Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

16 OCTOBER, 2014

The History Manifesto: How to Eradicate the Epidemic of Short-Termism and Harness Our Past in Creating a Flourishing Future

By:

A beautiful case for why our flourishing requires that we move from pursuing value to cultivating values.

I spend a significant amount of time on ideas at the intersection of the timeless and the timely, something I find to be of growing urgency in a culture such as ours, where the tyrannical reverse-chronology of newsfeeds implies that the latest, being literally at the top, is also of the greatest importance and meaning. We often lump the thinkers of the past under the grab-bag term “history” — a term that has come to be increasingly dismissive as irrelevant amid our novelty-fetishism. And yet some of humanity’s greatest thinkers, who have been dead for decades or centuries or millennia, have explored with remarkable prescience and insight issues of intense importance today — be it Seneca on busyness two thousand years before our present cult of productivity or Susan Sontag on the dynamics of visual culture online decades before the modern social web existed or Kierkegaard on the psychology of bullying and cybertrolling in 1847 or Tolstoy and Gandhi on the truth of the human spirit. Asking the eternal questions — about happiness, about justice, about how to live a meaningful life — is an immutable part of the human experience. To presume that we and we alone, perched atop our tiny slice of history, have the most valid answers is to cheat ourselves of the rich and ennobling record of human experience upon which our civilization is founded.

That’s precisely what Brown University history professor Jo Guldi and Harvard historian David Armitage explore in The History Manifesto (public library) — a beautifully argued case for why we need to eradicate the present epidemic of short-termism, a disease that “has many practitioners but few defenders,” and shift to long-view narratives that ensure not only the survival but also the creative, intellectual, political, environmental, and spiritual flourishing of our civilization. (Although the manifesto may celebrate the value of the past, it isn’t beholden to yesteryear’s baggage — the book is also available as a free digital text under a Creative Commons license.)

Guldi and Armitage open unambiguously:

A specter is haunting our time: the specter of the short term.

We live in a moment of accelerating crisis that is characterized by the shortage of long-term thinking… Almost every aspect of human life is plotted and judged, packaged and paid for, on time-scales of a few months or years. There are few opportunities to shake those projects loose from their short-term moorings. It can hardly seem worthwhile to raise questions of the long term at all.

'The Histomap' by John Sparks (1931) from 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for details.

They cite legendary futurist Steward Brand’s founding statement for The Long Now Foundation, of which I am a proud supporter:

Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed — some mechanism or myth that encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where “the long term” is measured at least in centuries.

A proper relationship with the past, Guldi and Armitage argue, empowers the essential elasticity of time that is so central to free will and to our ability to make sound decisions, in business and in life:

Nimble people, whether activists or entrepreneurs … depend on an instinctual sense of change from past to present to future as they navigate through their day-to-day activities… Regardless of age or security of income, we are all in the business of making sense of a changing world. In all cases, understanding the nexus of past and future is crucial to acting upon what comes next.

Educational institutions, they argue, are both uniquely situated as bastions of long-term thinking and particularly vulnerable to the epidemic of short-termism. Nalanda University in India, founded as a Buddhist institution more than 1,500 years ago, may still be a hearth of learning, but it also must exist in a culture where the average lifespan of a modern corporation is a mere 75 years and the vast majority of startups don’t survive past their fifth year. That universities are increasingly subjected to the expectations of businesses, Guldi and Armitage suggest, is of enormous cultural peril:

Universities … are the carriers of traditions, the guardians of deep knowledge. They should be the centers of innovation where research takes place without regard to profit or immediate application.

[...]

The peculiar capacity of the university to foster disinterested inquiries into the long term may be as endangered as long-term thinking itself… As the medieval university mutated into the modern research university, and as private foundations become subject to public control and funding, the goals of the humanities were increasingly tested and contested. For at least the last century, wherever the humanities have been taught or studied there has been debate about their “relevance” and their “value.” Crucial to the defense of the humanities has been their mission to transmit questions about value — and to question values — over hundreds, even thousands, of years. Any search for antidotes to short-termism must begin with them.

'Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences' by Chrétien Frederic (1780) from 'The Book of Trees.' Click image for details.

In the third chapter, titled “The Proliferation of Mythology,” Guldi and Armitage point to one particularly perilous aspect of our cultural narrative — that of reductionist and misleading myths. (The great Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner memorably captured the power of myth in 1962, calling it “at once an external reality and the resonance of the internal vicissitudes of man” and a “ready-made means of externalizing human plight.”) The authors write:

The abundance of false stories in our time is one of the major reasons that we are in a crisis of short-term thinking. In an era of simplistic solutions to problems with rising sea-levels, governance, or inequality, few people can talk authoritatively about the big picture. The proliferation of reductionist stories about the past has a history, like anything else. Nightmare scenarios and fundamentalist mythologies about climate, governance, and inequality began to proliferate around the same time that historians began to retreat to shorter and shorter time scales.

As the Short Past came to dictate conversations about history, longue-durée understanding began to look, by contrast, like an antique mode of story-telling, something performed only by patriarchs or amateurs, unsuited to a modern student adept at using evidence or argument. This led to the charge that social history had abandoned all interest in politics, power, and ideology, leading its practitioners instead to “sit somewhere in the stratosphere, unrooted in reality.” Increasingly, the Short Past was defined as not only one way to look at history, but the only way to look at history.

'A New Chart of History' by Joseph Priestley (1769) from '100 Diagrams that Changed the World.' Click image for details.

Particularly since the 1970s, Guldi and Armitage argue, such short-termism has resulted in nothing short of a moral crisis, blinding us to alternative futures and producing “habits of microscopic attention that culminated in a sense of practical irrelevance” and that caused the mutual abandonment of the humanities (which are, after all, what makes us human) and the public.

As somebody particularly drawn to mid-twentieth-century thinkers like Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, and Alan Watts, I find particularly pause-giving Guldi and Armitage’s observation that during that period, historians and intellectuals played an active role in the public sphere — something that undoubtedly not only benefited public life, but also enriched these thinkers’ ideas to make them precisely as enduring as they are. Today, the notion of a “public intellectual” is, outside of a small coterie, practically paradoxical. Our idols are not scholars and people who think for a living but performers and entrepreneurs, people who do for a living, and do at a rapid pace, with productive immediacy. No wonder short-termism is the monoculture of our time.

Guldi and Armitage advocate for a new breed of historians and history-minded thinkers who are concerned with “restoring the tight-woven cloak of stories that helps to shelter a culture with a sophisticated understanding of its past” and who use the past to illuminate the future and speak truth to present power:

The new historians of the longue durée should be inspired to use history to criticize the institutions around us and to return history to its mission as a critical social science. History can provide the basis for a rejection of anachronisms founded on deference to longevity alone. Thinking with history — but only with long stretches of that history — may help us to choose which institutions to bury as dead and which we might want to keep alive.

[...]

History, with its rich, material understanding of human experience and institutions and its apprehension of multiple causality, is reentering the arena of long-term discussions of time where evolutionary biologists, archaeologists, climate scientists, and economists have long been the only protagonists. Today, we desperately need an arbiter for these mythological histories, capable of casting out prejudice, reestablishing consensus about the actual boundaries of the possible, and in so doing opening up a wider future and destiny for modern civilizations. History as a discipline can be that referee.

A visual history of Nobel Prizes and laureates. Click image for details.

In the final section, Guldi and Armitage capture precisely what is at stake and why the role of history in shaping the future is so full of promise and possibility:

Responding to the call for a public future demands some rethinking the way we look at the past… Answering the call for a public future also means writing and talking about the past and the future in public, in such a way that ideas can be easily shared.

They outline the three things essential for writing such future-forward history:

  1. A need for new narratives capable of being read, understood, and engaged by non-experts
  2. An emphasis on visualization and digital tools
  3. A fusion between the big and the small, the “micro” and the “macro,” that harnesses the best of archival work on the one hand and big-picture work about issues of common concern on the other

Seven decades after Vannevar Bush presaged the rise of “a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record,” Guldi and Armitage write:

History’s relationship with the public future lies in developing a longue-durée contextual background against which archival information, events, and sources can be interpreted… [This] requires the services of scholars trained in looking at the past, who can explain where things came from, who can examine the precise evidence of the Short Past and the broader picture of big data and the longue durée, and who are dedicated to serve the public through responsible thinking about the nexus of past, present, and future.

Illustration from the graphic biography of Karl Marx. Click image for details.

But rather than nihilistic criticism of contemporary culture, the book is above all a clarion call for taking action, for our era is uniquely positioned to cultivate a sound and nourishing relationship with the past:

An era defined by a crisis of short-termism may be a particularly good time to start rethinking attitudes towards the past. Many histories have been written with the express purpose of offering a window into the future, and some — especially long-term histories of capitalism and the environment — are very clear about what they offer.

This, Guldi and Armitage argue, would require the dedication of people “unafraid of generating and circulating digestible narratives” — for, lest we forget, the disseminators of ideas are the unsung heroes of innovation and progress — who would respond to “a public need to make sense of our common past.” These people, they point out, need not be professional historians — we ought to, as legendary humanist John Franklin Jameson put it in 1912, think of history “not as the property of a small guild of professional colleagues, but as the rightful heritage of millions.”

The History Manifesto is excellent and urgently necessary in its totality. Complement it with Judith Butler’s fantastic commencement address on the value of the humanities.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

06 OCTOBER, 2014

Karl Marx’s Life and Legacy, in a Comic

By:

From the opium of the masses to the downfall of capitalism, by way of love and revolution.

The history of our species is rife with ideologies — political, religious, social, philosophical — that have been either wholly hijacked from their creators or gradually warped, with only fragments of the original vision intact, doomed to being continually misunderstood by posterity.

On the heels of the excellent graphic biography of Freud, British indie press Nobrow is back with Marx (public library) by Swiss writer, economist, historian, and psychoanalyst Corinne Maier and French illustrator Anne Simon — an illuminating chronicle of the life and legacy of a man at once reviled as “the Devil” for denouncing capitalism and celebrated for his ideals of eradicating inequality, injustice, and exploitation from the world. More than the sum total of his political legacy, Marx’s story is also one of great personal turmoil and tragedy, inner conflict, and moral tussle — subtleties that the comic genre, with its gift for stripping complexities to their simplest truths without losing dimension, reveals with great sensitivity and insight.

The story begins with Marx’s childhood as the third of nine kids in a traditional Jewish family and traces his exasperation with classical education and his choice to study philosophy instead, how he fell in love with the woman who would become his partner for life, the evolution of his influential treatise The Communist Manifesto, how he ended up dying a stateless person, “both adored and hated,” and what his ideas have to do with the 2008 economic collapse.

One of the final pages, reflecting on communism’s rise to power in Russia, Eastern Europe and China in the twentieth century, captures the dimensionality of Marx’s legacy in elegantly simple form. “Some very good things came out of it, but some very bad ones, too,” writes Maier as Marx’s ghost is depicted walking off, muttering to himself, “My ideal of freedom was betrayed.”

Complement Marx with other fantastic graphic biographies — Salvador Dalí, Richard Feynman, Andy Warhol, Charles Darwin, Hunter S. Thompson, and Steve Jobs — then revisit Nobrow’s wonderful graphic novel about the brain.

Images courtesy of Nobrow Press

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

24 SEPTEMBER, 2014

A Lolitigation Lament: Nabokov on Censorship and Solidarity

By:

“Could you visualize LOLITA as a little paperback being offered for sale on the newstands?”

Vladimir Nabokov was a man of strong opinions — whether about the necessary qualities of a great storyteller or the nature of inspiration or the attributes of a good reader — but nowhere more so than when it came to defending his greatest work against censorship.

When Lolita was first published in Europe in September of 1955, its first printing of 5,000 copies flew off the shelves, but the book remained largely under the radar of the literary establishment. It wasn’t until December of that year that Graham Greene catapulted it into public attention by declaring it one of the year’s three best books in a piece for London’s Sunday Times. And because rivaling publications thrive on provocation and at the heart of all cultural controversy is a powerfully charged battery of approval and disapproval, the editor of London’s Sunday Express went vocally against Greene, calling the novel “sheer unrestrained pornography” and “the filthiest book I have ever read.” The controversy stirred frantic alarm at the UK Home Office, which instructed customs agents to begin confiscating all copies of the book entering the United Kingdom. A few months later, France’s Minister of the Interior banned novel. The original publisher, Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, who had convinced Nabokov not to publish the book under a pseudonym, faced legal trouble on account of the book. Nabokov responded with equal parts concern and indignation.

In a letter to Girodias from early March of 1957, found in the unfailingly absorbing Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940–1977 (public library), Nabokov wryly scoffs at what he called the “lolitigation” surrounding his book:

My moral defense of the book is the book itself. I do not feel under any obligation to do more… On the ethical plane, it is of supreme indifference to me what opinion French, British or any other courts, magistrates, or philistine readers in general, may have of my book. However, I appreciate your difficulties.

Alternative cover for Lolita by Jamie Keenan from 'Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl.' Click image for more.

But Nabokov knew such idealism bordering on moral arrogance would hurt the book’s odds of reaching commercial success in the long run. Burned by Lolita‘s European reception, he was determined to protect it from a similar fate in America. (A few months later, he would write in another letter to Girodias: “I am positive that LOLITA is the best thing I have written so far.”) This required a highly strategic approach to timing, allegiances, and literary ideals.

Nabokov had his eye set on Doubleday as the best American publisher for the book he took such pride in. “Nothing in the world would please me better than to have Doubleday bring out LOLITA,” he wrote to Doubleday editor and publisher Jason Epstein earlier the same day, before sending his “lolitigation” lament to Girodias.

Meanwhile, Nabokov was being courted by McDowell, the New York publishing firm founded by the prominent financial analyst Prince Ivan Sergeyevich Obolensky. When he saw that Doubleday was dragging its feet, Nabokov wrote to Epstein — whether as political goading or in earnest, or some combination of the two — of Obolensky’s competing offer:

My reaction to it is not a matter of principle but a matter of money. I am not particularly impressed by his firm but I cannot afford to miss the opportunity of not missing the opportunity to sell the book.

And yet ten days later, he sent Obolensky a polite rejection, along with a lengthy justification for declining his offer:

I have given much thought to the plans you suggested for LOLITA and have consulted several friends whose opinion I value. I have also been in touch with my publisher in Paris. The unanimous opinion is that this is not the right moment to publish LOLITA in the United States. I am terribly sorry to disappoint you. Here are a few reasons against publication:

  1. Everybody seems convinced that LOLITA would be banned if it were to be published now, without further preparation. Even if you are willing to assume the costs of a legal fight which may run into 50.000 or 60.000 dollars, you may eventually lose the case, and then LOLITA would be lost irretrievably.
  2. Should the book get into trouble, the NY. Times would at once refuse to advertise it, and every important publication in the country would follow suit. Nor would the Post Office let you announce the book directly through the mails if the legal action were begun under a federal statute.
  3. When you suggested that you would get in touch with a reprint house it became clear to me that you did not realize all the implications of this case. Could you visualize LOLITA as a little paperback being offered for sale on the newstands? [sic]

Let me repeat that I am terribly sorry that this will be a disappointment to you. But I have become convinced that the publication has to be put off at least until I see how the Anchor Review fares, how the Paris litigation is settled, and what decision the Supreme Court takes in some similar cases now before it.

Alternative cover for Lolita by Michael Bierut from 'Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl.' Click image for more.

To make matters even more complicated, Girodias kept pressing to publish the book in America under his own European imprint. Nabokov, determined to land at Doubleday, wrote to Girodias on May 14, weighing the many factors at play regarding potential censorship in America:

Dear Mr. Girodias,

You know as well as I do that publishing LOLITA in the US under your own imprint would mean asking for trouble. Nor can you fail to realize that a second-rate publisher would be no use since he would not be able to defend the book. Some ten years ago Doubleday spent more than $60000 on the defense of HECATE COUNTY by Edmund Wilson. Costs have gone up since then and are beyond the means of a second-rate publisher.

Since you know all this, and also know that we have here all sorts of Watch and Ward Societies, Catholic Legions of Decency, etc., and that, moreover, every post master in the country can start censorship trouble, I feel sure that you do not seriously contemplate the course of action you suggest in your letter.

But Nabokov’s most poignant point, from the same letter to Girodias, has to do with the question of solidarity against censorship — the idea that a publisher must not only be an author’s commercial vendor, but also his or her greatest champion and unconditional comrade in creative idealism. Nabokov writes:

Whoever publishes LOLITA here will have to agree to defend it, at his own expense, and to carry this defense through the courts as far as the Supreme Court, if necessary.

By August, the situation worsens and the Nabokov’s evocation of the Supreme Court suddenly stops seeming like bombast. He writes again to Girodias:

The situation here is extremely delicate. Doubleday have chosen the passages from LOLITA for the Anchor Review with the help of their lawyers, who in two instances made them change their choice of text. These lawyers have now been consulted as to the prospects of a complete edition; they have advised against it for the present. As you probably know, the Supreme Court has just handed down some very disappointing decisions. Although the cases judged were far removed from LOLITA’s case, the important thing is that the Court did not bother with the definition of the term “obscenity”, and did not take any measures against local censorship. This means that any small-town postmaster can set in motion the machine of censorship, starting the case on its way from Court to Court, until it reached the Supreme Court, which probably (though by no means certainly) would exonerate my book.

If Nabokov’s mention of the postmaster-censor sounds like a throwaway remark of exaggeration, it is anything but. Local censorship would go on to plague America for decades, the most famous example perhaps being the story of Ursula Nordstrom’s brilliantly feisty letter to a school librarian, who had decided to burn Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen as an act of censorship merely because it depicted a little boy without pants.

He goes on to reject Girodias’s offer, revisiting the notion of solidarity in the face of censorship and citing it as a major reason for his decision:

An important consideration is, too, that Doubleday think of me as of one of “their” authors. They have acquired two more books from me, and will do more than any other publisher to “push” LOLITA, which would be as much to your advantage as to mine (or theirs). For all these reasons I am sorry that you so resolutely rejected their offer.

Urging Girodias to consider an agreement with Doubleday, he adds:

I am positive that LOLITA is the best thing I have written so far; I shall be always grateful to you for having published it. It would be an awful shame if some false move prevented you and me from enjoying some profit from it.

Alternative cover for Lolita by Henry Sene Yee from 'Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl.' Click image for more.

At the end, Doubleday didn’t come through — likely in large part out of fear of what the kind of solidarity Nabokov demanded would cost them if an obscenity lawsuit indeed resulted from the publication. The publisher willing to offer such solidarity was ultimately G.P. Putnam’s Sons, currently owned by Penguin Group, who published the American edition of Lolita in August of 1958. Already into its third printing within days, it became the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its initial three weeks on the market. Despite Nabokov’s fears of censorship, or perhaps precisely because of his elaborate strategizing to prevent it, there were no official government sanctions.

Then again, such is the nature of capitalism — commercial success automatically grants moral approval.

Complement the always opinionated, always pleasurable Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters with the celebrated author on literature and life in a rare 1969 BBC interview and his recommendation for the six short stories everyone must read, then revisit other literary icons on censorship.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.