Life on the Horizontal – Wednesday

Terry Teachout describes the losses and the gains of community as our culture becomes more fragmented. Certainly blogs both contribute to and subtract from the sense of community.

Thoreau believed: “Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly. What is a house but a sedes, a seat? — better if a country seat. I discovered many a site for a house not likely to be soon improved, which some might have thought too far from the village, but to my eyes the village was too far from it.” Of course, if we have a common culture, we can understand his allusion – that some “might have thought too far from the village”-but he is reminding us that we don’t necessarily have the same perspective, for some of us “the village was too far from it.”

The blogosphere lets us move us along the horizontal, popping in some one else’s world, our horizons change, broaden. We remain us, but come back to our own center with more sense of other’s. Belmont Club’s allusions are often to Kipling; this may surprise twenty-first century Americans, but they check it daily. Few probably read Kipling in school (only Matthew Arnold is a deader or whiter male). But the Belmont Club (and the poets quoted) touch us. Wretchard, confident and sure of his own perspective, helps us see the world with his proportionality; it may differ from ours in some important ways but for many of us, much of what he says rings true. He writes well but we sense he also understands well.

What we find as we look around the blogosphere are fragments – this blog or that blog seems far from our way of looking at the world. And, indeed, we are unlikely to visit often. But we often see solutions, as well, to our most vexing problems.

In this open market place of ideas of blogs the voice of the individual, full of that individual’s quite specific experiences and opinions, comes out pure, isolated, individual. And we recognize, in it, something of ourselves. On blogs we may not know where the speaker is or what sex or age or . . And some times, in some ways, that individual speaks and touches the universal. That phoenix has arisen in the blogosphere after those Stanford students (and how many other critics and students) shouted “hey hey ho ho Western culture has to go.” They felt they had successfully trashed it, scattered its ashes. But we recognize a universal deeper than the factions that the academy defined; the markers that characterize that voice are no longer “relevant”–we don’t have to (in fact can’t) see in the speaker a mirror. We have to listen to the words. And so, we begin to realize that the old guys had it right – the individual voice, speaking its own truth, resonates with universality.

Whitman defined the horizontal:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

But my favorite way to see what he’s doing is to look at one of his catalogs:

The regatta is spread on the bay, the race is begun, (how the white
sails sparkle!)

The drover watching his drove sings out to them that would stray,

The pedler sweats with his pack on his back, (the purchaser higgling
about the odd cent;)

The bride unrumples her white dress, the minute-hand of the clock moves slowly,

The opium-eater reclines with rigid head and just-open’d lips,

The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and
pimpled neck,

The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other,

(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you;)

The President holding a cabinet council is surrounded by the great Secretaries,

On the piazza walk three matrons stately and friendly with twined arms,

The crew of the fish-smack pack repeated layers of halibut in the hold,

The Missourian crosses the plains toting his wares and his cattle,

As the fare-collector goes through the train he gives notice by the jingling of loose change,

The floor-men are laying the floor, the tinners are tinning the
roof, the masons are calling for mortar,

In single file each shouldering his hod pass onward the laborers;

One of my colleagues sees irony in Whitman. He is wrong of course. Whitman is the representative horizontal man – he is of the body as much as the soul, of the man as much as the woman, of the bride as much as the prostitute, the matrons with twined arms as much as the President and his cabinet. His camera pans and he sees within all the same spark of the divine he writes about elsewhere.

And Whitman’s assumption is true of us. That old vision, of diving into the particular to find the universal, remains; to reject that is not only to reject who we are but also solutions that respect the individual and arise from our heritage. We have reason to be grateful to those old guys that set up the marketplace of ideas as they set up the constitution; we don’t have much right to condescend.

Brian Boyd’s interesting essay, “Literature and Evolution: A Bio-Cultural Approach”, argues for an approach to literature. But, in passing and central to the essay’s emphasis on the universals of human nature, he discusses an experiment by “two founders of evolutionary psychology,” John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. Interested in defining how much race as an identifier is universal (like, say, age or sex), they did an experiment:

Subjects were shown a series of pictures each associated with a sentence putatively spoken by the person in the picture. At the end, they saw all 8 pictures and all 8 sentences, and had to match each statement to the right picture. It was the mistakes that mattered, since these indicated how the subjects had mentally classified people. As expected, age, sex, and race were strong clues: the subject could misattribute a statement made by one old person to another old person, or a statement by one black person to another black person. Then the experiment introduced another possible classifier: coalition membership.

This was revealed purely through the statements made by the people depicted, who were taking two sides of an argument. Quickly the subjects began to confuse two members of the same side more often than two members of different sides. Revealingly, his largely replaced the tendency to make mistakes by race, though it had virtually no effect on the tendency to make mistakes by sex. As Matt Ridley comments in reporting this: “Within four minutes the evolutionary psychologists had done what social science had failed to do in decades: make people ignore race. The way to do it is to give them another, stronger clue to coalition membership. Sports fans are well aware of the phenomenon: white fans cheer a black player on ‘their’ team as he beats a white player on the opposing team.” Ridley adds: This study has immense implications for social policy. It suggests that categorizing individuals by race is not inevitable, that racism can be easily defeated if coalition clues cut across race, and that there is nothing intractable about racist attitudes. It also suggests that the more people of different races seem to act or be treated as members of a rival coalition the more racist instincts they risk evoking.” He concludes with the moral that, “the more we understand both our genes and our instincts, the less intractable they seem.”

By offering a deeper explanation of racism, in terms of the constant tension in all social life between cooperation and competition, and the fluid coalitions in human social life then cuing of race as a conspicuous, quick, and crude marker of an apparent coalition boundary, and the emotional and motivational inferences we draw from assigning individuals to one side or another of such boundaries, an evolutionary perspective makes it possible to explain racism in any historical context without limiting the explanation to the culture of that period alone. The same applies to gender, to class, to power, and so on. Explanations of such phenomena that are limited entirely to the circumstances of a particular culture fail if they do not take into account similar patterns in other cultures and even other species. (11-12) (Philosophy and Literature 29.1 (2005) 1-23)

In the blogosphere, we send out such pronouncements and some send back theirs. And we judge each other by the words before us – not seeing the face, knowing the race, guessing at age, gender, place, politics, religion, ethnicity. Of course, these still mean much to us personally. Place which means so much to me appears to have little importance on the internet. Still, a couple of months ago I put up a post and someone responded with an anecdote from Saudi Arabia, adding that her mother-in-law and husband grew up in a town less than 30 miles from my native village. Our words circle the globe and then, of course, we come back to the particular speaker & a particular audience, who live in a time and a place. That is important. But for a moment the categories melt, even the great inescapables of age and sex do. We see what is true of all of us.

4 thoughts on “Life on the Horizontal – Wednesday”

  1. Thoreau also said, famously: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

    The Internet is, of course, the direct descendent of telegraphy…and interactions such as those mentioned by Ginny prove that Throeau was wrong.

  2. David Foster: Yes, Thoreau can be irritating, but he writes well. He has the same lack of enthusiasm for the messy human as the Rothko Chapel, but maybe we don’t want to go there again. Optimism about technology accepts human noise, that unpredictability of its energy when multiplied by that technology. The subjective, the I in the center, that Thoreau got down.

    Dave Schuler, Good point. But these poets are pretty much in the running for dead white guy honors too. An aside: my husband is doing a guest editorship and requesting papers on Arnold; so far no one from the UK has submitted, even though inquiries have come in from (in addition to the US) China & India.

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