Jan 30 2018

Community and the Lack of Originality

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part III of III

(Read Part I here, and Part II here)

If we can’t think without others, if we can’t conceive of reality without community, then it follows that there is often no such thing as originality, as Goethe once observed (via Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980)):

Goethe voiced the same insight in his own, characteristically more positive manner: “All that is clever has already been thought; one must only try to think it once more.”[1]

Director Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) used to say the same thing about each camera shot for each scene in a movie: every shot has already been done. The goal, therefore, is to make the shot a little better than what has been done before. Or, as Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) once put it: “Without the random, there can be no new thing.”[2]

And after we communed with the community, we should step away and contemplate what that communion accomplished. As Plutarch puts it:

[The student,] In making his examination and forming his judgement of the lecture he should begin with himself and his own state of mind, endeavouring to estimate whether any one of his emotions has become less intense, whether any one of his troubles weighs less heavily upon him, whether his confidence and his high purpose have become firmly rooted, whether he has acquired enthusiasm for virtue and goodness. As a matter of course, when he rises to leave the barber’s shop, he stands by the mirror and feels his head, examining the cut of his hair and the difference made by its trimming; so on his way home from a lecture or an academic exercise, it would be a shame not to direct his gaze forthwith upon himself and to note carefully his own spirit, whether it has put from it any of its encumbrances and superfluities, and has become lighter and more cheerful.[3]

And Tolstoy adds:

When you are in company, do not forget what you have found out when you were thinking in solitude; and when you are meditating in solitude, think about what you found out by communicating with other people. [4]

Beautiful wall of old books…📚📚📚#reading #igreads #dustyatticrarebooks

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[1] Walter Kaufmann, “Goethe and the History of Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas 10 (October, 1949): 503–16 at 503–04 quoting Goethe’s Maximen und Reflexionen.

[2] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York, NY: Dutton, 1979) 147.

[3] Plutarch, Morales. Vol. I, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP; London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1927) “On Listening to Lectures” 8, p. 227.

[4] Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, trans. Peter Sekirin, (New York, NY: Scribner, 1997) 100.

Jan 30 2018

“We” Think; Therefore, “I” Am

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part II of III

We have an interesting linguistic trap here, one created by centuries of human self-regard. By using a different pronoun to enquire about the identity of people rather than of things—who, instead of what—we introduce an imaginary metaphysical difference.
Why not ask “What are we? What am I
?”–Riccardo Manzotti

According to Count Tolstoy (1828–1910), we live for ourselves only when we live for others. We only learn when we serve to teach others.[1] Compare Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), who follows Peirce:

Reality in a world of appearances is first of all characterized by “standing still and remaining” the same long enough to become an object for acknowledgement and recognition by a subject. Husserl’s basic and greatest discovery takes up in exhaustive detail the intentionality of all acts of consciousness, that is, the fact that no subjective act is ever without an object: though the seen tree may be an illusion, for the act of seeing it is an object nevertheless; though the dreamt-of landscape is visible only to the dreamer, it is the object of his dream. Objectivity is built into the very subjectivity of consciousness by virtue of intentionality. Conversely and with the same justness, one may speak of the intentionality of appearances and their built-in subjectivity. All objects because they appear indicate a subject, and, just as every subjective act has its intentional object, so every appearing object has its intentional subject. In Portmann’s words, every appearance is a “conveyance for receivers” (a Sendung für Empfangsapparate). Whatever appears is meant for a perceiver, a potential subject no less inherent in all objectivity than a potential object is inherent in the subjectivity of every intentional act.

That appearance always demands spectators and thus implies an at least potential recognition and acknowledgement has far-reaching consequences for what we, appearing beings in a world of appearances, understand by reality, our own as well as that of the world. In both cases, our “perceptual faith,” as Merleau-Ponty has called it, our certainty that what we perceive has an existence independent of the act of perceiving, depends entirely on the object’s also appearing as such to others and being acknowledged by them. Without this tacit acknowledgment by others we would not even be able to put faith in the way we appear to ourselves.[2]

Compare Arendt’s line: “That appearance always demands spectators” to a pair of observations from the Elizabethan playwrights:

“For though the most be players, some must be spectators.”

––Ben Jonson

“All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players….”

––Will Shakespeare

More recently, Charles Taylor has observed:

To transform society according to a new principle of legitimacy, we have to have a repertory that includes ways of meeting this principle. This requirement can be broken down into two facets: (1) the actors have to know what to do, have to have practices in their repertory that put the new order into effect; and (2) the ensemble of actors have to agree on what these practices are. [3]

Tolstoy, meanwhile, goes so far to say that if the community cannot easily understand a work of creation, then it doesn’t count as a work of art:

It cannot be said that the majority of people lack the taste to appreciate the highest works of art. The majority understand and have always understood what we, too, consider the highest art: the artistically simple narratives of the Bible, the Gospel parables, folk legends, fairy tales, folk songs are understood by everyone. Why is it that the majority suddenly lost the ability to understand the highest of our art?[4]

(Read Part I here  and Part III here)

Erddig Hall Library….📚📚📚#reading #igreads #dustyatticrarebooks

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[1] Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, trans. Peter Sekirin, (New York, NY: Scribner, 1997) 123.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971) (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 45–46.

[3] Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, SC: Duke University Press, 2004) 115.

[4] Tolstoy, Что такое искусство?/Chto takoye iskusstvo? What is Art? (1897), trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, (New York, NY: Penguin, 1995) X, 80.

Jan 30 2018

Lean on Me (When You’re Not Wrong)

Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part I of III

It’s a dangerous business to try and impose one’s view of things on others.

Padma: if you’re a little uncertain of my reliability, well, a little uncertainty is no bad thing. Cocksure men do terrible deeds. Women, too. ––Salman Rushdie, Midnights Children (1981)[1]

As I’ve previously written, one of the key themes running through Professor Alan Jacobs’s book How to Think (2017) is how we must come to grips that our individuality is paradoxically based on how those around us end up defining each of us as individuals.

For C. S. Peirce (1839–1914), all reality, including our thoughts on reality, begins with our reliance on others:

As what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community….

For Peirce, the individual is but a negation—and when two individuals negate each other’s individuality, they affirm community:

The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation. This is man….”[2]

A century before the phrase “imagined communities” was popularized by Benedict Anderson (1936–2015) as a useful way to describe nationalism, Peirce recognized:

The care that men have for what is to happen after they are dead, cannot be selfish. And finally and chiefly, the constant use of the word “we”––as when we speak of our possessions on the Pacific––our destiny as a republic––in cases in which no personal interests at all are involved, show conclusively that men do not make their personal interests their only ones, and therefore may, at least, subordinate them to the interests of the community.

But just the revelation of the possibility of this complete self-sacrifice in man, and the belief in its saving power, will serve to redeem the logicality of all men. For he who recognizes the logical necessity of complete self-identification of one’s own interests with those of the community, and its potential existence in man, even if he has it not himself, will perceive that only the inferences of that man who has it are logical, and so views his own inferences as being valid only so far as they would be accepted by that man. But so far as he has this belief, he becomes identified with that man. And that ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted must thus belong to a community in which this identification is complete…. [3]

This “ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted” is also, for Peirce, the method of science:

Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those Reals affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as are our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really and truly are; and any man, if he have sufficient experience and he reason enough about it, will be led to the one True conclusion. The new conception here involved is that of Reality….[4]

Even if the community renders something other communities think to be immoral (such as separate public drinking fountains for separate ethnicities), it is nonetheless part of reality, at least until a majority in the community agree to something different. Community creates the facts of reality by agreeing with what they are:

The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality….[5]

(Read Part II here, and Part III here)



[1] Salman Rushdie, Midnights Children, (New York, NY: Knopf, 1981. Random House Paperbacks, 2006) II, “Alpha and Omega” 243.

[2] Peirce, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2 (1868): 140–57.

[3] Peirce, “Ground of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2 (1869): 193–208.

[4] Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877): 1–15.

[5] Peirce, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (January 1878): 286–302.

Jan 1 2018

How We Should Rely on Others to Think for Ourselves (According to Machiavelli & Alan Jacobs)

porticos in Bologna, Italia

How We Should Rely on Others to Think for Ourselves
(According to Machiavelli and Alan Jacobs)

“Working toward the truth is one of life’s great adventures.”

––Alan Jacobs

“Don’t regard a hesitant assertion as an assertion of hesitancy.”


The thirty-fifth chapter to the third book of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy is entitled:

“When Dangers Are Borne in Making Oneself Head in Counseling a Thing; and the More It Has of the Extraordinary, the Greater Are the Dangers Incurred in It.”[2]

Machiavelli’s chapter title gets at a point Alan Jacobs repeats often in How to Think: a Survival Guide in a World at Odds (2017): that it is impossible for one to think for oneself. In fact, one must rely on others in order to think for oneself, for “the problem of belonging and not-belonging, affiliation and separation, is central to the task of learning how to think” (p. 54).

Both Machiavelli and Jacobs focus on the perils of counsel. Now someone might say, “So what? I’m not a counselor,” but I say, that we (as readers and writers) are participating in the public sphere; therefore, following Charles Taylor, I say we (as readers and writers) are, in some sense, counseling the government. In a republic, the political blogger/writer/commenter always potentially advises her authorities via her activities in the public sphere. Donald Trump, for example, could conceivably read something I tweet and act on it.[3]

Yet, according to Machiavelli, dispensing advice is always a gamble, for hesitant assertions are mistakenly interpreted as assertions of hesitancy:

Thus it is a very certain thing that those who counsel a republic and those who counsel a prince are placed in these straits: if they do not counsel without hesitation the things that appear to them useful—either for the city or for the prince—they fail in their office; if they do counsel them, they enter into danger of life and state, since all men are blind in this, in judging good and bad counsel by the end. (Discourses III, xxxv)

In either a principality or a republic bad advice can be fatal for the dispenser. Yet, as Machiavelli points out, bad advice is not judged on the accuracy of its contents, but on whether the results of that advice lead to something satisfactory for the ruling authorities receiving the advice.

Machiavelli writes that what counselors and advisors need (and by writing this he is actually advising readers!) is moderation:

Thinking over in what mode they [those who counsel] can escape either this infamy or this danger, I do not see any other way for it but to take things moderately, and not to seize upon any of them for one’s own enterprise, and to give one’s opinion without passion and defend it without passion, with modesty, so that if the city or the prince follows it, it follows voluntarily, and it does not appear to enter upon it drawn by your importunity. (Discourses III, xxxv)

Following Roger Scuton, Jacobs writes in How to Think how we, as advisors and counselors to the government (as well as to our friends and family and strangers) in the public sphere, must “negotiate our posture toward the other” (p. 83). We must “avoid displaying the zeal that’s all too commonly characteristic of the convert,” (pp. 149–50) because “the real outgroup, for us, is the person next door” (p. 72)—that is, the person who votes differently than we do, thinks differently than we do, etc. For as the author known as Kohelet writes:

Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken; lest thou hear thy servant curse thee:
For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others. (Ecclesiastes 7:21–22)

To defend one’s opinion with moderation rather than passion is certainly something the twenty-first century public sphere could use more of, particularly when political matters are discussed. But risks remain nonetheless. Jacobs warns how “sheer animus … disables our ethical and our practical judgment” (p. 75). And Machiavelli has observed:

When you do thus, it is not reasonable that a prince and a people wish you ill for your counsel, since it was not followed against the wish of many—for one bears danger where many have contradicted, who then at the unhappy end concur to bring you to ruin. (Discourses III, xxxv)

Machiavelli also warns of those who contradict regularly, fully aware that they contradict without hesitation, will bring a countering writer-advisor to ruin, unless that countering writer-advisor be modest and moderate in their countering:

And if in this case one lacks the glory that is acquired in being alone against many to counsel a thing when it has a good end, there are two goods in the comparison: first, in the lack of danger; second, that if you counsel a thing modestly, and because of the contradiction your counsel is not taken, and by the counsel of someone else some ruin follows, very great glory redounds to you. (Discourses III, xxxv)

Or, as Jacobs writes, “The genuine community is open to thinking and questioning, so long as those thoughts and questions come from people of goodwill,” (p. 59), which sounds not unlike an observation Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) once made:

Unless we make ourselves hermits, we shall necessarily influence each other’s opinions; so that the problem becomes how to fix [stabilize] belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community.[4]



[1] Alan Jacobs, How to Think: a Survival Guide in a World at Odds, (New York, NY: Currency Books, 2017) 150; Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (London: Blackwell, Revised fourth edition, 2009) p. 202.

[2] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[3] According to Taylor:

This space is a public sphere in the sense I’m using it here. That a conclusion “counts as” public opinion reflects the fact that a public sphere can exist only if it is imagined as such. Unless all the dispersed discussions are seen by their participants as linked in one great exchange, there can be no sense of their upshot as public opinion. This doesn’t mean that imagination is all-powerful. There are objective conditions: internal, for instance, that the fragmentary local discussions interrefer [sic]; and external, that is, there must be printed materials, circulating from a plurality of independent sources, for there to be bases of what can be seen as a common discussion…. (Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, SC: Duke University Press, 2004) p. 85)

The public sphere is the locus of a discussion potentially engaging everyone (although in the eighteenth century the claim was only to involve the educated or “enlightened” minority) in which the society can come to a common mind about important matters. This common mind is a reflective view, emerging from critical debate, and not just a summation of whatever views happen to be held in the population. As a consequence it has a normative status: government ought to listen to it. There were two reasons for this, of which one tended to gain ground and ultimately swallow up the other. The first is, that this opinion is likely to be enlightened, and hence government would be well advised to follow it…. The second reason emerges with the view that the people are sovereign. Government is then not only wise to follow opinion; it is morally bound to do so…. (A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007) 188, 189)

It is a space of discussion which is self-consciously seen as being outside power. It is supposed to be listened to by power, but it is not itself an exercise of power. It’s in this sense extra-political status is crucial. As we shall see below, it links the public sphere with other facts of modern society which also are seen as essentially extra-political. The extra-political status is not just defined negatively, as a lack of power. It is also seen positively: just because public opinion is not an exercise of power, it can be ideally disengaged from both partisan spirit and rational. (A Secular Age 189–90)

[4] Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly, 12 (November, 1877): 1–15.

Dec 15 2017

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People: Write about Race (Part II of III)

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People: Write about Race (Part II of III)

Toward Some Solutions to the Political Problem of Writing about Race while Being Aware of One’s Own Race

Part II.

In Part I, I brought up the four questions of Al-farabi (872–950 AD) to ask for any political situation: What, How, What from, What for? Now it’s time to ask those questions with regard to a current political situation: writing about race while being aware of one’s race as told by four writers:

(1) What is Jess Row’s “What are White Writers For?” New Republic, September 30, 2016 about? This piece struck a nerve when I first read it, so I bookmarked it for the past year and returned to it this past week. Still, a little over a year later, I’m not sure what to think. Row is a novelist and essayist. The focus of his piece is fiction and the problem of white writers writing about race in fiction, not essays. He suggests a scenario where: “It would be easy for a white writer—say, a young white writer, in an MFA program, working on his or her first novel—to … feel caught in an imaginative bind” of being torn from writing about non-white characters in fiction and being accused of appropriation or writing about exclusively white characters and being accused of tribal fascism. “The subtext to these arguments,” writes Row, “is that white writers should just stop writing [fiction],” and he doesn’t believe that to be an adequate answer for a free society.

How so? Row discusses his own efforts at fiction and its various misreadings is conveyed in his observation that it is utter fiction for white writers to suggest white writers aren’t “allowed” to write about certain topics, when the publishing-media complex remains dominated by gatekeepers who identify primarily as white, and who identify that way by a large majority compared to any runners up. Tarantino may choose to use the n-word and Eminem may choose not to, but there are no white hands tied behind anyone’s back. They write what they please.

From what event did Row decide to write about writing about race? A non-Mexicana writer named Lionel Shriver wore a sombrero in Brisbane and caught flack for it. Another writer named Jonathan Franzen confessed in an interview that he didn’t put black characters in his fiction because he lacked substantial real life experience with people identified as black. This queued Row to write about race. What is Row writing about race for? He answers: “The real question in this debate couldn’t be more fundamental: What are novels for, and what are novelists for?” Row calls for writers (particularly white fiction writers) to write something politically relevant. To deny that one’s art is political is a distasteful display of privilege and ignorance. Art is part of the public sphere says Row, “part of one ongoing conversation.”[1] Some novelists, Row points out, write about the present and critique it in their fiction. Others are simply “chroniclers.” But both critique and chronicle are political acts, for to write is to act (scribere est agere) says Judge William Blackstone (1723–1780).[2] Or, in Alan Jacobs’ words, “It seems clear that to publish a book is to invite a response.” [3]

(2) What is Wesley Yang’s “Is It OK to be White?” in Tablet Magazine, November 27, 2017 about? Yang’s point is that these days rhetoric—that is, political writing, particularly about race––is about achieving reaction. Writers who write about race are generally no longer interested in clarity or understanding. Their writings are now about obliterating the ability to share ideas (and ontologies), because, in Yang’s words, such rhetoric “invites dissenters to overreact.” How so? Contemporary rhetoric aims for “confounding instead of confronting” one’s “enemies” via “a self-enclosed system of reference immunized against critique and optimized for virality.” From what did this discussion start? Some alt-right groups posed provocative flyers at “universities and high schools in the United States and Canada” that said, “It’s OK to be white.” What is Yang writing about race for? In his words: “Part of responding to the coalition of white resentment from which the posters emerged in ways that stanches rather than feeds its growth, then, means taking stock of the way our own thinking has been affected by polarizing memes.”

(3) What is Aaron Mak’s “The Price of College Admission for Asian Americans,” Slate, December 5, 2017 about? Mak’s focus is on Asian Americans who hide aspects of their “Asian-ness” from college admissions applications. How so? Applicants sometimes change their names, or list feats and talents not traditionally seen as stereotypically “Asian” (that is, East Asian). This is because “the American mainstream likes to assign minorities to a certain mold. There’s a systemic perception that we Asians are all alike, but what about, say, white applicants who play lacrosse? Are they all cookie-cutter too?” From what did this discussion start? The Justice Department has recently announced (in August) that it was investigating admissions policies that were discriminating against Asians, particularly at Harvard. What is Mak writing about race for? To render “the cooperation necessary between people of color to overcome systemic racism” without “contorting” one’s “identity.”

(4) What is Andy Ngo’s “When Racism is Disguised as Anti-Racism,” Quillette, December 5, 2017 about? Ngo attended an anti-racism event on a college campus: “Until that day,” Ngo writes, “I’d never seen people overtly dehumanized and treated as racialized objects—amplified through the use of words like ‘bodies’ to refer to people of color.” How so? “The lack of any ideological counterpoise has created a vacuum where ideas have no mechanism or incentive for moderation.” From what did this discussion start? A student at Texas State University in San Marcos recently published an op-ed calling for the genocide of white people. Ngo then felt the need to respond. What is Andy Ngo writing about race for? Ngo believes that such a vacuum needs to be eliminated, that ideological counterpoises should be cultivated to moderate contemporary rhetoric involving race.

So by answering Al-farabi’s questions—which meant I had to reread each article and carefully think it through––I now have a slightly clearer understanding of the political problem of writing about race while being aware of one’s own race. In Part III I will try to look toward some solutions to this problem.



[1] As Charles Taylor (1931–) explains:

This space is a public sphere in the sense I’m using it here. That a conclusion “counts as” public opinion reflects the fact that a public sphere can exist only if it is imagined as such. Unless all the dispersed discussions are seen by their participants as linked in one great exchange, there can be no sense of their upshot as public opinion. This doesn’t mean that imagination is all-powerful. There are objective conditions: internal, for instance, that the fragmentary local discussions interrefer [sic]; and external, that is, there must be printed materials, circulating from a plurality of independent sources, for there to be bases of what can be seen as a common discussion. Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, SC: Duke University Press, 2004) 85)

[2] Blackstone, Commentaries (IV, vi).

[3] Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011) 54.

Dec 15 2017

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People: Write about Race (Part I of III)

porticos in Bologna, Italia

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People:
Write about Race (Part I of III)

Toward Some Solutions to the Political Problem of Writing about Race while Being Aware of One’s Own Race

Part I.

Diversity is good. Therefore: knowledge that happens to be diverse is better than knowledge that happens not to be. When a body of knowledge lacks diversity, it is called specialization. I would rather be diverse than special, a dilettante rather than a scholar.

But writing about race is a political problem for both dilettantes and scholars. Writing about race involves ingroups and outgroups. As Alan Jacobs has recently pointed out in his book How to Think (2017):

Our ability to think well will be determined to some considerable degree by who those others are: what we might call the moral form of our community. A willingness to be “broken on the floor,” for example, is in itself testimony to belief that the people you’re debating are decent people who don’t want to harm or manipulate you—whereas if you don’t trust people you’re unlikely to allow them anything like a “victory” over you. This suggests that the problem of belonging and not-belonging, affiliation and separation, is central to the task of learning how to think. [1]

Philosophy is learning how to think. Philosophy is problem solving. Political philosophy attempts to solve (or at least identify) political problems.

I cannot solve the political problem of writing about race while being aware of one’s race. Instead I can take lessons I’ve learned from reading and apply them to my writing. The first lesson comes from the mediaeval Persian philosopher Al-farabi (872–950 AD), who (following Aristotle and Plato) identifies four questions one should ask of any political problem:

He should make known what and how every one of [the things under discussion] is, and from what and for what it is, until all of them become known, intelligible, and distinguished from each other. This is political science. It consists of knowing the things by which the citizens of cities attain happiness through political association in the measure that innate disposition equips each of them for it. It will become evident to him that political association and the totality that results from the association of citizens in cities correspond to the association of the bodies that constitute the totality of the world. [2]

In other words, to see the big picture of the topic under discussion, one has to answer the four questions. I’ve read four recent pieces on the topic of race in the United States. These pieces discuss race as well as the problem of writing about race. I want to use Al-farabi’s method of asking four questions for each of the four written articles to try to understand the problem better. Why? Because answering these questions helps me better think about what I’ve read. Literally these questions help me how to think. For, as Jacobs points out: “The genuine community is open to thinking and questioning, so long as those thoughts and questions come from people of goodwill.” [3] Or, in the words of Martin Buber (1878–1965), (if one can temporarily ignore his über-patriarchal writing style):

Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfillment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness…. Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other…. Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity.[4]

So I ask Al-farabi’s four questions concerning four articles so I may begin engaging in a “genuine conversation” concerning race and writing and one’s awareness of one’s race while writing. To see how that plays out, you’ll have to read Part II.



[1] Alan Jacobs, How to Think: a Survival Guide in a World at Odds, (New York, NY: Currency Books, 2017) 54.

[2] Alfarabi, Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Translated by Muhsin Mahdi, (Chicago, IL: Agora Books, 1969), “The Attainment of Happiness,” p. 24, i, ¶ 20.

[3] Jacobs, How to Think 59.

[4] Buber, The Knowledge of Man: a Philosophy of the Interhuman, trans. by Maurice Friedman and Ronald Gregor Smith, (New York NY: Harper & Row, 1966) 69, 71, 84.

Nov 6 2017

Digitally Transferring Authority: On Geography, Technology, & Power


Digitally Transferring Authority: On Geography, Technology, & Power

Numbers are the product of counting. Quantities are the product of measurement. This means that numbers can conceivably be accurate because there is a discontinuity between each integer and the next. Between two and three, there is a jump. In the case of quantity, there is no such jump; and because jump is missing in the world of quantity, it is impossible for any quantity to be exact. You can have exactly three tomatoes. You can never have exactly three gallons of water. Always quantity is approximate…. In other words, number is of the world of pattern, gestalt, and digital computation; quantity is of the world of analogic and probabilistic computation.

––Gregory Bateson (1904–1980)[1]

As I said in my previous post, while I initially found much to be lacking in David Sax’s book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (2016), it was worth reading, particularly for what I consider to be this book’s most profound passage, found amid a discussion concerning new digital/analog challenges at Camp Walden:

“Let say a kid is getting bullied in a cabin by another camper,” he [Sol Birenbaum] said, using a recent example. “If she writes an e-mail home on her phone, her mother reacts immediately, advising action to her daughter, and contacting me to remedy the problem. The mother retains authority. But with a six-day delay from the time the daughter sends her letter to the mother’s response, the camper has to deal with the problem of the bully. Eventually, the camper realizes that ‘Hey, maybe I should talk with’” and you suddenly achieve that transfer of authority from parent to counselor that is crucial for Walden’s social cohesion. Birenbaum believes the elevated anxiety he’s observed in this generation of campers is directly related to the constant hovering of their parents, who use digital technology to keep tabs on their children around the clock. They cannot surrender their authority. Many of the phones that Birenbaum has seized from campers over the past few summers were sent on the insistence of parents, who wanted to remain in touch. [2]

With regard to how those transfers transcend geography, let me note that I just finished Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, and some of what Sax’s example shows seems to be what Anderson was getting at when he showed how maps are an essential part of the way modern communities and nations imagine, reimagine, (or distort) themselves as well as their neighbors.[3]

Digital mapping (through GPS, Google Maps, satellite imagery, etc.) might very well offer examples of transfers of authority that lead to social cohesion. For example, the famous nighttime photos of North Korea apparently show that the Hermit Kingdom is geographically quite cohesive in its lack of electricity.

These questions surrounding transfers of authority via technology are a part of our liquid modernity. As Kevin Kelly writes in The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future (2016): “In order to run in real time, our technological infrastructure needed to liquefy. Nouns needed to be verbs…. Liquidity offers new powers.”[4]

But as Bateson reminds us—Lord Acton’s dictum was a little off—for power alone doesn’t corrupt; it’s the myth of power that leads to corruption.[5]



[1] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 49.

[2] Sax, The Revenge of Analog, (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2016) 234–35.

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (New York, NY: Verso, Revised Edition 2006) 170–78.

[4] Kelly, The Inevitable, (New York, NY: Penguin, 2016) 65, 74.

[5] Bateson, Mind and Nature 223.

Oct 16 2017

From Russia with Grub = Salo from Ukraine

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From Russia with Grub = Salo from Ukraine

So after reading this review “Russian House Through the Eyes of a Russian Transplant in Austin,” (Austinot.com, September 19, 2017) by Yulia Dyukova (@TheFoodieMiles), I decided to check out this Russian House (Доме России).

I tried the salo, which looked like raw bacon, but was actually salted pork belly.

The homemade mustard and horseradish was probably the best I’ve ever had, best in Austin for sure.

I also randomly came across some “Revolutionary ceramics and textiles: USSR, 1919-1931,” this morning via TheCharnelHouse.org.


Oct 13 2017

Recent Thoughts on Russian Conservatism (with Literary Comparisons)

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Recent Thoughts on Russian Conservatism (with Literary Comparisons)

The structure of these regional directorates has remained largely unchanged for decades, which, when combined with the FSB’s system of personnel rotation, means that the fossilized provincial state security offices shape the FSB from within.

–Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, “Russia’s New Nobility: the Rise of the Security Services in Putin’s Kremlin,” Foreign Affairs, 89 (September–October 2010): 80–96 at 93.


Russia has the third-largest gold and currency reserves in the world, but has become an international anti-model—a byword for non-modernization (and even de-modernization), uncompletitiveness, and chronic corruption….

One of the principle themes to emerge here is the Kremlin’s reluctance to graduate from its preoccupation with traditional security and geopolitical priorities to tackling a new global agenda.

–Bobo Lo, Russia and the New World Order, (London: Brookings Institution Press, 2015) 58, 72–73.


Russian strategic theory today remains relatively unimaginative and highly dependent on the body of Soviet work with which Russia’s leaders are familiar.

–Maria Snegovaya, “Putin’s Information Warfare in Ukraine: Soviet Origins of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare,” (Institute for the Study of War: Washington, DC, September 2015)  7.


For comparative purposes only:

The generation’s insularity began to change in the mid-330s. For some members of this generation (most notably Praetextatus) the early 330s saw their initial foray into public life, a step that certainly increased their awareness of the age’s political developments. Others, like Ausonius, would have seen their awareness increase when they began studying law or pleading cases. As members of the final pagan generation moved into their midtwenties, their focus shifted from the classrooms and parties of intellectual centers like Athens and Bordeaux to the social and political life of members of the imperial elite. These young men began assuming the duties and responsibilities of mature citizens. As the next chapter will show, they did so with a mixture of seriousness and conservatism that would become characteristic of their approach to public life.

–Edward J. Watts, The Final Pagan Generation, (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2015) 58.


“It was said [by Burke], that, as she [France] had speedily fallen, she might speedily rise again. He doubted this. That the fall from an height was with an accelerated velocity; but to lift a weight up to that height again was difficult, and opposed by the laws of physical and political gravitation.”

–“Substance of the Speech in the Debate on the Army Estimates in the House of Commons,” Tuesday, February 9, 1790. From The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund BurkeIn Twelve Volumes.” Vol. III. John C. Nimmo, London. 1887.


What floods ideas are! How quickly they cover all that they are commissioned to destroy and bury, and how rapidly they create frightful abysses!”

–Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), III, iii, § 3.


Historical experience [in intelligence gathering], even if inadequate, is the most reliable guidance system in existence. It may have to be discarded on occasion, but it must never be disregarded. In this sense, then, conservatism is mandated by prudence.

–Walter Laqueur, A World of Secrets: the Uses and Limits of Intelligence. (New York, NY: Best Books, 1985) 283.

Sep 8 2017

The Rhetoric of Data in the Writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates

porticos in Bologna, Italia

The Rhetoric of Data in the Writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates

I don’t have much to disagree with after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest piece for the October 2017 issue of The Atlantic, which is an excerpt from his next book. The excerpt is titled: “The First White President: the foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.”

I do think Coates’ rhetorical framing of the voting statistics he cites is quite misleading, but I’m will to grant that Coates’s misleadership as a writer in this particular case was unintentional.

When Coates quotes the data-crunchers at Edison Research–

 Trump’s white support was not determined by income. According to Edison Research, Trump won whites making less than $50,000 by 20 points, whites making $50,000 to $99,999 by 28 points, and whites making $100,000 or more by 14 points. This shows that Trump assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker. So when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class. Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19). Trump won whites in midwestern Illinois (+11), whites in mid-Atlantic New Jersey (+12), and whites in the Sun Belt’s New Mexico (+5). In no state that Edison polled did Trump’s white support dip below 40 percent. Hillary Clinton’s did, in states as disparate as Florida, Utah, Indiana, and Kentucky. From the beer track to the wine track, from soccer moms to nascardads, Trump’s performance among whites was dominant.

–I must assume all the above numbers are accurate. But so are other numbers and contexts: like “Voter turnout at 20-year low in 2016” as CNN’s Gregory Wallace reported at the end of last November.  Only “about 55% of voting age citizens cast ballots this year.”

So after all of the rhetoric and emotion and hard number-crunching logic behind the citations Coates gives, he has yet to consider the 45% of American voters who abstained from voting for anybody for any reason.

When Coates writes “Trump’s performance among whites was dominant,” that’s was only among  those who bothered to leave their house. Nearly half stayed home, no matter their creed or color.

Not to mention that data by the American National Election Studies “suggest that about 8.4 million 2012 Obama voters backed Trump in 2016 and 2.5 million Romney voters supported Clinton,” for whom Coates (at least in the excerpt in The Atlantic) says nothing of these voters who switched from 2012 to 2016.