Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The science of history has been thoroughly discredited; the one exception, so we're led to believe, is the history of the present. The present is timeless, primed in the popular academic imagination for one form or another of snapshot empiricism and the logical analysis of resulting data which will then be generalized into the past. Unfortunately for all this, communication across space is subject to the same ambiguities as communication across time: our access to the the thoughts of our grandparents is only somewhat more limited than our access to the thoughts of one another. Communities, even those founded on defending individual rational action, are made up of individuals using collective constructions and forms. We communicate in signs and symbols and the specifics of each, whether written or oral, visual or aural, are the product of the age; we are reactors before actors, framed before framing. But we want to claim ownership of our reactions. Everyone likes the sound of their own bullshit, and we become aware of others' enchantments before we become aware of our own. Understanding is reciprocal and social. We do not advance alone.

Sophistication is diagnosis and analysis by connoisseurship, and it describes good but never perfect judgement of when to trust others or ourselves. It can't be taught but can be fostered, and learning to recite and follow rules makes you less watchful. Technocrats are lousy diagnosticians: they test to the taught.

Intellectuals think now only in terms of ideas, which are thought to be like numbers or notes on a scale: concrete points. In fact ideas change before their names do. To say otherwise is the argument of the most conservative theologians in our academies and courts. And numbers may be static but notes though numerical are no more than the parameters of music made specific and whole only in performance. Musicians and audience focus on the ways in which each performance is unique. As I wrote once, my mother's Bach performances were awful because she was too self-consciously humble to perform, she merely read the notes; and unsurprisingly her intellectual passivity was attached to personal arrogance. An excess of rationalism in the schoolroom makes you stupid in the street. The street like the courtroom is a stage. Stupidity is being unaware of others: unaware that they're your mirror not your other.

You may want to argue that history is bunk but you'll make an exception for your own. You may argue against "the very notion of a conceptual scheme," but you won't translate Proust. You may argue that perspectives are illusion, but the presence of women and minorities on the Supreme Court is more than a political necessity. According to the Palestinians, their anger is a response to the extremism of others.  Are they wrong?

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