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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Charles Hinton and His Cubes

Thanks (and happy birthday) to Michelle at Potato Benevolence for (re?)introducing me to Charles Hinton, mysterious theorist of fourth-dimensionality in the late 19th century. Aside from his forays into gunpowder-charged pitching machines (a proto-Survival Research Laboratories experiment retired after a few accidents) and bigamy, his obsession with extra spatial dimensions influenced Edwin Abbott’s better known Flatland and was celebrated by Borges, who also mentioned him in “The Secret Miracle.” It’s easy to see a connection back to Llull and Bruno in his gnostic quest for knowledge of hidden spaces. He also constructed a series of cubes designed to help train one to envision a four-dimensional hypercube (or tesseract) by envisioning the various three-dimensional views of the hypercube in a mental superimposition. Sort of like this:

But the oddest part is the letter that was sent to Martin Gardner after he wrote about Hinton in Scientific American. (Mark Blacklock has also covered the odd history of the cubes in his comprehensive site on Hinton and others.)

Dear Mr. Gardner:

A shudder ran down my spine when I read your reference to Hinton’s cubes. I nearly got hooked on them myself in the nineteen-twenties. Please believe me when I say that they are completely mind-destroying. The only person I ever met who had worked with them seriously was Francis Sedlak, a Czech neo-Hegelian Philosopher (he wrote a book called The Creation of Heaven and Earth) who lived in an Oneida-like community near Stroud, in Gloucestershire.

As you must know, the technique consists essentially in the sequential visualizing of the adjoint internal faces of the poly-colored unit cubes making up the larger cube. It is not difficult to acquire considerable facility in this, but the process is one of autohypnosis and, after a while, the sequences begin to parade themselves through one’s mind of their own accord. This is pleasurable, in a way, and it was not until I went to see Sedlak in 1929 that I realized the dangers of setting up an autonomous process in one’s own brain. For the record, the way out is to establish consciously a countersystem differing from the first in that the core cube shows different colored faces, but withdrawal is slow and I wouldn’t recommend anyone to play around with the cubes at all.

Hiram Barton

On the other hand, Theosophist Sedlak seemed to be fairly happy with the result, as chronicled by his wife:

Towards the end of his long and trying illness, when terrible coughing prevented him from sleeping at night, the long silent hours seemed interminable. On my enquiring one morning as to what sort of a night he had had, he said almost joyfully, “Oh, being awake does not trouble me now. I do the cubes, and the time flies.” So I thanked God and blessed the cubes, for which had been found a utilitarian use at a most desperate psychological juncture. Power won cannot be lost, and will some day be utilised.

The Structure of University Education

We’ve gotta do it right

Within this system

Gonna take over

But within this system

Chicago, “It Better End Soon,” as quoted by Lester Bangs

It seems I’m late to the party over The Life of the Mind, discussing the problems of maintaining an intellectual life while pursuing an academic career in the humanities. The usual reactions seem to be either vehement, righteous agreement or scoffing at the author’s naivete that anyone could think that academia is anything other than a risky grind.



The Life of the Mind

Aside from the tremendous sympathy I have for those who are in unfortunate spots, this part of the discussion is largely redundant, as well as irrelevant. My two cents is that regardless of efforts of reform from within the universities, there are a couple of key factors that will cancel out their best efforts.

The democratization and class-flattening of university access over the last 50 or 60 years has produced two structural phenomena for academically-focused humanities departments that are not economically sustainable:

  1. The need to attract and retain a far larger number of low-paid graduate students and/or adjunct faculty than will ever attain a job in which they will have time to pursue “the life of the mind,” the ostensible goal.
  2. The need to attract a sufficient number of undergraduates who will overpay for large lecture courses so as to subsidize the rest of the faculty, seminars, and resources of the department, especially its graduate program.

The first is what I hear about constantly, but the second seems like the one that will be the ultimate forcing function. The low-paid adjunct/TA model can only go so far in reducing expenses in departments that aren’t economically self-sustaining, because the whole model is dependent on the second factor: as high a mean student-teacher ratio as possible across classes. (The median across classes is quite low, of course, which is why universities advertise that figure.) Even if graduate enrollment remained identical, reductions in lecture courses would be problematic, as David Leonhardt explains:

Because large lecture classes are cheaper for a college than seminars, freshmen are cheaper than upperclassmen. So a college that allows many of its underclassmen to drop out may be helping its bottom line.

So lecture enrollment and grad student enrollment need to be high, while the number of seminars and professors needs to be low. This is a squeeze. Kevin Carey’s excellent article about online education has this key point buried in it:

But the biggest cash cow is lower-division undergraduate education. Because introductory courses are cheap to offer, they’re enormously profitable. The math is simple: Add standard tuition rates and any government subsidies, and multiply that by several hundred freshmen in a big lecture hall. Subtract the cost of paying a beleaguered adjunct lecturer or graduate student to teach the course. There’s a lot left over. That money is used to subsidize everything else.

And with the rise of tuition and the flattening of wages over the last 30 years, this money source is inevitably drying up. The budding rise of online education will only speed the drought. Now, Carey is talking about college as practical job training. Those departments will have a problem but there will still be room for high-end theoretical and practical training in the sciences and social sciences, funded by grant money from DARPA and others. The humanities, by which I mean those fields which do not provide specific practical training other than for academia, will suffer far worse, only having the cushion of composition classes and the like to soften the drop in enrollment. In effect, it will be the final transition of college education from liberal education for the elites to job training for the middle classes.

Ultimately, I think it’s this factors more than anything that have led indirectly to the perversely self-defeating character of a lot of academic work in the humanities. The undermining of the classical liberal education paradigm has caused havoc to those who are attempting to work within it, even as some of them indicted its history. The recent archetypal example is Michael Berube, future head of the MLA, attacking his own discipline, which resulted in foolish rebuttals that only reinforced Berube’s claims (something Berube surely expected; I like him, he’s a smart guy, and he knows the score). For all his despair over the ineffectuality of cultural studies, but it’s telling that he cites its chief achievement as its analysis of its own socio-economic condition:

I’m not saying that it has had no impact. Cultural critics like Marc Bousquet, Cary Nelson, Andrew Ross, and Jeffrey Williams have written indispensable accounts of academic labor in America, and each has been inspired, in part, by some of the best work in the cultural-studies tradition, the branch that analyzes the social foundations of intellectual labor.

If the best defense Berube can give is its rear-guard action against its very own home–i.e., “We’re being exploited!”–then it is going to be difficult to make a case for its continued presence anywhere in a university. You can see this squeeze in much of the handwringing going on elsewhere. Steven Shaviro may have struck a blow for open access by refusing to let Continuum publish a piece of his under their draconian rights contracts, but it’s hardly the storming of the Winter Palace.

None of this is to pick on these people, only to point out that the “culture wars” are only a side effect of a longer-term economic process that is indeed mostly out of academics’ control. Like anyone who cares about these things, I have a bit of false nostalgia for the good old days that I never knew, but if cultural studies has taught me anything, it’s not to mourn the decline of an institution born in elitism and sustained by it.

John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing

Butcher’s Crossing is the most flawed, the most peculiar, and the most exuberant of Williams’ three mature novels (he disowned a first novel, which I have not read). Unlike the near-perfect tenors of the academic novel Stoner and Augustus, Butcher’s Crossing sees some significant shifts in tone over the course of the book. All three novels are Bildungsromans, but here Williams also attempts to tell the story of the decline of the American West as well. That is why, unlike the other two novels, it is not titled after the main character but the frontier town which provides the settings for the bookends of the novel.

Will Andrews is a Harvard student who, inspired by Emerson, drops out to find himself in the great West. After arriving in Butcher’s Crossing, he funds a hunting expedition to a distant valley in Colorado where a great herd of buffalo still remain, most of the other herds having already been hunted down and killed for hides. He is naive and for a time it seems he could be easily scammed, but the leader of the expedition, Miller, is serious, and after Andrews has a slight dalliance with a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, they set out with two other grizzled men.

So the ground for an archetypal post-western has been laid, and the themes follow those that would be used (and overused) by Cormac McCarthy, Once Upon a Time in the West, and, of course, Stan Ridgway and Wall of Voodoo:

harshly awakened by the sound of six rounds of light caliber rifle fire followed minutes later by the booming of nine rounds from a heavier rifle, but you can’t close off the wilderness. he heard the snick of a rifle bolt and found himself staring down the muzzle of a weapon held by a drunken liquor store owner. “there’s a conflict,” he said. “there’s a conflict between land and people…the people have to go. they’ve come all the way out here to make mining claims, to do automobile body work, to gamble, to take pictures, to not have to do laundry, to own a mini-bike, to have their own cb radios and air conditioning, good plumbing for sure, and to sell time/life books and to work in a deli, to have some chili every morning and maybe…maybe to own their own gas stations again and to take drugs and have some crazy sex, but above all, above all to have a fair shake, to get a piece of the rock and a slice of the pie and to spit out the window of your car and not have the wind blow it back in your face.”

“Call of the West”

And that does somewhat mimic the arc in the book. Things get immediately dire as they have trouble finding water, and less than a third of the way into the book, things do seem to be shaping up for a sheer hellishness. But they find the water and the valley, and soon enough they are hunting (i.e., massacring in large numbers) buffalo. There is a sustained, 40-page description of the early days of the hunt that may be the most focused setpiece Williams ever wrote, and the turning point in Andrews’ character.

It came to him that he had turned away from the buffalo not because of a womanish nausea at blood and stench and spilling gut; it came to him that he had sickened and turned away because of his shock at seeing the buffalo, a few moments before proud and noble and full of the dignity of life, now stark and helpless, a length of inert meat, divested of itself, or his notion of its self, swinging grotesquely, mockingly, before him. It was not itself; or it was not that self that he had imagined it to be. That self was murdered; and in that murder he had felt the destruction of something within him, and he had not been able to face it. So he had turned away.

Such introspection is comparatively rare in the novel. Extensive and careful description is more common, but when it comes like it does here, it is strikingly abstract and visceral simultaneously. I don’t know if the effect is quite successful (thought it beats Cormac any day), but it’s certainly unusual. Williams resists any broad judgments of character. If Andrews is losing his humanity, then “humanity” is not an absolute value. He is freed from this sort of condescension towards the whore that he felt earlier in Butcher’s Crossing:

He saw her as a poor, ignorant victim of her time and place, betrayed by certain artificialities of conduct, thrust from a great mechanical world upon this bare plateau of existence that fronted the wilderness. He thought of Schneider, who had caught her arm and spoken coarsely to her; and he imagined vaguely the humiliations she had schooled herself to endure. A revulsion against the world rose up within him, and he could taste it in his throat.

Much, much later, after returning to Butcher’s Crossing, Andrews thinks back to this very moment and excoriates his younger self for his callow snobbery.

But returning to the plot: after the first day, things become blurry. They continue killing and skinning thousands of buffalo, and Miller, the expert guide and hunter, really wants to kill them all, even if it means leaving hundreds of skins to bring back to following spring. Unfortunately, it starts to snow, and they are stranded in the valley between the mountains all winter long.

As with the scenes where they nearly die of thirst, this would seem to be another potential hell, an existential misery. But Williams pulls back from this desolate Bresson scenario to aim more at The Wages of Fear, and six months of surely excruciating boredom pass fairly quickly without any Shining-like incidents. (In terms of page count, they pass more quickly than that first day of hunting.) I do think that this points to a fundamental stoicism in Williams’ work: for Augustus, Stoner, and Andrews, the hell comes from without, not from within. Events, not ennui, shape character.

Spring comes and they head back, and the book shifts again. Butcher’s Crossing has been transformed and ravaged by the end of the buffalo hide market, and Andrews’ growth is overshadowed by Miller’s desperate attempts to cope with the extinction of his chosen life from which he draws his pride. But the threads unravel; Williams can’t quite make Miller’s collapse mesh with Andrews’ development because Andrews does not learn anything new from it. Rather, Andrews finally does sleep with Francine, the whore from earlier, in a scene where Williams’ writing falls into the floridness described by Pynchon in critiquing his own first published story:

You’ll notice that toward the end of the story, some kind of sexual encounter appears to take place, though you’d never know it from the text. The language suddenly gets too fancy to read. Maybe this wasn’t only my own adolescent nervousness about sex…Even the American soft-core pornography available in those days went to absurdly symbolic lengths to avoid describing sex.

Thomas Pynchon, Introduction to Slow Learner

And in general, Williams’ writing is a little too lush and artful in Butcher’s Crossing, lacking the architectural precision of the later two novels. He is still a wonderful writer, but one is more conscious of him making an effort.

Butcher’s Crossing is a novel of discrete sections, and the ways they do and don’t fit together outline the refinements that Williams would make to his fictive approach. (Reading early work after later work, as I did with Thomas Bernhard’s “Walking”, sometimes helps to illuminate the best parts of the early work more vividly.) Williams abandoned the larger societal picture after this novel to focus on a single character and his milieu, and I suspect he found fault with the dual-pronged nature of Butcher’s Crossing as well. But he also abandoned the idea of the setpiece. It’s understandable, but based on that hunting section, he could have been a master at it. (He also learned how to write female characters; the women of Stoner are far more convincing than the one-dimensional Francine.)

But what of the greater themes of the book? I still think that Williams is pretty cagey about making statements and that the book requires that the author and the reader do not judge Miller and his kind too harshly. The West drives him and others to nihilism (explicitly voiced by a hide trader late in the book), but is this a fundamental truth, a consequence of their ravaging of the land, or just the aftermath of the extinction of their way of life? I do not see a definite answer. We do know that Andrews is changed, even if we don’t know quite what he becomes, and that is the heart of the book.

Blumenberg and Husserl

Durkheim (not that one) wrote about my account of Blumenberg:

I think that Blumenberg is much more positive about the modern age than you suggest. Indeed, one might even compare his remarks on science – particularly its institutionalisation of method – with those of Popper. Popper of course would have no time for myth, but Blumenberg’s genius was to have shown that myth too can be defended in a similar way to science. The never ending variation that is the history of myth’s rewriting is comparable to the infinite progress that is the fate – and the triumph – of modern science.

I agree with this and I didn’t mean to give the impression that Blumenberg is a pessimist. In fact, Blumenberg’s ire seems reserved for those conservative pessimists like Schmitt, Loewith, or even Voltaire, who define the present moment as a crisis and look back to the past to try to find some point where we went wrong. He has even less patience for those, from Epicurus to the Gnostics to Kierkegaard, who ask that we should turn our back on the world and seek some private, otherworldly transcendence. And I do believe that Blumenberg’s endorsement of curiosity, science, and a secular interest in improving the world amounts to a prescription for a pragmatic progress: the right for humanity to explore, experiment, err, and positively evolve.

It is so optimistic, in fact, that it is difficult for me to accept enthusiastically. If I believe that a humanistic science offers the best way forward for the people on this planet, it’s only because I can’t think of any better ideas, not because I am filled with hope that things will work out. Blumenberg is more of a believer, and the faith he holds seems best portrayed in Blumenberg’s touching portrait of Husserl:

Scarcely a decade after theory, as mere gaping at what is ‘present at hand,’ had been, if not yet despised, still portrayed as a stale recapitulation of the content of living involvements, it was the greatness of the solitary, aged Edmund Husserl, academically exiled and silenced, that he held fast to the resolution to engage in theory as the initial act of European humanity and as a corrective for its most terrible deviation, and that he required of it a rigorous consistency, which is still, or once again, felt to be objectionable. Hermann Lübbe has described as the characteristic mark of this philosophizing, especially in the late works, the “rationalism of theory’s interest in what is without interest”: The existential problem of a scholar who in his old age was forbidden to set foot in the place where he carried on his research and teaching never shows through, and even the back of the official notice that informed him of this prohibition was covered by Husserl with philosophical notes. That is a case of ‘carrying on’ whose dignity equals that of the sentence, ‘Noli turbare circulos meos’ [Don’t disturb my circles].”

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, III.Introduction

Let’s leave aside that Archimedes, in addition to being killed while working on theoretical math, had also designed warships and this claw:

The ideal here is that of a scholar who can retain his absorption in theory even as the surrounding chaos nearly envelops him. Here, for Blumenberg, it is theory that acts as the linking and growing mechanism of humanity. (And as commenter Durkheim suggests, theory is something of a halfway point between myth and science.) The danger is, of course, that theory turn into something as private as Gnosticism. What is it that gives Blumenberg and Husserl the assurance that they have not disappeared into a private fount of knowledge irrelevant to the greater world? This is a crucial question for Blumenberg to answer in the context of the book. I think that the answer, which is hinted at above, is that there needs to remain some sort of firm method, that “rigorous consistency” that Blumenberg mentions: the placing of the external world as authority and arbiter rather than one’s own self-certainty. (Here, Blumenberg separates from Hegel and moves back to Kant.) Again, I see this as a pragmatic methodology more than anything else, except that there was no such named tradition in Germany.

The other somewhat orthogonal point is how Blumenberg contrasts Husserl with Heidegger, who goes unnamed but is sniped at as the person who attacks Husserl’s theory as “gaping at what is ‘present at hand'”. Blumenberg implicitly connects Heidegger’s political beliefs with Heidegger’s priority of the “at hand” and activity over cognition and observation. Heidegger’s political associates bar Husserl from the library at which he studied. Heidegger removes the dedication to Husserl from Being and Time. Husserl stands back. He keeps working. And Husserl remains one of the least alluring, least sexy philosophers ever. He never cheats, he is never cheap, he is never glamorous. (Even his glamorous successors–Derrida and Sartre–did not put a shine on him.) He just keeps working things out.

I don’t want to enter that eternal debate on Heidegger, but I do sympathize with the emphasis Blumenberg places on detached observation, on the classical act of thinking and theorizing that still seems to have gone missing amidst unending talk of politics, subversion, performativity, and so on. (To those who say that detached observation is a luxury, the subsequent activities are no less luxuries.)

When I quoted Satie the other day (apparently an appropriate quote, thank you Dennis), it was this contrast between theory and action that I was thinking of: youth in action, old age in reflection. As every development in culture and technology (hello, the web) rushes to celebrate and analyze itself before it has barely begun to be anything at all, the nonstop circle of activity exhausts me, and I want to be the rigorous, consistent theorist myself:

Deeply lost in the night. Just as one sometimes lowers one’s head to reflect, thus to be utterly lost in the night. All around people are asleep. It’s just play acting, and innocent self-deception, that they sleep in houses, in safe beds, under a safe roof, stretched out or curled up on mattresses, in sheets, under blankets; in reality they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood, forehead pressed on the arm, face to the ground, breathing quietly. And you are watching, are one of the watchmen, you find the next one by brandishing a burning stick from the brushwood pile beside you. Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.

Kafka, “At Night”

A Bit on Kant’s Schematism

It should be noted how Kant’s proposal for connecting the
sensible and the conceptual, though superficially straightforward, is at another level extremely
perplexing. Is a transcendental schema a thought about time, or is it time as thought in a certain
way? Our ways of referring to transcendental schemata inevitably assimilate them, it would
seem, to one side or the other of the concept/intuition divide. Moreover, it appears necessary to
do exactly this, if we are to answer the question of what they are, or say anything contentful
about them. The cost of the assimilation, however, in either direction, is to make them
apparently unfit for their designated mediating role: if they are either concepts with a special
relation to intuition, or intuitions as formed conceptually, then they seem to presuppose the very
possibility of connecting the sensible and the conceptual which transcendental schematism is
invoked to explain.

Kant may declare that transcendental schemata are irreducibly sensible-and-intellectual, and
that this is how the question of their identity should be answered. If so, Kant’s original division of
our representations into intuitions and concepts is not exhaustive, for there is a third class,
about which we can say very little, other than that it is dependent on and somehow derivative
from the others. We can specify it in terms of the transcendental role to which the problem of
relating concepts and intuitions gives rise, but the manner of its derivation, and the nature of
schemata, we cannot specify. Note, it is not just that we can say relatively less about schemata
than we can about intuitions and concepts, and that we cannot identify their ultimate source; we
are equally ignorant of the grounds of our faculties of sensibility and understanding.
Transcendental schemata remain in a special sense hard to grasp, because they are required to
combine in themselves two kinds of property, or representational functions, the seeming
immiscibility of which is precisely what made us introduce them in the first place. That this is
nevertheless Kant’s own view of the matter is, plausibly, what is suggested by his statement that
schematism is ‘an art concealed in the depths of the human soul, whose real modes of activity
nature is hardly likely ever to allow us to discover’ (A141/B180-1).

Sebastian Gardner

I’ve been accused of obsession with the schematism, but the intuition-concept gap is for me the core problem that Kant runs into, and I have never been able to find an adequate solution in Kant for it. Here’s Paul Guyer’s unsatisfactory explanation:

Thus, in the case of
the categories our concepts are not “homogeneous” with our objects, and
some intermediary has to be found in order to make them so.
But this is
not the case with our other concepts, which are inherently homo-
geneous with their objects. A pure mathematical concept like circle is
homogeneous with our experience, because it describes its object in terms
of properties that can be directly presented in experience – that something
is a curved, closed line every point of which is equidistant from its center
is the kind of thing we can observe because the pure form of all our outer
intuition is spatial. And an empirical concept like plate or dog is already
homogeneous with its object because it includes predicates that correspond immediately to observable properties of objects, whether those
properties are pure, like the circularity of a plate, or empirical, like its non-
porousness or like the furriness or noisiness of a typical dog.

If you’re willing to accept that Platonic concepts like “plate” and “dog” have exact referents in the real world, then fine. But Kant doesn’t (since he thinks the application of all concepts is normative and prescriptive and subjective) and his whole project is to figure out a way to salvage conceptual mental content out of a non-conceptual world.

Anyway, I mention this because I was just thinking about how much of modern philosophy grows out of exactly this particular problem. Kant wasn’t the first to come up with it, but I think it’s his formulation of it and failed solution to it that echoes in Russell (who tries to pull the same trick solution), Heidegger (who tries to punt the problem away), and many others.

And ultimately there’s something a little pleasing in Kant’s ceding of this problem to “art,” which is a rare concession on his part.

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