Monolingual Judges

Friday I noted on Twitter that in Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews (have I mentioned here before how much I relish that compendium?) volume 3, on the digitised version of which I’m now working, Jethro instructs Moses to delegate (recapitulating the scene from Exodus 18). Moses wants nominations from the floor, but reserves to himself the prerogative to appoint judges who will relieve the burden of his governance.

Moses wants to make sure the people nominate the right sort of candidate, not motivated by kinship or wealth, appearance or atheticism. He further mentions another criterion, one that’s less obviously pertinent:

“Heretofore,” [Moses] said, “you belonged to yourselves, but from now you belong to the people; for you judge between every man, and his brother and his neighbor. If ye are to appoint judges, do so without respect of persons. Do not say, ‘I will appoint that man because he is a handsome man or a strong man, because he is my kinsman, or because he is a linguist.” — Legends of the Jews, Vol. 3 From the Exodus to the Death of Moses, p. 71.

Ginzberg weaves this part of Legends from Sifrei Devarim 17 (by the way, a big hat tip to, the kind of site I’ve been advocating for a long time online). Sefaria’s translation of the passage reads

(Devarim 1:17) “Do not play favorites in judgment”: This is (addressed to) one who is appointed to seat judges. Lest you say: That man is comely; I will make him a judge — that man is strong; I will make him a judge — that man is my kinsman; I will make him a judge — that man lent me money; I will make him a judge — that man is multilingual; I will make him a judge — so that (in his innocence) he exonerates the guilty and incriminates the innocent — not because he is wicked, but because he does not know (the law), Scripture terms (appointing him as a judge) as “playing favorites in judgment.”

So the disqualifying criterion manifestly involves facility in languages, but it’s not quite clear why. Perhaps because the multilingual judge might use their facility in languages that one of the complainants doesn’t know, to communicate secretly with somebody else? Ordinarily, one might think it convenient and commendable for a judge to know all the languages they might encounter in their practice, but Moses evidently saw things differently.

Legends of the Jews, Vol. I

I have for a very long time held a special place in my heart for Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, a valuable six-volume compilation of the truly mind-bogglingly vast array of sources that expatiate on the narratives from the Bible. I first consulted a copy in the Yale Div library when I was training there for ordination; I bought a copy of my own as soon as we could afford one; we have given it as a bar mitzvah gift; and I recommend it to non-specialists as often as possible, as a profoundly valuable record of the reception of the Bible and a cracking amplification of the biblical story.

While one can retrieve all six of Ginzberg’s volumes from the public-domain web, there are numerous difficulties with reading the PDFs. There’s the intrinsic problem of dealing with PDFs, of course, especially page-scanned PDFs. More intensely frustrating, Ginzberg provided the endnote references and comments in entirely separate volumes (notes for Volumes I and II appear in Volume V; notes for III and IV appear in Volume VI). Some readers will want to see the notes right in the text as they go along; some would rather not see the notes at all, and some might want to see the notes in a pop-up format (as in Kindle and epub files). Having to consult a separate PDF to keep track of the notes, some of them multiple pages, can be intensely frustrating.

Further, the OCR for the text can be unreliable (and some PDFs aren’t OCRed at all, I think), making text searches a headache.

For all these reasons, and because I love the book, its sources, and midrash in general, I have long wanted to generate a good, readable, notes-included reference version of Legends. I have put it off because it’s a beast of a job; even copy-and-pasting notes into the body of the text (while at the same time checking typos and OCR problems, oh, and adding Hebrew text in the notes). Lockdown and quarantine, and their consequent effect on the attention span for my own research and writing, and the soothing effect that focused text manipulation has on my peculiar neurology, all meant that the last months provided a convenient opportunity for me to set about producing my first version of Volume I (incorporating notes from Volume V).

Cover of the digital edition of Louis Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews

In reproducing Ginzberg’s text and notes, I encountered numerous small, obvious typos in his edition. I’ve corrected these without calling attention to them, as many readers may have not noticed them anyway. At the same time, though, I have probably introduced some typos myself, and if anyone notices one, I’d be grateful if they called it to my attention. I’ll gather and correct such mistakes in a subsequent version, if more than one or two turn up.

I’ve produced a Reference Edition (footnotes), a Reader’s Edition (endnotes), and an epub edition (for which some of the formatting had to be altered). In each, the original page numbers of Volume I are included between braces (for reference; I didn’t have the manic determination to track the original pages of Volume V in the notes).

Legends of the Jews, Volume I, Reference Edition

Legends of the Jews, Volume I, Readers Edition

Legends of the Jews, Volume I, Epub Version

(These links point to — the files are too large for WordPress’s file transfer allowances.)


One has no hesitation in correcting somebody whose age (a child), or station (such as a student), or lack of pretence to expertise render them entirely dependent on more learned interlocutors for sound knowledge. I can argue with somebody about Javanese astrology, but since I am perfectly ignorant on the topic, I have to concede that a Javanese stargazer has the prerogative to gainsay whatever nonsense I speak. That isn’t impolite or presumptuous (done gently); it simply takes account my situation relative to another’s.

In circumstances where relative status remains undefined or unclarified, speakers frequently fall into presumption and condescension on the premise that if one’s interlocutor were an intellectual equal, one would already know them, or would be able to tell right away. So, prodigies and post-graduate students, and (inexcusably) women and people of colour, often suffer patronising airs from speakers who don’t already register them as interlocutors worthy of respect. We can explain this phenomenon readily enough, though with censure (whether explicit or tacit) to the condescendor for not anticipating that they too rapidly and inaccurately guessing at the status of the interlocutor.

Often enough, two parties with roughly equal claim to expertise speak to one another, each as if the other were a child or a student. The two are known to one another; each is aware that the other is a scholar of standing. Still, one will treat the other as if an ignoramus, a bumpkin, a clod. How do we explain this with even a modicum of charity?

Or the other way around: If I know and respect you, why would I try to change your mind on a topic of mutual interest? ‘Why’, or how? If I simply set out my reasoning, explain how my position is joined-up relative to other notions we (presumably) share, and account for its benefits — what more can I do?

Reading and Difference

The fundamental condition of interpretive practice is difference. Thus, every heremenutic that aims at — or takes as its founding premise — a correctness or identity (in the sense of a an interpretation that attains conceptual homology with a given criterion, ordinarily ‘the intention of the author at the moment of inscription’) begins in the wrong direction, and inevitably arrives at sound conclusions only in unpropitious, roundabout ways, if it arrives at sound conclusions at all.

On Correctness

When I read papers or give presentations about hermeneutics, people always ask me, ‘If you’re right and there is no intrinsic “meaning” in texts about which to be right or wrong, are all interpretations equal? Aren’t some interpretations just plain wrong? I mean, you talk about The da Vinci Code all the time as an example of terrible biblical interpretation…’. (Note: actually, they don’t always ask me about The da Vinci Code, but they could use that against me if they wanted.) I’ve resisted giving a specific answer to that question, since what counts as ‘bad biblical interpretation’ depends on where and when and why and how you’re offering it. Still, there is a sort of über-answer, and it goes this way:

Any proposed interpretation [of anything, not just the Bible] rests upon a thick network of conventions and inferences pertaining at least to the medium of the thing being interpreted (text, painting, fossil, hairstyle, hand gesture). Assuming a linguistic text, the conventions of semantics and syntax provide one dimension of interpretive validity. If I say, ‘Dogs typically land on their feet when they fall,’ you might intelligibly respond ‘Surely you mean cats usually land on their feet.’ You have soundly inferred my claim to be coherent with respect to the norms of English grammar and semantics; you have no argument on that point. You point, however, to a divergence between my observation and demotic knowledge of animal life: people take it for granted that cats always land on their feet, such that one can make a joke by suggesting that if one ties buttered toast to a cat and drops it, the elemental forces of nature will be rent asunder since the creature will either land on the toast (‘Toast always lands butter side down’) or its feet (see above). My claim is sound with respect to the English language, but unsound with respect to demotic knowledge of mammalian behaviour.

(Excursus: this, it seems to me, is the only viable way of construing ‘the literal sense’ — that is, as the grammar and semantics of the utterance. Even these do not foreclose plurality in interpretation, since individual words are subject to ambiguity and equivocation, and much more so phrases and sentences. Still, one can imagine two opposing interpreters arriving at an agreed grammatico-semantic interpretation of an utterance while at the same time disagreeing fervently about the reference and implications of the utterance in question. When someone wants ‘the literal sense’ to do more work than ‘the minimal agreed sense of a text’, they will always inevitably be infusing claims about literalness with codicils that favour their particular interpretation. The literal sense has to be as close to trivial as is possible under the circumstances.)

In the example above, we judge my claim as valid in one respect, and invalid (or at least questionable) in another. But supposing I said, ‘Your puppy’s vaults risk no malign defeat / Like others of its sort, it lands upon its feet’? One might then judge my claim literally sound, demotically unsound, and a cracking rhyme. And you might criticise the scansion — the ‘of’ doesn’t want to be stressed, weakening the iambic pentamenter.

This example points toward my general response to interpretive soundness: that is, the stronger the interpretive fit with a particular interpretive discourse (that of English language, of demotic zoology, of rhyme, of meter), in the greater quantity of discourses, weighted toward discourses of greater importance,* with greater intensity of this convergence, the more convincing the case for the soundness of the interpretation.

In other words, the more dimensions of discursive intensity back up your interpretation, the likelier you are to be ‘correct’ (where ‘intensity’ designates the convergence of widely-acknowledged discourses).

Some interpretations will divide otherwise-homogeneous sets of readers. English-speaking readers of popular fiction include both those who find Dan Brown’s literary style almost as atrocious as his understanding of the Bible, but also demonstrably includes many millions who think he’s ace on one or both fronts. But there’s no way ever to compel the latter group to come to their literary or historical senses. They like to hear about the conspiracies that historic Christianity has perpetuated on a hapless populace, and they want to think it all merely a cynical charade. But the role of desire in interpretation comes up in my contribution to Biblical Exegesis without Authorial Intention? (ed. Clarissa Breu; Brill, 2019), and will also play a role in the monograph on which I’m currently working.

* Of course, different interpreters will assess the importance of different discourses differently; this accounts for a great proportion of the disagreements over textual interpretation. The ordering of discrusive importance is not, however, simply given or natural or necessary; they are always subject to contestation.

Resistant Musings

One of the conventional slogans that partially-informed readers parrot about postmodern thought and post-structuralism holds that it means ‘anything goes’, that it erases the distinction between right and wrong. But as a matter of demonstrable fact, specifically modern hermeneutics hasn’t advanced ‘correctness’ or general consensus on matters of interpretation over the past 250 years or so. Before Schleiermacher, people argued about interpretations, and today people still disagree about interpretation, and the kinds of argument have changed, but modern hermeneutics hasn’t brought about widespread resolution of interpretive problems.

And judgements of right or wrong that effectually change people’s minds begin from positions that were generally reckoned wrong before the argument convinced its readers, which (past) ‘wrongness’ was not obviated by the hermeneutics of correct interpretation. Likewise, proposals that do not Change people’s minds are always deemed not simply ‘wrong’, but ‘wrong for specifiable reasons’ — by postmodern thinkers as well as modernists.

In other words, the ‘anything goes’ and ‘no right or wrong’ bogeymen bogeypersons are the sham axioms that many of us have always maintained them to be, and ‘modern’ hermeneutics brings none of the benefits it is alleged to produce. This is why I am banging my head against differential hermeneutics.

Titling At Windmills

I’ve written before about my restlessness about naming my project. In that post, I describe my eventual contentment with the designation ‘differential hermeneutics’; it’s fair, it does the trick, and people already associate it with me. At one point I considered including in the monograph version an entire chapter of possible titles, with the explanation for it and the reason it ultimately doesn’t work as a designation.
So, for instance, I’ve written about my approach as sensual hermeneutics, because it places a greater emphasis on sensing than does an approach to interpretation that treats reading as a transparent, obvious datum. Plus, if it were on the cover along with a salacious image, the book might sell more copies! But the downside of ‘sensuous’ is that (a) it’s a bit of a distraction, and (b) it describes but does not define what I’m up to.
That led me to think, ‘Maybe “sensational hermeneutics”!’ It’s still jazzy and perhaps even more clever; but again, it falls short of a clear indication of what’s going on.
‘White Hermeneutics’ does well for pointing (in a way) to the political cast of my work, except that I’m not about White hermeneutics itself, but only pointing the Whiteness of conventional hermeneutics (yesterday, maybe, someone on my FB timeline mourned [not in the following words] the imposition of White hermeneutics on aspiring Black preachers) — if conventional hermeneutics are White, then Whiteness must be optional for people of colour. But that takes the part for the whole: my project isn’t about White supremacy in hermeneutics, but about why the dominant culture shouldn’t demand that everybody (else) kneel before their eminence. It’s not Male Hermeneutics, or Straight Hermeneutics, or First-World Hermeneutics (and I wouldn’t presume to call it Feminist or Womanist, or LGBTIQA+ or Two-Thirds World hermeneutics); it’s an account of the difference.
Anyway, feel free to join in with unsatisfactory titles yourselves. When I think of any others, I’ll add them in the comments.

Warning, Theoretical Content

Having placed two articles that I’ve been wanting to publish for a while, I’m forging ahead with the plan for my monograph on Differential Hermeneutics. If I devote a first chapter to what I take to be the problem (or perhaps preface = problem, first chapter = articulation of the way that the problem is inscribed in the dominant discourses of biblical studies), I’ll work up a subsequent chapter on the theoretical shortcomings with traditional (‘integral’) hermeneutics, drawing on the work I’ve published in the foreword to Faithful Interpretation and in my forthcoming ‘De-Coding Hermeneutics.’ Then I’ll have a chapter on the very idea of differential hermeneutics, grounded in the interpretation of non-verbal visual perception (again, based on ‘Sensual Hermeneutics’). After that — and here at last I’m getting to the point of this paragraph — I’ll sketch a practice of hermeneutics informed by the process of amplification, deployed by Freud (in a way) and HJung (explicitly) in their work with dreams. ‘Dreams?!’ you expostulate; ‘what have the frivolous contours of sleeping fantasy to do with the serious business of scientific, technical biblical interpretation?!’
‘Better cut down on your use of exclamation marks,’ I patiently riposte. Dreams are a useful test case for me for several reasons. First, they carry with them (arguably) no deliberate intentionality, so that ‘authorial intention’ doesn’t haunt the discourse the way it does in the interpretation of deliberately-composed texts. Second, amplification provides a ready-made model on which to yield. Third, dream-interpretation has a history in the philosophical analysis of meaning’ — here I will be interacting specifically with my intellectual hero Jean-François Lyotard, whom I’m rediscovering in a tidy recapitulation of my earliest research into poststructural accounts of meaning.
So I imagine I’ll post some quotations and meditations in dialogue with Freud, Jung, James Hillman, and Jean-François Lyotard over the next few weeks.
By the way, my work on amplification does not amount to an endorsement of the psychological positions of any of the theoreticians I’m working with. As usual, I find myself excited and provoked by their ideas, but very much unconvinced by their specific theories. I don’t think there’s a likelihood of your finding me offering workshops on Christian Polytheism, or The Collective Unconscious as the Holy Spirit, or anything like that. At the same time, I will be thinking a lot about desire in interpretation (I started this in my essay in Biblical Exegesis Without Authorial Intention, edited by Clarissa Breu); since everyone who undertakes biblical interpretation is also someone affected by desire, and since desire has been known to affect us in ways we do not intend or control, I expect there’s productive work to be done on this terrain. Likewise, Hillman’s approach to dream interpretation aims at generating interpretive plurality, thus aligning conveniently with my interest in differential hermeneutics.

Truth, Falsity, and Making Oneself Understood

In Rowan Williams’s The Edge of Words, he cites George Steiner to the effect that modern accounts of truth provide little insight into falsity (p 45). I’m open guard when I see scholars expressing themselves about language and truth and falsity for a variety of reasons (very greatly as I respect Williams, and much as I acknowledge Steiner to be respected by people wiser than I). Perhaps the most important such reason involves my scepticism that we can know enough about ‘truth’ to credential us to deploy it as an analytic implement, but that goes hand-in-hand with scepticism that ‘falsehood’ itself illuminates much about the workings of language.

But here’s another basis for doubting the usefulness of this line of reasoning: the vast preponderance of the ways we use language don’t engage the binary of ‘truth or falsity’ in any but the most angential ways, and studying the was that language typically works in the overwhelming majority of uses based on the ways it works in certain unusual puzzling cases gets the cart so far ahead of the horse that they’re barely connected. Moreover, and especially, foregrounding forced binaries such as ‘truth vs falsity’ distracts us from giving an account of the ways people use language to get on among one another, wherein ontological problems simply don’t (in the idiom) signify.

The Persistence of Modernity

I was thinking this morning about the phenomenon of people pushing back on ideas — not strictly ‘postmodern’ ideas, but ideas that have become generally accepted in the aftermath of the strong pressure postmodern thought exerted over several decades. (That last clause made me feel rather old.) Think of the idea that ‘objectivity’ isn’t a viable stipulation; sure, we should strive for impartiality, but at this point I can’ think of anyone who holds on to the discourse of being objective. Even relatively conventional biblical scholars make productive use of the premise that particular ways of thinking contribute to, and are shaped by, the cultural milieu from which they emerge. To a certain extent, postmodern thought won — that is (far from justifying Trumpism and its allied discourses of deliberate falsehood), even the sort of thinker who belittles anything to which the epithet ‘postmodern’ can be even implausibly attached has often assimilated some of the pivotal points associated with the execrated French names and neologisms.

Nonetheless, people dig their heels in and resist the full implications of the ideas that they’ve partly assimilated. In fact, they resist all the more determinedly as they’re sure that the postmodern bogeyman is wrong; ‘that’ — whatever the theoretical or political or cultural point in question — ‘is too far, that can’t be right.’ Or more often, they just take as granted some implicitly very modern premise, such as the univocity of meaning, or the superiority of the contemporary world, or some other such (usually unstqted) axiom. and because the critic knows enough that he’s not objective, or that everyone knows that the latest X, Y, or Z is best.

The gesture that says, ‘I’ve adjusted what I think about meaning, power, privilege, social location, and so on, so I can just return to interpretive business as usual’ — which I’ve seen over and over — needs a shorthand signifer. I was tempted by ‘neomodernism’, formed analocially to neoliberalism: the same thing in a slightly different form, but just as pernicious if not more so. But Neomodernism is already in play as the designation for an architectural movement and as an effort at a reasoned reassertion of modern philosophy. To avoid confusion, I think I’ll call it remodernism.

Most theological critics paid only cursory attention to the specific study of modernity (or the rich varieties of antithetical movements artificially grouped together as ‘postmodernism’), so that if there’s a general assent within the interpretive discipline that it’s safe again to do the same old thing so long as you don’t make crude blunders about the role of power/authority/race/gender/sexuality/culture, almost everyone will revert to the modern homœostasis. It’s like Peter Sloterdijk’s observations on ‘enlightened false consciousness’, only in a slightly different key. Everyone knows, but no one changes their practice. Welcome to remodernity.

… A Thousand Steps Begins…

HoopoeIn the past few weeks, I’ve sent away three four pieces for consideration/publication. At such a pace, I’m sure that not every paragraph is well-formed; that’s the price for getting work off my desk in a summer overshadowed by the clouds from the deaths of Margaret’s dad and my mother. If something is accepted, I can see about fine-tuning it a bit.

I’ve also started preparing a proposal for my book about interpretation theory. I’m a bit embarrassed to say what I expect to call it. There’s a story behind that awkwardness. Way, way back, a long time ago, Charles Cosgrove asked me to write a piece for a collection of essays he was compiling. I had recently been thinking about challenges to my thinking about interpretation from Kevin Vanhoozer and others, who stoutly upheld the pivotal importance of a single-meaning theory; in a flash, I made the verbal connection between my thinking on that topic and the sorts of calculus, so I called the essay ‘Integral and Differential Hermeneutics.’ The point, as I was deliberating at that time, was simply to contrast a theory that requires one single point of legitimate reference, to a theory that acknowledges that there will always be multiple divergent interpretive conclusions that depend for their ‘legitimacy’ on the contexts from which they emerge, to which they are addressed.

So over the years since then, on the relatively uncommon occasions when somebody remembered an essay I had written (especially things that don’t, sigh, have ‘postmodern’ in the title), people would often say something such as ‘Oh, right, differential hermeneutics.’ I confess that rather than graciously appreciating the fact that they remembered the piece at all, I found it a little irksome. In my imagination, ‘I & D H’ was an occasional piece that didn’t really tackle the hard problems of subsistent meaning, of the code metaphor, and reception history, and so on. In fact, I’ve posted here before to the effect of ‘Woe is me, I don’t have a convenient label for the kind of hermeneutics I propose.’

A couple of weeks ago, the clouds in my brain parted for a moment and I saw that if (a) people remember my contribution under the heading of ‘differential hermeneutics’ and (b) my approach really is oriented very directly at the question of plurality in interpretation, and (c) one of the challenges I’ve had in putting this prospective book together has been ‘But what shall I call it?’ (moan, moan) — then really, as a title, Differential Hermeneutics has a lot going for it. Thus, the book proposal under the title of Differential Hermeneutics has been taking shape, and it seems good and viable, and various bits of it are essentially already written (I will need to rewrite essays to fit the monograph setting, but will not need to create all of it wholesale). And that means I’m getting ready to talk to publishers (University publishers first, for political reasons).

On the other hand, having closed the book (as it were) on four essays, I find that this morning my brain feels a bit wrung out. There’s one other piece I need to flesh out and send away, but that will wait another day or so (and will wait till I hear back from someone about permissions). Plus — I blogged today!

I’m All Right, Jacques

Since everyone knows that ‘postmodernism’ means ‘anything goes, nothing is true, everything is permitted’, the latest outbreak of unmitigated flagrant prevarication from the new inhabitant of the White House has engendered an unseasonable tsunami of the threadbare ‘see what happens when postmodernists blah blah blah’ fustian and twaddle. I thought — having lived through it once in the 80s and 90s, when Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s evasiveness and lies were blamed on the likes of Derrida and Foucault — this canard of popular rhetoric had flown north for good. Honestly, can you imagine W. sitting in a classroom at Yale reading Of Grammatology and saying, ‘I understand this well enough to put it into practice by claiming that there actually are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’? Honestly?

Of course, the ironic advantage of the ‘blame it on the French’ trope is that it plays on exactly the ignorance and the suspicion of complicated ideas that fund the post-truth propaganda brigade. And the denunciations of Parisian intellectuals come, to a large extent, from the same constituencies who support the political fraudmongers.

Let’s take a slow, deep breath and recollect a few things (we won’t call them ‘facts’, lest someone have a seizure).

    • Politicians did not invent ‘lying’ only after reading Discipline and Punish. Emperors, tyrants, kings, presidents, premiers, prime ministers, duchi, and Führer have propagated bald-faced lies pretty much as long as there have been political leaders.

    • Has anyone read Machiavelli lately? Or the Bible?

    • Perhaps somebody is confused and thinks that French theorists developed a complicated positive rationale for lying. Not much to say about this except ‘if you care so much about truthfulness, I strongly recommend that you read some of the relevant sources carefully and base your ciritcism on, you know, something they wrote rather than your general impression of rilly compluhcated stuff’.

    • To the specific point: are there ‘facts’ any more? Sure there are. Sorry to pop your ballon. But ‘facts’ may be more complicated than you want them to be — even the most obvious, most basic, most fact-y facts. Many matters one or another of us wants to call a ‘fact’ has been questioned by thoughtful, intelligent people on the other side of whatever aisle. Simply calling it a fact doesn’t advance an argument, nor does insisting in a loud voice that it really is a fact. Calling something a ‘fact’ works only if one’s interlocutor agrees, in which case it’s trivial.
    If we disagree about whether X or Y is a fact, we may just shout at one another and call each other names. Or, more productively, we can specify the reasons we regard X as a fact. We can cite the studies on the basis of which 97% climate scientists assert that the earth’s temperature is rising to dangerous levels, and our interlocutor can say… whatever it is people say when 97% of scientists think they’re wrong.

    • What if, instead of getting our undergarments knotted, when we want to talk about ‘facts’ we were to talk about ‘evidence’ instead? We know from the start that ‘evidence’ is a contested category (ask Johnnie Cochrane and Marcia Clark); but we can argue about evidence, about what it is and what it isn’t, about which evidence outweighs what). Talking about evidence leads us into arguments, the good kind, the kind where we exchange ideas and interpretations, the kind that can clarify the premises we are starting from, the warrants on which we’re relying, the pros and cons of the various interpretations of things on which we agree.

Philip K. Dick famously defined reality as that which, when you don’t believe in it, doesn’t go away. That should do well enough for ‘facts’ as well; if you don’t step off a ten-floor building expecting to waft gently to the ground, we can safely treat gravitational attraction as a fact (even though gravitational attraction is a lot more complicated than we learned in secondary-school physics — if I wanted to, I could write a little piece about ‘there’s no such thing as gravity’, but I don’t have the energy and someone might think I actually was arguing that there’s no such thing as gravity).

Does that mean everything is only someone’s perspective on facts (no ‘facts’ as such)? Maybe, if you’re in an actual argument about whether something counts as a fact. But no, not if you and your interlocutor both stay on the safe side of tenth-floor roofs, both eat apples but not arsenic, both wash with (mildly alkaline) soap rather than battery acid.

Getting back to the number of people at the US presidential inauguration on Friday, let’s set aside the terminology of facts for a moment. We can talk about evidence that the National Mall was more crowded Saturday than Friday: photographs, use of the public transit system, eyewitness accounts. If we agree that some of these count as evidence, we can weigh and compare the bits of evidence to see whether we can come up with agreed ‘facts’. But if, hypothetically, you refuse to acknowledge anything I introduce as evidence — my photos are faked, even if they come directly from the federal government itself, my transit statistics reflect a big, huge sale on waterbeds at a local department store and not the Women’s March, the eyewitnesses are all liars — then the language of reality or factuality doesn’t do any work any more. But that’s nothing whatsoever to do with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak or Jean-François Lyotard.

Let’s ask ‘evidence’ to do some of the heavy discursive lifting. And let’s start by asking what evidence there is that French theory is in any way more implicated in contemporary political codswallop than is the time-dishonoured tradition of lies and the lying liars who tell them. Show me a single reason to think that there’s more of a connection between Bill Clinton and Baudrillard than between Clinton and the dozens of other elected officials who have lied about having affairs. Show me a trace of evidence that Deleuze and Guattari influenced the Bush and Blair administrations’ determination to sex up reports on the missile capabilities of Saddam Hussein’s government. Show me a single reason to think that the world was more inclined to truthfulness in the days of Richard Nixon, or John Profumo, or Joe McCarthy, and that French theory can be implicated in that decline from honesty.

I can wait.

* Note: I am not a French person, or a fully-credentialled philosopher, and although people who know about me in a general way often associate me with ‘postmodernism’ I have no stake in being regarded as ‘a postmodernist’ nor even in composing an apologetic for a thing you might call ‘postmodernism’. I care about careful reading and thinking, and I have been positively impressed by many writings that casual observers lump together under the artificial category heading of postmodernism, but my interest and allegiance depends solely on the extent to which so-called postmodern ideas help me explain philosophical and theological puzzles I encounter.