Monday, August 15, 2011


One of the later Platonic dialogues contains an exchange between Socrates and a contemplative youth named Theatetetus, who admits to an occasional sense of overwhelming confusion at the messiness of the world. “I wonder exceedingly as to why in the world these things are,” he says, “and sometimes in looking at them I truly get dizzy.” Socrates responds to this description of the contradictions “that fight against themselves in our soul” with this remark:

I see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher, for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.
The Platonic dialogues were written in vernacular language and intended for a non-specialist audience. They are books about experience that activate the old Latin sense of vulgate as a specialist text that has been translated into the common tongue and put into general circulation—a clarification of the original, yet one that does not seek to reduce its complexity or meaning.

A grounding motivation for this blog is the uniting perception that there are few active vernaculars between contemporary domains of specialist research. You might be legitimately un-surprised to hear that the study of culture—aesthetics, art history, literary studies—doesn't speak much to the hard sciences—cosmology, biochemistry, computational engineering. But these divisions, and the frustrating incommunicability that comes with them, are pervasive: film scholarship doesn't speak enough to poetry, musicology, or the history of science, while the study of the literary Middle Ages might not have enough to say to a history of Enlightenment political novel. As a humanistic scholar of a contemporary period, I will probably never teach Shakespeare.

But a concern with communication isn’t exactly new, even in living memory. Some of the most compelling poetry of the American twentieth century took this problem seriously enough to make comprehensibility its motivating question. “What common language to unravel?” asks William Carlos Williams, thinking of language as the basis for community. Marianne Moore, one of my favorite poets, summarizes the social necessary of building paths of access with the concisely caustic reminder that “we do not admire what we cannot understand.”

Specialist knowledge that neglects to nurture a vocabulary to transmit what it does in comprehensible ways makes itself vulnerable on a number of levels, particularly to the specters of obsolescence and utilitarianism. And too much hermeticism can cut off the routes by which non-specialists might encounter the processes and outcomes of specialized research with the openness and many pleasures of discovery.

Yet few people speak jargonistic lingo out of a desire to be cryptic. Work in the trenches and on the ground has to be efficient, and keyword shorthands are also enablers of communication, through a kind of quick-fire sign language between participants in a field. So the question of accessibility doesn’t have an easy or a self-evident solution—indeed, even broaching the problem of access requires first acknowledging that the very desire to speak across and beyond disciplines challenges a by-now centuries old separation of research domains.

Most importantly, "inter"disciplinarity can’t imply simply a facile gesture at dissolving the disciplinary specificity that gives our work context. It might even require an initial hardening of those differences in order to clarify what boundaries, exactly, are being traversed. How precisely do the words ‘time’ and ‘life’ resonate differently between cosmology, biology, and aesthetics? What is the status and value of ‘contingency’ in each of these fields? In light of the above, are there justifications for keeping things separated out?

Circling around these questions returns me wonder. Socrates’ response to Theatetetus is powerful because it is truly pedagogical. He validates the confusion of a questioning, striving mind as an authentic and necessary grappling with difficulty. And he acknowledges that wonder, while a conscious and cognized reaction, is often expressed in muteness and inarticulateness. At the same time he calls it a “feeling”—a gripping emotion whose very nature is to be at once virtually incommunicable and profoundly readable. To turn to Shakespearean eloquence, “there was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture.”

Wonder is an emotion grounded in a condition of receptivity: in the sense of amazement that can hit you in an encounter with beauty, skill, or a fundamental mystery—regeneration, birth, creativity, persistence. Its ineloquence does not imply passivity, but quite the opposite: wonder is a motivating feeling that impels action, movement, and research, because it lights a person up with restlessness and curiosity. In the oddest of ways, wonder unites art and science in a shared contemplation of nature.

And this pragmatic value of curiosity has been described, with a certain eloquence—by another philosopher who turned his gaze to practical problems of living—as an issue for our contemporaneity:

I don’t subscribe to the idea that there is a decadence, of a lack of writers, of the sterility of thought, of a gloomy future lacking in prospects.

On the contrary, I believe that there is a plethora. What we are suffering from is not a void but inadequate means for thinking about everything that is happening. There is an overabundance of things to be known: fundamental, terrible, wonderful, funny, insignificant, and crucial at the same time. And there is an enormous curiosity, a need, a desire to know. […]

Curiosity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity is seen as futility. However, I like the word; it suggests something quite different to me. It evokes "care"; it evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist; a sharpened sense of reality, but one that is never immobilized before it; a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd; a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way; a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing; a lack of respect for the traditional hierarchies of what is important and fundamental.

I dream of a new age of curiosity. We have the technical means; the desire is there; there is an infinity of things to know; the people capable of doing such work exist. So what is our problem? Too little: channels of communication that are too narrow, almost monopolistic, inadequate. We mustn’t adopt a protectionist attitude, to stop “bad” information from invading and stifling the “good.” Rather, we must increase the possibility for movement backward and forward. This would not lead, as people often fear, to uniformity and leveling-down, but, on the contrary, to the simultaneous existence and differentiation of those various networks.
(Michael Foucault, "The Masked Philosopher," in Ethics, alt. translation here)

Foucault seems to describe abundance and narrowness as potentially connected—as no more that two sides of the same coin, perhaps differentiated only by your point of view. And he makes an un-romantically optimistic claim for the future with the quite simple injunction to do something.

While I don’t know exactly what will come from this blog it does represent a hope for dialogue. I’ve recently become interested in the new common grounds between once distinct fields created by the pervasion of new media, and I'll explore some of that here. I’ll describe art and scholarship I’m mulling over, and will adjust my topics in response to both James and Shaun. And perhaps over time all this will include many more points of disciplinary and practical reference, because of the geographically unconstrained sphere of address made possible by the simple fact of cyberspace.

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