Time’s containers

“Time is the water in which we live, and we breathe it like fish. It’s hard to swim against the current. Onrushing, inevitable, carried like a leaf, Fleur fooled herself in thinking she could choose her direction. But time is an element no human has mastered, and Fleur was bound to go where she was sent. Maybe in those long nights as she watched the crack of light beneath the door, she had an inkling. She thought revenge was behind that door, and satisfaction. Maybe she began to realize that she was wrong. There was only time. For what is a man, what are we all, but bits of time caught for a moment in a tangle of blood, bones, skin, and brain? She was time. Mauser was time. I am a sorry bit of time myself. We are time’s containers. Time pours into us and then pours out again. In between the two pourings we live our destiny.”

—Louise Erdrich, Four Souls (2004), p. 28

Only willful, tyrannical intelligence

“I have never denied that knowledge of history, culture, and society was possible; I have only denied that a scientific knowledge, of the sort actually attained in the study of physical nature, was possible. But I have tried to show that, even if we cannot achieve a properly scientific knowledge of human nature, we can achieve another kind of knowledge about it, the kind of knowledge which literature and art in general give us in easily recognizable examples. Only a willful, tyrannical intelligence could believe that the only kind of knowledge we can aspire to is that represented by the physical sciences. My aim has been to show that we do not have to choose between art and science, that indeed we cannot do so in practice, if we hope to continue to speak about culture as against nature—and, moreover, speak about it in ways that are responsible to all the various dimensions of our specifically human being.”

—Hayden White, “Introduction: Tropology, Discourse, and the Modes of Human Consciousness” (1978)

The value of texture

“To explain organic diversity, biologists have built a theory of evolution whose major tenets are couched in math and generally agreed. To explain cultural diversity, the humanities have offered only a succession of incommensurable interpretive fashions and uncountable particular studies, many of which, to be sure, enrich our understanding of this writer or that, but which only add texture to the tapestry of culture and do nothing to explain its whole.


Under the Pax Scientia criticism will continue, but be tamed. The epistemological feuds of the 20th century will yield to the technical quarrels typical of science. The scene will be less tumultuous, some will say less exciting, but it will be a renaissance.”

—Armand Marie Leroi, “One Republic of Learning”

“Leroi doesn’t seem to grasp that much criticism — and much of the criticism that has mattered the most — isn’t concerned with assigning a one-phrase summary of the “meaning” of an entire work of art, but is rather intensely focused on the details that are too small and too distinctive for algorithmic attention. When Keats writes, “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,” what does “rich” connote? Might it be ironic? (After all, the ironic use of “rich” — “Oh, that’s rich” — goes back to the seventeenth century.) No algorithm can ever tell, because algorithms aggregate, and the question here is about a single unrepeatable instance of a word. Nor can any aggregated information tell us anything about the torn cloth at the elbow of the disciple in Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, or the bizarre alternations of the madly driven rhythms and ethereal voices in the Confutatis of Mozart’s Requiem.”

—Alan Jacobs, Pax Scientia: Thanks, But I’ll Pass”

Let me add a modest palimpsest to this discussion. Science can do much to describe the origins, practices, effects, and the likely purposes of humanistic values, morals, and ethics. Without claiming that science can never offer its own moral paradigm, I would like to say that the texture of the tapestry of culture, as Leroi puts it, offers itself to a number of interpretive experiences—many of them may be computable. Perhaps even all rational or theorized interpretive practices could (conceivably) be digitized and/or automated to some extent.

But there are other experiences. There is, of course, the pure experience of the tapestry: the immersive experience that is subjective and not consciously interpretive. Most academics do not write about untheorizable interpretations. Approaching a text without consciously using or being aware of some sort of systematic hermeneutic framework is nigh-unthinkable. (For a host of very good reasons.) But there is such a thing as an irrational interpretation. One that defies logic and systemization. For lack of a better word, let’s call it “mystic.”

Even if some programmer one day designs an algorithm that can assign meaning to a single, unrepeatable instance of a word, there will remain a mystic paradigm just beyond its scope. If science colonizes letters, the humanities may even actively take refuge in the mystic. Who knows if this transformation would be catastrophic, salutary, or (heaven forbid) inconsequential?

Don’t get me wrong: I am not reserving to the humanities the exclusive rights to discovering meaning. But value—perhaps that is the most mystic term of all. To the best of my understanding, there has not yet existed a value that could be signified without human(istic) intervention at some point. To understand the meaning of any value requires some sort of hermeneutics; and given the complexities of the universe—not the least part of which is irrational lil’ humanity, with its vaunted science—I do not foresee a time ever coming to pass in which the relationship between meaning and value will not require at least some flicker of mystic insight from which interpretation can begin. For value does not flow from meaning, but meaning from value. Who can explain the meaning of a tapestry’s texture unless one finds value in the texture itself?

A valuation of the humanities

“Today the world’s biggest problems have indeed grown big enough to concern the very survival of the human species: environmental catastrophe, genocidal weapons, and fragile technological and economic systems each put the species—not just individuals—at risk. But the solutions to these problems, in as much as they can be achieved, will be essentially, and not merely accidentally, social and political in nature.


There is no science that can save us from the historically embedded habits and the wider structures that cause us, seemingly instinctively, to value the lives of some more than others based on the skin color, gender, or any other of a number of social markers of the Other. And the only solutions for structural problems within the law are both better law and better practice of the law.

These problems require citizens capable of reflecting on matters like discrimination and the law, and leaders who understand that the world’s problems can’t be fixed simply through technology. The world’s largest problems are not equivalent to the problem of gravity. If they were, perhaps science and technology could solve them. We’d just need more well-funded Newtons and Einsteins. Rather, we have problems that are inherently political and/or social in nature and that require political and/or social solutions. Moreover, it should be obvious by now that scientific and technological “fixes” often create new ones (e.g., industrialism’s creation of global warming, genocidal killing machines, and antibiotics).

So while it seems silly to say it, it needs to be said, in light of the legitimate value political and academic leaders are putting on life: The arts and humanities save lives!”

—Ned O’Gorman, “The Arts and Humanities Save Lives!”

A problem only speculation can solve

“Yet even in their comparatively modest call for long time lines to confront burning problems (including a literally burning earth), Armitage and Guldi have no answer to what has always been the really hard question: How do you interpret facts across a tiny or huge time scale? Just as the globe provides a larger space, an extended time line merely allows a longer frame. To think about what happens in the sunlit uplands beyond the confinement of the local and time-bound, you need a theory. Data—including big data about the long term—is never self-interpreting. Nor is orientation toward the past for the sake of the future solely a problem for which more information is the solution; it is ultimately a philosophical problem that only speculation can solve. This was the point of social theory from Vico to Marx: to integrate necessary facts with a vision of human becoming, which never lacked an ethical and political dimension. Arguably, it is this, most of all, that people need today, not merely a proclivity for the long term.


Even our boldest trendsetters, then, do not see the wall between history and philosophy as the final frontier to breach, in part because it was the first one erected to define the discipline by antiquarians in love with their facts. Armitage and Guldi wisely remark that fashionable “critical turns” conceal “old patterns of thought that have become entrenched.” Of these, the most durable is not the affection for the short term, but the refusal to risk the certainty of facts for the sake of a fusion of history and philosophy.”

—Samuel Moyn, “Bonfire of the Humanities”

The discreet charm of scarcity gaming

“Equilibrium with the environment, even dynamic equilibrium, is nigh impossible to achieve. Develop a large enough town to build a town hall, and you can gain access to statistics and graphs that show your settlement’s slow accretion and periodic massive shocks. It is striking how closely these resemble the infamous chart from the Club of Rome report The Limits to Growth (1972): output and population accelerate, peak, and abruptly collapse. That chart still hangs over our civilisation, part-warning, part-prophecy: with one side of politics preaching economic ruin and the other environmental ruin, it is hardly surprising that a taste for austerity has crept into playtime.”

—Will Wiles, “Hunger Games”

These things don’t just happen

“Cockney,” in the most literal definition, refers to a person born in the Cheapside area London, within earshot of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow.

There is some debate about why Cockney rhyming slang was invented. The most prominent theory, Green said, is that in the 1820s and 1830s, other forms of slang had been worked out by the authorities, so criminals needed a new way to communicate without being understood. Under that theory, rhyming slang was created intentionally, as a sort of secret code.

A second theory is that its purpose was commerce, not crime. Some believe that the market traders of Cheapside made it up so they could communicate with each other without the customers understanding their conversations.

—Amanda Taub, “How to Speak in Cockney Rhyming Slang”

To say nothing of the dog…

Down to the floor I went. I had inherited my mothers three-hole punch (she was an elementary school teacher), and I had an empty three-ring binder sitting around, so I printed out all the notes on my computer, and put them in the binder with all my other notes and pertinent papers. Soon, it came clear that having research and writing in one binder was inefficient — too much paging back in forth. So it was off to Office Depot, where I bought more binders and file dividers, and spent some very happy hours on the floor punching holes and organizing. (Since then, I also created separate binders for short stories and journalism…and, yes, recipes.) The floor of my office, as you can see from the picture, is my largest flat surface, so I’m down there when researching, and also when punching holes in new material. I can also work from both binders while writing…which proves that, at certain points, the floor is more useful than the computer screen.

— Michelle Huneven


Priorities and public intellect

But insofar as a debate about priorities—and ideals—will continue anyway in our little corner of the world, we ought to try to set it the right way round. The idea of the public intellectual in the 21st century should be less about the intellectuals and how, or where, they ought to come from vocationally, than about restoring the highest estimation of the public. Public intellect is most valuable if you don’t accept the construction of the public handed to us by current media. Intellectuals: You—we—are the public. It’s us now, us when we were children, before the orgy of learning, or us when we will be retired; you can choose the exemplary moment you like. But the public must not be anyone less smart and striving than you are, right now. It’s probably best that the imagined public even resemble the person you would like to be rather than who you are. (And it would be wise for intellectuals to stop being so ashamed of ties to universities, however tight or loose; it’s cowardly, and often irrelevant.)

—Mark Greif, “What’s Wrong with Public Intellectuals”

To what end nature’s fashion?

“She had learned by experience to remake her life on new lines; to become a worker among workers, and let the world of luxury and pleasure sweep by her unregarded. She could not hold herself much to blame for this ineffectiveness, and she was perhaps less to blame than she believed. Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of it narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock. She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the hummingbird’s breast? And was it her fault that the purely decorative mission is less easily and harmoniously fulfilled among social beings than in the world of nature? That it is apt to be hampered by material necessities or complicated by moral scruples?

These last were the two antagonistic forces which fought out their battle in her breast during the long watches of the night; and when she rose the next morning she hardly knew where victory lay. She was exhausted by the reaction of a night without sleep, coming after many nights of rest artificially obtained; and in the distorting light of fatigue the future stretched out before her grey, interminable and desolate.”

—Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905)