Archive for May, 2007

The sage savage

It’s often claimed that in distinction to modern societies the chiefs of neolithic tribes were/are the wisest members of their community. In his memoir Tristes tropiques, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss implies this as well. This might seem little more than the glib sanctimoniousness of a committed noble-savageist. But for one thing his considerable first-hand experience among neolithic tribes probably makes his testimony count for more than the opinion of a Rousseau, even if people inevitably view even first-hand experience through content-laden eyes (i.e. through a filter of preconceptions), and in fact I think there may be something to his idea. I know from my own first-hand experience working in small organizations that it’s often surprisingly easy to pick the best leader. In my fraternity, for example, in my four years of college all but one year I would say that, within certain paremeters of seniority (it’s almost always a senior, or if need be a junior–but then, underclassmen get their chance eventually), the president chosen by election was arguably the best leader in the group (and even in the case of the one exception there were various mitigating factors that probably justified the result in the end, and my preferred candidate became president a couple of years later anyway). Why? Becasuse, as I say, most people can probably tell intuitively who is the most dedicated, the most level-headed and logical, the best at organizing people, even when most of them may not fully understand what the job entails. Of course, for subsidiary positions that require specific skills other than who’s the most popular, the democratic system is much less successful.

Of course, not all, or even most, neolithic tribal chiefs are chosen by election (although probably more than democracy-is-solely-a-Western-invention-created-in-Athens dogmatists would be willing to admit), but as Lévi-Strauss argues fairly persuasively, in a small group where everyone knows each other it’s probably not very realistic to lead if most of the members don’t support you, at least tacitly. And at that extremely local level most people seem to be fairly decent at recognizing who natural leaders are. So the problem with politics, especially democratic politics, is not that people are idiots. But think about the situation in a large nation-state: with millions (or billions) of people, no one can possibly know everyone else. Therefore, those who are vying for leadership are those who have had to devote themselves to pushing themselves into the spotlight, i.e. generally ambitious opportunists. Not that those people are always bad leaders, but in any group larger than a few hundred people they’re going to be, with a few exceptions, the only pool of people from which to choose, almost by definition. Even in student government, with only a couple of thousand people to choose from, it was generally student-government people that fought with each other for the honors, not those that you would necessarily actually want representing you (of course the problem there might also be that nobody else cared because the positions were meaningless–even more meaningless than fraternity president, since they at least have to attend to the continued existence of the organization, especially nowadays). So the problem isn’t so much how people choose a leader, but the framework that defines those choices even before they get the chance to decide. Because it’s not so hard to choose someone when you can weigh the alternatives among everyone in the group, but in a large-scale political system the potential nominees essentially have to nominate themselves first, then kick and fight their way into a position of prominence first before people even become aware of them. Of course, if you’re half as cynical about human motives as I am, that makes it seem almost impossible that leaders of large organizations could be as good as leaders of small organizations. There’s a reason that people that nominate themselves in small-group elections never win. At any rate, it seems there may not be such a contradiction between having good leaders on a small scale and bad ones on a large scale as it might at first seem, nor that the idea of sage tribal chiefs running around the jungles of the world is as entirely absurd.

Literary theorists try once again to capture the flavor of the day

I am self-absorbed as a thinker. By that I mean that most of my thinking comes as a result of my reflection on my own mind and feelings, and I’ve flirted with solipsism, a defensible philosophical position perhaps but nevertheless one that I believe only relatively self-absorbed minds could engage with. Maybe most people consider the idea of “self-absorption” to be a bad word, meaning the same as selfishness or callousness. But to be absorbed in the study of the self is a deep, endless pursuit, dear to most great thinkers, and no self can be better known than one’s own. Perhaps, after all, only one’s self can be known at all, or not even that, but then we come all at once back in the direction of solipsism. In any case, while philosophers use and abuse in some cases the idea of “introspection” as the last sacred activity that can privilege them as a distinct discipline in the face of competition from science, I don’t want to present inner reflection as the last hope of an academic discipline that has lost its moorings, but as a balance to a mental landscape increasingly dominated by pseudo-scientific behavioralism.

In the last three decades, as evolutionary thinking has increasingly permeated the culture and neo-Darwinism has replaced Marxism and Freudianism as a Big Idea that faded humanities departments can hitch their star to, maybe it was inevitable that someone would concoct an idea like “Darwinian literary studies,” which sounds like some Sokal-like nightmare concocted by a random terminalogy generator. In fact, symbolically it seems like a welcome gesture of receptivity in the field to a certain amount of rigor and empirical thinking. The mistake, however, is the same one that theorists have been making for decades in taking literary texts as illustrations of whatever economic, psychoanalytic, sociological or ethnological theory ambushed them on the way to a doctorate. People don’t read novels or poems because they’re the same as an economic analysis of the corset trade or a study on the mating strategies of fruit flies, but because they’re different. The attention to language is (presumably) greater, and the aesthetic effect holds the primary interest. When you’re reduced to plowing through “Pride and Prejudice” to discover that, like praying mantises, among whom the female frequently devours the head of the male during sex, often not a lot of trust exists in relationships between and women, it seem clear that you’ve been reduced to obvious nuggets by focusing on the broad strokes of behavior that are common to most all animals. I call it sledgehammering: invoking an unnecessarily authoritative source to belabor an obvious point. One of the all-time champions is Dostoyevsky for his little chestnut “if God does not exist, everything is permitted,” a drearily banal canard, not to mention blatantly untrue (as anyone who has been to China can attest), but, while a common sentiment, invoked ad nauseam in that particular form for the sole reason that Dostoyevsky’s name gives it a certain heft. Invoking Darwin to contend that people are often selfish follows a similar pattern. Which is not to say that there are not innumerable interesting and non-obvious insights to be found by investigating the common themes in animal behavior. But literary scholars are generally not trained scientists, and their understanding of evolutionary biology often seems to lack a certain sophistication. And even if they were, evolutionary biology is still a behavioralist field, not in the skinnerian sense, but in the sense that it’s predicated on the study of behavior, not conscious thought. Finding parallels between people and praying mantises cannot be based on shared thought processes, because we don’t know what the thought processes of praying mantises are, or even whether they exist in the human sense of the term. Similarities in behavior and physiology are about all that’s available to compare. Of course a lot of neurobiology work is investigating the correspondences between conscious thoughts and brain activity in humans and then extrapolating to similar correspondences to animals, but none of this would make any sense without conscious reflection. I mean that not just in the obvious sense that conscious thought is the medium for all of these theories, but also in the sense that much of the data on brain activity doesn’t make any sense except with reference to our thoughts and feelings as we’ve defined them internally. There is no neutral ground outside of subjective conscious thought from which to view the world: to that extent the division between the ‘view from the inside’ of introspection and the ‘view from the outside’ of scientific investigation is to somewhat illusory. So while of course measuring the physical traits of thinking is very interesting and useful, it wouldn’t be wise to relinquish the immeasurable depth of internal mapping of the mind, especially if you’re not a scientist with the expertise and the grant to do the measuring.

links for 2007-05-09