Loose Ends, #3

–Auguste Comte, sociology’s founder, is reported to have had such an aversion to economics that he tried convincing French officials to establish a chair in the history of science financed by abolishing a chair in economics. Now that’s what economists call a trade-off!

–Large cities are the sites of poverty, pollution, wretched living conditions, racial polarization, miserable health, slums and worse, all sprawling outwards. The minute you move to the other side of the ledger—cities as sites for the demographic transition where poor women lower their birth rates and increase their education and incomes, the historical locus of democratic movements and practices, the source of much art, society, trade and technology, where even shantytown dwellers can have unexpected amounts of purchasing power—ah, then you are accused of distorting reality.

–It is an easy matter to blame China’s politics and policies for the environmental calamities caused by coal-powered electricity generators, industries, and chemical plants there. But the matter cannot be settled without knowing more about the real-time conditions under which middle-level operators and managers in  China are operating these large-scale infrastructures. Are the reliability professionals not there or are they (increasingly?) there, but (still) operating under ever more prolonged “just-for-now” conditions? If the latter, this would help explain why Chinese technocrats are so ready to appropriate innovations and technologies that have worked elsewhere: They buy more time.

–Have I read George Steiner’s final book? Will I be around to read Wittgenstein’s letters to Ben Richards or the first J.D. Salinger in decades?

That said, too much may be taken for granted in asking such questions. What counter-story would be orthogonally different in its taken-for-granted?

One thing would be to recast the past as if it were the present, but without the past’s same givens. It would be to read Hardy’s 1912 poem, “Convergence of the Twain” in light of what followed, but as if it were still part of the news about the sinking of the Titanic the month before. It would be as if my key portal to 19th and 20th century thought were my own lived, real-time thinking about and experience of reading novels of ideas, like Nicholas Mosley’s Hopeful Monsters, Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It, or Harry Thompson’s This Thing of Darkness (but without taking for granted child slavery at the time!). It is to see the variety and ironies of today’s “certainly” in this ancient exchange on human contingency:

Stranger: …For the dissimilarities of both human beings and actions, and the never being at rest, so to speak, of any single thing among human things—these do not allow any art whatsoever to proclaim anything simply in any area concerning all things and for all time. We do grant these things, I suppose?

Young Socrates: Certainly.    (From Plato’s Statesman as edited by Brann, Kalkavage and Salem, 2012)

–The philosopher of science, Roy Bhaskar took pains to stress—and before him the 18th century philosopher of history, Giambattista Vico—that humans know only that which they create—and even then one must wonder just how much even of that they know. The implication is that because we have created it and come to know it, we can’t dispense with it easily or without cost—“it” in this case being the poetry, novels and the humanities generally.

As in: When I see and hear Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Handel’s Theodora and Iva Bittova performing “Es geschah” from Schnittke’s Faust Cantata, I know God and Devil exist. When they stop, all bets are off.

–“Failure to thrive.” When I heard this from my mother’s doctor, I realized it was a warning to my mother but a threat to me. It was as if the doctor were saying to my mother: Well, from here on out it’s all up to you when you go through that final stop ahead! For me, the threat behind the last stop was made clear: What was I going to do about this?

–I just read a wonderfully provocative point (James Althucher, “To Stay Sane in an Age of Broken Politics, Admit What You Don ’t Know,” online at Quillette):

“Or just don’t vote. If a critical mass of people ‘vote’ by living a good life, others will follow their example. In which case, many of the laws and rules we argue about won’t be needed anyway”.

Now, the obvious question: Under what conditions, if any, would this hold?

One answer, to paraphrase a Bogota major: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.”

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