Monday, July 29, 2013

Abu Simbel: Two Modes of Thought

These days I've got two things on my mind: 1) my current series of posts on cultural evolution, memes, and the thought of Dan Dennett, and 2) murals, Mana Contemporary, and current events in Jersey City, where I live. These are both big sprawling messes and meshes of ideas, very difficult to get a hold of. It is in THAT context that I re-post this note from 2011 on conceptual styles, particularistic and holistic. How do you combine them, because that's what I'm now wrestling with, the need to combine these two styles into a single synthetic act–actually, two synthetic acts, one about cultural evolution and the other about civic life in Jersey City.
Once upon a time the two temples of Abu Simbel sat on the western bank of the Nile River in Nubia, that is, southern Egypt. Then it was decided to dam the Nile at Aswan, creating a large lake. And that lake, it was realized, would, in time, submerge those temples.

What to do? The temples must be saved.

A number of plans were devised, and sometime during the process National Geographic did an article on the problem, and the proposed solutions. I read that article in my youth – I was, maybe, 12, 13, somewhere in there – and was quite impressed. Not so much with the temples, but with the proposed solutions. And not so much with them directly, but because two of them seemed to embody different ways of thinking about problems and working toward solutions.

One proposal was to cut the temple in cubes roughly two meters on a side. The cubes would then be moved, one by one, to higher ground, where they would be reassembled. This is what was done.

Another proposal was to cut the temple free from its matrix in one huge block. Then you place thousands of hydraulic jacks under that block and jack it up, fractions of a millimeter at a time. As I recall, it was estimated that it would take a year or more to raise the temple at the rate of, say, an inch a day.

This is the proposal that grabbed my imagination. It seemed so impossible and fantastic at the same time. How do you make that first cut? How do you slip the jacks under the bottom surface? How do you coordinate the jacks? How do you . . . ?

I suspect, though, that it mostly it grabbed my imagination because it seemed to me that’s how I thought about complex problems, and, as such, it contrasted with a different way of thinking about complex problems, a way represented by the cut-it-into-chunks approach. Though I couldn’t do so then, now I could assign labels to these two modes of thinking. Heck, I could probably supply several different pairs of labels.

But I won’t. Because that would reduce this story to those labels. And that’s not how the story exists in my mind, and that’s not how I use it as an object to think with. To this day.

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