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.

The shame of it all

Below is in full and without edit a recent letter to the editor of the TLS:

Sir, – Unless a substantial proportion of the world’s scientists are deluded and are (innocently) deluding us, articles that blithely project a long-term future extrapolated from a continuing present need to be challenged (see “The last mortals” by Regina Rini, May 17). Or rather the publishing of them. To make predictions based on the present could be an act of climate catastrophe denial, an act that recursively makes the catastrophe more likely. This article is particularly odd in that it posits the exact opposite problem to the one we (almost certainly) face. It’s not how we cope with watching the next generation sail off into immortality, but how we cope with leaving them to face the conclusion of our civilization. Even the most sophisticated actuarial programs would struggle to tell me my grandchildren’s life expectancy, but I’d bet it’s shrinking by the day. A more useful challenge for philosophers would be to ask why environmental and social collapse are increasingly inevitable now, why we don’t care, and perhaps why we seem not to care that we don’t care. Are we incapable of seeing the world as real? Better to deal with these sorts of questions than to go floating off into Elfland.


I wonder if Mr Steinhardt and like-minded people fully appreciate the obvious policy implication that follows from the intimidating tone and message, namely, so catastrophic is climate change that thinking about anything else is grotesquely irresponsible?

The implication in terms of the language used in this letter? Clearly, such people should be publicly shamed and humiliated, if it turns out that, yes, climate change is going on and yes, it is destructive, but still that does not excuse humanity from thinking about other existential issues.

The aim of the public shaming would be to make them so mortified by their having been wrong that they stop their bullying catastrophism. Only then would they have something much more palpable and personal to worry about and attend to, given anything less would be–for them–an irresponsible and unreasonable distraction from the full-time urgency of the matter.


“Design” is a trigger-word for me, when it encourages the unhelpful notion one can macro-design the micro. Contingency and context get in the way for any such arrow-straight causality.

To see why this might matter, consider a late poem of Robert Lowell, “Notice,” and the gloss on it by the critic, Helen Vendler. Here’s the poem in its entirety, centering as it does around Lowell’s leaving an asylum after a manic-depressive episode:


The resident doctor said,
“We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm –
how can we help you?”
I asked,
“These days of only poems and depression –
what can I do with them?
Will they help me to notice
what I cannot bear to look at?”

The doctor is forgotten now
like a friend’s wife’s maiden-name.
I am free
to ride elbow to elbow on the rush-hour train
and copy on the back of a letter,
as if alone:
“When the trees close branches and redden,
their winter skeletons are hard to find—”
to know after long rest
and twenty miles of outlying city
that the much-heralded spring is here,
and say,
“Is this what you would call a blossom?”
Then home – I can walk it blindfold.
But we must notice –
we are designed for the moment.


I take up Vendler’s gloss when she turns to Lowell’s last line:

“In becoming conscious of his recovery by becoming aware, literally moment by moment, of his new capacities for the most ordinary actions of life, the poet seems that “we are designed for the moment”—that our consciousness chiefly functions moment by moment, action by action, realization by realization. Biologically, “we are designed for the moment” of noticing.”

What Lowell is doing in the last two lines is revisiting, I’d like to think, the first two lines, and making an important point: The designs put upon us by ideas and enthusiasms differ from the noticing designed into us in one major respect. We notice the ideas-that-design without insisting that noticing is itself an idea or by design. Knee deep in noticing is not being knee deep in ideas or enthusiasms because of the decidedly undesigned distractions—“Is this what you would call a blossom?”—in between.

By way of distraction…

–One way to rethink “having to cope with” is where distractions, positive or negative, are not possible.

What, though, is positive distraction? There are obviously the negative distractions of others that are good for you: Never interrupt your enemies when they’re distracted by the mistakes they’ve made, to adapt Napoleon. For many people, however, one’s distraction and one’s concentration are polar opposites, as when distraction diverts needed concentration. But what if it is all about distracting you from a dead-end concentration?

Jean Dubuffet, the painter, talked about distraction as an occasion for “attentive inattentiveness:” “[I]n this distracted state. . . it is a matter of paying great attention to inattention, of being very attentive to transcribing as skillfully and faithfully as possible what happens when an object is viewed without great attentiveness”. That is what I mean by positive distraction here. “Illumination,” novelist Nicholas Mosley put it another way, “comes not through analysis, but as a by-product of alertness.”

Positive distraction, as such an alertness, is when “going off-piste” is “being on track.” It is a way one traverses complexity we cannot transect. It’s recovering from a kind of stumbling.

–When walking around my neighborhood, I look for the stamp of different cement contractors set into the sidewalks they poured. One is dated 1927. But then, the Stolpersteine I stumble over on Freiburg sidewalks—those cobblestone memorials to Nazi victims—remind me that the past lasts into the present in quite different ways. It’s as if I read in both sidewalks news for today of sufficient importance as to break (into) my attention.

— Much has been made of the distinction between Type I or System 1 thinking—it is nonconscious and all but automatic, rooted in fear and emotion—in comparison to Type II or System 2 thinking that is conscious, deliberative, and not rooted in emotion or instinct. I’m asking you to recast conscious deliberation and analysis as positive distractions, that is, diversions from acting otherwise stereotypically or worse.

I am arguing that we are positively distracted from ingrained preoccupations when distracted by hesitations, scruples, ambivalences and reflections on: what we know and do not know; what we experience as unavoidable inexperience; and what we come to know as the very different kinds of difficulty.

–Patience is the time taken for such distraction, as in to realize that everyday my walk is a new walk (paraphrasing poet, A.R. Ammons). Patience sustains the alertness of finding again something complicated, something not as familiar or taken-for-granted as I supposed, the act of making and holding connections that would not have otherwise been.

–Patience, alertness and positive distraction are triggered, for me, when someone asserts that something holds and to which I respond by asking:

  • Under what conditions?
  • With respect to what?
  • What is this a case of?
  • What am I missing?

Under what conditions does what you are saying actually hold? Risk or uncertainty with respect to what scenario? Just what is this you are talking about a case of? In other words, what are you and I missing that’s right there to be seen but isn’t?

–It turns out that, having had the patience to study the issues more, species extinction and loss of biodiversity are of greater urgency than climate change—or so a major report recently found by being alert to best available evidence. (If you needed any more proof that we are making huge mistakes about life and death matters on the basis of ill-founded knowledge, just look major court proceedings involving “eye-witness” or “expert” testimonies.)

Yet, we’re told we have no choice but to experiment unprecedentedly in the face of looming catastrophe. (Not for these people the distractions, alertness and patience required for Beckett’s “failing better” or Adorno’s “living less wrongly”!)

As if, in other words, it would be unethical not to experiment when if anything calls for an explicit ethics it is to experiment only after having been alert to the best available evidence, messy as it inevitably is. For that matter, how is it ethical not to pull out of a mess going (really) bad the good messes to be had and supported—e.g., being alert to the better practices emerging with respect to reversing specific cases of species extinction and biodiversity loss?


Ecologists and environmentalists I’ve worked with by and large insist that more things can go straight-out, hair-raisingly wrong than they can go right. It is easier to mismanage an ecosystem than it is to manage it. Ecosystem collapse is more certain than ecosystem sustainability; negative externalities are to be expected, positive ones not. Nature on its own is too complex to control, but our mismanagement of nature unleashes forces we ourselves cannot control. Probabilities of large system failure and cascades are primed to flip to 1.0 in no time flat. Next means worse.

We must manage the planet’s resources better, but no one can expect technology to help us do so. Economic growth is never a sufficient condition for improving the environment, while economic growth’s irreversible impacts on the environment are always a sufficient condition for precaution—except when failure is not an option! So much is uncertain that anything is possible, and “thus” everything must be at risk. Whatever humans touch they make worse, this Barry Commoner’s Third Law of Ecology.

Let’s call my colleagues’ standpoint, Next-Is-Worse.

This—realism, manifold anxiety, existential panic, dog-whistle alarmism—describes a world certainly not made to my colleagues’ specification. There is no the slightest intimation or whiff of possibility that the decades of environmental advances since the 1960s have been a noble experiment. Nor acknowledgement it’s no surprise that if you spread environmental practice worldwide—plant more trees and such!—you spread tree diseases worldwide, and such.

Not a scintilla of recognition that their specifications to get us to do the right thing by way of the environment pale and wither before the historical record of really-existing humans with real problems in real time who routinely do not follow all orders given them, even in the most totalitarian of regimes (as we now know to have been the case in communist East Germany and China).

So where does their Next-Is-Worse leave me? It no longer surprises me that this standpoint fails to create anything like a shared, collective dread to manage better. It’s also easier for me to understand why “the environmental movement” is itself blamed for failing to stop or otherwise mitigate anthropogenic climate change or species extinction and biodiversity loss. Corporate and economic interests certainly can and do brainwash us into believing things are better than they are environmentally; we don’t need any more evidence to corroborate that! But one can scarcely credit the same interests for having brainwashed my colleagues into believing their version of next-ism.

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.”

Some answers

–Virgil Thomson, the composer, put it that “a good critic does not voice opinions, he describes; if his description is succinct, accurate and imaginative, the opinion will automatically shine through.” What is this (hardwired?) compulsion to evaluate, even in description? Better yet, what is it that I am missing when describing and evaluating with no fall in between?

One thing avoided is the question without an answer to evaluate. When Robert Desnos, the French surrealist poet, says “the questions that I am willing to discuss are all unanswerable,” how would he know an unanswer if he saw it, let alone evaluate it as such? When poet, Dylan Thomas asks, “What is the metre of the dictionary?/The size of genesis? the short spark’s gender?/Shade without shape? the shape of the Pharaoh’s echo?,” why would any answer be wrong, even were none evaluated? If there is a lapse between describing and evaluating, it would be as if we are delaying completion in the sense of an answer completing a question. But what is in between incomplete and completion? “Rehearsals”? But what if it’s only ever rehearsals, as in: Weather never really starts?

–The Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov, wrote to a correspondent, “you are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author. There’s not a single question answered in Anna Karenina or Eugene Onegin, but they are still fully satisfying works because the questions they raise are all formulated correctly.”

Which is a good thing for a people who get satisfaction in rehearsing small answers to perplex the Big Questions. “Whose asking?” shot back philosopher, Sidney Morgenbesser, when pressed to prove the existence of his questioner. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” led Morgenbesser to reply: “If there was nothing you’d still be complaining.”