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Persons and ThingsReview - Persons and Things
by Barbara Johnson
Harvard University Press, 2008
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Oct 14th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 42)

"A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question -- such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? -- not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had." - C. P. Snow 1959

It is almost fifty years since Snow's warning about two cultures. The term two cultures has entered the general lexicon as shorthand for differences between two attitudes. These are

   1. the increasingly constructivist world view from the humanities, in which the scientific method is seen as embedded within language and culture; and hence relativistic

   2. the scientific viewpoint, in which the observer can still claim to objectively make unbiased and non-culturally embedded observations about nature.

And it is almost thirty years [1979] since The Glyph published an exchange between John Searle and Jacques Derrida that called for people to pay attention to postmodernist theories of language and reality. I remember reading the exchange at the time and in the interest of objectivity I admit that I thought then and think now that Searle was the winner. I also should admit that I had no idea what Derrida was up to most of the time.

Searle speaking about Derrida in an interview here says:

Searle: With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he's so obscure. Every time you say, "He says so and so," he always says, "You misunderstood me." But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that's not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, "What the hell do you mean by that?" And he said, "He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying, that's the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, 'You didn't understand me; you're an idiot.' That's the terrorism part." And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.

Persons and Things boasts a lovely reproduction of Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824–1904) which exactly sets the tone for the analysis of things and persons. Johnson's research includes the grammar of various art forms, advertising, literature, and legal writings, with dual themes of personification and anthropomorphism.

Early studies of advertising were cast in the problematic of ideology and hegemony. In conducting textual and ideological analyses of advertising, e.g., analysts stressed the selling not just of commodities but also of ways of looking at the world. Analysts explained that advertisers set out to create an "identity" for a product, associating the brand in question with desirable human values. Johnson has a marvellous discussion of the omni-present Barbie Doll and how feminists had to fight to get Mattell to remove "Math is so hard" from the set of recorded sentences she could utter. Buying a brand means not only buying a product but also a lifestyle, a set of values, and the values and attitudes of the powerful.

Johnson and others working in the area of critical theory have taught us to pay attention to language use, to hidden assumptions, to irony, to unstated and hidden meaning, to meanings unintended. I submit that no one today can read this sentence in Cornford's introduction to Plato's Republic without tripping on the word "just": The demand for a definition of Justice seems to imply that there is some conception in which all these applications of the word meet like lines converging to a common centre; or, in more concrete terms, that there is some principle whereby human life might be so organized that there would exist a just society composed of just men.

Johnson tells us of two personal epiphanies which she thinks may have been inspiration for her book: one personal – she could not bring herself to eat anything that looked like it had a face; and one professional – she realized that deconstruction "gravitated to the inanimate". (4) That came to her in a seminar at Yale taught by Derrida. "Human nature is an illusion produced by mechanical means" she learned from a discussion of Paul de Man. But it may be that critical theory is waning. In an interesting study at Gene Expression we are told that "We are living in very exciting times -- at long last, we've broken the stranglehold that a variety of silly Blank Slate theories have held on the arts, humanities, and social sciences." The decline of these theories is measured by searching the archives of JSTOR to determine the popularity of how popular a theory or idea is.

[Graphs used with permission.]

Barbara Johnson is not practicing obscurantisme terroriste in her book. In fact, for the most part, it is a most readable and interesting book filled with insightful comments on everything from Toys R Us to lyric poetry. She dedicates the book "To the many wonderful students who have made teaching Persons and Things such a delight in the past few years." I am sure the students have found her classes a delight too. She is intelligent, clever, and has a large collection of cool examples to illustrate her points, examples that must have come from preparing for those delightful classes. She wrestles throughout the book with the difficulty of separating in an essential way things from persons. Do persons (or things, for that matter) have an essence? Are we essentially evil, or racist, or sexist? She writes, "This book offers no help in treating persons as persons, but it does explore the richness of a human being's relation to things." And it does so in an interesting way.

The book has rich interpretations of the usual suspects (Derrida, Foucault, Paul de Man, Nietzsche, Baudelaire), rich and comprehensive notes, and a useful index (which does not include John Searle).

Some years ago now I had invited an English professor from the University of Victoria to talk to my philosophy class about his critical theoretical approach to texts and writing. He too was a believer in the "infinite regress theory of language" and had written cleverly about how we could never know what was written, could never pin down the meaning of a piece of writing. At the last minute something prevented us from meeting in the room that I had told him we would be in for his lecture. I put a note on the door directing him to a different room, fearing, of course, that he might end up outside the original room for hours trying to relate the words on the note to some corresponding reality. I signed the note "Bob Lane" pretty sure that his reading of my last name would indicate to him that I was indeed trying to communicate a lane or path to the newly assigned room.

Just a couple of minutes after we were settled in the bigger room, he arrived.

© 2008 Bob Lane

Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.


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