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October 3rd, 2007

two or three ideas [Oct. 3rd, 2007|10:29 am]
Two or Three Ideas, to borrow a title from Wallace Stevens

I note that I’ve been going on about perspectives and the frame tales we tell according to our perspectives; it’s one of the continuing themes of the joculum blog. (Which I ought to take to signing as Jerry Cullum more often since it has been a long time since I introduced myself back in July 2006.)

There is a scale at which it becomes impossible to tell the world’s story adequately; the small threatened cultures that Wade Davis writes about have their own perspective, and it incorporates knowledge that we do not have, but while it is possible to discuss, say, types of reindeer in an about-to-be-lost language of the planet’s northern stretches, it would be difficult to paraphrase quantum physics in it. (It is difficult to paraphrase quantum physics in any language other than mathematics, for that matter.)

I mention the types of reindeer because an article I saw recently (which means it was probably in the New York Times) about the world’s most endangered languages cited a number of examples of the specialized vocabularies of various small societies. This is really not as remarkable as it sounds, though it is regrettable to have these distinctions lost without trace; I have never got round to buying any of them, but there are picture books devoted to telling us the names, in English, of all the strange little objects that are known by name only to the practitioners of the arts that make use of them. Some of them, like the mash tun of whisky distilling, we can puzzle out from the component parts of the name (as one might have done with the famous “tundish” by which Stephen Dedalus reveals his provincial alienation from the global world of England in Portrait of the Artist as Young Man). Others, as with the names of various-aged reindeer, are vocables so autonomous we could never figure them out by analogy.

But the point comes round again that the human story now includes so many variables that it is difficult to impossible to keep all of it in mind even in summary…or even to master the broad outlines. (I’ve cited so many times, from René Daumal’s novel Mount Analogue,, Father Sogol’s observations on our incapacity to remember the specificity of the spaniel by the time we have got through the categories of “dog,” “mammal,” “animate creature,” or whatever in orders of comprehensive abstraction.)

An ad in the newest New York Review of Books announces the publication of a history of the twentieth century from the perspective of southeastern Europe (Dan Diner’s Cataclysms), and we get, occasionally, partial histories of history as viewed from Argentina or India. (James Elkins, that notorious popularizer of art historical matters, wrote a book on teaching art history that included several examples of what art history looks like when viewed from national perspectives other than those of Paris and New York and London.) But again, this only goes so far in terms of the source of the information being filtered. Regular readers of this blog know the handful of mostly New-York-based publications through which I get narratives from all over the globe; in like fashion, the southeastern Europeans who lived out the great conflicts of the twentieth century from their own particular ethnic and national perspectives tended to get their information out of Paris and Berlin until they were forced to get it mostly out of Moscow for a few postwar decades. (Yugoslavia excepted, and that leads us back to the book by Dan Diner about which I know nothing beyond the blurb in the U. of Wiscomsin Press ad. An excursus on the dilemmas of polycentric history follows for those who click on the LJ-cut below.)

cataclysmsCollapse )

When our information is further filtered through the particular academic perspectives of the writers, or the misunderstandings of the popularizers, we get further layers of garble; All of us trust our usual sources excessively or are excessively skeptical of them (because there are not enough hours in the day to formulate the right questions until we encounter a well-argued alternate view, so we ratchet along on our preferred way of viewing the world). It’s why I appreciate the periodicals that still publish long, contentious debates in the Letters section between writers and the aggrieved authorities who contest the accuracy of their presentations. Otherwise we glide along reading generally accurate-sounding accounts, such as the popular history of Alexandria I was just now glancing at that says that Valentinian Gnosticism was created by “the original Saint Valentine,” which it wasn’t. (It was a different Valentinus.) And thus do we come to pass along the memorable errors, while probably forgetting the more reliably reported history of who got how many volumes of the Greek tragedians into the Library of Alexandria. (At least the legend is reported as a legend in that case.)

All of this is the kind of thing that is discussed in the writings of hermeneuticians like Hans-Georg Gadamer or the folks of the Frankfurt School, all of whom quarrel about what filters and frames distort our perceptions. But right now I’m interested in how we get anything at all that we can filter and frame and misunderstand.

And I remain astounded by reminders of the sheer numbers of people who don’t have the luxury of absorbing enough information to misunderstand it. The two million or so women and children globally who are effectively sold into sex slavery or forced menial labor are transported across borders to cities and (typically) advanced societies in which they don’t speak the language and are given no opportunity to hear enough of it spoken to pick up enough vocabulary to escape their helplessness. (This is, of course, from the aforementioned New York Review of Books issue.) This is a large enough number of human beings to fill about a dozen of my favorite small countries.

But as I’ve written in an earlier blog, the sheer scale of the world becomes numbing because we tend to shrink things in our imaginations (at least I do, and am reminded of the antique hilarity of Robert Benchley’s essay about mentally picturing all of world history as taking place in the back streets of his hometown). This same NYRB reminds me of the statistic that the top 300,000 wage earners in the United States earn an amount equal to that earned by the bottom 150,000,000. What astounds me is not just the statistic but the realization afresh that 300,000 is a big market for niche products, and that if they could import the labor force from the adjacent country, those executives could occupy a couple of Caribbean islands in their entirety even before they brought their spouses and offspring.

And it is the cumulative effects of scale that make it a sensible thing to do to put a dozen power-generating windmills on a Scottish hilltop to generate power for a little site otherwise off the grid, or to replace a few light bulbs in an American household with the energy-saving variety, or to recycle plastic even if ninety per cent of the recycled stuff ends up in a landfill. The statistically insignificant difference eventually is enough to maintain or bury entire nations, as Tuvalu never tires of reminding us vis-à-vis rising sea levels.

Sorry to keep harping on the same half-dozen topics, especially since my own incompetence is so apparent to me; I’m sure I make errors as egregious as the confusion of the two Valentini, every time I discuss any specialized topic whatsoever. But all things are interlinked, by one chain of association or another, and once I get going I find it difficult to stop.
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