Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Michel Serres - The Troubadour of Knowledge

The closest thing we may get to a pedagogy from French philosopher Michel Serres, The Troubadour of Knowledge aims to describe what Serres calls "the Instructed Third." Variously thought of as a renaissance man, or all-arounder (a person in the vein of Odysseus), Serres' Instructed Third represents a meeting point of learned and novice; someone who willingly crosses over between the familiar and the novel, finding at that moment of transition a point that is at once an arrival and a departure.

 This call is inseparable from his philosophies of multiplicity - that hard and fast definitions of things produce inevitable violence and close-off possibilities. All around us Serres sees an all-encompassing rationality that cannot but lead to violence; by choosing a world in which we must know everything we have traded in trivia for wisdom. Serres calls for the re-emergence of a willing human weakness in the face of destructive strength. For Serres it is crucial that we are people of multiplicity, of equi-valence.

 To be all these things Serres says we must rend ourselves from what is easy and simple. Many great departures will lead a person to be at home in the world; to swim currents instead of resisting them. At once comfortable in the science or the humanities, within the towering edifices of academia or roughing it in the mountains, Serres is looking for people who will pave their own way beyond the expected. Central to his philosophy is the notion that  the world is a patchwork of multiplicity - and if we are to live within it, we too must cultivated our multiple natures. As such both people and the world must be allowed to exist in a state in which multiplicity is nurtured, rather than sacrificed to categorization. Rather than domination, Serres is looking for the wisdom of flexibility and adequacy; for we as a people to learn to make room, to allow ourselves and the world to be multiple.

Monday, September 19, 2011

H.D.F. Kitto - The Greeks

An overview of Classical Greece - from roughly 500 bce to 350 bce - H. D.F. Kitto's The Greeks, provides the modern reader with a proper context to understand our inheritance of, and differences from the world of the Athenian polis. Crucial to Kitto's analysis is the understanding of all Greek citizens as men of numerous abilities and balance, great all-arounders. Throughout his life an Athenian citizen could expect to be called on to serve in the military, engage in political life, and more likely than not political office, in the polis, farm and engage in certain manners of trade. In contrast to our society of experts, it was one of the Greeks great sources of pride (except the Spartans) that armies served at a moments notice and that all men could be called on very most any role in public life.

Kitto relies on two crucial aspects to illuminate his argument: that of the polis and of arete. Frequently translated as city-state, the polis can be more adequately conceived of as community/political arena/social sphere/ state/organizing principle/and ideal of aspiration for each citizen. Whereas our society can be conceived of as an agglomeration of individuals, Athens is rightly thought of as an assembly of heads of families who owed their first loyalty to this all-encompassing sphere of the polis.  It was at once where he sought his entertainment, where he paid his taxes, to whom he levied complaints and to which he was expected to serve. Contrary to perhaps feeling overburdened by such an ideal, Kitto tells us that citizens in Classical Greece drew strength and wisdom from this public sphere. In this way their life appears seamlessly integrated.
Driving the Greek ideal, and handed down from Homer, was the notion of arete, or what we straight-jacket as virtue. Rather, Kitto writes, it is best to think of it as excellence in all things, and as duty, though duty conceived towards being the best for oneself, rather than for the sake of others. Heroes of the Homeric age were, such as Hector or Achilles, were thought of as men of surpassing arete; men of excellence in all things. Such a notion ties in to the ideal of the all-arounder, a man who could do best for himself in all ways and thus be the best kind of citizen for the polis.
Kitto succinctly brings these and many other realms of Classical Greek life together in a book that accomplishes a great depth of understanding in the reader for such a slim amount of prose.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert Pirsig

This is, I believe, the fourth time I have read Pirsig's famous work. This, in and of itself, is a bit of an admission. For some reason, the association ZAMM has with a sort-of soft-headed way of thinking about the world (which a find entirely undeserved), compounded with its ubiquity, makes any reference to it within certain circles guaranteed to emit groans and eye-rolls. With that in mind I often feel the need to defend the work more than is probably warranted. Thus I will stick to this: having read it numerous times, I can comfortably say that each time I recognize some new aspect that I had heretofore glossed over. Each new discovery deepens the experience of the work and perhaps this is the highest compliment literature can receive.

When I re-read ZAMM it is usually with a specific purpose in mind. This time I was in the throes of writing an extended paper on the relationship between science, society and the non-human world and specifically wanted to get an infusion of a certain type of rhetoric. What I had, apparently, forgotten, is that the entire work is specifically a treatise of and concerning rhetoric. What jumped out at me more clearly this time were notions of the rhetoritician as someone equipped to deal with the world and even him or herself. When Pirsig describes piece of mind, or that idea that, in the end the cycle you are working on is called yourself, he is talking about the ability to nurture points of view and thus ways of living.

Though the work was ostensibly born out of a the dissatisfaction of spirit with a certain time, it has lost none of its immediacy and relevance. Perhaps because the ideas put forward rest at the intersection between the good life of an individual and society it may never lose this immediacy: by situating his concerns in a depth of history Pirsig ensures that we can see the connections of our life and his.

If nothing else the book always stirs reflection, and, for those so inclined, this reflection pierces quite deeply into aspects seen as central to how we live our lives. Unquestionably Pirsig's work has, and continues to, motivate and stir me. Its re-reading has given it the added feeling of an old friend, one that is of a decidedly impeccable quality.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West - William Cronon

Nature’s Metropolis demonstrates the relationship between the rise of Chicago and the transformation of the geography and resources which compose its “hinterland.” William Cronon has exhaustively researched and provided a cogent and fluid retelling of Chicago's meteoric rise to national and international prominence. For Cronon, the story of the city's growth rests at the intersection of what he calls first and second natures - being the difference between the resources and geography of the natural world and the manner in which humans build economies of scale and infrastructure to funnel people, resources, and capital towards certain locations and away from others.

With the construction of the railroads, Chicago became the crossroads where the "Great West" met the consumer markets of the East Coast. Coming from the West, Chicago would be the organizing port-of-call for wheat, timber, and livestock to be shipped eastward and even to Europe. In return, these markets redistributed the goods desired by urban and hinterland inhabitants; resources supporting the good and civilized life in the country as well as the city. The urban meeting point, and the crucial economies of scale it fostered, meant that Chicago merchants profited immensely from the volume of wealth passing through the city daily. Key to such capital flows was the further growth of the city's infrastructure, which further concentrated wealth and resources along the southern shore of Lake Michigan.

Cronon has accomplished a difficult task in tying the growth of the city to the hinterland and making a clear argument that city and country must be understood together. The economies of second nature are overlain upon first nature and transform organisms into resources. All of these flow across the landscape, interacting via the market and with one another to transform the Great West into the urban hinterland.