Taken in Macksey's back yard in Baltimore by Bruce Jackson.
Wednesday, July 31, 2019
Another in Cowen's series of conversations.
A portfolio approach to religion:
TYLER COWEN: Why are there so few atheists in Ghana?KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: [laughs] Well, maybe for the same reason that there were very few atheists in much of the world until relatively recently. Atheism is a relatively modern phenomenon, at least the form of atheism that we see around us.There are lots of Christians in Ghana. There are lots of Muslims in Ghana. And there are lots of believers in traditional religions, which are sort of polytheistic, though they tend to have a high god. There’s one big god, and there’s an earth goddess, and then a bunch of other gods.Probably one reason why people haven’t given it up is because nobody argues against it. Again, that’s a relatively modern thing, to have people in public arguing against theism. Obviously, there were atheists in the ancient world, but since the rise of the Abrahamic religions, there haven’t been a lot of atheists — except until recently — anywhere.COWEN: Do you think West Africa is proving to be an exception to the secularization thesis? Which is coming to many parts of the world, many parts of the Middle East. They’re nominally religious. There’s not a lot of belief. But West Africa seems different. Nigeria also.APPIAH: Yes. Huge amounts of very successful, growing religious denominations, especially — as in many places in the world — the Wahhabi version of Islam and the kind of Pentecostal version of Christianity: born-again Christians, charismatic churches, lots of singing and dancing, people being taken with the Spirit, and that kind of thing.It’s certainly not going in the direction of secularization as far as I can see, in the sense of moving away from church life or mosque life and moving away from belief. That’s not happening.COWEN: Marriage across different religions seems especially common in West Africa. Why is that? And have those background cultural factors in some way shaped your own views?APPIAH: That’s a good question. I think yes. My uncle Aviv, who was a Sunni Muslim, was married to my aunt Grace, who’s a Methodist. My parents were different Christian denominations. That’s not terribly exciting, but they didn’t even go to the same church, actually. They went to different churches. Relatively common in Ghana, both for Christian couples to go to different churches, and for people to marry people who are not Christians, and Muslims to marry people who are not Christians, and so on.I think it shows something about the character of the belief, which is that it’s, in an odd way — though this has somewhat been changed by the arrival of American Christian televangelism and Wahhabism — but fundamentally, the key thing is belief in, and kind of relationship with, the spiritual world. As long as you agree about that, the rest is details.Also, people have the view, which I think is a reasonable view if you’re a theist, which is, “Who knows exactly what the truth is about these things? They’re very complicated.” The idea that you get in early Christianity that it’s incredibly important to insist on a long, long list of beliefs, some of which are philosophical and impossible to understand — transubstantiation, consubstantiation, weird stuff like that — that’s not very common. People are very relaxed.COWEN: And the insistence that things are very complicated — that sounds like you, right? In other contexts.APPIAH: Yes. [laughs] I think that’s certainly my view. And this idea that a kind of fallibilism, the thought that, “Well, I might be right, I might be wrong” — that’s actually quite a Ghanaian attitude.People, in a way, understand how hard it is to get to know things, especially about this sort of thing, about invisible spirits and faraway gods. So they are not likely to be super confident about anything outside their own experience. They may be confident that they themselves have had conversations with Jesus or something like that, but the idea that the rest of it is going to be easy to figure out, I think, is not a very widespread idea.And to some extent, it pervades people’s life, so in other areas of belief, people are kind of willing to think, “Well, I’ll go to the doctor if I get sick, but if he doesn’t do anything, I’ll go to the traditional healer.”COWEN: Like a portfolio approach.APPIAH: It’s a portfolio approach.
COWEN: If cosmopolitanism is so wonderful, why are we today seeing a resurgence of nationalism? What’s unsatisfying about cosmopolitanism?APPIAH: I want to say first that, for me, it’s really important to insist that you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. You can be rooted in a place, care about it in a special way, and still be a citizen of the world, and think that you have obligations and concerns and interests that transcend your national identity.I’m not the kind of cosmopolitan who’s opposed to national identity, and that’s an important part of the answer because the kind of cosmopolitan who does want to drag people away from their roots has, I think, got no chance of persuading most people. They’re not going to persuade me, and I’m officially a cosmopolitan, so why would I expect them to persuade people who have less reason to be cosmopolitan than I do? [...]The idea that cosmopolitans are rootless is just a mistake — or have to be. Why has so much of the world turned away from things connected with other places — migration and globalization as an economic phenomenon — which they see as posing threats to their economic stability? Partly, I think, because they’ve been encouraged to think so, even though I think it’s just objectively false that globalization has been terrifically bad for many of the people who are most nationalist at the moment.And part of it is that the elites that led globalization, or that led integration in Europe, paid almost no attention to the views . . . They weren’t listening. They thought it was obvious what they were doing was good, so they paid absolutely no attention to the tensions and difficulties that were produced. [...]But yes, I do want to insist that cosmopolitanism . . . Look, cosmopolitanism, as I said, does not only require, or the right kind of cosmopolitan requires a kind of rootedness, but its point, precisely, is that we are celebrating connections among different places, each of which is rooted in its own something, each of which has its distinctive virtues and interest, each of which has its own history. And we’re making connections with people for whom that place is their first place, just as I am in a place which is my first place.So yes, cosmopolitanism requires, I think, a national sense of solidarities that are not global. That’s why, as I say, you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. Now, if the nationalist says, “Okay, but why do we need anything beyond national citizenship?” The answer is, we have a world to manage. The economy works better if we integrate.
What museums should be doing with artifacts from other cultures:
COWEN: So, the British Museum — should they send back what they have?APPIAH: I think what the British Museum should do is what they are doing, which is to be part of the leadership of a movement in the world of museums to say, “The key questions about the great objects are access questions, not ownership questions. If we fuss about ownership, we’ll never make any progress. Let’s agree that the challenge is to make a world in which everybody in the world is, from time to time, close to a significant body of seriously interesting objects.”That means that the British Museum should be sharing, as it does, but it should be doing it more. I think sending back, of course, is exactly the wrong solution because sending back means you send all the Malian stuff to Mali. But the trouble with Mali is not that it doesn’t have Malian stuff. It’s that it doesn’t have Italian Renaissance stuff. It doesn’t have Chinese pottery. It doesn’t have tapestries woven by the Aztecs. It doesn’t have lots of the world’s great treasures.Better to think about the task as being a task of collectively curating the world’s collection for everybody and figuring out how to share more of it in places where it’ll be accessible, more closely accessible to some of the people in the world who don’t have access to anything now. That would be my ambition.
Tuesday, July 30, 2019
Hollis Robbins, Dancing with Chains, BLARB: Blog//LA Review of Books, April 3, 2018:
But we are in their gaze. And as Wesleyan president Michael Roth noted a few months ago, Chinese students are asking better and more interesting questions than we are about academia and academic subjects. Free from the invisible social constraints of academic norms — the trends and fashions of academic study — young Chinese scholars are writing with wild abandon about Sidney Sheldon, slave narratives, Emily Dickinson, Margaret Mitchell, “Chick Lit,” and Michael Chabon. I met a scholar studying Neil Simon and Toni Morrison, a combination for which I can’t imagine a supportive dissertation committee here.
Systematic Chinese study of American literature is nearly 50 years old. Since 1978, Chinese textbooks on American literature have presented to students works by Stowe, Mailer, and Doctorow, as explicitly critical of capitalism and sympathetic to the oppressed. Two of the first American works of fiction translated into Chinese were Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Hemingway’s “The Killers” for reasons that are obvious. More recent studies feature Stephen King, Philip Roth, and zombie movies as critiques of American culture and politics. And while English language essays by Chinese scholars sometimes feature jarring word choices (a recent essay on The Great Gatsby describes Fitzgerald as attending “a noble school for the wealthy kids”), such choices are rarely actually wrong.
The Chinese scholars I met know their literary theory*, too, and think about theory and culture in refreshingly relevant ways. During a lecture to film students at Nanjing University, a grad student, drawing on Foucault and Levi-Strauss, asked about the scholarship on class politics in Quentin Tarantino’s films. I heard a talk at Zheijiang Gongshang University on Mikhail Bakhtin’s applicability to the African American call-and-response tradition. A young professor who just finished a book about orphans as “freethinkers” in Mary Shelley’s novels, asked about theories of orphans in African American literature. At Dianzi University last summer I met a student writing on the resonance of Judith Butler’s Antigone’s Claim to a culture in which so many people have no siblings. At a foreign language high school lecture on American Westerns, after I ended with a clip from Red Planet, a student asked if today’s Americans would ever see themselves as Native Americans after a Martian invasion and whether anyone had written on the subject. I laughed and said I didn’t think so.
*See my post, Consult the text, the varieties of criticism: remarks from a dialogue between J. Hillis Miller and Zhang Jiang, Oct. 4, 2016.
Why did the Industrial Revolution start when it did? Why did Silicon Valley happen in California rather than Japan or Boston? Human progress is understudied, and @patrickc and @tylercowen want to change that. https://t.co/do55DQ5yHi— The Atlantic (@TheAtlantic) July 30, 2019
From the article:
Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”
I've got a quibble here. From my point of view science and technology are aspects of culture, along with the arts, marriage customs, cuisine and the like. Habits and practices of organization, they too are aspects of culture, and so with economic practices. In the large we have societies, which are groups of people, and culture, which are the ideas, attitudes, customs, and so forth practiced by the people of a society. Moreover, when you think about it, it's quite clear that most modern societies contain within them a diversity of cultures, and by that I do not only mean ethnicities (Irish, Basque, Lakota, Tamil, and the like). Each occupational specialty, for example, has its own culture, if not family of cultures. Culture is dizzying in its variety.
Looking backwards, it’s striking how unevenly distributed progress has been in the past. In antiquity, the ancient Greeks were discoverers of everything from the arch bridge to the spherical earth. By 1100, the successful pursuit of new knowledge was probably most concentrated in parts of China and the Middle East. Along the cultural dimension, the artists of Renaissance Florence enriched the heritage of all humankind, and in the process created the masterworks that are still the lifeblood of the local economy. The late 18th and early 19th century saw a burst of progress in Northern England, with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In each case, the discoveries that came to elevate standards of living for everyone arose in comparatively tiny geographic pockets of innovative effort. Present-day instances include places like Silicon Valley in software and Switzerland’s Basel region in life sciences.These kinds of examples show that there can be ecosystems that are better at generating progress than others, perhaps by orders of magnitude. But what do they have in common? Just how productive can a cultural ecosystem be? Why did Silicon Valley happen in California rather than Japan or Boston? Why was early-20th-century science in Germany and Central Europe so strong? Can we deliberately engineer the conditions most hospitable to this kind of advancement or effectively tweak the systems that surround us today?
And so, we're out to change the world:
Needless to say, Collison and Cowen need to know the work David Hays and I have done on cultural ranks, which can provide a framework for thinking about many of these issues.An important distinction between our proposed Progress Studies and a lot of existing scholarship is that mere comprehension is not the goal. When anthropologists look at scientists, they’re trying to understand the species. But when viewed through the lens of Progress Studies, the implicit question is how scientists (or funders or evaluators of scientists) should be acting. The success of Progress Studies will come from its ability to identify effective progress-increasing interventions and the extent to which they are adopted by universities, funding agencies, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and other institutions. In that sense, Progress Studies is closer to medicine than biology: The goal is to treat, not merely to understand.We know that, to some readers, the word progress may sound too normative. However, it is the explicit bedrock upon which Vannevar Bush made his case for postwar funding of science, a case that led to the establishment of the National Science Foundation. In an era where funding for good projects can be hard to come by, or is even endangered, we must affirmatively make the case for the study of how to improve human well-being. This possibility is a fundamental reason why the American public is interested in supporting the pursuit of knowledge, and rightly so.
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BTW, is this one small step for progress studies - The artificial "scientist" makes new discoveries in a pile of old scientific papers [#AI , #Word2Vec]?
|The black page in Tristram Shandy|
On the evening of July 22 I learned that Dick Macksey had died earlier that day. He was a Hopkins legend – a prodigious polymath who speaks who knows how many languages, a tireless teacher, a genial host, and an indefatigable conversationalist who owns more books than the Library of Alexandria, though only a few of them are quite so old. Everyone had said so for decades, and Everyone is now saying it again. The thing about legends is that they are based in fact, but are also used to distance the facts they’re based on.
I worked with Macksey for seven years between 1966, the spring of my freshman year at Johns Hopkins, and the fall 1973, when I went to SUNY Buffalo to get a doctorate in English lit. I have had occasional contact with him since then. I knew the legend. I would also like to think I glimpsed something of the man.
Progression through digression
I don’t know why I took Prof. Macksey’s course, The Autobiographical Novel, in the spring of 1966. Sure, I liked to read. But there must have been other literature courses I could have taken – for all I know, maybe I took one of them. That was a long time ago, over half a century. If I told you what I remembered of Macksey at that time would I be reporting my memories, shaky as they are, or simply giving you the legend as it has been passed down and embroidered?
Truth is, I probably took the course in part because I HAD heard the legend, about this cool professor who spoke a zillion languages, had read everything and owned half of it, could talk his way from Baltimore to Towson (just north of Baltimore for those who don’t know the area) by way of Lubbock, Timbuktu, Paris, Moscow, and Dublin, and who smoked a pipe. What’s to tell, strictly from memory?
I more or less forget what we read, but I’ve been reconstructing the list. Gradually. Likely St. Augustine’s Confessions, definitely Remembrance of Things Past (I’d never heard of Proust), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (nor Joyce either), Slaughterhouse Five, Tristes Tropiques, an abridged translation – my introduction to Lévi-Strauss, The End of the Road – I believe that Barth had left Hopkins for Buffalo by that time. And for sure Tristram Shandy. Now there’s a Macksey novel, progression by digression, Laurence Stern’s method and Macksey’s too. I remember he brought a first edition to class – a little stack of smallish books.
And he would hand out a chronology for each author. Each one. All the time.
The Idea of the Theater – took that in the fall of ‘66. Did a paper on Oedipus at Colonus; used a chart in that paper. I got the idea from Lévi-Strauss’s 1955 essay, “The Structural Study of Myth”. When did I learn about Roman Jakobson’s poetic function? The Idea of the Picaro (Lazarillo, Simplicius, Moll Flanders, Felix Krull, Gully Jimson, Gnossus Pappadopoulis, who else?) – forget just when I took that one. Which course had Naked Lunch? Northrup Frye’s Anatomy? I may have taken another course with Macksey, in fact I did, a history of literary criticism – is that where we read Longinus? For sure I did an independent study, but I don’t remember the rationale, as if it mattered. It was with Macksey.
Somewhere during that time there was a visit to his house where I saw Whitehead and Russell’s three-volume Principia Mathematica stacked on a chair. My audiophile friends were impressed with the Macintosh tube amplifier. I was impressed by the oriental carpets.
To be honest – dare I admit this? – every once in awhile the intellectual virtuosity was more annoying than dazzling. For one thing after a few years I’d heard some of the riffs before. And sometimes you just wanted a drink of water, not the whole damn reservoir sluiced at you through a fire hose – to invoke the Milton Eisenhower line that’s one of the keys to the legend. I mean, come on Prof. Macksey, just get to the point.
By that time, though, I was hooked. One summer I was writing long letters, often very long letters. And I decided to insert digressions within digressions and to mark the embedding with parentheses (like this). I must have rambled some of those sentences out for half a page or more and five levels deep. It was fun. It has only just occurred to me that I must have absorbed that from Tristram Shandy via Macksey (or vice versa). But at the time I certainly did not think that’s what I was doing – at least I don’t think so. Remember, that was a loooong time ago. I was just playing around. Progression through digression.
Anyhow, I got my undergraduate degree (in philosophy) on time, the spring of 1969, and stuck around for a couple of years to get a master’s degree in the Humanities Center. This was during the Vietnam era and I’d drawn a 12 in the draft lottery. It was pretty clear that I was going to be called up. I applied for conscientious objector status and got it. I did my alternative service in the Chaplain’s Office at Johns Hopkins while writing a long and somewhat shocking thesis on “Kubla Khan”, shocking in that it was a rather inventive structuralist analysis at a time when structuralism was on its deathbed. Macksey directed the thesis and sent me off to Buffalo for a doctorate. I visited Macksey two or three times after that when I was visiting Hopkins and have had some phone calls with Dick now and then.
Mary Douglas on Tristram Shandy
One of them was late in 2003. Most likely I’d called him to talk about anime, which I’d just discovered. I don’t have any explicit record of the call, no notes, no phone bill. But I know I talked with him about anime and judging from some emails I’d sent, that must have been when I made the call.
While Dick may have seen Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which had played in theaters in the States, he was not acquainted with anime. For that matter, I don’t really know how much I knew at the time, but certainly Spirited Away, a couple other Miyazaki films, My Neighbor Totoro, probably Princess Mononoke, and anime by others as well, Ninja Scroll, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, perhaps Card Captor Sakura. I was excited. He was interested.
He suggested I read The Electric Animal, by Akira Lippit – a friend, former student? I forget. It was indeed useful, about just why animals-as-people seemed to dominate cartoons early in the 20th century (flight from the country to the city left us hungry for contact with animals), and about one particularly gruesome episode in early cinema, the electrocution of the elephant Topsy in 1903 – Google it to see a clip – which proved suggestive in thinking about those electric elephants in the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence of Dumbo.
Somehow we got to talking about Mary Douglas, the anthropologist who was, in some ways, the British counterpart to Lévi-Strauss. Perhaps I’d mentioned her simply because I’d been corresponding with her subsequent to the publication of my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, which she had been kind enough to blurb. Or perhaps because she and I had talked about anime and manga when I visited her at Yale, where she was in residence to deliver the Tanner Lectures. One of those lectures was to be about Tristram Shandy, and she’d sent me a draft.
It turned out that Dick needed to fill a slot in the issue of MLN which had been due at the press yesterday, if not before. Perhaps she’d be interested in publishing her Tristram Shandy paper with MLN? I asked her. A bunch of emails, a few late night phone calls. Yes-no maybe sorta’. It was just a little complicated and a little frantic, by my standards if not by Dick’s. It didn’t take all that much time, it was just the pace and odd hours. The issue needed to go to press and it would be really nice to have an essay by Mary Douglas. Alas no.
I came away with the impression that the Macksey-behind-the-curtain worked really hard. Of course, anyone who knows him knew that he worked hard. How else could he get it all done, teaching four, five, six courses – and on two campuses (Arts and Sciences at Homewood, the Medical School in East Baltimore), advising the Chaplain’s Office on films (not to mention hosting discussions of them in his library screening room), the editing, the correspondence, the guests, and who knows what else? His family, Catherine and Alan! But here I’d been in the middle of the maelstrom. I’m tempted to say that I felt just a bit like Mickey Mouse drowning in that whirlpool of freely associating brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. But it was Macksey himself who was riding the waves and there was no sorcerer to calm the waves. He just had to ride it out.
Monday, July 29, 2019
Estimates of the amount of electrical power that AI will guzzle in future vary dramatically. I took a look for @techreview at why forecasting in the field is so tough: https://t.co/N6InXmC5kU— Martin Giles (@martingiles) July 29, 2019
David Patrick Columbia has a list, culled from the pages of New York magazine, over at New York Social Diary. After the list he offers these observations:
Those are only some of the names in Mr. Epstein’s phone book. That doesn’t mean they were all dinner guests, or Lolita Express travelers, or bankers or lawyers or Indian chiefs or international art dealers. That also doesn’t mean Mr. Epstein really knew many of them, or vice-versa. The word “friend” is very loosely used among many of his peers. What it does mean is that he had “access” (or could very possibly gain it).
People who knew him socially were aware of his casserole of celebrities as well as a hefty supply of the rich, the chic and shameless who would be at his table. That was why people would accept his invitation. It’s a harmless brand of vulgar curiosity. They didn’t have to “know” him. They could even have heard whispers — or knew about the “scandalous.” That wouldn’t necessarily matter. It was the guest list that drew the guests. Maybe with a little salting of the whispers (or friends/clients).
No other city but New York attracts such a diverse group of talent and ambition. Furthermore, celebrities are very impressed with other celebrities. And tycoons don’t mind the recognition, nor do the elite, especially at a table with someone who can match the laurels. It’s human; we’re pack animals.
At any given occasion, there were those present at Mr. Epstein’s table who knew at least some of what was going on underneath the frenetic existence of being Mr. Big.
Yet, I don’t doubt that many who crossed the threshold of his limestone mansion at 9 East 71st Street were in awe of the man’s “achievements.” Such gatherings provide the guests with some of that apparent self-confidence.
Sunday, July 28, 2019
Back on July 10 I announced the (mere) possibility of writing a book that takes Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 as its point of departure. Call it Kisangani 2150 (reconstructing civilization on a new model). I’m still liking the idea. Will I actually write the novel? As I said at the end of the post, probably not. But perhaps I’ll do something, maybe even some kind of collaborative web project. But who knows?
But “Kisangani 2150” is a useful rubric (a word, I believe, that I have from the late Dick Macksey) under which to gather materials about the future – something I think about a lot. By materials I mean both my own thoughts, but also the thoughts of others. The idea, as I indicated in that first post, is to imagine a post climate apocalypse world more or less within the parameters Robinson established in his novel, but nonetheless along somewhat different lines. After all, he set his novel in New York City. Kisangani is in the central Congo, a very different world. What were they likely doing in Kisangani when the events of New York 2140 transpired? And once those events had (quite possibly) altered the course of history, what would have been happening in Kisangani ten years after?
It’s the level of detail that’s important, down to the thoughts of individual people. Since Robinson’s already done such a good job of imaginatively realizing a possible future I can’t see any point in my trying to do it again from scratch. So, take that world as given, and work within and around it, from some other perspective.
Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about the Kisangani 2150 Project, as I’m now calling it. What materials do I have readily to hand?
Let me tell you about Zeal
There’s my friend Zeal. I wrote about him in 3 Quarks Daily: World Island: Zeal means hope [The World’s Got Talent]. He’s had this idea he calls World Island, which I’ve blogged about. You can find some documents at Scribd, PDFs of two PowerPoint presentations and the executive summary of the proposal we’d submitted to the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (aka GIPEC). He even submitted a proposal to the MacArthur Foundation fairly recently, though I was no longer working on the project at that time. World Island? Think of it as a combination of the best features of the United Nations, Disney World, a kid’s rumpus room, the trading floor at the Chicago Board of Trade, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and the Japanese exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
I worked closely with Zeal for, say, three, four, five, years and have kept in touch with him. I went with him to many meetings with all kinds of people, people who were interested in the World island project. Many of them are the sorts of folks who’d be working at building the kind of world I’m imagining for Kisangani 2150. And they’ve got friends, children, cousins, nieces, and so forth. So I’m imagining chains of resonance emanating from Zeal in the early 21st century, rippling out over the next century, and then coalescing in Kisangani in the middle of the 22nd century.
How did I meet Zeal? At a meeting at Columbia University. I was introduced to him by Takeshi Utsumi, a Japanese American who has spent three or four decades traveling in the developing world on behalf of what he calls the Global University System. The idea is to funnel Japanese development money two centers in the developing world interested in distance education. Maybe one of those centers is in Kisangani, now. Maybe it persists through 2150. Who knows?
And then there’s Paul Sladkus and his Good News Broadcasting. More connections to conjure with.
Tyler Cowen’s Yonas project
Tyler Cowen is an economist who blogs at Marginal Revolution. He also travels a great deal. Last year he traveled to Ethiopia – in Africa, but a different part of Africa from Kisangani – where he met a man he calls Yonas (not his real name). He decided to donate the royalties of a recent book to Yonas:
So having written Stubborn Attachments, I now wish to live the book, so to speak. I am donating the royalties from the book to a man I met in Ethiopia on a factfinding trip earlier this year, I shall call him Yonas [not his real name].
He is a man of modest means, but he aspires to open his own travel business. He has a young and growing family, and also a mother to support. He is also hoping to buy a larger house to accommodate his growing family. In his life, he faces stresses – financial and otherwise — that I have never had to confront. When I visited his home, his wife had just had a new baby girl, but Yonas’s income depends on the vicissitudes of tourist demand, and by American standards it is in any case low.
I met Yonas when he served as my travel guide around Lalibela. I spent a full day with him, touring the underground, rock-hewn stone churches of that city. He struck me as reliable, conscientious, well-informed, and I was impressed by the quality of his English, which he had acquired on his own. He also took me by his village to meet his family, and they performed a coffee ceremony for me, cooking freshly ground coffee beans (it was delicious, something I had never imagined). Based on my impressions from that day, I believe an investment in Yonas will help his entire family and perhaps his broader community as well. Since then, he and I have kept in touch by email.
As another way of “living the content” of my book, I will be sending the funds via Stripe, Stripe Press being the publisher of this book. Stripe, a payments company, really has made it easy to send money across borders, thereby helping to knit the whole world together. I hope someday Yonas is able to apply for incorporation through Atlas, a Stripe service that helps entrepreneurs incorporate in Delaware, with his travel business, or with whatever else he may do.
What if Yonas succeeds in establishing his travel business? What if it is wildly successful and establishes offices throughout Africa, perhaps even in Kisangani?
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You get the idea. On the ground NOW, but one can imagine plausible chains of resonance reaching to Kisangani in 2150.
This is only one small bit from this essay by Shabaka Hutchings:
When I was a student, my former saxophone teacher, Jean Toussaint, would stress to me the importance of listening to the accents within bebop solos; how the different instruments react to each other in accordance with the accentuated contours. This allowed me to start to listen to bebop and jazz music afresh.
Charlie Parker performs “Little Willie Leaps” live with Max Roach on drums (Live at Birdland, 1951). There’s a dialogue happening between the sax and the drums and the accents are key. Small bursts of micro-phrases between sax and drums interweave and interact with one another creating a vocabulary that can be considered outside of the confines of harmony. In my own practice I’ve tried to recognise this world of phrasing by viewing it as a language in itself, based on rhythmic accentuation.
I’ve achieved this by transcribing bebop solos and play them using only two or three notes, emphasising the punctuation enacted by the accent structures. A different story is told to the one perceived when emphasis is placed on harmonic movement. The dynamic interaction of stresses within each phrase dictates the framework for balance between tension and release.
Throughout numerous locations during the time of slavery, drums were banned for their ability to transmit messages/information encoded within the percussive patterns. I like the myth/idea that the African diaspora has retained the impulse to communicate through rhythmic structures. Perhaps the use of alternative points of emphasis is an attempt to subvert easy comprehension by those outside the community. “Who no know go know,” as Fela said. In practical terms, in order to more clearly hear the narratives from a centre point of the rhythmic accents, I have learned improvised bebop solos from the masters. Firstly, I recite them note for note, as played originally. Then I perform the solos using only one or two notes but clearly following the contour and rhythmic trajectory. This takes my listening squarely into a place where the harmonic flow is of secondary consequence. I become open to new points of rhythmic emphasis throughout the mu
YES! Those accents are key. That's what's so amazing about Dizzy Gillespie, where he's able to place the accents, and where he turns his phrases. Without that a bebop solo is just a double-time swing solo.
Saturday, July 27, 2019
The human brain is by far the most impressive computing device known to science. Neural networks made of superconducting nanowires might come much closer to the real thing. https://t.co/XBs6bNFnaJ— MIT Technology Review (@techreview) July 27, 2019
The original research is at ArXive.org: Emily Toomey, Ken Segall, Karl K. Berggren, A Power Efficient Artificial Neuron Using Superconducting Nanowires, arXiv:1907.00263v1 [q-bio.NC]
Abstract: With the rising societal demand for more information-processing capacity with lower power consumption, alternative architectures inspired by the parallelism and robustness of the human brain have recently emerged as possible solutions. In particular, spiking neural networks (SNNs) offer a bio-realistic approach, relying on pulses analogous to action potentials as units of information. While software encoded networks provide flexibility and precision, they are often computationally expensive. As a result, hardware SNNs based on the spiking dynamics of a device or circuit represent an increasingly appealing direction. Here, we propose to use superconducting nanowires as a platform for the development of an artificial neuron. Building on an architecture first proposed for Josephson junctions, we rely on the intrinsic nonlinearity of two coupled nanowires to generate spiking behavior, and use electrothermal circuit simulations to demonstrate that the nanowire neuron reproduces multiple characteristics of biological neurons. Furthermore, by harnessing the nonlinearity of the superconducting nanowire's inductance, we develop a design for a variable inductive synapse capable of both excitatory and inhibitory control. We demonstrate that this synapse design supports direct fanout, a feature that has been difficult to achieve in other superconducting architectures, and that the nanowire neuron's nominal energy performance is competitive with that of current technologies.
Adam Roberts, From Black Panther to Tade Thompson: why Afrofuturism is taking over sci-fi, The Guardian, July 26, 2019.
Last week Tade Thompson, a British-born Yoruba writer, became only the second writer of black African heritage to win the Arthur C Clarke award for science fiction. Three out of this year’s six shortlisted titles were by writers of colour, a reflection of the fact that some of today’s most exciting SF and fantasy writing comes from non-white authors. Recent high-profile examples include Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which won the Pulitzer prize in 2017, as well as that year’s Arthur C Clarke award and is being made into a TV series by Barry Jenkins; and NK Jemisin, who last year won a third consecutive Hugo award for best science fiction novel with the final part of her Broken Earth trilogy. Yet as Tom Hunter, award administrator for the Arthur C Clarke prize, points out, of the 124 submissions from 46 different publishers and imprints, only 7% were by writers of colour. He is unambiguous about what this means: “Diversity in science fiction needs action now.”
Thompson’s Rosewater was a worthy winner: a complex and fast-moving novel that expertly balances weird alien incursion against thriller action, zombie scares and a vividly rendered future Nigeria. He joins Whitehead and Jemisin as leading proponents of contemporary Afrofuturism, at a time when that movement is going mainstream – the film Black Panther took more than $1bn at the box office last year, and some of the world’s biggest recording artists have adopted Afrofuturist stylings, from Rihanna and Beyoncé to Janelle Monáe.
In fact the movement, and black engagement with sci-fi, go back a long way. Samuel Delany has been writing sci-fi from the black experience since the 1960s (he’s still going), Funkadelic were hymning their outer-space mothership in the 1970s, and the much missed Octavia Butler wrote some of the most powerful sci-fi of the 1980s and 90s. What’s happening today is a shift in focus: a black African rather than African American sci-fi phenomenon. Writer Geoff Ryman, a former Clarke winner himself, points out that Thompson’s success marks “the first time an African not living in the US has won a major sci-fi/fantasy award”.
Rosewater is a distinctively African example of Afrofuturism: a portrait of Nigeria in 2066, extrapolated from the bustling and expanding society of today, but with its own distinctive flavour – intricate, sometimes hectic, spacious. Where white western cyberpunk tends to isolate its characters, gloomily alienated individuals moving through hi-tech future cities, Thompson’s characters exist in vivid networks of kinship and friendship groups. The novel is as interested in protagonist Kaaro’s love life (he is believably gauche in relation to his various objects of desire) as in his superhero skills. The far-fetched and the mundane rub shoulders in a distinctive and agreeable manner. Kaaro has employment as a kind of telepathic James Bond, but he also has a dull job in a bank. The alien incursion, around which the novel’s titular city has been constructed, combines magic and science: healing the sick and bringing the dead back to zombie-life, but also provoking a hi-tech evolution in science.
Philip A. Kragel, Marianne C. Reddan, Kevin S. LaBar, and Tor D. Wager, Emotion schemas are embedded in the human visual system, Science, Volume 5(7):eaaw4358, July 24, 2019, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw4358.
Abstract: Theorists have suggested that emotions are canonical responses to situations ancestrally linked to survival. If so, then emotions may be afforded by features of the sensory environment. However, few computational models describe how combinations of stimulus features evoke different emotions. Here, we develop a convolutional neural network that accurately decodes images into 11 distinct emotion categories. We validate the model using more than 25,000 images and movies and show that image content is sufficient to predict the category and valence of human emotion ratings. In two functional magnetic resonance imaging studies, we demonstrate that patterns of human visual cortex activity encode emotion category–related model output and can decode multiple categories of emotional experience. These results suggest that rich, category-specific visual features can be reliably mapped to distinct emotions, and they are coded in distributed representations within the human visual system.
From the discussion:
We found that human ratings of pleasantness and excitement evoked by images can be accurately modeled as a combination of emotion-specific features (e.g., a mixture of features related to disgust, horror, sadness, and fear is highly predictive of unpleasant arousing experiences). Individuals may draw from this visual information when asked to rate images. The presence of emotion-specific visual features could activate learned associations with more general feelings of valence and arousal and help guide self-report. It is possible that feelings of valence and arousal arise from integration across feature detectors or predictive coding about the causes of interoceptive events (48). Rather than being irreducible (49), these feelings may be constructed from emotionally relevant sensory information, such as the emotion-specific features we have identified here, and previous expectations of their affective significance. This observation raises the possibility that core dimensions of affective experience, such as arousal and valence, may emerge from a combination of category-specific features rather than the other way around, as is often assumed in constructivist models of emotion.
In addition to our observation that emotion-specific visual features can predict normative ratings of valence and arousal, we found that they were effective at classifying the genre of cinematic movie trailers. Moreover, the emotions that informed prediction were generally consistent with those typically associated with each genre (e.g., romantic comedies were predicted by activation of romance and amusement). This validation differed from our other two image-based assessments of EmoNet (i.e., testing on holdout videos from the database used for training and testing on IAPS images) because it examined stimuli that are not conventionally used in the laboratory but are robust elicitors of emotional experience in daily life. Beyond hinting at real-world applications of our model, integrating results across these three validation tests serves to triangulate our findings, as different methods (with different assumptions and biases) were used to produce more robust, reproducible results.
Friday, July 26, 2019
Starting at about 23:33 Seinfeld (along with his hosts) has some interesting comments on how to manage your mind. You have a daily routine, you have a place set aside for your work, and so forth. You have a system.
"You treat your brain like a schnauzer. You got your little bag of treats and tricks. And you're going to walk on hind legs. And he will. He wants those treats."
Thursday, July 25, 2019
In scientific prognostication we have a condition analogous to a fact of archery--the farther back you are able to draw your longbow, the farther ahead you can shoot. – R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path
“The interests of humanity may change, the present curiosities in science may cease, and entirely different things may occupy the human mind in the future.” One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.
–Stanislaw Ulam, from a tribute to John von Neumann
We’re in one of those great historic periods…when people don’t understand the world anymore…when the past is not sufficient to explain the future.
– Peter Drucker
I've got a new working paper. Title above, abstract, table of contents, and introduction below:
- Academia.edu: https://www.academia.edu/39927897/Stagnation_and_Beyond_Economic_growth_and_the_cost_of_knowledge_in_a_complex_world
- SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3426761
- Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334683808_Stagnation_and_Beyond_Economic_growth_and_the_cost_of_knowledge_in_a_complex_world
Abstract: What economists have identified as stagnation over the last few decades can also be interpreted as the cost of continuing successful engagement with a complex world that is not set up to serve human interests. Two arguments: 1) The core argument holds that elasticity (ß) in the production function for economic growth is best interpreted as a function of the interaction between the economic entity (firm, industry, the economy as a whole) and particular aspects the larger world: physical scale in the case of semi-conductor development, biological organization in the case of drug discovery. 2) A larger argument interprets current stagnation as the shoulder of a growth curve in the evolution of culture through a succession of fundamental stages in underlying cognitive architecture. New stages develop over old through a process of reflective abstraction (Piaget) in which the mechanisms of earlier stages become objects for manipulation and deployment for the emerging stage.DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.33987.96803
C O N T E N T
0 Introduction: Cognitive architecture, humans, and the world 2
1 Stagnation: Are we running out of ideas? 9
2 Exploration, the endless frontier, and cognitive ranks 14
3 Two cases: Semiconductor fabrication and drug discovery 28
4 Recap: Information, contingency, and emergence in a complex universe 36
5 Coda: Why economic growth cannot be like compound interest 39
6 Appendix 1: Krugman and Cowen on economic growth in the developing world 41
7 Appendix 2: Cultural evolution through four cognitive ranks 43
0 Introduction: Cognitive architecture, humans, and the world
This working paper is about stagnation in the production of new ideas, something that’s concerned me for awhile, though not framed in that way. I have the term “stagnation” from many posts by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, a blog he runs in conjunction with Alex Tabarrok . Both are economists.
My purpose is to induce a gestalt switch in thinking about The Great Stagnation , as the title of a book by Tyler Cowen calls it. It is costing more and more to obtain a given increment of economic growth. In particular there seem to be fewer new ideas and coming up with them is becoming ever more expensive. Growth doesn’t stop, but it is becoming more expensive. (What if it becomes too expensive to sustain?)
Gestalt switch? Look at the image, is it duck or a rabbit? One can see it either way depending on the ordering you impose on the lines and shading. The markings don’t change, but the way we read them does.
How do I induce you to read the evidence in another way, a way that suggests that this “stagnation”, far from being a sign that something is amiss, is a sign of success, albeit costly success? I could reanalyze the data, but I won’t. I don’t have the tools. Nor do I have any reason to think that the economists are doing it wrong. What I am going to do is suggest that this stagnation is simply the cost of learning more about the world, the inevitable and inextricable cost. To understand where that cost is coming from we have to look as deeply into the world as we can.
Short of that, I’m going to provide some new information, a wider context for thinking about the problem. Consider this passage from an article by Charles I. Jones:
It is somewhat natural to imagine that productivity in goods production is monotonically increasing: technologies get better and better over time. In this respect, the productivity of research effort may be very different. We do not know what the “universe” of ideas looks like. It could be that the discovery of past ideas makes future research more and more productive. Or this could be true, but only up to a point: the age of scientific discovery may accelerate right up until the end, and then end. Or perhaps the universe of ideas is laid out such that there are punctuated periods of discovery followed by periods of extremely slow, gradual advance.
It would be hubristic to claim that I know, positively know, what the universe of ideas looks like. But I know something about it – I have been studying the universe of ideas in various forms for some decades – and that knowledge is what I bring to bear on this problem. I can point in a fruitful direction.
First of all we must accept that this phenomenon somehow inheres in the nature of the world. We’re not looking at local historical contingency. What is that nature? There is a philosophical answer to that question, which I indicate in section 4 below, “Recap: Information, contingency, and emergence in a complex universe” (pp. 34 ff.). That answer centers on remarks Nobelist Ilya Prigogine made about the confluence of classical macro forces (gravity) and micro forces (quantum mechanics) at the scale of biological molecules. That, he argues, is responsible for the complex texture of the world.
How do we get from that micro world to the macro world of economic growth in the post-industrial world of the 20th and 21st centuries? Well, there is one very long historical story that goes from the emergence of life to the emergence of human beings with full powers of speech. That story is in the realm of evolutionary biology. There is another somewhat shorter historical story that goes from early hunter-gathers up with the present time. That is a story of cultural evolution, some of which I have indicated in this paper.
It is one thing to tell those histories – any many people are telling them in various ways. What we would like, though, is some general principle, or set of them, that explains what is going on at each step of the way in that long progression. In the context of this paper, that general principle would provide a deep and satisfying conceptual link between section 3, “Two cases: Semiconductor fabrication and drug discovery”, and the molecular world at the heart of the Prigogoine suggestion in section 4. THAT’s something (well) beyond my capability. But if you want to understand what is behind this stagnation, how it inheres in the nature of the world, that is ultimately where you are going to have to look.
The upshot is that it is best to think of this as an exercise in natural philosophy, to use a term that went out of fashion a two centuries ago. Note, however, that I now apply it to the human as well as the natural world.
0.1 The universe of ideas
Over a period of some two decades near the end of the previous century I collaborated with the late David Hays on an account of the longue durée of cultural evolution. The story we tell is one of cultural paradigms existing at four levels of sophistication, which we call ranks. In the terminology of current evolutionary biology, these ranks represent major transitions in cultural life. Rank 1 cognitive architectures emerged when the first humans appeared on the savannas of Africa speaking language as we currently know it. Those architectures structured the lives of primitive societies that emerged perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. Around 5,000 to 10,000 years ago Rank 2 architectures emerged in relatively large stable human societies with people subsisting on systematic agriculture, living in walled cities and reading written texts. Rank 3 architectures first emerged in Europe during the Renaissance and gave European cultures the capacity to dominate, in a sense, to create, world history over the last 500 years. The late 19th century saw the emergence of Rank 4 architecture .
Crudely considered, it appears that transitions from one rank to the text are decreasing by an order of magnitude from one rank to the next:
Emergence, years ago
The numbers, of course, are very rough. My point is simply that the time between transitions is going down precipitously.
One does not have to look at those numbers for very long before wondering just what started emerging five years ago. While there is nothing in our account that forbids the emergence of a fifth, or a sixth rank, and so on, it doesn’t seem plausible that the time between ranks can continue to diminish by an order of magnitude. The emergence of a new system of thought, after all, does not appear by magic. People have to think it into existence: How much time and effort is required to transcend the system of thought in which a person was raised? THAT limits just how fast new systems of thought can arise.
I have no intention of even attempting to review that whole story.
Rather, the purpose of this working paper is to review aspects of it in the context of intellectual stagnation as set forth in these two papers:
Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen, “Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck”, The Atlantic, Nov 16, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/11/diminishing-returns-science/575665/.
Nicholas Bloom, Charles I. Jones, John Van Reenen, and Michael Webb, Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find? March 5, 2018, https://web.stanford.edu/~chadj/IdeaPF.pdf.
They have a very different character. The first is written for a general audience while the second is for professional economists. This working paper is like both and neither. It is a bit more demanding than The Atlantic, but it approaches that level of generality. Yet its demands are not those of economics. The demands are of a more philosophical nature.
After examining two case studies (of three) recently published by Bloom et al. I have concluded that this stagnation is best conceived as function of the relationship between our conceptual systems and the world: We have to work harder and harder to understand the world, which, after all, is independent of us. To call it “stagnation” seems a bit off to me, for the term implies that our efforts are flawed and if only we could rectify matters the stagnation would go away. The term fails to take proper account of the difficulty involved in deepening our knowledge. What the economists are calling stagnation, I will argue, is better interpreted as the shoulder of an ogive growth curve.
Still, whatever the cause, one wonders: can we keep going or are things going to grind to a halt? Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen offered two metaphors for thinking about the matter, exploration and the endless frontier. Exploration suggests that we live in a limited world; when the territory is been completely explored, no more discoveries remain. The endless frontier implies, on the contrary, an unlimited world; there are always more things to discover. Both of these metaphors, however, fail to take explicit account of our capacity for conceptualization, our cognitive architecture.
A given set of intellectual tools gives access to a certain range of phenomena, a phenomenal world, where we use “phenomenon” in more or less its usual philosophical sense. We don’t simply see the world directly or act in it however we will. What we know is a function of our sensory-motor system and its cognitive elaboration. The visual system is limited to a certain range of the electromagnetic spectrum; our hearing is sensitive to a certain range of frequencies, and so forth. Our basic equipment is given by a long history of biological development, which we have been extending through a process of cultural evolution over the past 100,000 years or so. The cultural evolution has extended the range of phenomena within our grasp.
At any given time, however, it is a particular phenomenal world that is explored and that world is limited. When we’ve exhausted a phenomenal world, what then? Perhaps we mark time. Or perhaps we create a new and more effective set of perceptual and conceptual tools. A new and more effective cognitive architecture will give us a new phenomenal world to explore. A new frontier. While each phenomenal world is limited, we have no reason to think that the population of phenomenal worlds is finite. In THAT context “stagnation” is merely indication that we’re exhausting the present phenomenal world. What’s next?
For extra credit: How many phenomenal worlds are contained within the universe?
Wednesday, July 24, 2019
What is it that Yeats wrote back in 1919 after The Great War?
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, [...]The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.
Martin Gurri, at The Fifth Wave, "Notes from a Nameless Conference":
The industrial elites have lost their way. In every major profession and institution, they once commanded vast, widely-admired projects that filled their lives with meaning and endowed the entire class with an unconquerable confidence. But the twentieth century couldn’t be preserved forever, like a bug in amber. The elites now face a radically transformed environment – and they are maladapted and demoralized. An inability to listen, an impulse to spew jargon in broadcast mode, a demand for social distance as the reward for professional success: such habits, which in the past placed them above and beyond the mob’s reach, now drag them down to contempt and mockery in the information sphere. Among the public, trust has curdled into loathing. The elites are horribly aware of their fall from grace – hence the conference – but being deaf to the public’s voice, they are clueless about how to respond.
We are living through the early stages of a colossal transformation: from the industrial age to something that doesn’t yet have a name. Many periods of history have been constrained by structural necessity. This isn’t one of them. Rather than a forking path, we face possibilities that radiate in every direction, like spokes from a hub. Even the immediate future seems up for grabs. We could see the formation of a hyper-connected liberal democracy, or plunge into nihilism and chaos – or we could contemplate arrangements and relations that are, at present, unimaginable.The future will be determined not by vast, impersonal forces but by an accumulation of individual choices. Ultimately, the elites must lead the way. Whether selected by the public or self-anointed and self-perpetuating, they hold in hand the institutional levers of change: that’s just how the world works in a complex civilization. We will not transcend our petty and immobile present with protests or referendums.The dilemma is that this present is defined by a radical distrust of the institutions of industrial society, and of the elites that control them, and of their statements and descriptions of reality. The conference organizers got our predicament right. At every level of contemporary social and political life, we are stuck in the muck of a profound crisis of authority. The mass audience of the twentieth century has fractured like a fallen mirror. An angry and alienated public inhabits the broken shards – and nobody speaks for the whole. The elites who should take the first step into the unknown are paralyzed by doubt and fear. They utter the words science and reason like incantations, claim ownership to Platonic truth, and believe, with astonishing unanimity, that they have been overthrown by a tsunami of lies. One need only restore truth to its former throne of glory, with themselves as mediating lords, they imagine, and the masses, as in the golden past, will bend the knee of trust.
Tuesday, July 23, 2019
Once more I'm bumping this to the top of the queue, this time in remembrance of Dick Macksey, who has just died, three days shy of his 88th birthday. In 1999 he sat down with Mame Warren and talked about the history of Johns Hopkins. The material is online, voice recordings and a transcript.
Over the last two weeks or so I've read more than I can stand about the sad case of Avital Ronell, Nimrod Reitman, and NYU. It doesn't have to be like that, and at many places it isn't. I'm reposting this from five years ago. Note my account of graduate school at SUNY Buffalo. These accounts are of times past, over three decades ago. Adjunctification hadn't set in yet.
* * * * *[From Sept. 2018]
Over the last two weeks or so I've read more than I can stand about the sad case of Avital Ronell, Nimrod Reitman, and NYU. It doesn't have to be like that, and at many places it isn't. I'm reposting this from five years ago. Note my account of graduate school at SUNY Buffalo. These accounts are of times past, over three decades ago. Adjunctification hadn't set in yet.
* * * * *The Three: The Johns Hopkins University, the English Department at SUNY Buffalo back in the 70s (hottest department in the country), and Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute.
[From Oct. 2013]
I grew up in western Pennsylvania in a suburb of Johnstown, a small steel-making city. My father was from Baltimore and he worked with Bethlehem Mines, the mining subsidiary of the now-defunct Bethlehem Steel Corporation. My mother was a native of Johnstown, had been there for the 1937 flood, and was a full-time housewife and mother. That was typical for the time, the 1950s and into the 60s.
Mother loved gardening and she was an excellent cook and seamstress. Father was more intellectual than most engineers. In addition to playing golf, collecting stamps, and woodworking, he liked to read, both fiction and nonfiction. Both parents played the piano a bit and enjoyed playing contract bridge.
I spent many hours happily immersed in books from my father’s library (which contained many books from his father’s library): Arthur Conan Doyle, Rafael Sabatini, Rider Haggard, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain among them. I went to school in Richland Township. The schools were above average, but not special. They did not regularly send students to elite schools.
I’d applied to three Ivies, Harvard and Yale, which turned me down, and Princeton, which wait-listed me. I’d also applied to The Johns Hopkins University, my father’s alma mater. They accepted me. That my father had gone there no doubt weighed in the decision.
A classmate of mine, quarterback of the football team, was accepted to Princeton. I believe he was the first student from the school to go to an Ivy League school. I don’t think he was very happy there.
I can’t say that I was happy at Hopkins either. But then I didn’t go there for happiness. I went there to get an education, which I did.
The Johns Hopkins University
Hopkins is probably the most distinguished of the elite schools I’ve been associated with. I did my undergraduate work there between 1965 and ’69 and then completed a Master’s degree in Humanities between 1969 and ’72 while at the same time working in the Chaplain’s Office as an assistant. This was at the tail end of the Vietnam War era and I was a Conscientious Objector to military service. I thus had to perform civilian service instead of being drafted into the military. That’s why I worked in the Chaplain’s Office.
After a so-so high school outside a small city in western Pennsylvania the intellectual life at Hopkins came as a welcome revelation to me. Ideas seemed important. Well, sorta’.
At the same time it was clear that coursework had its limitations. If a course clicked, then I tended to lose interest in assigned coursework for the last half or third of the semester. Instead, I’d immerse myself in whatever had attracted my interest. If a course didn’t click, well, I managed to stick it out.
What made Hopkins work was finding Dr. Richard A. Macksey, a polymath who taught comparative literature (in English translation for those who couldn’t read French, German, Italian, or Russian) through the interdisciplinary Humanities Center. I took several courses with him, an independent study, and subsequently did my Master’s under him. Other individual faculty were important as well, particularly Mary Ainsworth, Arthur Stinchcombe, Neville Dyson-Hudson, and Earl Wasserman.
But Macksey was the guy. Without him I’d have had a more difficult time graduating from Hopkins. He provided relief from the “system” and he knew that. Other students were attracted to him and studied with him for the same reason. He was particularly important to students interested in film since he taught a film workshop thereby enabling them to get academic credit for their passion. At least two students slightly older than me went on to distinguished careers in Hollywood (Caleb Deschenel and Walter Murch) and there may well have been others as well.
In terms of sheer brilliance I’ve never worked with anyone superior to Macksey and very few his equal. For whatever reason, he chose to work with and develop others rather than develop a large body of his own research. He taught many courses, more than required of him, and always had a group of students whom he worked with independently.
It would be interesting to compare his record as a talent scout with the record of the MacArthur Fellows Program. There would, of course, be a calibration problem. Macksey went at it for six decades or so (he only retired a couple of years ago) whereas the MFP has only been around for just over three decades. On the other hand the MFP has had more resources at its disposal.
Macksey is most-widely known, however, as the long-term editor of the comparative literature issue of MLN (Modern Language Notes) and as one of the organizers of the in/famous structuralism symposium of 1966: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. While Jacques Derrida is perhaps the best-known figure that spoke at the symposium, he was a relative unknown at the time. In fact, he wasn’t even supposed to be there. He was invited as a last-minute replacement for Luc de Heusch. The paper Derrida delivered, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” undercut structuralism as a movement and made him a star.
Though I was on campus at the time I didn’t attend the symposium – it wouldn’t have done me any good as it was delivered in French. But Macksey distributed an English translation of Derrida’s paper in one of his classes and I devoured it. It became one of my central texts for a while, though it didn’t diminish my enthusiasm for Lévi-Strauss.
At the time, of course, no one foresaw the consequences of the intellectual currents that organized themselves through that conference. For one thing, the conference was organized as a new beginning, a beginning in the New World, for structuralism as an interdisciplinary mode of investigation. Instead, it functioned as the beginning of the end.