Saturday, June 19, 2021

The changing terms of my Socratic bargain with the American Academy [and the larger search for truth]

In the course of writing a somewhat quixotic review of Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age for 3 Quarks Daily I decided to conclude by discussing the importance of ancient books in my own life. Goethe’s Faust is one book I choose to write about, Plato’s The Crito is an other. But my discussion of The Crito grew and grew to the point it was threatening to consume the review. So I decided to make that a separate post here at New Savanna, leaving a much shorter account for the 3QD.

I’m denied tenure

In the mid-1980s I failed to get tenure at the Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute. I forget the reason given for denial, nor does it matter, though it is clear that, however valid the reasons given, RPI would have overlooked them if I had brought in grant money. I was unable to secure another academic post in the next two or three years. There is no doubt in my mind that, beyond the general stringency of the academic job market, the fact that my published work took me too deep into enemy territory, that is, into the science side of the humanities/science divide, certainly played a role in the failure of my job search. My degree was a humanities degree, in English Literature from SUNY Buffalo, so that’s where I had to search for jobs. Those good humanists were not having anyone with my interests in the cognitive sciences, though I did snag a job interview or three.

What was I to do? I had a bit of money saved up and, when Richard Friedhoff and I sold our proposal for Visualization: The Second Computer Revolution to Harry Abrams, I had a bit of advance money (low five figures if you must know). There was the prospect of more money when we completed the book and still more when it went on the market, but nothing I could count on to support me.

I supported myself with this and that while continuing my intellectual work. David Hays – my teacher and mentor in computational linguistics from SUNY Buffalo ¬– had left the academy to seek his fortune in New York City. It was easy enough to visit him from Troy, NY, and, of course, we could chat on the phone and, later, over email. We found a journal editor sympathetic to our work, Paul Levinson, and so we published, jointly and individually, a series of articles in The Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems. Hays had also secured a small research grant from the Air Force and I got a piece of it. Thus I was able to continues functioning as a member of the academy, albeit as an independent scholar.

My Socratic bargain

Of course “the academy” is not a singular institution that makes formal bargains. It is an abstraction. And so is my bargain. It was a way of thinking about my situation.

The Socratic bargain, as I call it, is Plato’s dialog about Socrates’ final days, The Crito, which I had read in my freshman year (1965) at Johns Hopkins. Socrates had been condemned to death and was in prison. His friend Crito visits him there and explains that he has made arrangements for Socrates to escape. Socrates refuses, arguing that he lived his life within the Athenian state and that it is the laws of Athens that gave his actions meaning, even though he may have criticized the state. For him to run from the state even though it had condemned him unjustly would be to undermine the foundation of his life.

The academy, in the person of The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, had rejected me. But I decided nonetheless to remain loyal to it because its norms and values are what gave meaning to my intellectual work. Perhaps, I thought, if I continue to publish, times will change and I will be welcomed back into the fold.

I didn’t have to do that. In theory, I suppose, I could have given up my intellectual life. Equally theoretical, I could have cut off my left hand and then gotten it sewn back on. Not on your life. Or I could have continued to think and write but simply flat-out rejected the academic world as a fraud and a sham. Who knows, had I done that I might have gone on to fame and fortune with some fancy sounding intellectual bullshit, like L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. Then again, after my left hand had been reattached I could have cut off my right.

The times they are a changing (but not enough)

But times did change. In the mid-1990s other literary scholars had discovered the cognitive sciences. To be sure, they hadn’t discovered the cognitive sciences I knew, which were defined by the use of computation as a model and metaphor for mental processes. They knew nothing of computation, indeed, they considered themselves beyond that, but perhaps I could interest them in what I had to so. I did my best to clothe my ideas in terms they could understand and I went off to several of their conferences. A number of them were kind to me but it became obvious to me that they had no interest in the ideas that had drawn me to the cognitive sciences. John Robert “Haj” Ross, the distinguished if quixotic linguist, was an exception, but one exception was not sufficient to restore me to the graces of the acadamy – besides, being at a former cow college, North Texas State at Denton, known primarily as a training ground for superb jazz musicians doesn’t count for much in the more august precincts of the academy.

Still, I held on to my Socratic bargain.

In 2001 I published Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic Books), which gave me the opportunity to read widely in psychology, neuroscience, ethnomusicology, anthropology, and cultural history. It was well-reviewed in Science, peculiarly reviewed in Nature, and, in time, translated into Chinese and Japanese, but no European languages.

In the first decade of the new millennium I published four articles on literature in a new journal PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, a new refereed journal. I chose PsyArt because 1) it was new, 2) it published online, and 3) it was edited by Norm Holland, a psychoanalytic critic I’d known casually at Buffalo who was friendly to my work. One problem I’ve always had is an affinity for pieces that are too long for journal publication but too short for monograph. The fact that PsyArt published online eliminated that problem. All four articles were long, 20,000 words or more, and contained diagrams (another headache for traditional hardcopy publication). In those articles I anticipated the profession’s emerging interest in description and in form while at the same time developing a distinct approach to the use of cognitive and neuropsychology.

The bargain reconsidered

However, as the internet began assuming a greater role in my life and in academic life more generally, I started thinking about revising my Socratic bargain. On the one hand it was easy for me to contact and interact with other thinkers despite the fact that I held no university post. The emergence of the blogosphere gave me a way of getting at least some of my ideas out in public. I joined an academic blog called The Valve in late 2006 and blogged there for a number of years. I created my own blog, New Savanna, in April 2010, and joined the Monday crew at 3 Quarks Daily at the end of 2013. And I joined three repositories for academic documents, SSRN,, and Research Gate. I deposited copies of my academic papers at those sites, but I also began posting working papers directly to those sites. I no longer needed traditional academic institutions in order participate in intellectual life.

Starting in the late 1990s and continuing until his death in 2014 I corresponded with Tim Perper, who had trained as a geneticist but had come to be an independent scholar working on human sexuality and romance, cultural evolution, anime and manga, a complexity. Since he lived in Philadelphia I visited him on holiday trips to visit my sister there. He got me interested in manga and anime, Japanese comics and animation, respectively. I ended up publishing three reviews in the early issues of Mechademia, a new academic journal, and two essays on Osamu Tezuka in edited collections.

During the late 1990s and into the early 2000s I had extensive correspondence with the late Walter Freeman, who had developed an international reputation for his work on the complex dynamics of mass action in the nervous system. I had some conversations with the distinguished historian, William Henry McNeil, in connection with my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil (he was kind enough to blurb it). And I had extensive correspondence with Mary Douglas, the anthropologist, in the mid-2000s, and visited her at Yale when she was in residence giving the Terry Lectures in 2003. 

I remain committed to a communal enterprise, but I no longer regard the academy as a full and adequate host of that enterprise. 

All though this period I have had extensive interaction with Charlie Keil, who’s Urban Blues (1966), is a classic in the study of American musical culture in the 20th century. We corresponded, chatted on the phone, marched together in protests on the streets of Manhattan. More recently he has paid me modest sums as I worked on various projects of his, including editing two volumes in a series of books on peace, We Need a Department of Peace (2016) and Thomas Naylor’s Paths to Peace: Small is Necessary (2019); I’m currently working on a third volume, Playing for Peace: Reclaiming our Human Nature.

And I haven’t even discussed the Twittersphere, which I joined in 2011. To be sure, with limits of, at first 140 characters per tweet, now up to 280, you can’t work out complex arguments on Twitter. But you can link to papers and blog posts. And when a half dozen or more like-minded thinkers join in a conversational web spread out over a day or three, it can get quite interesting. No, you don’t have to be distracted by all the nonsense of Twitter. It can be a vehicle for serious intellectual interaction.

The fact of the matter is that, through the agency of the internet, I have been able to contact and intereact with a wide range of thinkers. All have substantial reputations within the academy, more than I do, some quite substantial indeed. Some relationships have been casual, but a few have been substantial, while others fall somewhere in between. The list includes: William H. McNeill (historian), Tim Morton (literary critic, philosopher), Keith Oatley (narrative studies), Haj Ross (linguist), Mark Moffett (biology, photographer), Howard Rheingold (futurist, journalist), David Bordwell (film studies), Steven Pinker (linguist, social scientist), Alan Liu (digital humanities), Bryan Alexander (futurist), Per Aage Brandt (cognitive semiotics), Margaret Freeman (literary critic), Rohan Maitzen (literary critic), Hollis Robbins (literary critic), Michael Bérubé (literary critic), John Wilkins (philosophy of biology), Adam Roberts (novelist, literary critic), Ted Underwood (computational criticism), Tyler Cowan (economist), Michael Barrier (animation historian), Franco Moretti (literary critic, computational criticism), John Lawler (linguistics), Sydney Lamb (linguistics), John McWhorter (linguistics, culture), Mark Changizi (mathematics, theoretical psychology), Dan Everett (linguist), Tim Perper (cultural evolution, anime/manga), Mary Douglas, (anthropologist), Walter Freeman (neuroscientist), and Charlie Keil (ethnomusicologist). There are others no doubt. In particular, there are some junior scholars whom I will not mention, thus saving them from the potential reputational harm of being associated with an old rebel like me.

What, then, do I need the Academy for? While I’m temped to respond, “Absolutely nothing”, that’s not quite true. Its function as a source of income aside, though, it doesn’t have the weight it had when I first struck my Socratic bargain back in the mid-1980s.

The turning point

Looking back over the record, it’s clear that the turning point in my thinking happened in 2010. In March I published a longish post at The Valve, “NATURALIST” criticism, NOT “cognitive” NOT “Darwinian”, which I subsequently republished on New Savanna. I was ostensibly concerned about labels for schools of literary criticism, about what is known as “branding” in the commercial world. In that post I rejected the the brand names associated with scholars with whom I had been attempting to affiliate to gain favor within the academy.

What do the terms “cognitive criticism” or “cognitive rhetoric” suggest? Like many of those other labels, they suggest some body of supplementary knowledge and practice that one brings to the study of literature. Just exactly what the supplementary body is, that may not be terribly clear. But that doesn’t matter. The terms emphasize and draw your attention to the supplement. The same with “Darwinian literary criticism,” only vaguer. The only thing that’s clear about that label is a towering intellectual figure whose work had nothing to do with the study of literature.

None of this should be taken to imply that I’ve lost interest in the newer psychologies, as I like to call them. I haven’t. I believe that future literary studies must take them into account, and other theories, concepts and models as well. I just don’t want to stick those names in my brand label.

Note that I did not criticize those schools in that post. That would come later.

The break came in July of that year, July 14. I had long been participating in the CogLas listserve, for those interested in (West Coast school) cognitive linguistics. Something broke inside me and I posted a Jeramiad to the list. You can examine the full context here. I won’t repeat my entire post as that is readily available online, but I will quote the final two paragraphs:

Perhaps my ideas are ignored because I lack an academic post and have no power within academic institutions. No one's going to get an article published or a grant funded by throwing favors my way. By the same token, since I am not part of that world, I have nothing to loose by pointing out that accounts of the pioneering days that fail to mention my work are flat out wrong, clear and simple. By all means, point out that my work has had little or no influence, but do me the simple courtesy of acknowledging that my work exists.

If you do that you will also be serving the profession by honoring a simple ethic of collegiality. That ethic asserts that the profession as a whole is more important than any one of us within it. Without such a commitment talk of the truth becomes but a mask for crass careerism. If that's where we are, then the humanities are dead. No appeal to cognitive linguistics or evolutionary psychology will change that. All it will do is change the inscription on the tombstone.

Of course no one acknowledged my post – how could they? Nor did I expect anyone to. The break had been made. I now felt free to criticize what I considered to be superficial work, though I didn’t bother submitting it to the formal literature. Why would I do that when I can post my working papers to those three repositories?

In 2013 I sortied deep into enemy territory with a working paper,

The Jasmine Papers: Notes on the Study of Poetry in the Age of Cognitive Science, Working Paper, November 2013, 44 pp.,

The title refers to the penultimate line – “the jasmine lightness” – of William Carlos Williams poem, "To a Solitary Disciple." George Lakoff and Mark Turner had examined it in their 1985 book, More Than Cool Reason, which is often cited as one of the founding documents for the use of cognitive science in literary theory. I argued that what they called a global reading was incoherent in terms of their own theory and that their analysis of the poem was blind to its overall form. As far as I know, no one has publicly critiqued my critique. Why would they bother? There are other things in the paper as well. I analyze two sentences from Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon where, I argue, syntactic form mimics the passes of a cape in bull-fighting. I also look at ring-form (chiasmus) in the 101 line “Author’s Preface” to Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems. The existence of the form is well-known as we have a typescript in which Thomas numbers the lines in increasing increments from the beginning to the middle and decreasing increments from the middle to the end. I show that matching lines are also roughly equal in length.

In 2015 I took a couple of shots at literary Darwiniwm:

On the Poverty of Literary Darwinism (2015), Working Paper, September 2015, 45 pp.,

I also offered a more wide-ranging critique of cognitive criticism:

On the Poverty of Cognitive Criticism and the Importance of Computation and Form, Working Paper, December 2015, 73 pp.,

My break was now more or less complete. The old Socratic bargain had been dissolved.

Where the bargain now stands

Just what is it that I committed to? I originally conceived my bargain with a particular historically and socially conditioned set of institutional arrangements, the American academy. If the Athenian state had been dying when Socrates had been put on trial, would he have given the same answer to his friends? Perhaps he would have reasoned that, with the state dying, no good purpose would be served by his dying with it. It would be better to live and help his friends and others to establish a new state.

And so I have continued to function as a scholar, interacting with colleagues in the academy, and one or two outside of it (there aren’t many of us independents). I remain committed to a communal intellectual enterprise, but I no longer regard the academy as a full and adequate host of that enterprise.  Let me repeat:

I remain committed to a communal enterprise, but I no longer regard the academy as a full and adequate host of that enterprise.

The academic world is in trouble, but it isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. We don’t know what will happen. What’s important for me is simply that I keep in touch with other scholars and thinkers, all of whom are committed to vigorous pubic intellectual discourse. Most, though perhaps not all, of the thinkers I interact with are university faculty.

But there is little to no chance that, at the age of 74, I will ever be offered an academic post. But I might be invited to lunch one day, or to give a talk. If so, I will be glad to talk, and I will thank my host for the meal, as any guest should.

A blessed life

It has not been easy, this life as an independent scholar, nor are the hardships by any means over. I have harbored, and continue to harbor, a great deal of anger and resentment at the institutions and individuals who have, in my mind if not theirs, wronged me. Yet when I look at what I have been able to accomplish, at the people I have corresponded with and learned from, I cannot but conclude that my life has been blessed.

It is a good time to be alive and in the world.