Walter Sobchak: Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.
Here is the link. Enriquez studies the intersections of science, business, society, life sciences, and robotics. He founded Harvard Business School’s Life Sciences Project, and reformed Mexico’s economic system. So, a pretty interesting guy. This lecture is on the current banking crisis, the promises of biological research, and the future of human evolution.
It is bracing to reflect from time to time on the utter senselessness of the very real institutions we inhabit. Take the university, for instance. The history of the university, as we now know it, is tangled and complicated (see here for an overview), but one of the central reasons for our universities being structured as they are, with a certain range of departments, sorted into colleges, is that Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) thought it would be cool. He set up the model for the German research university, and soon the U.S. and the rest of the world followed suit.
Think of the consequences. One learned, curious, capable individual draws up a plan and higher education all over the world for the next two centuries follows his lead. It should not be assumed automatically that his idea was ridiculous. But one might well consider whether the structure dreamed up by some long-dead German remains the best structure given the dynamics of the modern world. To be sure, one can find experimental schools departing from the Humboldtian model, as well as start-up University of Phoenixes and so on, and new multidisciplinary programs and departments and so on. But on the whole I am rather surprised that such a powerful institution, with its form so indebted to pretty arbitrary origins, is still as prevalent as it is. Lord knows there have been big changes in the arenas of politics and government. One would think that, with all the wars and all the revolutions in knowledge, universities would have changed in significant ways.
I’m reminded of this whenever I pause in a lecture and watch people scribbling into their notebooks. I think, “This is a funny way of learning things.” Why not just write down the stuff I know and hand it out the first day of class and ask them to call me if they have any questions? Or do classroom moments somehow simulate and encourage the excitement of intellectual discovery? Mightn’t other settings do so more effectively? What exactly are these classes supposed to do anyway? Does an ordered set of university classes build a structure of knowledge into students — like laying bricks? Really? In all fields? What if students were allowed to pursue knowledge with all the effective means currently available? (See this interesting essay, pointed out by Mike, about how this loose, individualized approach payed off in one guy’s high school experience.)
And on and on. Once you begin to pull at a loose thread in the university’s toga, the whole thing starts to unravel, and the sheer arbitrariness of the whole, powerful institution is soon nakedly apparent. I don’t know where I’m going with this, except to say that I’m curious about different shapes higher education might take.
It has been a learning semester. First, there was that whole thing about awards (embarrassing). Then there was also being promoted to full professor (liberating, in a way; no further promotions to seek). And each of the two classes I taught were disasters — nothing likely to land me in jail, but enough to throw me into mid-level contemplation over exactly what I’d like to achieve in a class, and how best to engage students so that they encounter the excitement and challenge in great ideas. And finally, a series of disappointments with publishers.
I have been peddling an odd book. It features a pseudonymous preface, a one-act play, no scholarly footnotes, and a balanced weave of biography, philosophy, and my own reflections. I easily understand why two publishers said “no.” I am less ready to understand why two more elected to give me the silent treatment, after expressing initial interest. Maybe I weirded them out? But why not say so? Or have I become a tiresome crank, best ignored? So soon? I was hoping to reach 50 before donning that mantle.
Anyway, looks like I will be self-publishing the Nz book through createspace.com, which sells through Amazon. I must admit that it has been exhilarating to go through the steps of self-publishing. I set the format, design the cover, set the price, write the stuff on the back cover, etc. A proof is on its way to me, and I imagine the book will be available by mid-May. (Also a thrill of immediacy.) I kind of like the idea of doing my own thing, for an audience of friends, though I’d like to also keep a hand in the more scholarly circles too. I wonder if it’s possible to do both. We shall see.
I’ll announce the book’s availability with great cranky enthusiasm.
You may recall my ambivalence toward getting awards. (If not, see here.) I shamelessly chased after an award this year, and was lucky enough to get it, with the thought that the award would pay $500, and I could have the fun of calculating whether the prize was worth all the time it required. I’ve already been to two ceremonies to be recognized, and there are at least two more coming up, plus the obligation to serve on the awards committee for next year. I have been calculating that getting an award pays about $10/hour — not great, but it’s something. Plus, I’m learning how to be gracious.
Imagine my chagrin, then, quickly followed by a profound appreciation for cosmic irony, to discover that this year no money is being awarded. None! At all! So the $10/hr gig turns out to be charity work. So I’ve been standing in public, holding my small potatoes, looking indeed like an utter idiot, just as I had prophesied. What other sort of being would undergo such public embarrassment for the sake of certificates?
I spent 15 minutes being pissed off, but now I bow to my master. Oh, Life, will you never run out of ways to humiliate us? You are indeed the master, and I marvel at your cunning ways.
The last few lines from Billy Collins, “This Little Piggy Went to Market”:
By the way, I am completely down with going
“Wee wee wee” all the way home,
having done that many times and knowing exactly how it feels.
“The human person, once perceiving that the Revelation of the Word is a condemnation of the self, casts away all thoughts of his own merit . . . . The more he examines his life, the more he looks into himself with complete honesty, the more clearly he perceives that what he has is a gift. Suppose he was an upright man in the eyes of society, then he will now say to himself: “So you were an educated man, yes, but who paid for your education; so you were a good man and upright, yes, but who taught you your good manners and so provided you with good fortune that you did not need to steal; so you were a man of a loving disposition and not like the hard-hearted, yes, but who raised you in a good family, who showed you care and affection when you were young so that you would grow up to appreciate kindness – must you not admit that what you have, you have received? Then be thankful and cease your boasting”.”
That is from the young John Rawls, in his undergraduate thesis at Princeton. Read more about it here. I can’t help but be sympathetic toward the sentiment he’s expressing. There is a huge chunk of luck in any human success — and of bad luck in human failure — and there is always a temptation to make ourselves out to be more responsible than we really are.
But I’ve read enough Nz to be skeptical of that which prompts both Rawls and me to be attracted to this sentiment. That last line — “must you not admit that what you have, you have received?” — sets off the alarms. I think I am smelling some original sin here. The feeling is that what I have done and what I can do is never sufficient to merit any praise. Only the benevolence of the greater reality outside me can give my life any value. I am only the loathsome worm who lucks out. But why feel this way? Why hate my life so much as to deny any possible value to what it can produce on its own? Pathological. “Condemnation of the self” indeed.
Rawls was concerned here with only good luck. It’s easy to extend the same thought to bad luck, though, and excuse human criminality by external causes. But the perspective has to switch. It sounds pathetic when I say to myself, “So you hacked up an old lady with an axe, but who was it that taught you to wield the heavy blade?” etc. On the other hand, it sounds wondrously kind-hearted and sympathetic when I ask someone else, “So you became a bully, but who taught you such hatred?” It is especially wonderful when I say this to the man who just punched me in the nose. Once again, it is not me who was causally efficacious enough to merit the punch in the nose. I am but a poor, ineffectual worm in the cosmos; greater causes from beyond led to the collision of fist and face. I think that when we excuse other cases, of crime done by others to others, by pointing to external causes, it’s only an extension of when we excuse others who hurt us. We’re worried that if we concede that others had it coming to them, we’ll have to concede both that sometimes we may have it coming to us, and that sometimes we’re right — on our own causal oomph! — when we let others have it. (I wonder: do kids learn to forgive violence done to themselves before they learn to forgive violence done to others? My own experience suggests so.)
So the deeper desire motivating Rawls’ sentiment is escapism — I wish to bow out from the universe, shrink into a little bug whose life has no consequence. The truth is messier. There is indeed a lot of good and bad luck shaping who we are and what we do, but regularly we are agents, in varying degrees, and it is almost always difficult to tease apart what we’ve done from what we’ve suffered. In some cases we can sort it out, but lots of times we can’t. The price of being real.
We attended a concert last night by the Jupiter String Quartet. Fabulous. Their first piece was Haydn’s last finished quartet, opus 77 # 2. Elegant. The last piece was a quartet Mendelssohn wrote when he was only 18. Lots of late LvB in it — dynamic, evocative, surprising. But the middle piece, opus 83 #4 by Shostakovich, put me away. In his “real” music (i.e., that composed not under the thumb of Stalin) Shostakovich is familiar with every sort of cage, and his music never signals any sort of exit. Each movement began in meditation, spiked in frenzy, and ended like a prayer.
The whole concert was “emcee’d” by Fred Child, of American Public Radio’s Performance Today. I’ve listened to him a lot, and often have had the experience of closing my eyes and feeling like I was in the performance hall. Last night I was in the performance hall, closed my eyes, and felt like I was listening to the radio.
For a while I wanted to be a history major. This was entirely due to a professor I had, Jack McGovern. He had a great mind, and a real passion for his subject, and was a true mensch. Then I realized that studying history didn’t just mean listening to McGovern lecture, and it meant figuring out the real causal chains that brought about changes long past, about which I do not care a fig, so I devoted all my attention to philosophy.
But, nevertheless, I gravitated toward the history of philosophy, and for a long time I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it’s because I don’t have any talent for “real” philosophy — e.g., figuring out whether we really have free will, or there is some objective moral duty, or so on. I find I have to adopt a kind of “let’s pretend there is a fact to the matter” attitude when I enter into such debates. For a while I thought that perhaps I was attracted to the history of philosophy because it enabled me to hang around the philosophical arena without being expected to compete.
I no longer think that’s the whole story, though it may be part of it. I find now that when I read the Great Dead, I am interested in seeing how their philosophy meshed with their lives, and trying to learn lessons about the connections between lives and thoughts. In a way, I suppose I’m doing a Bennett-like “collegial philosophy” (see previous post), but I’m interested less in metaphysical questions than in existential questions. I would like to learn from the GDs how to philosophize while being stuck in the middle of a haphazard life.
This has become clear to me only after studying Nietzsche, since that is, I think, the most fascinating aspect of his philosophy: the way he used ideas to come to grips with the conditions of his miserable life. I was heartened, then, to find these words in the preface to his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks:
I am going to tell the story — simplified — of certain philosophers. I am going to emphasize only that point of each of their systems which constitutes a slice of personality and hence belongs to that incontrovertible, non-debatable evidence which it is the task of history to preserve…. The task is to bring to light what we must ever love and honor and what no subsequent enlightenment can take away: great individual human beings.
Now that‘s what I’m talking about!