Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Making the Short List

The mathematical romance Flatland takes place in a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants are mystified by the occasional visits of three-dimensional interlopers who can effortlessly accomplish such amazing stunts as escaping from a loop without breaking the line. We don’t live in Flatland, of course, but to judge from our public discourse, we have decided to act as if we did, ignoring the depth of the world in a search for radical simplicity. It would be dubious enough to operate with the notion that particular individuals and groups have an essence that is unchangeable without divine intervention. We go beyond that to claim that this postulated center or axis is either good or evil, which is to say that our fundamental category of judgment is actually not even two-dimensional or simply linear but binary. No wonder that our thoughts are like infantile graffiti scrawled in smeary crayon on the nursery wall. But it’s not that we don’t know better. Stupidity, long promoted to the laboring and servile classes as the virtue of simplicity, is also admired in leaders as a sign of strength and a token of solidarity with the People. We chose to be crude. But maybe this sort of thing can be overdone.

Mind you, I don’t dispute the value of oversimplification. Even the most elaborate theory is a cartoon version of an intractably complex reality; and my own thinking is exceedingly narrow, an obsessive meditation on the theme of selection itself. For me, culture does not transcend nature or differ from it in essence or operate according to novel laws. It is simply an infinitesimal subset or subgroup of nature insulated from the remainder by various active mechanisms. To complain about this situation is pointless since it is constitutive of any possible human world—you might as well curse the nature of things—but my objection is not to the fact that the human agenda is so narrow but that it is often the wrong agenda, a poor selection. That, and the fact we often seem to omit the recognition of the narrowness from the list of the six permissible ideas.

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