The more I read about the late Daniel Bell, the more I like him. I recently picked up a copy of his classic The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. I’ve set it aside to read Fukuyama’s latest, but I intend to pick it up again very soon. The book description from Barnes and Noble: “This classic analysis of Western liberal capitalist society contends that capitalism—and the culture it creates—harbors the seeds of its own downfall by creating a need among successful people for personal gratification—a need that corrodes the work ethic that led to their success in the first place. With the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a new world order, this provocative manifesto is more relevant than ever.”
Bell gave an interview in September 2010 to Utopian, just a few short months before his death. A brief excerpt:
“I’ve written, as you probably know, that I’m a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.”
"And you’ve never had any trouble reconciling those?
“Not in the least! I’m against the idea of totality, which is a whole Marxist concept. I believe there are different logics in the different realms. The economy is, more or less, a system in which interdependence is established through the different variables of supply and demand. The polity is not a system, it is an order, held together by coercion and consent. Culture has two dimensions. One is the dimension of forms that exist, and the other is the dimension of meaning ...
"Ok, so the realms may be autonomous. But do you not think they are intimately related? In Cultural Contradictions, you write of how America’s crumbling cultural values threaten the economic realm.
“Let me go back for a minute because this is crucial. If there’s no single dimension that runs across these different realms, then what is so special about them? I’m a socialist in economics because I believe that every human being has a right — if you want to put it that way — to a decent living standard. It goes back to Aristotle. If a man is not a member of the polity, he is either a beast or a God. So that there ought to be a “right” to give everybody a decent standard of living. Being a member of the society gives rise to a claim on the economy. I’m a liberal in politics because I believe in merit. And I therefore believe that one’s position in society ought to be determined on the basis of merit. In culture, I’m a conservative because I believe in judgment, forms, and meanings.
“So that’s why I can assume a certain logical coherence to the idea of being a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.”
The Death of the Book
It has been said practically since it was first developed that the codex is on a march toward extinction. Yet, for the first time in history e-books have outsold print. Maybe this time, it’s true, writes Ben Ehrenreich in the Los Angeles Times.
"None of this is new of course. Nor is it new to point out that people have been diagnosing—and celebrating—the book’s imminent demise for generations. It is possible to regard much of Western avant garde poetry and prose as an extended argument with the bound pages from which literature would prefer to break free. In a 1913 manifesto, Filippo Marinetti (a futurist of the OG sort) called for “a typographic revolution directed against the idiotic and nauseating concepts of the outdated and conventional book.” His insurrectionary program may now seem quaint—“on the same page we will use three or four colors of ink, or even twenty typefaces if necessary”—but Marinetti was not alone in rebelling against the uniformity imposed on language by the standard typeset page. Similar urges ran through most of the high modernists, certainly through Stein, Joyce, and Pound, and through the iconoclastic American poet and journalist Robert Carlton Brown (better known as Bob), who, in the late 1920s, envisioned a reading machine designed to liberate words from the static confines of the page. Brown imagined something like a desk-sized microfiche reader capable of displaying spooled celluloid texts called “readies.” ”Writing has been bottled up in books since the start,” he wrote. ”It is time to pull out the stopper.”
This is my favorite paragraph from Ehrenreich’s well-written essay: “It is perhaps a symptom of print’s decline that the current conversation about the book’s demise has forgotten all these other ones. Instead we shuttle between two equally hollow poles: goofball digital boosterism a la Negroponte on one side and on the other a helpless, anguished nostalgia for the good old days of papercuts. Call it bibilionecrophilia: the retreat of the print-faithful into a sort of autistic fetishization of the book-as-object—as if Jeff Bezos could be convinced to lay e-profits aside by recalling for a moment the soft, woody aroma of a yellow-paged Grove Press paperback; as if there were nothing more to books than paper, ink, and glue.”
The Last Word
Alyssa Ford, a former Greenspring colleague of mine, has this great Star Tribune profile of Anatoly Liberman, a University of Minnesota professor who is trying to finish what’s turned into a lifelong project: a comprehensive dictionary of some of the most misunderstood English words. For 24 years, Liberman has been working diligently on his book while still keeping a full teaching load. Once completed, scholars believe it will be a very important contribution to the field...once completed. At 74, he still as 10 more years of work left.
From Ford’s story: “Liberman, a professor of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at the University of Minnesota, remains upbeat that he will complete his magnum opus. “If I ‘survive my well-contented day,’ as Shakespeare put it, I will finish,” he said, noting that he eats hot cereal and a fresh grapefruit for breakfast, and walks the 45 minutes from his house to the U, often composing or translating poetry along the way in his native Russian. (He immigrated to Minnesota in 1975.)
“"My wife cooks fish because she says it’s better for me, but when I’m away at conferences, I have a beef steak and I find it very good,” he says, in the clipped British accent he cultivated by listening to hours and hours of BBC radio.
“As the professor labors on his dictionary in the solitude of his library carrel, his wordy colleagues from around the world are closely following the progress of the “Liberman Project."”
Evolution of Language
Some fascinating new research has surfaced as the how language first developed and evolved. According to a recent article published in Nature, language has not developed on a linear path like scholars have always thought. From the story in Wired:
“It’s widely thought that human language evolved in universally similar ways, following trajectories common across place and culture, and possibly reflecting common linguistic structures in our brains. But a massive, millennium-spanning analysis of humanity’s major language families suggests otherwise.
“Instead, language seems to have evolved along varied, complicated paths, guided less by neurological settings than cultural circumstance. If our minds do shape the evolution of language, it’s likely at levels deeper and more nuanced than many researchers anticipated.
““It’s terribly important to understand human cognition, and how the human mind is put together,” said Michael Dunn, an evolutionary linguist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute and co-author of the new study, published April 14 in Nature. The findings “do not support simple ideas of the mind as a computer, with a language processor plugged in. They support much-more complex ideas of how language arises.””
Language, it seems, develops “from more general cognitive capacities.” An interesting book published on the subejct a few years ago examines this very topic: The First Idea: How Symbols, Language and Intelligence Evolved from our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans. The book talkes a wider view beyond just language development, but perhaps the entire story is still being written.
This video touches me every time I view it. Taken from a documentary called Playing for Change: Peace Through Music, musicians from around the world play together on a rendition of Bob Marley’s classic call for world peace, One Love.
The King's English
Though an unbeliever, Christopher Hitchens has written a tribute of sorts to the King James Bible which turns 400 years old this year: “Four hundred years ago, just as William Shakespeare was reaching the height of his powers and showing the new scope and variety of the English language, and just as “England” itself was becoming more of a nation-state and less an offshore dependency of Europe, an extraordinary committee of clergymen and scholars completed the task of rendering the Old and New Testaments into English, and claimed that the result was the “Authorized” or “King James” version. This was a fairly conservative attempt to stabilize the Crown and the kingdom, heal the breach between competing English and Scottish Christian sects, and bind the majesty of the King to his devout people. “The powers that be,” it had Saint Paul saying in his Epistle to the Romans, “are ordained of God.” This and other phrasings, not all of them so authoritarian and conformist, continue to echo in our language: “When I was a child, I spake as a child”; “Eat, drink, and be merry”; “From strength to strength”; “Grind the faces of the poor”; “salt of the earth”; “Our Father, which art in heaven.” It’s near impossible to imagine our idiom and vernacular, let alone our liturgy, without them. Not many committees in history have come up with such crystalline prose.”
Writing in the Economist, Ann Wroe also pays tribute to the centrality of the King James Bible to our speech and culture: “Undoubtedly the King James has been enhanced for us by the music that now curls round it. “For unto us a child is born” (Isaiah 9: 6) can’t now be read without Handel’s tripping chorus, or “Man that is born of a woman” without Purcell’s yearning melancholy (“He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down” Job 14: 2). Even “To every thing there is a season”, from Ecclesiastes (3: 1), is now overlaid with the nasal, gently stoned tones of Simon & Garfunkel. Yet the King James also lured these musicians in the beginning, snaring them with stray lines that were already singing. “Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love” (Song of Solomon 2: 5). “Thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns” (Psalms 22: 21). “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalms 19: 1). “I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls” (Job 30: 29). Or this, also from the Book of Job, possibly the most beautiful of all the Bible’s books—a passage that flows from one astonishingly random and sudden question, “Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?” (Job 38:22):
Hath the rain a father? Or who hath begotten the drops of
Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of
heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Plaeiades, or loose
the bands of Orion? (Job 38:28-31)
“The beauty of this is inherent, deep in the original mind and eye that formed it.”
I’ve just finished The Information by James Gleick, one of the finest science writers in the business. I loved the book and would highly recommend it. To learn more about James Gleick, check out his website here. From Gleicks bio page: His first book, Chaos, was a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist and a national bestseller. Other books include the best-selling biographies, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton, both shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. For those readers who want to learn more about The Information, Wired “senior maverick” Kevin Kelly, author of the recently released What Technology Wants, interviews Gleick here. An excerpt:
Kelly: According to your book, information underpins everything.
Gleick: Modern physics has begun to think of the bit—this binary choice—as the ultimate fundamental particle. John Wheeler summarized the idea as “it-from-bit.” By that he meant that the basis of the physical universe—the “it” of an atom or subatomic particle—is not matter, nor energy, but a bit of information.
Kelly:: That sounds almost spiritual—that the material world is really immaterial.
Gleick: I know it sounds magical, but it needs to be understood properly. Information has a material basis. It has to be carried by something.
Kelly: The extreme view would be that all these bits that make up atoms are running on a very big computer called the universe, an idea first espoused by Babbage.
Gleick: That makes sense as long as this metaphor does not diminish our sense of what the universe is but expands our sense of what a computer is.
Kelly: But as you note, some scientists say that this is not a metaphor: The universe we know is only information.
Gleick: I’m not a physicist, but that concept resonates with something that we all recognize: Information is the thing that we care most about. The more we understand the role that information plays in our world, the more skillful citizens we will be.
For even more about the book, check out Tom Ashbrook’s interview with James Gleick for his podcast: On Point.