Coulda, shoulda, woulda

–Have you attended any presentation where the engineer proposes all-benefit-and-no-cost designs and technologies of such fantastification as would bring a failing grade to a student in public policy and management? The slides are a tableau vivant of Revelation pulling the “thing” out of Nothing, the thingamajiggery sacralized as innovation. (As a Renaissance ceiling fresco, the fabled risk-seeking innovators would be little putti wheeling around St Market, upwards into a cerulean sky.)

–When I read criticisms that blame deaths or injuries in a disaster on the “lack of coordination,” I expect to see answers to two immediate questions: (1) can it be demonstrated that the lack of coordination did not arise because the responders knew—or thought so at the time—that they were undertaking activities just as urgent; and (2) can we conclude that the event in question would (not could, should, might or perhaps) have been better responded to had it not been handled the way it was (the classic counterfactual)? Rarely, I find, are answers even attempted, let alone provided. (The counterfactual often has a twofold would. The sociologist, Raymond Aron, ask critics of decisionmakers: “What would you do, in their place, and how would you do it?”)

–What would we be reading now to be as collectively agitated as were early readers of Machiavelli’s Prince, the French classes delving into the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert, or Beccaria’s On Crime and Punishment, or those stirred by Michael Harrington’s The Other America?

Or is the point quite the other way round? The “we” is expanding, every day, by agitations of other media?

–Go look for one of those early 20th century American landscape paintings by, e.g., Redmond Granville, of wildflowers spreading across fields or Edgar Payne of a remote lake in the snowy Sierras. Then look at virtually the same painting, but this time with a young woman in her calico dress or cowboy on a horse. In an instant, this painting dates the preceding one. What had been an idealized-now flips to a historicized-then. Public policy is full of such flips: reforms that work on paper but date immediately when real people with real problems in real time enter the picture—both as subject and as frame.

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued “matter” was treated like a pincushion whose surface was hidden by all the sensations, thoughts and properties stabbed into it.

You ask today’s version of, “What’s the matter?,” and you get a pincushion of sentences affixed with an “etc.” Each implies the unnamed factors are only critical to the point we needn’t clutter the analysis any further by naming them. “Hail, Muse! Et Cetera,” as the poet, Byron, sarcastically put it in the third canto of Don Juan. Yet, really, why are we reading if not to find out what the writers think are critical enough to name? (Writes Wittgenstein: “Again and again, my ‘etc’ has a limit.”)

–Our experiences “lie jumbled up inside us, and we find we have an inner world like a rubbish bin,” wrote the sociologist and psychotherapist, Ian Craib:

This is a different sort of mess…the flux of the inner life and our emotions, about which we maintain the illusion that it can be made orderly and predictable. We might think that the rubbish bin can be sorted out, but it seems to me what the push is towards emptying it and starting afresh.

But we don’t know how to start all over again, and as such two sets of opposing pressures drive the anxiety of having to sort things out: the centripetal pressures of closing in on what we think we really know (or can know) and the centrifugal pressures of opening up recasting what has been taken as unknowable or for granted.

This is Proust in translation: “What we have not had to decipher, to elucidate by our own efforts, what was clear before we looked at it, is not ours. From ourselves comes only that which we drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unknown”. We only know that which we create—and with this, the anxiety both at the knowing and at the recasting.

–The first words in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are, “Whose there?” Indeed. And at its end, what life isn’t unfinished? In both cases, arithmetic averages wobble.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s