Author: john mcgowan

Keeping Spirits Bright

I have had a number of responses to my post about the UK elections and my own dispirited despondency facing the current American scene.  The responses ranged from sympathetic to chidings (mostly gentle) for letting the side down.  Despair, people reminded me, is not an option.  We must keep fighting or the other side wins.  I don’t have counter-arguments; it’s not as if I am happy to throw in the towel.  I agree it does no one any good to be defeatist, to say that the other side has already won.  So I am not going to try to defend myself.  Except if saying these three things counts as some kind of defense.

1. The fight itself is soul- and life-destroying.  Again, we must fight against that fact, but there it is.  Being consumed by the fight–and the constant effort to keep fighting–is no way to live.  The daily life of this country has been warped by the ugliness and  cruelty of the right wing.  To step aside from it all is open to well-off people like me, and resisting that temptation to just cultivate indifference, to pursue other interests, requires an effort that is part of the warping.  All around, people are tuned into careerism, consumerism, family, with seemingly nary a care for the cruelty of our society.  Why do I have to care?  And why do I have to agonize over the my inability–and the inability of those like me–to get them to care?  That’s one way of expressing the tiredness I am feeling.

2.  Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect.  It is hard to find the right balance between some kind of clear-eyed realism about the mess we are in and the maintenance of belief in a better future.  The internal battles within the left (another, different fight) are about what is realistically possible in the current moment.  I participate in those battles–and am outflanked to my left by many of my friends.  I think they are deluded about what the American electorate will go for.  I do not believe that Sanders would have beaten Trump in 2016.  And I certainly don’t believe (as I will discuss in a future post) that some alternative to the market is on the horizon.

To be scolded for compromising with the market is a favorite rhetorical move of the “radical left”–and I find it depressing because so untethered to reality.  Whether to have a market society or not is not where the true political battle of this moment in America is being waged.  And the radical left is hors combat (i.e. useless) so long as it refuses to engage in any fights that don’t put the market as its stakes.  To add insult to this injury, the radical left spends way too much of its time and energy scorning “liberals,” those potential allies it loves to hate.  I understand that I am the pot calling the kettle black, that I am upbraiding the radical left for what seem to me to be its sins even as I tell them to stop calling out my sins.  Mostly, I try to avoid that.

Thus, in my book on liberalism, I devote a scant five pages to outlining my differences from the left.  The real enemy–the frighteningly potent enemy–are the conservatives.  But let me confess that it drives me nuts to read various self-appointed leftists talk of Antonin Scalia as a liberal, or to claim that current-day American liberals and conservatives as all members of the same “neo-liberal” club.  It’s a time-honored leftist tradition, and one that is as silly today as it was in 1932, to assert that there is no significant difference between the two political parties in the US.  Since the radical left is such a negligible force in American politics, they can be mostly left to their dreams of utter transformation.  But can I register that they are, as my daughter would say, “annoying”?

3. The problem, I guess, is that politics is difficult, and that progress is so very slow, and that even the battles one thinks are won (getting blacks the right to vote) are never fully won, but have to be fought for over and over again, constantly.  The other side is so relentless, so resistant to ever giving an inch.

The self-righteousness with which privilege defends itself has always amazed me.  In fact, self-righteousness is too weak a descriptor.  Fury seems more apt.  The right (the defenders of privilege, of inequality) are always outraged by assaults (perceived or real) on the prevailing hierarchies and rarely hesitant to use violence to maintain those hierarchies.  The use of violence is almost completely taboo on the left these days, but remains part of the common sense of the right.  They resort to violence without an iota of uneasiness or guilt.  And, as readers of this blog know, I can never decide if the left’s refusal of violence is its shining glory or its fatal weakness.  I do know that I cannot imagine being violent myself, that I must put my faith in the ballot box, in the normal political processes of democracy, to effect political and societal change.  But that faith can seem a mug’s game when the other side cares a rat’s ass for democracy–and do everything in their power to short-circuit democratic processes.  So, as usual, I have written myself into another corner, making it awfully difficult to keep my spirit bright.

The Marvelous Hazlitt

I have, off and on, been dipping into Hazlitt over the past year.  And my “meaning project” (of which there will be much more anon on this blog) includes (at least in my mind’s eye) a chapter on the “meaning of life,” where the focus is on the many writers–Foucault, Arendt, Agamben, Charles Taylor–who express a hostility to those who try to establish “life” as the supreme value.  Ruskin’s “the only wealth is life” (from Unto this Last, a key text for me) epitomizes those who want to elevate life to that status.

Hazlitt, in the first passage below, offers an early rebuttal to the view that life is a dangerous standard to follow.  He is responding, with more than a little incredulity and irony, to Malthus.  The second passage announces Hazlitt’s allegiance to pluralism.  And the third passage enunciates what we might call the political consequences of a commitment to pluralism. First, that all concentrations of power are to be feared–and avoided.  Power needs to be distributed as widely as possible, since power in one hand is always abused, and because only power can check power.  To deprive some of power is to render them helpless in the face of tyranny.  Second, the abuse of power is worst when it is held by those who are also convinced they possess the sole conception of the good. Pluralism entails modesty–the recognition that many conceptions of the good exist and that I have no right to impose my conception on others.  Fear those who combine absolute conviction in their rectitude with significant power.

I take these various convictions of Hazlitt’s as central tenets of liberalism.  Hazlitt’s writings are exhilarating precisely because he offers a full-throated, eloquent, and passionate articulation of liberal decency, of its hatred of cruelty and tyranny in all its many forms, and its commitment to empowering all to live the life they choose to live.  I have argued previously on this blog that liberalism is not a coherent or systematic ideology.  Rather, I believe liberalism stems from a small set of convictions and intuitions–that then guide its adhoc judgments about the best course of action in various situations and its sense of the most acceptable institutional arrangements in particular historical moments, always open to revision of those judgments and that sense.  More about liberalism to come as well.

From the essay on Malthus (p. 67 in the Penguin Selected Writings):

“The common notions that prevailed on this subject, till our author’s first population-scheme tended to weaken them, were that life is a blessing, and the more people could be maintained in any state in a tolerable degree of health, comfort and decency, the better: that want and misery are not desirable in themselves, that famine is not to be courted for its own sake, that wars, disease and pestilence are not what every friend of his country or his species should pray for in the first place; that vice in its different shapes is a thing that the world could very well do without, and that if it could be rid of altogether, it would be a great gain.  In short, that the object both of the moralist and politician was to diminish as much as possible the quantity of vice and misery existing in the world: without apprehending that by thus effectually introducing more virtue and happiness, more reason and good sense, that be improving the manners of the people, removing pernicious habits and principles of acting, or securing greater plenty, and a greater number of mouths to partake of it, they were doing a disservice to humanity.”

From the essay “Character of Mr. Burke”:

“It is said, I know, that truth is one; but to this I cannot subscribe, for it appears to me that truth is many.  There are as many truths as there are things and causes of actions and contradictory principles at work in society.  In making up an account of good and evil, indeed, the final result must be one way or the other; but the particulars on which that result depends are infinite and various” (57).

From the essay “The French Revolution”:

“[D]o we not see the hold which the love of power and all strong excitement takes of the mind; how it engrosses the faculties, stifles compunction, and deadens the sense of shame, even when it is purely selfish or mischievous, when it does not even pretend to have any good in view, and when we have all the world against us?  What then must be the force and confidence in itself which any such passion, ambition, cruelty, revenge must acquire when it is founded on some lofty and high-sounding principle, patriotism, liberty, resistance to tyrants; when it aims at the public good as its consequence, and is strengthened by the applause of the multitude?  Evil is strong enough in itself; when it has good for its end, it is conscience-proof.  If the common cut-throat who stabs another merely to fill his purse or revenge a private grudge, can hardly be persuaded that he does wrong, and postpones his remorse till long after—he who sheds blood like water, but can contrive to do it with some fine-sounding name on his lips, will be in his own eyes little less than a saint or a martyr.” (93).

Evil

Like many liberals, I find it hard to believe in evil simpliciter.   There has to be an explanation, some set of enabling conditions.  It is not only insufficient, but also wrong, to point to something rotten in human nature–and to leave it at that.  Appeals to human nature are like appeals to the “dormative power” lurking within a sleeping pill.  Such appeals simply rename the cause and locate it at a different level than the behavior that cause is meant to explain.

In London, I taught a class on the Blitz.  I don’t think I ever quite managed to convey to the students–or even to take in myself–its full horror.  The romance of the Blitz, along with its mythic resignification as proof of British pluckiness and resolve, has obscured the simple fact of terror rained from the skies.  Please don’t give me the pieties of “indiscriminate” terror and “civilian” populations.  The evil of the mass slaughter of citizen armies is no less; its victims are as fully “innocent,” as fully entitled to exemption from such violence, as the denizens of a city.  But it is the sheer fact of violence that I and my students never fully (it seems to me) grasped.  The mind always slides away from the bald fact of killing to adjoining images, stories, facts, and consoling myths.

In my various readings to teach this course, I read J. B. Pristley’s BBC broadcasts, which ran from 5 June 1940 to 20 October 1940.  Priestley was forced off the air because his forthright–and repeated–calls for a post-war socialist Britain to proved some recompense for the war-time suffering of its population offended the powers-that-be.

The broadcasts also show Priestley struggling to understand Nazi evil–which rhymes with my current perplexity in trying to understand conservatives (who often claim to be Christians) who put children in cages, deny food stamps to the hungry, are outraged by the extension of medical insurance to the less well-off, suppress voter participation, and wink at sexual and financial malfeasance.  Why would anyone ever sign on to that agenda?  Except for the tax cuts, there is not direct benefit to them of treating others so terribly.  Only some kind of pleasure derived from cruelty fits the bill.

Priestley has no better explanations for such evil (and how can we call it be any other, more euphemistic, name?) than most leftists.  But his characterization of the Nazi mindset and the dangers it poses to simple decency resonate with me.

From the broadcast of 23 June 1940:

“Every nation has two faces–a bright face and a dark face.  I had always been ready to love the bright face of Germany which speaks to us of beautiful music, profound philosophy, Gothic romance, young men and maidens wandering through the enchanted forests.  I had been to Germany before the last war, walking from one little inn to another in the Rhineland.  After the war I went back and wrote in praise of the noble Rhine, the wet lilac and the rust-coloured Castle of Heidelberg, the carpets of flowers and the ice-green torrents of the Bavarian Alps.  But after the Nazis came, I went no more.  The bright face had gone, and in its place was the vast dark face with its broken promises and endless deceit, its swaggering Storm Troopers and dreaded Gestapo, its bloodstained basements where youths were hardened by the torture of decent elderly folk–the terror and the shame, not just their shame, but our shame, the shame of the whole watching world, of the concentration camps.

I knew that wherever these over-ambitious, ruthless, neurotic men took their power, security and peace and happiness would vanish.  Unhappy themselves–for what they are can be read in their faces, and plainly heard in their barking or screaming voices–they wish to spread their unhappiness everywhere.  And I believed then–and am convinced now–that if the world had not been half-rotten, over-cynical, despairing, it would have risen at once in its wrath before the great terror machine was completed, and sent these evil men and their young bullies back to their obscure corners, the back rooms of beer houses, and cellars, out of which they crept to try and bring the whole world down to their own dreary back-room gangster level.

Many people are mystified by the existence of so many ‘fifth columnists’ who are ready to work for Nazi-ism outside Germany; but, you see, Nazi-ism is not really a political philosophy, but an attitude of mind–the expression in political life of a certain very unpleasant temperament–of the man who hates Democracy, reasonable argument, tolerance, patience and humorous equality–the man who loves bluster and swagger, uniforms and bodyguards and fast cars, plotting in back rooms, shouting and bullying, taking it out of all the people who have made him feel inferior.  It’s not really a balanced, grown-up attitude of mind at all: it belongs to people who can’t find their way out of adolescence, who remain overgrown, tormenting, cruel schoolboys–middle-aged ‘dead-end kids.’  That’s why the gang spirit is so marked among these Nazis; and it explains, too, why there has always seemed something unhealthy, abnormal, perverted, crawlingly corrupt, about them and all their activities.

And any country that allows itself to be dominated by the Nazis will not only have the German Gestapo crawling everywhere, but will also find itself in the power of all its most unpleasant types–the very people who, for years, have been rotten with unsatisfied vanity, gnawing envy, and haunted by dreams of cruel power.”

To the academic sophisticate (i.e. me), there is much that grates in this passage. (Those cavorting maidens; the simplistic Manichean notion of a bright and a dark face–although that does suggest that “good” is just as mysterious, just as difficult to explain, as “evil.”)

But I do want to hold onto two things (even as I also admire Priestley’s ability to speak passionately and vividly to his wide audience): first, that there is much to love–and that I love–in the United States; it would be foolish indeed to let despair over the current triumph of what is worst in American culture to wipe out a recognition of the resources for a better way.  The hopefulness of MLK (balanced as it was with his deep discouragement at times) is exemplary here.

Second, Priestley reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that the Trumps, McConnells, and Kavanaughs of the world are bullying frauds driven by envy of their moral betters; they cannot acknowledge their own depravity, but reveal their self-hatred again and again.  Not that we should pity them, but that we should fully understand their lust for power is the mask of deficiency.  That lust should never be accorded a minute of respect.

Is There a Center?

Perry Bacon, over at Five Thirty Eight, defines the current American political scene as follows:

“America is to some extent in a partisan civil war, and we essentially have three competing views on how to end it: A Biden/Bush/Kristol style approach that downplays divisions among America’s various identity groups and reaches for more compromises; a Sanders/Warren approach of resetting America along more equal lines; and a Trump/Barr vision that is decidedly Judeo-Christian and favors maintaining traditional norms over upsetting them to expand equality.”

The lesson some of my left-wing friends have taken from the UK election–in particular from the absolute rout of the Liberal Democrats–is that the center doesn’t exist in this civil war except in the mind of some benighted pundits and a few hopeless liberal believers in compromise, decency, and civility (utterly discredited notions given the realities of the political landscape ever since McConnell swore to never give Obama a single accomplishment).  I certainly align myself with the Sanders/Warren project of advancing political/economic/status equality.  And I don’t believe Biden is more electable because he appeals to a non-existent center.  What I do believe is that hostility to extending equality–coupled with the belief that the cost of such an extension must come at their expense–will win out in the 2020 election.  Warren and Sanders are more vulnerable to that kind of fear-mongering, that they will cost you in the short and long run, than Biden is–which explains, I believe, why Biden is polling better than them.  Biden, some people believe, will not upset the apple-cart unduly even as he saves us from the more unpleasant features of a Trump presidency.  It is Trump’s “tone” that upsets some people–and they’d like to be able to repudiate that tone without seeing much change in the larger landscape of American society.  We only talking 3 to 5 % of the electorate here, but with partisan allegiance so entrenched, American elections are now about two things: turning out one’s own partisans (while depressing the other side’s turnout) and getting a decent return on that three to five percent of truly swing voters.  I don’t believe–as many left-wing folks do–that going further left is the path to victory for the Democrats, that there is an untapped pool of voters just waiting for a more radical Democratic party.  I wish that were the case, but don’t believe it is.

The Way Things Are Now

I have just returned to the US after four months in London.  The British election was dispiriting, precisely because it seemed so dispirited.  My on-the-ground sense (for what it is worth) is that the electorate was deeply tired and, thus, disengaged.  There was little to no visible passion.  The Brexit thing had exhausted every one except the right-wing and so the sense was “let’s fucking drive over this cliff; at least then it will be over.  Better disaster then this endless wrangling.”  I was not in the least surprised by Johnson’s victory–and it makes me think Trump will win in 2020 through a similar combination of cynicism, the opposition’s incompetence, an avalanche of lies, and the victory of a politics of fear and punishment (of the most vulnerable) over any kind of generous vision of society that cares for its members.

That said, I will take up blogging again now that I have returned.

I am having trouble disentangling the personal experience of decline that is old age from what I deem a more “objective” sense of decline in the world(s) I inhabit.  For the record, I now, for the first time, feel old.  Various capacities are slowly draining away.  The decline is not precipitous, but it is relentless and certainly feels irreversible.  There are no miracle cures or even roads to improvement out there.  My responses to this fact range from impatience at my many new incompetencies to anger at my ineptitude to grief about my lost abilities.  Old age is not pretty and how to suffer it gracefully so far eludes me.

But my grief and anger also focus on the current situation in my world(s).  My mantra has become “I know I am old and cranky, but objectively things are worse.”  Is that actually true?  I can’t tell.  I can only say that I look at the world and my guitar not so gently weeps.  Was it really better in 1969 (when George Harrison wrote those words)? No.  If you were gay, or a soldier in Vietnam, or living in many parts of the so-called third and second worlds, 2019 is likely better than 1969.  The failure of American democracy, registered by the ability of the government to wage a senseless war in Vietnam for over ten years, was open to view then.  The CIA’s shenanigans a few years later in Chile was evidence of a rogue state no less corrupt than Trump’s.  Another danger of getting old: you end up saying I’ve seen all this before; there is nothing new under the sun.

So is something really different this time?  I think so.  What is different is the open cynicism, the complete unleashing of “I will take mine and death to all the others” without any shred of ideological cover.  Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue—and that tribute has now become passé.  It’s open season on the poor, the immigrant, the “losers.”  No need to even pretend to feel compassion for their troubles, not to mention actually doing anything to alleviate them.  Just pour it on: scorn, neglect, direct harm.  And the aggression to those least able to fend it off is met with howls of glee.  I am constantly reminded of Yeats’s caustic poem of disillusionment, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”: “we, who seven years ago/Talked of honour and of truth/Shriek with pleasure if we show/The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.”  As they say, this is unfair to weasels who are amateurs when we consider the violence humans can do—and the delight humans (and why mince words? it’s mostly men) can take in that violence.

More Yeats (has anyone ever traced the agonies and emotions that traverse aging better?)  “My mind, because the minds that I have loved,/The sort of beauty that I have approved,/Prosper but little, has dried up of late,/Yet knows that to be choked with hate/May well be of all evil chances chief.” (From “Prayer for my Daughter”)

There is such pleasure in hatred.  The ritual conversations that I and my ilk have about Trump and his minions have come to annoy me now.  But they were sustaining for quite some time.  Now I just want to walk away.  I want to occupy another province, not the lowlands of hate.  But the alternative seems to be resignation since I, too, live in a world where the things I most approved, most loved, most held dear, prosper but little of late.  I think of myself as living in a world where I am a stranger to the beliefs, emotions, and desires of most of my fellow humans.  I will never understand them—but they also seem to hold all the cards.  Let me state the fear directly: after the Boris Johnson victory in England (you can hardly call it Britain since Scotland and even Northern Ireland voted the other way), I think Trump will win reelection.  I think his nihilism and cynicism play well with an astonishing number of white Americans.  They revel in taking the view that everyone is out to get me so I am best off hitting the first blow.  Preemptive strikes: American orthodoxy since the Bush/Cheney years.

To be more parochial: the despair is not just about American society at large, but also about what is being done to higher education as a public institution and good.  A combination of privatization and a relentless attack on critical thought and the production of knowledge.  I guess we should be flattered that we are so hated and feared by the right-wing ideologues.  But it is how ineffectual our responses are to these attacks that garners most of my attention.  I feel on both the macro (society) and micro (university) level a helplessness as I watch the flood coming downriver with full relentlessness and agonizingly slow motion.  The disaster unfolds slowly (rather like global warming) and we do nothing to alter its course.

I will admit to the old age crankiness of, to some extent, blaming the victims.  I find my colleagues’ attitudes and behavior in the current crisis ostrich-like.  They keep acting like it is 1960.  Hannah Arendt was on to a deep truth when she saw much of the behavior in Nazi Germany as motivated by career ambition, by the sheer need to have and hold a job, and to keep advancing up the ranks placed above one’s current position.  Academics (the ones lucky enough to occupy one of the diminishing number of tenurable positions) are focused, as they have ever been, upon getting that next book published and on getting their partner a job at the same school.  Those quests absorb all their energy—and much (most?) of their interest, aside from the ritual denunciations of the Trump and their university’s administrations.  These soi-disant radicals scream loudly against even the mildest suggestions of reform/change in their received practices.  That the university might have to change in order to remain pertinent in a changed world is heresy to them.

That said, however, my experience at UNC clearly demonstrates that there is no placating the enemies of the university—and all that it stands for. Reforming our teaching and research practices (much as I think such reforms are needed) will not call off these weasels.  My despair, it is fair to say, stems from my belief that the relentlessness and aggression of our right-wing enemies echoes a wide-spread “structure of feeling” in white America—and, here is the corresponding source of despair, a conviction that (despite the laudable insistence of some of my left-wing friends otherwise) there is simply no equivalent structure of feeling underwriting the kind of politics I hold dear.  I simply do not believe that Sanders or Warren could win a national election.  I think the right has succeeded in planting a fear of “socialism” so deep in the electorate’s psyche that Warren and Sanders would suffer the same fate as Corbyn.  The British miracle election of 1945 comes to seem more and more a “black swan” when we consider post-1945 politics in both the UK and the US.  For once, the promise of socialism triumphed over Churchill’s fear-mongering about the coming police state.  The only equivalent might be LBJ’s 1964 victory—when a fear of right-wing radicalism equivalent to the fear of socialism for once led to victory.  Of course, in the aftermath of that election, the Republicans discovered white American resentment and have ridden that horse ever since with pretty good results.  (Yes, the Republicans are a minority party, but they have combined the oddities of the American institutional structure [the electoral college; the make-up of the Senate] with an absolutely ruthless undermining of democracy to secure their hold on power.)

So I don’t see a pathway out of the full unleashing of right-wing nastiness in the US and the UK.  I guess we can say that the taboos against violence so far are holding.  We are seeing nothing like the street fights (and killings) that characterized 1920s and 1930s Germany in the lead up to Hitler.  Yes, we have our right-wing militias, but politically motivated domestic terrorism has been confined, so far, to loner shooters.  I do think (and certainly hope I am right) that more organized violence would prove counter-productive, would generate a strong negative reaction to those using such tactics.

But the right-wing has not needed to resort to violence.  Its aggressive shredding of institutional protections against the abuse of power has worked just fine.  It has discovered that the electorate neither cares nor pays much attention to power-grabbing maneuvers that are procedural.  There is no accountability any longer—for corporations that engage in various illegal financial capers, for rich tax evaders, or for politicians who work to deprive citizens of votes or to deprive elected officials of the other party their ability to function.

Among the things I hate is the wistfulness that accompanies my despair.  Late nineteenth and early twentieth century literature (think Proust or Henry James, especially in the abominable Princess Casamassima, or even Virginia Woolf) is replete with tales that witness (helplessly) to the ongoing disappearance of a class (call them aristocrats, but better described as the leisured classes who did not have to earn their bread by working) whose faults the writers can see, but whose virtues they also think are superior to those of the commercial classes.  These writers know this leisured class is doomed—and they don’t even try very hard to defend their existence, even though they think the coming world is bound to be worse.  (Yeats and Eliot, of course, attempt more full-throated defenses of aristocracy, which is why they are anti-democratic conservatives in a way Proust, Woolf, and even James are not.)

I don’t like standing in a similar place, wistfully defending a set of values and a group of people who have lost their social standing, have lost their ability to influence the direction their society takes.  But the flood of words from people like me—who never lose our ability to pour out more verbiage—seems more pathetic by the day.  We wallow in our own virtue in a world where the weasels reign and we have nothing else to offer.

I will, per usual, knock on doors next fall, and do whatever else the Democrats ask me to do.  Inevitably, I will once again donate money, and even run (as I have the last two cycles) a fund-raiser or two.  I hate (so many things to hate!) abetting the link between politics and money (corrupting in every possible way) in the US.  I try to abide by my resolution to give my money to local charities that I respect instead of to local political candidates.  But I do not stick to that resolution resolutely.  And all of it—from the knocking on doors to the raising of money—feels like tokenism to me.  I don’t believe it makes an iota of difference.  The real levers are located elsewhere, far from any place I will ever enter.  So why do I do it?  To ease my conscience.  And also because people I love, people whose commitment to the fight inspires me because so whole-hearted (even as I think it naïve) do believe such things matter and ask me to do my bit.  I don’t want to let them down, but they can also see my heart is not really in it.  Just another messy compromise—giving something but not in a spirit that would make the gift truly welcome.  But, then again, isn’t politics the art of compromise?

What does remain is the despair, the deep daily hurt of living in a society that is so cruel, and that revels in its cruelties.  I don’t understand these people, yet not only must live among them, but also must accept their dominance, their ability to shape what gets done and said and felt.  I will never reconcile myself to that fact—and it is crazy-making and depressing and fuels dreams of flight.

Attention Deficits

I am, it seems, about to embark on a long, convoluted journey into the mysteries of meaning.  I’ve been mulling over this topic for some years now, but didn’t think I was going to write another book.  But it seems that I am.  I have agreed to give two talks next year that will force me to get my thoughts on the subject into some kind of coherent form.  Basically, I want to distinguish questions of meaning from questions of causation/explanation—and make the old time Dilthey case that the humanities and the arts are more inclined to investigate questions of meaning.  But this all involves actually thinking through “the meaning of meaning.”  To that end, I have just started reading C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richard’s classic of that title.  My pole stars in this investigation will be, to no surprise, the pragmatists and Wittgenstein.

So the William James interest in “attention” will be one focus.  What do we attend to, what do we note, in any situation?  Clearly there is always “more” to be seen and taken in than any single observer manages to process.  What we attend to would seem to have some connection to what we find meaningful.  We notice those things we are predisposed to notice, which is a way of defining one’s “interests,” of identifying what are matters of concern and care to one, as contrasted to things of indifference.  (We are highly likely to notice things that inspire hostility or disgust, so it is the intensity of the engagement, not its positive or negative valence, that seems determinative here.)

Psychology since James’s day has paid a lot of attention (pun intended) to the oddities and pathologies of what we notice and what we fail to perceive.  I grabbed this little survey of some of that work from the academic blog Crooked Timber—and lodge it here because I will want to chase down its links at some future date.

“If stereotypes are the cause, why don’t we just eradicate them? Stereotypes arise, in part, because they must.  They belong to a broader category of cognitive attention biases which arise because we simply cannot pay attention to all of the particulars.  We take shortcuts. We bin people into categories.  We lump to live.  That lumping may be the result of rational calculations – it’s not worth our time to consider every particular (rational inattention bias). It may be that we lack the cognitive capacity (behavioral attention bias) or the time or experience to draw precise inferences (categorical cognition bias).   Regardless of the cause, we could not navigate the world without categorizing reality and therefore stereotyping.”

From Scott E Page, Stephen M Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and the Santa Fe Institute; taken from a blog post on Crooked Timber, August 14th, 2019.