teaching a rather extended tutorial, or quasi-course, on ideological critique. I have actually taught such a seminar on at least three occasions during my lengthy career, and it worked well in a classroom setting. A blog is quite different, of course. There is no easy give and take of conversation, although there are comments and replies. And perhaps most important, I cannot assign readings. If there is anything I want my readers/students to know, I must tell it to them in the blog posts. That makes everything a good deal more difficult.

The structure of the tutorial would be this: I would begin by discussing some of Marx's early writings [The review of On the Jewish Question, maybe a turn on his hilarious discussion of the concept of the Absolute Fruit in The Holy Family], and with that a reprise and expansion of my discussion of his concept of mystification. Then I would spend a long time on Karl Mannheim's brilliant book, Ideology and Utopia, to my mind one of the most important books in the great tradition of sociological theory. This would constitute the first part of the tutorial. In the second part, I would take up in turn three case studies of ideological critique, to see how the concept plays out in practice.

The first case study would be based on a book by Edwin Wilmsen, entitled Land Filled With Flies, a fascinating ethnographic treatise on the people of the Kalahari called the Zhu or !Kung. [These are the people who are usually referred to as "Bushmen," but that is a dismissive and contemptuous term, like Kaffir, or Nigger, or Wop, or Kike, or Sheeney.] Wilmsen argues that the famous work on the Zhu done by a team of A-List Harvard anthropologists is fundamentally flawed because of the ideological preconceptions with which they approached their fieldwork.

The second case study would be Edward Said's classic work, Orientalism, which is sometimes credited with single-handedly creating the field of Post-Colonial Studies. In light of the current events of the Arab Spring, so-called, it would be very interesting to see how Said explodes some of the myths fostered by Western colonialists and their intellectual apologists, including most famously Sir Bernard Lewis.

The third case study would a multi-media effort, focusing on a lovely film rendition of Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park by a Canadian director, which seems to me to embody a fascinating reading of the novel by, once again, Ed Said, according to which it is really, despite appearances to the contrary, about slavery.

The point of the case studies is to get beyond endless theorizing about and intellectual play with the notion of ideology in order actually to see how the idea works out when we apply it to historical or social situations.

Well, that is the idea. I have not a clue how long it would take me to spell all of that out, but it would not be a short tutorial. Of that I am certain. To do it, I would, at a minimum, have to re-read the Mannheim, Wilmsen, and Said, so this is not one of those things I can just toss off while making hazelnut encrusted rabbit in a Paris pied-a-terre. I will be very interested to hear what readers have to say.


Michael said...

That sounds fantastic. I would definitely follow the tutorial (and might even be able to glance at the recommended readings now and then).

English Jerk said...

You can count me in! (I've been meaning to read the Mannheim book anyway; though I can't promise I'd re-read Mansfield Park, which was excruciating the first time round.)

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

I suppose that there is no point to asking for some sort of Reuben Feinschmeck title?


Chris said...

Or how Marxism came to be called scientific and the veracity of said claim

Amato said...

I'm may not always be commenting but I'm reading, and this sounds great!

Noumena said...

Welcome back!

This sounds like a really fascinating idea. You can definitely consider me interested.

levinebar said...

readers say "do it!" I can take responsibility for my own education as a citizen, but I'd be a fool to miss the opportunity you sketch.

Haydon said...

I too would very much like to read such a tutorial - I have certainly benefited from the others!