Fragments and short-cuts

When the initial conditions of an issue are complex, the cognitive disposition is to see, really see, the issue along all its major dimensions: to see it as if in the clear light of day and around which we could walk and examine it from all directions, close-up and at a distance. Instead of clarity, though, we are missing much. We want to see the figure in full—follow the shadow and you find the body—but are left with herms, partial torsos held on frail shafts, more an etiolated Giacometti than bodied Rodin.

Each issue’s presence is complex because it marks what is not (no longer) there as being also present. How is this important? Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and J-J Rousseau’s The Social Contract have a good deal of implications for inequality, but their resonance for that topic is also as “fragments” of larger unfinished works that the authors never got around to writing—this being markedly the unfinished business of any complex policy issue must be when more can and must be said but hasn’t (again for these two projects, think inequality).

One distinct problem to not seeing what is there, right in front of us by way of opportunities for recasting these still-complex issues more tractably, is the insistence that our values must shine clearly through all this mess.

We hanker after immediate evocation without all the beforehand description and explanation. It’s as if one can take a short-cut to conclusions, like that immediacy that sometime comes in opera: Judith’s high C in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, the Baroness’s “Lulu” at the end of Berg’s eponymous opera, the vibraphone’s signaling of Tadzio’s entrance in Britten’s Death in Venice, the sounds and after-image of the guillotine slice at the end of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites. It matters to me in ways I can’t explain (one reason would lead to another as in an infinite regress) that, while both pieces are astounding, the music of Orff’s Antigonae captures more in the moment than Honegger’s Antigone.

The evocative moment voids the distance that is entailed with having to think about (reflect on) what went before or comes after. It’s like what happens when I look at the photos in Emmet LeRoy Emmet’s Fruit Tramps (1989); I’m immediately “there,” with them, all push and shove included. I’d call this sentimentality, if it weren’t for the examples.

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