Thursday, October 08, 2009

Hither and yon: UC Berkeley edition

Tomorrow I'll be giving "Federalism and constitutional entrenchment" at the Berkeley political theory workshop, Harris Room (Rm 119), Moses Hall, 3 pm.

Saturday I'll be giving "From Liberal constitutionalism to pluralism" at a Center for British Studies conference on "Modern Pluralism: Anglo-American Debates since 1880", Moses Hall 223, 9:30 am.
A good week for bragging

Two McGill alumni were awarded Nobel prizes this week: Jack Szostak, (BSc'72) (cell biology) was a co-winner of the Prize for Medicine and Willard Boyle (BSc'47, MSc'48, PhD'50) was a co-winner of the Prize in Physics.

And in the new Times Higher Education Supplement rankings, McGill was ranked 18th in the world, top in Canada, and top public university in North America. McGill was ranked 10th in life sciences, 17th in social sciences,and 14th in arts and humanities. Rankings need to be taken with many, many grains of salt, of course. But still: yay us.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

And speaking of the Chronicle...

I happily endorse this plea from an editor at the University of Virginia Press: "If you don't buy 'em, we can't afford to publish 'em."
Great Books

From the Chronicle, an essay by W.A. Pannapacker called "Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor," parts of which strike home for me.
In my early 20s, when I was starting out as a graduate student in the humanities, I hosted a small gathering at my apartment. It didn't take long for my guests to begin scrutinizing my bookshelves. (I do the same thing now, of course, whenever I am at a party.) I remember that there were numerous battered anthologies, at least a hundred paperback classics, the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (acquired as a Book-of-the-Month Club premium), probably six copies of PMLA, and several shelves of books that I had retained from childhood, including the Time-Life Library of Art and the Old West Time-Life Series in "hand-tooled Naugahyde leather."

Perhaps the most revered set of volumes from my childhood—proudly displayed—was Great Books of the Western World, in 54 leatherette volumes. I remember I bought them all at once for $10 at a church sale when I was about 13; it took me two trips to carry them home in plastic grocery bags.

"Your clay feet are showing," said one of my guests, another graduate student, as she removed Volume 1 of the Great Books from my shelves. I caught the biblical allusion, but it took me a couple of years to realize the implication of the remark: My background was lacking. If graduate school was a quiz show, then I was Herbert Stempel trying to make it in the world of Charles Van Doren.[...]

The Great Books were expressions of hope for many people who had historically not had access to higher education.

There was something awe-inspiring about that series for me, even if I acquired it a generation late. The Great Books seemed so serious. They had small type printed in two columns; there were no annotations, no concessions to the beginner.[...]
there was a reason that you could buy the Great Books for $10 by that time. The whole notion of a stable canon of books had gone out of fashion, and not even recently: Writers such as Dwight MacDonald had been mocking the Great Books since they first appeared. As Beam observes, "The Great Books were synonymous with boosterism, Babbittry, and H.L. Mencken's benighted boobocracy." Display them in your living room, and you might as well put plastic covers on the colonial couch beneath your reproduction Grandma Moses with the copy of The Power of Positive Thinking on your coffee table. Great Books, Beam writes, "were everything that was wrong, unchic and middlebrow about middle America."

As Paul Fussell wrote in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, "It is in the middle-class dwelling that you're likely to spot the 54-volume set of the Great Books, together with the half-witted two-volume Syntopicon, because the middles, the great audience for how-to books, believe in authorities."

I'm about the same age as Pannapacker, and like him, was not to the academic or highbrow manner born. I read my first Marx, Smith, Mill, Shakespeare, Plutarch, and Plato in that Great Books set. In sixth grade I carried the Marx and Smith volumes by turn into school with me and read them during reading time-- and if I didn't understand much, I also didn't understand nothing, when I worked at it.

And, like Pannapacker, I've received the occasional smirk or snarky comment about them, in my life as it is now.

Of course, lots of the substantive criticisms are right-- the two-volume Synopticon is bizarre. And the books themselves as physical objects, which once impressed me, now don't. I don't read from them anymore. The paper on which they're printed is unbelievably thin and fragile, the print ridiculously small. Even before all those public-domain works went online, it was easier to get a cheap Penguin or Dover paperback of whatever I wanted to read than to try to do serious scholarly reading out of those volumes. But they're still on the top shelf of the bookcases in my living room, and I'm still grateful to them-- and to Mortimer Adler's democratizing middlebrowness.
Come to Montreal: Canadian Political Science Association Annual Meeting, June 1-3 2010

Call for papers: open call in political theory as well as call for papers on "non-ideal and institutional theory

The CFP for the 2010 CPSA in Montreal is now open: Call for papers, Instructions for submitting, Proposal submission form.

Proposals are due by November 3, 2009.

For political theorists:

We welcome paper, panel, and roundtable proposals in all areas of political theory. In addition, we will be holding a conference within the conference on "Non-ideal and institutional theory." That CFP is below.

Workshop 8 – Political Theory: Non-ideal and Institutional Theory
Organizers: Jacob T. Levy (McGill) and Jennifer Rubenstein (Viriginia)

From the ethics of conduct during wartime to justice in transitional societies to restitution for collective harms, political theorists have long been concerned with understanding political morality in morally compromised or materially constrained settings—in what Arendt termed “dark times.” Since Rawls, we have come to call this “non-ideal” theory: theory about moral choices and political circumstances that wouldn’t arise at all under ideal conditions. In recent years, political philosophers have done a great deal of methodological and metatheoretical work on the ideal/non-ideal distinction, while political theorists have undertaken non-ideal normative analysis of a wide range of problems. We seek both papers that are explicitly about non-ideal political theory and papers that do non-ideal theory, in order to encourage engagement between methodological reflections and normative arguments.

We especially welcome papers that do these things with attention to political institutions, by—for example— proposing institutional designs for non-ideal settings, analyzing ideal versus non-ideal ways of thinking about the justice of institutional structures, or showing how particular institutions are themselves the sources of the morally compromised settings in which decision-making must take place. In other words, we invite papers that construe institutions as either sources of injustice or as mechanisms for mitigating injustice, as obstacles to reform or as frameworks for pursuing it.

While the workshop focuses on issues that have thus far been taken up primarily in the context of analytic normative theory, we actively encourage papers with historical or critical perspectives on these issues. Finally, while the workshop itself addresses substantive problems in non-ideal and institutional theory, papers need not be explicitly framed in those terms.