(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Writing

“You say you’re a pessimist, but I happen to know that you’re in the habit of practicing your flute for two hours every evening”*…

The Harrowing of Hell, Hieronymus Bosch

A couple of weeks ago, (R)D featured a piece by Jonathan Haidt, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” in which Haidt critiqued, among others, Robert Wright and his influential book, Non-Zero. In the spirit of George Bernard Shaw (who observed: “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.“) Wright responds…

… There are three main culprits in Haidt’s story, three things that have torn our world asunder: the like button, the share button (or, on Twitter, the retweet button), and the algorithms that feed on those buttons. “Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people.”

I would seem uniquely positioned to cheer us up by taking issue with Haidt’s depressing diagnosis. Near the beginning of his piece, he depicts my turn-of-the-millennium book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny as in some ways the antithesis of his thesis—as sketching a future in which information technology unites rather than divides…

Well, two things I’m always happy to do are (1) cheer people up; and (2) defend a book I’ve written. I’d like to thank Haidt (who is actually a friend—but whom I’ll keep calling “Haidt” to lend gravitas to this essay) for providing me the opportunity to do both at once.

But don’t let your expectations get too high about the cheering people up part—because, for starters, the book I’m defending wasn’t that optimistic. I wrote in Nonzero, “While I’m basically optimistic, an extremely bleak outcome is obviously possible.” And even if we avoid a truly apocalyptic fate, I added, “several moderately bleak outcomes are possible.”

Still, looking around today, I don’t see quite as much bleakness as Haidt seems to see. And one reason, I think, is that I don’t see the causes of our current troubles as being quite as novel as he does. We’ve been here before, and humankind survived…

Read on for a brief history of humankind’s wrestling with new information technologies (e.g., writing and the printing press). Wright concludes…

In underscoring the importance of working to erode the psychology of tribalism (a challenge approachable from various angles, including one I wrote a book about), I don’t mean to detract from the value of piecemeal reforms. Haidt offers worthwhile ideas about how to make social media less virulent and how to reduce the paralyzing influence of information technology on democracy. (He spends a lot of time on the info tech and democracy issue—and, once again, I’d say he’s identified a big problem but also a longstanding problem; I wrote about it in 1995, in a Time magazine piece whose archival version is mis-dated as 2001.) The challenge we face is too big to let any good ideas go to waste, and Haidt’s piece includes some good ones.

Still, I do think that stepping back and looking at the trajectory of history lets us assess the current turmoil with less of a sense of disorientation than Haidt seems to feel. At least, that’s one takeaway from my argument in Nonzero, which chronicled how the evolution of technology, especially information technology, had propelled human social organization from the hunter-gatherer village to the brink of global community—a threshold that, I argued, we will fail to cross at our peril.

This isn’t the place to try to recapitulate that argument in compelling form. (There’s a reason I devoted a whole book to it.) So there’s no reason the argument should make sense to you right now. All I can say is that if you do ever have occasion to assess the argument, and it does make sense to you, the turbulence we’re going through will also make more sense to you.

Is Everything Falling Apart?@JonHaidt thinks so; @robertwrighter is not so sure.

Apposite: “An optimist’s guide to the future: the economist who believes that human ingenuity will save the world,” and “The Future Will Be Shaped by Optimists,” from @kevin2kelly at @TedConferences.

* Friedrich Nietzsche (criticizing Schopenhauer)

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As we look on the bright side of life, we might send darkly-tinted birthday greetings to Oswald Spengler; he was born on this date in 1880. Best known for his two-volume work, The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), published in 1918 and 1922, he was a historian and philosopher of history who developed an “organic theory” of history that suggested that human cultures and civilizations are akin to biological entities, each with a limited, predictable, and deterministic lifespan– and that around the year 2000, Western civilization would enter the period of pre‑death emergency whose countering would lead to 200 years of Caesarism (extra-constitutional omnipotence of the executive branch of government) before Western civilization’s final collapse. He was a major influence on many historians (including Arnold Toynbee and Samuel “Clash of Civilizations” Huntington).

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“Anything down there about your souls?”*…

Herman Melville; drawing by David Levine

Andrew Delbanco on the difficulty, to date, of capturing Herman Melville’s central importance in a biography…

The fact is that Herman Melville is a singularly unyielding subject for literary biography. “One portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another,” as he says of the whale, “but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness…[because] there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like.” The dim record of Melville’s life simply disappears into the glare of his work, and the best one can hope for is to glimpse a few moments of convergence between them…

By what alchemy did an apparently unremarkable boy become the genius who broke open the conventional form of the novel and pushed the American language far beyond where any previous practitioner had taken it? Where did he acquire his knowledge of evil that made him seem mad to his contemporaries, but prescient of our own blasted century?…

On the problem of understanding Melville’s work via his life: “The Great Leviathan.”

* Queequeg, Moby-Dick, Chapter 19

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As we wonder about white whales, we might recall that it was on this date in 1855 that David Livingstone became the first European to see (what we now call) Victoria Falls in what is now Zambia-Zimbabwe.

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“I’ve always thought of the T-shirt as the Alpha and Omega of the fashion alphabet”*…

Haruki Murakami on the semiotics of casual accumulation…

I’m not particularly interested in collecting things, but there is a kind of running motif in my life: despite my basic indifference, objects seem to collect around me. Stacks and stacks of LPs, so many I’ll never listen to them all; books I’ve already read and will probably never open again; a ragtag assemblage of magazine clippings; dinky little pencils, so worn down they don’t fit into a pencil sharpener anymore. All sorts of things just keep on piling up.

T-shirts are one of those things which naturally pile up. They’re cheap, so whenever an interesting one catches my eye I buy it. People give me various novelty T-shirts from around the world, I get commemorative T-shirts whenever I run a marathon, and when I travel I often pick up a few, instead of bringing along extra clothes. Which is why the number of T-shirts in my life has skyrocketed, to the point where there’s no room in my drawers anymore and I have to store the overflow in stacked-up cardboard boxes.

Whenever I go to the U.S., after I leave the airport and get settled in town I invariably find myself wanting to go out and grab a hamburger. It’s a natural urge, but you could also see it as a kind of ritual I go through. Either one’s O.K.

Ideally, I go to a hamburger joint around one-thirty, after the lunch crowd has left, plunk myself down at the counter, and order a Coors Light on tap and a cheeseburger. I like the burger cooked medium, and I always get raw onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and pickles. Plus an order of French fries and, like an old buddy I’m visiting, a side of coleslaw. Critical partners in all this are mustard (it’s got to be Dijon) and Heinz ketchup. I sit there, quietly sipping my Coors Light, listening to the voices of the people around me and the clatter of dishes, attentively imbibing the atmosphere of this different land, as I wait for my cheeseburger to emerge. Which is when it finally hits me that, yes, I really am in America.

This T-shirt has a straightforward message: “i put ketchup on my ketchup.” Now, that’s the statement of somebody who is seriously in love with ketchup. It kind of teases those Americans who put ketchup on everything, but I find it interesting that one of the companies that distribute these shirts is none other than Heinz. A little self-deprecatory humor going on here, but you can’t help feeling the American spirit in it, the optimistic, cheerful lack of introspection that says, “Who cares about being sophisticated! I’m gonna do what I want!”

When I walk around town in this shirt, Americans sometimes call out, “Love the shirt!” The ones who do this usually have that “I love ketchup” look about them. Sometimes I feel like coming back with a “Hey, don’t lump me in with you guys,” but usually I just give a cheerful “Yeah, pretty nice, huh? Ha-ha.” This kind of T-shirt communication does a lot to liven things up. You’d never find that happening in Europe. For one thing, Europeans by and large hardly ever eat ketchup.

“I drink Heineken a lot whenever I go to the U.S. In crowded, noisy bars, you have to shout out your order, and I’ve found that the one brand I can pronounce reliably is Heineken.”

How (and why) @harukimurakami_ amassed more T-shirts than he can store (and more examples): “An Accidental Collection,” from @NewYorker.

* Giorgio Armani

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As we slip it on, we might send stream of consciousness birthday greetings to William Cuthbert Faulkner; he was born on this date in 1897.  A writer of novels, short stories, poetry, essays, screenplays, and one play, Faulkner is best remembered for his novels (e.g.,  The Sound and the Fury,  As I Lay Dying, and Light in August) and stories set in “Yoknapatawpha County,” a setting largely based on Lafayette County, Mississippi, where Faulkner spent most of his life.  They earned him the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

From Requiem for a Nun, Act I, Scene III, by William Faulkner

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“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters”*…

Historian Adam Tooze‘s new book, Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy, is released today. You can (and, I’d suggest, should) read excerpts from its introduction in The Guardian and The New York Times.

In his newsletter, he unpacks the fundamental historiographic challenge that he encountered in writing it, why that challenge matters… and why we must all face (and face up to) it:

I generally prefer a narrative mode that plunges you in to the middle of things, rather than beginning at the beginning. The in medias res approach is more engaging. It catches the reader’s attention from the start because they have to scramble to orientate themselves. It is also more transparent in its artifice. I prefer the deliberate and obvious break in the linear flow produced by a flashback – “now we interrupt the action to explain something you really need to know” – to the apparent simplicity and calm of “beginning at the beginning”, which in its own way begs all the same questions, but smuggles the answers into the smooth flow of a linear narrative.

As [critic Perry] Anderson suggested [here], this stylistic preference also reflects a certain understanding of politics and agency and their relationship to history, which might broadly be described as Keynesian left-liberalism. As he puts it, “a ‘situational and tactical’ approach to the subject in hand determines entry to” the subject matter “in medias res”. It mirrors my preoccupation with “pragmatic crisis management in the form of punctual adjustments without illusion of permanency”.

I side with those who see “in medias res”, not just as a stylistic choice and a mode of historical and political analysis, but as defining the human condition – apologies for the boldness of that claim. Being thrown into pre-given situations define us, whether though social structure, language, concepts, identities or chains of action and interaction, in which we are willy nilly enrolled and to which we ourselves contribute, thereby enrolling others as well.

Whatever thinking or writing we do, however we choose to couch it and whatever our explanatory ambition, we do it from the midst of things, not from above or beyond the fray. There are different ways of articulating that relationship – more remote or more immediate – but no way out of that situatedness.

We are thrown into situations. Most of the time they don’t come with instructions. If they do come with instructions we should probably not trust them. We have to perform enquiries to figure out how we got here, what our options are and where we might be headed. To do the work of figuring out our situation we might resort to the tools of social science, like statistics or economic concepts. Political theory may help. But history writing too is part of the effort at rendering our situations more intelligible.

For some colleagues, history is distinctive because it studies the distant past, or because it takes the archive as its source. For me, self-consciously inhabiting our situatedness in time is what differentiates historical enquiry and writing from other forms of social knowledge. History is the attempt to produce knowledge of the flux from within the flux. As Croce remarks: “All true history is contemporary history.”

The speed, intensity and generality of the COVID pandemic and the cognitive challenges it posed, gave this entanglement a new intensity. Even at the best of times, however, the problem is that being in medias res it is easier said than done. It is both inescapable and, at the same time, mysterious.

We are in medias res you say? In the middle of things? But which things? And how do those things relate to us and define us? Who or what are we in relation to these things? How do we chart the middle of this world? Who has the map? Who has the compass?…

@adam_tooze goes on to propose if not concrete answers to those questions, then a approach that can keep one honest. Eminently worth reading in full. History in the thick of it: “Writing in medias res.”

*  Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

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As we ponder perspective, we might spare a thought for Alan John Percivale (A. J. P.) Taylor; he died on this date in 1990. A historian, he wrote (albeit not overtly in media res) and taught briefly at Manchester Uinversity, then for most of his career at Oxford, focused largely on 19th- and 20th-century European diplomacy. But he gained a popular audience of millions via his journalism and broadcast lectures. His combination of academic rigor and popular appeal led the historian Richard Overy to describe him as “the Macaulay of our age.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 7, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Nothing so much assists learning as writing down what we wish to remember”*…

Lewis Carroll’s commonplace shows his musings on ciphers and detailed handwritten charts exploring labryinths. [source]

Your correspondent is away for the rest of this month; regular service will resume on or around September 1st. For the hiatus, a little something to occupy you…

As readers of this blog will have deduced, (Roughly) Daily is a kind of commonplace book…

Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They have been kept from antiquity, and were kept particularly during the Renaissance and in the nineteenth century. Such books are similar to scrapbooks filled with items of many kinds: sententiae, notes, proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, prayers, legal formulas, and recipes… Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts. Each one is unique to its creator’s particular interests but they almost always include passages found in other texts, sometimes accompanied by the compiler’s responses.

Commonplace book

As Steven Johnson points out, commonplace books have a storied history…

Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters — just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing. The great minds of the period — Milton, Bacon, Locke — were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. There is a distinct self-help quality to the early descriptions of commonplacing’s virtues: in the words of one advocate, maintaining the books enabled one to “lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life.”

The philosopher John Locke first began maintaining a commonplace book in 1652, during his first year at Oxford. Over the next decade he developed and refined an elaborate system for indexing the book’s content. Locke thought his method important enough that he appended it to a printing of his canonical work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book

Perhaps because in these interconnected days almost anything seems re-retrievable at a click, not too many bother keeping commonplaces. That’s a shame. Your correspondent can testify that the habit– whether practiced in a book or digitally– is a powerful aid both to learning and to writing.

Happily, there are lots of sources of good advice for getting started, e.g., here, here (source of the image above), and here. There’s even a Masterclass.

* Marcus Tullius Cicero

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As we live and learn, we might recall that it was on this date in 1858 that (prodigious journaler and commonplace keeper) Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace published “On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural selection” in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society. This was the first printed formal exposition of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Darwin had developed the essential elements of his theory by 1838 and set them on paper in 1844; however, he chose to keep his work on evolution unpublished for the time, instead concentrating his energies first on the preparation for publication of his geological work on the Beagle voyage , and then on an exhaustive eight-year study of the barnacle genus Cirripedia.

In 1856, at the urging of Charles Lyell, Darwin began writing a vast encyclopedic work on natural selection; however, it is possible that the extremely cautious Darwin might never have published his evolutionary theories during his lifetime had not Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist born in New Zealand, independently discovered the theory of natural selection. Wallace conceived the theory of natural selection during an attack of malarial fever in Ternate in the Mollucas, Indonesia (Febuary, 1858) and sent a manuscript summary to Darwin, who feared that his discovery would be pre-empted.

In the interest of justice Joseph Dalton Hooker and Charles Lyell suggested joint publication of Wallace’s paper prefaced by a section of a manuscript of a work on species written by Darwin in 1844, when it was read by Hooker, plus an abstract of a letter by Darwin to Asa Gray, dated 1857, to show that Darwin’s views on the subject had not changed between 1844 and 1857. The papers by Darwin and Wallace were read by Lyell before the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858 and published on August 20.

Darwin & Wallace Issue the First Printed Exposition of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection

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