In a town called malice

3 02 2017

nope not even close they haven’t even begun to absorb that there are real (as in physics and all not just public will/opinion) limits to economic growth, to employment, to pollution, wealth/resource extraction etc. —dmf

I was going to offer a short response to dmf, but decided to pull it out for a more considered consideration.

The short response is: yes, I agree. When I wrote that HRC and the Dems had done a decent job with the practicalities, I meant that there were some specific policy ideas (regarding, say, college and vocational education, job retraining, etc.) which would likely have done some good. Grand visions are grand, but how to build them?

That said, I agree with dmf that the Dems lack that grand vision which takes a hard account of the limits of our current economic and social standard operating procedures. Incrementalism has its place, is necessary. even, but it is not enough, and neither any post-Reagan Democratic presidential candidate nor the party as whole has offered a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the world as it is.

Despite occasional Democratic victories, the failure overall has been monumental.

I have my own ideas of what that strategy should be, as well as what could be some of the policies (again, some of which might be adapted from the 2016 Dem platform) which would put those ideas into practice. I’ll be tossing them out less with the sense that THIS IS IT than This should be in the mix—less from certainty, that is, than possibility.

I am certain, however, that that comprehensive strategy in service to a grand vision is necessary, not just to overcome the meanness of the GOP view, but to be able to comprehend how deep the troubles are.

We can’t get better if we don’t have a way to see how bad we are.

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Modern thought(less): time isn’t holding us, time isn’t after us

10 10 2012

Been awhile, hasn’t it?

No, I haven’t given up on my attempt to make sense of the outer reaches of modernity by looking at the [European] origins of modernity, but I haven’t made much headway, either.

Oh, I been readin’, oh yeah, but have I done anything with all that reading? Not really. Beyond the most basic fact that modernity and secularism two-stepped across the centuries, as well as the sense that medievalism lasted into the 20th century, I have information, history, ideas—but no theory.

Peter Gay’s two-volume essay on the Enlightenment (called, handily enough, The Enlightenment) has been helpful in understanding how the ideas of the early modern period were cemented in intellectual thought, but precisely because these men were already modern, they are of less help in understanding those who became modern, or who were medieval-moderns.

Newton, for example, was a kind of medieval-modern. His work in physics, optics, and calculus encompass a large portion of the foundation of modern science, but he also conducted experiments in alchemy; the founding of a new kind of knowledge had not yet erased the old.

Other, scattered thoughts: The Crusades were crucial in re-introducing into Europe the ideas of the ancient Greeks. . . although, even here, al-Andalus also provided an entree for Muslim knowledge of and elaboration on Levantine thought into a Christian worldview. Also, I haven’t read much on the impact of westward exploration and colonization on European thought. Hm.

Evolution in war strategy and armaments—I’m thinking here of the recruitment and consolidation of armies—undoubtedly played a role, as did consequences of those wars, especially the Thirty Years War. (The Treaty of Westphalia is commonly considered an origin in the development of the concept of state sovereignty. Which reminds me: Foucault.)

What else. I haven’t read much in terms of everyday life during this period, although I do have Braudel and Natalie Zemon Davis on my reading lists. I’m still not sure where to put the on-the-ground stuff, interested as I am in intellectual history. Still, a concentration on thoughts untethered from practice yields shallow history.

I have developed an abiding hatred for the Spanish Empire. This may be unfair to the Spaniards, but they turn up again and again as the bad guys. (How’s that for subtle interpretation?) I’ve got a big-ass book on the history of the Dutch Republic that I’m looking forward to, not least because of the central role of the Dutch in the development of capitalism.

Capitalism, yeah, haven’t talked much about that, either. Can’t talk about modernity without talkin’ bout capitalism.

Still, I really want to try to nail down the emergence of the individual as a political subject: there is no modernity without this emergence. The Reformation and the wars of religion are crucial, of course, but I want to understand precisely how the connection was made between the individual and his relationship to God and the emergence of the concept of the individual citizen’s relationship to the state. (I say concept because it took awhile for the walk to catch up to the talk.)

I have no plans to abandon this project, but if I can’t get it together, I may have to abandon my hopes for this project.

Maybe I should do that sooner rather than later: I’m always better after I’ve left hope behind.





It’s all too much

3 08 2012

The point is that evidence can be unreliable, and therefore you should use as little of it as possible. . . . I mean, people don’t realize that not only can data be wrong in science, it can be misleading. There isn’t such a thing as a hard fact when you’re trying to discover something. It’s only afterwards that the facts become hard.*

~Francis Crick

It’s no surprise that Crick is a theorist, is it?

I quite like this quote, and (I think) used it in my dissertation, but it also makes me nervous.

First, why I like it: It puts theory first, forces you to think of the evidence in terms of a theory in which it makes sense. If you let the evidence go first, you may end up hiking into a dead end, both because you’re misinterpreting the evidence as evidence (i.e., taking as fact something which is not, yet) and because you miss other bits because you don’t have a way of seeing those bits as something which matters.

But this is where the unease kicks in: Theory can mislead, as well. Thomas Kuhn noted this in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and his arguments on paradigm shift, although Max Planck had the pithiest observation on this phenomenon: “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”

So, theory leads, and theory misleads.

Richard Rhodes, in his magisterial The Making of the Atomic Bomb, ticks off any number of discoveries which were missed by those with the most data because they weren’t able to see the data correctly.
The most well-known story is that of Frederick Smith, who didn’t discover X rays:

. . . not so unlucky in legend as the Oxford physicist Frederick Smith, who found that photographic plates kept near a cathode-ray tube were liable to be fogged and merely told his assistant to move them to another place. . . . Röntgen isolated the effect by covering his cathode-ray tube with black paper. When a nearby screen of fluorescent material still glowed he realized that whatever was causing the screen to glow was passing through the paper and the intervening air. If he held his hand between the covered tube and the screen, his hand slightly reduced the glow on the screen but in the dark shadow he could see its bones.

So is this a case of theory leading, or misleading? Or is this a third case, where a willingness to follow the evidence led to a hitherto overlooked phenomenon?

My guess: all three. Physics at the turn of the century was in the start of a creative tumult, a half-century active quake zone of discovery: old theories cracked under the pressure of irreconcilable data, new theories upended the known world and brought forth phenomenon which had previously hidden among the unknown unknowns, and all of this piled up and into the felt urgency to explain not just this new world, but a whole new universe.

There was too much of everything, a glorious and disorienting plenty on which one of the finest collection of minds in human history feasted; is it any surprise that pursuit of this course meant that dish was neglected?

All of this is a long way of saying I’m having a bitch of a time trying to make sense of my foray into medieval history. I don’t have a theory, don’t have a direction, and while I’m unbothered by—hell, actively defend—a certain amount of dilettantism, I’ve wandered enough to have become frustrated by my wanderings.

I’m not too worried, though. As frustrating as frustration is, it works for me, (eventually) crowbarring me out of my “it’ll come” complacency and into a “go get it” activity—which is to say, I’ll come up with a theory which will guide me to look at this, not at that.

I’m not doing the [kind of] science Crick did, so his observations on the process of discovery don’t necessarily translate across the fields, but he is right that if you’re going to find anything, it helps to know what you’re looking for.

(*As quoted in Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation)





We might as well try: the prelude

11 07 2012

I should just walk away.

The problem with being a theorist—with being a lazy theorist—is that one is supposed to chase down every last bit of an argument, and that if one doesn’t wish to do so, one if left wondering if this is because the argument doesn’t deserve the effort or because one is lazy?

I’ll take “Both” for two hundred, Alex.

There is a part of me that does think it worthwhile to scatter the arid bits of libertarianism to the wind, and another part that says, Why bother, it’s a shit theory promulgated largely by twitchy obsessives and freshwater economists, so why not leave the whole mess to the key-pounders* on the left and Paul Krugman?

(*This is not a criticism: Go go go!)

I’m certainly heading toward that conclusion, but there’s still a part of me that berates myself for not doing the work of shredding such terrible theory: Yeah, it is a shit theory—not even properly a theory— but I am also lazy and there is something to be gained in the meticulous dismantling of pernicious ideas.

Yet even as I carry that guilt-bag with me toward the off-ramp, I’m wondering if the best way to lighten my load is simply to swap it for a kit-bag full of stuff I can actually use.

Okay, now I’m going to lay that whimpering metaphor aside and get to the point: Why not talk about what does matter, and what ought to be taken into account in any discussion of politics, economics, and society?

I joked the other day that the problem with letting others go first is that they get to set the terms; why not set my own terms?

I’m disgusted with libertarianism because it bears almost no relation to humans or human being; isn’t this the place to begin? And so I will—but not until tomorrow.

Lazy, remember?





Driving sideways

28 08 2009

I’m losing my mind.

Nothing serious; I’m simply losing touch with reality.

Shall I rephrase that?

I know what color the sky is in the—not my—world. It has just turned August 28, 2009 in New York City. Rain is expected later in the day. When I wake up, it will still be August 28, 2009 in New York City.

So there’s that.

But there’s also the oft-denied undeniability of a life in pieces. Yes, that would be my life.

I don’t want to over-emphasize two things, but I often do what I don’t want:

1. The visit of friends whose lives are more or less whole served notice on a life which is not.

2. That I have never properly learned how to live has not only caught up to me, it has long since overtaken and even lapped me.  (How long will I use this excuse? How long you got?)

Now, as to the first matter: It is true that normal life in NYC is unlike normal life in most other places in the US. Thus, it is normal for these friends to have homes and husbands and regular paychecks and paid vacations and pension plans.

True, there are some places in NY where this is also normal, but this town is big enough to encompass more than one normal. Thus, it is normal to have roommates found through craigslist and odd jobs and to sweat about money and to think of less than 400 square feet of living space as adequate.

If my friends blinked about this juxtaposition of normals, they were kind enough to do so when I wasn’t looking.

As to the second point, well, what more is there to say beyond the profession of ignorance? If it were an argument I could analyze it; if it were a recipe I could cook it.

It is neither. It is a kind of blankness, a lack which offers no clues on how to approach it. Animal, mineral, or spirit?

‘Just do it.’

Okay. But what, exactly? I understand the just, but what is the it and how am I to do it?

Too many questions? Is this why I’ve been told I think to much?

But this isn’t a question of too much thinking, nor or not enough. It is precisely a question of what and how.

So, Ms.-Fancy-Pants-PhD: what do you want and how do you propose to get it?

I want a life that makes some sense.

I have no idea what that means.

Which means I have no way of knowing how to achieve it.

Smaller, more concrete: I’d like to make enough money not to have to worry about it. I would like a job which is more than adjunct and temporary. I would like to take a dance class and re-up on my pottery. I would like to meet more people. I would like to date. I would like to sell my novel. I would like to write more than I do. I would like to be able to leave New York City in August.

Okay, now we’re on to something: Talk to departmental chair about a medium-to-long term teaching contract. Apply promiscuously for jobs. Apply promiscuously for agents. Write more.

Primary, secondary, means and ends, causes and consequences. See, that’s not so hard, is it?

It shouldn’t be.

Practical—I can be practical. I enjoy the theoretical-practical—hang my queries on these!—but the real-practical, the this-is-your-life practical, mmmm, that’s where the dissipation begins.

This-is-your-life: the theoretical-real-practical. But I have neither theory nor reality nor practice. A deductivist trapped in induction.

Einstein: It is the theory which decides what we can observe.

Francis Crick: The point is that evidence can be unreliable, and therefore you should use as little of it as you can.

Crick, again: There isn’t such a thing as a hard fact when you’re trying to discover something.

So not only do I not know where to look, I can’t trust what I can and cannot see.

Still, what theory accounts for my pitiful finances? That, my dear, is all about practice, and is evidence of poor career decision-making.

Still, one shift among the subatomic particles, and idiocy becomes vision: See, e.g., When I sell my novel. . . .

Still, count on nothing. The evidence is unreliable.

Still, such unreliability can be spur, possibility.

I don’t have to drown in it. (Which ‘it’? the evidence, the unreliability, the lack—you name it.) I am tired of treading water.

But I took advanced swimming lessons. I can tread water a long time.

Someday I will swim.

(Credit/blame for this post’s styling to Jeanette Winterson)