“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, November 30, 2014

deconstructing very serious people

“Nobody will deny that in a world in which everything is connected through cause and effect, and in which no miracles ever happen, each part is a mirror of the whole. If a pea is shot into the Meditteranean, an eye that is sharper than our own but infinitely less fine than the eye that sees all would be able to trace the effect on the coast of China. And what other is a particle of light which contacts the surface of the eye compared to the mass of the brain and its nerves?” This is one of my favorite aphorisms of Lichtenberg. He varied the comparison of the pea in another place in his notebook, imagining that after it was shot into the sea, “this effect would be strongly modified through its impression on the other objects of the see, through the wind that pushes against it, through the fish and ships that move through it, through cave ins on the land. “ 
This is one of my favorite passages in Lichtenberg. It expresses a great idea, a fantastic idea, the imagery of which has a sort of hypnogogic flickering, as though Lichtenberg had magically been able to recover one of those great ideas that one has just as one is falling asleep, which are forever lost to the consciousness that wakes the next morning. 
I often think of this passage when I read someone assessing the importance of an author or event, especially when they do so to make some invidious point. I thought of it when I read the nasty and falsefooted essay attacking Greenblatt’s The Swerve by the head of Harvard Publishing, Lindsay Waters, in a recent Boundary 2 issue. The attack was full of knowing putdowns that came across more as smirking in the back row than magisterial swats – which is what Waters was aiming for. I was very amused by this passage, however: 
“English professors have been proclaiming for decades that they were disseminating subversive ideas that would shake Western civilization to its foundations. They wanted to shock and awe the bourgeoisie. Yet, look who has rocked America and the West to its core: economic theorists, bankers, and accountants—a curious turn of events. Robert E. Lucas Jr. and Thomas J. Sargent, whom I published at the University of Minnesota Press decades before they won Nobel Prizes, were leaders in the production of ideas that deconstructed the international economy.By comparison, the impact of de Man barely measured on the Richter scale.”
Poor De Man! He probably didn’t even know that the chief of the Harvard University Press had a machine that could give us a Richter reading for events! Although one suspects that perhaps Waters doesn’t exactly understand his own machine. Certainly the description of Lucas’s work has a certain smell of bullshit. “Deconstructed the international economy” did he? I can’t imagine that Lucas thinks of himself as deconstructing the international economy. As far as I can tell, Lucas is mostly connected with the model of Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium and the idea that expectations of economic actors are affected by government regulation in such a way as to make such regulation broadly inefficient. I wouldn’t exactly say this rocked Western civilization to its core. On the other hand, Waters seems to have a large experience of drunk English professors – I doubt that many of them, beginning with De Man, were promising to shake Western civilization to its foundations. 
However, it would shake Western civilization to its foundations if we had some richter scale for the effect of every pea that was cast into the ocean. Contra the head of the Harvard Press, however, such a scale, and the mechanism for applying it, doesn’t exist and will never exist. Not unless I’m wrong about this and Christ and the Angels are going to descend to earth and begin to judge the quick and the dead. But if they do, I would bet that Lucas and de Man would be judged to have different effects on different people for different reasons. As would, say, Oprah, Dale Carnegie, and the scribe that wrote the ancient Egyptian Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor. No one scale will apply. 
Of course, “deconstructing” importance and the way it is judged is probably not going to get you very far at… Harvard.

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