Links: Freedom, humanity, universal empathy, and other such small topics

* MercatorNet’s John Armstrong argues that “Economic freedom has turned toxic because we lack the cultural maturity that the humanities used to provide” (hat tip NYT Ideas Blog). Although I’m naturally susceptible to arguments like this:

The long-term health of the economy depends on the flourishing of the humanities: an important factor in our present troubles is their self-imposed weakness.

The dependency is hard to see because the standard ways in which we think about capitalism and the humanities are misleading.

I also find them difficult to believe. Armstrong’s historical view implies that the humanities once had a much stronger influence on public life, which is possible, but even if they did, boom/bust cycles far worse than this one were common in the 19th Century, as this list indicates (the panic of 1893 was particularly grim). Humanities or no, panics and boom/bust cycles might be part of human psychology and behavior, as Henry Blodget argues in “Why Wall Street Always Blows It:”

But most bubbles are the product of more than just bad faith, or incompetence, or rank stupidity; the interaction of human psychology with a market economy practically ensures that they will form. In this sense, bubbles are perfectly rational—or at least they’re a rational and unavoidable by-product of capitalism (which, as Winston Churchill might have said, is the worst economic system on the planet except for all the others). Technology and circumstances change, but the human animal doesn’t. And markets are ultimately about people.

He gives numerous examples of bubble behavior in action, along with small-scale studies that seem to demonstrate bubble behavior even in controlled environments. The humanities might offer many benefits, pleasure chief among them, even if doing so is unlikely to prevent bubbles or take the rough edges off capitalism. Or maybe not: Paul Graham asks “Is It Worth Being Wise?” and basically answers “yes, but not as important as intelligence.” He defines “wise” and “intelligent” throughout the essay, for those of you wondering why he’d set near synonyms as opposites. Graham, however, probably has the culture maturity Armstrong writes about and thus probably takes it for granted in a way that allows him to disparage the humanities more than he probably should. That disparagement occurs throughout his essay, and although many of his criticisms are valid, he overstretches them, much as Armstrong probably overstretches the virtues of the humanities.

Maybe Armstrong is suggesting the second great purpose of art, as described by D.H. Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature:

Art has two great functions. First, it provides an emotional experience. And then, if we have the courage of our own feelings, it becomes a mine of practical truth. We have had the feelings ad nauseam. But we’ve never dared dig the actual truth out of them, the truth that concerns us…

I’m not sure art has any practical truths to offer: like Nabokov, I suspect art’s chief purpose is itself and aesthetic bliss, and as such, any practical truths are at best secondary. Or maybe art is whatever we make it to be, and Armstrong’s effort to make the humanities—of which art is a large part—into a helper of the SEC is as valid as Nabokov’s belief in art as itself. The challenge in implementing Armstrong’s view is that convincing banking executives to start reading, say, Dr. Faustus and The Lord of the Rings, seems rather improbable. And even if they did, it’s still an overly large leap to imagine that doing so will tangibly improve the economic situation.

Alas, I’m using what humanities knowledge I have to argue against the importance of the humanities, at least for the reasons stated in the article. Perhaps that’s one of the humanities’ major problems: its own practitioners doubt its utility and have the skills to point out why.

* Mark Sarvas recommends The Gift, a book he praises in unusual terms: “I’m often asked why I persist here at TEV for no financial rewards. The best answer I can offer is to stick a copy of The Gift into your hands, albeit virtually.”

With an endorsement like that, expect a post on The Gift sometime in the not-too-distant future.

* By way of The Elegant Variation once again, read about the power of fiction to portray other worlds in our own world. To use one example from the article:

Yet even if we understand things as narratives, most of us would rather read the traditional story presented by a novel than we would the rather dryer story of a policy report. Best-selling novels such as Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner thus reach a huge audience (especially when helped along by the other great narrative art and made into a blockbuster film) whilst academic research, no matter how insightful, will never be read by millions. Which is why the report’s authors venture that Hosseini’s novel has probably “done more to educate western readers about the realities of daily life in Afghanistan than any government media campaign, advocacy organisation report, or social science research.”

I’ve heard of—who hasn’t?—but never read The Kite Runner and so can’t comment on that in particular, but it’s hard to deny the power of narratives to fiction in general. I’ve begun reading a triple-pack of Henry Green’s novels, Loving; Living; Party Going, and they seem as close to working-class Britain circa World War II as I’m ever going to get. When this mimetic function fails, the novel often fails with it, and here I’m thinking of novels like Waverley and The Other Boleyn Girl.

Consider that article as reinforcement regarding the second of D.H. Lawrence’s propositions regarding art, as already stated above:

Art has two great functions. First, it provides an emotional experience. And then, if we have the courage of our own feelings, it becomes a mine of practical truth. We have had the feelings ad nauseam. But we’ve never dared dig the actual truth out of them, the truth that concerns us…

* More on the maybe-changes in culture being driven by video:

When technology shifts, it bends the culture. Once, long ago, culture revolved around the spoken word. The oral skills of memorization, recitation and rhetoric instilled in societies a reverence for the past, the ambiguous, the ornate and the subjective. Then, about 500 years ago, orality was overthrown by technology. Gutenberg’s invention of metallic movable type elevated writing into a central position in the culture. By the means of cheap and perfect copies, text became the engine of change and the foundation of stability. From printing came journalism, science and the mathematics of libraries and law. The distribution-and-display device that we call printing instilled in society a reverence for precision (of black ink on white paper), an appreciation for linear logic (in a sentence), a passion for objectivity (of printed fact) and an allegiance to authority (via authors), whose truth was as fixed and final as a book.

The passage indicates the questionable grandiosity in tone, but the thinking about what the pervasiveness of video says regarding society is still worthwhile.

* If you’ve read that, you much deserve a break, and Quid plura? offers one:

…and then, once in a while, you’re invited to yak it up at a writers’ event, and you retire to a pizza joint for a late night of unrepeatable stories with smart, funny people, and you begin to understand the value of your 300-page calling card beyond the reviews and royalty statements. Writers like to gripe and whine, but when it comes to this one benefit, don’t let authors tell you otherwise, not even my fellow recluses. The social aspect, unlike the process of writing itself, is even more fun than you think it will be.

* The publishing industry is of less interest to me than actual reading, but nonetheless this insightful bit from the New Yorker’s book blog is fascinating.

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

%d bloggers like this: