Lire le Capital: Mail Call

Estranged from One's Species Being

A humanist writes:

The Weblog: Single Post View: Meanwhile, the problem of, for instance, 'How much do you forgive?' becomes, at best, a scholarly issue of how to bring together what is said by Derrida, Arendt, etc., in a sufficiently unique way that publishing the results will be at least minimally justifiable.

When I started reading these texts, the passion initially came... from a feeling that these people were going to teach me how to live. Kierkegaard, for instance -- I thought he knew something I didn't, or could in some way lead me to see life differently.... Now, I'm trying to figure out some way to squeeze out a paper on Zizek's use of Kierkegaard, so that I can send it off and people will publish it, so that I can write down on a piece of paper that it has been published.

I have the game of academia down, in its basic points; at this point, it's a matter of building up a sufficient resume that people will believe I am good at it. I have no doubt whatsoever that I could make a career out of it.... But -- for example -- how much do you forgive? I don't know. I really don't even know what it would look like to forgive....

And dissecting yet another text in order to produce a text of my own that will conform with the canons of professionality within certain circles of 'philosophical' and 'theological' discourse doesn't seem like any kind of answer -- it doesn't seem like it would help anything, anything at all, even a little bit. Not when I'm trying to figure out some way to walk down the street, to be with people, to do right by them, to experience some kind of peace.

I met a student after that lecture, obviously a very bright guy, who had hit the jackpot and been accepted to DePaul. We got to talking about various things, and I think that in essence, he treated me like shit. He had to have his little pissing match with the kid from Nowhere Theological Seminary, who came to the lecture with his overeager undergrad friends. I wonder how much different I would really be, even if I had gotten into a program that would make it so that I won't have to worry for a few years -- maybe part of the reason it's so grating is that this gnawing sense of insufficiency keeps getting grilled into me, such that even when I'd 'arrived,' I would still feel like I constantly need to prove myself, just like him. Because I wouldn't feel like I deserve it, because there is no deserving -- there is no available way to determine deserving. And so, prove yourself -- for nothing, to no one, to no end...

Sounds like our humanist is undergoing one of those dark cloudy midafternoons of the soul that happens when you keep your nose to the grindstone. So let me be an annoying Dutch uncle, and tell him what he already knows: step back. You see, when you think of what you are doing as "dissecting yet another text in order to produce a text of my own that will conform with the canons of professionality within certain circles of 'philosophical' and 'theological' discourse," you have fallen victim to the letter that killeth, while the spirit giveth life.

Let me pull the first four "texts" off my nearest bookshelf: Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes (an incredibly dense, incredibly thoughtful book that I badly need to reread, for whenever I have read it I have thought that wonderful insights are eluding me); Laurence Meyer, A Term at the Fed (his memoirs of his days as a Federal Reserve Governor; we chose him for the job as someone who could be a bridge between the High Policymakers and the forecasters and model-builders; I think--and the book says--that he did this job very well); Liza Featherstone's excellent Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart; and Adam Jaffe and Josh Lerner's Innovation and Its Discontents (I can't believe I still haven't read this! I really need to!).

As long as I think of these as "texts," they are dry and boring. But there is a key to making them exciting: to remember that they are not texts: they are people--people urgently trying to talk to me, to tell me something very important that they think I desperately need to know. Liza Featherstone thinks that I very much need to know about Wal-Mart's battling to keep its workers down--and their resistance--if I am going to be a good economist, a good citizen. She grabs me and lectures me at length, with excited and animated gestures. Never mind that I have never met her (I do know her husband, Doug Henwood, slightly). She is there, in front of me on the page, and it would be rude to cut her off--not to turn to the next one.

Niccolo Machiavelli, I think, put it best. Let me quote from his letter to his friend and hoped-for patron Francesco Vettori, written in the days when he was rusticating in rural exile outside Florence.

I am living on my farm.... I get up in the morning with the sun and go into a grove I am having cut down, where I remain two hours to look over the work of the past day and kill some time with the cutters.... Leaving the grove, I go to a spring, and thence to my aviary. I have a book in my pocket, either Dante or Petrarch, or one of the lesser poets, such as Tibullus, Ovid, and the like. I read of their tender passions and their loves, remember mine, enjoy myself a while in that sort of dreaming. Then I move along the road to the inn; I speak with those who pass, ask news of their villages, learn various things, and note the various tastes and different fancies of men. In the course of these things comes the hour for dinner, where with my family I eat such food as this poor farm of mine and my tiny property allow. Having eaten, I go back to the inn.... I sink into vulgarity for the whole day, playing at cricca and at trich-trach.... So, involved in these trifles, I keep my brain from growing mouldy, and satisfy the malice of this fate of mine, being glad to have her drive me along this road, to see if she will be ashamed of it.

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day's clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

When evening comes Niccolo Machiavelli enters his personal library. There he talks to his friends--his books, or rather those who wrote the books in his library, or rather those components of their minds that are instantiated in the hardware-and-software combinations of linen, ink, and symbols of Gutenberg Information Technology. They are 'ancient men' who receive him 'with affection,' and for four hours he 'ask[s] them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and... I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death...'

Remember: Machiavelli lives only two generations after Gutenberg. He is thus one of the very first people in the world to have had a personal library. Before printing, libraries were the exclusive possession of kings, sovereign princes, abbots, masters of the Roman Empire (like Caesar and Cicero). The idea that a mere mortal--a disgraced ex-Assistant for Confidential Affairs to the Republic of Florence--might have a personal library would have been absurd even half a century earlier. To him, therefore, his personal library is not something he takes for granted, but something new, something he has that his predecessors did not. And so he can see clearly--more clearly than we can--what his personal library does for him, what his books are.

In disgraced semi-exile--when many he would talk to are afraid to be seen in his company, and where he is afraid to be seen in the company of almost all the rest--the ability to read and reread his personal copies of Publius Ovidius Naso, Petrarch, Dante Alighieri, Titus Livius, Plutarch, and the rest makes them his friends: people who will receive him with affection, and honestly answer his questions about politics and history. It is important to have such friends, and to pay them proper respect. Hence Machiavelli will not go to them in his clothes-of-the-day--those in which he had managed his farm, haggled over the price of firewood, gambled, and on which he had spilled beer. He will, instead, enter his library only in 'garments regal and courtly.'

Moreover, people's rough edges are filed off in their books. Adam Smith found Jean-Jacques Rousseau impossible in person, but that chunk of Rousseau's mind that is instantiated in the hardware-and-software combination of Gutenberg Information Technology is very pleasant company. Nobody outside his family (save Friedrich Engels) could ever stand Karl Marx for any length of time. But that part of Marx's mind that is instantiated in his books doesn't fly into irrational rages, doesn't accuse one of being a police spy, doesn't beg for money, doesn't demand that one accept that he is very much the smartest one in the room. Marx-in-the-book speaks passionately of his hopes and fears for the future--hope coming from the progressive destiny of humanity and the extraordinary progress of technology, and fear coming from our constant tendency to f*** up our social engineering problems--and (save when he starts raving Hegelian gibberish, or when you see that huge, huge chunks of his argument fall away because he has confused the physical capital-output ratio with the value capital-output ratio) can be good company.

And then there are those whom one really wishes one could know in person. For who would not like to be good friends with (if one were quick and witty enough to avoid becoming one of his targets) John Maynard Keynes, or David Hume, or John Stuart Mill, or Adam Smith? I know Larry Meyer--but it is an extra gift to have a piece of him on my bookshelf that I can talk to anytime, in the form of A Term at the Fed. (It would be better to be able to call him up to appear to talk at will, but A Term at the Fed is a pretty close substitute). I wish I knew Garry Wills in person, but you can't have everything, and pieces of his literary persona haunt at least four rooms in our house plus my office. I'm going to try to meet and talk to Liza Featherstone the next time I'm in New York with time to spare, but meanwhile I have her book. And Adam Jaffe is (justifiably) angry with me for an episode of writer's block which meant that I failed to revise a paper he was editing--but his book isn't angry at me.

So I think that as long as a humanist views himself as turning the crank on a machine ("squeeze out a paper on Zizek's use of Kierkegaard, so that I can send it off and people will publish it, so that I can write down on a piece of paper that it has been published") he is doomed. But when he shifts his mental frames, and remember what is really going on--that Kierkegaard is desperately trying to communicate something difficult and important that he only half-grasps, and that Zizek is mulling this over and answering back--he may yet be saved. It's when the moment comes when Adam gets so excited by watching Zizek argue with Kierkegaard that he thinks, "I have something to add to this; I have something important to say too"--then is the moment to write down what you have to say, not in order to build your c.v. but because you have something to say. In fact, the only effective way to build your c.v. is to let it happen as a byproduct of your having something to say.

I remember... it must have been 1984, some evening, when I was sitting in one of the cushy chairs in the middle of the NBER's third-floor offices. Larry Summers was coming in while Paul Krugman was going out. And they stopped each other.

"Paul," said Larry.

"Yes?" said Paul.

"In our basic model, the U.S. is running a trade deficit because demand is greater than production, and especially because demand for non-tradeables is high, and so workers are pulled out of jobs making tradeables into jobs making non-tradeables, and so domestic production of tradeables is insufficient to satisfy demand, and so we import," said Larry.

"So?" said Paul.

"Why, then, are workers in tradeable-goods industries in the Midwest experiencing this not as being pulled into higher-wage jobs in the non-tradeables sector, but as being pushed by foreign competition into lower-wage jobs in the non-tradeables sector?" said Larry.

And they were off. For a good half hour or so they argued the issues back and forth. More graduate students gathered to watch what was a fascinating pickup debate and discussion about just why there were so many losers from the trade deficits of the 1980s, when the first-cut full-employment model suggested that it should have been win-win.

You have to be in the right place at the right time to get the peak intellectual experience of watching two minds of such extraordinary caliber together wrestle with each other and with important problems. Actually, you don't. You just have to pick up the right book.