Wednesday , January 27 2021

The American disease. Part two (early days)

I wrote my dissertation prior to the Internet. Maybe that’s the dividing line. I studied people like Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky. I went to my tutor’s college rarely, sometimes not for months. It was assumed that I could read everything in the original language. It just isn’t possible to understand a text in translation.

I spent my time wandering the streets of Cambridge. I would work hard for a few hours each day, but it just isn’t possible to do much more than that. So, I would walk and think. The thinking was often unconscious. Sometimes a problem could be solved by not thinking about it.

My dissertation fitted best into the Theology Faculty, which I found to be full of atheists. My perspective was Christian. I assumed that the central claims of Christianity were literally true.

But this wasn’t a problem then. Both of my tutors were ordained, neither believed in the traditional sense, but we discussed the texts that I was reading without letting our politics get in the way.

Tutorials were intense. I would write something, and an argument would develop. Both of us would give it our all, but it wasn’t personal. There was no anger, or at least no lasting anger. There were no limits on what could be said. I could argue for whatever I believed so long as I could make the case with reason and by demonstrating knowledge and understanding of the text. In this way people who disagreed about everything could have a useful discussion. This is what we have lost since then.

I was aware of certain areas of study that I could have gone down, which I chose to avoid. I could have gone down the continental route and read people like Derrida and Foucault. I could have embraced post-modernism, feminism, structuralism and post-structuralism, but I quickly found that I could make little of this kind of material.

When I read Heidegger or Wittgenstein or even Hegel and Kant and Aristotle, I may frequently struggle to understand the text. But I usually ascribe the fault to myself. A text may be difficult because it is deep and expresses ideas that are hard to understand. It may not involve difficult language. Wittgenstein frequently writes simple sentences which capture something illusive. The point though is that with these people there is something to understand. It is worth trying to understand them because they are genuinely deep, intelligent thinkers with something to say that is important. I never found I had that experience when reading the works of the “post-moderns” still less did I find it with the feminists, the post-colonialists or any of the other ways of reading that have developed in the past thirty to forty years. All I found was jargon and a deliberate lack of clarity, masking an emptiness of thought.

I avoided anything that even hinted that the author had a political agenda. Eventually I avoided anything written by an American.

Too much is written. In the 19th century it was still possible to read just about everything important that was written about a subject. Academics would spend years writing a book and the quality was high.

There are now hundreds of universities in America and every academic is pressurised to publish both journal articles and books. Many of these academics went through the same pitiful course of study during their undergraduate days as I did in America. They then spent three or four years at graduate school, often taught by highly politicised tutors. They were then encouraged to write and write and write, but most often from only one “correct” perspective. The result is dire.

Publish or perish destroyed the quality of books and journal articles coming out of America. Even if good work was still being produced it was impossible to find amidst the fool’s gold. I gave up reading American books en masse. Later when the “publish or perish” disease spread here I gave up reading British books too.

Even then I focussed mainly on the primary source. What mattered was reading the author I was studying. I read just enough secondary material to provide footnotes, but otherwise just wrote what I thought.

It was still possible to get away with it then. I could ignore politics. I could ignore feminism, post-modernism and anything else that had newly arrived from the Continent or the States. There were academics who were interested in that stuff, but I wasn’t penalised if it didn’t interest me. There was still room for someone who wanted to understand philosophical, theological and literary texts without discussing politics. There is still just about room if you deal with something very technical. But that room is getting smaller and smaller, like something out of Alice in Wonderland.

I don’t remember when I first became aware of people objecting to certain words because they were not inclusive. I think I came across some Americans demanding I write “He or she” or still worse S/he, sometime when I was writing my dissertation. But I just continued writing in the way that English speakers had been doing for centuries and so did practically everyone else in Cambridge.

It all seemed rather silly as if our American cousins had somehow developed their own grammar after so many centuries in some peculiar way. Did they speak that way? How would you say “S/he” in a way that distinguished it from “she”? I thought it was safe to ignore this sort of stuff.

But this was really the beginning. The Left made gradual steps. It demanded we cease to say “mankind”, some people did. But whatever step we made, there was always going to be another. It was only because some people replaced “he” with “he or she” that we ended up replacing he and she with “they” “ze”, “xe” and were told that there was nothing fixed about being he or she and that anyone could on a whim be either.

I was at a conference reading a paper and suddenly an American voice objected. He found it offensive that I wasn’t using gender neutral pronouns. I was baffled for a minute, but then explained that I was following standard English grammar. My American friend walked out. Was this the moment that changed everything?

The absurdity of course is this. It is only because Americans are so parochial and most frequently don’t speak any languages other than English, that they could suppose that gender neutral language is universally possible.

The rules about not having words like “mankind” and using “he or she” instead of “he” have to be applied to all languages. It cannot be only that English speakers have to be re-educated. But while making English gender neutral is just about possible even if it is ugly. It is simply impossible for other languages to do this.

In Russian there are three grammatical genders, masculine, feminine and neuter. There are six main grammatical cases, nominative, accusative, dative etc, plus some that are used less frequently.

Put simply.

Masculine words end in a consonant, e.g. Ivan.

Neuter words end in o or e, e.g.  Politburo.

Feminine words end in a or ia, e.g. Anna Karenina. This is why Putin’s wife was called Putina.

Not only this. Men and women have different endings for certain verb forms and adjectives.

Gender is absolutely everywhere in Russian. This is the case with all Slavic languages and was once the case with most western European languages which used to be highly inflected.

Whether you use the Russian word he or she or it is determined by that words ending. It doesn’t of course mean that the word is itself a man, woman or neuter. The Russian word for table is masculine the French is feminine. This is a matter of grammar not of genitalia.

But the same of course is the case with English. “He” can refer to male human beings, but it can also apply logically to women in certain usually ambiguous circumstances. That is just how English grammar evolved.

So too the “man” part of “mankind” no more means a man than it does in the word “Manchester” rather man is derived from the proto Germanic word meaning “person”. The ugly “personkind” is therefore as ignorant as herstory supposing that the etymology of history is “his story”, rather than ἱστορία [historia].

It would be senseless to try to make all languages gender neutral. It would also be extremely difficult for a Russian woman to decide that she was a man. She would have to relearn the grammar that she had grown up with from childhood. But then again you would struggle to find a Russian woman who would want to. The American disease spreads by means of language and that language is English.

This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog:


About Effie Deans

Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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One comment

  1. Are you sure it is not the French who are to blame: Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard? Postmodernism/Postmarxism seems to describe our age more than late US philosophy. It also sells – Dada is exciting.

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