“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and reflection of my curiosity.
Science and the importance of ‘fooling around’
In a society so obsessively focused on effectiveness, the word ‘useless’ seems to have been eradicated from our dictionaries. However, a certain amount of ‘uselessness’ is essential, for everything, argues ‘croniqueur’ Carel Peeters in Why fooling around is also a science (originally published in Vrij Nederland).
Science rules, according to Marcus du Sautoy in What We Cannot Know, his most recent book. Outside the academic world, Du Sautoy is best known for popularising mathematics. His predecessor at the University of Oxford, the biologist Richard Dawkins, also tried to popularise science through making a number of television series, such as Break the Science Barrier (1996) and The Four Horsemen (2007). Both men are prime examples of scientists who have become ‘public intellectuals,’ leaving us with the impression we are living in a ‘Golden Age of Science,’ Peeters writes.
This impression is fed by the continuous stream of scientific breakthroughs we can read about almost weekly. “The speed with which these scientific discoveries occur, seems to grow exponentially,” Du Sautoy writes. Others even believe ‘singularity’ — the ‘magic’ moment when machine intelligence will be infinitely more powerful than all human intelligence combined — is near. It’s almost like science itself is obeying Moore’s law.
The tragedy of this triumphant development, Peeters claims, is that we will have to acknowledge that ‘understanding the world’ is impossible. Or, in the words of Nietzsche, we will have to accept that we don’t know what ‘moves’ us. There is simply too much we can’t influence. Also, thinking we can lead an autonomous and independent existence is merely an illusion. And while Du Sautoy tries to explain ‘science,’ through his many books and television programmes, also he acknowledges that his efforts to understand fall short due to the accelerated speed of scientific discovery.
It’s therefore remarkable that evermore manifestos advocating unhindered scientific research are being published. Isn’t there enough research, enough science already, one wonders.
In 1939, the then director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, Abraham Flexner, wrote an essay, titled The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, in which he pleaded for free and independent research, and the pursuit of useless satisfactions. In a period in which countries such as nazi-Germany had made scientific research instrumental to their political and ideological goals, Flexner’s plea was extremely opportune.
Robbert Dijkgraaf, the current director of the Institute of Advanced Studies, has unearthed Flexner’s essay, hoping it will help him to muster support for scientific ‘fooling around.’ Something ‘his’ institute is renowned for, but now is under severe threat as the US budget for free scientific research continues to plummet. (It is currently only 0.8 percent of the US GDP, half of which is for Defense. In the mid 1960s, at the height of the Cold War and with the rapid advancements in space travel, it was 2.1 percent.)
According to Peeters, giving scientists a chance to ‘fool around’ requires an understanding of what is needed for science, and society and culture in general, to blossom. Just like artists, also scientists need time to follow their curiosity and imagination — to let their mind wander — without the need for immediate results or commercial validation.
“I am not for a moment suggesting that everything that goes on in laboratories will ultimately turn into some unexpected practical use or that an ultimate practical use is its actual justification. Much more am I pleading for the abolition of the word ‘use,’ and for the freeing of the human spirit. To be sure, we shall thus free some harmless cranks. To be sure, we shall thus waste some precious dollars. But what is infinitely more important is that we shall be striking the shackles off the human mind and setting it free for the adventures which in our own day have, on the one hand, taken Hale and Rutherford and Einstein and their peers millions upon millions of miles into the uttermost realms of space and, on the other, loosed the boundless energy imprisoned in an atom.” — Abraham Flexner in The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
In The Usefulness of the Useless (2017), professor of Italian Literature at the University of Calabria, Nuccio Ordine, convincingly argues for the utility of useless knowledge and against the contemporary fixation on ‘utilitarianism’ — for the fundamental importance of the liberal arts and against the damage caused by their neglect. Inspired by Flexner’s 1939 essay, Ordine shows how our obsession for material goods and the cult of utility jeopardises not only schools and universities, art and creativity, but also our most fundamental values — human dignity, love and truth.
Of course, Ordine and Flexner aren’t the only ones opposing utilitarianism. The French writer Théophile Gautier, who coined the phrase ‘l’art pour l’art’ (‘art for art’s sake’), once said, “As soon as a thing becomes useful, it ceases to be beautiful.” For him, uselessness was a necessity, like his contemporary Baudelaire, who felt a sincere disgust at the notion of being a ‘useful person.’
According to Peeters, there will always friction between “the blessings of uselessness, and those of efficiency.” It almost seems impossible for both to co-exist. It was Nietzsche who said that the state of a country’s civilization could be determined by the way it takes care for its unfortunate, its elderly, the sick. Like in the 1930s, today, a similar case can be made for the way it leaves its scientists free to ‘fool around.’ In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost.”
Adorno and the remains of the Frankfurt School
In a lengthy essay, titled Theory from the ruins, Stuart Walton, author of several books about cultural history and philosophy, digs into the origins and ideas of the Frankfurt School, and wonders whether they still bear relevance.
“In an age when the meanings of the past and the functions they are called upon to serve are so hotly contested, [Theodor W.] Adorno’s insight reminds us, in a typically double-edged way, that humanity is both composed of and trapped inside its history. This view of history underpinned the work of the boldest and bravest philosophers of the past century: the first generation of the Frankfurt School. Their arguments lacked for nothing in theoretical aspiration, and have scarcely begun to be assimilated, even today,” Walton writes.
“One wants to break free of the past. Rightly, because nothing at all can live in its shadow, and because there will be no end to the terror as long as guilt and violence are repaid with guilt and violence; wrongly, because the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.” — Theodor W. Adorno in Critical Models. Interventions and Catchwords (1959)
A central element in the Frankfurt School’s thinking arose from “the notion that society, in its progress from barbarism to civilisation according to the narrative of the European Enlightenment, had been increasingly founded on the principle of reason. Where mythology once held sway, the rationalistic sciences now reigned supreme.” Far from humane liberation, however, 20th-century Europeans had plunged into decades of savage barbarism. Why?
“The Frankfurt School theorists argued that universal rationality had been raised to the status of an idol. At the heart of this was, what they called ‘instrumental reason,’ the mechanism by which everything in human affairs was ground up. When reason enabled human beings to interpret the natural world around them in ways that ceased to frighten them, it was a liberating faculty of the mind. However, in the Frankfurt account, its fatal flaw was that it depended on domination — on subjecting the external world to the processes of abstract thought. Eventually, by a gradual process of trial and error, everything in the phenomenal world would be explained by scientific investigation, which would lay bare the previously hidden rules and principles by which it operated, and which could be demonstrated anew any number of times. The rationalising faculty had thereby become, according to the Frankfurt philosophers, a tyrannical process, through which all human experience of the world would be subjected to infinitely repeatable rational explanation; a process in which reason had turned from being liberating to being the instrumental means of categorising and classifying an infinitely various reality.”
According to the Frankfurt philosophers, “[c]ulture itself was subject to a kind of factory production in the cinema and recording industries. [They] maintained a deep distrust of what passed as ‘popular culture’, which neither enlightened nor truly entertained the mass of society, but only kept people in a state of permanently unsatiated demand for the dross with which they were going to be fed anyway. And driving the whole coruscating analysis was a visceral commitment to the Marxist theme of the presentness of the past. History was not just something that happened yesterday, but a dynamic force that remained active in the world of today, which was its material product and its consequence. By contrast, the attitude of instrumental reason produced only a version of the past that ascended towards the triumph of the enlightened and democratic societies of the present day.”
“Whatever remains of the Frankfurt School is fast approaching its centenary. Its lineage has become so extensive now that its founders would hardly recognise their original critical project in the work that the second and third generations have produced. Not only have its sociological methods changed, but its philosophical orientation has drifted apart from the emphatic Leftist commitments that led the founders to attempt to repurpose Marxism for their own century. Relentless negativity, the driving force of the Frankfurt School’s first 40 years, from its inception to the publication of Adorno’s most formidably difficult work, Negative Dialectics (1966), is not the preferred mode of social philosophy any longer. The very term ‘critical theory’, which once specifically designated the work of the Frankfurt thinkers, has now become elastic enough to encompass all poststructuralist theoretical writing, whether critical or blandly affirmative.
Notwithstanding that, there is something that still resonates about the work of the Frankfurt School. The insight to which it called its readers to awaken was that human consciousness in the age of mass society was becoming wholly enclosed within the walls of an ideological fortress, caught in the endless circulations of capitalist exchange and those repetitive entertainments and distractions that were designed to obscure the truth. Nothing about the theory of the culture industry lacks traction in a world where the commodity form reigns supreme. Blockbuster CGI movies; the relentless extrusion of Greatest Hits CDs by the megastars of the recording industry; the all-encompassing mania for video gaming, in which mature adults have been co-opted into the shamelessly infantile principle of mindless play; the transmutation of collectivity into social media’s mere connectivity: these are the lineaments of a culture that is not the spontaneous production of free human beings, but rather something done to them in their unfreedom.”
True critical thinking requires not just a refusal to identify with the present structures of society and commercial culture, but a deep awareness of the historical tendencies that have brought about the current impasse, and of which all present experience is composed.
“If organised forms of political resistance could be efficiently thwarted by such a system, often by subtle assimilation rather than outright suppression, the last barricade against it was the individual’s own refusal to think and respond in the prescribed ways. The hardest task facing any emancipatory politics today is to encourage people to think for themselves, in a way that transcends simple sloganising and the dictates of instrumental reason. True critical thinking requires not just a refusal to identify with the present structures of society and commercial culture, but a deep awareness of the historical tendencies that have brought about the current impasse, and of which all present experience is composed. That impulse, compared to the project of constructively helping the system out of its own periodic crises, retains the spark of a dissidence that might just, one day, throw it into the very crisis that would prompt a general, and genuine, liberation.”
And this …
According to Martin E.P. Seligman and John Tierney in We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment, what sets humans apart from other animals is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: we contemplate the future.
For the past century, researchers have assumed that we are prisoners of the past and the present, but it is increasingly clear that looking into the future, both consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain. The human mind appears to be mainly drawn to the future, not driven by the past. So, rather than Homo Sapiens, a more apt name for our species would be Homo Prospectus, as it is the power of prospection that ultimately makes us wise.
“Behavior, memory and perception can’t be understood without appreciating the central role of prospection. We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities. Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected,” Seligman and Tierney write.
“Prospection enables us to become wise not just from our own experiences but also by learning from others. We are social animals like no others, living and working in very large groups of strangers, because we have jointly constructed the future. Human culture — our language, our division of labor, our knowledge, our laws and technology — is possible only because we can anticipate what fellow humans will do in the distant future.”
Why were the ancient Greeks and Romans right to suppose literature heals the soul? Why did Montaigne trust we could endure loneliness through a lifelong relationship with books? Why, despite all the distractions of modern life, do books still get published and writers’ festival events get sold out
According to Germaine Leece, a bibliotherapist at Sydney’s School of Life, the answer lies in the power of stories. We think we are escaping ourselves when we read literature, but what actually happens is that we go deeper into our interior worlds, she writes in ‘Have a lover, have friends, read books,’ said Montaigne. He was right about one of them.
“Stories have been around since time began; they tell us what it is to be human, give us a context for the past and an insight towards the future. A narrator’s voice replaces our stressed, internal monologue and takes us out of our life and into the world of a story. Paradoxically, we think we are escaping ourselves but the best stories take us back deeper into our interior worlds. Freud, who believed the ‘reading cure’ came before the ‘talking cure,’ once wrote that wherever he went he discovered a poet had been there before. It is difficult to access emotional language and this is why we have writers. They remind us of the universality and timelessness of emotions, helping us better understand our own.”
Arundhati Roy’s first novel, the richly empathetic The God Of Small Things (1997) about family life in Kerela, won her the Booker Prize for Fiction, and was described by John Updike as a “massive interlocking structure of fine, intensely felt details.” Now, in an interview with Decca Aitkenhead for The Guardian, she talks about political activism, and why it took twenty years to complete her second novel, The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness.
“By the time I leave,” Aitkenhead writes, “I’ve started to wonder how much, if anything, Roy ever makes up. The cast of The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness may be more extreme than most fictional characters, but Roy’s great gift is less in dreaming them up than in taking the trouble to see them all around her.”
“She began her second novel, she thinks, 10 years ago, but isn’t sure (‘I don’t really remember; I mean, it’s so esoteric’) and allowed no thought to how long it took to complete. […] Her essays and articles have been written to deadlines precipitated by events — military action, court judgments and so forth — whereas ‘the fiction just takes its time. It’s no hurry. I can’t write it faster or slower than I have; it’s like you’re a sedimentary rock that’s just gathering all these layers, and swimming around. The difference between the fiction and the non-fiction is simply the difference between urgency and eternity.’”
“The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness is a riotous carnival, as wryly funny and irreverent as its author. The endless parade of oddballs and eccentrics can get a little exhausting, rather like a party at which new guests keep arriving, but Roy’s policy of indiscriminate inclusion is not just an editorial choice; it is the literary expression of solidarity, and the fundamental theme both of Roy’s politics and of the book.”
You can read an exclusive extract from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in The Guardian. The book itself is published on 6 June by Hamish Hamilton.
“I have often run across men (and rarely, but not never, women) who have become so powerful in their lives that there is no one to tell them when they are cruel, wrong, foolish, absurd, repugnant. In the end there is no one else in their world, because when you are not willing to hear how others feel, what others need, when you do not care, you are not willing to acknowledge others’ existence. That’s how it’s lonely at the top. It is as if these petty tyrants live in a world without honest mirrors, without others, without gravity, and they are buffered from the consequences of their failures.”
“The man in the white house sits, naked and obscene, a pustule of ego, in the harsh light, a man whose grasp exceeded his understanding, because his understanding was dulled by indulgence. He must know somewhere below the surface he skates on that he has destroyed his image, and like Dorian Gray before him, will be devoured by his own corrosion in due time too. One way or another this will kill him, though he may drag down millions with him. One way or another, he knows he has stepped off a cliff, pronounced himself king of the air, and is in freefall. Another dungheap awaits his landing; the dung is all his; when he plunges into it he will be, at last, a self-made man.”
When a city needs green space, but it’s all out of room, what can it do?
“For Barcelona, this challenge requires especial ingenuity,” Feargus O’Sullivan writes in Built-Out Barcelona Makes Space for an Urban Forest about the city’s re-greening program to combat heat, and create a more welcoming place for humans and animals alike.
The urban plan, which will deliver 108 acres of new green space by 2019 and over 400 acres by 2030 is a model of ingenuity that could serve as a model for other cities. The plan’s many microprojects may seem like tiny drops in the bucket, but together they will work to form a flood, creating a future Barcelona that is greener, fresher, more sustainable, and more humane.
“[The] biggest change isn’t from the parks, but from the policies designed to connect green spaces into one leafy network. Ten large interior courtyards in Barcelona’s Eixample district will be planted with trees, while 10 city squares will get parking restrictions that allow for more plantable area. Enlarged or new or avenues of trees will thread this network together along major streets with surfaces that are more permeable to rain, so that birds and insects can spread across a seamless habitat.
If Barcelona seems especially keen on these corridors, it’s partly because they have already been tried and proved a success. In 2000, the city opened a long, slender park along the banks of the river Besós, a formerly filthy stream passing through industrial lands in the city’s northeast. Since being cleaned up and partly reopened to the public (some areas are protected wetlands), the river banks have thrived with plants suited to brackish water while the river itself is now alive once more with eels, frogs, and terrapins.”
“I do not believe that any part of the world has to be condemned to perpetual poverty and hunger. And I do not believe that this planet is condemned to ever-rising temperatures. I believe these are problems that were caused by man, and they can be solved by man.” — Barack Obama on food and climate change: ‘We can still act and it won’t be too late’ (a long read in The Guardian in which the former president addresses the greatest challenges facing the world, and what we can do about them)