Category Archives: Ya wanna be an intellectual…

A place for ideas from which history shall be made.

When confronted with an alien way of organizing experience, however, we sense the frailty of our own categories, and everything threatens to come undone.  Things hold together only because they can be slotted into a classificatory scheme that remains unquestioned.  We classify a Pekinese and a Great Dane together as dogs without hesitating, even though the Pekinese might seem to have more in common with a cat and a Great Dane with a pony.  If we stopped to reflect on definitions of ‘dogness’ or on the other categories for sorting out life, we could never get on with the business of living.
Pigeon-holing is therefore an exercise in power.  A subject relegated to the trivium rather than the quadrivium, or to the ‘soft’ rather than the ‘hard’ sciences, may wither on the vine.  A misshelved book may disappear forever.  An enemy defined as less than human may be annihilated.  All social action flows through boundaries determined by classification schemes, whether or not they are elaborated as explicitly as library catalogues, organization charts, and university departments.  All animal life fits into the grid of an unconscious ontology.  Monsters like the ‘elephant man’ and the ‘wolf boy’ horrify and fascinate us because they violate our conceptual boundaries, and certain creatures make our skin crawl because they slip in between categories:  ‘slimy’ reptiles that swim in the sea and creep on the land, ‘nasty’ rodents that live in houses yet remain outside the bounds of domestication.  We insult someone by calling him a rat rather than a squirrel.  ‘Squirrel’ can be a term of endearment, as in Helmer’s epithet for Nora in A Doll’s House.  Yet squirrels are rodents, as dangerous and disease-ridden as rats.  They seem less threatening because they belong unambiguously to the out-of-doors.  It is the in-between animals, the neither-fish-nor-fowl, that have special powers and therefore ritual value:  thus the cassowaries in the mystery cults of New Guinea and the tomcats in the witches’ brews of the West.  Hair, fingernail parings, and feces also go into magic potions because they represent the ambiguous border areas of the body, where the organism spills over into the surrounding material world.  All borders are dangerous.  If left unguarded, they break down, our categories could collapse, and our world dissolve in chaos.
Setting up categories and policing them is therefore a serious business.  A philosopher who attempted to redraw the boundaries of the world of knowledge would be tampering with the taboo.  Even if he steered clear of sacred subjects, he could not avoid danger; for knowledge is inherently ambiguous.  Like reptiles and rats, it can slip from one category to another.  It has bite.  Thus Diderot and d’Alembert took enormous risks when they undid the order of knowledge and drew new lines between the known and unknown.

–– Philosophers Trim the Tree of Knowledge as printed in The Great Cat Massacre (and Other Episodes in French Cultural History) by Robert Darnton p 192-193

(Diderot and d’Ambert edited the famous Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers.  I would guess they would be very much impressed by the advent of the Internet.)  


One can also seek aid and comfort from specialists in the study of oral literature.  Milman Patry and Albert Lord have shown how folk epics as long as The Iliad are passed on faithfully from bard to bard among the illiterate peasants of Yugoslavia.  These ‘singers of tales’ do not possess the fabulous powers of memorization sometimes attributed to ‘primitive’ peoples.  They do not memorize very much at all.  Instead, they combine stock phrases, formulas, and narrative segments in patterns improvised according to the response of their audience.  Recordings of the same epic by the same singer demonstrate that each performance is unique.  Yet recordings made in 1950 do not differ in essentials from those made in 1934.  In each case, the singer proceeds as if he were walking down a well-known path.  He may branch off here to take a shortcut or pause there to enjoy a panorama, but he always remains on familiar ground—so familiar, in fact, that he will say that he repeated every step exactly as he has done before.  He does not conceive of repetition in the same way as a literate person, for he has no notion of words, lines, and verses.   Texts are not rigidly fixed for him as they are for readers of the printed page.  He creates his text as he goes, picking new routes through old themes.  He can even work in material derived from printed sources, for the epic as a whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts that modifications of detail barely disturb the general configuration.

–– Peasants Tell Tales as printed in The Great Cat Massacre (and Other Episodes in French Cultural History) by Robert Darnton p 19


Later, as Hewlett and Packard scaled up, they stayed true to the guiding principle of “first who”.  After World War II, even as revenues shrank with the end of their wartime contracts, they hired a whole batch of fabulous people streaming out of government labs, with nothing specific in mind for them to do.  Recall Packard’s Law, which we cited in chapter 3:  “No company can grow revenues consistently faster than its ability to get enough of the right people to implement that growth and still become a great company”.  Hewlett and Packard lived and breathed this concept and obtained a surplus of great people whenever the opportunity presented itself.

–– Good to Great by Jim Collins p 192


Inequality still runs rampant in most business corporations.  I’m referring now to hierarchical inequality which legitimizes and institutionalizes the principle of “We” vs “They”.   … The people at the top of the corporate hierarchy grant themselves privilege after privilege, flaunt those privileges before the men and women who do the real work, then wonder why employees are unmoved by management’s invocations to cut costs and boost profitability….  When I think of the millions of dollars spent by people at the top of the management hierarchy on efforts to motivate people who are continually put down by that hierarchy, I can only shake my head in wonder.

–– Plain Talk (1998) by Ken Iverson as quoted in Good to Great by Jim Collins p 136


Pretty soon there’ll be a new kind of murderer, who will kill without any reason at all, just to prove that it doesn’t matter, and his accomplishment will be worth no more and no less than Beethoven’s last quartets and Boito’s Requiem—Churches will fall, Mongolian hordes will piss on the map of the West, idiot kings will burp at bones, nobody’ll care then the earth itself’ll disintegrate into atomic dust (as it was in the beginning) and the void still the void wont care, the void’ll just go on with that maddening little smile of its that I see everywhere, I look at a tree, a rock, a house, a street, I see that little smile—That “secret God-grin” but what a God is this who didnt invent justice?—So they’ll light candles and make speeches and the angels rage.  Ah but “I dont know, I dont care, and it doesnt matter” will be the final human prayer—

Meanwhile in all directions, in and out, of the universe, outward to the neverending space (more numerous than the sands in the ocean) and inward into the illimitable vastness of your own body which is also never ending space and “planets” (atoms) (all an electromagnetic crazy arrangement of bored eternal power) meanwhile the murder and the useless activity goes on, and has been going on since beginningless time, and will go on never endingly, and all we can know, we with our justified hearts, is that it is just what it is and no more than what it is and has no name and is but beastly power—

For those who believe in a personal God who cares about good and bad are hallucinating themselves beyond the shadow of doubt, tho God bless them, he blankly blesses blanks anyway—

It’s just nothing but Infinity infinitely variously amusing itself with a movie, infinitude wants all—

But I did think on the mountain, “Well” (and pass the little mound where I’d buried the mouse every day as I went to my filthy defecations) “let us keep the mind neutral, let us be like the void”—but as soon as I get bored and come down the mountain I cant for the life of me be anything but enraged, lost, partial, critical, mixed-up, scared, foolish, proud, sneering, shit shit shit—

The candle burns
And when that’s done
The wax lies in cold artistic piles
——s about all I know

–– Jack Kerouac from Desolation Angels p 70-71


“What that extra time does is allow for a more relaxed atmosphere,” [Frank] Corcoran said, after the class was over.  “I find that the problem with math education is the sink-or-swim approach.  Everything is rapid fire, and the kids who get it first are the ones who are rewarded.  So there comes to be a feeling that there are people who can do math and there are people who aren’t math people.  I think that extended amount of time gives you the chance as a teacher to explain things, and more time for the kids to sit and digest everything that’s going on–to review, to do things at a much slower pace.  It seems counterintuitive but we do things at a slower pace and as a result we get through a lot more.  There’s a lot more retention, better understanding of the material.  It lets me be a little bit more relaxed.   We have time to have games.  Kids can ask any questions they want, and if I’m explaining something, I don’t feel pressed for time.  I can go back over material and not feel time pressure.”  The extra time gave Corcoran the chance to make mathematics meaningful:  to let his students see the clear relationship between effort and reward.

–– Frank Corcoran quoted in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell p 262