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May 30, 2006

What the hell is Goldstein talking about?

Holiday weekends are weird in the blogosphere. The more functional members of our community get day passes, while we hardened cases are left to run the asylum. So, what did we fight about while you guys were off barbecuing, jet skiing, petition circulatin', dissertation drafting, or working overtime? Philosophy of language!

I feel like I'm standing knee deep in empty beer cans and used condoms, trying to explain what the hell happened over the weekend.

It all started when Nate made fun of Jeff Goldstein for not knowing who painted the Mona Lisa.

Nate's target was footnote twenty of Goldstein's “You can't spell history without the ‘story’: History and Memory in the Fictive and Imaginary” (punctuation Goldstein's).

20. Would we, for instance, argue that MacBeth, printed in The Riverside Shakespeare, is a different text from MacBeth printed in a Penguin edition? Suppose that each is printed in a different typeface. The marks, under these circumstances, have been altered, but the signs, we assume, have remained the same. What allows us to make this claim for verbal texts? If I were, for instance, to move the Mona Lisa's eyes closer together, no one presumably would claim that I haven't altered the composition of the Mona Lisa in some way. What is it, then, that makes the verbal text different in this regard from the non-verbal or iconographical text? In both instances, intended marks have been altered. But the difference is that in the case of verbal texts, the marks themselves are not what we consider important. What we do consider important are the signs— the marks plus their signifieds. And what makes these marks signs to begin with is the intention to use them as such. My revision of the Mona Lisa certainly has a "meaning"—and it was clearly intentional. But my meaning is different from the meaning of the original composition, the meaning intended by its producer Michelangelo. [Emphasis added.]

Some of us a good laugh, including Jane Hamsher, Thersites, and eventually Atrios.

Nate's a mild-mannered philosophy blogger who was shocked when Jeff fired back with this. He was probably utterly perplexed when Goldstein accused Thersites of being drunk. (Don't worry Nate, that's SOP for Goldstein.)

I gather that things got really ugly after I went to bed. It's hard to piece together what happened overnight because of all the subsequent deletions and repostings, but it appears that Jeff or one of his commenters dug up a bunch of personal details about Thersites, his wife, and their kid and posted that information in a thread.

Evidently, an anonymous Goldstein supporter was so worked up that he told Thersites that his two-year-old had cocksucking lips. [Correction: Turns out the cocksucking insinuations preceded the meaning of meaning dustup. My bad. I'm told that while I left the house to see Al Gore's movie, JG reposted Thersites' personal info on his blog. His bad.]

On the morning after, Goldstein surveys the damage.

You probably thinking, wow, that must have been some footnote.

As far as that footnote goes, Jeff is making a pretty straightforward point: Written language is a shared code for expressing thoughts. Readers of English tacitly understand which variations are important to the meaning of sentences. For example, we know that word order is very important to meaning. "The cat is on the mat" means something very different than "The mat is on the cat." Whereas, the meaning of "The cat is on the mat." doesn't change if I reset it in Helvetica or Times New Roman. I can write it in red, double the point size, or sculpt the letters out of clay without changing the meaning of the sentence. It's still about some cat on some mat. Arguably, you can even translate that sentence into a different language without changing the meaning. "Le chat est sur le tapis."="The cat is on the mat." (These are all philosophically loaded assertions, but they're hardly implausible or unusual for philosophers or lay people.)

Codes have rules for distinguishing signal from noise. You can deliver the same message in Morse code with a telegraph, a kazoo, or bursts of yodeling. Someone who knows Morse code also knows that the differences in timbre don't carry any conventionalized differences in meaning. So, they'll get the same message as long as they can discern the information-bearing features of the transmission--the pattern of long and short pulses.

In the footnote, Jeff's point is that paintings don't consist of conventionally agreed-upon codes. So, all the properties of a painting are potentially relevant to its "meaning." He's sloppy to imply that the Mona Lisa has a meaning in the same sense that a declarative sentence does. However, I think that if you construe his point charitably, it's not crazy.

I don't want to tell the literary types their business, but isn't it also sloppy to say that different publisher's editions of Shakespeare's plays have the exact same meaning? Rival scholarly editions of Shakespeare aren't word-for-word duplicates of each other. These editions are shaped by editors' judgments about how to reconcile inconsistent contemporary manuscripts, which modern spelling system to impose (if any), and so on. A better example would have been the same manuscript printed in two different fonts.

Still, it would be a mistake to make too much of that footnote. It's actually the best part of the paper.

The gist of the paper as a whole is this: The only legitimate way to analyze literature is to figure out the author's original intent. I'm not a literary theory type, but Jeff's rule seems absurdly strict and arbitrary.

There are many interesting debates within the philosophy of language about the relationship between the speaker's intentions and the meanings of his or her utterances. However, these aren't really germane to Jeff's argument. He just likes to name drop.

I agree that it would be hard to have an interesting discussion about literature without the background assumption that the work had an author who had some intentions. Maybe s/he wanted to tell gripping story, represent reality, share fantasy, make readers laugh, express feelings, evoke emotions, explore the untapped potential of a genre, react to other works of art, advance a moral argument, get paid, get laid, etc., etc.

Some artists are more calculating than others. Creators have different levels of insight into their craft. Presumably, authors sometimes have intentions that they fail to convey. We know that some works are even more revealing than the author intended. For example, racist themes and assumptions crop up in many works of literature. We can ask whether the author intended to be racist (i.e., whether s/he meant the racially charged content as a putdown, or as a means of legitimizing the social hierarchy, or as propaganda, or whatever). However, even when there's no evidence of intent, can also ask what cultural presuppositions may have informed the author's attitudes, and how a popular work of art with racist themes might have legitimized or perpetuated certain stereotypes.

Jeff allows that the author's unconscious/subconscious intentions are also legitimate objects of literary study. It's hard enough to interpret conscious, overt speech acts. How are you supposed to rigorously reconstruct the unconscious/subconscious motives of an author from a text? Meaning is underdetermined at the best of times. What justification do you have for saying that an author had one unvoiced, unreflective "intention" rather than another? There are always going to be hordes of hypotheses that explain the available evidence equally well.

If you allow for subconscious and unconscious intentions, you allow for the multiplicity of interpretations that intent purists are seeking to avoid. If someone who's strict about authorial intent is willing to entertain theories about the subconscious motives of a creator (which presumably could be at odds with the conscious motives, or internally inconsistent), they're opening the door to all socially, politically, and psychodynamically informed criticism that they were trying to rule out by being authorial intent purists.

It is just a mistake to assume that every aspect of a novel or a play that a reader might imbue with meaning necessarily reflects a straightforwardly interpretable intent by the artist. Unlike the isolated sentences that philosophers of language tinker with, works of literature are aesthetic objects that can't be fruitfully analyzed simply by elucidating the truth conditions of the sentences they contain.

Ultimately, I don't see an a priori reason to assume that all interesting literary questions can be answered by appeal to the author's intentions. In most cases, just there isn't enough evidence. Even in cases where there's a lot of evidence, it's almost impossible to formulate precise hypotheses or test competing claims about an author's intent. So, unless we're prepared to give up on literary analysis altogether, we've got to explain how we can say interesting things about stories/texts without presupposing that we can know exactly what the author intended.

Notwithstanding the fair point raised in the footnote, Jeff's larger argument fails because literary texts are in fact more like paintings and less like the single-sentence examples that most analytic philosophers of language like to model. When you're grappling with a work in full, there is no single consensual storytelling code that enables a reader to distill the author's intent into a series of truth functional claims.

Literary analysis shouldn't be reduced to a guessing-game about what the author intended. You can't distill a single authoritative authorial position paper from a work of art.

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Comments

Lindsay:

So, what did we fight about while you were off barbecuing...

I feel like I'm standing knee deep in empty beer cans and used condoms, trying to explain what the hell happened over the weekend.

But leave it to Lindsay to try to suck the fun out of a mudfight:

Philosophy of language! Written language is a shared code for expressing thoughts...If someone who's strict about authorial intent is willing to entertain theories about the subconscious motives of a creator (which presumably could be at odds with the conscious motives, or internally inconsistent), they're opening the door to all socially, politically, and psychodynamically informed criticism that they were trying to rule out by being authorial intent purists.

Or is it just late?

Incidentally, in a related event, Goldstein spent much of Sat., May 27, posting, updating, & superintending comments on a post, "We get mail, #57," devoted to abusing a women who'd sent him a harmless, teasing, trivially critical private email. Go to:

http://www.proteinwisdom.com/index.php/weblog/entry/20376/

Goldstein himself posted this person's name and private email address and pointedly stood on his rights when somebody questioned the appropriateness of doing so. So there was more than one Memorial Day weekend outing chez Goldstein.

He spent much of the (holiday weekend) evening, into early Sunday morning, presiding over the ensuing malignant little rally. Commenters played their accustomed roles, among other things finding & posting a photograph of this unfortunate woman, who was renamed Cunt (no article, proper name, not definite description).

Goldstein's interventions in this ritual evoke a sense of the grim satisfaction of the Rev. Jim Jones presiding over a Jonestown community session at which revenge is wreaked on a person who'd caused him some obscure narcissistic injury. (His readers have their own motives, but they play an essential role in his disorder, providing an enclosed world & warding off & punishing threats to his grandiose, fragile sense of himself.)

So that was Saturday into Sunday. Thus fortified, he moved on to bigger fish.

KH,

I think you've nailed it.

Can we stop calling it "intentionalism?" It's not an "ism." It's the profound observation that a poem exists because someone wanted it to. Calling it "intentionalism" lends it intellectual credence and pretends that it has some kind of school of thought behind it that isn't Jeff Goldstein and his right hand. There has NEVER been an interpretive apparatus called "intentionalism" in the field of literary studies since it became institutionalized. Again, it doesn't even qualify as an interpretive apparatus, since it wants to keep interpretation--i.e. a reader making meaning--from happening. The reader has no agency here except in recouping the intent of the Master. An ideal "interpretist" reading would simply allow Goldstein to speak in Wallace Stevens' (e.g.) voice (how's that for narcissism?).

Paste-eater does not describe the lunacy and depravity Goldstein has engaged in. He has left treatises all over the internet selectively quoting people (even, in his comment above, himself!), calling them names out of some imagined provocation, re-posted Thersites' personal info after some kind of imaginary provocation, shrugged off vile comments, etc., etc., etc. All for the sake of defending one of the most idiotic, misconceived, moronic, stupid, bum-diddling, eye-stabbingly putrid ideas ever to be conceived by someone with formal training in literary studies and--this is another bizarre aspect no one has mentioned--foisted on, presumably, undergraduates. Undergrads! This horseshit was apparently intended (yes! intended! because communications happen intentionally!) for an audience of 20 year olds. Can you imagine taking JG's class?

The good news: my faith in the speed at which academia moves (glacially) has been restored. My faith in blogs as an academic forum however is diminished somewhat (if you look in the right places, academic blogs are great) but really my faith that Jeff Goldstein deserves to write another post or express another opinion ever again has been severely shaken. I feel ill for having had some dialogue with him.

Thersites, man, I'm sorry for this, and I hope the worst of the fallout has passed.

Dear gods. I've forgotten more first-year undergrad critical theory on hermeneutics than Goldstein has learned. (I had a very good crit-theory tutor.) Point being, 'authorial intent' is a bit like the asterisked roots of Indo-European: it's useful at times to assume it exists, but it's as a conjecture and has a functional capacity (rather like authorship itself, per Foucault.)

There's some irony in Goldstein's own writing (more exactly, his written responses to readers of earlier writing) being a perfect foil to his argument, particularly in things like the Michelangelo howler, since he can't go all J. Alfred Prufrock and say 'That's not what I meant at all.'

(as in, more than once, I post a comment, he immediately takes it down & replaces it with a note falsely describing its content)

Curious, no? After all, it should stand for itself, unless JG believes that all meaning emanates from His Own Glorious Radiant Self. Something which, on further reflection, should not be discounted, given the narcissistic way in which he comports himself.

Jonathan Swift would have had a field day with him; it's just a little sad that the PW acolytes appear to be lacking an interpretative strategy capable of dealing with the fact that their emperor's saggy, scraggy ass is bare.

Perhaps Pablo would like to describe why oral sex with a 2 year old is not rape? Do you think a 2 year old can CONSENT to oral sex?

Instead, why don't we start with your declaration that a PW commenter made the remark. You simply do not know this to be true and have simply declared iot as fact, without any evidence whatsoever.

True or False?

As of right now, Thirsty's blog indicates that he doesn't know who left the comment (via IP address) although he's still happy to endorse the idea that is was a PW'er.

So how do you, geoduck2, know?

Earlier, I asked you a question:

You wanna retract? It's the right thing.

You know it is. Will you do it?

It's still the right thing to do. Will you do it, duck?

Of course you won't, because you're a liar. How else could you construe "I will say that looking back through your archives, your daughter has quit the set of dick-sucking lips on her. You must be so proud." as a threat?

It's a lie, and you're a liar. And your boy Thirsty is a sick freak for posting that. Any Dad worth the title would have been tracking that commenter down immediately. But he wrote it, so he doesn't need Blogger to help him figure out who posted it.

I have to admit, this whole thing has been amusing. As someone who, until yesterday, had never read a word written by Jeff Goldstein, this was one hell of an initiation. His "notes" are terrible, though not necessarily for the reasons Lindsay notes. He plays fast and loose with most of the authors he addresses, but most egregiously with Pierce, Gadamer, and Derrida (I haven't read much Barthes, so I can't really say how bad that is). For example, Goldstein interprets Gadamer as saying this:

...the ontological claim that a text's interpretive history is part of the meaning of the text itself—that our interpretive experience (and the interpretive experiences of those who came before us) are requisite variables not only in determining a text's meaning but in the "actual" meaning of that text—in its ontological identity.
It's hard to argue directly against that interpretation, because it's partly right. It's right to the extent that history consists of interpretation of the particular text in question (or, if we're really generous to JG, the history of the interpretation of any text, or anything at all), but perhaps Jeff should go back to Gadamer's essays on Hegel. Or maybe he should just look up history in a dictionary. For Gadamer, the determination of an interpretation of text isn't limited to the history of the interpretations of that text. As Gadamer pretty clearly says in the passage Goldstein quotes, "it is always partly determined by the historical situation of the interpreter and hence by the totality of the objective course of history." In other words, it's determined by "the totality of the objective course of history," because the historical context of the current interpreter is itself determined by that entire course, which includes much more than the prior interpretations of the particular text in question.

Anyway, Goldstein's impressive ability to misinterpret just about everything he cites aside, I'm surprised that, at least in the posts I have read, no one has mentioned his ultimate objective: undermining any form of race or cultural studies. I mean, that's a pretty impressive goal. His argument (which is at best a non sequitur from the rest of the "notes," though he does his best to tie them together, through his discussion of "memory," which smacks of a bad interpretation of Ricoeur, among others) is basically this: race/cultural studies people argue that race is not an essentialized category, and thus that race is socially constructed, but this is in fact a form of essentialism, and in fact a very racist one (because, for example, it makes it possible to be a member of a race simply by acting like someone who is a member of a race). As odd an argument as this is as it stands, with Goldstein's own definitions of things like "social construction," it's even stranger given the fact that for most social constructionists, the construction is largely done by others. In other words, acting like a member of a race doesn't make one a member of a race; socially accepted uses of racial categories does. The reason race is a valid project is that, even if it is not an essentialized category, people treat it as though it is, and act towards socially-determined members of races as though they possessed their races' essences. Race/culture studies will always be a valid project so long as race is seen as based on essences by most, even if it is not seen as such by professors in race/cultural studies departments.

In the end, I can't help but feel that what Goldstein has done is write 30 some-odd pages of name and quote-filled text in order to make it sound like his few pages discussing race are based on anything other than his own ignorance. How's that for an interpretation of authorial intent?

p.s. Nate, the "interpretation going on forever" bit, though I haven't seen his comment at your site, is probably from Pierce. He discusses it in his "notes." It's actually a fairly common position in 20th century semiotics, and in psychoanalytic theories, to say that signs signify other signs, so what you have is an endless layering of signifiers and signifieds. Since each sign is then an interpretation of another sign, you get "interpretation going on forever." Fun stuff.

OK, one more. Goldstein uses "Jew" as one of his examples of a racial category, and has a somewhat lengthy discussion of the Holocaust. Perhaps he could better understand what people mean by "social construction" if he went back to the Nazi definition of "Jew." According to Jewish tradition, an individual is Jewish (and thus "a Jew") if an only if he or she has a Jewish mother or he or she has completed a fairly rigorous conversion process. Nazis, on the other hand, labeled anyone a Jew who had three Jewish grandparents, even if the individual's mother was not Jewish (e.g., she had a Jewish father, but not a Jewish mother, and had never converted), if he or she had two Jewish granparents (even if both Jewish grandparents were grandfathers) and met other conditions (e.g., "was a member of the Jewish community" or had married a Jew), or if the individual was the child (especially the illegitimate child) of one Jew, even if it was the father. The Nazis made up their own criteria for who was and wasn't a Jew. That's socially constructing race! But to the Nazis, it didn't matter that the category "Jew" was a social construction, entirely different from the one used by Jews themselves. They still acted as though "Jew," under their definition, was an essentialized category. The same is, of course, true of other racial categories. The examples of how people of mixed racial heritage are classified are often used. You end up with people who, for example, look white, but are classified as black because they have a particular descendent who is black. Or even more starkly, in South Africa under Apartheid, one could be classified as black without having any black anscestors, if one displayed certain physical characteristics associated with sub-Saharan African descent (e.g., certain types of hair).

Weird. I thought Memorial Day weekend was about remembering the Fallen.

But leave it to Lindsay to try to suck the fun out of a mudfight

I was thinking just the opposite. The question about authorial intent and interpretation was interesting. But wrapping it with the mudfight and the dense rightist guy prevented it from staying interesting. Anyway, refuting opponents' arguments to show them how dense they are never works. Immunity to arguments is what being dense is all about.

...thus that race is socially constructed, but this is in fact a form of essentialism, and in fact a very racist one (because, for example, it makes it possible to be a member of a race simply by acting like someone who is a member of a race). As odd an argument as this is...

How is this an odd argument? You mean Bill Clinton really wasn't the first Black President?

Instead, why don't we start with your declaration that a PW commenter made the remark. You simply do not know this to be true and have simply declared iot as fact, without any evidence whatsoever.

Actually Pablo, the comment was made in a post wherein Thersites' criticized Goldstein, and other PW commenters showed up defending Goldstein and insulting Thersites. That's the evidence. Since the comment was an attack on Thersites, it is reasonable to infer that the comment came from a PW commenter. It's not absolutely certain, but it's more likely than not. This shouldn't be hard to grasp, even for you and ss. Now, drop this faux concern for the precious honor of the PW commenter community and go back to expressing your love for Goldstein on his site.

It wasn't my intent, but this is linked. And if we connect that to Searle, who references Goldstein, who doesn't know "Jeff," who deconstructs what Herman Neutic derides . . . or is that derrides? Oy.

And this is why I left academics behind- too many meetings that start out with an idea and end up in a barroom brawl out in the corridor. It is all fun and games until the the "isms" come out.

B Moe, I have absolutely no idea what you mean, but OK.

Can we stop calling it "intentionalism?" It's not an "ism." It's the profound observation that a poem exists because someone wanted it to. Calling it "intentionalism" lends it intellectual credence and pretends that it has some kind of school of thought behind it that isn't Jeff Goldstein and his right hand. There has NEVER been an interpretive apparatus called "intentionalism" in the field of literary studies since it became institutionalized. Again, it doesn't even qualify as an interpretive apparatus, since it wants to keep interpretation--i.e. a reader making meaning--from happening. The reader has no agency here except in recouping the intent of the Master. An ideal "interpretist" reading would simply allow Goldstein to speak in Wallace Stevens' (e.g.) voice (how's that for narcissism?).

This isn't quite right: "intentionalism" is shorthand not for an interpretive apparatus, but for a particular orientation toward a text, one commonly associated with Walter Benn Michael and Stephen Knapp's "Against Theory" essays. Because this discussion has, on political blogs, become an occasion for rehashing old political grudges, I've attempted to bring the literary issues to the fore on The Valve, a group blog devoted to literary theory. That post contains links to a number of posts in which Michaels and Knapp's positions have been examined.

Pablo,

1) On the PW site I posted a comment that I thought it was sick that somebody thought it was funny to threaten to rape a baby.

I think a man looking at the archives & pictures of a specific 2 year old girl, and then verbalizing his thought that oral sex would be fun with that specific child, is an implicit threat.

You disagree. Feel free to explain why this is not an implicit threat.

2) I then reposted a comment clarifying that my comment was directed to whomever wrote the comment.

(If it was not YOU, then the comment was not directed at YOU. If no one at PW wrote the comment, then that comment was not directed at anyone at that site.) I also apologized to Thers for escalating the situation.

3) I am shocked that people at PW did not condemn the implicit threat. I did not expect that.

Instead, knowing that some sick person is looking at specific children and thinking about having sex with them, you approve of posting the private information about that family on the web. You do understand there is a very sick person that is reading these blogs? And you don't care that this person can now easily find this family? I think you are insane.

RE: intentionalism

JG's particular "thing" is something specific he calls "radical intentionalism" which is not necessarily "intentionalism."

You can read his class notes posted on the web if you wish for more information. He linked to them several times in the "debate."

Actually, Chris, you are accusing Walter Michaels of misreading Gadamer, et al. You should probably contact him and let him know. But for what it's worth, I think you are cherry picking, and doing so is a bit disingenuous. Gadamer of course includes the baggage held by those doing contemperaneous intepretations in the totality of the objective course of history. Which doesn't change the conclusion that he believes that adds to a text rather than changes it into a new text.

And I use Jew as a racial category only because the Nazis considered it a racial category. I personally believe no such thing.

And when you write, "The reason race is a valid project is that, even if it is not an essentialized category, people treat it as though it is, and act towards socially-determined members of races as though they possessed their races' essences. Race/culture studies will always be a valid project so long as race is seen as based on essences by most, even if it is not seen as such by professors in race/cultural studies departments"

-- I'm curious how that is different from this:

THE POINT of all this being that to think of race as somehow socially constructed is to think of race, ultimately, as something essentially essential. Because what makes your memories yours, what makes your heritage yours, and what makes your culture yours is your insistence, ultimately, that it is yours by right, yours by birth, yours by essence. And so race, as it turns out, is either an essence or an illusion. Those who believe race to be an essence (say, the KKK, who base their ideas on bad science) have no need for a project of qualifying race as a social construct; and those who believe race to be non-essential have no grounds, theoretically, for promoting racial identity other than that same bad science (which, it turns out, underlies the constructivist argument), or else their social concern that we somehow need to continue the project of racial identity, for whatever the political reasons.

So you see, we agree. Only I suspect you believe the project is necessary, whereas I believe it is socially harmful to keep foregrounding race.

Again, I suspect that some of you are arguing with me more about my politics than about anything I have to say about lit theory.


Finally, DB and others continue to suggest that intentionalists don't recognize that readers have a role in textual studies that go beyond authorial intent. This is not the case. All I am arguing is that, if we wish to say we are intepreting rather than creating or augmenting (and so making new, distinct texts), we must appeal to authorial intent.

It really is that simple.

The difference is pretty obvious. DB thinks race is determined by the viewer - e.g. "That person is black" whereas you seem to think it is determined by the person being viewed - e.g. "I am black."

Does Jeff accept that it is a legitimate form of literary scholarship for a scholar of 19th century Civil War literature to study racial identity in 19th century America?

All I am arguing is that, if we wish to say we are intepreting rather than creating or augmenting (and so making new, distinct texts), we must appeal to authorial intent.

And where do you find 'intent', exactly? Because it's not packaged up in texts. Intent is an inference, and at best a conjecture that is valuable insofar and only as long as it has use.

As I have said repeatedly, many rhetorical effects depend upon the presumption that the author does not know such an effect is created: most notably, bathos, a characteristic demonstrated by [redacted]'s writing. Consider the Sokal hoax: how would [redacted]'s theory deal with a hypothetical in which Alan Sokal came out and said: 'oh, by the way, my Social Text article wasn't meant as a travesty after all'?

Anyway, Goldstein's argument is self-refuting; or rather, his argument is refuted by his manner of argumentation. It's the kind of thing one ought to get past very quickly when studying hermeneutics. Bad writing and bad arguments are not the same as good arguments, badly expressed or badly understood. Like Charles Pooter, he leaves with quiet dignity but trips on the mat.

[Lindsay, I don't like asking this, but could you just delete the comments made by 'Pablo'? He's trying to ensure that the original comment gets spread as widely as possible, like a small child who's learned a naughty word. He's polluting the thread, and other blogs, like an oil spill, and unless you get rid of him now, he'll stain the place in the future.]

And if you do delete Pablo - please delete my responses to him.

thank you. Sorry for brining that argument to this blog.

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